What would you do if someone came up to you and told you how your life would turn out? And what if it felt so real that you began to wonder, “Really? Will that happen to me?” How would that impact how you lived? How would it change how you viewed yourself?
In 1999 I was with several classmates in Ireland for an extended weekend. We began the trip in Dublin. One night we went to a pub, and a couple of hours into our evening, we struck up a conversation with a local who shared all sorts of interesting things about Irish culture and life with us. As we were getting ready to go to the hostel for the night, he turned to me, looked me dead in the eye, and said, “You’re going to be the next Bono.” As in the lead singer of the Irish rock band U2. As in my favorite band. Sweeter words could not have been said to me in U2’s very home town. “Bono….I’m going to be the next Bono. That’s where this English major is taking me!” Now, I believe we all have callings in life, and sadly, I’m pretty sure this tipsy Irishman’s prophecy was wrong. I haven’t even met Bono, let alone started a rock band. Still, for a brief moment there was the hope of wondering, “What if?”
Now, instead of yourself, imagine with me that you are expecting your first child. You’re only a few weeks away for the baby’s arrival. You’re tired. You’re this strange mix of excited and worried. You know everything will change, but you don’t know how it will change and what life will really be like. Then, imagine someone comes up to you at coffee hour here at the church, asks you how things are going and how you’re feeling. After listening for a minute, that person turns to you, looks you dead in the eye, and says, “Your child is going to study medicine and excel. Eventually, your child is going to discover the key to curing all forms of cancer.” I mean, on the one hand, what a wonderful hope for that kid, but, on the other hand, you might start thinking, “Should I start saving now for medical school and make sure that this kid focuses on the sciences starting in preschool? I sure don’t want to blow this for all of humanity!”
This got me thinking about our first experience welcoming a child to our family. After the birth and everything settling into place, there was some time where the three of us were just together in the hospital waiting for everything to be clear to go home. As we stared at our baby with a level of love that we never knew we had within us, I turned to Jess and said, “What if she runs with the wrong crowd in high school?” Jess just stared at me in disbelief. She had just managed to give birth to a beautiful baby, and her husband was now worrying that he might have to permanently ground this one-day-old for her protection! I’m so glad that my words were not a prophecy.
But now let’s think about Mary, the mother of Jesus, the mother of God. Imagine with me how this all would be for her. Luke’s gospel begins with the story of how God prepared the way for Jesus’ coming. There’s the promise of John the Baptist to Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth. Then the angel Gabriel visits Mary, a young woman engaged but yet married, and shares with her the news that she will conceive a son, whom she is to name Jesus. And then Gabriel adds these loaded words (as if the news already wasn’t big enough!), “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33). I hear this and think, “Being the next Bono sounds pretty simple compared to that!”
Mary seems to take to the news, though. A few months pass, and she travels to visit with her cousin, Elizabeth. They share the joy of their unlikely pregnancies and the wild belief that that babies they are carrying will change the world. Then Mary speaks the words we read this morning, known as The Magnificat. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she says, “for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant….He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” This pregnancy has made this young woman a revolutionary. Often we think of the nativity scenes as places of quiet reverence. Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright. O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.
But Mary sure seems to see this as an upheaval of all of society. The powerful unseated. The lowly lifted up. The hungry filled with good. The well-off left empty. Mary sure has taken to heart the words of Gabriel, and she has plans for Jesus. But even Mary, as great as she is, does not fully comprehend who Jesus will be. There are multiple stories in the gospels where Mary expects Jesus to behave a certain way, and he does something different. Who this child is will defy even his mother’s own hopes?
Today we’re taking a closer look at the familiar Christmas carol, “What Child is This.” It’s author is William Chatterton Dix, who — and this should come as no surprise to us at this point — was British. Now, many hymn writers were clergy, but Dix was not. He was a manager at an insurance company, so my friends here today who work in business but would love to do art, well, there’s hope for you! Start writing lyrics during your coffee break! In 1865, Dix suffered a debilitating illness that left him bedridden and depressed, but he also experienced spiritual renewal in his recovery. He wrote two other hymns that we still know today, “As with Gladness Men of Old” and “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus!”
