The Crib and The Cross are Made from the Same Wood, part 1

by Rev. L. John Gable

The Crib and the Cross are Made from the Same Wood, Part 1 by Rev. L. John Gable
December 3, 2017

Generally as we walk through the season of Advent and prepare ourselves for the celebration of the birth of our Lord we spend some time looking at Old Testament prophecies which foretell the coming of the Messiah and are often amazed at how they are fulfilled in the birth of Jesus, the One we call the Christ.  The Scriptures of the Old Testament document for us that centuries before His holy birth prophets announced His coming, and then men and women of faith waited and watched and prayed for His appearing.

Yet as I sat down with the familiar texts we read today I was struck by another kind of foretelling that is spoken of here.  Rather than seeing prophecy in “arrears”, looking back from His birth to those who went before Him, what jumped off the page for me was the prophecy that is given in “advance”- those things that were announced at His birth which foretell who He would be and what He would do in His life, and even in His death.  What struck me is that the prophecy surrounding Jesus’ birth not only looks back, it also looks forward.

Helmut Thielicke, professor, theologian, author and preacher, once wrote, “The crib and the cross are made from the same wood.”  He is not making an ecological statement about the durability of 1st century Palestinian hardwoods; rather he is stating a theological truth.  We cannot speak of Jesus’ birth without referencing His death, any more than we could speak of His death without mentioning, “Oh yes, by the way, He also had a rather remarkable birth.”  When we speak of Jesus we must recognize Him in His totality.  He is both fully human and fully divine.  His angel- announced birth cannot be set apart from His sacrificial death or from His miraculous life, much less from His glorious resurrection, for all of these events are inextricably woven together in God’s seamless and unbroken plan of salvation.  Helmut Thielicke is correct, “The crib and the cross are made from the same wood.”

Let’s turn our attention to the announcement of this birth as Matthew records it.  We are familiar with the story line.  Mary, a young, unwed woman who is betrothed to a man named Joseph, discovers herself to be chosen by God and with child by the Holy Spirit.  Hearing this news Joseph, being a righteous man, determines to divorce her quietly so as not to cause her any additional embarrassment, but then changes course after being visited by an angel of the Lord who fills him in on the divine plan.  “Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”

In this announcement Joseph, and through him, Mary and eventually the entire world, receive the Good News of who Jesus is and what He has come to do.  While every parent is thrilled to send birth announcements, few have the daring to include in them a foretelling of what their infant child will endeavor to accomplish in their lifetime.  Yet this is exactly what is being done here.

The name Jesus was a common one for little boys in those days.  It is the Hebrew name, Joshua, and it literally means “Yahweh saves” or more commonly, “God saves.”  Many of us know why we were given our names.  I am named after my father and my grandfather.  I am Laurence John the third; hence we named our son, Timmothy.  Enough is enough.  Many of us even know what our names mean.  Mine happens to mean “beloved of God.”  But few of us give the meaning of our names much significance when all we have to do is go into any souvenir shop and find it imprinted on a tin plate along with all the others, and even fewer of us actually think of the meaning of our names when we say or write them.  I can hardly imagine the response I’d get if I introduced myself, saying “Hello, I am John… beloved of God.”  Not only would people think that presumptuous of me, but that description is not unique to me at all.  Not only does it fit every one named John, it also applies to everyone, named John or not.

But that is not so with Jesus.  Jesus’ name not only states who He is- what His friends call Him on the playground, or His mother calls Him when it’s time for supper- it also announces what He has come to do.  When we say “Jesus” we are making a bold proclamation that “God saves.”  And just so we won’t miss this meaning the angel underscores it by saying, “You are to name Him Jesus for He will save His people from their sins.”  Who will save them?  He will save them.  Who He?  Jesus.  But I thought only God could save.  That is exactly the point!  What the angel is proclaiming, as well as every one of us whenever we say His name, is that “Jesus saves” because Jesus is God. “You will name Him Savior because He came to save.”

“To Save” is to rescue, to deliver, to set free.  If I am trapped in a burning building and can’t get out, I need a rescuer.  If I need to get to the hospital and can’t drive myself, I need a deliverer.  If I am bound or imprisoned, I need someone who will set me free.  This is what Jesus has done for us.  He has come to set us free from the bondage of sin which ensnares us.  He has come to deliver us from the bondage of our addictions and self-centered ways of living.  He has come to rescue us from an eternity separated from God.  He has come to do for us that which we cannot do for ourselves, namely, to save us.

