“Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast brought perfect praise”
Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Out of the mouths of babes thou hast brought forth perfect praise. These words from the psalmist, words our Lord quotes on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, came to my mind as I read in preparation to preach this Christmas Eve.
We gather again this night to hear the story we know so well, “and it came to pass that a decree went forth from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled.” We gather to sing the hymns of praise that touch deeply our sacred memory and at times we can hear the voices of our loved ones miles away or now on a more distant shore singing with us. These hymns transport us from chronos to kairos, temporal existence to God’s time, and place us at Bethlehem looking at the manger cradling the newborn surrounded by his parents, the shepherds, the ox and ass. We have heard the call of these carols to come and see, “come and adore him, born the king of angels,” “come to Bethlehem and see the one whose birth the angels sing,” to follow the shepherds bending our joyful footsteps thither and kneel before the feeding trough that is now a throne.
But what is it exactly that we come to see? This is more than a visit to a maternity to see a child behind glass as we would a new grandchild or niece or nephew. To gaze at the newborn king is certainly more than a visit to see a newborn, to come to the Christmas crèche is to come and see scripture fulfilled, history rightly understood, Israel restored, and our purpose, call, and reason for being revealed. And if that sounds like the outline of a sermon, it is.
To gaze at the Nativity, is to see Scripture fulfilled. The Evangelists, Luke whose nativity story we read tonight, and his fellow evangelist Matthew, whose favorite phrase is “this was to fulfill” and whom we hear on the 12th day proclaim to their first hearers and to us that the birth of Jesus the Christ is the fulfillment of what is foretold in scripture, “a virgin shall conceive and bear a Son,” “You of Bethlehem Ephrata are not least of the clans of Judah for from you a child shall be born in Bethlehem,” “Kings of Arabia and Saba shall offer gifts,” God’s son shall be called out of Egypt. Even the hymn sung at his birth echoes the vision of the prophet Isaiah in the Temple scholars tell us.
To gaze on the nativity is also to gaze on history correctly understood. Remember that the Emperor Augustus was seen as the bringer of peace ending years of civil strife throughout the empire. His reign and the peace which ensued, known as the Pax Augustana, allowed that the doors of the shrine of Janus, the Roman god of war, to be closed. For this reasons, in parts of the Empire the birth of Augustus was celebrated as the beginning of the year and his birthday was described as the birthday of a god which brought peace. Luke wants us to know that real bringer of peace was not Augustus but Jesus the Christ at whose birth the heavens and earth shook and the angelic chorus of glory to God and peace to his people on earth, the first noel heard by shepherds.
And the peace Christ’s birth brings is more than temporal, it is eternal. But there is more. By showing that Mary and Joseph were willing to participate in the census unlike the revolutionary party that came into being in Israel at the time of the census, the Zealots, Luke is also telling his Gentile hearers and their Roman persecutors that there was no need for the government to fear the growing number of Christians.
To gaze on the nativity is also to see God’s relationship with his chosen people Israel restored. Perhaps it is because of Christmas pageants that we have made more out of the lodging than the crib. Despite its place as a part in Christmas plays and its richness as a homiletical device, “Would you give them a room?” there is no mention of any innkeeper or keepers turning away the holy couple. The inn in which there was no place was a common covered place set apart for travelers in every town. What is important is the crib, the manger. Luke wants us to know that in the birth of the Messiah, here is reversed the condemnation of the prophet Isaiah of faithless Israel, “The ox knows its owner and the donkey knows the manger of its Lord; but Israel has not known me and my people have not understood me.” Now God’s people know their Lord and the manger in which he lies.
But most importantly, to gaze on the nativity is to see our purpose, call and reason for being revealed. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings thou hast brought forth perfect praise. In that search all preachers know who have any age on them, (this is my 29th in Holy Orders,) a mere babe to some in this room, and asking myself the eternal question all preachers ask themselves as they prepare for their Christmas sermon, “What am I going to say to them this year.” I turned to a book that has had a profound influence on my spiritual journey from the time I first read it over 30 years ago and now as then has taken me to a new and deeper place. I would say perhaps it has shaped me more than any other. The book is entitled God the Father: Meditations by Emile Guerry. Thankfully, it is now available in reprint and I commend it to you.
He writes, “At his entry into the world His first look was directed not on the men whom He came to save but on his Father. He came to do the Father’s will. By this oblation of His whole self to the Father He indicated where His sacred Humanity really belongs…… From the moment of Jesus’ conception, and for the first time in the history of the world, the worship due in all justice to God was given him. That homage of adoration, of love, and of reparation, which the Father had so long awaited, now at last arose from His creation through this little infant, apparently inert in His manger— under a miserable rood—in the silence of the night—unknown to the world.
A homage of adoration, ….. a homage of love, in the absolute conformity of His Human will to the will of the Father. For true love lies in the union of wills.” (Guerry, pp. 3-4).
True love lies in the union of wills. In the Incarnation we see the divine will and the human will truly joined, dwelling in the infant Christ, and from the beginning He does the Father’s will and shows us what it is and how it is to be lived out. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings thou hast brought forth perfect praise. Perhaps that is why Jesus in his ministry invites us to receive the kingdom of God like a child. As a newborn is completely dependent on its mother, and a mother seeing her newborn knows that unconditional love and attachment in her child’s eyes, so we see in the nativity, in the child in the manger see God’s design for our relationship with Him.
He wants our will, our hearts, to be joined to his, God wants our actions to show his actions; God wants our giving to be like his giving; generous, full and complete.
And so we kneel before the Christmas crèche, and see what has come to pass. Gazing on the nativity, seeing God’s purpose for our life and his call to us revealed what is to be our reponse?
My prayer is that it will be to imitate Jesus so that we too may know and do the Father’s will. It begins with giving our hearts anew as we knell to receive the one who comes, as babe, as king, as bread, as wine, as Savior and Lord. “ Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.” Amen.
“Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast brought perfect praise”