Preacher: Lesley Misrahi
Readings: Micah 5:2-5a, Psalm 80:1-7, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-45, Luke 1 (46-55)
Christmas is nearly here – only 5 more days. If you haven’t sent your Christmas cards yet, then tomorrow is the last day to post them First Class to be sure of them getting there by Thursday. I’ve managed to send most of mine, except to the people who have moved and I can’t find their new addresses. Some people don’t send Christmas cards as a matter of principle, but if I don’t my relatives notice and, I think, feel a bit hurt. I know because there was one year that I didn’t send out any Christmas cards at all and they commented on it.
That wasn’t a matter of principle, though, nor even poverty. That was 1984, the year that I was expecting Adam. He was due to be born on January 18th, but I felt so huge and unwieldy and had had so many warning signs that I was absolutely convinced that he’d be born at least two weeks before then. You can tell that pregnancy can upset the ability to think straight as well as everything else. Anyway, I thought I’d send out New Year cards with an announcement of the birth.
True to form, of course, Adam arrived a week late on Jan 25th!
During advent and Christmas we see our faith through the lens of pregnancy and childbirth. In this sermon I want to explore what we can learn from this metaphor of pregnancy and birth and the coming of Jesus. With Mary we are waiting for the birth of a promised child; with the people of Israel we are waiting for the coming of a promised saviour. And like maybe every pregnancy throughout human history, the waiting seems interminable. When will the baby come; when will God send His saviour to us? In the normal course of events there is nothing we can do about when it happens. The whole process of medicalised childbirth which has developed over the past 100 years or so is an effort to bring under human control a fundamentally unpredictable process.
Although we can tell roughly when a baby is due to arrive, it is notoriously difficult to tell the exact time. I have just given away a comfortable reclining chair, with brown plush upholstery – except for the ragged footrest. During the time I was expecting Esther, I decided to recover the armchair. I was still doing it when I went into labour 2 weeks early and I spent most of a day trying to sew the remaining part to cover the footrest while waiting for contractions to become more frequent. But Esther arrived and I never did get the time or energy to finish the job. I’ve finally decided that I will never get around to it after 21 years.
So babies come early or late and, for the most part – and certainly not at the time of Jesus – we can’t control it at all. That’s one of the messages that this metaphor of pregnancy gives us. The Saviour is promised and he will come, but we can’t tell when and we can’t control it. So in the passage that was read from Micah, the Jewish people knew where the Saviour would appear. They knew it would be Bethlehem – and often we can decide where a baby will be born if we are able to respond in time to the early warning signs – but they didn’t know when. They knew it was at the end of labour, but when would that be? The people did not know and meanwhile they felt abandoned by God, as we heard in Psalm 80 that we read together. Like so many births, that of the Saviour of Israel was looked forward to with huge expectation and an increasing amount of stress and discomfort. In the case of the people of Israel it was a time of being humiliated as they were conquered repeatedly by different alien empires – Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman. “You have made us a source of contention to our neighbors, and our enemies mock us”, we read in Psalm 80. The people who believed they were chosen of God were despised and oppressed by others and wondering why God allowed this, and when their deliverance would take place.
Mary also faced disgrace and shame. The faithfulness of Joseph in response to the dream that was sent to him enabled her to escape the stigma of being an unmarried mother, although there was probably some whispering around the village. He saved Jesus from being born in abject poverty to a woman with little means of earning a living in Jewish society. Instead they were supported by a skilled artisan, so they were not quite at the bottom of the heap in Jewish society – but that would change.
Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist and there was instant recognition of the special nature of what was happening to the two women. Perhaps this was the only person who might have understood what was happening to her and who shared her amazement and apprehension. Pregnancy, in any case, tends to create a bond between women, as they are going through similar experiences. In fact, the kind of tension produced by waiting for something we both fear and long for can be reduced by sharing it with others in the same situation. I’m thinking about the kind of conversation you get between the people waiting outside the room before an exam or in hospital before an operation. As we wait for what God has in store for us, we may find that it helps if we share our expectations with others. For Mary this was also the occasion of one of the great songs of the Scriptures – the Magnificat - which we just sang as ‘My soul is filled with joy’. She shared her wonder and amazement at what God would do through her.
