Luke 1:39-45

December 20, 2015


Dr. Jerry Schmallengberger, former president of Pacific Lutheran Seminary in Berkeley, California, tells a hilarious story about a Christmas program that went awry.

The story concerned a Pastor Paul Dahlrimple who had a great scheme to illustrate baby Jesus coming down from heaven. Pastor Dahlrimple asked Elder Fred to help. In preparation, he carefully rigged a baby doll to an invisible fishing line, stringing it through hooks in the ceiling and across to Elder Fred’s fishing pole in the wings. The baby doll was to be baby Jesus.

As his sermon progressed, Pastor Dahlrimple would come to the words, “and Jesus came down from heaven that night and into the manger of Bethlehem.” Elder Fred was to take the cue to lower “baby Jesus” into the manger waiting down on the floor below.

The cue came, and the floating baby hovered over the manger, lowering precariously and swinging ever so slightly. But a good four or five feet above the crib, the descent came to a halt and the baby Jesus hung suspended forever so long above the manger. Pastor Dahlrimple repeated the cue, hoping Elder Fred would let out more line, but to no avail. What the good pastor could not know was that Elder Fred had come to the end of his fishing line. So there baby Jesus hung, floating above the manger, his intended destination.

Finally realizing what had happened, Pastor Dahlrimple decided to take matters into his own hands. He walked over, grabbed baby Jesus dangling there in the air and pulled him toward the crib. Naturally, he pulled Elder Fred from the wings as well, fishing pole still in hand. Embarrassed beyond belief, Elder Fred rushed back out of sight, only to yank baby Jesus back toward the heavens with him.

I don’t know about you, but I think it would’ve been fun to be present for that nativity pageant. The idea of the baby Jesus flying through the air would be a memorable experience.

Thankfully, there is no flying baby in the original Christmas story. However, there is a leaping one.

After the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to tell her she would bear a son, Mary, presumably excited and scared, goes to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, in the hill country of Judea. This was a treacherous journey from where Mary lived to where Elizabeth lived, so Mary was obviously determined to see her older cousin.

Elizabeth was married to a man named Zechariah. Zechariah was a priest. As our story begins, he and Elizabeth are advanced in years, and have no children. But the angel Gabriel came to Elizabeth just as he came to Mary and announced that Elizabeth would bear a son who was to be named John. John would be a prophet like Elijah, said Gabriel, and would fulfill Malachi’s prophecy that a special messenger would come “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” We know Elizabeth and Zechariah’s son, of course, as John the Baptist.

An interesting thing happened when Mary entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. Elizabeth was in her sixth or seventh month of pregnancy. Luke tells us that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice Elizabeth exclaimed to Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”

The baby leaped. Not as dramatic, perhaps, as “the baby flew,” but certainly more instructive.

First of all, we see here the excitement of Christmas. The baby leaped!

Dr. M. Craig Barnes of The National Presbyterian Church tells about a poem that appeared in Christianity Today by John Sea, titled, “Sharon’s Christmas Prayer.” “She was five, sure of the facts, and recited them with slow solemnity, convinced every word was revelation. She said, ‘They were so poor they had only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to eat. And they went a long way from home without getting lost. The lady rode a donkey, the man walked, and the baby was inside the lady. They had to stay in a stable with an ox and an ass. (Tee-Hee Hee) But the Three Rich Men found them because a star lighted the roof. Shepherds came and you could pet the sheep but not feed them. Then the baby was borned. And you know who he was?’ Her quarter-eyes inflated to silver dollars. ‘The baby was God.’ And she jumped in the air, whirled round, dove into the sofa, and buried her head under the cushion. Which is the only proper response to the Good News of the Incarnation.”

That’s wonderful, isn’t it? After telling the Christmas story, “she jumped in the air, whirled round, dove into the sofa, and buried her head under the cushion.” If you have ever been around a small child, you can see her doing just that.

Christmas is an exciting time. A cartoon in The New Yorker magazine a couple of years back showed God sitting majestically on a heavenly throne, with the stars twinkling all around. The planet Earth is visible in the distance. The Almighty is looking at the earth and says, “Don’t you make me have to come down there.”

But coming down here is exactly what God did. The God of all creation came into our world. The Christmas story is an exciting story. No wonder the baby leaped.

The second thing we see in this story of Mary and Elizabeth is the uniqueness of Jesus. The baby leaped. Why? Because even in the womb, John, the one who’s coming would pave the way for the Messiah, was aware that he was in the presence of the eternal one.

