One of the beauties of the Christmas season is all the baby imagery. Everywhere we look there are pictures of those new parents, Mary and Joseph, all smiles. And shepherds and wise men kneeling before a sleeping Infant, even though we know the wise men didn't actually arrive until a couple years later. But during December, why bother with little exegetical details? Wise men are part of the crèche we put on the altar; why not let them stay there? In some artwork depicting the events in Bethlehem that night long ago, even the animals have halos. And then, of course, there is the centerpiece, the Baby, smiling even as he sleeps--also, of course, with a halo adorning him. Really, what's not to like? We all love soft, sweet, innocent baby stories.
My friend Helen told me of the birth of her son when she was thirty-eight. The doctors had given her reason to think she could never conceive. She and her husband had been unsuccessful at doing so for eight long years. But just when they were about to give up, like Abraham and Sarah of old, along came the child they had waited and prayed for. Helen told me of the night when she sat in her hospital room holding that baby in her arms. The door of the room opened and in walked her pastor. She said to him, with a smile a mile wide: "I don't want to sound sacrilegious, but I don't think that even Mary the mother of Jesus could have been happier or more proud of her child than I am with mine."
Well, of course. Most new mothers know that feeling. So do most new dads. But I asked Helen: "And when your son reached his teen years, were you still convinced that even Mary the mother of Jesus could not have been happier or more proud of her child than you were with yours?" She answered quickly: "Oh, no. Unlike Mary the mother of Jesus, when my son became a teenager, every time he left the house I gave serious thought to changing the locks on the doors!"
Baby stories are easy because babies, for the most part are easy. They are cute and cuddly and don't demand much of anyone except an occasional bottle or diaper change or lullaby. But eventually they grow up...just like Jesus did. Our lesson said, "And from you, O Bethlehem, small among the clans of Judah, will come for me one who shall rule his people Israel." And that's where the rub comes in. It did for people two thousand years ago, and it still does for us. Because, ultimately, Jesus is not a quiet, cuddly baby in a manger, but a grown-up Ruler who asks things of us that we simply do not want to do.
So, cute little infant-in-the-manger stories aside, the issue that confronts us as people of Faith sooner or later becomes, "If I call myself a Christian, then will I actually choose to live like one?" Am I willing to let the grown-up Jesus rule, as Micah put it. Am I willing follow where Christ leads, to do what Christ asks? I mean, if we seriously consider the things that Jesus commanded, then choosing to sign on with him is not an easy choice to make. Have you really listened to some of the stuff He requests of us?
"You shall forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven." But wait, that is at odds with the bumper stickers on our cars and trucks: "Don't get mad, get even!" I can't afford to buy a new car or truck.
"Love your enemies, and pray for those who despitefully use you." My enemies? All my enemies? There have to be codicils, right? I mean, I can't be expected to pray for Putin or Assad or my nasty-natured boss at work or wicked Uncle Ernie or some ex-spouse or lover who was unfaithful.
"Give to the poor." Hey! It's hard enough for me to pay my own bills and invest a little in the market and maybe make a trip or two now and again to Tuscany or Aruba. Surely there are jobs out there "those people" can find.
"Render unto God what is God's." But, everything is God's, right? And that means I would have to give God a role in what I do with everything, right? Not just my money, but time, relationships, how I vote, the whole nine yards, right? I don't think so.
"You shall become fishers of people." Oh please. You have no idea how people look at me over the water cooler or at the hair salon or in the dorm if I talk about my faith. You'd think I just beamed in from Jupiter or Mars!
"Take up your Cross and follow Me." Uh, crosses are heavy, aren't they? And painful? And lead to all sorts of unpleasant things like, oh I don't know, giving one's life for that which is honorable and true? You think maybe we could delete the "Cross" part?
"Turn the other cheek." Huh...The last time I recall doing that, it got slapped, too!
"This is My commandment, that you love one another." Well, maybe if those self-centered folks in my world would try to see things my way once in a while, to be a little more flexible, a little more accommodating...Really it's your fault for not being lovable!
Choosing to be a Christian, you see, means choosing to live according to statements like those...not just to say, "Lord, Lord"...not just to sing, "Oh, How I Love Jesus"...but to actually take seriously the grown-up Messiah who comes to rule his people Israel. It means agreeing to follow where he leads, even if he leads down highways that are not always comfortable.
"Unlike Mary the mother of Jesus," my friend Helen said, "when my son became a teenager, every time he left the house I gave serious thought to changing the locks on the doors!" Maybe that's not so much unlike how we deal with Jesus...with Jesus who "stands at the door and knocks," but knowing what he wants, what he asks of us, what he commands of us, we decide to have the locks changed.
One of the most influential ministers in my life was a dear, personal friend of my dad's. That minister was in our house a lot when I was young, and I more or less idolized him. He was one of the kindest, gentlest human beings I ever knew. After that pastor died, my dad told me story about him. He once confessed to my father that he had a deplorable childhood. He had a stepmother who resented him and who abused him psychologically, sometimes physically. Often she would become irrationally angry and lock him in the backyard all night, even if the weather were cold or rainy. He would bang on the door, crying, begging to come in, a little elementary-school boy promising not to disappoint her any more, even though he had no idea why she was angry or what he was apologizing for. But the lights would go out, and the door would remain locked, and he would curl up on a doormat on the back porch and sleep there like the family dog, crying and shivering in the darkness. The next morning, she would open the door and say: "Get dressed for school. There's no time for breakfast. And you better not be late!"
That was how he grew up. And yet somehow, he still grew up to be a fine, well-educated, successful man--and, in fact, to be a Methodist pastor of considerable distinction. In his stepmother's later years, when she was confined to a bed by a debilitating illness, her own children basically deserted her and refused to have anything to do with her. So that pastor, the one she had treated so inhumanely, took her into his home and looked after her with compassion. He treated her with kindness and constant care, as if she had been the best mom ever. He made sure that her every need was met till the day she died, still living beneath his roof. My dad said to him: "I can't believe you did that for her after how she treated you." And he answered: "I didn't do it just for her. I also did it for myself. I reached a point where the burden of resentment was too heavy to carry around anymore. I couldn't be free of the pain till I was free of the hatred. And anyway," he said, "I decided if I cannot love people who make loving difficult, how could I ever stand in a pulpit and preach about love to anyone else?" That's it. He didn't just talk about following Jesus; he actually rose up and followed when ding so was almost indescribably difficult. He went past oohing and ahhing over an innocent, silent Baby in a manger--a child who asks nothing of anyone. Instead, he signed on with a full-grown Messiah who asks everything of everyone. And in so doing, he found freedom from his past and meaning for a lifetime.
"And from you, O Bethlehem, small among the clans of Judah, will come for me one who shall rule his people Israel."
You see, Christianity is not merely a Faith we profess. It is a choice we make about how we will do our living in the world. As our kids like to say, it really is about "walking the walk"...about following where Jesus leads--living as Jesus lived--and loving as Jesus loved, even when it would be easier not to.