The Birth of Hope

Passage: Luke 2:1-7
Date: December 24, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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I have long been a fan of the idea of the Incarnation, the idea behind the Christmas story that the infinite God chose to put on finite human flesh.  For me, the Christmas story makes God more personal; it makes God real, somehow. When we see God in the baby Jesus, we see a God whose presence does not frighten us, a God whose hand we can take, a God who will understand the limits and the joys of having a body that can dance and sing and run, a body that can be broken, a body that will not last forever.  

The Christmas story takes theology and turns it into a painting, allowing us an inroad into God, allowing the idea of God to become more intimate and more compassionate.  Perhaps W.H. Auden put it best, as he contemplated this Christmas story, and wrote: “Remembering the stable where for once in our lives/Everything became a You, and nothing was an It.”  

It’s been fun this year to use our crèche for the time with children.  I appreciate the accessibility of a nativity set.  There are human beings there, some plain like Mary and Joseph, and some rough like the shepherds, and some exotic, like the wise men.  There are clunky oxen and cows, wobbly donkeys, and adorable sheep.  And there is a place for each of them there, they all belong; they are Yous and not Its.  They are also witnesses to a birth, witnesses to the Incarnation that they do not understand but are awed by.

I often invite children and other humans to imagine where they would be in the nativity scene.  Would they be next to Mary, wanting to hold Jesus? Would they hold Joseph’s hand, a little unsure of what to do but wanting to be there?  Would they hang out with the silent animals or chit-chat with the shepherds?  Because we belong there, too.  The Incarnation means that we are not simply things that God made and forgot about, but beloved children who are cherished.

The Incarnation makes God more personal, more intimate, more welcoming, but even more than that, the Incarnation was God’s best way of saying “I love you.”  I love you, and I want to know what it’s like to be like you.  I love you, and I want to help you.  I love you, and I want to save you.  All of that in this little tiny baby born into the world the way all babies are, birthed by his mother Mary.

A friend recently shared this wonderful poem with me, written by (of all people) the Sufi mystic Rumi:

The body is like Mary, and each of us has a Jesus inside.
Who is not in labor, holy labor? Every creature is.  

See the value of true art, when the earth or a soul is in the mood to create beauty;
for the witness might then for a moment know, beyond any doubt, God is really there within,

so innocently drawing life from us with Her umbilical universe-infinite existence...

though also needing to be born.  Yes, God also needs to be born!

Birth from a hand's loving touch.  Birth from a song, from a dance, breathing life into this world.

The body is like Mary, and each of us, each of us has a Christ within.  

I wonder what we are giving birth to.  Because each of us who follows Jesus carries his love inside of us and gives birth to that love all the time.  But just as we don’t always know if we’re having a girl or a boy, so we don’t know what form the love we birth will take.  Let me show you a few way forms love takes when it is given birth by ordinary people like you and me.

The first story is about my dear friend Alison’s parents, who went through a terrible divorce.  They fought over everything, including the china, and ended up splitting up the set.  He took half, she took half.  Years later, Alison’s dad was becoming incapacitated because of diabetes.  Her mother took care of him, bringing him food, taking him to doctor’s appointments, checking in on her ex-husband.  One day her doorbell rang, and he was there on the front stoop with his half of the china, giving it back to her as a way of thanks for all her tender mercies.  

Sometimes we give birth to forgiveness.

NPR recently shared this on Story Corps:

“It was Christmas Eve in 1967. William Lynn Weaver, 18 at the time, was walking in Mechanicsville, the neighborhood he grew up in in Knoxville, Tenn., when he saw a boy gliding down the street on a bicycle. "Boy, that looks like my brother's bike," he mused.

When he got home, he asked his younger brother Wayne where that bicycle was. "It was down on the steps," he replied. But it wasn't.The Weaver brothers tracked down where the boy lived — an unlit shack in an alley — and planned to confront him."Now, my brother and I, we're going to beat this boy, but my father was there and he said, 'Just shut up and let me talk,' " 

An elderly man with a cane answered their knock on the door. The home appeared cold and dark, and he had a single candle for light. His grandson… was the boy who had stolen the bike."He was the same age as my brother, about 10 years old," Weaver says. "The little boy starts crying and he says, 'I just wanted something for Christmas.'” They took the bike and walked home.

"My father tells my mother and she doesn't say anything," Weaver says. "She just starts cutting the turkey in half and all the fixings. She started packing it up. My father went to the coal yard and got a big bag of coal. And then he told my brother, he said, 'You've got another bike, don't you?' My brother said 'Yeah.' " And the three returned to the shack in the alley, this time with food, some coal to provide heat and the bike.

"The little boy is just crying, but the thing that moved me the most was the old man. My father gave him $20, which was a huge deal back then, and said, 'Merry Christmas.' "The man said thank you and broke down in tears…..

"My father was a chauffeur, my mother was a domestic, so we didn't have a lot of stuff. And that Christmas, I don't even remember what gift I got, but I do know that made me feel better than any Christmas I've ever had."(

Sometimes we give birth to generosity

The last picture is less a story and more of an invitation of what love might look like.  It comes from Sam Wells, vicar of St. Martins-in-the-Fields in London, and I think his words are wise.

He asks, “What if the fundamental problem that we need to work to overcome, that embedded flaw at the core of being human, isn’t mortality? Consider all the ways that we struggle mightily to overcome our mortality – to extend life, transcend our physical limitations, care for others’ most basic physical needs for food and shelter.  Sometimes these are all good and necessary things.But is this the central human problem? Mortality?

“What if, actually, it’s isolation?

“What if we reconsider our work and being in the world around the fundamental problem of human isolation?  That what we need more than anything is for someone to be with us.  Not someone to do something for us.  That what we need to do for others in need is be with them.  Be present with them.”

Sometimes we give birth to presence.

I don’t know what you are laboring at this day, in this particular season of your life.  I imagine that some of you are laboring on health and healing.  I know that some of us are doing the hard labor of grief.  Some are giving birth to forgiveness, knowing that someone has to make the first move so that a relationship can be reconciled.

Some people are giving birth to generosity, bringing food to shelters and coats to people asleep on our sidewalks, or arguing that there are families desperately in need of food stamps and health insurance.

Some people are giving birth to being present for others, for people who are terribly afraid of losing a job or being separated from their families or dying from violence.  

What we are laboring at and what we are giving birth to is our work to do, but that work won’t fix everything. We will still become ill, and we will die.  We will still fight and separate.  We will still have those in our midst who struggle to survive, to have food and shelter.  There will still be war and fear.

When Jesus was born, the Roman empire was all powerful, but there was poverty and violence.  The birth of that baby didn’t change those things.  But his birth, and all of our labors and birthing, bring to the world something that no war, no disease, no poverty, no death can conquer.

The birth of Christ and the birth of forgiveness and generosity and presence bring hope into the world.  We can live through almost anything if we have hope.  It is the hope that things can change.  It is the hope that light shines in the darkness.  It is the hope that love can heal all the wounds we carry in this life.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.
Those who live in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.
For a Child has been born for us…”