My Christmas Eve sermon, 2011
“This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12)
This story is so familiar to most of us…this story of Mary and Joseph and a little baby in a makeshift cradle…This story of glorious angels and fearful, hopeful shepherds… and there’s so much to say about it, too. I could talk about the oppression of the Roman Empire…I could talk about the teenage mother and her fiancée who were forced to travel and sleep with animals…I could talk about the shepherds who were poor and disenfranchised…but the one thing I really want to talk about tonight is the baby. That sweet, tiny baby, in whom was God.
You see, as I was working on this sermon, struggling a bit and not feeling very inspired, I got a text message from my friend Zora, who happens to be about five weeks old. Embedded in the message was a short video of Zora wiggling around on her back, smiling at the camera and making quiet baby noises. Her little arms waved and her eyes sparkled.
I love Zora, even though the last time I was in her presence, she was still in her mama’s belly. Whenever I see a picture of her or read about her baby antics, my heart swells with that love, and I can’t help but smile. This is what babies do for us, and this is how I think about the Christmas story.
I have cared for many babies over the years, and there are few things as wonderful as holding an infant in your arms, kissing his cheek, and feeling your heart open up with love for him. I hope that you have all been able to have that experience at least once, and if you have, I’m sure you will agree that you can’t hold a new baby and not be moved by the experience.
We have been blessed to have several babies born into our church family this year. One of the best days of my job so far was when I went to the hospital a few hours after baby Evelyn was born and held her. Touching her soft cheeks, marveling at her tiny hands, I whispered in her ear about how much we all loved her already.
So when I think of Jesus, I think of all of our babies. His birth was a miracle—but so was Evelyn’s and Zora’s, and yours and mine. I picture Mary holding this miraculous baby, her heart opening up, the love almost too powerful to bear, and then, I think… she was nurturing God. The love she felt—that heart wrenching, instinctual, unconditional love she felt was for God. God, who is Love, born in her baby. God, who is Love, born in all babies…Love incarnate.
This is a concept at the heart of Christian faith—Jesus is called Emmanuel: “God With Us.” Jesus came to show us the awesome power of God’s love for us, to be an example of how God is always with us. His healings, his teachings, his radical actions, his life and death, all began with Mary and Joseph holding this tiny, fragile, brand-new baby and feeling their hearts open up with love for him. What would it be like if we were to love and nurture God in that same way? Can you imagine?
At Christmas, when we retell this familiar story, when we see images of a baby in a manger, or sing carols about his birth, I hope we are reminded of how much Jesus needs us. Once, he too was a small, vulnerable baby, needing food and warmth and to be bathed and held, but especially needing to be loved. Babies need to be nurtured and loved—they cannot survive without it.
Now, we usually think of ourselves, of humanity, as needing Jesus. We need his help, his strength, and his teachings to inspire us, guide us and heal us. But this Christmas, I want you to consider the ways that Jesus needs us.
Jesus needs us to be his hands in the world, to teach and heal and be like Christ to each other, and of course, just like that baby in the manger, Jesus needs our love. This charge is not as simple as it might first appear. While most of us may know how to take care of the basic needs of a baby, any caregiver can tell you that figuring out what a baby needs when she’s crying in the middle of the night is not always as easy as we’d like it to be.
Knowing how to nurture God is not so simple either. Of course, we’ve heard the basics—love your neighbor, turn the other cheek, pray without ceasing…but it’s never as easy as it sounds, is it? Nurturing God is something that we need to work at, every day. And it may mean different things for each of us.
Some of us nurture God by working for justice and peace. Some of us nurture God by using our resources to help those less fortunate. Some of us nurture God by working to heal the earth—God’s imperiled creation… and then, for some of us the act of nurturing God must begin with taking more time to nurture ourselves. What would it be like if we loved and respected ourselves as much as God loves and respects us? If we based our decisions on the understanding that we are God’s own beloved, infinitely cherished…
…Would it be easier to see the innate worth of another human being if you saw it in yourself?
What would it take, for you to nurture God?
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that not every baby is treated like the miracle that they are. I spent two and a half months this fall in a class with 28 other prospective foster parents learning about all the children in our county who, by no fault of their own, are neglected and abused and end up in the foster care system. Each week, we would hear about the effects of trauma on children, and it was often bleak.
Each week, I would look around at all of these other hopeful foster parents and wonder if we were all crazy to be signing up for this work, to be jumping through all kinds of hoops just for the privilege of caring for children who other adults had neglected or hurt. But every week, we were there. Anxious, sometimes doubting if we were up to the task, and yet hoping for that call from a social worker someday saying “you will find a child… Maybe not wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger, but you will find a child.”
For me, and for those other parents, this is a calling—one way we strive to nurture God. We hope that by taking care of children who are given to us, loving them and helping them heal, even if we only have them for a short time, we will make a difference in their lives—help them to understand what a miracle they each are.
The story of Jesus begins with his birth, begins with explaining that he was a poor, helpless baby who needed his parents love and care… and that part of his story is important, because this is not the last time we are told that Jesus needed others. Jesus wasn’t a Ruler like anyone had known before or since. He didn’t govern with an iron fist, forcing people to bend to his will. He did not kill people, wage wars, make money off of others’ suffering or deny any person’s inherent worth.
Jesus was the leader of a community. He listened and he taught, he fed and he healed, he protested and he spoke out against injustice… and he did not do it alone. Throughout his life, Jesus needed his parents, his friends, and his disciples to nurture and help him, to work with him and love him, just as he needs each of us today.
It’s just a simple story, about a young mother, her tiny baby, and the community gathering around to celebrate his birth. Christmas is when we are reminded of this, of how simple and yet miraculous it is that we are here, that God is with us. I hope that tonight this story also helps us remember that God needs us, that Jesus needs us, and that as we care for others, if we can act with the understanding that each person is beloved of God, then our actions, our prayers, and our love are Nurturing God.