Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 22, 2019
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
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.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
If you think of it, it is rather odd and improbable that the very centre of a world religion like Christianity should be a story like this. Not a majestic vision of the cosmos. Not a spectacular divine gesture, no earthquakes or volcano eruptions. And no elegant and compelling philosophical argument. Little grandeur, no magnificence. Instead, we have a story of the arrival one small baby in an obscure place and undistinguished family, with quite an awkward backstory. The particulars are inconsistent among the gospel storytellers, but involve surprise, and embarrassment, and a little more information about Mary and Joseph’s sex life than we really want. We hear mundane details in both this version and Luke’s, about the mother’s perplexing plight, about the father’s anxiety, and the dreams he had. We see two people walking along a road to Bethlehem, preparing to face the uncertainty and pain of childbirth. We follow the humble couple on their long journey over rough terrain, watch them find shelter in a stable, and wonder with them at their unexpected midnight visitors.
Over the centuries and around the world, people have built the narrative up, as we do with our Christmas trees, starting with a simple evergreen and then adding lights and decorations until it is hardly recognizable. Even the gospel-writer Matthew reached back into the prophecies of Isaiah, and found the little vignette about Ahaz that Nikhil read. The gospel stories have caught peoples’ imagination so we that have countless extras, about angels and midwives and drummer boys, about spiders weaving blankets and flowers that turn red, talking donkeys and a boy who gives his crutch. The three Kings that come are given names and stories – and as we saw as the offering was presented last week, sometimes there are four of them. But at the centre, it’s just the story of a child being born. Happens 360,000 times a day nowadays. Or to find a more imaginable number, 250 births per minute. Four per second. Though perhaps that isn’t really imaginable either.
Even so, even when it is so common, there is something exciting about the birth of a child. Joseph’s dream moves him from worry to anticipation. Mary’s doubts give way to delight as she sings the song of praise that we read responsively. We hear as the story unfolds that there was a star, that scholars studied the old manuscripts and looked at the sky, straining to see the sparkle of something new out there. And whether two thousand years ago, or right now, a new child is like a new star. A new star with its own mysterious beginning, its own place in the constellation, and its own destiny.
The story is about real people, the kind you see on the streetcar. If Mary and Joseph had been here in Toronto, living as we do, we can imagine that they might have shared the excitement of a visit to the ultrasound department. The poet Sean Hill describes the moment from what might be Joseph’s point of view this way (“Hello” by Sean Hill):
She, being the midwife
and your mother’s
longtime friend, said
I see a heart; can you
see it? And on the grey
display of the ultrasound
there you were as you were,
our nugget, in that moment
becoming a shrimp
or a comma punctuating
the whole of my life, separating
its parts—before and after—,
a shrimp in the sea
of your mother, and I couldn’t
help but see the fast
beating of your heart
translated on that screen
and think and say to her,
to the room, to your mother,
to myself It looks like
a twinkling star.
I imagine I’m not
the first to say that either.
Unlike the first moments
of my every day,
the new of seeing you was the first
—deserving of the definite article—
moment I saw a star
at once so small and so
big, so close and getting closer
every day, I pray.
Remarkable to think that every one of us sitting here, and everyone we see on the street or the subway, was once a tiny star sparkling within the depths of a woman. Of course they didn’t have ultrasounds in first century Nazareth, but as Mary ran to tell her cousin Elizabeth about the angel’s visit, and as Joseph scratched his head at the memory of the angel’s voice in his dream, that tiny star was growing into the child who would change the world.
The main insight of the Christian faith is that God’s love for humanity is so profound that God opts all the way in. Rather than remaining at a distance, instead of operating as a divine principle, God’s nature is to be so aligned with the experience of human beings, to be so attuned to the joy and the sorrow of human life, that God comes to be here. This is who Jesus is. God breathing, hungering, weeping. The very name given to the baby is Immanuel – God with us.
Not everyone finds this plausible. For some it is easier to imagine a more conventional God far away, or no God at all, and to think of Jesus as a particularly inspiring young man, who could teach and preach and help people learn how to live. For some, the old stories of nativity are best heard as simple children’s tales that add a little magic and warmth to a dark, cold season. But at Christmas, in church, we are reminded that at the core of our faith is incarnation, in which God’s own spirit becomes flesh. In which the unfathomable energy that created the world and drives the unfolding universe is right here with us.
At Christmastime, the charming legends and far-fetched stories are more than simple diversions for a winter night. Each one points to this radical claim of God-with-us – and to the still more radical claim that if we could genuinely know that, the world would be different. If we could truly see the star sparkling at the centre of each human being, the glow of divine vitality in all living things, the dazzling beauty of the earth and sky on a starry night, then the world would be changed. If we can come to know that shining truth, then, as Isaiah prophesied, the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, and the wolf will live with the lamb. If we can live by the light of love, the star, then as Mary sang, the lowly will be lifted up, and the hungry will be filled. The invitation to us is to live into the truth that God is with us.
As Joseph and Mary set out on their long journey to Bethlehem, they will have seen the stars come out. Perhaps they too looked up and saw one star that had begun to shine more brightly. They will have wondered where this journey of love might end. For love, the star was on the way. And the ancient journey goes on still.
For this, we give God thanks.
(Photo Credit: Midori Shibata, Japan)