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Based on the Scripture reading:
Luke 1:26-38

2005 December 18
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Rev. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

God as a Baby

Fifteen years ago when I was in Maine, a colleague from Vermont told me a story and said it was true. But I've heard similar tales in other places, and maybe you have too.

The story begins when a couple brings home their second child after birth and receives a surprising request from their first child. This couple has a three year old already, a girl, and shortly after their newborn arrives home she asks if she can have some private time with her new sibling. The parents think that maybe the three year old isn't quite ready to be alone with baby boy, and maybe she has some "terrible threes" pecking order to impose, so they try to put off the event, but she asks again and again, and so they set up a place where the two can be together. There were limits to their trust, so they decided to have daddy hide in the closet, and then mommy took a blanket into the room and laid the baby there on its back, inviting the three year old to sit on the blanket for some time together. Mommy left the room, but daddy was nearby.

As the father peeked through the closet door he saw his daughter bend down low next to her brother, as if to whisper in his ear. He still wondered what was up. But as he watched his daughter lean in close he heard her say this to the baby: "Tell me about God; I'm starting to forget."

I wonder if any of us think that there is much that we could learn about God from a newborn? Is there something that newborns know that we've forgotten that we could yet re-claim? Is there something that adults lose? Are newborns blank slates, or do they come with a divine spark that will grow and flourish?

Developmental psychologists can debate these issues, parents can pursue them, but Christians get an answer from the heart of our Gospel. The doctrine is called incarnation. Its assertion comes chronologically first from Paul, who said God was in Jesus and Jesus was born of woman, and then later Bible writers quote angels and apostles who say, yes, this child, this baby, is a child of the Holy Spirit, and when baptism time rolls around someone hears Back to topGod saying this is my child, and since our faith began God-in-a-baby has been at the heart of our Good News.

Some of us may not find this so reassuring. At least sometimes, most of us want God to be powerful and wise, omnipresent and just. Few of us would join an alternative group that offered vulnerable and amateur, limited and colicky. Paul said that the cross, the fact that God could be crucified, was a scandal and foolishness for those who did not have eyes to see. The manger has to be a scandal and a bit foolish, too, except that we're slightly sentimental about infants and expect them to grow up. But before God grows up, God is a baby, celebrated by one of the central festivals of our faith. But when we really think of that, isn't it absurd?

Boston-based theologian Elizabeth Bettenhausen writes, "At Christmas God is newborn, less like Michelangelo's muscular men and more like an infant in wet diapers sucking milk from its mother's breast. God is less like an equation in theoretical physics and more like a hungry three-year-old in a refugee camp. At Christmas God is less like a come-of-age, postmodern adult and more like the toddler laughing at being able to walk."

She notes that Christian theology is done by adults for adults, and it usually neglects children. If you think about it Lord, liberator, love-teacher, healer, speaker of truth to power, and anything that has to do with suffering or triumph are all very adult ideas. But the often Greek idea of an adult god who comes to earth on a whirlwind or wave or lightning bolt isn't the model for the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us Christians. We say that God was born the way we were born, vulnerable, beginners, hopeful, developing. Christmas scripture reminds us that while we value complex theology, there is far more to our God than stands eye-level to every adult.

One of my favorite theologians, Fred Craddock, writes about the passage we read today where Mary learned that she would have this baby, and she was "greatly troubled" but ended up open and accepting, expressing her perspective by saying, "Let it be." Craddock writes that Mary is quite a complex figure here, not just a vessel but even in a few verses displays five amazing characteristics. She is deeply thoughtful, believing, obedient, worshipful, and devoted to Jewish law and piety. Some of us trip a little over that "obedient" word, but it is an act of choice and volition here, certainly not taken by every character in scripture's history. And amazingly amidst these five complex characteristics Mary finds the way to do one simple thing: to be open to finding God in a baby, as unlikely as that ever Back to topmust have seemed.

This must always have been a bit of a scandal. Yet Christmas reveals God as newborn and wholly dependent. Christmas doesn't claim that Jesus at birth is just a preview of the real thing but sees His infancy as part of the fullness of all that we might learn about God.

One day about nine months ago, my family was down in the North End of Boston, leaving Pizzeria Regina for a walk back to our car. We sauntered up to Hanover Street where there is a peace garden at the St. Leonard parish, and in this garden there are about six or eight statues of various saints. In the back corner of the garden is a little statue about three feet tall, of a toddler saint, who might be Francis of Assisi. My four year old was drawn to this statue, went right up to it, and embraced it with a big hug. She looked right at it and said, "I love Jesus," and rested her head on its shoulder. She stayed there over ten minutes, and at one point she had tears in her eyes. She didn't want to leave when it was time to go.

It's a curious thing to believe that at one point God was the size of our children. It's a wonderful thing for them to learn and to know that God is with them. The challenge to Mary was whether she could be open to this amazing truth. The challenge to us is to be open ourselves, to see God in a new way this season, and to learn from vulnerability, need, trust, hunger, and hope some of the essential characteristics of the divine and some of the essential components of the human. For even complex adult theology asks us to open a beginners mind and heart. And never forget.

If you are traveling in the days ahead, Merry Christmas. The newborn is coming to revolutionize our way.


Copyright 2005 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.
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