A sermon delivered December 11, 2016 on the third Sunday of Advent at
Mt. Hope Congregational Church, by Rev. Steven Schafer
Texts: Zechariah 2:10-13 and Luke 2:15-2:20
Babies are something special. I can never forget what it was like to see my two girls at their births. That is a feeling and experience that nothing else can quite match. There is a special feeling each time I visit new parents in the hospital. There is wonderful warmth each time I baptize an infant. There is just something captivating about a new life: the innocence; the total dependence. We look at their small fingers. We laugh as they yawn. We are amazed as they try to walk, and we are so proud of their first spoken word.
Let’s face it, babies do strange things to us. It’s amazing! You can take a perfectly mature adult and put them in front of a baby and they will do very unusual things and become very strange. They begin to talk silly. They will twist their faces into all sorts of contortions and make faces at that baby – faces they would never make to an adult – just to try to get that baby to look at them and smile. We’re hooked on babies.
Perhaps that is one of the reasons that Christmas affects us the way it does. The cuteness of a new baby. The story of shepherds and wise men, stars and angels all add a special appeal to Christmas. The fascination with birth, fresh new life, innocence, and a little human being that is almost toy-like is all so marvelous. There are promises from God. Hope is in the air and there are messages of joy!
But there is mystery here as well – a baffling mystery. I can’t imagine what it meant for the eternal God, who created the universe and all the life which is in it, to become a helpless infant. It stretches the mind beyond its limits. It is easier for us to think of a child of promise in the cradle than it is for us to imagine the Christ, who is God and rules in heaven, being born into the world. We understand babies, but we do not understand God becoming a baby. In reality, it is beyond human comprehension. We like cute, but we avoid profound and bottomless mystery. We don’t mind thinking of the manger, but the God of the universe in it boggles the mind. Helplessness and omnipotence just don’t go together.
It’s a good thing to enjoy the charm of Christmas, but we also have to grow up to understand the mystery of Christmas. We have to mature and understand the importance of what was really going on. We have to allow Christ to grow up as well. He cannot stay a baby forever. We have to allow him to grow up, and we must grow up with him. We have to go from thinking of him just as a baby and understand that he is the God who came and wrapped himself in human flesh for a time. We have to go from wonder to worship. We have to understand that there is more to the story than a baby in the hay. In that cradle lay the hope of the ages. In that stall was the salvation of the world.
The story about a child being born is true and it is wonderful, but we have to go beyond being charmed by it to being changed by it. We have to see beyond the tradition to the transformation of our lives. We have to go beyond the admiration of a child to the adoration of a Savior. We cannot truly understand Christmas until we find ourselves on our knees in worship – worshiping not just a baby – but the Lord of the universe.
The prophets claimed that a child would be born to save the world. They said he would bear the stamp and very image of God. They called him Emmanuel – God with us. Only God is to be worshiped. But even as an infant, Jesus was worshiped. The shepherds came and they worshiped. The wise men came, bowing and worshiping, and bringing offerings to the newborn king. Jesus would be worshiped throughout his life and he never once said “don’t.”
I find it fascinating that, once again this year, the lawsuits are being filed by those who want all signs and symbols of religious significance removed from the public and government properties across the nation. So the stables on many courthouse lawns are missing. At the time of Jesus’ birth there was no room for him in the Inn; today there’s no room for him anywhere on public property. Yet those same public properties and all the retail stores around those properties look to Christmas as their salvation. Without Christmas many would simply go out of business. The pagans want our holiday without realizing it is a holy day. They want the cuteness of Christmas without the Christ of Christmas. They want the baby, but not the King. They love the gifts of men, but reject the Gift of God. They will accept the tinsel but not the truth. They want the wonder of the season without the worship of the Savior.
It is politically incorrect to say “Merry Christmas” now, so we say “Seasons Greetings,” or “Happy Holidays.” In fact, I remember that the post office stamped envelopes a few years ago, when How the Grinch Stole Christmas was so popular, with the saying, “Happy WHO-lidays!” It seems that the Grinch really had stolen Christmas and so many don’t know “WHO” this holiday is about. We are living in Whoville, and Christ has become the ghost of Christmas past.
I found it interesting that on several cards we received that message – on the cancellation stamp – stamped across a stamp with a painting of Mary and the infant Jesus on it. WHO-liday indeed! But God requires that we not only understand whose holiday it is, but that we also allow the King who was born to be King of our lives to be King. When Jesus came, he laid claim to the world and our lives as well.
We love the fact that Jesus’ birth has given us a season of gift-giving, feasting, and celebration, but the world has failed to recognize that it is a season of worship. This is a time to recognize what God has really done and who Christ really is. In many stores at this time of year you can see a lot of Christmas decorations without ever having the slightest clue that the season has anything to do with Christ. Many homes across the nation will celebrate Christmas in a couple of weeks without any mention or love for Christ. For others there is still a sentimental sort of feeling for the Madonna and Child. But for this season to mean what it is supposed to mean, we have to go beyond decorations to dedication, beyond sentiment to surrender – surrender to the God who has chosen to come to our world. If he is not Emmanuel, then our worship is foolishness. But if he is who he claims to be – who the prophets said he would be – God among us – then he deserves our praise, our worship, our obedience, our all. The world always tries to take the sacred and make it profane. It sees the humanity of Christ, but fails to accept his deity. It wants to keep Christ in the cradle but he just won’t stay there.
Because of that all important fact, we somehow have to get beyond the trimming and traditions and get back to the truth and reality of the season. Somehow we have to go beyond a counterfeit Christmas and get Christ out of the stable and into our hearts. We have to get him out of the cradle and onto the throne. We have to go from thinking of him as cute to thinking of him as King. Christmas is more than being charmed by a child, its real meaning is in saying, “Yes” to God.
I read a true story that a woman tells of her son’s Christmas play at North Country Elementary School in Antelope, California. Her son was in kindergarten and was excited about Christmas. For weeks he had been memorizing songs for the school’s “Winter Pageant.” (It would have been inappropriate to call it a “Christmas Play,” of course) Mom went to the dress rehearsal in the morning and sat on the floor with the other parents. Finally, the students were led into the room, and each group rose at their appointed time to perform their song. Because of how conscious the school was to avoid any mention of the real meaning of Christmas, she only expected songs about reindeer, Santa Claus, snowflakes and good cheer. But when her son’s class got up to sing their song, she was surprised to see that their song was entitled “Christmas Love.” Her son, Nicholas, was aglow, as were his classmates who were outfitted with fuzzy mittens, red sweaters, and bright snow caps on their heads (unusual outfits for Southern California). The children in the front row held up large letters, one by one, to spell out the title of the song. As the class sang “C is for Christmas,” a child would hold up the letter “C.” Then, “H is for Happy,” and so on, until each child had held up his or her letter to complete the message of ”Christmas Love.”
Everything was going smoothly until a shy little girl in the front row held up her letter upside down. Instead of holding up her “M,” she was holding up a “W.” The adults smiled, knowingly, and the children from the other classes began to snicker. She had no idea why they were looking at her so intently and smiling, so she stood tall and proudly displayed her “W.” The teachers tried to shush the children, but the laughter continued until the last letter was raised. Then a hush came over the audience, and people stared in wonder as they saw the sign which, instead of saying, “Christmas Love,” now read: “Christ was Love.” There in that moment, the Christ of Christmas made his message known. Out of the chaos and secularization of his birth, Christ the King came out of the cradle to announce the reason he came.
Have no fear. All is well, for all the unbelief in the world cannot stop the message that the God of love has come to us at Christmas – our Emmanuel.