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Babies are being born all the time. There are on average 1075 babies born in each day in Canada. They are born to all kinds of people in all kinds of different circumstances. Here are some stories from Florida that came out of Hurricane Irma. A woman in Coral Springs gave birth to her daughter on the bathroom floor, with an assist from her mother. A Delray Beach couple evacuated to Atlanta where their son was born. They called him “Nathan”. A gift from God. A woman in Little Haiti in Miami delivered a baby girl by herself, coached by emergency workers on the telephone.
These stories will no doubt fade from memory – were no doubt already faded had I not brought them up today. This is how our 24-hour news cycle goes. We tend to be on to the next thing. For the people involved though, babies tend to turn your world upside down. While I’m not speaking from personal experience, I can say this with a fairly high degree of certainty. Babies tend to change your life. You need to prepare for their arrival. Whether it’s through a 9-month pregnancy or an adoption process, there are things you need to do to prepare. They inexorably change your life. Babies lead to a re-ordering of our world. There is a song in the musical “Hamilton” called “The World Turned Upside Down” in which Hamilton is preparing to fight British forces in the American War of Independence. He recalls that while he is preparing to fight, his wife Eliza is at home expecting news, and also expecting. The world is turning upside down all over the place.
What are we doing here this morning? You know I like to ask that question. What is the unseen thing that is happening here? What is the unseen thing that is happening in our story? Why is this birth so celebrated 2,000 years later? Why is it that Jesus is so famous that we even know the names of his parents? Something you can’t say about too many famous people apart from Elvis (though 40 years after his death even this knowledge is fading I’m sure – it’s Vernon and Gladys by the way).
What is it about this meeting between two expecting mothers? Luke takes his time before he gets to the birth of Christ, just as we’ve been taking our time with the story over these weeks. He starts his Gospel this stated aim – “that I may write an orderly account…” Not so much in the sense of an objective history (as if there is such a thing) or an ordered chronological account, but a way to make sense of the world. A way to view the world which brings meaning. So that you may know the truth, Luke writes. While known often as a historian, what Luke is doing is telling the story of Christ in such a way that invites participation in the story of Christ.
Luke takes his time getting to Christ’s birth, which we’re going to look at tonight. The beginning of this story if full of angelic visitations, people bursting into song, prophecy, angelic choirs. What Luke is doing is telling of how God is re-ordering the world in Christ. Luke is telling of how God inclines himself toward humanity – toward all of creation – in Christ. This is a story of how in Christ all things are being made right. It goes back to the dawn of time when things first went wrong, of course. The question that God asked at the time was “Where are you?” Someone has said this is the key question of this story. The story into which Christ enters is one in which God has been seeking us all along. It is one in which God has been calling to people to take part in his restoring work – Moses Moses! Samuel Samuel! It’s the story of God entering into human history to turn the whole world around. It’s a story of promises made and promises kept by the God who is faithful and true.
Is it any wonder that this is the time of year we go all out with decorations? With symbols. With images. With songs. We try and get our minds around this fact. God with us. Is it any wonder the first two chapters of Luke are filled with song? Perhaps it’s through songs that these things are best understood, rather than words.
But words are all I have for now. So let us look at these two women. These two women whose participation in the story we continue to mark, the same way we marked the participation of those two Hebrew midwives in the story of deliverance in Exodus – Shiprah, and Puah. They feared God, we read. They regarded God and God’s promises. To have faith means to trust. They trusted God’s promises. Seen without trust this story is simply two women of no big account meeting in the hill country of a region that was constantly caught between warring superpowers. A people of no big account. Through eyes of faith, we see these two women as standard bearers of God’s promises. They are expectant. They are expecting. The elder Elizabeth is carrying the one who would be the last of the line of prophets pointing ahead to Christ. The one who would come out of the wilderness with all the hair and the animal skins and the locust eating and would stand on the banks of the Jordan River one day and proclaim “The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Mary carrying that lamb.
Mutual recognition of this as the women meet. They greet one another. Pre-natal John leaps in his mother’s womb. This gift of prophecy – of telling of the one who was God become human – a gift. Evident even in the womb. A place in which you’re pretty much not responsible for anything that comes your way right? A sign of the Messiah even then. “As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord. Blessed is she who believed. We have two people coming together here, and their coming together furthers their understanding of what is happening. It brings them joy.
