December 24, 2021
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus, that all the world should be registered.”
We hear those lines and are immediately transported into this Christmas story that we’ve heard every year. We know the contours so well: there was the census that forced Joseph and the very-pregnant Mary to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. There’s the overcrowded little town and the way Jesus was born and placed in the manger, a feeding trough for the animals. There’s the shepherds who heard the joyful news from the angels. Memories of Christmases past are a part of this story that we hear, whether that’s the program we just did last Sunday that you were a part of, or the first time you saw A Charlie Brown Christmas and heard when Linus put down his blanket to tell the reason for the season, or the memories of a grandparent who read the story each year before you went to bed on Christmas Eve. We know this story, because we repeat it every year.
And this year, when I was reading it, I kept being drawn to the words of the angel: “This shall be a sign to you.” It’s such a weird way of referring to Jesus, because when I hear the word “sign” in the Bible I usually think of something pretty spectacular that points us toward God—like a miracle of a man healed of lifelong blindness, or a jar of bread flour that miraculously refills, or a rainbow that reminds us of a promise. But the sign is a baby. A baby, lying in a manger. The sign that you will see is that you’ll find a baby in a manger. It seems so circular, like the thing that you’ll find is the thing that you’ll find. What does it mean that the sign pointing to God is a baby?
Well, this year we have, for the second time, a newborn in our house right around Christmas. I can’t help but read this Christmas story with my daughters in the front of my mind, wondering how Mary and Joseph’s reaction to Jesus resembled mine and Annie’s at all. Wondering how the infant Jesus was like my daughters and all the ways that infants can change things so much. And the thing about having an infant in the house is that it gives you a unique glimpse at wondering what kind of sign an infant could be. Martin Luther once said that you can see the incarnation—how God became human—in every new birth.
Well I think the first thing we all know about infants is that they are totally and completely helpless. This can be a source of either tenderness or fear, depending on how confident you feel about handling a baby. Because when they’re so little, babies can’t even hold their own heads up, or manage to get a burp out without help. They can’t feed themselves or even move if they’re in danger. They can’t really control their own body temperature so well, so they have to be wrapped up when it’s cold. Babies depend on other human beings for absolutely everything, full stop.
And God came to us as a baby.
God showed up, the All-Powerful Omnipotent Creator of All Things, the Alpha and Omega, the source and summit of all existence and the ever-present bringer of life and love and being—this God showed up as a completely helpless, utterly dependent baby. God became a baby in a world where literally anything could have gone wrong and this helpless infant God could do nothing to stop it. God became a baby in a time when infant mortality was frighteningly common. God became a baby, and this is the sign for us. What does it mean that God was a helpless infant? Where does the sign of the infant God point us to?
It points us to our call to care for others. If even the omnipotent creator of the universe needs the attention, tenderness, and care of human beings to stay alive, then don’t we need it just as much? That God chose to come into the world not as a fully-formed adult human, but as a helpless infant, is a sign of what God is calling us toward. The infant God is a sign that points us toward our neighbors in need: mothers who need our voices to fight for just and equitable prenatal care; the homeless who need housing so they can even begin to put their lives back together; the poor living paycheck-to-paycheck who rely on the food shelf and SNAP benefits to feed their families; the refugees who are villainized for the actions of others. The infant God is a sign that we are invited to be part of the saving work that God started in the manger all those years ago.
And just like the prospect of taking a brand-new baby home from the hospital is absolutely terrifying—did any of us know what we were doing when we did?—the prospect of caring for God’s people the way Jesus needed us to take care of him can feel daunting. The farther they get from being infants, the more complicated people become and the harder it gets to discern how we are called to be part of God’s work in them. But human vulnerability is only a matter of degree—it never actually goes away; we never stop being vulnerable and, in some way, helpless. God continues to call us to care for each other the way we cared for the infant Jesus.
And the way we do it, the way we overcome the anxiety of how to share the hope and wholeness of God’s kingdom with a complicated and vulnerable and bewildering humanity, is to put love first. Love seeks wholeness and is patient in times of difficulty. Love repairs damage and provides support. Love doesn’t issue ultimatums, or lay out hurdles to jump before it can be accessed. Love makes the first move to make the world a better place. Love calls us toward one another, into healthy and wholeness-making community.
Love is what it looks like when you are handed an utterly helpless infant, and you steel yourself to do whatever it takes to give this child all the life you can muster for it. Love is what it looks like when you choose not to give up on the person who’s failed, but who could overcome challenges with the right help. Love is what it looks like when you listen to the pain of people who are not like you, and believe their words and trust them to know what they need when they ask. Love is what it looks like when you allow others to help you, putting aside pride so that God can be at work in you through others. Love is what it looks like when you see the helpless infant God, and recognize what this sign means.
God chose to become an infant as a sign for us. It was a sign that the way this world was going to be saved was by remembering that we were all infants, and we all need help. The helpless infant God is a sign for us that even God needs the help of others sometimes, and so no human being is without need. So let’s care for one another in love. Let’s be part of God’s saving work in the world. Let’s embody the peace on earth and goodwill to all that the angels sang about. And let’s do it all because God became a helpless infant as a sign for us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.