The possibility of reproduction is in any case a deep mystery. How is it that out of one human being can come another one, who has a separate consciousness and identity, who is so different genetically from the mother that her body must do complicated things to prevent the foetus from being destroyed by the mother’s immune system? Pregnancy is a strange state in which there is now a real human being who can respond independently – as John the Baptist leapt inside Elizabeth. But that new person is not here yet and cannot really be known. The baby has not yet been made manifest, except as an anonymous ‘bump’ yet increasingly the child can respond to sensations from the world. It is a picture of the Kingdom of God. Jesus coming inaugurated the Kingdom and it is here. Yet we know it is not complete. God’s rule is not fully manifest and so we wait the promised return of Jesus and the completion of his work. The phrase that is used is now and not yet. And so we wait, as someone does during a pregnancy, beginning to form a relationship with the unborn child, yet longing to know that person fully.
The other thing we know about pregnancy of course is that It almost always involves pain and suffering. Pregnancy can involve sickness, discomfort and pain Labour is called that because it is hard work. Throughout the Bible there is a recognition that childbirth costs a woman much anguish. Micah, in an earlier chapter than the one we heard, talks about Jerusalem, the daughter of Zion, as writhing in agony like a woman in labour, as it suffered defeat and the exile of the people. So the ‘one who is in labour in the prophecy refers to the people of Israel, as well as to the birth of the Saviour. In its’ relationship with God throughout the centuries the Jewish people are often portrayed by the prophets as an unfaithful wife. And all this time Micah says is the pregnancy and labour of a people who will eventually give birth to a Saviour. So the time of exile and occupation was equated with what can be some of the most excruciating pain that a person can suffer. However, the travail of a people gives birth to the Shepherd whose greatness will be known throughout the world.
In Mary’s case it was at the end of a long journey. We always assume she had a donkey because we can’t imagine her being able to travel all that way without one, but it’s not there in the Bible. Most people in those days could not afford such a thing; so it’s very possible that she walked all the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem – a distance of at least 80 miles, some of it up steep hills. And then she had to give birth in a stable – likely to be in one of the limestone caves in the area. Very poor people still live in some of those caves. It identifies Jesus as being in a position of abject poverty at his birth in a most unsuitable setting for childbirth.
We know that childbirth is a risky business. The period immediately before and after birth is the most dangerous time in anyone’s life. One of the leading causes of infant mortality in the developing world is tetanus, when the bacteria attack the baby through the severed umbilical cord. A stable is a place rich in tetanus bacteria. And it’s not without risk for the mother as well. A few months ago we looked at maternal mortality statistics and you might remember that in some countries, even today, the chances are one in ten or even one in eight that a woman’s life will end as a result of childbirth. Mary was, no doubt, exhausted from the journey. When I spent 30 hours in labour with Adam, I realised how it was possible that women in labour could die of sheer exhaustion – and I was in a modern hospital with all sorts of intervention and pain relief! It’s possible that the story could have been very different.
If we equate the birth of Jesus with the coming of the Kingdom of God into the world, in a new way, then we discover, as Micah told the people, that the coming of God does involve pain and suffering. It is risky and exhausting and hard. It is also inexorable. Once a pregnancy starts and goes beyond a certain point, even miscarriage or abortion involve a birth process. There has to be a birth or the mother and baby will die. She can’t say ‘Hold it. I’ve changed my mind.’ The woman and those around her are swept along in events which are in control of her and which she cannot stop. Just so God’s plans for the world. Having set in motion the process of incarnation – a plan motivated by love (for God so loved the world) – there could be no stopping it. God will accomplish that which God has determined to do and human intervention will not prevent the coming of the Kingdom.
A birth is something for which preparation is needed. At the least the child will need warmth and food. But Mary was unable to make adequate preparation. She had the swaddling clothes ready, but didn’t even know where this child would be born. Despite what she may have believed about the prophecies, she could have gone into labour anywhere between Nazareth and Bethlehem. So she could make only the most minimal preparation for the new arrival. And we also need to prepare for what Jesus may require of us, even if we don’t know what is going to happen.
Birth, then, is a revelation - a time when the new child is fully revealed for what he or she may be. If they had not been told by God neither Mary nor Elizabeth would have known they were having boys. Would they make blue swaddling bands or pink ones? We wait to see whether a child will be male or female, healthy or sickly, whole or with a congenital defect, taking after the mother or the father, or even whether he or she will be born alive or dead.
Each new birth carries with it a huge potential. Even if a baby is born into the most adverse social circumstances, there is a feeling at the beginning that this child could do anything. He or she could be an athlete or a scientist, a great poet or a wonderful cook or he could be the saviour of the world. He or she has the greatest potential immediately after birth. After that the world shapes and restricts what that individual may do and become. But every newborn baby usually embodies the longings and ambitions of the people close to him or her and can born with a huge burden of hope and expectation. And none more so than Jesus.
