Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Sermon: Hold the Baby

Luke 2:22-40

Every once in a while we have a new baby in the church. And it never fails that when I go to see the parent or grandparent who is holding the child that they will say to me, “Would you like to hold the baby?” And of course the answer is always, “Yes.” Holding a newborn is such a special experience. They are so tiny, so fragile, and hold so much hope for the future. What wonders will this child do? What will they be? How will they bless the world? Each child, every child brings that hope.

So imagine Simeon, imagine Anna, in our scripture today. People who had been waiting for the Messiah for so long. People who had been told that they would see the salvation of God come into the world. And then comes the moment when they get to take Jesus into their arms. Not only is this like holding every other newborn, not only are the questions of what wonders and blessings will come from his hands. But this child is so much more, and they know it.

Simeon prays as he takes the child into his arms, “Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word, because my eyes have seen your salvation. You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples. It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.”

Then he tells Mary, “This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your innermost being too.”

So Simeon knows that the child in his arms is the source of salvation, that he will reach out to the whole world, that his very existence will cause us to examine our hearts and innermost thoughts, and that tragedy will break Mary’s heart.

“The great renaissance artist Giotto captures the essence of this scene in his "Presentation at the Temple." Simeon holds the baby Jesus, his lips moving beneath his hoary beard, carefully reciting the lines of his nunc dimittis: "now may your servant depart in peace." Giotto knows his Simeon, and he knows his babies too. The infant Jesus, far from resting contentedly in his arms through this holy aria, is responding as all babies do when held by weird strangers. His eyes are narrowed and fixed in frozen alarm on Simeon. He reaches desperately for his mother, every muscle arched away from the old man toward Mary. But looking carefully at the background, we see the artist's true genius. The child seems suspended above the temple altar, that place of sacrifice. As art historian John W. Dixon puts it, "This very human baby is known, from the very beginning, to be the eternal sacrifice for the redemption of the mankind."”[1] That’s Simeon holding the child.

And then there is Anna. Anna’s exact words aren’t recorded (leave that to a bunch of male disciples) instead her speech is summarized as “She approached at that very moment and began to praise God and to speak about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Like Simeon, Anna also knew that the child would bring about the redemption of the people and she praised God for Jesus.

Imagine what she must have been thinking as she held this child in her hands! Imagine what Simeon was feeling with the future of God’s kingdom held in his arms!

And I am a bit jealous, aren’t you? Can’t you imagine Joseph and Mary coming up to you and saying, “Would you like to hold the baby?” What a joy that would be! Once in a while I have led meditations where we imagine ourselves approaching the manger in the night after Jesus has been born, and Mary asks us if we would like to hold the child. It is a way of placing ourselves in that intimate moment where God’s grace is still so new, so helpless, and the hope of what he will do is just beginning to be revealed.

Cara Callbeck tells the story of the first time she tried this type of spiritual exercise.

“Sadly lacking in imagination, I found myself struggling greatly with contemplation, and I was dragging our poor director along with me to the point that I thought he was going to “excuse” me from the Exercises altogether. Nearing Christmas, he had me discard all previous attempts and follow this one simple instruction instead: “Just spend some time holding baby Jesus.” That was supposed to be easier? I expected the experience to be as fruitless and frustrating as my prior attempts at contemplation to that point. But I trudged on, and I am so glad I did.”

“By the grace of God, I did manage to hold baby Jesus in my next attempt at contemplation. In holding that sweet, sleeping babe in my arms that night, I started to appreciate the humanity of Jesus. Babies have a way of making us feel peaceful, protective, and completely in love. There Jesus lay in my arms fully divine, but fully human, too. Just like any other baby, I could smell that lovely baby smell, marvel at his tiny hands, and count his tiny baby toes. This baby in my arms was completely dependent; he got hungry, tired, or just needed to be held. Dependent, needing, tiny—those are not qualities I had ever really associated with the divine and thus never appreciated in Jesus.”

She closes her reflection by saying, “I encourage you to do as my director instructed and spend some time just holding baby Jesus. You can’t help but fall completely in love when you hold him in your arms.”[2] [pause] I would add, try it for a week. See what you notice. What does God reveal to you as you hold Christ in your arms every day? Is it something deep and prophetic like Simeon expressed? Is it a simple joy that Cara experienced? Or is it something else?

You see, part of the joy in that meditation and in the scripture today is that, we can hold the baby. We can take Christ into our arms. Not only in our imagination, but also in other profound and mysterious ways. Christ asks to dwell in our hearts, he asks to be part of our lives, he wants us to hold him within us each and every day. All we have to do is say, “Yes. I want to hold the baby. I want to have the Salvation of God, the child of hope, the prince of peace, the light of the Gentiles, the glory of Israel, the redemption of Jerusalem, the Son of God in my arms.” You can have that.

Paul says it in Ephesians 3:16-19 as he prays for us:

“I ask that he will strengthen you in your inner selves from the riches of his glory through the Spirit. I ask that Christ will live in your hearts through faith. As a result of having strong roots in love, I ask that you’ll have the power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth, together with all believers. I ask that you’ll know the love of Christ that is beyond knowledge so that you will be filled entirely with the fullness of God.”

Paul suggests that through faith we can have Christ in our hearts, that his love can fill us with the fullness of God. It is as though we are holding the very Christ-child not only in our arms, but allowing him to touch our hearts. Now I know, this sounds kind of sappy. Clearly there is more to religion that just holding a baby. But at the same time I can think of no greater delight than holding that child. That hope. That very real representation of the love of God, in my arms today.

There is something miraculously transforming in the knowledge that God’s son is not a distant memory, not a historical event, but a continuing revelation born anew into our world in every age. Born anew into our lives, our hearts. So we can set the past behind us, and move into a new year with new blessings and new life. So we can re-experience the power and wonder of all that God is doing today.

So I ask you today – would you like to hold the baby? In your arms, in your heart?

[1] Christian Glove Networks, Inc. Illustrations by King Duncan
[2] Cara Callbeck, Reflections on Ignatian Spirituality, https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/18329/holding-baby-jesus

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