For whom has He come to do this?  The angel says, for “His people”, and who might they be?  At this point in the story one would naturally think of the Jews, the people to whom God’s promise had originally been given, but very quickly Jesus spreads open those ancient doors to include all who hear and obey, all who call on His name and put their trust in His saving grace.  Friends, that includes you and me.  By His gracious invitation we become “His people”.

And what exactly is it that Jesus is saving us from?  Originally people thought the Messiah was coming to save them from their enemies, but to their surprise, and perhaps for some disappointment, Jesus was not doing that at all.  Instead, He came to save “them” from “their” sins.  Put us in to the equation, He came to save “us” from “our” sins, and to make it even more personal, He came to save “me” from “my” sins.  Our greatest enemies are not “out there”, they are “in here”.  The greatest threat to our sense of wellbeing, both now and eternally, is not a foreign enemy from a foreign shore; it is the sin and brokenness that resides right here within each of us that separates us from one another and ultimately from God.  As Pogo said, “I have seen the enemy and the enemy is me.”  That cartoon character has spoken a theological truth.  Jesus came not to save “us” from “them”, but to save “us” from “ourselves”.

And how does He do this?  The whole Gospel is written in answer to that question.  The living of His life and the sacrifice of His death are to this saving end alone.  Jesus came to save…us…from our sins.

He does this first by helping us recognize our need for change and forgiveness.  Some of us are convinced and convicted of our sin as we face the penalty of death and the threat of eternal separation from God.  Others become convinced simply by hearing the Good News of His great love for us.  Either way, until we know in the depths of our beings that we are in need of a savior, that we need someone to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, we will keep Him at arm’s length and never really accept the gift He has to offer.  So, the first step is coming to the realization that we in fact need to be saved.

The second step is then reaching out, calling out, crying out to the One who actually has the power to save us.  At that point when I finally recognize the desperate state I am in spiritually, I don’t need someone to offer me a wise word of counsel or a pious word of encouragement.  I need someone who will actually step in and act on my behalf, One who has the power to do for me what I can’t do for myself, and that One is Jesus.  He alone has the power to save, to forgive and to set free.

And then, having heard His word of forgiveness He also gives us the power to live new lives as His followers.  He doesn’t just dust us off and send us on our way to soil ourselves all over again.  Rather He empowers us to begin to live changed lives.  Just as He became incarnate once in history, so He promises to take up residence within us, enabling us to be changed from the inside out by the indwelling ministry of His Holy Spirit.

This is the work Jesus was born to do, the work He did, the work He continues to do even now.  Jesus did what His name said He would do, and all of this is announced on the day of His birth.

Now let’s fast forward to our lesson from Luke where we witness Jesus at the end of His life, hanging on a cross between two thieves like any common criminal.  Curiously, the conversation which takes place there is all about “saving”, but it is all done in sarcasm.  The people, the soldiers, even one of the others hanging beside Him, mock Him, deride Him, and scoff at Him, saying, “You came to save others, why don’t you save yourself?”  Little did they know that had He chosen to save Himself He could not have saved anyone else.  It was in His willingness to sacrifice Himself that Jesus secured the way of salvation for each of us.

So even in His dying moments He did what He came to do.  To the one who cried out to Him in faith; one who perhaps least deserved it but most needed it; to one perhaps very much like you and me, He gave the gift of salvation.

Holman Hunt, the artist who painted the familiar picture of Jesus standing at the door knocking, also painted another less famous, but no less powerful image. It shows Jesus as a young boy standing at the door of a carpenter’s shop in Nazareth stretching His limbs which had grown cramped over the bench.  As He stands there in the doorway with arms outstretched the setting sun behind Him casts His shadow against the wall of the shop, and it is the shadow of the cross.  In the background stands His mother, Mary, and seeing His shadow there is fear of the coming tragedy captured in her eyes.

If you look closely at our beautiful Christmas decorations you will notice that the Christmas trees are adorned with Easter lilies.  This point will be made again during the Lenten season when the cross we place here in the chancel will be made of Christmas trees.  This is more than mere decoration; it is a proclamation.  “The birth of Christ brought God to us, but it took the cross of Christ to bring us to God.”  His birth and His death tell the same message, “Jesus saves”.  This is who He is and what He does.  “The crib and the cross are made from the same wood.”