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Two Babies in a Manger
December 15, 2002
John 1:6-9, 19-28
by Tony Grant
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the gospel of John chapter 1 and follow along as I read verses 6-9 and 19-28. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.
8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?"
20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah."
21 And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No."
22 Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?"
23 He said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,'" as the prophet Isaiah said.
24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.
25 They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?"
26 John answered them, "I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know,
27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal."
28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
Jon Kennedy wrote an article in Silicon Valley Today entitled "A supposedly true Russian Christmas story," He says that he cannot prove that the article is true, but that he thinks it is.
It seems that in 1994, two Americans were invited by the Russian Department of Education to teach morals and ethics in their prisons, at their businesses, fire and police departments, and even at a large orphanage. They were also told they could teach from the perspective of their faith.
So they went--as witnesses to the light--like John the Baptist "to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him" (1:7). They believed that Jesus, the true light that enlightens everyone, was coming into the world (v8).
The experience of these two Americans in the Russian orphanage proved to be particularly illuminating. According to one of them, whose name is given as "Will Fish"I wonder is that is the name of a real person, or a pseudonym for an anonymous Christian who is willing to "fish for people" (Matthew 4:19)there were about a hundred boys and girls in the orphanage, children who had been abandoned, abused, and left in the care of a government-run program. Fish tells the following story of what happened when the holiday season approached and it was time for the orphans to hear, for the first time, the traditional story of Christmas.
"We told them about Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem," says Fish. "Finding no room in the inn, the couple went to a stable, where the baby Jesus was born and placed in a manger. Throughout the story, the children and orphanage staff sat in amazement as they listened. Some sat on the edges of their stools, trying to grasp every word.
Completing the story, we gave the children three small pieces of cardboard to make a crude manger. Each child was given a small paper square, cut from yellow napkins I had brought with me. No colored paper was available in the city. Following instructions, the children tore the paper and carefully laid strips in the manger for straw. Small squares of flannel, cut from a worn-out nightgown an American lady was throwing away as she left Russia, were used for the baby's blanket. A doll-like baby was cut from tan felt we had brought from the United States.
The orphans were busy assembling their mangers as I walked among them to see if they needed any help. All went well until I got to one table where little Misha sat - he looked to be about 6 years old and had finished his project. As I looked at the little boy's manger, I was startled to see not one, but two babies in the manger.
Quickly, I called for the translator to ask the lad why there were two babies in the manger. Crossing his arms in front of him and looking at his completed manger scene, the child began to repeat the story very seriously. For such a young boy, who had heard the Christmas story only once, he related the happenings accurately - until he came to the part where Mary put the baby Jesus in the manger.
"Then Misha started to ad lib. He made up his own ending to the story as he said, 'And when Mary laid the baby in the manger, Jesus looked at me and asked me if I had a place to stay. I told him I have no mamma and I have no papa, so I don't have any place to stay. Then Jesus told me I could stay with him. But I told him I couldn't, because I didn't have a gift to give him like everybody else did. But I wanted to stay with Jesus so much, so I thought about what I had that maybe I could use for a gift. I thought maybe if I kept him warm, that would be a good gift. So I asked Jesus, "If I keep you warm, will that be a good enough gift?" And Jesus told me, "If you keep me warm, that will be the best gift anybody ever gave me." So I got into the manger, and then Jesus looked at me and he told me I could stay with him - for always.'
As little Misha finished his story, his eyes brimmed full of tears. The little orphan had found someone who would never abandon nor abuse him, someone who would stay with him - for always."
[Kennedy, Jon. "A supposedly true Russian Christmas story," Silicon Valley Today, Svtoday.com/svt/dec97/122497.htm. Retrieved May 28, 2002.]
Not the Light
In our scripture today, John tells us about this same someone. Scholars generally agree that the prologue to the gospel of John (1:1-18) is a hymn, the overall purpose of which is to highlight the historical and theological significance of Jesus. Verses 6-9 are a parenthesis within this hymn. These three verses introduce John the Baptist in a manner that emphatically distinguishes him from Jesus. John "himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light" (v. 8). Some scholars maintain that the author of the gospel may be making such a forceful differentiationbetween John and Jesusin order to counter a sect claiming that John the Baptist was the light, not simply the one testifying to it. This forceful differentiation continues in vv19-28 through the voice of John when he stresses his function as a witness to one greater than himself.
