What Child is This?
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop +Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for Christmas – December 24, 2018
“Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.”
THE STILLNESS OF NIGHT is broken by the cry of new motherhood, and with it, another voice… that of a newborn child, in the shock and the wonder of emerging from darkness, warmth and safety suddenly into this world of color, sight, smell and sound.
Most of this has happened before, in fact, countless times before. The birth of any child, each and every newborn child, is the beginning of a whole new world, a new universe of possibilities, creative marvels, hundreds of millions of neurons connecting and making pathways for new thoughts and associations, bringing to all our lives one more precious perspective, a welcome new mind. We are all blessed with the arrival of every new life. Every child brings that wonder, and through her or through him, we receive the potential that a new life brings.
But this time, this baby was unique. Among all of God’s creation, there had never been a child conceived by a virgin, under God’s direct intervention, an unmarried teenaged girl thrilled and frightened by the appearance of a bright angel.
“Salutations, you are highly favored, for God is with you and of all women you are most blessed, specially chosen. Don’t be afraid. You’ve found great favor with God and you shall conceive and bear a son whom you will name Jesus. His Name will receive honor, and He will be known as the Son of the Highest One. He will be given the throne of David, King of Israel, over which He shall reign forever. His kingdom is eternal. The Holy Spirit shall come and the Lord will overshadow you, so this child may quite truly be called the Son of God. Nothing is impossible if God is in it.”
She could say No. She would certainly fear rejection and the disapproval of her family, friends and neighbors. How could she explain this? Who might she tell? But God had favored her to be the mother of the long-awaited Messiah. She did not refuse. “Let it be exactly as you have said. I am the Lord’s servant.” And it was done.
Joseph wouldn’t believe any of this if she told him outright. He had a contract of marriage with Mary, for the near future, and now this. His hopes and plans, his dreams of a peaceful and respectable life now lay in ruins. But as he thought over what to do, he nodded off and the same angel came to him and told him, “Joseph, son of David, have no fear in taking Mary to wed. The baby she bears is by the Spirit of God. She will bear a son and you will name Him Jesus, Saviour, for He is the Saviour who will save all people from their sins.” When Joseph awoke, he told Mary to prepare the wedding.
A few months later, word came by Roman soldiers and tax collectors. You will all go to the place of your birth, there to be counted in the census by order of the great Caesar Augustus, your emperor. Mary was very near her due date. The road to Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral home, was a long one. They packed and took the 80-mile journey south, passing Jerusalem, and found the City of David overrun with visitors, who like themselves, needed rooms to stay for the census.
The inn is bulging. The night is cold. A stable offers the only safe and private lodging for the young couple and it’s desperately needed, for Mary is starting her labor. On the hay laid for visitors’ donkeys, Mary lays her cloak and prepares for the birth.
Why is this birth so special? We don’t really have a date when it happened, and by now we have reset the year to 5 B.C. as King Herod walks his tiled carpeted floors, uneasy with his many health concerns and the plots of those he suspects might overthrow him. Shepherds keep watch over the sheepfold outside of Bethlehem, their sheep renowned as flawless, the only sheep worthy to sacrifice in the Temple, 5 miles away. Stars shine out this night. The earth stands still.
A cry, a wail, a new star dimly shines out in the heavens and, 800 miles to the East, Magi watch in wonder, consulting their books of omen. The demons snivel and yammer in their dens, fearful of this portent against their claims on our race. Heaven sings God’s praises as His Son is born safely, now a man-child, on this planet.
Joseph and Mary look in the face of their new son. Joseph will claim this as his son, a step-father to the Son of God, and he gazes at the tiny face, the bright eyes looking out in mixed wonder and recognition. The baby looks a lot like His mother. She just beams at Him, holds Him in her arms with loving appreciation that her faithfulness has been rewarded, that her suffering of judgment, rumor and gossip is offset so completely by the birth of this one, small boy. But what child is this, she wonders. What is His fate? How will He live out His destiny?
