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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.






16 December 2010

Baby Jesus Got Lojack


Body Tape OutlineIn many mysteries and crime dramas, a missing person is part of the problem that investigators must overcome. Was it a voluntary disappearance, a kidnapping, or a murder? Without a person — or a body — how can we discover what happened?

Here’s a seasonal variation involving traditional holiday displays: Thieves often target nativity scenes, stealing some or all of the figurines. Hanukkah and secular Christmas decorations are similarly raided. Whether vandalism, theft for profit, or hate crimes, replacement costs can be quite high.

Now, however, high tech joins the war on holiday body-snatching. Along with video surveillance, many churches, synagogues, and others have begun installing GPS trackers in their nativity figures, menorahs, and sleigh scenes. While not a perfect solution, GPS has already led to returned Christ children and arrested thieves.

Plastic Baby JesusOf course, some Christians question the worth of putting a bundled baby doll on the lawn from Thanksgiving until New Year’s Day (or the beginning of Advent until Epiphany). They wonder what sort of deep religious message a piece of hollow plastic filled with a glowing light bulb conveys. Yet unless they oppose all religious images, most Christians welcome the annual appearance of nativity scenes — at least those that seem reasonably reverent.

A few believers opt for more symbolism. They set up a stable but only Mary and Joseph are there until through the Advent season. On Christmas, the Babe is set in the manger and shepherds pay their visit. These same people may introduce the Magi somewhere across the lawn, moving them slowly closer until Epiphany (6 January) celebrates their visit to the infant Christ. Then it all comes down until the next year.

But setting aside theft or symbolic delays in the display, what would you think of a neighbor who centered a manger in a stable on his front lawn, lit the lights, and maybe even placed statues of Mary, Joseph, animals, and Wise Men — but never set a baby in the manger? Christmas without the Christ Child? How could this be? Wouldn’t this be like building a house but intentionally omitting any bedrooms?

Some wise person might say, “But Pastor, we know that Jesus grew up and left the stable. We don’t need to keep the physical reminder.” Maybe not, but if we set out the manger, shouldn’t we also make clear that its Occupant is the “Reason for the Season”?

Crucifix: The Body of ChristI ask this because, in the absence of a security system (or the ongoing teaching of God’s people), another body often disappears — the body of this same Babe, now grown to adulthood and condemned to die for the sins of all people. Many of the same people who welcome artistic representations of the Christ Child in their nativities recoil at the notion of images of the God-Man Jesus hanging on the cross.

How can you have one without the other? Jesus didn’t come as a baby so He could attract people by His cuteness. He came as a baby so He could live a full human life — albeit in holiness and perfection — and so that He could grow up until the Father called Him to suffer and die on the cross, bearing the weight of mankind’s sins. In my mind, an empty cross testifies to much the same as an empty manger: They imply that, somehow, we just don’t need the fulness of Jesus’ humanity, especially His suffering on our behalf.

Be they beautiful Baby or cruelly tortured Man, the images remind us that we have One who intimately knows our entire human experience, birth to death, womb to tomb. Furthermore, before anything was, Jesus is, and after everything else has gone, Jesus still is. Neither manger scene nor crucifix — not even both together — fully tells the story of God’s love for fallen humanity. Yet both are part of our teaching that in Christ Jesus, God took on human flesh in order to redeem us and to restore us to an eternity of perfection.

We don’t need Lojack or OnStar to find Jesus. Instead, He finds us. Through His Word and the Holy Spirit He calls seeks us out, calling us to believe in Him and live. But in a world that offers the testimony of false prophets and liars as options for living a good life, shouldn’t we seek to give “eyewitness” testimony of the central teaching of the True Faith? As Paul wrote, “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly ... [and] God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6, 8)”

So show Jesus in the manger and on the cross. The former tells us that He came, the latter tells us why.

Thanks to Tony Bruno, host of Into the Night, for the title, which he coined in response to a news update by Miss Robin. Additional info came from GPS, Hidden Cameras Watching Over Baby Jesus at USA Today. And thanks to the question posed by the Rev. Paul T. McCain on Facebook and the responses it generated: “Why is it that many who love to put sweet baby Jesus on display, in their churches, or homes, recoil at the thought of using a Crucifix?”

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Walter Snyder is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author of the book What Do Lutherans Believe, and writer of numerous published devotions, prayers, and sermons.

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