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Birthing God's Love

A Sermon on Luke 2:1-20

[and audio recording of this sermon is available here. Photo by Josh Boot on Unsplash]

The inspiration for tonight’s sermon comes from a rather unusual source: our November meeting of the Church Council.

We were talking about the challenges of the looming holiday season, and Nick – with his usual dry humor – made a comment about how at least my Christmas sermon should be easy this year. “We’ll be nine months into the pandemic by then,” he explained. “You should be able to come up with something about 9 months, and a birth.”

I don’t know if Nick was serious in his suggestion, but I immediately knew he was right.

The heaviness, pain, discomfort, and anxious waiting of pregnancy is the perfect metaphor for the last nine months of pandemic life. And the hope of this Christmas is the hope that these 9 months have been about more than just enduring… they have been about nurturing new life. They’ve been about reorienting and reshaping our lives, so that love can be born among us in new and powerful ways.

Now, in exploring this metaphor on this holy night, I want to recognize that, as powerful as the symbols of pregnancy and birth can be, they can also be painful. For many, including some in our congregation, they can trigger experiences of longing and loss. I want to name that reality as part of the hurt that is integral to the Christmas story. The story we encounter tonight is NOT about a joy that ignores pain… it’s about a joy that enters into and abides with pain. And so, my hope is that this message can reclaim the core image of the birth of Christ for all of us, not just those who have physically born children. The power of this story, and the task of co-creation that we have explored throughout Advent, is an invitation for all of us to participate in the birthing of God’s gift of love into the world.

To aid us in that labor, I want to reflect on three truths from the Christmas story that can strengthen us for the life-giving work to which we are being called.

The first truth is that the joy and hope of new birth is the result of the nine months of struggle and commitment that come before.

It’s easy for us, with the backdrop of a flower-filled sanctuary, and the cozy comfort of cuddling up on the couch in Christmas pajamas, to see only the beauty and peace of this night. But if Mary were to tell the story we might get a different picture, and not just because of the labor of this one night. Her task started with believing an unbelievable message and consenting to a dangerous and overwhelming task. Her task continued as she trusted God through the fear and shame of being doubted by Joseph (and probably many others besides). Her task strengthened her voice as she proclaimed the meaning of her story with prophetic clarity. And her task challenged her to adapt and persist, as the heartless decree of an Emperor forced her to abandon whatever sources of familiarity and security she had just before her son’s birth.

I doubt she would have chosen any of these challenges for herself, but that wasn’t the choice she was given. Her choice was how to respond. And she did what was needed to nurture the life God had given her to bring forth.

I wonder… how might is transform our experience of the struggles of this past nine months to view them in this light? To see them as part of our task of nurturing love and preparing a gift of life for our hurting world? I think that at least part of the good news of Christmas for us this year, is that our year of struggle can bear fruit when we respond to it with faith and trust…. It can produce in us a new strength and new life that only comes through perseverance and effort.

Which is not to say that it is all up to us. The second truth that the Christmas story holds for us is that the coming of new life is not something that is easily controlled.

A new contrast struck me this year as I was contemplating Luke’s narrative about the birth of Jesus.

He opens the scene with an Emperor’s decree: “all the world must be registered” (vs. 1). It’s a stunning authoritarian move. A demand that all people – everyone – reorient their lives at his demand; submit themselves to being counted, so that they could be taxed… with no consideration or exception for extenuating circumstances like an imminent birth.

Joseph and Mary comply. The Emperor can command their movements. But there are limits to his control. In the context of Empire and power-over, Christ’s birth is announced with this peculiar phrase: “the time came for her to deliver her child” (vs. 6).

The time came. It was not decreed or decided by any human power. Because the coming of new life does not happen on a schedule, or at a ruler’s command. Rather, the ruler’s command simply facilitated God’s plan, bringing the expectant family to David’s city for the birth of King David’s long-awaited heir, who would supplant ALL human rulers with his authority.

The truth here for us in that – while we have a role to play in birthing love and life out of the long gestation of this pandemic – we are not in control… God is. … And that is a hope-filled reminder.

Poet and musician Susan Palo Cherwein wrote a meditation for Christmas entitled, simply, Birth[1], which speaks to this hope (especially in a year that has seen so little of it).

Let us look at this holy day

we celebrate

each year

in the middle of the cold and dark time,

the gray and sleeping time.

In the middle of the season

of seeming death and dormancy

we sing down birth.

In the midst of the season

of twilight days

we sing down stars.

In the chill and hollow days of winter

we sing down love.

In the days of white and gray and black

we sing down red and green,

spring colors

birth colors

flower colors

growth colors.

Even in the cold and dark time

spring can appear

if only for a flash

if only for a twelfth-night

to remind us

to remind us

that the divine can spring up

in unlikely places

in unlikely places.

The year 2020 is nothing if not “unlikely places” for life and love to spring forth. But that is the truth of Christmas. That God shows up where we least expect, and this is a reason for joy.

The final truth of Christmas for us this year, is the truth that… for all the effort, and longing, and waiting of the long nine months… the birth only starts the story.

The angels sing “Glory to God” and “peace of earth.” The shepherds come to see the miraculous baby and return to their sheep glorifying and praising God. But Mary “treasured these words and pondered them in her heart,” a phrase repeated from her response to the Angel’s annunciation (Luke 1:29)

Mary knew the work wasn’t done. She had delivered love into the world, but now she needed to nurture it… and she needed all the wisdom and encouragement of all she had been through in order to do that.

She needed the lessons she had learned in her nine months of preparation.

She needed to reminders of God’s mysterious power at work.

She needed both strength and awe for the task still before her.

And so do we. We have been through an ordeal these last 9 months, and as far as the pandemic is concerned it is not over yet. But even once the scientists, and vaccines, and medical professionals have accomplished their work, and our world moves out of lock-down, our task will not be over. Not if the struggle of these nine months and counting is to truly birth new life in the world. The birth is not the end of the story.

It will be our job to nurture the lessons of this waiting time, and to help them grow in strength and wisdom to change the world in which we live.

It will be our job to ponder the wonder of how God shows up in unexpected places, with vulnerable, self-giving love… and so should we.

It will be our job to remember the ways that love conquers fear, and care for neighbors connects us even when we are separated (by distance, or masks, or different points of view).

It will be our job to remember that we cannot control the circumstances of the lives we are given, but we can respond with faith, and with the courage to say “yes” when we are given the chance to give birth to love.

Tonight we celebrate that Jesus Christ is born. Every night after, we get to embrace the task of nurturing his love in the world.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Susan Palo Cherwein, Crossings: Meditations for Worship, Fenton, MO: Morningstar Music Publishers, 2003, p. 106.


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