What Child Is This?
What Child is This? by Rev. L. John Gable
December 17, 2017
The carol we’ve just sung asks the question, “What child is this?” Perhaps that is every parent’s question as they gaze down at their newborn infant sleeping soundly in their arms. Who are you, little one? What will you grow up to be like? Where will life take you? What joy will you bring and what sorrow will you have to endure? Every child holds a measure of hope and promise for the future. What of this child?
This is the question surely Mary and Joseph must have asked about their new born son. Each had been visited by angels telling of His extraordinary conception. Each had been made aware of the prophecies of old which were coming to fulfillment in His birth, even as they were told in advance of the impact of His life and the meaning of His death. One need not imagine very hard that these newly minted, soon to be parents were asking, “What child is this?”
And that question, asked even before He was born, took on new meaning the day of His birth. Little did Mary and Joseph know that the terrible inconvenience of their having to travel from their hometown of Nazareth to the little village of Bethlehem, presumably to pay their taxes and be enrolled in a census, was really God’s machination to get the mother of the Messiah in the right place at the right time for His birth. Centuries before the prophet Micah announced that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, not Nazareth, which meant that somehow the mother of the Messiah had to be in Bethlehem as well. Who was this child that even in utero God would manage the dictates and movements of the Roman Empire to ensure His birth? What child is this?
The events surrounding His nativity did little to answer that question. The movement of stars, the angelic announcement to shepherds, the heavenly chorus, the on-set of visiting Magi, only added to the mystery and majesty surrounding His birth. Admittedly Mary had been told that her baby would “be great and called the Son of the Most High; that the Lord would give to Him the throne of His ancestor David; that He would reign over the house of Jacob forever and of His Kingdom there would be no end”, and Joseph similarly had been told that he was to name their son Jesus “for He will save His people from their sins”, but what did any of that really mean as they looked at their newborn son sleeping peacefully in a wooden box in a borrowed room in Bethlehem? Luke tips his hand that all was not yet crystal clear even for them by recording “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them, but Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:18-19) What child is this, indeed?
Just as this question anticipated Him, so it also followed Him throughout His life. Everywhere Jesus went, every time He taught or healed or performed a miracle people would ask, “Who is this man?”
“He comes to us as one unknown” writes Albert Schweitzer, “without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow Me!” and sets us to tasks which He has to fulfill in our time.” His own parents didn’t quite understand His response when, as yet a young boy, they found Him sitting with the elders in the Temple. They thought He had been lost and left behind, but when they told Him they were worried He said, “Why were you searching for Me? Did you not know that I must be in My Father’s house?” No, they did not yet understand that about Him, and who can blame them.
When He came of age and stood up to preach in the synagogue in Nazareth, His home town, to His own neighbors and friends, people who had known Him His entire life, He read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, saying, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed Me to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 2:18). Not only did they not accept Him as the promised Messiah, they were deeply offended by His presumption, so much so that they became irate and attempted to throw Him off a cliff to kill Him. “Who do you think you are, Jesus? You are only a carpenter’s son!”
Everywhere He went people were astonished by His teachings and wondered at the miracles He performed, but only the demons and demented seemed to recognize Him for who He really was, calling Him the “Son of God”. Even those closest to Him, His chosen twelve, wondered at His power when He healed the sick and performed miracles beyond their imagining, but rather than acknowledging Him as the promised Messiah, they simply pondered “Who is this man?” At one point, His own mother and brothers came to restrain Him and take Him home because people were saying “He has gone out of His mind” (Mark 3:21), they believed He had somehow crossed the line by taking on this “Messiah complex”. Little did they understand that He actually was who His name claimed Him to be “Jesus”, which literally means “God saves” and “Emmanuel”, which means “God with us.”
Candidly, I don’t entirely fault those who walked with Him for not fully understanding who He was because there had never before been anyone like Him. It is little wonder that even those who knew Him best continued to ask, “Who are you?” “Instinctively” writes Carnegie Simpson, “we do not class Him with others. When one reads His name in a list beginning with Confucius and ending with Goethe we feel it is an offense, less against orthodoxy than against decency. Jesus is not one of the group of the world’s great. Talk about Alexander the Great and Charles the Great and Napoleon the Great if you will…Jesus is apart. He is not the great; He is the Only. He is simply Jesus. Nothing could add to that.” In a similar vein Charles Lamb adds, “If Shakespeare was to come into this room we should all rise up to meet him, but if (Jesus) was to come into it we should all fall down and try to kiss the hem of His garment.” Who is this man, for He is something more than anyone of us?
