What Child Is This? (Luke 2:1-20)
Rev. Peter Heckert
+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.
The text for our meditation this holy night is from our Gospel text, wherein St. Luke records the proclamation of the angelic host, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Here ends our text; my dear Christian friends …
There are questions typically asked at the joyous occasion of a child’s birth. New parents will anxiously ask, “Is he healthy?” “How much does she weigh?” Grandparents will fondly ask, “What did you name her?” “Who does he look like?” Nurses and doctors will critically examine the child and want to know, “Is he alert?” “Are her lungs clear?” “Temperature? O2 saturation?”
We expect these kinds of questions. Some questions, you would never expect to hear at the birth of a healthy child. While one may ask, “What kind of person is my son or daughter going to be when he or she grows up?” you’d be aghast to hear the question, “Do you think he’s going to be a drug addict or a wife beater?” Can you imagine hearing the question, “What cemetery do you think she’ll be buried in?” What about, “How do you think … he’s going to die?” My hope is that you’d be hard pressed to hear these questions in a delivery room because, frankly, they’re rude, audacious, macabre. They’re inappropriate for the occasion.
I bring this up because there’s a hymn we sing on Christmas – actually, it will be the next hymn we sing, during the offering – and it does ask … an odd question about a newly born child in Bethlehem: “What Child Is This?” At first hearing, the question may sound out of place, but upon closer examination, in this particular situation, it is a very fitting question to ask. The circumstances surrounding this Child’s birth certainly prompts the need for further investigation. His mother is a virgin. His father, a carpenter, is supposedly the descendent of a long-dead royal bloodline. The only witnesses of this event are shepherds – hardly paradigms of trustworthiness. There are crazy signs in the cosmos indicating His birth as the king of the Jews - signs which will, in the course of time, draw pagan mystics from the East to come and worship Him. None of this makes sense. So, “What Child Is This?” The answer is given by an angel, a messenger of God Almighty, proclaiming to those aforementioned shepherds, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
This little child is YHWH Himself, the King of creation, Lord of heaven and earth. He whose voice spoke the cosmos into existence … now coos in His mother’s arms. The same Lord who told the shepherd Moses to be cautious of the holy ground on which he stood … now invites shepherds to draw near to Him as He lies in a manger. Moses hid his face from the Lord, but now shepherds behold the Lord’s face in the face of a baby. The Unapproachable One is now approachable. The Intimidating One is now inviting. The Holy One … is Immanuel, God with us.
That certainly is good news. But what makes God’s appearance in human flesh good news of great joy is the purpose for which He came. The Lord of creation became part of His creation in order to restore and recreate what man had broken. The Eternal One … was born in a specific – indeed, perfect – time and place to unite Himself forever with His mortal creatures.
The reason why it is good news of great joy is that, at this child’s birth we do ask a normally unthinkable question, “How will this child die?” For this child was born … to die. This was God’s plan long before the child was born that holy night. When the angelic host proclaims that His birth will bring peace on earth, this is what they meant. This child will die because of us, and He will die for us. “Nails, spear shall pierce Him through; the cross be bourne for me, for you. Hail, hail the Word made flesh! The babe, the son of Mary!”
And make no mistake: we need Him to die. We need His sacrifice. The prophet Isaiah said, “To us a child is born.” The angel said, “Unto you is born this day … a Savior.” Unto us, whose worldly passions conceive and give birth to worldly thoughts and ungodly living. Unto us, whose sinful hearts give birth to cruel words and harmful deeds, even against those who love us the most. Unto us, born the enemies of God. Unto us—poor miserable sinners—this Child is born, and He is born to die.
What child is this? This is the child who had a Mary at His birth and several Mary’s present at His death. The child who had a righteous Joseph at His birth and a righteous Joseph, from Arimathea, gingerly carry His body down from the cross. The child who was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger at His birth, was wrapped in a shroud and laid in a tomb. The child whose coming was honored by wise men bearing myrrh … was honored by faithful women bearing myrrh to His tomb after His salvific death.
This is a real human child with a real human body. A body which was beaten, tortured and mutilated, with flesh that was torn and blood that was poured onto the ground as the ultimate sin offering. As a man, this child … died the death that we deserve. But on the third day, His real human body came back to life, the firstfruits of the resurrection of our own human bodies. “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” in this child.
Today that salvation is again extended to you as a gift from this child’s altar. It’s Christmas, and Jesus is giving you the best gift—His very body and blood, in, under, and with bread and wine, broken and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. It is a gift that inflames your love for this holy Child and or one another and renews your zeal for good works. What a wondrous gift of love!
What Child Is This? This is the Lord Who has saved you. This is Jesus, the crucified and resurrected, Son of God and Son of Man. Thus, “Haste, haste to bring Him laud,” “Hail, hail the Word made flesh,” “Joy, joy, for Christ is born, The babe, the son of Mary.” Born for me and for you. Merry Christmas.
+ In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.