I want to tell you two stories because they are especially appropriate on Christmas. Some years ago in the early 1960’s, the Archbishop of Canterbury was rushing to catch a train in London. In his haste, he accidentally jumped on the wrong passenger car and found himself on a car full of inmates from a mental hospital. They were all dressed in mental hospital clothing. As the train pulled out of the station, an orderly came into the car and began to count the inmates, “1-2-3-4…” when suddenly he saw this distinguished looking gentleman, wearing a business suit and a clerical collar and he said: “Who are you?” The answer came back: “I am the Archbishop of Canterbury!” And the orderly paused a moment, nodded his head and said: “Oh, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8.” And then there is this story.
In an article by Dr. Paul Ruskin on the “Stages of Aging” Dr. Ruskin described a case study he had presented to his students in medical school. He described the case study patient under his care like this: “The patient neither speaks nor comprehends the spoken word. Sometimes she babbles incoherently for hours on end. She is disoriented about person, place, and time. She does, however, respond to her name… I have worked with her for the past six months, but she still shows complete disregard for her physical appearance and makes no effort to assist her own care. She must be fed, bathed, and clothed by others.
“Because she has no teeth, her food must be pureed. Her shirt is usually soiled from almost incessant drooling. She does not walk. Her sleep pattern is erratic. Often she wakes in the middle of the night and her screaming awakens others. Most of the time she is friendly and happy, but several times a day she gets quite agitated without apparent cause. Then she wails until someone comes to comfort her.”
After presenting the class with this challenging case, Dr. Ruskin then asked his students if any of them would like to volunteer to take care of this person. No one volunteered. Then Dr. Ruskin said, “I’m surprised that none of you offered to help, because actually she is my favorite patient. I get immense pleasure from taking care of her and I am learning so much from her. She has taught me a depth of gratitude I never knew before. She has taught me the spirit of unwavering trust, and the power of unconditional love.” Then Dr. Ruskin said, “Let me show you her picture.” He pulled out the picture and passed it around. It was the photo of his six-month-old baby daughter.
If we step back a moment and pretend that we have never heard the Christmas story before, if we do that, then we can totally relate to the reaction of the orderly to the Archbishop of Canterbury. This is the story of God becoming a human and then being born as a helpless baby (remember the description by Dr. Ruskin of his daughter, she must be fed, bathed, and clothed by others.) When you think about it, a baby is the picture of helplessness. And if you consider that God as the most independent being in the universe placed Himself into that humble position of total dependency, it certainly boggles the mind; it is crazy. On that first Christmas, God gave us Jesus, his only Son. Jesus came to be the Messiah of the world. That is what we heard in the message given to the shepherds by the angel. “Look, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” It is great news! Finally God is sending the promised one, the Messiah the Christ who is going to take care of all our problems! He is going to save us. And indeed what name does this child receive? He is named Jesus. Jesus means God saves. And the Jews of Jesus’ day were all excited about being saved. You see, they had been saved once by God through Moses, remember? Moses had been the Messiah then. He had been anointed by God to help them out of their troubles. They had been slaves in Egypt and then God sent Moses and he led them out of Egypt through the Red Sea into finally the Promised Land. It was slow going but they finally made it. And Moses had told them that God would send them another one like him to help them. And now the angels are telling the shepherds that he is here! The new Messiah is finally here and he will help them. And they needed help. Economically their country was in a mess; the hated Romans were in control of their government. Injustice, inequality, and slave-like conditions were the norm for much of the nation. The wealthy class was very small and the class of the extremely poor was very large. Violence was common; justice was skewed, and the Roman occupation army was brutal. But now, the angels made the announcement and everything was going to be good; the Messiah was coming.
We know the rest of the story, right? Jesus grew up into manhood became a hero, gathering a great army and defeating the Romans. He went on to establish a benevolent dictatorship that ended up spreading over the entire world and bringing peace and prosperity to all. He ended all hunger, pain and suffering, disease and sickness. It was and still is wonderful.
Oh, wait a minute; he did not do that, did he? As a matter of fact, there is still a lot of suffering and pain and misery. There is still war in the Middle East. There is still hunger and people who are needy. There is still hatred and anger and bitterness. There are still selfishness and loneliness. There are people even in our church family struggling with cancer and other terrible diseases. There are people in our church family struggling with unexpected bills, some need jobs and some who do have jobs that don’t pay enough. There are people in our church family who have family problems, marriages on the rocks or children who are estranged from their parents or siblings who are fighting with each other. So if Jesus did not solve mankind’s suffering, what is all the joy about? Where is the good news?
Good questions, right? Why did Jesus come? What good did he accomplish? First, Jesus did come to save his people. But it was not the way they thought they needed to be saved. But what the angels saw and recognized the shepherds, the nation of Israel, and the rest of humanity did not. The angels saw humanity was suffering horribly. But the main cause of the suffering was not just the brutality and savagery of the wars, nor simply the injustice, inequality or slavery that was causing the suffering. It wasn’t even the hunger, disease or sicknesses. These were only the symptoms of the problem. No, the root cause of humanity’s suffering and troubles were from humanity being in rebellion from God. Being separated from God, we became sinful and selfish. And we were stuck. We couldn’t help ourselves. Humanity needed help; we needed rescuing and God sent us the help we needed most. He sent us Himself as Jesus, Emmanuel God with us. And look how he came. He came humbly as a baby. He wasn’t born into a rich family; he was born into a poor working class one. He was born in a stable, a place made for animals. Look who he told about it. The angels told shepherds, people on the lowest rung of society.
You see, it was good news of great joy for everyone. He came to show all of mankind His love for his creation. When we want to know what God is like, we look at Jesus. He showed us God’s love through how he lived and then through dying a painful humiliating death for us on the cross. But then he came alive again in victory over death and over the sin that has kept mankind in slavery. Jesus became humanity’s hope for joy and life. Now we personally can know God and have his peace in our lives. Now we can have new life! We can have forgiveness of our sins and freedom from guilt. Through faith in him, through faith in his death for our sins on the cross, He will give us the ability to change our ways and learn to live in a new way.
That’s what we see when we see Jesus as a baby in the manger. It is crazy isn’t it, but it is true. God became a helpless baby to show us His great love. That’s the glorious news of the angels. It is good news of great joy. God loves us so much that He gave Himself for us. Amen