Crib and Cross
Topic: Biblical Verse: Luke 1:39–1:56
The Fourth Sunday in Advent
December 22-23, 2012
“Crib and Cross”
In these finals days before Christmas, ‘tis the season when people pack up their cars and hit the roads, board crowded airplanes, or climb onto trains for holiday travel. In my recent trip to Iowa for my mother’s 90th birthday on December 11, there were two billboards that captured my attention, both of which speak to this final Sunday in the season of Advent. The first was on I-29 north from Omaha up to the little town in northwestern Iowa where my mom lives and where I grew up. In huge red letters on a stark white background was this message on the first billboard: “Prepare to meet thy God” (Amos 4:12). That is a sober reminder of Jesus’ second coming – his final Advent, when we all will meet our God. I don’t know who put this billboard up, but it struck me that the intended message was fear-based; to scare people into repentance and somehow “get right with God.” It left me feeling unsettled. The second billboard was just outside the next little town over from where I grew up. There was a large picture of Jesus with these words from the final book of Scripture: “Surely, I am coming quickly” (Revelation 22:20). Whereas the first billboard might conjure up fear, the second spoke of promise – the promise of Jesus’ return and our own deliverance. How we understand and interpret Jesus’ second advent really hinges on how we understand and interpret Jesus’ first advent. His first advent is before us today as Mary “went with haste” and traveled to the Judean hill country to visit her cousin, Elizabeth. The unborn child within Elizabeth leaped within her to greet the unborn child within Mary. Elizabeth gives thanks to God for this blessing that the “mother of my Lord should come to me” (Luke 1:43). Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Mary bursts into a song of praise, the Magnificat, in praise of God’s almighty power to save and redeem. All this is through the Child within her, who would save and redeem his people not only through his crib but also through his cross. That is the theme for the sermon on this Fourth Sunday in Advent: “Crib and Cross.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
Last Sunday at the 10:45 a.m. worship service, the children in our Sunday School presented their Christmas Program. Beyond the hub-bub and cuteness factor that goes with the annual Christmas Program, we can overlook just how important this really is. Some of our first faith memories are from such programs: dressing up as a shepherd, angel, even Mary or Joseph. By acting out this beloved story of salvation, we become part of it and it becomes part of us. For anyone who has ever been a Sunday School teacher and worked with kids to get ready for the Christmas program, God bless you all! This is not unlike herding cats in trying to pull everything together, and oftentimes it doesn’t come together until the actual day of the program. While visiting my mom, we attended the midweek Advent worship service in my home congregation. The big Christmas tree at the front of the sanctuary reminded me of a Children’s Christmas Program that yours-truly was in many years ago. I don’t remember too much about it except for two things: the name of the program was “The Cross in the Christmas Tree,” and that big Christmas tree at the front of the sanctuary had a large lighted cross in it. When the lights in the sanctuary were turned down, there was this vivid image of a bright and shining cross there in the boughs of the Christmas tree. It is a memory that has stuck with me over the years. The crib of Mary’s child will lead to his cross. Mary’s song of praise will give way to tears and deep sorrow as her Son dies upon that cross. That is the truth of Christmas: Jesus is born to suffer and die for us all.
Today’s Old Testament lesson (Micah 5:2-5a) identifies the birthplace of Mary’s child there in the Judean hill country – not too far from where Zechariah and Elizabeth lived: Bethlehem of Ephrathah, little and insignificant among the tribes of Judah except as the birthplace of King David (1 Samuel 16:1ff.). A greater and mightier King than David, David’s own descendent, would come from Bethlehem: the promised Messiah who would fulfill God’s purpose. But it is today’s Epistle lesson (Hebrews 10:5-10) that speaks more of that crib and cross theme, of the cross in the Christmas tree. Here, the Word of God speaks of Jesus: “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me” (Hebrews 10:5b). That body, so small, vulnerable and fragile as it nestled in Mary’s womb, would grow like each one of us until the appointed time – not just the appointed time of his birth and crib, but the appointed time of his suffering and death upon the cross for us and for our salvation. As the final verse from the Epistle lesson tell us: “… we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10).
If ever there were a witness to the sanctity of life in the womb, it is here in this joyful meeting between Mary and Elizabeth. In the midst of a culture where unborn human beings are devalued and dispensable, where child sacrifice is alive and well, the people of Christ are called to be witnesses to the value, dignity, and holiness of all life. As the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said, “It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.” Upholding and affirming the sacredness of God’s gift of life begins with the crib of Christ, who was born like us, but unlike us went to the cross to pay the awful price for our sin and disobedience. No matter where we’ve come from, no matter what we’ve done, no matter what our past may be, we have been redeemed, forgiven, and restored to God our heavenly Father by Jesus’ holy birth, his innocent suffering and death. And so as we prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ birth, from his crib to his cross, we sing with Mary: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-47a). Amen.