I had the opportunity to preach at my home church, College Hill United Methodist in Wichita, this last Sunday. The following is the text of my sermon. The scripture reading for the day was Galatians 4:4-7.
Let me preface today’s message with a request. Now, I know as a progressive, rational Christian, I can get tied down in the details of Biblical accounts like that of the Nativity. My brain knows that Jesus wasn’t born in December, he probably wasn’t visited by shepherds and Magi, it’s doubtful his birth was any less ordinary than any other, and that the idea of a Virgin Birth wasn’t earth shattering, but is in fact a common tool used by ancient writers to set a part a person regarded a special or supernatural. But sometimes, all that can get in way of a good story, of the meaning and truth conveyed in a tale like that of the Nativity. So I ask you this morning, be aware that I am thinking about the story of the birth of Christ as written in the Gospels, manger and Magi and star and all, to carry the message I want to pass along today, and I ask you to also immerse yourself in the truth and beauty of the Nativity Story.
We have just come through Advent, through the long four week lead-in to the birth of Christ. Advent is a time of waiting, of thinking, of pondering. It is a time pregnant with hope.
For Mary and Joseph, it was a hope-filled time of anticipating the arrival of a child heralded by angels. A child conceived beyond reason, sent for a purpose they could barely understand. Joseph had been told to name him Emmanuel, “God with us.” They knew this baby meant a change in everything they had ever experienced, that he would usher in a new life for them. Mary references this in her great song, when she says “From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored.” All in all, it was a pregnancy full of hope, excitement, expectations beyond what could be imagined, the promise of a life that would change human history like nothing before and after.
And yet, it was still a pregnancy. For all the fanfare and angels and songs, Mary was still charged with carrying a baby for ten months at a very young age. And at the end of those long, nauseous, sleep-deprived, pickle-and-ice cream-filled months, Mary would go through intense labor, without the modern convenience of epidurals and pain relievers, not to mention air conditioners and ice cold water. All the prophecy in the world could never quench the nervousness that Mary surely felt. Undoubtedly, in her very own village, she had seen multiple pregnancies and births, and very likely several unsuccessful ones. It had to be scary.
Ari and I have been through two pregnancies over the last three years, as well as two births with no medication, no epidurals, and no artificial induction. Granted, we had ac and cold drinks, not too mention steak dinners waiting for us on the other side. But nevertheless, for as wonderful as the experiences were, they were also scary. Especially the second time, after the massive hemorrhaging we experienced with Julian, knowing it could happen again. And it did, and it was quite scary. But we had the best medical care any one could ask for. We were well taken care of, and saw the wonderful benefits of 21st century science and medicine. I can’t imagine going through all of that without the safety net of well trained midwifes and doctors, and state of the art hospitals and birth centers.
All of this is to say, Mary had to feel fear and apprehension. Giving birth to a child was no sure thing in first century Palestine. And then showing up in Bethlehem, finding no where to stay, and facing the prospect of giving birth in a stable. A stinky, unsanitary, animal-filled stable. Terrifying is probably to mild a word to attach to the teenage Mary and her husband. And we haven’t even mentioned the shame her and Joseph must have felt. At the time of the pregnancy, they were not married. To have conceived a child before marriage was something that would have brought mountains of shame not just on them, but on their families. With that would come anger, and perhaps even exclusion from their families and home.
And yet, clearly, the birth went well. A happy, healthy, beautiful little boy was born. And to welcome him into the world were shepherds there to worship God, and Magi from the east, bearing priceless treasures. Out in the fields, a host of angels sang the new baby into the world with their heavenly voices, and high above, a shining star marked the birth of this remarkable child. An awe-inducing scene, a fitting majestic entrance for the one who is destined to change the world in unknown ways.
But again, reality surely intruded. The next day dawned for an exhausted Mary, sore and weak and cold and hungry. Joseph was tired, worried about his wife, anxious that this child, whom so many were counting on, show all the signs of health. And, for all the pictures we see of a haloed, smiling, reassuring little baby Jesus, the fact is, he was a newborn baby. Which means he probably didn’t allow mom and dad much sleep that night, or for several night after. He cried. He had spit up. He had dirty and wet diapers. And those weren’t nice, snug Huggies from the local Dillon’s.
In the face of all these ordinary baby events and habits, surely Mary and Joseph felt a little let down. They had this child built up to mythical proportions before he was born, and yet, he was still a baby, and life for this small, poor, rural family was undoubtedly HARD. The disappointment they had to feel at the normalness of their life’s in those first months and years had to be almost devastating at times.