Why do we get together to do this? Because getting together leads to a greater understanding of our faith. Because where two or more or gathered God is there. In a series of Advent lectures published under the title The Great Promise, Karl Barth put it like this – “That is what belonging together and being together means in the Church. The Church is wherever two people – and now it does not matter at all what kind of people they are – where insignificant people, two simple women, thus belong together and are together in the hope given to them through the word of God and spoken in their hearts. In this hope, there is the presence of what is hoped for.”
This is what is hoped for. God who ushers in a new Kingdom in the person of a son. A kingdom is which the only qualification to enter is acknowledging our need for God. The one who is mighty. The one who shows his might not as the kingdoms of the world show their might but through mercy and unmerited favour. The one from whom those whose reliance is on themselves and on their own resources come away empty. The one who oversees the overthrow of kingdoms based on aggression and oppression. The one who would proclaim blessing on the poor, those who are hungry, those who weep, those who are hated, for where God is, blessing is. The one whose kingdom is defined by self-sacrificing love and mercy and justice.
The one who would turn everything right. There is still a tension, however. Look at verses 51 to 53. Note that the verbs are in the past tense – “He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly, he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” How can Mary be singing like this? Jesus hasn’t even been born yet? How can we sing this when we look around at our world? “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” includes these lines – “Then from each black accursed mouth/The cannons thundered from the south/And with the sound/The carols drowned/Of peace on earth goodwill to men/Then in despair I bowed by head/There is no peace on earth I said/For hate is strong/And mocks the song/Of peace on earth goodwill to men.” It’s not only when we look around our world. We look at our own lives. We know loss. We know loss of family. We know those whom we love slowly slipping away from us, forgetting who we are. We know loss of health, of job, of relationship. We see what we hoped for dashed.
How can we honestly say “Merry Christmas” and mean it and share in this joyous scene this 24th day of December 2017? By being like Mary and Elizabeth. By living in the promises of God – being standard bearers of the promises of God. This is what Luke invites us into friends, whether you’re doing it for the first time or whether you’ve been living in the promises of God for years. Live expectantly. With great expectation. That carol ends “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep/God is not dead nor does He sleep/The wrong shall fail/The right prevail.” Of peace on earth goodwill to men. To women. To all of creation. God has inclined himself toward us in the person of this baby. Live in expectation of the promise, because everything we have hoped for, the best and truest and most beautiful things; everything we fear – the fears we would hesitate to even share with one another, are met in the person of Christ.
Everything we have hoped for has not yet been realized of course. We wait expectantly. We wait and we trust the God who has shown himself to be trustworthy. Look at how Mary ends her song. She’s so sure of God’s promises that she talks about them in the past tense. Why? “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy – God has remembered us – according to the promise he made our ancestors, to Abraham and his descendants forever.”
Because when God makes a promise, God keeps it. This is the good news. We live in the tension between the already and the not yet of the Kingdom of God. We live in the tension between the now and not yet of God’s promises, knowing by faith that in Christ God is setting all things to right and that God invites us to take part in his great restoration plan and that God will enable us to make his mercy, his grace, his peace, his joy, his justice, his love known.
How do we live well in this tension? You may be saying “Easy for you to say” and I suppose that it’s easier for some. I’m going to propose something very practical and concrete. It’s based on some instructions given to the prophet Habakkuk by God. Habakkuk was waiting on promises being fulfilled. As he waited he heard this – “Then the LORD answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.”
This Christmas I want us to write down the vision. It will help us wait I think. We’ve been talking about God’s promises all year. Which of God’s promises do you need to be reminded of this Christmas?
I will bless you, and make your name great, and you will be a blessing.
He sustained him in a desert land, in a howling wilderness waste; he shielded him, cared for him, guarded him as the apple of his eye.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put with you, and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
Here is the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.
But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I am with you always, even to the end of the age.
The one who testified to these things says, “Surely, I am coming soon.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. Let us be people who wait expectantly and live in these promises. Write down the vision. Make it plain so that even someone running by may be able to read it. Know that the one who makes these promises is faithful and true. Let us then live in the hope, the love, the joy and the peace of Christ Jesus our Lord.
Merry Christmas everyone.