Monday, December 13, 2010

Christmas Lights: Baby-Talk

Preached December 12, Third Sunday in Advent
Scripture readings: Isaiah 9:1-7; Galatians 4:1-7

A husband and wife were expecting their first child. To get ready they attended birthing classes at the hospital.

It was a very nice hospital. On one of these sessions, the class was given a tour of the maternity ward, which was decorated to be as homelike and relaxing as possible.

The instructor told them everything that would take place during their stay, and that (on their last evening) they would be treated to a romantic dinner for two. The instructor mentioned some of the items on the menu.

As the tour moved on, the wife whispered to her husband, “Honey, I’m so excited.” And he smiled and said, “Me too. I’m going to order the lobster.”

For Isaiah and for Paul, the most important thing, the center of everything, was the baby. “For unto us a child is born. Unto us a son is given.” (Isaiah 9:6-7) “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his son; born of woman…) (Galatians 4:4-5)

For each one of them, this is how everything happens. Isaiah feels no need to tell us, here, what the baby will grow up to do. He tells us that elsewhere. But for now it is enough for him to say that the baby is how the kingdom comes. The same with Paul: “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law; to redeem those were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”

Isaiah shows us a baby who brings light to a dark world, and victory to the defeated, and harvest to the hungry. Isaiah doesn’t tell us how the baby does this, except by telling us who this baby is: “And his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

Isaiah wants us to understand that this is no ordinary child. This is a real child, a human child; but a child with a difference. The plan of God for the whole creation; the plan of God to mend all things, to set all things right, to make all things new; the plan of God to bring in a world of peace, and justice, and righteousness; this plan involves God’s coming into his own creation as a baby born in the ordinary way. This God makes us his children by becoming our child: “for unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.”

This is one of the keys to understand how God governs this world, “And the government shall be on his shoulders.” It happens through the work of his becoming a baby. It also happens through the work of his living among us. It also happens through the work of his dying for us on the cross, to take away our sins and to give us his righteousness. It also happens through his rising from the dead and being the man who sits upon the only real throne in heaven and earth. It happens though the work God did by taking upon himself our limitations, and our weaknesses, and our sins. But the most important, most essential, part of the plan depends, first of all, upon the work of taking upon himself our flesh and blood, and the whole essence of being human.

The idea that it should be necessary for God to become a baby might seem strange. In the same way the idea that it should be necessary for God to die a human death on the cross might seem strange.

At this point, I can think of nothing better than to give you the words of a great Christian thinker and Bible student named John Stott. Stott wrote this about Jesus: “He was God’s son. He was also born of a human mother, so that He was human as well as divine, the one and only God-man. And He was born ‘under the law’, that is, of a Jewish mother, into the Jewish nation, subject to the Jewish law.
Throughout His life He submitted to all the requirements of the law. He succeeded where all others before and since have failed: He perfectly fulfilled the righteousness of the law. So the divinity of Christ, the humanity of Christ, and the righteousness of Christ uniquely qualified Him to be our redeemer. If He had not been human, He could not have redeemed humans. If He had not been a righteous person, He could not have redeemed unrighteous people. And if He had not been God’s Son, He could not have redeemed human beings for God, or made them the children of God.” (“The Message of Galatians”, by John Stott, p. 106; Inter-Varsity Press)

If you were able to travel back in time and see this; what would you see? You would see wounds, and blood, and a man dying on a cross. You would go further back and see a baby sleeping in a manger. This is what God’s work looks like when you see it for yourself. This is the appearance of God’s greatest wonders and miracles.

It is possible, when God works, for you to see and hear extraordinary things. But there was nothing extraordinary about a man dying on a cross or a baby sleeping in a manger. These things are the most characteristic of God’s work. Here is what God’s work looks like when you actually see it. And many people completely miss it.

And (since God always tells the truth as it is) this man on the cross, and this baby in the manger, must tell us the very truth of who God is. There is something about God that cannot be said or worked out any other way.