Advent and Christmas can make us feel the same way. We spend four weeks anticipating, building up to this most important of Christian holidays. We celebrate joy and peace and hope and love. We are encouraged to pray and meditate and practice new spiritual disciplines. Here at CHUM, we contemplate the coming of Christ and the hope of a justice filled world that he showed us was possible. We think about how we can roll forward into a new year, emboldened by the holiest time of year to live our lives with Christ in pursuit of the Kingdom he described to us. Hope is truly the best word to describe the feelings we experience during Advent.
And yet here we are. Three days since Christmas. And its still the same old world we find on the other side of the holiday. It’s still a world filled with injustice. And it still will be going forward. In 2015, we will see more Eric Garners and Mike Browns, more shutdowns and budget cuts, more Ebola and ISIS, more “religious liberty” fights and roll backs of the gains made over the last fifty years in civil rights and voting rights and equal rights.
What was all that hope about? We go through Advent every year. We dream of new world, ushered in by the birth of a baby, sent to make justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an every-flowing stream. And yet it doesn’t seem like things are getting significantly better.
Disappointment is a good word. We can commiserate with Mary and Joseph a bit.
We see the same theme in the Old Testament Scripture from today’s lectionary. Isaiah 61:10 through 62:3 was written as the Israelites were returning to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. It was without a doubt a hopeful a time, to see the kingdom and Temple restored. And yet, arriving back in the Holy City, they find the remnants of destruction: scattered, weed-covered old building stones, and empty Temple mount, very few people. It must have been a sad sight, one made all the more overwhelming by all the work needed to be done to restore their home.
And yet the author of Isaiah finds words of reassurance and hope to give them strength. From the ruins of Jerusalem, he finds the words they Israelites need. “As the earth brings forth its shoots,” he says, “and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all nations….You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of you God.”
Amidst the ruins and destruction, Isaiah sees hope still alive. He sees the potential, and finds the words Israel needed to restore itself, to plant itself once again as God’s people, doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly. Most of all, he senses the presence of God in Jerusalem. Despite the terrible things Israel has been through, he knows God is still at work among them, that God has not once abandoned them.
Mary and Joseph needed this same kind of reassurance. And they found it in Jerusalem as well, on the seventh day of Jesus’ life, when they brought him to the Temple to present him to the Lord as first born child. In the temple, the priest Simeon attended to them, and took Jesus from them, and said “This child is destined.” And the Gospels also describes a prophet named Anna who began praising God and to tell everyone who was looking for the redemption of Jerusalem about the child Jesus.
Imagine the reassurance of hope Mary and Joseph must have felt upon hearing this from the religious leaders of the Temple! To be told again of the great things awaiting this child must have renewed for them the feeling that they were in the presence of God, that God was now dwelling with them, not just in the Temple, but right in their very arms, in the form of this beautiful baby.
And so we look for reassurance as well. We look to have our hope restored, to see God present in our world amidst the injustice and suffering and cynicism. We long for the Kingdom described to us by the man this child grew up to be. And we can find it in the verse from Galatians we just heard. When I first read this verse in preparation for this Sermon, that first line really jumped out at me. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his son.”
That’s our hope. That’s our reassurance. In the fullness of God’s time, when God choose, the Son was sent to us. Jesus showed us the kingdom, he lived the example of a life immersed in the presence of God, a life embodying justice and mercy and love.
Paul goes on, writing to the Galatians, “So that we might receive adoption as children…So you are no longer a slave but a child.” To unpack this a little back, I look back at the verses leading up the selected reading. Paul writes about how children who are heirs are yet given about as much privilege and freedom slaves were given, which is to say, not a whole lot. He then says, “in the same way, when we were minors, were enslaved by this world’ system.” So when he tells us we are no longer slaves but instead are children, Paul is saying our status has changed in light of Christ’s time on earth. We are no longer the wards of God, entitled to much but asked of little. Instead, we take up the responsibility of heirs. We are given the task of, not just hoping and waiting, but instead of inheriting our birth right, of being the hope we dream of during Advent. It’s our duty, as children of God, to work with every ounce of our passion and talent and will to bring about the Kingdom here on earth.
When we look around post-Advent, when we feel that let down from the high of Christmas, from the ecstatic feeling we get amidst the singing of hymns and lighting of candles and the hope the birth of a child brings, we can remember that we are all named Emmanuel, “God with us.” We all are stamped with the enduring and everlasting image of God, and with that stamp comes great responsibility, to show the world that the fullness of time is NOW, that we are the hope of the Christ child in the world.