“Emmanuel” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! It is the final Sunday of Advent — the last Sunday before Christmas Day. It has been good for me to prepare and preach from the prophetic texts of Isaiah for the past three weeks, but I confess that I am happy to finally get to Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth. Too bad that Matthew gives us a maddening lack of detail. As you know, the gospels of Mark and John do not include nativity accounts at all, and it’s Luke’s account — and only Luke’s account — which includes the journey to Bethlehem, no room at the inn, and angels and shepherds. If our nativity sets were based on Matthew’s account, all we’d have are Mary, Joseph and the baby — and the wise men. Few of the things I want to know when I hear about the birth of a new baby: What day was he born? How much did he weigh? Is mama doing OK? How long was her labor? None of that information is any biblical account.
Maybe we shouldn’t expect the male authors of these gospels to track details of obstetrics. Luke was presumably a physician, and his gospel does give some information about Mary’s pregnancy, but generally female reproductive health would have pretty far from the experience of the average Jewish man — many aspects of it would have been considered ritually unclean. Pregnancy and especially childbirth is a messy business. This, of course, was no ordinary pregnancy — and we know little about the birth itself. But Matthew’s purpose is not to describe how the birth of Jesus happened, it is to describe what it means. The significance of Jesus’ birth is much larger than the details of his delivery. In this relatively brief description which Tim read for us, we find out some really important details: 1. That Mary was with child by the Holy Spirit. 2. That an angel confirms this for Joseph, who was not inclined to believe his fiancée when she first informed him of this. 3. That Mary’s son will save his people from their sins. 4. That he will be the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of Emmanuel, God-with-us. It is to Joseph’s credit that he follows the angel’s advice and takes Mary as his wife, signing on to this divine project which was already underway. Heaven knows, he could not have known what he was in for.
I had a Zoom meeting with some pastoral colleagues from N IN District this week. I got on to the meeting about 10 minutes late, and conversation was already underway about childbirth. Since all the other folks on the call were men, I felt confident that I could bring a perspective which might otherwise be lacking. One of the pastors asked me “how does having given birth yourself inform how you preach in Advent?” It was a great question, and it took me a while to formulate an answer. I can hear half of the congregation’s brains clicking off right now — mostly men, but maybe women who have not been through childbirth thinking to themselves, “This conversation doesn’t have anything to do with me.” Hear me out. Jesus’ birth is not about the physical details of labor and delivery: it is a sign of God’s activity and presence with us, and a way to understand how we are being called into the work of God. Conception and birth (our own) are part of the experience of every human being, which means God’s activity of creating and bringing new things to life should be something which touches a familiar chord in all of us.
The most important thing I learned from childbirth, I told the group of pastors, is that it is a process which is bigger than I am. I did my best to prepare, but part of that preparation was to surrender to the process with the understanding that I could not control it. Fighting to have things go according to my plan would be exhausting, and not very productive. Knowledge is good, but it can only take you so far: in the end, I had to come to a place of trust. Trust in my husband and caregivers, trust in myself, but mostly trust in the process.
I believe that trust had to be the place where Mary, and then Joseph arrived when the realized the gift which God had entrusted to their care. Neither of them could have known or been expected to know how Jesus’ life and God’s will would play out. Whatever their expectations, at Jesus birth or at the beginning of his ministry or after his death, they were not in control of the narrative. This is not unique to the birth of Jesus. Many parents, maybe every parent, who starts out with grand ideas of establishing a regular schedule, sleep training, potty training, school activities and grades, college expectations — sooner or later (usually much sooner) we are all brought to our knees by the reality that our children have their own ideas and are not under our control. This can be a painful realization, but ultimately it is a freeing one.
For nine months or so, Mary was able to contain God-in-flesh within her own body. But that is about to change — we are only a week away from Christmas and Jesus’ birth, and that means Jesus is coming to our neighborhood. Emmanuel, God-with-us is a sign of God’s love for us and for all people: sent to save us from our sins and fulfill the prophecies of the Old Testament. But God-with-Us also means that we are part of a larger story: a story that is bigger than we are, a story which is bigger than our own hopes and dreams. We are invited to participate in that story, but as the Bible tells us again and again, we do not control it. The Simple Gifts devotional for last Sunday, December 11, as about the First Snowfall — how delightful it is for children who get to change their routine and spend time playing in the snow, while for many adults snow is a nuisance which slows us down and creates more things we have to do. Kathy Fuller Guisewite writes, “Snow reminds us to look and to find the wonder in that which we cannot control.”[i]
Now, I will be the first to admit that I struggle with things I cannot control. I like to plan, and I like it when things go according to plan: family gatherings, pastoral visits, worship services . . . Whatever plans are on your list between now and the end of the year, I wish you strength and patience for the season. But I’m here to remind you that our call as followers of Emmanuel is not to make Jesus part of our plans. Our call as those whom Jesus has redeemed and saved from sin is to be part of Jesus’ plan. That means having the humility to acknowledge that our plans — no matter how much we like them and how hard we have worked on them — are imperfect compared to God’s will. It means being willing to look and to find the wonder in things we cannot control.
There are plenty of examples of this in the Bible, but we need look no further than the passage from Matthew which Tim read for us today. I’m sure Joseph imagined what his life with his betrothed, Mary, would be. I’m sure Mary had visions of being a wife and mother which didn’t include giving birth in a stable, becoming a political refugee, or having her son executed as a criminal. God changed the course of all of their plans, and Joseph and Mary’s willingness to be part of God’s plan changed the course of history. God’s plan is not yet complete. We celebrate the birth in Bethlehem — as we should — but that birth was one bright episode in a story which began long before and still continues today.
Bringing new things to life is demanding work. You don’t have to be a woman with biological children to know this. It happens in families, of course, but also in businesses, community organizations, in health care, and of course, in the church. The love we have for Jesus Christ is most evident when we acknowledge the wonder in the things we did not create and cannot control. We share that love when we share the simple gifts of prayer and compassion and friendship, of joy and even laughter when we realize that God had something better planned for us than we had planned for ourselves. Feel free to remind me of this the next time something unexpected happens in one of our worship services — it’s a learning edge for me.
I hope to see all of you on Christmas Eve this Saturday, or on Christmas Day, or both. I will be here at Creekside. But just in case you have other plans with family or friends, I want to leave this blessing for Christmas with you today. Here is what I wish for you and for us as a congregation: may we experience the wonder of Emmanuel, God-with-us and God-within-Us. Don’t get so caught up in the wrapping and bows of the season and how Jesus’ birth happened that you lose sight of what it means: the simple and profound gift of salvation and freedom from our sin. May we have the courage to bring new things to life and the humility to know that new things have lives of their own and will inevitably go in directions we did not plan for. May you experience the love of Jesus Christ in your life and share that love wherever you go. May the Christ Child live in us and with us every day. Merry Christmas. Amen.
[i] Kathy Fuller Guisewite, Simple Gifts: Advent Devotional 2022. Brethren Press: Elgin 2022.