Cute little bunnies are more part and parcel of Easter than they are of Christmas. But “The Runaway Bunny,” a children’s story of a young rabbit with a stubborn wanderlust, seems tailormade for understanding why the birth of Jesus is such a big deal.
The story is relatable on a couple different levels. For starters, if you are now or ever were a child, you’ve no doubt experienced being so fed up with what you believed was parental tyranny that you just want to get away from it all. Life under mom and dad’s roof is sometimes just too much for a little kid to bear: The “harsh” oppression of your chores; the “silly” requirement of eating your vegetables; the “ridiculous” rules like being in your bed by 8 p.m. and not getting a cell phone until you’re at least in middle school.
So, you pack up the bare essentials of childhood – your favorite toy, a beloved stuffed animal, and a snack of doubtful nutritional value – and defiantly march out the front door and declare that you’re never coming back.
Whether your destination is a playhouse in the back yard, your best friend’s house, or the fast-food joint down the street, your motivation is the same: Your parents just don’t “get it,” and they’re not being fair.
To punctuate your discontent, you throw in a few harrumphs and some foot-stomps as you trudge down the driveway and up the street into your supposedly newfound freedom to do what you want, when you want – including, but not limited to, staying up late, waking up at noon, and enjoying chocolate cake for breakfast.
To some extent, we’ve all been there – grown-ups included. Even if you never actually follow through on the running away part, you nevertheless experience frustrations that thwart your desire to live your life the way you want to live it – rules, requirements, and respecting the needs of others be damned. You simply want to be the boss of your own destiny – master of your own domain, as it were! One way or another, you wish you could be – or maybe actually are – the runaway bunny.
But at the same time, if you are or were a parent of littles, your empathies are with the runaway bunny’s mother, the other actor in this story. It’s kind of like watching the favorite movie of your teen-age years and suddenly finding yourself rooting for the stressed-out parent who’s struggling to enforce a reasonable curfew.
Here’s the thing, kids:
Somewhere along the line, you’re one day going to realize that most parents aren’t a deliberately oppressive force hell-bent on making your life miserable. Most parents are just trying to use the knowledge they’ve gleaned from their years of life experience to keep you safe and healthy. With age comes, if not astute wisdom, then at least helpful perspective. And most often, your parents do what they do not out of spite but out of love.
If you can’t recognize the motivations and reasoning of the mama bunny, then you can’t understand why the actions of the little bunny are so problematic. But if you don’t remember what it’s like to be the little bunny, then you can’t understand why his choices are a result of childhood’s impulsive nature and why he’s at the mercy of his own risky business. You need both of these insights to begin to see why the mama bunny forgives and pursues her boy in spite of himself.
And in all that, there’s plenty to be gleaned about the life-giving love of God and ever-precious grace of God in Jesus. This, then, is “The Runaway Bunny,” written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd.
Odds are, if you and I are being brutally honest with ourselves, we’re all guilty of being the runaway bunny. Our sin and brokenness convict us beyond a reasonable doubt.
Be assured, though, that sin and brokenness alone don’t make you a “terrible person.” Sin and brokenness simply make you human, and sin and brokenness rear their ugly heads whenever you and I dismiss God, and disregard what God wants for us, and disrespect what God dreams for us, and discount what God plans for us.
And what’s at once beautiful and terrifying is that God doesn’t stand in the way of all our dismissing, disregarding, disrespecting, and discounting. God doesn’t stop us from running away. Like a shepherd, the Lord doesn’t lock up his sheep to hem them in and prevent them from wandering. He lets us wander – sometimes more than a little. Mama bunny God doesn’t ground her children to keep them at home. God lets us make our own choices, even though the Lord knows full well how oftentimes terrible and ill-conceived those decisions are.
But when we finally let the Holy Spirit take fuller charge of our hearts and minds, and the Spirit tenderly leads us to repentance and lovingly returns us to God, the Lord welcomes you and me back into heaven’s fold with divine arms open wide. God never stops chasing after us – despite the extreme lengths to which we go to get away. And God never ceases to love us – even though our boneheaded determination to do as we please stretches far the boundaries of what makes a person easy to love.
