It’s an old carol set to an older tune that asks an ancient question that we face anew each year at this time:
What Child is this, who laid to rest
On Mary’s lap, is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
The baby in the manger remains an icon of the Christmas season even in our secularized age—the difference is that now he is but one symbol of many. In lawn and store displays he is increasingly obscured by trees and Santas, reindeer and snowmen. In a new twist this year, displays in some state capitals have included a sign next to the manger—a sign sponsored by the Freedom From Religion Foundation—an atheist organization:
At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.
But why should we be surprised by this lack of recognition? He was unrecognized by the world of his day. He was born in a stable, because there was no room in the inn. No one paid any attention. No bells were rung, no parades marched, no bands played, no carols were sung on the streets of the little town of Bethlehem. The world went on its way—pushing aside an insignificant couple who were frantically searching for a place to spend the night.
Martin Luther, the 16th century German reformer, said,
They were, of all, the lowest and the most despised, and must make way for everyone until they were shoved into a stable to make a common lodging and table with the cattle, while many cutthroats lounged like lords in the inn. They did not recognize what God was doing in the stable. With all their eating, drinking, and finery, God left them empty, and this comfort and treasure was hidden from them. Oh, what a dark night it was in Bethlehem that this light should not have been seen. Thus God shows that he has no regard for what the world is and has and does. And the world shows that it does not know or consider what God is and has and does.
Joseph had to do his best, and it may well be that he asked some maid to fetch water or something else, but we do not read that anyone came to help. They heard that a young wife was lying in a cow stall and no one gave heed. Shame on you, wretched Bethlehem! The inn ought to have been burned with brimstone, for even though Mary had been a beggar maid or unwed, anybody at such a time should have been glad to give her a hand.
There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves: “If only I had been there! How quick I would have been to help the Baby! I would have washed his diapers. How happy I would have been to go with the shepherds to see the Lord lying in the manger!” Yes, you would! You say that because you know how great Christ is, but if you had been there at that time you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem!
Let us do now what the world failed to do then and fails to do even now—let us pause and consider this child, lying in the manger. Forget all other images but this. Tune out all other noises for the time being but the sound of his whimpering.
What child is this?
Two gospels tell the story of his birth—only two of the four. Matthew emphasizes the magi and Joseph’s dreams, while Luke emphasizes shepherds and the songs of angels, but John and Mark say nothing at all of his birth.
But John tells us something even more important. He answers the question. He tells us who this child really is. He tells us what we need to know, and what the world is blind to.
John 1, beginning with the first verse:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.
He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me. And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace. For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.
The message of Christmas is not just that a baby was born—it is that this baby was born, a baby who was like no other, because he was no ordinary baby.
He was the Son of God made flesh.
We read here in the first chapter of John that Jesus is the eternal Son of God. He is the Word spoken by the Father in the beginning; he is the Son who was in the bosom of the Father before the creation of the world.
We can’t unravel the mystery of God. We can’t explain all there is to know about his nature, or what God was doing before he began to create. But we can say with no doubt that the Son was never without his Father, and the Father was never without his Son. These aren’t just masks God wore to play a game with us. These aren’t just labels describing what he did here on earth—John says this relationship between Father and Son is eternal.
Jesus speaks of this in John 17:5, when he prays, “And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was.”
John’s gospel isn’t the only place in the Bible that tells of Jesus’ preexistence. Consider Colossians 1:15-17—He “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.”
What a mind-boggling idea confronts us. The Word spoken by the Father became flesh, and dwelt among us. He became one of us. The Creator of all became a baby in a manger; the one who hung the stars in the night sky looked up at them from his crib. The one who made all things lay helpless, nursed by a mother who changed his diapers.
He took on our flesh without giving up being the Word. He became one of his creatures without giving up being the Creator. He dwelt in our darkness, but he remained the light. He made himself weak, but he remained the life.
“In him was life; and the life was the light of men.”
Light and Life: these become the great themes of John’s gospel.
John 3:15-16: God gave his only-begotten Son, “That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
John 3:36: “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.”
John 5:26: “For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself.”
And on and on go the images. He is the bread of life; he is the water of life, his word is life.
John 8:25: “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”
And he demonstrated that by making the blind to see—and more.
We read in John 11 of the death of a friend of his, Lazarus. Verse 25: “Jesus said unto [Martha], I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.” And having said that he steps up to the tomb, weeps for his dead friend, and then calls out, “Lazarus, come forth.” And Lazarus comes out. For the one who spoke that word to him was the same word that in the beginning said, “Let there be” and it was.
That is a powerful word. That is a word that cannot but create what it says. It cannot be turned into a lie. It is truth itself, because he is the source of truth; “grace and truth” come from him, John 1. And John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
This is what is most galling to our world. This claim to Truth. This is why all those alternate symbols surround the crèche. Our postmodern world doesn’t mind if Jesus has something to say—just so long as it doesn’t interfere with what it wants to say. A recent book about postmodern young adults says, They Like Jesus, but Not the Church. I’m wondering, though, if they really understand this Jesus they say they like. The Jesus the world likes is one who doesn’t judge, doesn’t rebuke, doesn’t interfere, doesn’t contradict, whose one word could have been said by John Lennon, “All you need is love.”
