Christmas Eve sermons are a challenge.
For one . . . what can you say that people haven’t heard before?
For two . . . should you even say anything that people haven’t heard before?
For three . . . how best approach the evening? Gently? Boldly? Evangelistically? Cleverly?
I’ll let you see how — or even if — I answered those questions in 2015.
Bottom line: On Christmas Eve, the infinite became an infant . . . which means you can never trust him again.
Tweetable ad lib: “God is annoying.”
Best biblical moment: “While Luke gives us earth tones, John is all about outer space.”
Maybe you’ve heard of the little boy who – like many a child you’ve been with this Xmas season – was helping unwrapping the different pieces of the family Nativity set. And he unwraps the first; a donkey. “Look! A donkey!” he cried out. Then he unwraps the second; a wise man. “Look! A king!” Then he unwraps the third; a shepherd: “Look! A shepherd with his staff!” Then he unwraps the fourth one; this the infant Jesus: “Look! Baby Jesus in a car seat!” And you have to admit, that is what it looks like, doesn’t it? But it’s not. It’s a manger. And do you iknow what it means when Luke tell us 3x in only 9 verses – 2:7, 12, 16
7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.
– that the boy born this holy night was laid in a manger? My goodness, it doesn’t mean a car seat and even more especially it doesn’t mean a crib! It means a feeding trough! That’s what a manger is – a place where food was put so that animals could snarf it all up. A place where cattle, sheep, donkeys and pigs stuck their tongues . . . that’s where they put the baby. In the middle of animal tongue residue; in the midst of animal breath. Hey – have you ever smelled cow’s breath? Neither have I! But I can imagine! The one who grew up and called himself the Bread Of Life started life out in a feeding trough in the middle of . . . the animal’s bread of life.
And think: he didn’t have nurses gathered around Mary aat his birth; he had donkeys. He didn’t have baby powder adding to the aroma; he had cow dung. And he didn’t have Muzak / Elevator music soothing the nerves of mom, dad, and new baby; he had mooing, bleating, and oinking in the background. And maybe most striking of all, when we hear “swaddling clothes,” we imagine this: AV of sweetness. Actually, swaddling clothes were more like this: AV of binding, mummy. They still wrap babies up like this in may parts of China; in some cases to protect them from the elements, in other cases to make sure their feet don’t grow large.
So: that’s what “they laid him in a manger” (3x in 9 verses!) means. But something more is going on; something almost unseen. Because we are talking about Thrones this Xmas. And against all odds, in contrast to all appearances, I want to let you know tonight that that baby – reclining, bound, burping – was actually reigning over the universe at that moment. What looks to us like a trough was actually a throne. That even while he was sucking his thumb, even while his diapers were being changed, even while he nursed at Mary’s breast, even while he spit that back up! – in short, even while he went through all the phases and stages we go through – he was still on his throne. Look at how John 1:1-4 begins it:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.
So it starts with INFINITY (AV Infinity symbol). And then 1:14 completes the thought:
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
What Luke has been telling us in earth tones, John tells us from outer space.
Either way, we are left with this incredible conclusion: The infinite became an infant. Infinity became contained by, limited to, infancy. Could two realities be at more polar opposite than the infinite and an infant? One immense and mind-boggling; the other tiny and mundane. Who in their right mind would have EVER expected God to make an appearance in that way? You can’t make this stuff up! So they didn’t. It’s so bizarre, so unexpected, it’s true. It’s like the father who was getting more and more riled up in the days before Christmas. He wanted everything to be perfect and everyone to get along. And he summarized it all by telling his kids,
“We’re gonna make this the best Xmas EVER!” And his ten year old answers quietly, “Dad, I don’t see how we could improve on the first one.” No! You can’t! Infinity pressed himself into infancy and thereby started the cycle of unexpected and unpredictable interventions into human life that continues to this day. I love it when culture tries to tell us that Christmas is about love or family or giving. No it’s not. It’s about this decisive, improbable divine invasion of planet earth, an invasion in which The infinite became an infant.
Because I want you to know that a God who invades earth with cows for attendants and sheeps bleating & donkeys braying their approval can never really be trusted again. Meaning: he can’t be trusted to stay away and just leave you alone. And isn’t that at the heart of all human conflict with God? We just want to be left alone? Left alone to decide what’s right. Left alone to figure things out. Left alone to do what we want. Left along to wrestle with our consequences. Some of you have insisted that God leave you alone for so long that now you are alone. You insisted on freedom, on making your own rules, and a whole lot of people took their cue from how you treated God and now they’re leaving you alone, too. I think that’s why the holiday season can be so painfully lonely for so many people – even those who are in the middle of a crowd.
But the fact infinity assumed infancy just shows you that God can’t be trusted to stay away. He won’t remain remote. He is always showing up in unlikely places and through unlikely people, gently assaulting you with his grace and his truth. When you know what to look for, the unusual is the new predictable and the odd is the new normal. Like the card that someone at GS sent to another person who had a prayer request. Listen to the impact the prayer card had: READ. Now: just a card! Get one at the store, put a stamp on it, send it out. No big deal! No! Enormous deal! It’s an expression of God. A God who delights in packing the greatest of meaning into the smallest of packages.
So all of you this evening whose general approach to God, Jesus, faith, church is one of avoidance or skepticism or scheming or denial: you’re not safe. He’s cleverer than you are. He’s more persistent than you are. His love for you is massively stronger than your frustration with him. He’s already done the most inconceivable miracle – fit infinity into an infant – so what else could be hard for him? He’s gonna show up. My gosh, I remember wandering into a Xmas Eve serve just after I turned 17, after coming from a family disconnected to church, and I saw my classmate carrying this big crucifer down the aisle (AV) and something started to click. And two weeks later I gave Jesus my life. But he’d started invading my space just using an awkward high school classmate serving as an altar boy. Or even that other time, a few years later, home for college, no one to go to Xmas Eve with, and so I wandered down the street to a Methodist church. Loved it. Began thinking: oh my gosh, ministry is what I’d like to do and Methodism is where I’d like to do it. The infinite became an infant and you’re not safe.
One of my GS friends have been in a federal prison for the last several years. You know what he tells me . . . and he doesn’t have to because I’m not in charge of lightening up his sentence? I’ve learned more about God and me here than I ever did on the outside. Why? Because the infinitely infant Jesus just started that whole pattern of showing up in unexpected ways and in unexpected places. If he can rule from a feeding trough, he can reign behind bars as well. The infinite became an infant.
I think this is why the Xn faith is so much less an event (!) than a process. A process full of massively small steps. Small things you do, tiny commitments you make, that God then loads up with mercy and with meaning. It’s why we want you daily getting away and alone. Away from people and alone with your Father. It’s why the first series of 2016 is called PrayFast – not so much that we want you to PRAYFAST but we’re gonna talk about these ancient habits of spiritual well being, prayer and fasting. It’s why the #First15 minutes of your day are so important – why beginning in the Word and not in the world sets the tone for the other ____ minutes you got. It’s why that rhthym of being, growing, serving – hello! LifeGroups and ServeTeams! – is just like Jesus breathing. In, out, in, out. The infinite became an infant.
Yeah, God is continually imposing his infinite love onto our finite, limited, infant understanding. So car seat? (AV) No. Manger? Pretty much. Throne for infinity? Absolutely. My prayer
is that he’d take up the throne of another pretty small space: your heart.