Sermon for Green Lake Church for Sabbath, December 9, 2017.
Texts: Ruth; Matthew 18
All week a song has been playing in my mind:
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you
Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when you kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God
Mary did you know,
Mary did you know, Mary did you know
The blind will see, the deaf will hear and the dead will live again
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the lamb
Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am
Mary did you know, Mary did you know, Mary did you know
By Mark Lowry, music by Buddy Greene.
The Christmas story is a fantastic fusion of ordinary and extraordinary, of pedestrian and sublime. It is the literary equivalent of jalapeño chocolate covered caramels or a sweet-and-sour curry. A curious combination of opposites.
Reading through the grand visions of the Hebrew prophets, we are primed to expect the birth of a king. And we think we know what a royal birth looks like?
Instead when the actual birth happens it is a peasant birth. A working class couple making do in a difficult situation. The baby has a feed box for a bassinet, a stable for a nursery, cows and horses for attendants.
For two thousand years Christians have practiced giving our attention to this glorious confusion. This little person who nurses and sleeps and cries and poops and pees is, in fact, the incarnation, the embodiment of God.
Mary, did you know that when you kiss your little baby you have kissed the face of God?
The question itself highlights how preposterous the claim is. Every mother looks at her baby and knows that this child is a magnificent addition to the grand history of humanity. This little one is destined for greatness. But Mary, your son will be greater than all other sons, greater than even a mother’s heart can imagine. When you kiss your baby you are kissing the face of God. Mary can you know that? Is it possible for even a mother’s heart to hold this truth?
A baby. A regular, ordinary little human being. This child is the fulfillment of the visions of Isaiah and Zechariah and Daniel. This child is the ultimate embodiment of the hope and values that served as foundations of the Jewish temple service and monarchy.
As wonderful as this story is, it is not the first time the Bible features the birth of a child as a grand forward move by the kingdom of heaven.
The story of Ruth and Boaz is one the great romances of all time. In the first chapter of the story we are confronted with the utter blighting of Ruth’s life. A Jewish family moved to the nation of Moab because life was unsustainable in Israel—Dad and mom and their two sons. Elimelech, Naomi, Mahlon and Chilion. In their new country they settled down. Life goes well. Elimelech’s business prospers. But the good times were interrupted. Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, died. But her sons, Mahlon and Chilion took after their father. They were industrious and smart. The family acquires enough wealth to support a marriage. And both sons marry. Happily.
Then the sons die. Leaving Naomi widowed and childless—the most vulnerable, precarious possible situation a woman in that society could find herself in.
Naomi decided to head home. She sent her daughters-in-law back to their families and she made plans to go back to the land of her brothers and cousins hoping to find some corner that will allow her to live out her days of grief. But Ruth refused to abandon her mother-in-law. So the two women traveled back to Israel together.
There in that foreign country, the homeland of her mother-in-law, Ruth goes to work to provide for herself and her mother-in-law.
She was noticed by a good man who also happened to be wealthy. Romance blossomed. There was a wedding.
To wrap up the story, instead of writing, “They lived happily ever after,” the ancient writer reported, “Ruth had a son.” At news of the birth the neighbor ladies crowded into the house. As grandmother Naomi cuddled her grandson against her bosom, these neighbor ladies exclaimed, “Naomi has a son again!”
The writer goes on to point out that this child of the foreigner Ruth, this grandson of Naomi, proves to be the grandfather of the famous King David. This half-breed child is the ancestor of the most iconic persons in all Jewish history.
Who is this baby? The son of a Moabite woman who according to Jewish law was excluded from Jewish citizenship for ten generations. Who is this child? The grandfather of King David, the George Washington or Dwight Eisenhower of the Jewish people.
The story of Jesus brings together similar contrasts. Another favorite song asks, “What child is this who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping?” Who is this baby?
The Hebrew prophets cast two dueling visions of the advancement of the Kingdom of Heaven.
In Daniel Chapter Two, the kingdom of heaven is imagined as a giant stone that flies in through the atmosphere and obliterates all opposition and resistance. The rock grows into a world-dominating mountain. It is a picture of irresistible, overwhelming force. It’s a seductive vision. Wouldn’t that be nice? We imagine God showing up and smashing all the bad people, while we stand off to the side cheering him on.
In this vision, we could imagine God as a heavenly bulldozer driver, pushing aside all obstacles and opposition.
Then we read the words of Isaiah 9.
For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His government and its peace will never end. He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David for all eternity. The passionate commitment of the LORD of Heaven’s Armies will make this happen! Isaiah 9:6-7 NLT
God works through a king. And before the king takes the throne and leads his armies he is first a child. An infant facing the risks of whooping cough and measles. Back then before vaccines small pox and polio stalked, the land snatched children from their mother’s arms.
In this vision God is a mother nourishing her child, a nanny fostering the success of her young charges. We imagine God anxious and worried as he watches the death-defying antics of his son–climbing trees and throwing rocks at hornet nests. Leaping on the back of a wild horse just to see if he can hang on longer than his friends. We imagine all the ways the son’s future can be ruined through physical, social, and spiritual mistakes.
In this vision, the kingdom of heaven comes through hope, a desperate, hungry hope.
God is no bulldozer driver. Instead we picture God as a coach, a math teacher, a dance instructor using every possible method to motivate and inspire her students. In this vision, God’s hunger for the triumph of goodness is no less than it is in the vision of God the bulldozer driver plowing over the bastions of evil. But in this vision, God knows the longing and hunger of every parent to see the triumph, the success of their children and grandchildren.
When we live with this vision we slowly come to see children—all children, the ones who go to bed in feed boxes and the ones cocooned in the swankiest nurseries on Mercer Island, the children who already at eighteen months give evidence of precocious intelligence or musical gifts or unusual sweetness and the children who give evidence of disabilities and troubles—when we receive the Christmas vision deep into our souls children are transformed—all children. They are all ours. And we hunger for their triumph and with great satisfaction we do all we can to encourage that triumph.
In Matthew 2 we read of the Persian nobility who traveled a thousand miles to pay homage to the newborn king. All of Jerusalem was oblivious, but these foreigners, they were open to the heavenly secrets and they came to worship.
And for two thousand years we have repeated their worship. Metaphorically, we have brought our gifts to lay at the feet of the Christ child and we take great delight in our giving.
But there is yet a more direct path to the Christ child, a path drawn on the map by Jesus himself.
Jesus’ disciples asked, “Who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” Jesus called a little child to him and stood the child in their center and said, “Anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Then Jesus added this:
Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me.
May God grant us the ability to see with heaven’s eyes, to see every child as the incarnation of Jesus. May we know that when we kiss the face of our babies we are kissing the face of God.
God grant us the courage and drive to ensure that every child is kissed with food and shelter, clean air and open spaces. May our vision of holiness include doing all that we can for all the little Jesuses God has placed in our care.