CHRISTMAS EVE – 12/24/19 – Even the Holy Baby Cries

EVEN THE HOLY BABY CRIES

December 24, 2019
Christmas Eve
Sermon: Luke 2:1-20
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

 

If your only exposure to the bible as a child was children’s TV programming, I could have said after the reading of Luke’s nativity story: “And that, Charlie Brown, is what Christmas is all about.” And, you would be satisfied you knew the true meaning of Christmas. If church and Sunday school were your Sunday ritual, you might have been cast in a Christmas pageant every year until you outgrew all the children-sized costumes. You might have seen a creche each Sunday with all the main characters of the story, except the baby Jesus. In my previous church, there was a creche on the floor of the chancel in front of the Communion table. I would deftly slip the baby Jesus out from my robe pocket to put in the manger right before the service started to add to the anticipation and mystery. When the children came up to the chancel for the Children’s sermon, the baby Jesus was seen for the first time. I hope these children, some of whom I taught in a three-year Confirmation class, still carry the memories of that anticipation and mystery of the Christ child entering their lives on Christmas Eve. I am thankful to their parents that they saw to it that their children learned about the Holy Child that grew in wisdom and grace and showed the way to God’s wholeness and peace through sacrificial love.

I’ve often heard it said that babies are God’s pronouncement that the world should go on. For most mothers and fathers, as it was for Mary and Joseph, a newborn baby is a harbinger of hope for the future. Last week I walked into the hospital room of a patient and met another visitor — a mother cradling a one-month-old sleeping infant in her arms. Immediately I was drawn to look at the baby’s face. Her mother beamed with pride as I oohed and ahhed over the baby. Her mother explained she was sleeping so soundly because she had been awake and crying all night. When an infant is sleeping, she is a heart-warming joy to behold. Helpless and totally dependent, we feel compelled to wrap our arms around a sleeping infant and protect them.  When I see a peaceful, contented baby I am filled with hope for the future that defies evidence to the contrary. A screaming and crying infant, however, disturbs our peace profoundly. We become the helpless one. Our anxiety level skyrockets and we are desperate to quiet the noise which so upsets are own peace and sense of competence. I have noticed that most of the Christmas carols that include the baby Jesus in their texts, refer to him as sleeping. Yet, we know he cried as we do. When his friend, Lazarus died, the bible tells us, “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35) He wept over Jerusalem when he saw they had not learned the ways of peace. (Lk. 19:41)

The gospel of Luke makes it clear that Jesus was sent to wake up the world to God’s grand reversal of the ways of the world through Christ.  In Luke, after Mary is told she is to bear the Son of God, she breaks into song proclaiming that with this child God has “scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts…has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” With this introduction, Luke prepares his audience for an eye-opening saga of divine revelation. Luke’s message is clear. human-led kingdoms operate on a completely different value system from the kingdom of God and we must choose which kingdom we give our ultimate allegiance.

The Jewish people, occupied by the Roman Empire in the province of Judea, hoped for a Messiah that would defeat the Romans and restore the nation of Israel to its former strength and prosperity under King David. Judea was the “Jewish ghetto” of the Roman Empire. Bethlehem was the birthplace of Jesus’ famous ancestor, King David. We are not surprised there are shepherds there because David began his career as a lowly shepherd, not a king. Despite the nationalistic image of the long-awaited Messiah, God, instead sent a baby to be raised by parents marginalized by their religion, ethnicity, and socio-economic status. Mary and Joseph were trapped in a life of poverty and powerlessness. Empire bullies made their lives more difficult in every way possible. Here was Mary, in the last stages of pregnancy, having to travel with Joseph nearly 100 miles through all kinds of dangers inherent in desert travel. Like the Central Americans who have traveled through similar conditions, Mary and Joseph would also have been vulnerable to lawless men who preyed on travelers and not welcomed where they sought sanctuary. The government powers that demanded they take this arduous journey wanted their names on a census for purposes of collecting money for the Empire which had conquered and occupied the Jewish region of Judea. The census was also used to register men for drafting into the empire’s formidable army should the need arise for more soldiers.

