Life Lessons Christmas 2014 A.D.
Dear Levi, Luke, and Paisley,
I didn't think I would be writing to my grandkids as I did to my kids, and in a sense I'm not. First, I told my kids that they would get their letters when they turned 18. As I write this, that ship has sailed for all of them and still no letters. So I will leave it up to your parents when you will get this. Second, this letter will be more theological than personal. I don't see you grandkids day to day like I did my kids. Even if I did I have a skewed view of you guys. It's amazing to me how literally all you do at your age now all under 4 is cute, funny, adorable. I don't remember your parents or aunts and uncles being THAT sweet, comic, lovable. Right there is a life lesson about being a grandparent versus a parent, and this Christmas Eve life lessons are what I write about.
The first one is disappointment. Right now disappoint in your life is not getting the toy you want or having to come inside. Right now it's limited to TV, candy, and bedtime. As you grow, the disappointments will be keener, deeper, sadder. You will even know them at times of joy: you will come to know this is called a bitter/sweet feeling. This is Joseph, the stepfather of Jesus tonight.
We know from Scripture he was a carpenter. That was his trade. Every stick of furniture in a home then was handmade by someone. Probably simple things were made by everyone, but more complicated things say like a baby cradle that took a tradesman, a professional. Your great grandfather Herzberg is a cabinet maker by trade. He always had great cabinets in his house. Can you see where I'm going?
What do you think the first thing Joseph did after the angel enabled him to come to terms with the fact that Mary conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and she was going to bear the Son of the Most High who would save His people from their sins? He set to work making a cradle. The best, sturdiest, most ornate one he could afford. Measuring, sawing, sanding, and finishing. I'm sure it took months to make, but then it was finished. Surely he took it in to show Mary. Surely she praised it as fit for a king.
But what else do we know from Scripture? Mary didn't bring forth her firstborn Son and lay Him in a cradle but a manger. A manger is a feeding trough, a place where you put food for livestock. You know that babies then weren't born in hospitals or birthing centers as some of you were. They were born at home, but no wife said to her husband. "The babies on the way; quick go get the feeding trough."
Well where was the cradle? Back in Nazareth. Mary must have been quite far along when the order came from the Roman government that everyone was to return to where he was born to register to be taxed. Joseph had no choice but to make the trip, and we know they didn't take the cradle because Jesus ended up in a feeding trough. Can you see them plodding out of Nazareth? Joseph leading the donkey, the very pregnant Mary astride it and behind them through the window you can just see the beautiful cradle.
You are going to know disappointment like this. You'll have planned, did your best to make something good happen, and it will fail, won't work out, maybe even the opposite will. It went stunningly wrong that the Son of God ended up in a feeding trough! But if Joseph because of the cradle had refused to leave Nazareth, Jesus would've been born there. He would have had a beautiful cradle, but He couldn't have been Christ, the Savior. Why? Because God's Word had foretold that He was to be born in Bethlehem.
When your will is disappointed, you can be sure that God's will is not. In fact, you pray for this very thing every time you say the Lord's Prayer. You pray, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." You don't pray, "Let my will be done." No, just the opposite. You pray that your will not be done but that your Father's in heaven would be.
You know the rest of the Christmas story. That manger was one of the ways the shepherds knew they had found the gift of God's Son. The swaddling clothes were another sign, but the manger was the sign. Only one newborn Child would be found in a feeding trough. So when Scripture tells you the shepherds found Jesus they don't mention the swaddling clothes again but only that He was in the manger.
The manger that was a disappointment to Joseph was a joy to shepherds. Likewise, if you expect God to work in visibly powerful ways in your life, you're going to be disappointed not joyed. The marks God points you to, to find Jesus the Waters of Baptism, the Words of Absolution, the Bread and Wine of Communion are not splashy, not powerful, not obvious signs of God at work or even His presence. It is no more obvious that God is present in these then He was in a manger. But over 2,000 years later a manger not a finely made cradle is the mark that Christ was born. In fact, you would be disappointed to see a cradle rather than a manger at Christmas. In fact the whole scene is called what? A manger scene so precious has it become.