Somehow, when God does his greatest work, we do not see power, or dignity, or glory, or else we see the glory shinging upon those who are the least glorious. The glory of the Lord, and of the angels, shed its light on despised shepherds guarding their sheep among the hills. The wealthy wise men saw only a star (though a moving star, at that).

For those who went to see the God-Man, the King of the Kingdom of God, what they saw was a baby in a feed trough, in the place where the animals were kept. It was the glory of God to come down to earth and be found not even in a place for humans.

How much confidence did Mary and Joseph feel toward God’s care of them, when they saw the accommodations that God provided for their child-king? And yet Mary and Joseph knew that God had chosen them to care for his Son. God chose a man and woman sleeping in a stable to be the caregivers of the work of God.

What lavishness and impressiveness could they see in themselves? Yet, there with them, God was doing the greatest thing he had ever done; and the baby was the message.

God was revealing himself through this baby. God was speaking in this baby. The Gospel of John says: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” (John 1:18)

He shall be called “Wonderful Counselor”. This is about wisdom and understanding. Do you want to understand life? Do you want to understand what is going on around you, and how God works in the world? Do you want to understand yourself? You have to look at the baby and see God there. Then you can see where God is at work in other places. That is the wisdom of God.

He shall be called “Mighty God”. The word “mighty” here is not a power word, but a warrior word. It means hero. If you want to know how to live in courage and to fight the good fight you look at the baby.

Think of the journey from heaven’s throne to the manger. What would it mean for you, if you were to live with courage like that?

If others looked to you to be their hero, what kind of action would the “babiness” of God require of you? What might you need to allow yourself to come to, in such a battle?

He shall be called “Everlasting Father”. Father, here, is another kind of hero. Father carries the weight of being the provider and caregiver of a family. In this sense, mothers are fathers too.

Everlasting means never stopping being what you are. What you are, everlastingly, you are with unyielding faithfulness. Isn’t it true that mothers and fathers never stop being mothers and fathers? Somehow the baby Jesus tells us about the unfailing faithfulness of God.

Isaiah also called the Messiah “Immanuel”. The meaning of Immanuel is “God with us”. Isaiah said, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: the virgin will be with child, and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)
If God is with us, in this baby, then God is with us in all our own “babiness”. When you can no longer do anything for yourself, when you can no longer speak for yourself or protect yourself, when you have nothing to give to others but your little self, God is with you.

In this way God is faithful, and we see, in the baby, that God is our Everlasting Father. He can be trusted to be with you when you are at your smallest and weakest, and never fail you.

He shall be called “Prince of Peace”. Here is a long quote from the German teacher and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “Where God comes in love to human beings and unites with them, there peace is made between God and humankind, and among people. Are you afraid of God’s wrath? Then go to the child in the manger and receive there the peace of God. Have you fallen into strife and hatred with your sister or brother? Come and see how God, out of pure love, has become our brother and wants to reconcile us with each other.

In the world, power reigns. This child is the Prince of Peace. Where his is, peace reigns.” (“God Is in the Manger”, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p. 74; Westminster/John Knox Press)

The baby Jesus, lying in the manger cannot say one single word, and yet he is the living word of God. He is God speaking for himself. His “babiness” reveals God: his faithfulness and promise to us; his covenant and relationship with us and ours with him.

There is this great quietness and humility of God working in the world. We even see it in the Lord’s Supper, where Jesus chose to come to us, in all his fullness, as we do such a simple, innocent thing like tasting a bit of bread and drinking a bit of grape juice. The bread and wine bring us into the presence of the living, crucified and risen Jesus, the King of Glory. And yet it is still only bread and wine.

So little, so petty a thing; the way God comes. Yet this is the path he took in order to do the greatest things he has ever done.

We are right to call him Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, but very few people found him in the manger with all his baby-talk. God is quiet and humble. Listen to what the baby says. He is talking to you. He has come here for you. He is with you now, but you must be careful not to miss him.

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