In Matthew’s gospel, we are told that visitors from the East had come to worship a new king. The Provincial king Herod was told by these men they had come to worship this infant king. Like all tyrannical leaders, the threat of losing his status struck fear in Herod’s heart and he ordered the murder of all baby boys under the age of two. To save their child, Joseph and Mary were forced to seek refuge in a foreign country, Egypt. Herod forced the separation of families in a terminal way. How would we treat a similar family? Would we find a place for them? Would we feed them, give them shelter or send them “empty away” as Mary sang at the Annunciation?

Luke further demonstrates God’s particular concern for the poor and disadvantaged by sending angels to herald the Good News of the holy birth to a group of shepherds. Shepherds were about as low on the ladder of success as you could get in that society. There were signs in public places warning “No shepherds allowed.”

Besides their low social status, they lived outdoors with animals scented with dung. They were not allowed in, could not afford the entrance fee for public baths or none were available in the rural areas in which they lived. It was the typical “Catch-22” of the poor – that which offended the sensibilities of the more affluent was reinforced by their denial of resources for the poor offenders to make themselves more acceptable to the ones who excluded them. In many countries, including our own, this system is still in operation.

Based on a study by the World Bank, published in 2017, the U.S. is one of only four high-income economies amongst 50 economies with the lowest rates of relative upward mobility. In the 1940’s American children had a 90% chance of earning more in their adulthood than their parents. By 2017 that percentage was reduced to a 50% chance. Of course, these are average figures. Our child poverty and infant mortality rates, which are a measure of available health care, are higher than all other economically strong, industrialized countries. If we believe children are our future, our society is not doing well to support that future. Christ challenges us with the question Mary and Joseph asked the innkeeper: ‘Is there room for others in our inn?’

A few years ago, a colleague in the ministry told me about a new Advent activity he had introduced to his congregation. Families signed up to take a baby doll and a small manger constructed of wood and filled with hay home for 24 hours. The family wrote about how having “baby Jesus” in their homes affected them. Of course, their thoughts and actions were based on knowing the baby was supposed to be Jesus, not just any baby. The accounts were collected to make an Advent devotional for the next year. Although I thought the exercise had merit, I did think to myself that it would be more interesting to take home one of those baby dolls that high schoolers are given in health class to teach them about the incredible responsibility of having a baby. You know the ones that cry when you leave the room or just start wailing spontaneously. These baby dolls cannot be left alone, or an alarm will go off. You just can’t ignore or neglect one of these babies.

Likewise, if you let Jesus into your life, he won’t always leave you in peace. He will push you to cry out for justice and engage in healing ministries. He will not allow you to ignore his message or neglect your responsibilities to your neighbors in need. He will give you peace alone but insist you also be a peacemaker. And you know how hearing another infant cry will elicit cries…well, Jesus will give you such sensitive hearing, you’ll find yourself crying out with sympathetic pain and you will not rest until you have found a way to comfort the afflicted. Come back after this Christmas service and learn more about Christ, who will teach you the ways of nurturing and growing into a life of holy purpose in the kingdom of God.

That God would reveal God’s self in the most vulnerable form, a newborn baby demonstrates the unimaginable love and sacrifice God has made for us. God demonstrates that in order to love and receive the love we must allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We cannot try to build walls to protect ourselves without shutting love out. We cannot go it alone in the world without becoming the image of what we worship instead of God.

To really hear and understand that the Christmas story happened long ago to ordinary people means to be awestruck by the reality of God’s presence with us here and now.  Made in God’s image, each of us has the potential for new birth, the new life that will lighten the darkness within us and in the world. Our work, our family life, our meetings on the street—all the things we do have the potential to be holy encounters that birth new life.   With the assurance of God’s love that embraces us like a mother’s arms and feeds us with the bread of life, we are challenged to walk boldly into the darkness of our worldly woes and seek the light God has promised to guide us to the home in which we are always welcomed and loved.  A home with a table big enough to feed all God’s children. The candles are lit, the Lord’s Supper is ready, let us come and share a real Christmas feast together.

Amen, may it be so.

 

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2019, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church  |  1420 W. Moss Avenue  |  Peoria, Illinois 61606
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