A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr C ~ Advent 4 ~ Luke 1:35-45 (MSG)
Some of what you’re about to hear may sound familiar. As you know, I’m dealing with being Covid-positive this week, so I hope I can be forgiven for reworking an old sermon (although, there’s nothing wrong with re-preaching – good tunes deserve multiple hearings). But another reason it will sound familiar is that the themes we’ll talk about today come up every single year on this last Sunday before Christmas. Why is that? Because this, in my oh so humble opinion, is the true meaning of Christmas.
This, Advent 4, is the big day. Theologically, well, as far as preaching and teaching goes anyway, this Sunday is way more important than Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Oh, those are remarkably important for what they are – and what they are are celebrations of the birth of Jesus – a real person, born to real parents, in a real time and place, 2021 years ago (give or take). A baby whose life was so consequential that we number our calendar from him. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are all about then – and how indescribably important ‘then’ was.
But I say that this Sunday’s message is more important because it’s not just a history lesson – it’s all about NOW. And more than that, it’s all about YOU. In a nutshell, the deep and real and true meaning of Christmas is that YOU are Mary, and you are being asked to birth God’s Love and Light into the world. You. Here. Today. Now. We’ll explore that by looking at Mary and Elizabeth, but instead of history, this morning we get her-story – and we realize that it’s my-story, and your-story.
Elizabeth and Mary – two women – one probably too old to be having a baby – the other probably too young to be having a baby. And yet, they can sense that God has blessed them – that the life they bear is incredibly important – and holy. It’s so ordinary. The same scene has probably happened several million times since then. The joyful hope of expectancy, shared between women, relatives.
Two women with suspect pregnancy stories – or at least unconventional ones. Why is such blessing conferred upon such obviously ‘flawed’ women? Neither Mary nor Elizabeth were particularly special. If you were going to choose mothers for a great prophet and the one who would be called the Son of God would you have chosen them?
Elizabeth was “well on in years” – and Mary was barely a teenager. Who among you who are well on in years would want the blessing of a baby now? Or what would we call it if one of our young church teens found herself “blessed”? We wouldn’t shun or shame (like sadly was done so often in the past), but we also wouldn’t choose it. And what about you? How would you react if it was you?
People of Faith – I bring you a message from God. You’re pregnant! (Everybody look at the person beside you and tell them that they’re pregnant. If you’re online, send out a message saying “I’m pregnant!”) Friends, we are all pregnant with the potential of spiritual purpose. We’re just like Mary and Elizabeth. We’re pregnant. In early Christianity to honour Mary she was given the Greek title “Theotokos” which means “God Bearer” – and that’s exactly what we’re supposed to be too. We are pregnant – we are God-Bearers. Bearing God’s Love and God’s Light, and then birthing them into the world. Meister Eckhart said, “We are all meant to be mothers of God.”
Think about it. How does God choose to usher in a new vision for humanity? How does God transform the world? Through kings? Emperors? Armies? No. Through ordinary, everyday people like Mary and Elizabeth who brought forth children and raised them in love and in faith. The spiritual revolution that changed the world didn’t come through the powerful but through the powerless. God chooses to work in unconventional ways through unconventional people – ordinary people – just like you!
We are God-Bearers. We’re pregnant. Pregnancy is such a great metaphor for faith. It all begins with a very special moment – a holy spark is ignited and something inside you is changed. Maybe you were a skeptic and you find yourself oddly open to a new way of looking at things. Maybe you were a church-goer as a kid but drifted away and find that you’re reawakening to the movement of the Spirit. Maybe you’ve been in church your whole life but for whatever reason you felt something moving you deeper – asking new questions – feeling a hunger and thirst that you perhaps hadn’t felt before – or lately.
That movement – whether it was a lightning bolt or a slow burn – is the spark of conception – the time when something new and holy was conceived in the deepest part of your being. You became pregnant – just like Mary. Maybe you feel like you’re too old to become pregnant – or too young – or too busy – or too stressed – or too worldly – or too whatever. But that spark – that new sensation that there’s something more to this life than just living – is a special blessing from God – whether you’re ready for it or not.
