From the night you were born, from that very first picture we saw, of you on the scale, your face red and your mouth wide open, wailing at the surprise of being out in the world, your Uncle Justin and I loved you so much. We kept looking at that picture, with huge smiles, and tears running down our cheeks, so excited and so much in love with you, our Number One nephew.
We met you for the first time when you were six weeks old. I love the picture of your Uncle Justin looking down at you, sleeping, in your stroller. We loved you before we had even met you, but when we finally got to hold you, we were smitten.
I know that I would do practically anything to make sure that you are safe in the world. Your Uncle Justin would do the same. We, along with your parents and grandparents, and all of the people who love you so much, want to make sure that you have what you need to be safe, to be warm, to be fed. At the end of the day, I think that’s what most parents (and godparents, too!) want–for their children to be safe, warm, and fed. For them to grow up healthy and strong. For them to be free to be the people God calls them to be. To live in a peaceful world, where kids don’t go to bed at night hungry or afraid. I hope that, as you grow, you will know that your Uncle Justin and I hope so much for you to live in a world that is better than the one we live. And we hope that the work that we do helps to contribute to that–a better world–for kids here in Egypt, but also in South Sudan, and the United States, and in so many places around the world.
While you’ve been visiting Mimi and Papa in Indiana, Mimi and your mom have sent us lots of funny pictures, and a few videos, of you playing in the snow, and reading with Papa, and feeding yourself spaghetti at La Cucina. You have grown so much in the past 20 months and you don’t like to sit still for very long anymore. But when you were a little, tiny baby, that first time we met you, you could barely hold up your head. Uncle Justin hadn’t spent much time around babies, and we had to remind him to support your head. Because even though you’d try to hold it up by yourself, you weren’t strong enough yet to hold it up for very long, and it would come crashing down on our shoulders, or if we were really unlucky, our chins.
Your mom and dad had to do everything for you, and we tried to help however we could while we visited, including babysitting for you while your mom and dad went out to dinner without you for the first time since you were born. You were really good at eating, and crying, and sleeping, and yes, pooping, but you needed someone to feed you, and burp you, and change your diaper. You, like all babies, were completely helpless. You needed other people to help you, to take care of you, and to help you grow.
This is exactly the same way God came into the world, in the baby Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel, the angel tells Joseph that the baby Mary will have shall be named Jesus. And Matthew goes on to write that “all this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet,” Isaiah… “‘and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’”
As you grow, I hope you will learn all kinds of names for God. Rock, I am, Good Shepherd. Wonderful counselor, almighty God. Prince of Peace. But, maybe most of all, I hope that you will know this one. “God with us.” For me, that is the promise of Christmas all wrapped up into three little words. “God with us”–Emmanuel–came into this world, just like you did, as a tiny little baby who was completely reliant upon the people who loved him. The people who cradled his head so that he wouldn’t come crashing into their chins. The people who looked down at him and would have given anything to make sure that the world he lived in was safe and peaceful.
People didn’t expect God to come that way. They expected that God-with-us would be powerful. That he would be a mighty, strong, and brave warrior. That he would punish his enemies and come with vengeance. But one of the things I love about reading the Bible is seeing all of the stories about God surprising people. Like when he surprised Abraham and Sarah with a baby, even though they were really old. The way he helped the Israelites find a way out of the slavery in Egypt, and then surprised them with manna in the wilderness so they would have something to eat. The way he helped Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego out of the fiery furnace, and Daniel out of the lion’s den. The story of Jonah trying to get away, and then ending up in the belly of a great, big fish. There are so many stories of God surprising people and also so many ways that God tried to get people to understand that God’s mission is mercy, grace, and love. That God’s vision is about making sure that the people who are hungry have food, and that God’s creation is taken care of, and that the people who are sick are healed. That all of God’s people would live in a safe world and that they would know peace, down to the depths of their bones.
So when Jesus comes, not as the mighty warrior, but as the helpless, little baby, its no wonder that people were surprised. I’m still surprised that God would choose to come into the world this way. When we remember that God came just like you did, I wonder what would happen if we thought about the feelings that are stirred up inside of us when we hold little babies, that deep, deep love, but also that deep, deep desire for peace. What would happen if we remembered that God came into the world that way? If we worked toward guaranteeing that the world you grow up in is better than the world we live in right now. And not just you, but kids in Egypt, South Sudan and Sudan. In Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. In the Philippines and Indonesia and Nigeria and the United Staes and throughout the whole world.
When I was in seminary, studying to become a pastor, I had a really wise, old professor named Dr. Klein. He taught us about the Old Testament and he was so smart that he could read his Bible in Hebrew and translate it on the spot for us. When he talked about Isaiah, chapter 7, where Isaiah tells King Ahaz to look for a sign–a little baby–who will be called Immanuel, Dr. Klein said to us, “It is a challenge that God is with us–look what God with us did! He challenged us to take care of the people who are hard to care for, he challenged us to be servants, he challenged us to give up everything to follow him.” And then he reminded us that God loves us so deeply that God hopes that we will be transformed.
I don’t know what you will grow up to be. But I hope that, as you grow, you will pay attention to the people around you who need a little extra love. That you will be kind to the people who are hard to love. That you won’t stop noticing the people on the streets of New York who are hungry or sick or really, really poor. That there will be something stirring inside of you that will work toward making a difference in the world.
As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, know that your Uncle Justin and I love you and miss you very much. We hope that you will trust the promise of God-with-us, and be challenged by it, and find a whole lot of hope in it. We hope that you will know that you are loved by God-with-us, as are God’s children all around this world that God loves so much that he came into it, not as a mighty warrior, but, just like you and me, as a little, tiny baby. As Emmanuel, which means “God-with-us.”