Happy Birthday and Thank You, Christmas Day (I) – 1997
December 25, 1997
Christmas Day and a 3 year old asked what were we going to do tonight. Her response. “We are going to wish Jesus happy birthday and thank you.”
If I had any sense I would stop talking and let that stand as the sermon. It does pretty well sum it all up. I guess I can excuse my continuing by reflecting on what she said, sort of elaborating on building on her more succinct words.
And what I want, very much, to convey is the fact that we do not only say happy birthday back there two thousand years ago, not only do we commemorate an important event that happened a long time ago, but we say happy birthday to Jesus today. This night Jesus comes. For the birth of Jesus can take place for us now, in our hearts and in our lives, Jesus comes – giving us life and life more abundantly.
True, God became flesh but once, only one birth into this mortal life. That event in Bethlehem took place at a specific moment in history and yielded a very particular individual human being. That is not to be repeated. Why should it? But as the Son of God, the Eternal Word, came to us in flesh, so he lives and now comes to us in spirit. God continues to break into our lives, giving us hope and meaning – and his name is Jesus. The Shepherds were certain historical men, individuals, who heard the angelic chorus proclaim the news of great joy that night. But even we, can hear the message: “Glory to God in the highest, a savior is born to you. His name is Jesus and he is called Emmanuel, ‘God with us.'”
The fact is that we are not merely imagining ourselves to be where those people were in the centuries “B.C.” In a real sense we are where they were; still awaiting our salvation. We are certainly no strangers to the kind of experience which stirred their ancient longings. These people had been through times of tremendous social unrest and strife of races and classes, a decline of national morale, the wearing threat of war and the actuality of war, economic discomfort, and moral decay in their government. Of course, more than what the sociologist might observe, they had the same agony of the inner strife – spiritual problems of the human being in need of redemption. Here is the basic problem of any age. The crisis of the spirit is for their age, for our age, for us.
Into this strife comes the Christ. New life is given birth in us. The inner conflict is resolved in us. The Spirit breathes with release and freedom and joy. Peace to men of good will. Emmanuel, God with us, is born. All of us, periodically need the child Jesus to be reborn in us. Of course, as we look on the child in the manger, this comes to us as the truth, the fact, because we know who the baby is – we creep and crawl forward to the place of skulls and witness death only to rise and proclaim the great victory over all which is death – even physical death. The beginning of the story of the man Jesus is important because we know the end. But not only the cross, not only the empty tomb, also the manger stands for all for which we long.
Birth is a powerful symbol. Go back with me to a chilly, wet day in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in the summer of 1969. I was in a small crowed apartment talking with a Marxist philosopher. We were debating the great issues – freely challenging each other. It was a very important day in my life. I asked him how the atheist could answer the problem of death. After all the Christian has faith that death is not the last word, because our Lord overcame death. He answered that “death” is not a philosophical problem for the Marxist. It is something that will happen to him and he does not like it. He doesn’t like the fact that it will happen to his wife and children. Death makes him angry and he regrets it. But that does mean that he has to find an answer to it. That does not justify him supposing there must be a God who will give him a way out, a life after death. No, death is not a hole in Marxist thought. But, he went on, “what does give me a problem is the fact of birth. It is absolutely unexplainable. It is a miracle. I do not know how to answer it. The birth of each our children came to me a miracle resulting from an act of love, but that doesn’t fully explain it. It’s more than just me and my wife and our love. The birth of our children shows me the glory and the mystery of life.”
It makes me want to believe in God. Birth is the problem for the atheist. In the familiar Christmas story read this evening, after the momentous announcement is made to the shepherds, they are told, “This shall be the sign to you: you shall find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying a manger.” The sign is appropriate: a new-born child, exposed to view in utter simplicity, so that nothing is to be seen but the new life that has come into the world. Other religions have use the symbol of the Birth of the Child; no symbol could more powerfully represent the idea of a new beginning. But in Christianity the symbol is fact. The Child was born and lives and as the Bible states the fact: “the world’s great age begins anew.”
This night the child which we envision, and to whom we say happy birthday stands as the sign for us as for the shepherds, that the needs of our hearts and our minds and our souls, our great spiritual remiss and longings can be resolved in new life, in the birth of Jesus in our lives.
The Gospels as they go on from the Christmas story stress on the response, positive or negative, that men made to Jesus when He came, it was an essential part of his total impact on history; and our response will be an essential part of His impact on our present situation. God’s gifts are never given like presents in a Christmas stocking. They are always challenges that we must take up. It is up to us. And yet, it is not we who start anything.
Behind our repentance, our faith, our good resolutions, is the prior fact that God in Christ comes. He comes with a power and reality that do not depend on us. History attests to His power to free men from their past and to start new things. He has done it before and He can do it again. That is our confidence it is anchored in historical fact, which nothing can alter. And we have His assurance that Jesus comes to us in our immediate situation. What we celebrate is not simply the commemoration of the birth of Jesus long ago; it is also the opportunity of welcoming Him now. I should like to think that many of us, worried as we are by the news of public dangers and distresses, hard hit as some of us are in our private live, are turning our anxiety into a longing, a prayer and a hope that Jesus will come into our lives, that Jesus will be born anew in us: granting us peace and joy.
I began by quoting the insight of a 3 year old child. I shall close by quoting the wisdom of another 3 year old who is a member of our parish family. Going home from Church not long ago he turned to his mother and said, “I know who Jesus is, He’s the boss of Man. Lord Jesus, be boss of our lives and free us from sin and death – direct what we shall be that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways.
“Happy birthday Boss Jesus and thank you.” Amen.
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