Structurally, our verses serve as a bridge to move the reader from the divine pedigree of Jesus in the prologue to the main narrative of the gospel, which is the earthly mission of Jesus that unfolds through his ministry, death, and resurrection. In our verses, that is in vv6-9, 19-28, the activity of John the Baptist provides a model for all who would witness to the true light coming into the world. Such a model is particularly relevant both to our preparation for the Christ child in Advent and to our faithful witness to the risen Christ in all seasons.
The role of John the Baptist as witness is highlighted in three ways.
First, there is the unequivocal declaration of v20 that John the Baptist "confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, 'I am not the Messiah.'" vv1:6-9 already inform us that John is not the light. In vv19-28, responding to the religious authorities who are questioning his identity, John cannot be more emphatic about who he is not. He is not the Messiah, not Elijah, nor the prophet. At the same time, the Baptist knows who he is. He is the witness giving testimony that prepares the way of the Lord. John knows his purpose. He knows who he is and what he is aboutthat puts him above most people and makes him a good subject for study.
Second, in our verses today, Johns witnessing activity overshadows his baptizing activity. This does not mean that we should ignore the fact that he did baptize. After all, he is known as the Baptist, but Johns example should cause us to think about what it means to be a witness. Now, of course. We are not John the Baptist. We do not wear hair shirts and live in the desert, and we are not in a position to baptize Jesus, but we certainly can testify about Christ by professing and practicing our faith.
Third, there is the meaning of "testimony" (martyria) and "to testify" (martyrein). A testifier, a witness, is one who remembers events, facts, and persons with enough concern to make them known to others. In the gospel of John, the particular importance of being a witness is remembering Jesus and being concerned enough to make him known to others. This is reinforced in 1:20 when John the Baptist confesses ( the Greek word is homologein) he is not the Messiah. Homologein means "to confess," "to promise," "to make a statement of faith," "to bear witness." Johns promise, his creed, is that he will not forget, he will bear witness to the Christand so should we.
Twice the priests and Levites sent by the Pharisees ask John the Baptist, "Who are you?" This interrogation foreshadows the questioning Jesus himself will face later in the gospel, perhaps most memorably when an exasperated Pontius Pilate asks Jesus, "Where are you from?" (19:9).
As believers, we know where Jesus is from and what he is doing, but this passage of scripture from John chapter one is an Advent text that calls upon us to rememberto remember what Jesus means to my life, and remember in such a way that we will be encouraged to tell others. John the Baptist demonstrates a powerful example of what it means to be a witness to the true light coming into the world.
We Are Witnesses
This naturally leads us to ask: What kind of witnesses are we?
We call Jesus by the name Immanuel, which means "God is with us." In this Advent season, we discover, like the orphan Misha, that the God who came in Jesus Christ will never abuse us, but will stay with us.
As the poem says:
"God is with us"Immanuel
The name means God wishes us well
It means God will never abandon us
God does not say farewell,
God does not desert us.
God is always, always, always, with us.
God will be with us in every depressing, discouraging, and disillusioning situation. We are never completely without companionship or support.
A. Stephen Pieters writes about his struggle with AIDS. He says:
I remember that when they told me I had AIDS, two kinds of cancer and eight months to live, I felt a cosmic sense of loneliness. I had never felt so abandoned. Yes, there were people there with me, holding me, comforting me. But I realized in the depths of my heart that no one else could go through this for me: The most loving, caring person in the world could not have my bone marrow biopsies, or my spinal taps, or my chemotherapy. The most compassionate person in my life could not do the dying for me.
Just as I was feeling most sorry for myself, someone reminded me that the most compassionate, loving person in my life already did the dying for me. Jesus faced death at an early age, abandoned by many of his friends and family, and he died for all of us. And that wasn't the end of the story, of course. God raised Jesus from the dead, and Jesus is alive with us today. Immanuel: "God With Us." Still.
