4th Sunday of Advent
Texts: Luke 1:39-55;
Micah 5:2-5a; Heb 10:5-10
CHOOSING TO HAVE A BABY: A RADICAL ADVENT ACT OF HOPE
Last week, we marveled at how St. Paul could write, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say rejoice,” given his context. It was a time when God’s people, the Jews, were sorely oppressed and beaten down by the Roman Empire — the time of “coming wrath” which John the Baptist preached about. There was a seething anger ready to explode into political violence at any moment, and sixteen years after Paul wrote those words it did explode. The Jews rose up in armed rebellion against the Romans and were completely crushed. Jerusalem was flattened, including its Temple, and life as they had known it was gone forever. How do you have hope and faith and joy in the face of such realities?
This morning, we begin with two pregnant women excited about the prospects of the children they were carrying. One is older, Elizabeth, a middle-aged woman whose expectancy is now showing; and the other, Mary, a teenage young woman, who’s not yet far enough along to show. The baby jumps in Elizabeth’s womb, and we can imagine Mary reaching out to put her hand on her belly to feel the movement. But then we once again see that Advent hope and joy as Elizabeth proclaims Mary blessed among women. Mary breaks out into a song of thanksgiving and hope.
Here’s the thing: deliberatively choosing to have a baby is the quintessential Advent act of faith and hope and joy. Let’s be clear that there’s plenty of situations of having a baby that don’t involve deliberately and thoughtfully choosing. Often times, it’s more about the choice to have sex and then going along with the results because that’s what people do. But sometimes the act of bringing a new human being into the world is a more deliberate and thoughtful choice. And Luke seems to go to great lengths to indicate that that’s what has happened here. The angel Gabriel comes to Mary to announce God’s deliberate choice to bring a special baby into the world with Mary’s help. Does Mary have a choice? It would seem so, since the scene with Gabriel ends by Mary proclaiming her ‘Yes!’: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). And, then, visiting her cousin Elizabeth, she breaks into song, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. . . .” There’s that word again, “rejoice.”
So let’s also be very clear about this: like St. Paul, the historical situation does not seem to call for Mary to have faith or hope or joy. Paul lived shortly before the time of complete and utter destruction for his people. But 50 years earlier than Paul, Mary made her choice to bring a baby into the world precisely at the time and place of the most significant warmup event to final act of destruction. We roughly set our years to the birth of Jesus — I say, “roughly,” because our more precise modern historians cannot place exactly which year Jesus was born in. But there’s other events which we can place precisely. King Herod the Great, for example, dies in the year 4 before Christ, and that’s when Jews in Galilee tried a first armed rebellion. The biggest city in Galilee was Sepphoris, and the Romans leveled Sepphoris and many of the surrounding villages. One of those villages? Nazareth. Very close to that Ground Zero of rebellion. So it is likely that Mary, living in Nazareth, deliberatively chooses to have her baby exactly at this time and place of Roman destruction and murder, and Jesus will grow up in its shadow.
A prominent New Testament scholar puts it this way: “I imagine that legionary attack as establishing a terribly clear date in reference to which all other events were labeled “before,” “during,” or “after” in a world that did not run by our ticking clocks and turning calendars. . . . I propose, therefore, that Jesus, growing up in the years after that military incursion around Nazareth in 4 BCE, would have heard over and over again about the year the Romans came” (John Dominic Crossan, The Greatest Prayer, 166). Was this a good time for a young Jewish woman in Nazareth to choose having a baby?
There’s another element to this, as well, which we need to take into account: what it’s like for any woman who’s marginalized by her local politics and economics — being ‘lowly,’ as she describes herself — to choose bringing a child into the world. As I seek to learn about racism, there’s this thing called white privilege. Choosing to have a baby can fall into that category. For a white person like myself, I don’t even think about the fact that my newborn child will have all the advantages of being white. It doesn’t really factor into my decision to choose to have a baby with my wife. But for a person of color, the fact that their child will be living as if biking uphill against the wind — living in a culture set up to advantage others — that’s something they have to think about when bring in a child into the world. As a white person, it never occurred to me that the choice to have a baby might be different for our neighbors of color. There were certainly times of great suffering for people of color in which the choice of bringing a baby into the world was very difficult — certainly not joyful.
