This birth is first understood from the hill of the cross, and the vulnerability of God revealed on that hill now is more fully understood in God’s coming to us as a child, risking all to love us back, risking all that we, too, might risk transforming love.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, The Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve; text: Luke 2:1-20
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
This is not a safe world. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking it is. That we gather ourselves tonight in a safe cocoon of warmth and light only points out that there is darkness and cold in this world that we are trying to keep out. You don’t light a candle in full sunlight. You don’t put on an extra blanket in the middle of summer.
This is not a safe world. Let’s not pretend that it is. That we gather ourselves tonight to celebrate the coming of God into the world to save us, to save all, only points out that there is something we need saving from, that there is something wrong that only God can heal. Jesus himself reminded us that only sick people need doctors, not well people.
This is not a safe world. Let’s not forget that is true. That we gather ourselves tonight to sing “all is calm, all is bright,” and “glory to the newborn King” only points out that there is much that is not calm, not bright, not filled with glory. There is nothing remarkable about a silent night unless the world is cacophony and somehow we find a silent moment in the midst of that.
It is good, though, very good, that we’ve gathered ourselves together here tonight. That we’ve found some warmth and light, that we remember God’s healing is come, that we claim an island of calm and glory in the presence of God.
But we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that this is not a safe world precisely because not only can we not stay here indefinitely, God also needs to be in that world as it is, not this place as we have made it. In all our celebrations of this birth of our Lord Christ, we dare not mistake this place, this moment, for the place of God’s working in the world. God is here, God comes to us here, we meet the Incarnate One here, yes.
But only that we might be able to recognize the Incarnate God out there, in the unsafe world. Only that we might be able to hear the same Incarnate One calling us out into the darkness and cold, into the noise and fear, into the sickness and pain. In this calm, light, warm, glory-filled place of healing we take rest, we open our eyes to God’s light, we are filled with a vision of what this world can be in God’s love.
But the One whose birth we’ve come to celebrate is in that unsafe world. So ultimately, that’s where we need to be, if we want to be with him.
Here is how we know this to be true: we do not come to this manger as our first sight. We come to this manger from our sight of the crucified Jesus.
It’s hard to remember this, since we live time in a straight line – pregnancy, birth, life, death – but seeing what was happening in Bethlehem came after seeing what happened on a hill outside Jerusalem.
Sometimes we’re told that we look at the manger and we see the cross. In fact, our vision comes from the other direction, from the cross to the manger. It’s not likely that while Jesus was teaching, healing, gathering disciples much attention was paid to where he had come from. There are some mentions of contact between Jesus and his family, even locals in his hometown calling him “Joseph’s son”, but people followed Jesus because of who he was as they met him. They learned to trust him, or not, to follow him, or not, based on what they knew of him as he was as an adult, not based on any stories of his birth.
But after the cross, and then his resurrection, things changed. His disciples became believers that he was in fact the Son of God, that he was God. The group of followers was filled with the Holy Spirit and became a thing called the Church.
And in the reflections of those early believers, they started to look backward. If Jesus is truly the risen Son of God, then what does that mean about where he came from? And that was where the wonder of this night came to be found: in realizing that the God who risked all in dying on the cross was risking all from the very beginning. Listening to the stories of his birth from his mother, from those who knew them, the believers began to realize how profoundly vulnerable God had been from the beginning, and how important that was.
So Mark tells his story just from the standpoint of the adult Jesus, through death and resurrection. But Matthew and Luke, coming later, reflect on the meaning of his origins, and feel a need to tell that part of the story as well. The beginning of the story. And then John tells us a wonder, that even this birth isn’t the beginning of the story of God’s involvement with us, that this coming of God into the world was in plan from the very beginning of time. That God, the creator of this world, chose to come into the heart of the danger and pain to make things right.
Which is where we find ourselves tonight.
The birth of this child, this God-With-Us, is all about God’s willingness to risk everything. That’s what the cross teaches us about tonight.
God enters an unsafe, dark, cold, hateful, sick, broken world to transform it from within.
