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What Child Is This?
What child is this? Do you know that song? That’s the theme of our message this morning.
What child is this
Who laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthem sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?[i]
That’s really THE QUESTION for Christmas isn’t it? What child is this? And the answer to that question is countless.
Some say that he was just a good teacher. But good teachers don’t claim to be God.
Some say that he was simply a perfect model. But perfect models don’t hang around prostitutes, drunkards, gluttons and unclean tax collectors.
Others say that he was a religious lunatic. But religious lunatics don’t speak the kind of words he spoke—clear and articulate and perceptive and penetrating—nor do they draw women and children to themselves, nor are they served by men with the intellect of Peter, John, Luke and Paul.
Some say he was a holy hypocrite, perpetrating a hoax like every other would‑be savior. But holy hypocrites have a way of staying dead.
Others say he was a passing ghost, but ghosts don’t have flesh to crucify and blood to spill.
And many have said he didn’t exist at all. He’s just a mythological figure—a figment of one’s imagination. But mythological figures don’t set the calendar for history nor are they the subject of myriads of books.
What child is this?
Have you ever asked a question everyone already knew the answer to? What child is this? Really? It’s Jesus, of course!
We all know that—even children know that … or do we?
When the disciples were caught in a great windstorm in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, the child who once lay on Mary’s lap sleeping, was now found sleeping in the back of the boat. As the threatening waves broke into the boat, Jesus was awakened to save them from the storm. He commanded the wind and the waves, “Peace! Be still!” And guess what? The storm immediately stopped “and there was a dead calm.”[ii]
In turn, the disciples spoke to one another asking,
“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him!”[iii]
The obvious answer comes from Scripture. It was a no brainer. Only God himself can save us from the raging sea.
In the Book of Psalms, the psalmist sings of the mighty deeds of the LORD:
“You silence the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples.”[iv]
“You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.”[v]
“Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices, and tell of his deeds with songs of joy. Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters; they saw the deeds of the LORD, his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their calamity; they reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits’ end. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.”[vi]
Somehow, the one who spoke to the storm must be God. But it was too spectacular to say it. This revelation of Jesus’ power over nature was too good to be true. How could they keep this thundering truth to themselves? If Jesus, God in the flesh, was with them in the boat … who then is this?
Likewise, we sing at Christmas, “What child is this?” We know the answer. It has been plainly revealed. And it is almost too wonderful to witness the splendor of it all. God himself has become one of us in this child, and has come to rescue us from the storm of sin and death. The Word, from eternity past, showed up in the form of a human being—to live among us.[vii] Our loving Creator has clearly made a choice to come near and connect with his created beings while living in the midst of his creation. So it is fitting that during times like Christmas, we wonder, we marvel, we declare in awe, “What child is this?”
What prompts this question, though, is not only that God had become flesh, but that he had come among us in this way—in this shocking poverty. The first stanza of the song gives us the glory we expect: “Whom angels greet with anthems sweet.” That’s the kind of arrival we expected—a vast heavenly army of angels whose praises to God light up the night sky. But even here there’s a glimpse of the unexpected. Who are the angels’ audience? Lowly shepherds!
Shouldn’t they be singing to the religious establishment and elite of Israel? Shouldn’t they have appeared to those who have been waiting for the coming of the Messiah? Shouldn’t the shepherds take a number and get behind the king and his court along with the priests and the scribes to see him? This only goes to show, how low God will go, to raise us up in an intimate relationship with him.
Christmas commemorates more than just the birth of Christ. It also presses us forward in his story, beyond the lowliness of the manger to a life of lowly sacrifice. And finally, to the ultimate lowliness, to be unjustly condemned and crucified as a criminal—the most grotesque of Roman public executions. As the apostle Paul revealed in the Spirit:
“And being found in human form, he [Jesus] humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”[viii]
Some may suspect we are souring and stealing the season’s joy when we sing, “Nails, spear shall pierce him through …” Why can’t we leave that line for Good Friday? Leave the cute and cuddly picture of the Baby Jesus alone. Please spare us the nails and spear along with the blood and gore.
But the Word-made-flesh, entering our world without a rugged cross, is nowhere near good news. Christmas will be empty at best, if we were to sever the link between the birth of the child in Bethlehem and death of the Christ in Jerusalem. But Jesus crosses the great divide between God and man—heaven and earth. And he comes not in judgment, but in mercy—not in terror, but in truth. He did this for us. Christmas is for us only because his life is for us, his death is for us, and his victory over sin is for us. Therefore, the line, “Nails, spear shall pierce him through,” doesn’t ruin Christmas. Rather, it empowers us to sing praises to God for the greatest gift he could ever give us. What child is this? Jesus is the answer to the question. He is the reason for the season!
“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”[ix]
[i] “What Child Is This,” by William C. Dix, Hymn # 61 from Lutheran Worship
Tune: Greensleeves, 1st Published in: 1642
[ii] Mark 4:39.
[iii] Mark 4:41.
[iv] Psalm 65:7.
[v] Psalm 89:9.
[vi] Psalm 107:29.
[vii] John 1:14.
[viii] Philippians 2:8.
[ix] Isaiah 9:6.