Babette's Feast is a marvelous film based on a short story by Isak Dineson. It is a gentle meditation on life, love, faith and the consequences of our choices. It is also a story about the grace of God that fills our lives and comes to us as we gather this glorious Christmas morning to receive God’s gifts.
Babette’s Feast tells the story of two sisters who belong to a strict Protestant community that is so concerned with piety and following the rules that it loses its connection to joy. A woman named Babette, a political refugee from Paris, shows up at the sisters’ door, seeking work as a housekeeper. And they hire her. After winning a lottery, Babette throws a lavish feast for all the townspeople. Her neighbours are determined not to relish in the earthly pleasures she’s offering but, as they eat and drink from her table, they cannot help but enjoy themselves! In the end, Babette’s efforts do bring colour and joy to the drab, austere town.
Admirers of this story range from popular writers such as Philip Yancey to the Catholic Bishop of Rome such as Pope Francis! Dr. Mary Reichardt, professor of Catholic Studies and English at the University of St. Thomas, isn’t surprised that Pope Francis, who has spent much of his papacy talking about mercy, loves the film. She wrote in The Huffington Post:
“It is a tale of the superabundance mercy of God, born in sacrifice and poured out on the humble in a manner that reveals to them both their dignity and the joy of fellowship.”
The story’s author, Karen Blixen (her pen name was Isak Dinesen), said this about her writing: "From the ends of the earth one long cry goes up from the heart of the artist: Give me a chance to do my very best!"
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” So begins the letter to the Hebrews.
When I allow myself to read between the lines of this text, I believe I hear the heart cry of our God, the Maker of the heavens and the Earth, the Master Artist, saying:
From the ends of the universe, from one end of Creation to the other, give me a chance to do my very best for you, with you and in you. You, whom I love!
God is saying to each of us this Christmas morn: Give me the opportunity to speak to you, to explain in all kinds of ways and means that you matter to me, that you are created for dignity, that you are created for joy-filled fellowship with me and with each other.
It was through the Son, the author of Hebrews says in our text, that God created the worlds – the universe. The Apostle Paul also says this about the Son in Colossians 1. And John also says this about the Son, the Word, who is Jesus Christ, in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. Do we see God doing his best? God, who through Jesus, made the cosmic creation that King David sang about in Psalm 19 for all to hear: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”
The universe speaks of wonder and grace from the immense to the microscopic. Wide-eyed children feel the wonder as they see an eagle perched in a tree above a river or when they see a tadpole wriggling in their buckets after dipping in a pond. And don't we feel the wonder too when we gaze at such marvels?
In her book Birdology, naturalist Sy Montgomery describes the beauty and intricacy of an ordinary hummingbird.
Hummingbirds are the lightest birds in the sky… Delicacy is the trade-off that hummingbirds have made for their unrivaled powers of flight. Alone among birds, they can hover, fly backward, even fly upside down. For such small birds, their speed is astonishing … An Allen's hummingbird, for instance, can dive out of the sky at sixty-one miles per hour … Diving at 385 body-lengths per second, this hummer … even bests the space shuttle as it screams down through the atmosphere at [only] 207 body lengths per second. …. Each [hummingbird] is just a speck … yet each is an infinite mystery.
In the book, Montgomery doesn't say anything about faith but she often expresses her awe and wonder in the presence of God's beauty and creativity. She quotes a woman who works with baby hummingbirds who says: "You know that kind of awestruck feeling you get when you look at a great work of art? That sense of wonder, that sense of connection to something great and mysterious? It's the same feeling looking at a … hummingbird."
German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler, a key figure in the 17th century scientific revolution, was the founder of modern astronomy, the discoverer of the Three Planetary Laws of Motion,” and originator of the term “satellite.” Noting the order and design of our universe, Kepler said, “The undevout astronomer is mad.”
The cosmos is the visual, physical eloquence of God’s power and presence. But God’s people have always had more to ponder in order to understand what God is saying. God also tells his stories through God’s people. We call some of them prophets for they spoke truth and beauty and joy. And they also spoke the good news of judgment against injustice and against evil for us to hear, if we will. God’s judgment really is good news because, in the end, justice for all will prevail. As the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Christmas carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” say: “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead, nor doth he sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on Earth, goodwill to all!’”
Tom Long, a preacher for preachers, eloquently sets up the first sentence of our Hebrews text like this:
So, with a single powerful opening phrase, the Preacher of Hebrews has summoned the majesty and pageantry of the whole Old Testament witness to God. “Long ago God spoke,” the Preacher begins, and the imaginations of the readers are vibrant with memories of the mighty speech acts of God. God spoke the creation into existence and declared it “very good.” God spoke to Abraham, summoning him from his father’s house and promising to make him a great nation. God called Moses to be the liberator of God’s people, and God spoke the law on Sinai. Through Isaiah and Ezekiel, Amos and Joel, Hosea and Jeremiah, God spoke, nurturing and disciplining, provoking and redeeming the people Israel. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors.…”
Suddenly, however, the preacher of Hebrews interrupts our memories of how God spoke in the past with that little three-letter conjunction “but”! A grammatical signal that something new is about to emerge that will rival the old. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors … but in these last days…” As we listen, we may hear a familiar biblical pattern:
“But now thus says the Lord, … I am about to do a new thing” [in Isaiah 43:1, 19]. From Jesus, “You have heard it said … but I say unto you” [in Matthew 5:21, 22].