The Messiah, the Jewish Saviour, was expected to do so much. It‘s in that psalm that we read together: “Restore us, O God; make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved.” That was all bound up with saving the people of Israel from the nations that had conquered them. The Saviour was to be a political force to be reckoned with – a holy superman. Micah predicted; “And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth.” The one that God would send would bring his people peace, relieve them from the shame of being subject to people who did not know the rule of God, and bring prosperity.
They could not imagine him as a baby in a stable. They could not associate him with a child’s bodily functions and lack of control. I remember my late husband’s Jewish father saying how he’d explored Christianity and read the New Testament, but he rejected the idea of God as a baby ‘doing pipi and kaka’. But the lectionary reading from Hebrews 10, which we did not read, insists that the coming of God’s Saviour as a human being, incarnated in a human body was essential for God’s salvation. Forever, Jesus’ willingness to become human and to undergo bodily suffering, releases us from any shame or fear of our human nature, as well as our sins, in action and in thought. There is no salvation for us without God’s incarnation as an ordinary Jewish baby.
Mary’s expectations, which we sang earlier, were much more in terms of social justice – putting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly; feeding the hungry and letting the rich taste emptiness. She was already seeing this coming into being as God had chosen someone as ordinary as she to be the mother of the Saviour promised to Israel for generations. And yet her expectations were even more far reaching than those of Jews who expected the Messiah to overthrow the Romans. It’s one thing to achieve peace by getting rid of one set of rulers and replacing them with your own people, but Mary was looking for the overthrow of the whole social order. She did not fully understand it, but she recognized that the hallmarks of the work of her holy God are justice, peace and joy.
But remember that for Mary there was a choice; she also welcomed what happened to her and was obedient to God’s intervention in her life. As a result she also welcomed the blessing which both she and Elizabeth recognized that God had given her. Maybe God thought of many Jewish maidens who could have been chosen, but knew that Mary would say yes. And we are also free to say no as well as to invite God to draw nearer. Though the plans of God are inexorable and will come to pass, we as individuals may fail to cooperate with them and so miss out on what God had hoped to give us.
Every year, as we wait for Christmas, we are also waiting for Jesus to come to us. Even if we have known him for many years, the Kingdom of God is both here now and not yet. It is always coming into being. We are enjoying God’s presence with us yet still waiting, not just for the second coming to the whole world, but his coming to us as a people and as individuals in a new and greater way. Especially at Christmas. As we celebrate Christ’s coming this year, what are our expectations? If we are drawn into the closer relationship with Jesus that our souls long for, what do we expect? Are we like those Jews who expected the Messiah to sort out their political and social injustice and to be a secular ruler? Do we expect Jesus to solve our personal problems and give us a good life? Are we like Mary who welcomed a time of social justice, but could not imagine that her son’s life would be that of an obscure religious criminal? Do we love God because we see the Almighty as a route to prosperity or success? Are we like Herod who was afraid of what might be demanded of him?
In a way, as we wait in expectation we only know three things about what the coming of Jesus means. Firstly, we can predict that when Christ comes into our lives in a new way, what happens will transcend anything that we might have expected. Jesus will not fulfil our superficial desires, but the deepest longings of our hearts, which we can scarcely admit to ourselves. Secondly, it is as much likely to involve suffering as prosperity. The more that we admit Jesus and allow him to be born in us day by day, the more this will involve challenge and change.
So the third result is that once Jesus is born for us, either coming into our lives for the first time or in a new way, with a closeness that we never dared before, our lives will be changed. After a first baby, life is never the same again. Even parents who have grown up with small children in their family of origin will seldom have had the burden of responsibility for another completely dependent life 24 hours a day. And being part of Jesus’ life is a 24/7 commitment.
A birth changes priorities. Joseph would not have taken his small family to be refugees in Egypt if Jesus had not been born. Or he could have just given up his child to Herod’s soldiers to save his skin and preserve his livelihood, but his every instinct is to protect the new life. If parents cannot set aside their own needs to some extent, they become the substance of child abuse scandals. For those of us who invite Jesus to be born in our lives in a fresh way this Christmas, our priorities must change. We are called to live not just for ourselves, but to work for the coming Kingdom of God, which is always expected, here now but yet to come, always defying our expectations, always pregnant with the promise of justice, peace and joy for us and the world.
And may God grant us all a wonderful Christmas with Jesus being born for us again this week and growing in our lives over the year to come.