Not Just Remembering, Christmas Day (II) – 1998
December 25, 1998
At last we come to the manger. We come to remember and to celebrate and give thanks for the new thing that our God has done for us in Jesus Christ. We come to remember and celebrate how God, the Creator of the Universe, came to be with us so that we might know that he is for us. And yet, tonight is not just a remembrance of what happened not so long ago. Because, as good as remembering can be, there is something else happening here. Often kids can get at this better than we grownups can. Listen: the four year old boy said, with much excitement, “Mama, Christmas is when the baby Jesus is born!”. “Wonderful!,” the mother thought, ” he’s got it.” She said “Yes, son, that’s right.” Then, with puzzlement on his face, the little one said, “I thought that guy grew up.”
Not a bad puzzlement for a four year old. Not a bad puzzlement for us. Why does the birth of this child touch us so, even when we know the rest of the story ?
Think about the words spoken by the angel to the shepherds, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Savior? Messiah? Lord? All this is rolled up into a little bit of soft new baby skin and sweet-smelling milk breath? Savior, Messiah, Lord? All this is wrapped in shabby rags? Laid in a feed trough? Savior? Messiah? Lord? All this in a smelly stable (probably more like a cave) in an eyeblink of a town? All this in a hand-me-down country, a country and a people in some despair over their political situation?
Yes, something else is happening here. The Lord, the Creator of the Universe, is in this baby. God is written all over his face but not in any language we’ve seen before. It is the language of loving kindness and mercy. It is the language of grace.
Karl Rahner, one of our twentieth century theologians, wrote, “When we say “it is Christmas” we mean that God has spoken into the world his last, his deepest, his most beautiful word in the incarnate Word, a word that can no longer be revoked because it is God’s definitive deed, because it is God himself in the world. And this word means: I love you, you, the world and humankind. And God has spoken this word by being himself born as a creature.”
Why in the world would the Lord, the Creator of the Universe, do this thing? Why would God choose to come among us, in all of his newness, to this old, shabby, despairing manger of a world? The language of newness and grace tells us that this is one way our God likes to work.
Do you think God knows how much we love new things? Would you bet that he knows just how much they hook us? We do love new things: new pencils and notebooks at the beginning of the school year, a shiny new bicycle, the new car smell. And what is more exciting than a new love?
The new can be like a balm to those old, shabby, dark, hurt, dirty, tired, disgusted, apathetic, grieving, lost, angry, disconnected parts of ourselves. We grab at the new and wrap it around ourselves just so we can have the hope, courage, and strength to keep walking another day. Look on the face of that baby and read God’s language of new life, new possibility.
And yet as much as we celebrate, it is hard to forget where that kind of language can lead: to death, to the end, to — nada.
A story: Some years ago, in the nineteen-thirties when the pogroms or persecutions of the Jews were raging across the villages of Eastern Europe, there was a Jewish grave digger who saved many lives by hiding fleeing people in his freshly dug graves. One night, as a young woman and her family were hiding in just such a grave, the young woman gave birth. “This,” the grave digger cried, “is surely the Messiah, for who else would be born in a grave?”
Who else indeed, but the Messiah. The birth of Jesus — Savior, Messiah, Lord — translates all that is shabby, despairing, and dying into newness, joy, and life. It is a language that even we can hear. The four-year old boy was asking, “what’s all the fuss about a baby when there’s more to the story.” He is right. If we only focus on the birth of Jesus as a sweet story we like remembering, then we miss out on what can happen for us tonight. The God who comes to be with us can take the shabby, hurting, dirty, abandoned, humiliating parts of ourselves and will make them and us new.
No, we are not just remembering. The child with God written on his face can be born in our hearts anew if we will let him. If we will, he will. This Jesus can speak into the very deepest, darkest, hidden parts of us, here and now, the heart-healing, the making-all-new, the grace-and-mercy-and-loving-kindness language of God.
Let us pray.
“O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray; cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.” AMEN. (1982 Hymnal, #79)
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