As Mary ponders, the shepherds are startled in the sheepfold by a bright being, tearing the night sky and approaching them with a terrible joy on his face. There comes a glow that lights them all, and the sheep in the field, almost as daylight would brighten their world. They jump up, frightened as we would be. “Don’t fear!” says the angel. “Take heed, for I am bringing you great joy, wonderful news for all people on earth. To you this day a Saviour is born, in the city of David nearby. He is the Lord’s Messiah. Go and find Him. This news will be proved to you when you have found Him, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.” The sky opens further as hundreds of shining angels burst forth and sing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth we sing peace, good will, toward humankind.”
The shepherds take many deep breaths. As the angels fade from sight, they agree to go and see the marvel right away. Leaving the sheep in God’s care, they run to the village of Bethlehem, trying to think where to look first. But surely, the village inn has a stable, and in it is a manger, a food tray for animals to eat from. Look there first. So they do and are rewarded with just that sight to confirm the angelic message.
Mary and Joseph jump at the sudden visitation. “We saw the angels!” says one. “Is this the baby?” asks another. “Of course it is,” says another. When their disconnected clamor dies, one of them explains the vision to the couple. Their eyes widen as this confirmation of everything they’ve believed is confirmed by this revelation and the news of the shepherds. The entire town is roused by the clamor of shepherds announcing that Messiah is born in that city, and is at the stable behind the inn. No one gets much sleep this night. Except maybe Jesus.
What does He know? Just what is He? Every baby, as I said, is a miracle, a wonder of unique and special creation, but this is a one-and-only, the unique Son of God now born of Mary, Saviour of the world, the Jewish Messiah, Emmanuel, as Isaiah prophesied, God with us. Isaiah 7:14 That word came 800 years earlier. A virgin has in fact conceived and borne a Son, who is rightly called God with us. He is God, born to be one of us.
Isaiah wrote of Him, “For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace There will be no end, Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, To order it and establish it with judgment and justice From that time forward, even forever.” Isaiah 9:6-7
That’s quite a legacy, and one still being lived out. Some of it was done in His first appearance, and He was indeed wonderful, a counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, our Prince of Peace. He governs in glory, but today on high. He has brought humanity in Himself to His Father’s throne room, where now He governs His human kingdom on earth. This kingdom. The one we’ve signed up for. The kingdom that, through faith in Him, we are subjects and heirs to. The rest of that legacy is lived out through us and for us.
And it started that night. We were fallen. God lifts us up. We were lost. God finds us and leads us by His Son. We were hopeless. God brings hope this night, even as the Magi mount camels and begin the long journey that would bring them to this village with gifts and worship. From the low to the high, all mankind is blessed, and God’s glory is shown both to beggars and to kings. No one is left out.
If you have a Christmas tree at home tonight, strung with colored lights and festooned with shiny ornaments, strands of beads and topped with a star or an angel, you have under it some surprise packages, in ribbons and bright paper wrapping. The wonder of Christmas. But this night is more than reindeer and snowmen, cinnamon cookies and peppermint candy canes.
Christ is, by all measures, always in Christmas. Don’t fear the X, as in Xmas, for that X is the first letter of Christos, the name Christ in Greek. He can’t be severed from this holy day, no matter any corporate mandates against His Name. Christmas will not be eclipsed. He rises triumphant over every attempt to eliminate Him. That baby will live on.
What child is this? The song expresses our surprise at the one gift we all needed, given by God to us at His birth.
What child, indeed. God on earth as a human child, the only one worthy to receive the long-sought titles, the hopes and fears of all the years—we greet Him again.
What child is this? He is our best, born of Mary, raised in poverty, given no office or government or army or wife or fortune, or even a place to call His own. But His life, His death, and His resurrection would change the world. His words would plant seeds in our hearts that would chart a course for world change and true peace with God and with each other.
What child, indeed. He is our God, and our brother, our Saviour and our best Christmas gift ever.
What do I give Him in return? It’s His birthday we’re celebrating. We typically give presents to a birthday boy. What is our gift to Him this night? You know that, don’t you? You are His present. You are what He asks for. You are what He comes for.
O come, adore Him, Christ the King. Come, adore Him, and give Him your heart this night.