One of my favorite TV shows in recent years brought this home to me. It was called Timeless. It’s about a secret project to build a time machine — two machines, really, a working prototype and then the final product. But a terrorist group steals the main machine to go back into history and presumably try to change history in their favor. The “good guys” must put together a team to chase after them in the prototype and try to stop them. The machine can only take three people, so they have to choose their team carefully. They’re chasing terrorists, so they take a white special ops military guy. They’re going into history, so they take a history professor who happens to be a woman. The third person is a given, since they don’t have time to train someone to ‘drive’ the machine. They have to take one of the tech persons as a pilot, who happens to be African American. When he’s told that he has to go, because they don’t have time to train someone else, he responds, “I’m black. There is literally no place in American history that’ll be awesome for me.” Seeing the panic on his face, this is clearly an understatement. He’s afraid. One of things I liked about this show was that it was realistic in depicting the racism and sexism that has held this country back from realizing its dream of all people being created equal. “I’m black. There is literally no place in American history that’ll be awesome for me.”
Now, imagine again the choice facing Mary in bringing a child into this world. She lives in Nazareth at time when the Romans had burned down much of it and murdered many of her neighbors. She is also a marginalized Jew living in an empire controlled and brutalized by another nation. The prospects for her child is that he will face the same kind of poverty, oppression, and terror that she faces. How can she possibly approach it with such faith and hope and joy?
Because, in spite of centuries of being oppressed by other empires, the Jewish faith had become one of hope in anticipating God’s reign breaking into human history with a more just and equitable way to live. In recent weeks, we’ve talked about this in terms of a different way of ‘getting even,’ which is usually about violent revenge. No, God’s way of getting even involves images like the mountains being flattened and the valleys being lifted. It’s a leveling process that gives everyone in the human family an equitable chance at flourishing. Mary sings about this in her song! She, one of the lowly ones, has been lifted up! And the mighty have been thrown down from their thrones. The hungry are filled with good things, and the rich sent away empty. Sometimes, this is depicted as a reversal in fortunes. But I don’t think so. It’s a leveling, a ‘getting even,’ in the sense of all of God’s children having a real chance to thrive. Mary’s faith and hope and joy are not only in God’s promise to bring this just and equitable kind of reign into history but also, in light of the angel Gabriel’s message, it’s the promise that her son will be the one to launch the project! Wow, that is truly a cause for rejoicing!
Yet we’ve also talked about the Bible’s realism. So Mary will also hear from Simeon after Jesus’s birth, that “a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). Bringing God’s just and nonviolent reign into the world will also mean sometimes having to suffer the violence of human reigns, and that will happen to her son on the cross. A sword will pierce her soul as she watches her son be crucified. But she will also continue, along with St. Paul and her son’s other disciples, in knowing the wonder of the new way of being human that comes with participating in God’s reign based on love and forgiveness rather than coercive, deadly power. This new way of being human will continue to be a source of faith and hope and joy, despite the birth pangs of being nonviolent in a still violent world. In its own way, it’s like seeds growing in the earth (recalling many of Jesus’s parables), it will continue to bring something new into the world that worth celebrating.
So let’s bring this home once again with our children’s and grandchildren’s generations in heart and mind. Despite my white privilege, I can see for the first time in my life why even a white person might hesitate to bring a new child into this world. This is personal, since I have married sons who have yet to decide to have a child. I can understand thinking twice, or more, about raising children in the growing threat that climate change represents. They also have grown up in the 35 years that our country has taken a turn towards an economics which widens the gap between rich and poor instead of working to reduce the gap. ‘Getting even’ in the sense of real equity. Our children have been watching that go in the opposite direction all their lives. Right?
Finally, they now also live in a time when our nation faces the unthinkable: the loss of our very democracy to political violence. Democracy is truly a godsend in terms of the ability to change regimes not through political violence but through people expressing their hopes and desires through the nonviolent means of voting. Like the destruction of Sepphoris was a warmup to the destruction of Jerusalem in Mary’s and Jesus’s day, will the January 6th attempt at insurrection be a warmup for the real thing of our democracy giving way to regime change through political violence? These are the very pressing issues of our moment in history — issues whose consequences loom even larger for our children and grandchildren.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, do you see why it is so urgent for us to revitalize our basic Gospel message to that of a new way to be human? Can you see how we might get excited to work, with the guidance and under the power of the Holy Spirit, to recognize where God’s reign is coming into the world and to participate in helping to bring it about? Do you see how our children and grandchildren might then choose that radical Advent act of bringing a baby into this world in faith and hope and joy and love? Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethel/Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, December 19, 2021