One of my mentors in ministry was a baby whisperer. John Fuhrmeister loved babies, and they loved him in return. John had a distinctive way of handling babies. He would jostle them around lightly in his arms, turning them so that he could look fully into their faces and then commune with them. If they were happy and cooing when he got them, they relaxed into concentrated bliss in his arms. If was handed a screaming mass of fury, in his hands, they settled and became composed.
The first time John attempted to pass me a newly baptized infant, you would have thought someone had asked me to accept a hand grenade that had the pin pulled out. I suspect I recoiled. I could count on one hand the number of babies I had held until that day. Babies seemed outrageously fragile and demanding creatures. I didn’t even know how to put my arms in place to hold a wobbly head and expected that at any moment a baby could leap out of my untutored grasp.
But, under John’s tutelage, I held that infant child and – as we are – I was transfixed with awe. I looked into that tiny face and wondered “Who will this child be?” To look into the newly forming expression of an infant and to hold their little bodies seems to be the very definition of hope.
Look into the faces of mothers and fathers as they look into the face of their newborn infant and you see people filled with hope. Hope and fear. Fear of what might go wrong, what might happen. Illness and injury, crime and conflict. Hope for the future. For health and happiness. For family and success. But a deeper hope also. Hope a life of meaning and purpose. Hope for love – to receive it and give it. Hope for a love that casts out fear.
It is possible that all this talk about babies is painful to you. Perhaps you longed to have children and never did, or you mark in your heart babies who were never born or children who lived lives shorter than their parents. That’s just one of the ways the Christmas story can be difficult for people.
Perhaps Christmas is hard because it brings up other losses – parents and spouses, friends and siblings. Traditions that no longer are. For many families that expanse from Thanksgiving to New years can be painful, frayed with tension and words that are left unspoken or should have been left unspoken.
This year, we walk into Christmas with many people finding our national political landscape and discourse painful and fear-provoking. And now the recent emerging and mounting disclosures of sexual misconduct have uncovered painful memories and realities for women and men.
If you are just about now thinking, “This is a depressing turn in the sermon. I was feeling pretty happy about Christmas when I walked in here”, I ask you to remember that we worship here with people who carry enormous burdens. All around us, people are struggling, and many feel it more keenly during Christmas. Our attention and our tenderness to those who are suffering is part of our calling as Christians. And the pain of God’s people is the very reason God was born among us.
The whole of the good news of Jesus Christ is born in the birth of human life. The gospel writer Luke makes this plain by not only vividly describing the holiness of the birth of Jesus. Luke tells us too of this other child – Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son – John. As the prophets promised, the kingdom of God is born among us – as one of us.
Zechariah, after doubting the good news of Gabriel and his life-altering experience of muteness, held his son and like so many parents, before him and since, looked into that infant face and knew the presence of God. In his joy, Zechariah sings of the promises God has made and the promises God is keeping and of the promises God will keep through his child.
Zechariah has listened to the messenger of God and believes his son will make the people ready to receive God’s hope. Zechariah holds his child and hopes for the child. He also knows the baby is hope for the world.
Just as Zechariah looked upon his son, so does God look upon you. God hopes in you. God gazes upon you and is filled with hope in the possibility of your life. God has made a promise to be with you, and God made you to be a fulfillment of God’s promises.
That’s a fearful message to receive, and like Zechariah, many of us are inclined to doubt it. Our doubt and our fear are enough to silence us. We sit in the shadow of death as Zechariah puts it, frozen, silent and fearful.
It is fear and the doubt that silenced Zechariah for a time. Yet, when he follows God’s will – and unexpectedly names his son John –his tongue is loosed. Zechariah is free. In his joyous song, he says, “We have been rescued from the power of our enemies. we can serve without fear.”
Do not be afraid. Listen to the messages of God. Let your life speak. God is with you. You don’t need to be afraid to use the gifts God has given you. You don’t need to be afraid to proclaim hope by living a life that is filled with God’s goodness and hopefulness.
As God’s own child, who will you be? For what purpose have you been created? How will you fulfill God’s hope for you?
John would do it in the wilderness with water and word. But we each have our own ways.
Find those who sit in the shadow and sit next to them. Weep with those who suffer. Give love. Lose the tongues of those who can scarcely speak from fear. Write letters on behalf of those who have no voice. Buy more food than you need and give it to those who don’t have what they need. Believe people who tell stories of injustice. Protect innocence. Acknowledge the damaging power of power and wealth. Advocate for equity over fairness. Learn to speak the truth, boldly and in love. Make way for peace with justice. Declare that the dawn is coming. Tell that God has hope for God’s people. Each one of us.
My mentor, John Fuhrmeister, never taught me the secret of how to toss infants about as wonderfully as he did. He did tell me he had a trick for commenting on babies. He said, he learned as a pastor never to look at a baby and say, “Oh, what a cute baby or what a pretty baby” because some other parent might be listening in and wonder why you hadn’t said their baby was cute. He confided, “And let’s be honest, not all babies are cute.” He told me that every time he an infant was introduced to him, he would say, “Now, that’s a baby!”
Some of us aren’t cute or pretty anymore. Some of us never were. (And you don’t say that in the workplace anyway).
God scoops us up and tosses us about and looks into our faces – red with rage, weary with weeping, filled with delight or fear, looking for comfort, the very picture of possibility. God looks at every single one of us and says, “Now that’s my child.” God holds each one of us and sees our lives filled with the hope for the world.