This being the case you would think we would do what either the Persians or Alexander the Great did (Hopefully, your folks won't give you these letters until you know enough history to know whom I refer to. Barring that Google it. But by the time you read this Google probably will be obsolete. Well then, ask the robot reading this to you what your grandpa means. Two things, if there really is a robot reading this to you listen to the one hit wonder In the Year 2525 and be forewarned. Second, know your grandpa read with his own eyes the facts I'm about to tell you. I've cited where I read them so you may look them up. Yes, you might have to go to something called a b-o-o-k.)
As I was saying, you would think with as significant as the manger is we would have done what the Persians or Alexander the Great did. The Greeks found the manger belonging to the Persian Mardonius and it was made of solid bronze (Herodotus, iv, 70, 524-5). Plutarch tells us that Alexander left behind memorials to exaggerate the glory of his victory to posterity. One such thing he left behind was a larger than life manger (Lives of the Greeks, 315).
But we don't do that, do we? Our manger in the scene is the right size compared to everything else and it's crude and bare. That's because it's preaching another life lesson: humiliation. Right now you're doing things that embarrass your parents and maybe even slightly humiliate them. This is the naked child running through the house when company is present. This is asking in front of a stranger, "Why are they so wrinkled?" This is blurts, burps, and farts Yes, I said farts; even grandparents know what those are your parents wish they could take those embarrassing sounds back. By the time you read this you will have had your own embarrassing moments. The first hospital call I ever made was in seminary. I said to a very sick woman, "Hi, I'm pastoral care; I'm from the Paul Harris department."
Yes, we all know embarrassment; some humiliation. The manger is a mark that God the Son, the Savior of the world, the King of the cosmos humbled Himself. Don't misunderstand! God didn't humble Himself by becoming a Man, but how He became one. God could've popped into the world a boy of 12 or a Man of 30. But Mary "delivered" a child; she "brought forth her firstborn Son." There's blood, sweat, and tears in these words, and in the case of us it's mostly on the part of our mother. But this is the God whom the whole universe can't contain, in the womb of a Virgin. This is the God who gives birth to stars being born. This is the One who created all things from nothing being born of a creature. This is the One who feeds the ravens when they call being nursed by His mother in a barn.
I don't know if your mothers say this to you, but I remember by mother it might have been my much feared Russian grandmother saying, "What's the matter with you? Were you born in a barn?" I wasn't; you weren't. God the Son was. He was because we deserve to be. He had no place to lay His head but a feeding trough because that's what we deserve. There was no room in the inn for the One whose Father's house has many rooms because our sin and sinfulness should get us kicked out of the Father's house forever.
When we say we've been humiliated, we mean something has happened to us. When we speak of Jesus' humiliation we refer to Him giving up the full use of His divine powers as a Man, so He could take our place under God's laws both their commands and their demands that lawbreakers be punished. If He hadn't done this, when they arrived in Bethlehem trees would've fallen down and formed themselves into an inn and cradle for God in Flesh and Blood. He wouldn't have needed the care and protection of Mary and Joseph either but angel armies would have camped around Him protecting and providing.
But none of that happened. Why? Because in order to redeem humanity, even life in the womb, Jesus went all the way there to take our place. And after being born like us, He went on to live our life without using His divine powers to help Him. Jesus did right all the things we do wrong, and yet Jesus took the punishment we deserve. He went to the cross covered with all the sinful, shameful, wicked things every sinner ever did, said, or thought, and there He paid the price. There He satisfied God's wrath. There He won the pardon not just for your sins but the sins of the whole world. Three days later He rose from the grave proclaiming this to the world, and 2,000 years later you believe it.
Levi, Luke, and Paisley what Jesus did has changed everything for you. He has redeemed not just you but your disappointments and humiliations. Right now you're at the ages where I can convince you that whatever I have in my hand is better than what you have in yours. If you've got a hard ball, I can convince you the soft one is better; the ambulance better than the fire car, the Lego block better than the ornament. Disappointment and humiliation in the nail-pierced hands of Jesus is better than anything we try to hang on to. This is a life lesson that can only be taught by the Lord of life. To His hands I commend each of you. Love,