Christmas Eve 2007 • SJF • Tobias Haller BSG
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders.+
How much can a baby bear? This is a question for all parents in the congregation, and for older brothers and sisters who may have been drafted to babysit when a new arrival came. How much can a baby bear? Well, if you know babies as I know babies (being the oldest of six children and often drafted as a babysitter) you know that babies are not the most patient sort of people.
But they are among the most honest. You know where you stand with a baby; you don’t have to guess; their intentions and opinions are unmistakable. When a baby is wet, or hungry, or colicky, the baby will let you know. Babies are among the fussiest of people, so when I ask, How much can a baby bear? the answer would appear to be, Not much!
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Yet tonight, this special night, we are told once more, as people have been told for two and a half thousand years, of the arrival of a baby who would bear everything, a baby who would take upon himself the whole weight of a fallen world. This little baby would take up the yoke of our burden, the bar from across our shoulders, and carry it with authority and ease — this amazing baby with the amazing names: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.
What a burden for a tiny child to carry! What a weight of responsibility to place upon a baby. And it would be, if this were just any baby. But this is not just any baby. This baby is special, marked as different from the very beginning. He was marked as different from any other newborn child, by wonders on the earth and signs in the heavens above: angels singing, stars shining, dreams and visions. But he was also marked as different by a very special sign, a sign that tells us volumes about who this baby was.
The wise men from the East were given a sign in keeping with their station. Eastern sages would naturally seek a sign in the stars, and so they received a suitably high-class, stellar guide to lead them to the child. But we’ll hear more about that in two weeks.
For tonight, we’re not dealing with eastern sages so impressive they came to be known as kings. No, tonight we’re dealing with simple shepherds, and the message, the sign, that they receive. The angels gave the shepherds a distinguishing mark to identify this one baby from among any others born that night in the overcrowded town of Bethlehem. And the sign was this: — he would not be lying in a decent cradle, in a decent house, warm and cozy by the fireside, but be found wrapped in pieces of cloth and lying in a manger.
You know, we hardly ever hear the word manger except at Christmas, so we tend to forget what a manger is. Let’s be blunt, as blunt as the Gospel: at his birth our Lord and Savior was wrapped in pieces of cloth and lying in a feed-trough in a barn. The sign the shepherds received was one they would recognize: the child would be like one of them, living rough, out in the cold. How much can a baby bear? This baby bore far more than most newborn children would put up with, right from the beginning; just as, when grown to manhood, he would bear far more than the sons of men are accustomed to accept.
That yoke of our burden, that bar across our shoulders, would become a cross this child would bear when grown to full estate. As Paul told Titus, “He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify for himself a people of his own...” How much can a baby bear? This baby would bear the sins of the whole world!
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Chuck Colson is a man who knows about sin, and about redemption. As you know, he was one of Tricky Dick Nixon’s henchmen in the Watergate fiasco, and he went to prison for his part in the plot. As you may also know, he experienced a change of heart and turned his life around, and became a spokesman for the power of God at work in us. I certainly don’t agree with everything he stands for, but on this we agree: God can work wonders even with unlikely material.
In his book Kingdoms in Conflict, he tells of that power of God at work in a child — and I want to share that story with you tonight as a challenge and a testimony: that if a child can show forth the power of God, surely we can do so too. In December 1983, in the city of Philadelphia an 11-year-old named Trevor Ferrell saw on the TV news a report on homelessness in his own city. He was astounded to learn that some people don’t have houses to live in. He asked his parents about this, and they admitted it was a tough world out there, but also agreed that their young son should learn more about it if he wished. So they drove downtown. As they drove past city hall, they saw someone huddled over a sidewalk grate for warmth. Think of that — just a block away from the seat of power and authority in one of the great cities of this great country, a man has to huddle over a sidewalk grate to keep warm, snatching at the shreds of second-hand warmth that ooze from underground — heat so little needed by the city it can afford to just let it leak out into the cold night.
Trevor asked his parents to stop and he went over to the man, and held out a blanket to him, saying, “Sir, this is for you.” Then man looked with some surprise, and then, taking the blanket, said, “Thank you; God bless you.”
This was a life-changing experience for that family. Over the next weeks, they continued nightly visits downtown, helping out a few people each time — and clearing their home of unused blankets and clothing. Word began to spread, and other people joined them, contributing a van and food and more clothes. What had started with one little boy became a campaign. Lots of people were fascinated by it and drawn to it — odd, isn’t it, that just doing what Jesus said we should do should make the news and attract so much attention. But it did. And when the likes ofMother Teresa and Ronald Reagan heard about it and asked the boy why he did it, the answer was simple and obvious Trevor said, “It’s Jesus inside me that makes me want to do it.”
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Well, if an 11-year-old from Philadelphia can do so much with Jesus inside of him, how much more can and did the Son of God incarnate himself, in human flesh appearing! That little body, that little baby, lying in a feed-trough in the middle of winter, out in the barn behind the inn with “No Vacancy” plastered to the door — that little body, that little baby, embodies all the past of a struggling, fallen humanity, and all the hope of deliverance for the future. The newborn Christ is like the narrow point of an hourglass — small and fragile, connecting the sins of the past with the hope of the future. He is the point at which all that’s been said and done for good or ill is narrowed down to rest upon his shoulders, to be carried forward in sacrifice and grace, to be borne up in endless possibilities. This is why the Christ Child is the center of hope: he is the present upon which both past and future rest, like the two arms of a balance beam, or a yoke, or the arms of the cross.
How much can a baby bear? This baby, this Christ Child, can bear us all in his everlasting arms. And even as we are held by him, so too he is held by us, inside of us, as little Trevor said, in our hearts to warm us and work his power in us. So let us then, beloved in Christ, be born anew this Christmas night; let us lay the grief of the past upon the shoulders of this Wonderful Counselor, this Mighty God, this Prince of Peace; let us feel his warmth in our hearts, and not keep it to ourselves, but open our hearts to others, and our closets and pantries and pocketbooks and wallets — to help all of those our sisters and brothers who share in Christ’s image but have yet to share in the bounty we enjoy; and let us look toward the dawn of a new birth of hope, of joy, and of believing in him — who is the only-begotten of his heavenly Father, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+