A few years ago for Christmas I gave my niece Emma a Fisher Price nativity set just like this one. The cutest little roly poly Mary and Joseph you’ve ever seen, with a little baby Jesus in the straw. I FaceTime often with Emma, and by that wonderful live computer video, I get to “play” with her in my mother’s living room, 1500 miles away.
She would show me all her toys, holding each one up to the camera, tells me a story about it, then places it on the keyboard below. My mom snapped this picture of Emma and me playing one day. Me in Florida, Emma in New York.
If you look closely, you can see the Baby Jesus in his straw-lined cradle up toward the top of the picture.
For Emma, that nativity set wasn’t just for Christmastime. It was for the whole year. She played with its characters almost every day. Baby Jesus, in his little straw-filled cradle, went on trips in Barbie’s little pink car. He’s been on the Fisher Price yellow school bus. He has slid down the Hot Wheels race car track. (He doesn’t do too well on the turns.)
The first year that she had the nativity set, Emma’s mom was pregnant with our nephew William, and Emma asked me a lot of questions about Baby Jesus and his mom Mary. Like:
“Was Baby Jesus in his Mommy Mary’s tummy?”
Yes, that’s right.
(Sort of, I didn’t think it was the right time to correct the biology of that question.)
“When was Baby Jesus’ birthday?”
Well, we celebrate it on December 25th.
“Did Baby Jesus cry a lot?”
We don’t know, but I would guess that he did.
“Did Baby Jesus’ Daddy have to go to work every day?”
Yep! He was a carpenter, which meant he worked with wood
to make it into chairs and tables and beds and maybe even built houses.
One day, though, she had me stumped. Holding up little Baby Jesus to the laptop camera, she said with the earnestness that only a four-year-old could muster:
“Aunt Hedy, this is baby Jesus.
He’s a little baby.
But he’s a grown-up, too, right?
He’s a baby and a grown-up?”
That question really got me thinking. Today we celebrate the birth of that baby born in a manger all those years ago. But we celebrate today because Jesus didn’t stay a baby.
In next week’s services on New Year’s Day at my church, we’ll celebrate Epiphany by exploring the visit of the Wise Men, the Magi we hear about in the 2nd chapter of Matthew’s gospel. But by the time they arrived, Jesus may have been around two years old.
And then, the following week, we’ll remember Jesus’ baptism by John, when Jesus was in his early 30s.
This week, a baby.
Next, a toddler.
And, then, suddenly,
just a week later, all grown up!
We have the benefit of having the full story laid out for us. We know the joyful, surprising beginning of Jesus’ life. We can read the biblical record of his teachings, his power, his wisdom and kindness. We know that he gave of himself so freely, so fully, going to the cross… for us. And we know that even as they lay his body down in the tomb, that this was not the end of the story, but that on Easter morning, he would rise again, bringing hope into the world.
Christmas is the world-wide celebration that it is because Baby Jesus grew up — full of grace and wisdom and truth — and gave himself for us, so that we could be saved. We celebrate Christmas because we know the whole story! Without that, celebrating Christmas doesn’t make sense!
Without the knowledge of Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection, this is just another birthday of a child — precious, but like billions of others.
But we know the story.
On that first Christmas morning, what did Mary know about what her son would offer the world? She knew from what the angel had told her that the child she had carried for nine months was to be the Messiah, the Savior. He would be the King in the line of David. He was to be the rescuer of the people.
She would know all this, and yet… she would be holding in her arms an innocent, tiny child. A child she had nurtured in her womb. An infant she had felt kick while he was growing inside her. A child who had just been born from her body, now residing in the cradle of her arms. A baby — Mary’s first baby — who was cherished and loved. She knew he would be the Messiah, but for now, in this moment, he was just Jesus, Mary’s baby boy.
Every year, we celebrate the fact that our Father God chose to send his Son to earth in the form of a child. But stop and think for a moment what that really means. The Son of God — all powerful, majestic, through whom the universe was created — was born as a helpless baby.
Our God, willing to be put in the hands of earthly parents. Willing to be raised by Mary and Joseph, poor and obscure. Willing to be born, not in the palace of a king, but in a dirty borrowed stable. Defenseless, small, completely dependent on human beings to care for him. Our God was willing to become one of us — and to put himself in our hands.
