Sermon, Luke 3:1-6
Everyone is waiting to see Ajahn Air and Tour’s baby. The one word you will hear more than any other when we finally see Ichayadah is “cute.” Oh, how cute. Little babies are cute. They are so helpless and dependent on their parents to take care of them. And when they smile up at us while we are holding them it melts our hearts.
Maybe that’s why we love the Christmas story so much, because it’s about a baby. That in itself would make us feel good. But what is so amazing about the story we hear is that the baby was God. The story asks us to believe that the holy, mighty Creator of the universe chose to come to us as a vulnerable baby.
Paul talked this way about Jesus’ birth in his letter to the Philippians: “Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited or held onto, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”
The reason Paul was so amazed at what happened at Christmas was that he knew Scripture. He knew that when God appeared to the prophet Isaiah, Isaiah was terrified. Isaiah cried, “Woe is me. I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips. . .yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” When God appears in his holiness, it can frighten us, because the difference between us and the One who created us so great.
But the baby born in Bethlehem doesn’t frighten us. In the baby in the manger is a God we can touch and hold and love. And maybe that’s why we love the Christmas candlelight service so much. The song “Away in a Manger” captures for many of us how Christmas Eve makes us feel.
Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the sky looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay.
You might even say that the service and the story we hear is romantic. Japan like Thailand is only 1% Christian. When I was in Tokyo twenty years ago a pastor told me that a lot of non-Christian young men bring their girlfriends to the Christmas Eve service, because the music and the candlelight make their girlfriends feel more romantic, if you know what I mean.
That’s why the story of John the Baptist can feel like an alarm clock going off. Oh, man! I was having such a nice dream, and you spoil how good I was feeling. On top of that it’s so cozy here in bed under the blankets and it’s cold outside, and you are telling me that I have to leave this place of comfort and go out and take on another day of challenges!
John the Baptist was not cute. And neither was the God he proclaimed. The God he talked about did not smile up at us and melt our hearts. In fact, John talked about God the way Malachi did in today’s call to worship. Malachi talked about God as a righteous judge who is like a hot fire that burns up all the wicked people and leaves only those who are pure. Or like a Thai farmer at harvest time who threshes the rice. Who throws the rice up in the air where the wind blows the bad part, what we call in English chaff, away and only the good part of the grain falls back down and is kept.
The God John preached was not a cute, vulnerable baby, but a holy, righteous judge who is like a hot fire that burns away everything in us that is not loving and pure and good.
So which God are we preparing for in this season of Advent? The God who comes to us as a vulnerable, approachable baby in a manger or as the God of Malachi and John the Baptist who comes as a judge who saves the good grain and burns the chaff with fire?
If we take the Bible seriously as the Word of God, if we take the whole Bible as God’s Word, what we see revealed to us is a God who is both the baby in the manger and the holy judge described by John the Baptist. Somehow, the God for whom we are waiting is the loving Father who is waiting for us with open arms if we would only turn to him and come back home and the holy judge who tells the truth that when we don’t repent, when we don’t turn our lives around and head for home we’ll spend the rest of our lives feeding pigs—as in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Talking to Ajahn Tour last week about how he and Air are doing as new parents reminded me about how I felt 40 years ago as a new father. On the one hand the baby I held in my arms melted my heart. I couldn’t do anything else but love him. On the other hand, that little child demanded my complete attention. He and two years later my daughter demanded that they be first in my life. My job, my interests, even the sleep I needed had to take second place to those two lives who had been placed in my care.
That, of course, is a weak human analogy for what it is like to have Jesus be born into our lives. The good news of the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service is that God loves so much that he did not remain a holy, distant God but came to us as a vulnerable human being whom we can touch and embrace. The good news that John the Baptist proclaims is that the God we wait for is not a helpless baby but the mighty creator of the universe who will one day bring justice to this broken world and turn our darkness into light.
The miracle is that only the God who comes to us as a baby in the manger can free us to do what the God proclaimed by John the Baptist commands us to do, and when we get lost in the nightmares of our own making, it is the God proclaimed by John the Baptist who wakes us up and tells us get back to the manger where, in the baby, we’ll find the Father who is waiting with open arms to welcome us back home.