The postmodern world is one of relativism and inoffensiveness—and this offends English teacher and poet Taylor Mali; he argues it holds even our language captive. We’ve become tongue tied over truth. We have become unable to make definite statements. He puts his complaint in poetic form:
In case you hadn’t noticed,
it has somehow become uncool
to sound like you know what you’re talking about?
Or believe strongly in what you’re saying?
Invisible question marks and parenthetical (you know?)’s
have been attaching themselves to the ends of our sentences?
Even when those sentences aren’t, like, questions? You know?
Declarative sentences – so-called
because they used to, like, DECLARE things to be true
as opposed to other things which were, like, not –
have been infected by a totally hip
and tragically cool interrogative tone? You know?
Like, don’t think I’m uncool just because I’ve noticed this;
this is just like the word on the street, you know?
It’s like what I’ve heard?
I have nothing personally invested in my own opinions, okay?
I’m just inviting you to join me in my uncertainty?
What has happened to our conviction?
Where are the limbs out on which we once walked?
Have they been, like, chopped down
with the rest of the rain forest?
Or do we have, like, nothing to say?
Has society become so, like, totally . . .
I mean absolutely . . . You know?
That we’ve just gotten to the point where it’s just, like . . .
And so actually our disarticulation . . . ness
is just a clever sort of . . . thing
to disguise the fact that we’ve become
the most aggressively inarticulate generation
to come along since . . .
you know, a long, long time ago!
I entreat you, I implore you, I exhort you,
I challenge you: To speak with conviction.
To say what you believe in a manner that bespeaks
the determination with which you believe it.
Because contrary to the wisdom of the bumper sticker,
it is not enough these days to simply QUESTION AUTHORITY.
You have to speak with it, too.
And that baby did.
That baby spoke with authority.
He grew up to become a child who asked questions that caused the teachers to shut up and listen to what he had to say.
He grew up to be a man who called things by their true names.
He dared to say not only that he had a truth but that he was the Truth, and that his truth would judge all.
And he judged. He said not guilty to the penitent, the poor, the frightened, the weak, the blind, the lame. But he condemned the righteous, the hypocrites, the Pharisees, the self-satisfied; He made a whip and drove the buyers and sellers from his Father’s house.
And that’s nothing compared to what he will do one day.
Rev. 19:11-16 And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war. His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew, but he himself. And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God. And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.
This is what you must see when you look on that baby in the manger. He is the eternal word of the father, the word that spoke the world into being, the word that spoke truth, the word that gives life, the word by which we shall be judged, the word that shall destroy—and renew—the world in a breath.
“And the word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”
Now we grasp the miracle.
Now we can stand in awe.
Now we comprehend the truly stupendous reality lying before us.
Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
It wasn’t enough that the Son was eternally in the bosom of the Father. It wasn’t enough that the Son was the Word through which the Father spoke the world into existence. It wasn’t enough for him to be the “original, unborrowed and underived” source of life. It wasn’t enough for him to speak a word of Truth.
He emptied himself, took the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men.
He humbled himself.
He was made flesh and dwelt among us.
Paul says in Gal. 4:4-5 “when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.”
Not a special woman. Not a sinless woman. Not an immaculately conceived woman. But a woman like us, a woman under the law, a woman who needed him as much as we all do.
Paul also says in Rom 8:3 “For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh”
This was the problem. Man had sinned. We were under condemnation. We tried to keep the law but couldn’t, because of the weakness of the flesh we had inherited from Adam. And so what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God did—he sent his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and there, in him, in that weak flesh, he condemned sin, in that he, sharing our flesh, did not share our sin.
Heb 2:14-18 “Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham. Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people. For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted.”
He took our flesh so that he could die like so—so that he could die for us.
But he also took our flesh so that he could live for us—so that he could live a perfect life of obedience, and be our substitute.
And He took our flesh so that he could know what it is to wrestle and struggle with the flesh from day to day; so that he could feel the agony of temptation and the ordinariness of exhaustion and pain and hunger and thirst. And having experienced it all—without ever yielding to sin—he is not only able to be our substitute, but is able to be our High Priest. We can go to him, and pour out our heart, and plead our case and he can say, “I know what you’re talking about. I’ve been there.” And he reaches out those nail-scarred hands, and wraps his arms around us.
If we think about all those things I said at the beginning: the awesomeness of Christ, his eternal Sonship, his creative power, the life that pours from him, the future prospect of meeting him as judge—we might become intimidated.
But the Bible turns us back to the manger. To the approachable baby. To the Word made flesh, who comforted sinners and embraced outcasts and welcomed children.
God in his glory is unapproachable light, that must consume us with its brightness. But he has emptied himself. He has humbled himself. He has clad himself in human flesh. He has robed himself in a diaper. He has made himself approachable.
Heb 4:14-16 “Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”
The world likes Jesus because it sees him as someone who is welcoming, inviting, approachable, real. They just fail to see that he is everything else, too.
What child is this?
He is a baby—but he is the eternal King.
He is a lamb—but he is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.
He is a consuming fire—but he is that helpless baby.
He is the final judge—but he bore our punishment on the cross.
He is the one who wrote the law with his finger—but he is the high priest standing before the Father pleading his blood.
What child is this?
This, this, is Christ the king,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing.
Haste, haste to bring him praise
The babe, the Son of Mary.