John the Baptist, Jesus’ first cousin, one who had known Him His entire life, one who had committed His own life and ministry to announcing the coming of the Messiah, had his own set of questions to ask. Imprisoned himself, John sent His disciples to ask Jesus one question, “Are You the One or should we look for another?”(Matt. 11:3) Of all people one would think John should have known who Jesus was, yet even he had his questions and needed confirmation.
“Who is this man?” is the question which followed and plagued Jesus His entire life and ministry. It was the elephant in the room everywhere He went until He finally took His disciples up to Caesarea Philippi on the very northern border of Israel with Lebanon and Syria. In that remote place, at the site of a temple to the Roman god Pan, as in “panic” and “pandemonium”, indicative of all the confusion surrounding Him, Jesus asks the clarifying question Himself, “Who do people say that I am?” And the disciples answered, “Some say Elijah or one of the prophets.” Fair enough, then He probed more deeply, “Who do you say that I am?” This was the moment of truth, did they understand who He really was or were they just as confused and misguided as all the others? It is there and then that Peter makes his now famous confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” (Matt.16:15-16) I can only imagine that in that moment Jesus heaved a sigh of relief. At least these, His closest companions, understood who He really was.
“Who are you, Jesus?” That is the question which was asked, not just at His birth, but throughout His entire life and ministry, and it is the question which continues to be asked about Him still today, “Who is this child? This man, Jesus?”
“He didn’t belong to the establishment”, writes theologian Hans Kung, “or to the revolutionary party, but neither did He want to opt out of ordinary life, to be an ascetic monk. Obviously He did not adopt the role which a saint or a seeker after holiness or even a prophet, is frequently expected to play. For this He was too normal in His clothing, His eating habits, His general behavior…So He became a skandalon, a small stone over which one might stumble…He was attacked on all sides. He did not play any of the expected roles; for those who supported law and order He turned out to be a provocateur, dangerous to the system. He disappointed the activist revolutionaries by His non-violent love of peace… He offended the passive, world forsaking ascetics by His uninhibited worldliness, and for the devout who adopted themselves to the world He was too uncompromising. For the silent majority He was too noisy and for the noisy minority he was too quiet, too gentle for the strict and too strict for the gentle. He was an obvious outsider.”
“Who are you, Jesus?” This is perhaps the question most frequently asked for the past 2000 years and, of greater importance still, it is the single most consequential question any one of us will ever ask, and need to answer, in our lifetimes. “Who is Jesus Christ?”
Good man? Great teacher? Prophet? Even the first century historian Josephus was able to write this of Him. In his book, Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus writes, “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was (the) Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day.” That is what Roman history says about this Jesus of Nazareth, but what of us, mustn’t we say more?
C.S. Lewis famously wrote, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things that Jesus said wouldn’t be a great moral teacher. He’d either be a lunatic on the level with a man who says he’s a poached egg or else he’d be a devil of hell. Either this man was and is the Son of God or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool; you can spit on Him and kill Him for a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
This question which countless others have asked before us, which we continue to ask still, “What child is this? Who is this man and what has He to do with you and me today?” is not only asked but is also answered by this carol.
“What child is this who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping? Whom angels greet with anthems sweet while shepherds watch is keeping?” That is the question, now here is the answer, “This, this is Christ the King who shepherds guard and angels sing…nails, spear, shall pierce Him through; the cross be borne for me, for you…” This is Jesus, the One and only..
So how should we respond to Him? Again the carol guides us in an invitation of faith, “Come one and all to own Him…the Word made flesh…the King of Kings, salvation brings, let loving hearts enthrone Him.”
Friends, this is the Good News of our salvation! “Joy, joy for Christ is born, the babe, the Son of Mary”, the one we call Savior and Lord. Amen.