Unto Us, a Child Is Born

Good news from North Haven

Luke 1:39-45 NRSV

It is the Fourth Sunday of Advent, and tomorrow is Christmas Eve. All of our waiting and expectation is almost over. We have gathered here this morning, and will gather here again tomorrow night to receive once again the long-expected baby Jesus.  Like Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, something inside of us is leaping for joy!

Our anticipation standsin sharp contrast to that first Christmas, when this baby was not received by everyone. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” in response to the good news. But not everyone thought of this birth as good news.

The shepherds were filled with fear. King Herod, despite all his soldiers guarding him at the Palace, was sore afraid as he saw this baby’s birth as a threat to his empire. Even Joseph, the man engaged to Mary, didn’t readily receive the baby. In the beginning he spent many a sleepless night questioning, “Who’s really the father of this baby?”

Jesus was conceived by a woman who was not married to anyone. We have given ugly names to such babies. Thankfully, I don’t here many children called the “b-word” anymore. It is such a sad name to describe a child, I find it inappropriate to say aloud from this pulpit. I do, however, hear the word, as I am certain Mary and Joseph heard the word, illegitimate, to describe such children.  And that, too, illegitimate, is a sad, ugly term for anybody, much less the very Son of God. Today, we also use other sad and ugly terms for children: “illegal,” “alien,” “abomination.”

In contrast to that very first Christmas where very few received this baby they called illegitimate, we will gather with the Church around the world to welcome and embrace this baby. With triumphant voices we will sing, “Come let us adore him!”

And there is a counter miracle occurring here. We are receiving the baby, but this baby is also receiving us. In the birth of Jesus, God came to us because we could not come to God. So, before we congratulate ourselves on our willing and eager reception of this baby, let us wonder at this baby’s reception of us.

Knowing that we cannot reach up to God, God reaches down to us.  God takes on our humanity so that we might assume some of God’s divinity. God came to show us that we are all children of God.  Think about that this morning.

You are a child of God. I am a child of God. We have divine value, sacred worth, a holy purpose.

We need to wonder at this reception, because we Christians have come to speak almost casually of this miracle when we say, “I am child of God.”

As someone who has been in the church for over fifty years now, and a minister for over thirty years, people often tell me that I should write a book.  A wonderful book of church stories filled with stories about you.

A Presbyterian minister from Northhaven, Minnesota did just that. In his book entitled, The Good News from Northhaven, Michael Lindval writes about his Presbyterian congregation.

It was his first Thanksgiving as pastor of the church. On the Sunday after Thanksgiving they were having an infant baptism. Dr. Angus McDonald II, (he sounds Presbyterian doesn’t he?) and his lovely wife, proudly presented their new son, Angus III, otherwise known as Skip, to be baptized.

When it was time for the baptism, Rev. Lindval turned to the congregation and asked what is traditionally asked in many churches that baptize infants. He addressed the congregation and asked: “Who stands with this child?”

Immediately, the grandparents, aunts and uncles and an assortment of relatives and friends, stood up and joined the parents at the front as they held the baby, presenting the baby for baptism.

When the service was over, after the congregation shook the minister’s hand upon exiting the church, Rev. Lindval, walked back through the sanctuary and noticed that one person had remained. He recognized her as someone who always sat on the back pew, closest to the back door. She was a social worker, he remembered. She seemed to be at a loss for words.

After an awkward silence, she commented on how lovely the baptism was, and then, fumbling for words, said to the pastor, “One of my clients, her name is Tina, has had a baby, and well, Tina would like to have the baby baptized.”

The pastor suggested that Tina should come to see him, along with her husband, and then they would discuss the possibility of baptism.

The woman looked up at the pastor and said, “Tina has no husband.  She is not a member of this church but attended the youth group some when she was in Junior High School. But then she got involved with this older boy.  And now she has this baby.  She is only 17.”

The pastor awkwardly mumbled that he would bring the request before the next meeting of Session, their church board meeting.