In that same year, Dix wrote a poem titled “The Manger Throne,” a portion of which is on the front of today’s bulletin. It’s a lovely five verse poem that covers the glories of the coming of Jesus to the world. Dix used the theme of this poem as the basis for the lyrics he wrote that became “What Child is This.” Dix wrote these lyrics in 1865, and by 1871 it appeared for the first time in publication, paired to the old English tune Greensleeves.
This hymn has a simple three-verse structure. It begins with a question couched in awe. “What child is this, who laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?” It’s a question that many of us have asked when we encounter babies. Who will this child become? What potential lies quietly here? But, of course, this is Jesus, so the expectation of this sleeping child is all the greater. He’s the one “whom angels greet with anthems sweet while shepherds watch are keeping.” This baby is the king, not just any king, but the king. So, sleeping in Mary’s lap is the one to whom we are to hasten to bring our worship.
The second verse is darker. It begins with a second question. “Why lies he in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding?” That is, this is a king, so why is he in a stable? What does that say about humanity that God has to enter into the world in such humility? What does that say about God that God still does enter the world in such humility? This is no ordinary glimpse into a nursery. Baby King Jesus is in a stable, but even here Dix urges us to approach in reverence and fear because this sleeping child — the Word of God — is calling to us.
Things get grimmer still. As Dix imagines the sleeping baby Jesus in Mary’s arms, he also knows what will happen to this tender body because of our sin. “Nails, spear, shall pierce him through; the cross be borne for me, for you.” In the words of the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth, “Except we see the cross of Golgotha, we cannot hear the gospel at the crib of Bethlehem.” Even in these tender, quiet moments of this special season, we know that Jesus’ mission will take him through the worst of humanity, and we know that he did this for us and for our salvation. He was faithful and obedient, even though we are not.
The third verse brightens the mood, bringing the magi on the scene. With them, we “bring him incense, gold, and myrrh; come one and all, to own him.” The gifts that the magi bring have meaning. Gold is there for a king. Incense is offered in worship to God. But myrrh is used in death to anoint the body. Yes, he’s a king. Yes, he’s God. But he will also face a terrible death. Still, we gather in praise of the baby in Mary’s arms. “Raise, raise the song on high,” Dix urges. “Joy, joy for Christ is born, the babe, the son of Mary!”
This humble manger is also a throne. It’s a manger throne, if you will. The tension of humility and glory are held in this stable, in Mary’s arms. As we enter this scene with Dix and with Mary and Joseph, we ask this question: “What child is this?” And we know that the answer reveals some awesome expectations for this helpless babe, still reliant on mother’s milk, still needing naps, still unable to hold his head up on his own.
We all bring our expectations to Jesus and to this season. Despite our knowledge of scripture, despite the wonderful songs we sing every year, and even despite all the sermons we’ve heard, I think we still struggle to grasp who this Jesus is. He’s always more. Our text from Isaiah 61 is so important to Jesus’ story. It says, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” While these words were written hundreds of years before Jesus’ arrival, Jesus begins his ministry using them. Our most vivid Christmas story is in the first two chapters of Luke, but by chapter four, Jesus shows up in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, pulls out the scroll, finds Isaiah, and reads these words to the people who saw him grow up. Luke reports that the eyes of all there were fixed on him” (Luke 4:20).
They had great expectations for him, and he tells them that he is the fulfillment of these words. For a people oppressed by the Roman Empire, this is welcome news. But then Jesus defies their expectations. He shares two Bible stories about Gentiles who received God’s favor — the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian. He’s saying, “These words are not just for you. They’re for everyone. God’s favor is available to all who would receive it.” And, with their expectations disappointed, the people grow angry, run him out of town. The mob tries to hurl him off a cliff, but Jesus escapes and carries on what God has called him to do.
We all carry expectations to this season, but I urge us all not to let those expectations rule over us. God seems to be in the business of defying our expectations. So, come to the manger throne of Jesus. Worship the king, swaddled in his mother’s arms. But see in Jesus so much more. It is in him that “the hopes and fears of all the years” find their place. It is in him that we find our peace.