And we are also drawn to understand that now, in these days, in our times, God speaks to us too through a Son, whom we know is Jesus. In times past, God spoke appropriately to the ancient Jewish people and through them to the people of their days, trying to get through to them. For various reasons, many didn’t get it or hear it or even listen to God’s invitation of love for them and God’s love and justice for all peoples. But God never stopped in his desire to communicate with those he loved. So God spoke in a new way. It really wasn’t new for God but it certainly was new for human beings! And in these last days (which are our present days too), God is still speaking to us through the Son, through Jesus. Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner playfully points to one aspect of this contrast between long ago and now [Wishful Thinking, p. 97]:
God never seems to weary of trying to get himself across. Word after word he tries in search of the right word. When the Creation itself doesn’t seem to say it right—sun, moon, stars, all of it—he tries flesh and blood.
He tried saying it in Noah, but Noah was a drinking man.… He tried saying it in Moses, but Moses himself was trying too hard; tried David, but David was too pretty for his own good. Toward the end of his rope, God tried saying it in John the Baptist with his locusts and honey and hell-fire preaching, and you get the feeling that John might almost have worked except that he lacked something small but crucial like a sense of the ridiculous or a balanced diet.
So, he tried once more. In Jesus as mot juste (the exact, appropriate word) of God.
What is so compelling about Jesus? Today is Christmas Day! The manger finally has its little inhabitant. So is Jesus compelling because of the delight and joy we feel at the birth of a new little baby? Maybe! Is Jesus compelling because of what he represents to us? Joy in the present, hope for the future, love for all peoples, peace for humanity? Perhaps!
Why is Jesus compelling for you – you in this sanctuary (or you listening to the radio and on the Internet) that you get up today or any Sunday morning and come here to be with others to praise, to pray, to worship? I have something for you to consider, if you will. In the next few days, when you might have a moment to relax, take some time and write a sentence or two or three or four about why Jesus is compelling or significant in your life. Or maybe you wonder why he isn’t compelling enough. Then share your response with a trusted friend. Or if you trust me with your answer, email me or write me in care of the church. I would be delighted to read your thoughts – just between you and me in confidence. And if you like, I’d welcome a conversation by email or letter.
When I think of how God has spoken and still speaks in the Son, in Jesus, the name Immanuel, which means “God with us,” strikes a persuasive note of hope in my mind and heart. The preacher in Hebrews doesn’t call the Son Immanuel -- as the prophet Isaiah did and as Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples, did in Chapter 1 of his gospel -- but he does call Jesus “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” In other words, Jesus “this Son perfectly mirrors God and is stamped with God’s nature” [The Message Bible]. In other words, Jesus Christ is Immanuel -- God with us!
I find Jesus compelling as Immanuel because God did not simply watch human despair from a distance. God came to be with us by clothing himself in humanity in Jesus. The German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the most well-known and well-respected theologians of the 20th century calls us to ponder:“The child in the manger is none other than God himself. Nothing greater can be said: God became a child. In the Jesus child of Mary lives the almighty God.”
Bonhoeffer challenges us “Stand still before this statement! God became a child! Here he is, poor like us, miserable and helpless like us, a person like us, our brother. And yet he is God.” [God is in the Manger, Bonhoeffer]
God invested his life in our human life! Think about what God experienced in becoming the man Jesus:
• the difficulties of being born into a poor family
• the plight of being a refugee on the run with his parents
• the discovery when he was 12 that his parents didn't always understand him
• the grief he felt when his father on Earth, Joseph, died
• the responsibilities he undertook to support his family as a carpenter
• the ridicule from his brothers and sisters about what he said in public
• the hurt of being unjustly criticized and rejected when he spoke and acted with love
• the terrible struggle of being tempted to be someone different than he knew he was
• the staggering shock of treachery by his friend Judas
• the disappearance of all his friends at his arrest
• the pain of a close friend’s denials when Peter was afraid to stand with Jesus
• the horror of false accusations and judgment with no one to speak on his behalf
• the torture of crucifixion
• the loneliness of being forsaken by everyone, even feeling forsaken by God
• the agony of death.
Does not what God experienced in Jesus then sound like real life today too? All these things – when put together spell Immanuel – God with us! These things are what the God of all mercy and grace took upon himself. Through Jesus God knows by personal experience what people the world over deeply feel and live.
But why did God do it? Because these sorts of very human things have formed the fabric of human life then and now! We do not live without bumps and pains, without heartaches and desolation, without malaria and cancer. Immanuel is God saying, “You shall not bear such pain alone.” And God became flesh to redeem us from such pain and from our sin.
God did God’s very best in coming into human life as Jesus --Immanuel – God with us!
There is a speech in Babette’s Feast that leaves no doubt about the purpose for the story. It is ultimately a parable of grace: a gift that costs everything for the giver and nothing for the recipient. This is what the soldier who gave the speech told the community at Babette’s table: “We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness and shortsightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite. . . But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude."
Is that not the heartbeat of the Master Artist of all Creation? Let us give God a chance to speak with grace-filled eloquence into each of our human lives through the birth and the life of Jesus the Son.
Christmas is our opportunity to allow the Master Artist to do his best in us! And when we listen to God speak into our lives, when we acknowledge and receive what God has done in our lives through Jesus Christ with gratitude, then we will also do our best for others in our world, as he did.
Friends, may this be so for me and for you. Amen.