When the pastor presented the request before the Session, there was a lot of mumbling?  “Who was the father?”  The pastor said that he didn’t know.  “Does Tina have any other family?” “I don’t know,” the pastor said. Heads turned.

“How could they be sure that Tina would be faithful to the promises that she was making in the baptism?” was a concern brought by more than one elder.

The pastor only responded by shrugging his shoulders, but thought to himself, “How could they really be sure about anybody’s promise?”

With a lot of reservations, the Session reluctantly approved the baptism of Tina’s baby for the Fourth Sunday of Advent.

When the Fourth Sunday of Advent came, the sanctuary was full as children were home from college and many of the members had invited guests. They went through the service singing the usual Advent hymns, “O Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” and so forth. Then, it was time for the baptism.

The pastor announced, “And now would those to be presented for baptism come forward.”  An elder of the church stood up and read off the three-by-five card, indicating that he did not remember the woman or the child’s name, “Tina Corey presents her son, James, for baptism.”  The elder sat back down with an obvious grimace on his face.

Tina got up from where she was seated and came down to the front, holding two-month old James in her arms. A blue pacifier was stuck in his mouth. The scene was just as awkward as the pastor and the elders knew it would be.

Tina seemed so young, so poor, so alone.

But as she stood there holding that baby with poinsettias and a Chrismon tree shining brightly in the foreground, they could not help but to think of another poor mother with a baby, young, alone, long ago, in somewhat similar circumstances.  Yes, in another place and time, Tina and Mary seemed like sisters.

And then the pastor came to that appointed part of the service when he asked, “And who stands with this child?”  He looked out at the mother of Tina dressed in her meager way, and nodded toward her.  She, almost hesitantly, awkwardly stood and moved toward her daughter and her grandson.

The pastor’s eyes went back to his service book to proceed with the questions to be asked of the parents when he became aware of movement within the congregation.  A couple of elders of the church stood up.  And many, on the same row, stood up beside them. Then the Junior High Sunday School teacher stood up. Then a new young couple in the church stood up. And then, before the pastor’s astonished eyes, the whole church was standing, moving forward, clustered around the baby.

Tina was crying.  Her mother was gripping the altar rail as if she were clutching the railing of a tossing ship, “which in a way she was”—a ship in a great wind.  Moving forward this day so much closer to her ultimate destination. And little James, as the water, touched his forehead, grew peaceful and calm, as if he could feel the warm embrace of the entire congregation. Every person in the room stood as if this was their child, as if they were all family.

The scripture reading was, as it often is during this time before Christmas, 1 John 3:1, “See what love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”

Tomorrow night, a baby will be born into our family. But it is by this baby we have been made family.

Maybe you came to this service this morning and plan to come tomorrow night all by yourself.  Maybe you do not have much family, maybe you lost the family you had, or perhaps your family is far away.

But on this Fourth Sunday of Advent, here, right now, do you hear that rustling in the pews? Listen. That’s the sound of your family, the whole human family, taking shape around the manger. And in a few moments, as you gather around this table and prepare to break the bread and drink from the cup, strangers become sisters and brothers.

Christmas means the Word has become flesh and is dwelling among us.

And what is that word?

“See what love the Father has given to us so we should be called children of God. And so we are” (1 John 3:1).

For unto us a child is born.

So no child born should ever be called “illegitimate,” “illegal,” “alien,” or an “abomination.”

For unto us a child is born.

So we will stand up to stand with all God’s children.

For unto us a child is born.

So every child will be welcomed, loved and affirmed; every child will know their divine value, their sacred worth, and holy purpose.

For unto us a child is born.

So all children will receive the hospitality of a cold cup of water, a hot meal, and warm shelter.

For unto us a child is born.

So every child will have access to equitable education, a fair living wage, affordable healthcare, equal protection under the law—everything they need for a future full of promise, potential and peace.

For unto us a child is born.

So every child will know freedom, justice and salvation.

For unto us a child is born

So every child will experience life: abundant and eternal.

For unto us a child is born,

So blessed is the fruit of every womb.

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