What Child Is This?
This is a peculiar season. Secular forces strip the holiday of any reference to Jesus. Some people now have “Holiday Parties” instead of Christmas parties. It is not hard to get a bit confused at this time of year. Years ago the cartoonist, Bill Keane, hit the nail on the head in a Family Circus cartoon. The little girl, Dolly, sits with the baby, PJ, on her lap and tells him the story of Christmas. She tells her pajama clad little brother, “Jesus was born just in time for Christmas up at the North Pole surrounded by eight tiny reindeer and the Virgin Mary . . . then Santa Claus showed up with lots of toys and stuff and some swaddling clothes . . . the Three Wise Men and the elves all sang carols while the Little Drummer Boy and Scrooge helped Joseph trim the tree . . . in the meantime Frosty the Snowman saw this star and …” Christmas comes at us with many diverse images. It is no wonder some people, like Dolly in the cartoon, get a bit confused.
It is not hard to be bewildered during the Christmas season. For example, Christmas decorations are on the shelves for sale just after Halloween. It seems that every year the business season of Christmas gets longer and longer. Did you know that once celebrating Christmas was illegal? One of the early church fathers, Origin, preached that it was a sin to even think of celebrating Jesus’ birthday. In 1583, Christmas was forbidden in Scotland. It was abolished by the Puritans on this continent in 1647. Christmas was associated with drunkenness both in England and America. Not until the 19th century in this country did the celebration of Christmas become popular. At that time cultural forces pressed it as a family holiday, not a time of drunkenness.
An old poem, “’Twas the Night before Christmas,” was written, in part, to combat the bad reputation Christmas had in this country. And, of course, the major player in making the celebration of Christmas a big deal was the business community. It is the major business season for many retailers. Christmas sales either make or break some businesses. Years ago by law, Congress changed the observance of Thanksgiving Day from November 30th to the fourth Thursday in November so that retailers could have a full four week shopping season each year. Christmas is good for business. We come to Christmas with diverse images from Santa to the Babe in a Manger, to the recognition of the birth of a baby to a poor peasant family in Israel.
One of my favorite Christmas carols is, “What Child Is This?” It is one of those questions that sounds like it has an easy answer but if one looks seriously at the question it moves one to seek deeper, more profound answers. William C. Dix was a Scotsman who sold insurance. At age 29, he suffered from a near fatal illness that put him in bed near death for weeks. When in the depths of depression, he called out to God, and in his words, “He met Him in a new and real way.” The encounter with the Lord was transforming. When he recovered he began writing inspired poems and hymns. In 1865, he wrote a poem called “The Manger Throne.” Three verses of the poem became the popular carol, “What Child Is This?” William Dix takes a simple position of someone entering the cave stable and seeing Jesus for the first time and wondering, “What Child is this?” It is an important question to ponder during this season. It helps us focus on Jesus and in our reflections God will give us insights and wisdom.
Years ago I was part of a North Indiana United Methodist clergy group that went to Israel and participated in the archaeological dig at the site of the First century fishing village, Bethsaida. We stayed at the Kibbutz Ginnosar along the western side of Lake Galilee. Frequently, in the early evenings I would go down to the lakeside and look north to the site of Capernaum, Mount Eramos and the area where Jesus did much of his teaching and healing. This area is where Jesus did most of his ministry. I would try to imagine the area in 30 AD. The hillsides and lake have not changed much over the past two thousand years. As I looked over the lake, I was compelled to reflect on the old Christmas carol, “What Child Is This?” Who was Jesus as he grew from childhood to adulthood? More importantly, what does he mean to us today?
Throughout centuries of prayer and reflection, we continue to recognize Jesus as Lord and Savior. We know he was more than a wandering rabbi. Although he was executed by crucifixion as an enemy of Rome, we know he was not a criminal. While some develop fanciful and spurious notions about Jesus, the Gospel writers’ accounts still draw us to the truth. Today people read such writers as Dan Brown who wrote The Da Vinci Code and believe they are reading historical truth rather than fanciful fiction. It takes a great stretch of one’s imagination to believe that Jesus and the disciples conspired to deceive the world into believing he did not actually die on the Cross and that the Resurrection is a sham. The Gospel writers present us Jesus as he was and present the disciples as they were. The writers make no attempt to dress up their accounts. In Scripture, we find answers to the question, “What Child Is This?”
The circumstances of the conception and birth of Jesus tell us that he was fully human. He was not some phantom that looked human but was not. He had a real human body that bled when cut and needed all the care that ours require. He understands us because he was fully human. He knows our strengths and weaknesses. He knows the temptations we face. He knows our fears. He knows what it is like to grieve over a friend’s death. He knows feelings of anger and love. He was raised by loving parents in a large family. His parents were people of simple yet strong faith in God. He learned that hard work was the lot of men and women. Biblical archaeologists tell us that within walking distance of Nazareth was the city of Sepphoris and that it underwent major building projects for many years. I grew up with the idea that Joseph was a carpenter, a maker of furniture. However, the Greek word teknon that more often is translated as carpenter can also be translated construction worker or stone mason. With big construction work opportunities nearby it is no stretch of the imagination to suspect that both Joseph and Jesus earned a living working in Sepphoris. Jesus was a carpenter, construction worker and possibly stone mason. He knew hard work from personal experience. Jesus is fully human.
For two centuries Christians have affirmed the belief that Jesus was not only fully human but is fully divine. He is the fullness of God in human form. The apostle Paul writes the Christians in Philippi, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a Cross (Philippians 2:5-8).” We can have confidence that Jesus is Lord. That is, Jesus is the fullness of God in human form. To see Jesus is to see God in the flesh. To hear Jesus is to hear wisdom from the very mind of the Lord God. We can have confidence that as we listen to Jesus he is telling us the truth of God. He is not deceiving. He does not have partial truths. He is truth. The very Logos, the mind of God, is in Christ Jesus. The poet William Dix wrote in human terms that Jesus is the King. He writes, “This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing…” We can rightly call him King of kings and Lord of lords. Only in Christ Jesus can we have complete confidence we are hearing the truth that comes from God.
We affirm that Jesus is both Lord and Savior. In the God’s wisdom and plans he constantly seeks to be in close relationship with his creation, with humankind. He is a tenacious Lord. Although we humans were unfaithful and capricious the Lord God remained faithful to us. God continues to seek to bring all humankind to himself. His great plan of salvation involved his own coming in Christ Jesus. In his crucifixion, we see that he is a self-giving Lord who spared nothing to show his love for us. In Jesus’ death on the Cross our salvation was won. The Lord Jesus could have used his divine power to punish the Romans and the temple leaders but he revealed his love by showing everyone the length to which he would go to save us. Jesus is not only Lord but he is our Savior. He offers us salvation and through repentance of sin we receive forgiveness.
In the cartoon, Dolly blends many diverse notions about the Nativity of Jesus. It can be a bit confusing unless we immerse ourselves in the truth of the Bible. In his birth in a cave stable in Bethlehem, God reveals that he works in completely different ways than humans. He could have come with a display of power that would have overawed all people. Instead he came quietly, as a baby born to a young working class couple in a land under subjection to Rome and to the local tyrant King Herod. He came as a servant and revealed his power in his self-giving love. “What child is this?” He is our Lord and Savior and much more. Let us honor him throughout this season of Christmas with our devotion and obedience.
A sermon for Veterans Memorial Chapel on Christmas morning 2022
(Service cancelled due to frigid and windy weather)
by CH (COL) Michael W. Malone, AUS (RET)