Blue homespun and the bend of my breast
keep warm this small hot naked star
fallen to my arms. (Rest . . .
you who have had so far to come.)
Now nearness satisfies
the body of God sweetly. Quiet he lies
whose vigor hurled a universe. He sleeps
whose eyelids have not closed before.
His breath (so slight it seems
no breath at all) once ruffled the dark deeps
to sprout a world. Charmed by doves’ voices,
the whisper of straw, he dreams,
hearing no music from his other spheres.
Breath, mouth, ears, eyes
he is curtailed who overflowed all skies,
all years. Older than eternity, now he
is new. Now native to earth as I am, nailed
to my poor planet, caught
that I might be free, blind in my womb
to know my darkness ended,
brought to this birth for me to be new-born,
and for him to see me mended
I must see him torn.
Luci Shaw’s poem “Mary’s Song,” which Barbara read for us, captures something of the unimaginable step the Son of God took when he became a man. For nine months, Mary bore God in her body; and now he is born, a baby seemingly like any other in Bethlehem that night. Psalm 121:4 declares, “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep”—but now he does, nestled in his mother’s arms. The eternal Word of God is now wordless, capable only of an infant’s coos and cries; the omnipotent one by whom all things came to be is now impotent, dependent on his mother and father for his every need. And why? The thoughts Luci puts in Mary’s mouth capture it perfectly: “caught that I might be free, blind in my womb to know my darkness ended, brought to this birth for me to be new-born.”
From the point when Adam and Eve fell into sin, dragging all creation with them into death and decay, the world waited for a savior; but the savior God sent wasn’t any savior we would ever have expected. This was no king to forge a mighty empire, nor a great general to slay his enemies on the field of battle. Indeed, he was a man of no power in society at all, and when the powers that be dragged him into court, he neither raised a hand to stop them nor said a word in his own defense. He was born powerless, laid to sleep in a bed of harsh straw, he lived the powerless life of a penniless itinerant, and he died powerless, murdered by the authorities with little more than formal attention to due process. In short, he did not come demanding admittance, forcing salvation on all in his path; rather, in a kind of spiritual judo, the Savior of the world came quietly, in humble state, asking to be let in. He did not, and does not, knock the door down; he chooses instead just to knock.
We need to remember that, as we—quite rightly—emphasize the sovereignty of God, that our salvation is his work, that even faith comes to us as his gift; we need to remember that when he saves us, he doesn’t simply overpower us, dominate us, overawe us into cowed obedience. He doesn’t do it by shattering our wills, but by transforming them. He loves us, he cares for us, he heals us, he draws us to himself, and he sets us free, breaking the hold of sin on our lives, taking our old life and giving us his own in exchange, placing his heart and his Spirit within us, so that we are able and joyful to welcome him in gratitude for all he has done for us.
But that raises the question: who is it we’re called to welcome? First of all, we’re called to welcome the child who has been born for us, which is simply to love him; and that’s more than just warm feelings. One thing I’ve learned from having children, they take over your life. They go right to the top of the list of priorities, because they need so much from us; caring for them and raising them takes so much time, energy, thought and attention that they affect every single thing we do. In their vulnerability and need for our love, they open our hearts in a way that nothing else can. I think that’s one reason God sent Jesus as a baby, born like any of us, so that we would see that he wants our love, and that he intentionally left himself vulnerable to us—even to the point of allowing us to crucify him. A child has been born for us.
But what a child! Unplanned pregnancy, single mother—yes, she was engaged, but she wasn’t yet married, and that pregnancy could have cost her everything; and though her fiancé stuck with her, they were still second-class people living in an occupied country, very likely poor, vulnerable to the occupying army. This baby Jesus was the definition of a problem pregnancy, and once he was born he was the least of the least. This is the child who has been born for us, a child it would be far too easy to write off as unimportant and inconvenient (which is fitting, in a way, for the leaders of his people found the adult Jesus equally inconvenient); and in his name and by his example, these are the children he calls us to welcome today. There shouldn’t be any unwanted children, any neglected children, or any children undefended in the face of abuse, not if the church is doing its job, for we are called to welcome and care for them in the name of the child who was born to us in that neglected place so long ago; for that child says to us, “Just as you did it for one of the least of these, you did it for me.”
We don’t worship a God who came to earth as one of the beautiful people, or who demanded the nicest home in Israel for his Son’s birth; in fact, we worship a God who deliberately chose to be born among the animals so that the shepherds would be just as welcome as the magi. We don’t worship a God who sides with the rich and powerful, but one who commands them to care for the powerless. We worship a God who could have come to earth and claimed everything because he made it, but who didn’t even reserve himself a shack in which to sleep. We worship a God who came to earth to identify himself with the poor, the powerless, the outcast, and the oppressed, who died in part because of that, and who calls us to do the same.
Second, we are called to welcome the king who has come to us. The child is not ours to command, we are his to command; he is ours not to lead but to follow. This is both a blessing and a warning, because Isaiah tells us he comes to bring justice for our unjust world; this is why he is the Prince of Peace, for true peace is founded on justice, on being in line with the perfect will of our just and holy God. This is a blessing for those who truly desire justice, even as we fight the injustice in our own hearts, because it’s a promise that at the last, our hearts will be refined until they shine like pure silver, and we will be vindicated. To those who do not seek justice, to those who treat others unjustly, it’s a warning that the time to profit from injustice is brief, for perfect justice will be done in the end; the pleasures of sin may be sweet in the mouth for a moment, but its consequences are bitter in the stomach, and permanent.
To welcome the child is to love him; to welcome the king is to obey him; and in John 14:15, Jesus showed us that these come to the same point when he said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” We are called to obey him out of love, because he is our God and he knows what is best for us; which means in part that out of love for him, we must trust him enough to believe that he knows what is best for us. Obedience born of love is a radical thing, unlike anything else, because there are no limits. Obedience to law goes only so far—its commands reach a certain point and then stop; obedience to love may require anything of us. Love may call us to fulfill our dreams, or to give them up; love may direct us to set aside our strongest desires; love may summon us to trade in our entire life for a life we would not have chosen. Such is, after all, the story of Abraham. But God knew what he was doing, and Abraham was richly blessed for his obedience; and through him, God changed the world.
As we stand tonight before the infant-king in the straw, let us welcome him with our whole heart and our whole life. Now native to earth as we are, nailed to our poor planet, caught that we might be free, brought to this birth for us to be new-born, he has given us his life that we might live; he has given everything, no strings attached. Let us do the same.