Grace and Truth
First Baptist Richmond, December 25, 2022
Isaiah 9:6; John 1:14
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given….
When my daughters were little, we used to watch movies on a VCR. Do you remember VCR’s? They were Video Cassette Recorders, which you could use to record your favorite television shows on big, bulky VHS cassettes. But you could also use them to watch the movies you rented at “the movie store,” where you might spend as much time as it took to watch a movie just walking up and down the aisles looking for the right one. That was usually my job, and when the girls were little it was hard: I was always looking for a movie they would enjoy but also one that wouldn’t bore their parents (please don’t get me started on “Thumbelina”). So, when Ellie was seven and Catherine was four I took a chance on a PG movie written by George Lucas and directed by Ron Howard, a movie called “Willow.”
Some of you have seen it.
It’s kind of a fairy tale with special effects, released in 1988 (just a few years after another of Lucas’s big special effects movies came out: Star Wars). But this one is about a little person named Willow who, like Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, goes on a hero’s journey and comes home changed forever. It begins with a swirl of mist and these ominous words superimposed on the screen: “It is a time of dread. Seers have foretold the birth of a child who will bring about the downfall of the powerful queen Bavmorda. Seizing all pregnant women in the realm, the evil queen vows to destroy the child when it is born.” Does that sounds like anyone else you know? Maybe Pharaoh, from the Old Testament Book of Exodus, who ordered that every male child born among the Hebrews should be thrown into the river and drowned? And get this: when a baby girl is born in this movie (not a boy, but a girl) who “bears the mark,” the midwife (just like those midwives in the Book of Exodus, Shiphrah and Puah) spares her life! She swaddles the child in a bundle of rags and carries her out of the castle. Over the next few months she is on the run, feeding and caring for the baby as she takes her up and over the high mountains and into the peaceful valley on the other side.
But then one day, she hears the howl of the dogs who have been searching for her—dogs who look like the very hounds of hell—with shaggy manes like lions and teeth sharp enough to tear a baby to bits. The midwife runs to the river, carrying the child, and hastily builds a kind of nest out of dry sticks and grass. She puts the child into the nest and pushes her out into the river (sound like anyone else you know?) just before the dogs get to her. And that’s when the camera cuts away to this baby floating peacefully down the river, looking up toward heaven with a smile on her face. She’s a beautiful baby. Her name is Elora Danan. And I remember that when my girls saw her for the first time they oohed and aahed. They wanted to back the movie up and have a second look (which you can do with a VCR. You can even pause the movie, as I did, so they could get a good look at Elora Danan’s face). She was beautiful, with big, blue eyes and a forelock of curly red hair. But then I pushed the play button and the basket drifted down the river, through dangerous rapids and over deep pools before finally coming to rest at a bend in the river near a Nelwyn Village. The Nelwyns are the little people in this movie, and two of their children find the baby and run back to tell their father: Willow, a farmer, who is plowing his field… with a pig.
When he gets to the river he can see right away that it’s a Daikini baby (those are the big people), and tells his children that they can’t keep it and should probably just push it back out into the river so that someone else can find it. But that’s when Willow’s wife comes to see what all the fuss is about, and when she sees the baby she takes it out of the river, holds it in her arms, and that’s the end of that. She takes it home, and in spite of Willow’s protests cares for it. She hands it to him at one point while he is in mid-rant and you can see his face change as he looks down at the baby and she smiles up at him. He begins to feel love for her.
All is well until a few days later, when there’s a big festival in the village, and right in the middle of it the death dogs come racing into the crowd, hunting for the baby, and a day of celebration almost ends in tragedy. The brave Nelwyn soldiers are able to kill the dogs but the village elders want to know what they were looking for. And Willow tells them: it’s this baby. And that’s when they charge Willow with the task of taking the baby to the Daikini crossroads and giving it back to one of its own people.
I’m not going to tell you the entire movie. I only wanted to point out that through it all—through a long and difficult journey; through kidnappings, and capture by some even littler people, and treacherous river crossings; through chance encounters with handsome warriors and hideous trolls; through daring escapes in runaway wagons and down snowy mountains; through fierce battles with two-headed monsters and an epic showdown with the evil queen herself—Willow takes care of this baby, he delivers it to the appointed place, and at the end of his journey he has become a hero. And, as in all hero’s journeys, he discovers things about himself that he didn’t know before: about how brave he can be when he has to, how purposeful he can be when he is on a mission, and how able he is to do what he thought before was impossible.
I mention all this only because it occurs to me on this Christmas morning that we, too, have been given a baby. In Isaiah, chapter 9, the prophet says, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given.” And yes, at some point, he will be called “Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace,” but at this point, on the day of his birth, he is just a tiny, helpless baby. He needs someone to take care of him and the prophet may be looking at us. That’s one of the things that struck me about that movie: that baby was so vulnerable. Do you know that word? It means “capable of being wounded.” Somehow Willow (who wasn’t the most likely person who could have been found) ended up with one of the most vulnerable creatures in the world—a human baby—and was asked to carry it and care for it through some of the most dangerous circumstances you can imagine. Suppose that we, too, have been given a child, and that we, too, have been asked to care for it in the dangerous circumstances of our own reality?
In our time there aren’t as many people as there used to be who believe in God, or who know the story of Jesus’ birth, or who care much about him one way or another. But we do! “We have seen his glory, glory as of a Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”[i] We know that this child will grow up to be the Savior of the World! Suppose we took it upon ourselves today to guard this child’s life as if our own lives depended on it, because of course our own lives do? Suppose we took it upon ourselves to carry him in our hearts the way Willow carried that other child in his arms, to protect him and provide for him? And suppose we took it upon ourselves to tell his story to everyone we meet along the way, so that they, too, would come to know and love this child?
That’s what Mary did. She wasn’t asking for a child. She wasn’t ready to have one. But unto her a child was born, unto her a Son was given. And she cared for that child as Willow cared for little Elora Danan, even though she knew, as old Simeon had told her, that a sword would pierce her own soul, also. She brought that child up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. He grew in wisdom and stature, and in divine and human favor. And when he had reached maturity he started on his own hero’s journey, one that would, eventually, lead to his death. But it isn’t too much to say that Mary—when she stood there at the foot of his cross, the pain of his suffering like a sword run through her own heart—it isn’t too much to say that she was a hero, too, the mother of Jesus, the one who loved him and cared for him from the time he was a helpless baby.
And who knows what we might become if we accept this mission? If we take this child from the manger today and carry him in our hearts into a world that barely knows him and scarcely loves him? If we defend his life with our own lives and share his story with the world, who knows what kind of songs they might sing about us when we ride back into town, our heads held high, our mission accomplished? This is not your usual Christmas sermon, friends, but it may be a timely reminder that “unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given.” That is no small gift,
And no small responsibility.
—Jim Somerville © 2022
[i] John 1:14