Like any pregnancy the initial spark is just that – a starting point. What comes next is a lot of waiting, watching, wondering, dreaming, planning, preparing, hoping, and worrying! You don’t get touched by the Holy Spirit and instantly become a Martin Luther King Jr or a Mother Teresa. It takes time – it takes commitment – it takes love. The blessing needs to grow inside you. It needs to be nurtured so it can grow strong and healthy – which is part of the reason we gather together each week. Make no mistake – being a God-Bearer takes work – but it’s so worth it!
Mary and Elizabeth teach us another really important thing about being God-Bearers – we’re supposed to support each other through our pregnancies. We’re supposed to journey together. Mary and Elizabeth spent time together to help one another – to remind one another how blessed they were to be bearing God’s miraculous gifts to the world.
That’s us too! We too need to support one another, and teach one another, and love one another, because we too are blessed to be bearing God’s miraculous gifts to the world! What are those gifts? What’ll they be like? What’ll my gift become? I don’t know the answers – but those are questions that we need to dream about together. Everyone knows the saying “It takes a village to raise a child.” It’s true. We don’t raise our children in isolation – we raise them in community. And that’s how we should be nurturing our faith too. Bearing God to the world is not something we do on our own, but as a community of followers of the Way of Jesus.
Ok – we’ve had the spark – we’ve done the growing, dreaming, and preparing – that’s what Advent is all about – anticipation – and now … It’s birthing time! Let me tell you from my own personal experience – birthing isn’t all that bad. [grin] Birthing is an exceedingly painful yet supremely joyous event.
When we give birth to something in our faith life we’re doing something public with it – bringing it out into the open. It may be as simple as saying out loud that you’re a follower of the Way of Jesus. Owning that statement may be a burden – but claiming it is also a blessing. You may birth a ministry – or an outreach project – or even just pitch in and help with something. Birthing is that act of putting your money where your mouth is, and actually following through with something in the name of your faith. For some of us talking about our faith is a burden right up there on the painful scale with delivering babies. And we’re so afraid of the pain of it – maybe they’ll laugh at me – maybe they’ll think I’m nuts – maybe I’ll not be welcome anymore – or (gasp) maybe they’ll want me to keep talking about it, and pray with them and stuff – we’re so afraid of that ‘pain’ that we do everything we can to avoid it – and in doing so we cheat ourselves out of an incredible blessing.
Faith is a blessing, and it brings with it the burden of risking, and giving of ourselves, and sharing it. And the paradox of it all is that the meeting of that burden becomes even more of a blessing to us. We find that as we put ourselves out there and share the hope, peace, joy and love that we’ve experienced through our relationship with God, that we’re blessed with even more hope, more peace, more joy, and more love because we’ve birthed the greatest thing there is – a humble, willing, obedient heart that strives to love God and love people.
But of course birthing is not the end of the story – it’s really just the beginning – because you don’t birth something and then just walk away. You nurture it again – not in the same way as you did at first but you still nurture it. It’s never-ending – it’s ever deepening. And as you engage in your expression of gratitude for God’s grace, as you serve and minister, you continue to grow. As you teach you understand more – as you share you deepen – as you love you learn to love more deeply – ever deeper…
And so like Mary, like Elizabeth, like the prophets, like the disciples, like so many who have come before us – we are God-Bearers. Because we have received the Holy Spirit, Jesus lives in us just as surely as he did in Mary. We then give ‘birth’ anew to Jesus whenever we truly walk in his Way – when we give as he gave – when we care as he cared – when we love as he loved. Holy love is one of God’s great gifts to us – the kind of gift that we receive with open arms, hold and nurture for a while, and then give it away to someone else – and in doing so, we are blessed again.
What shape might that birthing take for you this Christmas? When you engage with the world, the wider culture, the one that may treat Christmas in very different ways than you might – how might you birth love and light into those interactions and encounters? Everybody likes to look at baby pictures. You’re birthing love this Christmas – will you share your pics? Will you share your love? Your joy? Your peace? Your hope?
If you’re thinking, “Who? Me?” Please hear this message from God’s angel:
“You have nothing to fear. God has a surprise for you: You will become pregnant and give birth to (God’s love and light.)…Nothing, you see, is impossible with God.”
May what God’s Spirit has conceived in you be born anew this holy season.