Tonight, we are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the world.
It is an amazing event, this birth of Jesus. But to recapture some of the awe and wonder that those first witnesses experienced, we have to set aside what we know of the rest of Jesus’ story. It is not because of his teachings and healings, or even his death and resurrection, that this night is so wondrous. Those are indeed important parts of the story of Jesus. But they come later.
Tonight, we have the birth of a child in a most humble setting. He is born in a barn. Those in attendance are his parents, Mary and Joseph, a few shepherds with their flocks of sheep, and maybe an ox or a donkey or two. We also have a choir of angels, who proclaim that this child is the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord.
And that, all by itself, is enough to cause us to be filled with wonder and great joy. Jesus doesn’t have to do anything to be a reason for us to rejoice. Just being born is enough.
We sometimes refer to the birth of Jesus as “the Incarnation” – the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. For me, this is the reason I’m a Christian. Actually, it’s the only reason I even pay any attention to organized religion.
The whole idea of God seems to me to be at best an interesting philosophical concept, and at worst not much more than wishful thinking. I’m a creature who has been destined to dwell in this world; the world of physical laws, with real life consequences if those laws are not respected. It is through hard work and sheer determination that we who trod this earth have made ourselves into the masters of this physical realm. Talk of a God who dwells some place in heaven doesn’t really have much impact on the real world, from my perspective. Let God rule heaven. But down here on earth, we’ve got work to do, and this God stuff is just a distraction, and maybe even a waste of time.
But, when God chooses to enter the physical realm, to walk among us, work alongside us, to share the joy and the pain of being a creature trapped in this world, now that gets my attention.
What is even more amazing to me is the way we are told that God chose to enter this world. If I were writing the story, I’d have made Jesus appearance a little more dramatic. He’d swoop in at the last minute and smite all the bad guys in the name of truth, justice and the American way. Wait a minute. That’s Superman, isn’t it?
Well, I want my Savior to be like Superman! And so did the Jews in Jesus time. The Messiah was supposed to show up and drive the Romans out of their land. We want a hero.
But what do we get? A helpless baby, that must be cared for, that must be held and cuddled and loved. This is the Savior of the world?
That story doesn’t make much sense to me. Unless….
Unless it’s not just a story. Unless there is deeper truth to be found within this story that the Superman version completely misses.
In describing the Incarnation, one of the early church fathers said, “What has not been assumed has not been redeemed.” When God chose to take on human form, he wasn’t just pretending. He wasn’t acting out some role in a divine drama. Almighty God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, chose to completely surrender his power and glory to be born like any other baby, with the same needs and limits as any other newborn child. Wow.
That means that God knows what it means to be hungry and helpless, knows how it feels to be held when confused and afraid, knows what it means to be fully dependent on others for every aspect of existence.
This is a real flesh and blood baby we’re talking about, not some manifestation of wishful thinking. This is not an indifferent God dwelling somewhere up and heaven. Heaven and earth have been joined. There is no longer any separation between us and God. That is the source of our wonder and awe on this holy night.
There is another implication that is important for us to notice in this story. If God was willing to take on human form, then maybe we aren't the horrible depraved species that we think we are. When God completed the first act of creation, God saw that it was very good. We have been created by God, and we are very good. Otherwise, how could God have taken on humanity? We have always been intended to be good, to be holy. It is our nature, because we are created in the image of God, and goodness, holiness, is the nature of God.
With the birth of the Christ child, and the division between heaven and earth being bridged, all of creation is now given the opportunity to be made new. As the people of God, we are now invited to become members of this new Kingdom of God, and be the God’s agents in bringing heaven to earth; to continue the ministry of Jesus in the world today by proclaiming that the wall between heaven and earth has been torn down.
So, what do we do with this new reality of heaven and earth being joined? Let’s return to the manger.
The true miracle of Christmas is that God incarnate, God made man, was a real, live, baby. And just as with all babies, one of his greatest needs was to be held in human arms, touched by human hands, and soothed by human words of love and reassurance.
At Christmas we are all called to treat others as we would Christ. As we long to cuddle and soothe the Christ child, so we find our arms wrapping around others who need to know of the love of God revealed through Christ in their lives.
Preacher Donald J. Shelby tells this story about how we can be changed by reflecting on thisholy night:
A soldier was concluding sentry duty on Christmas morning. It had been his custom in other years to attend worship in his home church on Christmas Day, but here in the outlying areas of London, it was not possible. And so, with some of his buddies, the soldier walked down the road that led into the city just as dawn was breaking. Soon the soldiers came upon an old graystone building over whose main entrance were carved the words, "Queen Anne's Orphanage." They decided to knock and see what kind of celebration was taking place inside. In response to their knock, a matron came and explained that the children were war orphans whose parents had been killed in the bombings.
The soldiers went inside just as the children were tumbling out of their beds. There was no Christmas tree in the corner and no presents. The soldiers moved around the room, wishing the children a Merry Christmas and giving as gifts whatever they had in their pockets: a stick of chewing gum, a Life Saver, a nickel or a dime, a pencil, a knife, a good luck charm. The soldier noticed a little fellow standing alone in the corner. He looked a lot like his own nephew back home, so he approached and asked, "And you, little guy, what do you want for Christmas?" The lad replied, "Will you hold me?" The soldier, with tears brimming his eyes, picked up the boy, nestled him in his arms, and held him close.
One of the names for Jesus is Emmanuel, which means "God with us. Emmanuel means God no longer hides in heaven. God is with us, with open arms.
May Christ be born within our hearts this Christmas. And then, may we love and nurture the Christ child within one another, that together we might reach out with open arms to those in need, proclaiming through our actions the good news;
To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!