From Heaven Above
Someone has said that you know the holiday season has completely distracted you when you try to enter your computer pass code into your microwave oven. It is the season of distractedness – when our attentions become three-dimensional, satisfying the demands of sons ad daughters, mothers and fathers, bosses. And then there are the bills. So we come here to focus. To hear the word and be reminded, once again, what it is all about. We come to adore the babe in the manger and to have it quiet here, with the right touch of carols and candlelight. We come to hold candles high and sing Silent Night. We’re glad that God has come to the earth and we want to marvel at the warmth the smallness, and the newness of the baby in the manger wrapped in swaddling cloths.
We come here for the right reasons and it is, certainly, the good news of the embodiment of God that changes our lives. I want us to hear that word and revel in that wonderful news this evening. And I’m wondering if our adoration of the Christ child might not be richer, deeper, and more intense if we did not begin, right away, with our eyes down the hay.
I think we need to begin with our eyes in the heavens. Before we consider the human I think we need to consider the divine. We want to jump to the human too quickly. Yes, there is a miracle that is taking place – but the significance of that miracle is not in those things we normally cling to too tightly.
The thing that makes this story different is not that two young people traveled a long way and couldn’t find lodging. That happened all the time back then. It wasn’t even that the birth took place in a stable. Even that was not particularly remarkable in those rougher days. The visitation of the angels certainly adds color to the story. But the true meaning doesn’t lie there. Nor is it the star over the stable or the visitation of the wise men which give significance.
The significance lies in the wonderful and awesome and glorious and incredible truth that God has come to earth. And sometimes we don’t appreciate the extraordinary nature of that truth because we don’t appreciate the holiness, the divinity, the otherness of God. We are too quick to bring God down to our level, so when God actually does come down to our level we don’t appreciate it as much.
Maybe we first need to dispel the new-age way of thinking which wants to say that God comes from within us. That’s not where God comes from. God comes from outside of us. God is wholly other. Different. Dissimilar. Greater. Much greater. So much greater that we, with our human minds, cannot begin to imagine.
But it is precisely because we cannot fully comprehend that we do the natural and human thing and pull God down to our own size. We make the baby cute and sentimental and dwell, at times, too much on that part of our Lord’s life. Two of our four gospels felt that, when telling the story of Jesus, it should start with his adult baptism. They don’t even tell about the infancy at all. We’ve romanticized the shepherds, even giving them pipes and trums and making up a mythical shepherd boy. We forget that they were considered low-class citizens of their day. Even the cherubim – those great strong angels who guarded the tree of life in the Garden of Eden, who stood majestically over the Ark of the Covenant in the tabernacle, who were embroidered on the great veil of the temple… even these grand cherubim we have somehow made into cute, chubby, little baby angels.
Maybe we have been so busy pulling God down to size that when it does happen it just isn’t as special. Maybe we need to stand in wonder and amazement before an awesome, awesome, God – one who is infinitely greater than we. Then maybe we can truly appreciate what it means for this force which is wholly other to take on flesh and be born in human form.
That is Christ in the manger. That’s not just baby Jesus. That’s the messiah. In the manger is the God is large enough to be unapproachable and feared, but who chose to come to the earth in the form of an infant so that he would be approachable, so that there would no longer be a need to fear, so that fear could be replaced by love.
Martin Luther said this to his congregation one Christmas: “Behold the Christ lying in the lap of his young mother … here is the Child in whom is salvation. There is no greater consolation given to humankind than this, that Christ became human, a child, a babe, playing in the lap and at the breasts of his most gracious mother.” Luther said, “Now is overcome the power of sin, death, hell, conscience, and guilt … if you believe that he is come, not to judge you, but to save.”
There is a mistake which is sometimes made by lay readers on Christmas Eve. Many will read, quote, “You will find a child wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger.” Actually, it’s not clothes, its cloths. It actually reads, “You will find a child wrapped in swaddling cloths.” Bands of cloth – for wrapping a body, round and round. It was also bands of cloth that were later to be used to bind the dead, broken, and crucified body – the bands of cloth that were found lying in a heap in the empty tomb.
In the story of the birth a foreshadowing of the death. A reminder to us that the totality of the meaning of God with us doesn’t end with the manger, but points toward and is brought to culmination in what God did for us on the cross.
That is why tonight we don’t just celebrate Christmas. We celebrate the Christ Mass. When we’ve finished focusing down on the manger we lift our eyes to the altar where we receive the body which has been broken for us and the blood which has been shed for us.
Somewhere in Northern Virginia, even as we speak, a big-box store manager is beginning to take down the bows and the garlands and the wreaths and the ribbons. Their Christmas is over Here at church it is just beginning. The sun is down and, in grand Hebrew tradition, the new day has begun. It is Christmas and it will be for the next twelve days. And it doesn’t even end there, for Christmas blends right into Epiphany – the season of the star, the wise men, and the telling forth of this glorious story Oh, we’ve just BEGUN Christmas.
God become flesh. For us. A child given. For us. Bread broken. For us. Wine poured. For us.
“Do not fear. You have been brought good news of a great joy … for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Text: Luke 2:1-20