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December 24, 2010
There’s nothing like a newborn to melt hearts, dissolve hard-feelings and bring smiles to even the most solemn face. I suppose that’s one reason the Christmas story about the birth of a baby lying in a manager is so compelling. On this night, as on no other, we thrill to the news that “unto us is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord…wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger…Peace on earth. Good will to all.” Who can resist the appeal of a newborn, especially one who signals such good and hopeful news?
Not the shepherds. As soon as these day laborers heard the announcement they went to the stable and saw the baby. Imagine their craggy faces, hardened by seasons of cold weather and years of hard work, becoming suddenly tender and serene as they peered at the newborn child in the manger.
And of course there were others who came to the manger. Matthew tells us of the wise men from the East. They arrived at the manger after many miles of hard travel, bones aching, muscles stiff, eyelids heavy from a lack of sleep. But once they entered the stable and saw the presence of God in the face of an infant, their fatigue vanished. They knelt before the babe, offered gifts and worshiped the new born king.
Yet I wonder if the moment of birth made a lasting difference in the lives of those who first beheld him. Once the shepherds returned to the fields, did they continue to live in the light of the peace they had heard proclaimed and had seen in the face of the infant? Or did they, after a while, go back to their same petty squabbles and lives of quiet desperation? We wonder, too, what happened to the wise men after they returned home? Did their lives change because of what they had seen, or did they leave their worship of the Prince of Peace behind along with their gifts? We don’t know.
But we can ponder our own response to God’s coming among us in the form of a babe lying in a manger. Will the peaceful silence, the warm glow of candle light, the songs of Christ’s birth be for us only a momentary joy—one that we leave behind as soon as Christmas is over?
I read a story this week that involved a strict Calvinist preacher, as stern, severe and joyless as they come. This preacher had two children, one of them a daughter, a rebellious teenager who became pregnant out of wedlock. Predictably, the preacher was furious—but he was also deeply wounded. He demanded she leave the house, and he refused to speak to her again. In his eyes, she had sinned, had fallen short of God’s glory and of her father’s expectations. The girl survived by living in shelters and soon gave birth to the baby. Some months later, in desperation, she came home again. She and her child stood at the door and knocked, hoping to find forgiveness and shelter under her father’s roof.
His wife answered the door when her daughter knocked. Then she went in to tell her husband that his daughter had come home. He said not a word. He simply turned his chair away from his wife and his back to the front door where the girl stood weeping, cradling her baby. The preacher’s wife, the girl’s mother, went back to the door and took the child from her daughter’s arms. She walked back into the room where the stern old preacher sat with his arms folded. She put the baby in his lap, and she said, “This is your grandchild.”
Now it was the old preacher who was weeping. He took hold of the child and rocked it for a while, tears streaming down his face…just rocking and crying.
It would be nice if the story ended there, if the baby and that moment had changed everything, had melted the old man’s heart and mended that poor family, so broken by anger and grief and shame. But in this case, the baby changed nothing; not really. Yes, there was a moment of tenderness…but then the moment was gone. There were tears, but the tears did not cleanse the wounds or soften the old man’s hard heart. He went to his grave refusing to welcome home his prodigal daughter, his heart as hard and stern as ever.
Tonight let’s consider that God has placed a baby in the lap of the world in the hope that it will change us—not just momentarily—but really change us. God is trying to put a baby in our laps in hopes that we will not only shed a tear or two over the beauty of the angel’s song—“peace on earth, and goodwill among all God’s children”-but also that we will begin to live into that benediction so that our lives are shaped by the depth of the love revealed in the baby.
Last Sunday, after the handbells played “Sweet Little Jesus boy,” one of our members responded, “It’s no wonder that people want to leave him there in that manger from one year to the next. When we unwrap those swaddling clothes and set him free, there’s no telling where he will take us.”
So, friends, on this Friday, this silent and holy night, once again God has put a baby in our laps in hopes he will be born, or born again, not just in Bethlehem but also in our hearts and lives, our thoughts and our politics, our giving and our doing. Tonight, after we’ve made our candlelight processional to the courtyard, after we have sung “Joy to the World” and extinguished our candles and walked back to our cars, may the love of God, revealed in a vulnerable child, continue to abide with us and grow in us not just tonight but for the rest of our lives.