This is not a story that begins tonight in beauty, seemingly ends badly in death, and then finishes triumphant on Easter. This is a story from the beginning of creation, a story of the eternal God who desperately loves this world he has made but is pained beyond belief at the destruction we, God’s own children, have made of it. A story of a world of light brought into darkness by our own actions, our own lives, a world which is not as God made it to be.
From the point of choosing Abraham and Sarah, this manger, this cross, this empty tomb, all these things were possible. Because this plan from the beginning involved God’s risking all. Which means that we never see Almighty God as a hapless victim, not at the cross, not at the manger. This is the Triune God’s choice of how to deal with this unsafe world. To become completely vulnerable to it, rather than destroy it. To put himself in our hands, in hopes that we might thereby learn to love.
When we look at the manger from the hill of the cross we see that in this birth amongst the lowly creatures of this world God was saying, “I will come to you without any power or might, so that you can hear me, know me, love me. Follow me.” “Or,” as was always the possibility, “kill me. But I will come to you in this way. It’s the only way to life for this world.”
When we hear Herod’s reaction next Sunday to this coming of God, destroying the children of Bethlehem, we see fully the risk involved, as fully as we see it on that hill outside Jerusalem: Babies are born without power and protection, born into warmth and light sometimes, but often into darkness and cold. And always, always, at risk from any number of dangers.
This baby, born into a world which already had no room for him, was at risk from the moment of his conception, through his birth and early childhood. That he willingly chose to face the cross as he struggled in Gethsemane is only the continuing of the Son of God’s willingness to let us do anything to him, in hopes that we would in fact learn to love him.
Which means this: on this holy night, in our warm, light, space we have made in the midst of a cold, dark world, we are faced with a decision.
What will we do with this baby?
We can love the story, love the idea of a baby in a manger, and pretend that this is all sweetness and light. But then we’d go out into that unsafe world with little more than a lie. If this beauty, this quiet, this peace in here has nothing to do with reality out there, what is the point? If God is actually doing something about this unsafe world in this birth, just loving this story isn’t getting that point.
If, however, we see that this vulnerability, this risk of God is the whole point, then this baby becomes very important. Then this baby becomes the beginning of God’s answer to this broken, dark, cold, unsafe world.
It’s the difference between seeing this beauty, then looking at the ministry of Jesus, and then saying, “Isn’t it a shame that everything went so badly, but at least he rose from the dead,” and seeing this birth for what it is, a huge risk that inevitably led to a cross, a gamble with death, with us, in a world where so many things go badly, for the very purpose of changing that world.
Without power, without weapons, without defenses; without strategy, without plan of attack, without manipulation; this is how God enters the pain of this world. And so that is also our path.
The wisdom of the Triune God is at once astounding and troubling, that this was the only way to bring the world back. It was all about risk, always about risk. The only way to make this world safe and whole was to risk being broken and unsafe, even though God has the power to make and unmake universes.
So this is our invitation: to see this as our way in the world as well. We have none of the power of the Triune God, so in one sense, it’s far easier for us to go into this world powerless and defenseless. We feel that way often enough already. But we have enough that we cling to our self-built protections, we build barriers, we try to pretend we’re safe. Enough that we need to hear what our Lord Jesus taught us not just in words but in these actions, this birth, that death.
The only way to healing, to light, to warmth, to wholeness, to peace, is to enter the pain, the darkness, the cold, the brokenness, the struggle and be willing to put ourselves wholly into it.
In that risking, the world will be healed. That’s what our God has shown us. In that risking, light will come into darkness, warmth into cold, peace into fighting. It’s the only way for God. So it can be the only way for us.
This is not a safe world. We don’t want to forget that.
And the only way to face that is to go out into that world with our lives, our hearts, our whole being, risking all. It’s more than a little frightening to consider.
So let’s keep our eyes on this baby who is the God of all creation, heaven and earth contained in such a little space, such a vulnerable place. Our way is the way our God has already walked, and if we are with such a God, then we are also given the courage to risk as God has risked.
It’s not a safe world. But we are not in it alone; that’s what we learn tonight. If our path leads into darkness and cold, into dangerous wilds, it is also the only path where we know the Triune God has gone, and where we know we will never be alone. And that, my friends, is truly tidings of comfort and joy.
In the name of Jesus. Amen