[A. Stephen Pieters, "Loneliness and the season of Immanuel: 'God with us,'" The Body: A Look at Spirituality and HIV, December 1995, Thebody.com/pieters/lonely.html.]
Jesus is doing his part. But we often find that we are not doing our part. We are not, like Misha, keeping Jesus warm. We are separated from the Christ child.
The first cause of separation is blindness. We do not see the manger. In our frantic search for comfort and joy, we look for lasting pleasure in all the wrong places: clubs and classes, parties and programs, Internet chatrooms, and professional conferences. Sure, some good can be found in these gatherings, but they also distract us from the one place we can find unconditional acceptance and unending peacein the manger. It is only in a close relationship with Jesus Christ that we discover how truly valuable we are, as children of God.
The second cause of separation is our incessant busyness. We just do not have time for the manger. In this Advent season in particular, our days are driven by endless office parties, school concerts, and shopping excursions, not to mention the cultural requirements of holiday decorating and Christmas-card-writing. Is it not ironic that the escalating demands of the season prevent us from focusing on the "reason for the season?" Perhaps we should carve out some time this week for Jesus. Pretend that the Christ child has been born this day in your particular house, requiring you to simply stay home and keep him warm.
The third cause of separation from Christ is doubt. Sometimes we do not believe in the manger. The world is such a violent place, and so often victory seems to go to the powers with the most weapons of mass destruction and the most ruthless tactics. What chance does a baby in a manger have against suicide bombers, serial killers, machine-gun-toting terrorists and brutal, corrupt governments? It is not a fair fight. Yet, no single life has changed the world more than the life of the Bethlehem baby.
Here is the good news. There is always room for another baby in the manger. If we make the trip to Bethlehem, we find the One who will stay with us on our journey, every step of the way, and will guide us toward an everlasting kingdom of love and peace. If we give this baby comfort and support, we will find true comfort and support for ourselves as well.
In politics, you want to have certain groups on your side. You may want the unions, or big business, or the religious right, or maybe the liberal lobby. Whatever your constituency, you need them to get elected.
If we want to enjoy life, we need to have God on our side. We want God with us, not against us. Jesus makes this possible. The life of Jesus points us to the light. The death of Jesus was in our place and on our behalf. He died for your sin and mine. As the Son of God, his life was valuable enough to trade for our lives. His death set us free from the penalty that we deserved.
But Advent is more than the pursuit of personal peace. In this time of preparation for Christmas, we are also challengedchallenged to testify to the power of Christ in our own lives, and to tell the world what Immanuel is about.
That is what Will Fish and his colleague did when they traveled to Russia. That is what little Misha did when he put two babies in the manger. That is what John the Baptist did when he came as a witness to testify to the light of Christ, so that all might believe through him (v. 7). I mentioned that John is known as the Baptist, but I should note that he is never identified as "the Baptist" in the gospel of John, and he consistently shifts the focus away from baptism and toward Jesus. John has one function in this gospel, and one function only, to witness to Jesus (v. 8).
Our challenge as Christians is never simply to stay close to Jesus and to enjoy his forgiveness, acceptance and peace. We also need to explain to the world why we are choosing to be one of two babies in the manger.
Jesus invites you to join him in the manger. Enjoy him always, and share him in all ways. Maybe you should figure out a new way to share Jesus this Christmas. More and more people are out of work. Maybe we should find a family in need, and help them do Christmas. I know some of you have already done that. Or, we could promise to pray in a consistent way for a troubled region of the world. Or, we could brainstorm with others about creative and compassionate ways to reach out to the neighborhood. Or we could teach a Sabbath School class. Or we could ponder how best to live out our Christian faith in the workplace. Or we could include in our New Year's resolutions a commitment to daily prayer and Bible study. Or perhaps we could talk with friends about what Jesus means to us, and why we feel a need to be close to him.
The invitation has been extended. How will you respond? How will you R.S.V.P.? Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 2/12/03