It’s like a story I once read about a great chief who was very proud. One day he was walking through his village boasting, “I am truly great. There is no one greater than me!”

A wise old woman came up to the chief and said, “I know one who is truly great.”

The great chief was surprised and then very angry. “What? Who is this great one? There is no one greater than me!”

The wise old woman said, “Come to my house tomorrow when the sun is at the highest point in the sky and I will introduce you to this great one.”

The great chief said, “Very well. I will come there and we shall see who is the greatest.”

The chief went home and slept very soundly to gain strength. In the morning he prepared himself carefully and put on his finest clothing. As he did he reminded himself of all the great things he could do. “There is no one greater than me!” he repeated to himself as he walked over to the old woman’s house.

When he reached the house he called out, “Old woman, I am here. It is time. Where is this other chief?”

“Come in, come in,” the old woman called.

When the chief entered the old woman’s house he saw the old woman sitting against the wall with a baby crawling on the floor beside her. The chief looked around. There was no one else there. “Where is the great chieftain you told me about yesterday?” he asked. The old woman motioned toward the baby and said, “This is the great one I told you about.”

The great chief was not amused. He yelled angrily at the old woman and shook his finger at her. “What do you mean? Don’t try to trick me. This is just a baby!”

The baby frightened by the sudden loud, angry voice began to cry. The chief became flustered. He didn’t mean to make the baby cry. He forgot about his anger and got down on his hands and knees. He pulled his Eagle and hawk feathers from his hair and brushed the baby’s cheeks with them. He pulled off his medicine bags and held them under the baby’s nose. He pulled off his necklaces and jingled them in the baby’s ears. Gradually the baby stopped crying and began to listen and watch.

The old woman smiled and said, “You see, even you, the great chief, had to stop talking to take care of the baby. In any home, in any village, the baby is truly great because even the greatest and most powerful chief, like you, must become the baby’s servant. This is how the creator planned it. The creator did not make you great so that you could boast about your greatness. The creator made you great so that you could help others who are not as strong as you.”

And from that day no one ever heard the chief boast again.

The most amazing claim that Christians make is that God came into the world in the form of a tiny baby. It is also the most appealing claim that Christians make. God could have overwhelmed us with his power and majesty. Instead, God came to earth in the person of a helpless babe. No one would make up such a claim. It is fantastic, yet it is true. The baby leaped because of the uniqueness of Christ.

Finally, the baby leaped because the plan of God had been fulfilled. We cannot separate Christmas from the entire Christ event. The coming of Christ is part of a far greater drama. God was at work through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ redeeming the world to himself, a work that continues to this day.

In a book titled Whispering the Lyrics, Dr. Tom Long takes us back to an ugly time in our own history:

“During the prime days of the struggle for racial integration in the South, black civil rights workers—‘freedom riders’ they were called– would travel on buses from city to city, challenging segregationist laws. Sometimes they were greeted with violence; often they were arrested. In one town, a bus was halted by the police and the passengers booked and jailed. While they were there, the jailers did everything possible to make them miserable and to break their spirits. They tried to deprive them of sleep with noise and light during the nights. They intentionally over salted their food to make it distasteful. They gradually took away their mattresses, one by one, hoping to create conflict over the remaining ones.

“Eventually the strategies seem to be taking hold. Morale in the jail cells was beginning to sag. One of the jailed leaders, looking around one day at his dispirited fellow prisoners, began softly to sing a spiritual. Slowly, others joined in until the whole group was singing at the top of their voices. The puzzled jailers felt the entire cellblock vibrating with the sounds of a joyful gospel song. When they went to see what was happening, the prisoners triumphantly pushed the remaining mattresses through the cell bars, saying, ‘You can take our mattresses, but you can’t take our souls.’”

Tom Long says, “It was the hymn singers who were in jail, but it was the jailers who were guilty. It was the prisoners who were suffering, but the jailers who were defeated. It was the prisoners who were in a position of weakness, but it was the broken and bigoted world of the jailers … that was perishing.”

Friends, you can’t stop God. Once God begins moving, the best you can do is get out of the way. God was at work at the manger of Bethlehem. God was at work redeeming the world to himself. No wonder the baby leaped. Christmas is an exciting time. God has come into the world. God’s plan for the world is being fulfilled. It is a time for leaping with love.