Every few years, somebody thinks of something new to say at Christmastime. A few years ago, the trendy saying was, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” But you don’t hear that as much anymore. Before that, the trendy thing was to have Santa Claus praying at the manger, but you don’t see that as much these days. Back in 1965, Charlie Brown wanted to know what Christmas really means, and found the answer in a bunch of kids working together to make a scraggly tree into a beautiful thing.
Now that most of the craziness is over, we can step back and ask why we went to all this fuss. What does Christmas means? We could talk about family, giving, kindness, generosity, peace on earth, and all the good stuff that could even warm the heart of a Grinch. But the real meaning of Christmas is going to be found in the simple fact itself: the baby. Christmas is all about the baby. God became a baby.
Matthew and Luke set the scene, draw the characters, and tell the stories. But John skips all that, and focuses on what the stories mean. He says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Then he says, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.”
In the birth of Jesus Christ, the eternal God becomes a human being—a baby. Now, to understand the power of this, we have to go back and think of God as we usually think of God. In Romans chapter 1, Paul says, “Since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” In other words, if you look around you, you know there must be a God somewhere who put it all together.
We always seem to picture this God as an old man. We may even think of him as an angry old man—crabby, even petty; jealous and easily annoyed, and firing lightning bolts at those who get out of line.
This is the God of Exodus 20:18: “When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.’” That’s what the Old Testament teaches: If you see God’s face, or maybe even if you just hear his voice, it would scare you so bad that you would drop over dead, right on the spot….
Until Christmas. Now, all of a sudden, John points to a baby in the manger and says, That’s God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” The old man full of thunder and lighting has become a baby. In Luke, an angel appeared to the shepherds, and, sure enough, they were terrified. Who wouldn’t be? But instead, the angel says, “Do not be afraid,” and then tells them to go “find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
And so they did. They saw him—-and they didn’t drop over dead. Matthew tells us about wise men from the east who did the same thing. Matthew 2:11 says, “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.” They looked at God, and lived. They looked at the baby—the Word made flesh.
For the Word to become flesh, God had to take a tremendous risk. Imagine what the infant mortality rate must have been in Israel in 4 B.C. And then to complicate things even more, the Roman government had sent Mary and Joseph on that ridiculous trip to Bethlehem just to pay their taxes.
This was Mary’s first child, and she was young. And Joseph? He was a carpenter, not an obstetrician. Martin Luther was fascinated by this, and talked about it in his Christmas sermons. In a time when our own babies are born in the presence of trained medical professionals surrounded by all the technical marvels we can muster, the birth of Jesus with Mary and Joseph in a Bethlehem barn seems all the more remarkable—
Remarkable, and risky. But that’s the point of the story. God took the chance, because that’s how much he loves us. How many chances are we willing to take to demonstrate our own love for others? Love is risky—risky because we make an emotional investment that may not always pay off. How much risk are you willing to take?
Okay. So the baby made it into the world. But God was still completely vulnerable and defenseless. Babies can’t feed themselves, can’t keep themselves warm, or defend themselves from danger. Babies can’t do much more than attract attention, either by yelling or by being cute. They’re completely dependent on the love and goodwill of other people in order to survive.
Yet our whole quest in life is to get away from that; to become independent. We don’t want to have to depend on others to take care of us. Think of how much time and energy we spend building up our own personal defenses in life. We build walls, and shut out other people. We get on social media, and, like the stores of the Old West, we put up a false front that makes our life look bigger and better than it reallty is.
That baby in the manger teaches us that means to break down our defenses and learn to trust, and accept the love of others. No more hiding behind lies. No more hiding behind a quick temper or sharp tongue. No more hiding behind over sensitivity and keeping others walking on eggshells, so they won’t be able to approach us. No more whining to guilt others into obeying us.
There is so much love all around us, but if we keep building up our defenses to keep people away, then suddenly we’ll look up one day and say, Nobody loves me! Nobody cares! Step by step, day-by-day, we shape ourselves in the image of the angry old man on the mountain, roaring with thunder and shooting lightning bolts at those in our way.
At Christmas, the baby Jesus breaks down our defenses. He calls our bluffs. The Word becomes flesh and lives among us. The Word becomes a baby in a manger. That Word still has power. It is the same Word that God spoke at the opening moment of creation itself: Let there be light. It is the same Word that created the sun and stars and planets; the same Word that made life itself explode from the earth and seas. It is the same word that makes things make sense to us; and gives us understanding.
At Christmas, the voice of thunder is replaced by the voice of a newborn’s cry. Lightning bolts are replaced by the open arms of love. Angry vengeance is replaced by open forgiveness and acceptance. The angry old man is born again in the baby Jesus, and what God chose for himself, he also wants for you.
Last Sunday, we looked at the hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The author, Phillips Brooks, writing just after the noise and chaos and brutality of the Civil War, ended his hymn with a simple prayer:
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given;
so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
At Christmas, the God of thunder and lightning becomes that God of the sleepy little town, the dark streets, the silent stars rolling by. God becomes a baby. Picture that baby in your mind. That’s what Christmas is all about– the baby who is our Savior, Jesus Christ, the Lord.