Jesus’ enters the world with very little initial fanfare. Jesus arrives surrounded not by family members, but by farm animals and dirt. He isn’t presented to the waiting community celebrating outside his home. This King, the Son of God, is welcomed simply by his mother, and cradled in her tired and adoring arms.
The second people who meet Jesus are a group of shepherds from the nearby hills. We’re so used to hearing this story, that we may not notice just how surprising this is. Shepherds were not highly regarded in those times. They spent most of their time out in the fields with their smelly animals, didn’t bathe regularly, and were a generally rough and uncultured lot. And these are the first people outside the family that God chooses to greet the newborn Savior!
An angel appears to those societal outsiders and declares: “Don’t be afraid! I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior — yes, the Messiah, the Lord — has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”
What a gift to us, that God announces Jesus’ birth first not to the religious elite, or the earthly kings, but to a bunch of regular guys, going about their business. They are the first to hear this good news. And their reaction is so great! They rush down the hill into the town, wanting verification that what they’ve just heard is true.
And they find Mary and the baby, just as promised. They were so excited! Luke tells us that after seeing Jesus “they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.”
Then we’re told in verse 19:“But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
She “treasured” it all and “pondered” them in her heart.
To “treasure” in Greek is suntéreó. It means to preserve in memory, to carefully keep in mind, to guard, to protect. It means, in effect, to safeguard, as if locking away a precious treasure to keep from losing it or having it stolen.
And then “to ponder.” Sumballó in Greek. It means to consider, to think about seriously. But it also — and this is so important — it means to meet in battle with, to wage war with, to quarrel or dispute or fight.
There are a lot of other Greek words for thinking. Ones that mean to dispassionately process information, by logically considering all the different aspects. Ones that mean to think about something with the intent of finding a positive solution.
But these are the words chosen to describe how Mary thinks about what has happened: suntéreó and sumballó. To hold close and safe, and to battle with.
We sometimes make the mistake of believing that faith should be easy. We think that if we doubt or wonder or struggle, that our belief isn’t deep enough, isn’t real, isn’t true.
Mary, as devoted and faithful as she was, still wrestled with what it meant for her beloved child to be the Messiah. She would struggle with it as she watched him grow, as she heard his words, as she witnessed his death on the cross. She treasured in her heart the words of the angels, reinforced by the witness of the shepherds who told her what they had heard. She held that knowledge up against what she experienced. What did it mean?
What does it mean for us to believe that over two thousand years ago God entered directly into creation in the form of a tiny, vulnerable baby? What does it mean to believe that God would leave behind the glory and power of heaven, to come to earth, becoming human?
What does it mean to believe that we worship a God who calls us to be peacemakers, merciful and pure of heart?
What does it mean to believe that we worship a God who understands us — completely, fully, intimately — because that God not only created us, but has been one of us? What does it mean that we worship a God who gave sacrificially to redeem and save us?
And what does it mean to believe all that in the context of our outside-the-walls-of-this-sanctuary lives? What does it mean to believe all that in this pain-filled world?
It is all too easy to simply allow the hope and joy and the fun of this season to wash over us, giving us a temporary sense of peace and well-being. We celebrate Christmas… and then we move on.
But Christmas isn’t meant to be a brief stopping point.
It is meant to be a place of change and transformation.
Like the birth of a child, Christmas is meant to be the beginning.
This Christmas, I pray that we would — like Mary — choose to hold on tightly to the reality that God loves us. Treasure that knowledge, lock it deep in our hearts.
And then, think about it — really think about it. What does the coming of God into the world mean for our lives? Think about the tension between the promise of the gift of Jesus and the challenges of your life. Wrestle with, fight with the knowledge that God’s love exists in a world that is so often still chaotic and heartbreaking.
God is not afraid of your wonderings. God is not made angry by your questions. God loves you, knows you, cherishes you. And God wants you to know him, even better than you ever have before.
That is why Jesus came.
I wish you and yours a blessed Christmas,
and a new year filled to overflowing with God’s love!