That’s grace in a nutshell!
Grace is one of the strangest, most confusing, yet most wonderful truths of Christian faith. Grace is the free, and unmerited, favor and mercy of God. Free and unmerited! Favor and mercy! None of it based on how well we follow the rules or how robustly we practice our faith. Being given the gift of God’s grace has nothing to do with being well-behaved and obedient. The measure of naughty or nice might work for Santa Claus but definitely not for God.
Grace is mercy and forgiveness, love and kindness, all given without question, to those who haven’t done a blessed thing to earn or deserve it. That’s completely and utterly ridiculous – at least by the standards of the world that claim you only get and deserve what you earn by hard work and the sweat of your own brow.
Grace seems totally and absolutely absurd – unless, of course, you understand the nature of the relationship between the Giver of grace and its intended recipients. Indeed, grace appears wholly and undeniably silly without understanding the roles that you, and God, and Jesus, and the Spirit play in the long-running drama of salvation.
And what happens if you reject God’s gift of grace? If you turn away from grace and scorn the One who gives it? Does the offer expire at midnight like a pre-Christmas flash sale at Target? Does grace wither and die on the vine without an eager, grateful recipient?
Of course not!
Among of its defining and most-precious certainties is this: Grace knows us intimately, as a parent knows a child. And grace pursues us relentlessly and enthusiastically with the energetic excitement and zeal of a puppy playing with an old sock! And a part of us recognizes that fact.
“Where can I go from your spirit?” asks the writer of an Old Testament psalm. “Or where can I flee from your presence? If I make my bed in a deep pit, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me fast.”
Put another way, “If you become a rock on the mountain high above me, I will be a mountain climber, and I will climb to where you are,” says mama bunny God. No matter how far, or how long, or how fast we run, God is still there, hot on our heels, offering the gift of grace, and giving us the opportunity to turn in a new direction down a different path.
If you don’t buy that based on the takeaways of “The Runaway Bunny” and the psalm alone, then ponder and step into the Christmas experience of a God who takes on human flesh – a God born in a humble manger bed, in a back alley of a backwater town, with the sole purpose and intention of simply being with us, as one of us, to come to understand firsthand how persistently and malignantly evil tries to lure us away from God and into sin.
If you just can’t wrap your head around the intensity of God’s love for you – and the determination of God’s desires to do something new and different with you and your life, then fast-forward to the Easter experience of a Bethlehem-born God who submits to the pain and humiliation of the Cross to follow you and me even unto death.
God’s quite real pursuit of salvation and redemption for you, me, and all of Creation is intense, powerful, and unrelenting. God’s grace writ large offers the restoration of right relationship with God through Christ and by the Holy Spirit. For without Christmas, there is no Easter. And without Easter, Christmas is just an excuse to deck the halls, wear ugly sweaters, and gorge ourselves on cookies and krumkakka.
Hard as it is to see and accept, that lowly manger bed cradles more than a newborn infant. That manger bed also bears the Cross. But that manger bed also generates the power to roll away a heavy rock from the entrance to a stone-cold tomb.
The grace of Christmas surely has the ability to affect an Easter resurrection that turns your life on a dime from darkness to light in the blink of an eye. That happens sometimes.
But please don’t be overly concerned and fitful if that’s not how quickly and immediately God’s grace is working in your life.
More often than not, grace works more slowly, more patiently, more deliberately. Grace simply asks that you and I stop running and hiding, that we trust in the grace we know in our heart of hearts to forever and always be there. When you realize that you’ve wandered further than you thought, there’s no awaiting shame in that admission. What lies ahead is only mercy, love, and forgiveness. Only grace. Only home. Thanks be to God, the Babe of Bethlehem grows to become the Shepherd who lovingly lays the lost sheep on his shoulders and carries them home.
It is precisely as John declares in his otherworldly Gospel-telling of Jesus’s birth:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. …
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. … [And] from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, and goodwill toward all. Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Christmas Eve 2021.