A great movie to see during these final days of the year is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,based on the beloved book of the same title by C. S. Lewis.
See this movie, and if you are an adult, watch it with a child, and let that child lead the way for you through the wardrobe in the professor’s house that opens into the wondrous land of Narnia.
If you are familiar with Lewis’ book, you may recall the scene where the four children–Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy–having entered Narnia, become the dinner guests of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver.
The conversation after dinner proves most illuminating for the children. For one things, Mr. Beaver tells them of Aslan. He wants the children to meet him.
Mr. Beaver describes Aslan “as the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea” and asks a question, stern and rhetorical, “Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion–the Lion, the great Lion.”
The Aslan of whom Mr. Beaver speaks with such respect is the story’s central character, the savior of that world, the Christ of Narnia.
Knowing something about lions, Lucy wonders aloud whether this lion is safe, and Mr. Beaver answers her. “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” [C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (HarperCollins, 1950), p. 48.]
Good, but not safe. Not safe, but good. This contrast describes Aslan the Lion, King of Narnia. It describes the one whose birth brings us to church tonight, Christ the Lord. Good, but not safe. Not safe, but good.
Christ is not safe. Tyrants understand this, often better than believers.
Herod turns fearful to the core when travelers from the east come inquiring about a newborn king of the Jews. He thought this royal title was his alone, and a newborn he is not. There must be an intruder, an interloper, some threat to his control at large in the countryside. So he arranges slaughter, genocide, for the baby boys of Bethlehem, whom the Church now calls Holy Innocents.
Herod does not find Jesus safe. Nor do the authorities decades later who execute St. Stephen. Stephen preaches Jesus as the messiah who subverts everyone’s expectations, reigns from a cross of shame, refuses to stay dead. This sermon makes the authorities murderously uneasy. Like Jesus, Stephen as he dies prays that his killers be forgiven. The day after tomorrow is his feast.
We do not find Jesus safe either. Not if we recognize the claim he stakes by entering this world. He accepts the narrow, fatal space of a single human existence, a cabin cramped and mean and stifling. He does this to usher us into endless reaches of life eternal in the light of God, daylight that disorients, that leaves us dizzy, that seems to us dangerous, these immensities he will populate at the cost of his cross.
Jesus is not safe. He asks for all that we are. He offers all that he is. The deal’s entirely in our favor–what a steal!–yet how reluctant we are to make it. He points us to the cross, but is the first to climb it. He demands we live by grace, then buys it with his blood.
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He is not safe, but he is good. Pure as lamb newborn in spring. Strong as a lion reigning over the savannah. This goodness is bigger than rules and boundaries and survival. It is a goodness that does not stop when barriers must be broken, when justice must flow like a flood, when death must be driven out so life can reign. Potent is the goodness of Jesus, the Aslan of this world.
Passionate and demanding is this goodness, like lovers on their wedding night. We nail it to a cross, stash it in a tomb, we insult it through a thousand quibbling qualifications, and even dare to make it dull, yet this goodness resurrects times and again, refusing to stay dead, but interfering in our lives, our circumstances, our relationships, our politics, our past and future and present.
This goodness, insistent and incessant, places demands upon us, forgiving before we repent, calling us higher, drawing us deeper, inviting us to a banquet of love, beckoning us to a festival of peace, embracing us in a bear hug of mercy. This goodness will not leave us alone to rot by ourselves. This goodness will not leave us alone.
Tonight is wondrous. Nothing is simply what it appears to be. Witness, for example, how one hymn we sing tonight speaks of what took place in that Bethlehem stable: the “manger poor became a throne.” [Hymn 110, “The snow lay on the ground,” in The Hymnal 1982 (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1985).]
Another hymn for this season announces “straw like gold shall shine; A barn shall harbor heaven, A stall become a shrine.” [Hymn 104, Richard Wilbur, “A stable lamp is lighted,” in The Hymnal 1982 (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1985).]
Let me add one more instance of things that are not simply what they appear to be.
Be silent, and listen to your heart. Mary’s child has just been born there is the darkness, there on the straw. His lungs fill with air, and he cries out loud and long.
What we hear is not only a newborn’s wailing. It is a lion’s roar. Our Aslan has come.
Copyright for this sermon 2008, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).