Written by Pastor Ed
Children as a Sign of Hope
December 21, 2014 Advent IV
Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
Luke 1: 26-38
During my last year of seminary, in 1975-6, we were part of a small group that included three couples, all childless at the time. And one of the topics of discussion that I remember was the issue of bringing children into the world. Some argued that it wasn’t fair to have children. On the one hand it wasn’t fair to the world because we were facing over-population and on the other hand it wasn’t fair to the child because of the state of the world, with violence, famine and overcrowding all around.
Others of us presumed we would have children, and the older faculty couple whose children were grown argued strongly for the joys of children. It was always interesting to us to note that the couple who argued most vehemently against having children was the first of the couples to actually have a child.
So I was interested to see Anna Groff, current editor of The Mennonite, voice some similar concerns in her latest editorial. She said, “I hate to say this, but I worry about the world my daughter will grow up in.” Probably all parents have had those feelings at times, and yet children continue to be born, probably because children are a sign of hope in the world.
I have heard people complain and wonder why families in poor countries tend to have bigger families. Generally that is the case because the parents hope that by having numerous children at least some of them will survive to adulthood. Here, we tend to place more auspicious hopes on our children, sometimes to the detriment of the children, as parents place their unfulfilled dreams onto the child. If I couldn’t be the great hockey player, maybe my son can be if I push them hard enough.
Whatever our hopes and dreams are, and whether they are fulfilled or sometimes not, bringing children into the world is a sign that we have hope for the future. Having babies born into the congregation gives us hope for a future. I recall sitting with a group from one congregation and asking them why they thought the congregation was dwindling and facing closing. “Because our women stopped having babies,” said the pastor with a straight face. Of course it was also true that all the women in the congregation were over 60 and that all the babies that had been born earlier were no longer part of the congregation.
Perhaps the best example of a child as a sign of hope is the child whose birth we celebrate this week. “To us a child of hope is born,” says the hymn, echoing the words of the angel to Mary. Our Gospel text for this morning, which we heard, is from Luke 1 often called the Annunciation. It is the account of the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary to announce her coming pregnancy and delivery.
Now a great deal of ink and even more argument has been focused on Mary as a virgin in this passage. I recall once being questioned by someone as to whether I believed in the virgin birth, and as long as I said yes to that I was ok – as though that were the only true test of orthodoxy.
But for 1st century readers that would not have been an issue. Those kinds of stories abounded. No, what would have caught their attention was the promise that this child would fulfill the hopes of Israel for a king in the line of David, just as God had promised to David in II Samuel 7 and which was celebrated in the Psalm we read this morning, Psalm 89. This was a child that was not only a sign of hope to Mary, but to an entire population, indeed to the whole world. Elizabeth confirms that hope as Mary visits her. “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (Luke 1: 45) It is to that hope that Mary responds, “Here am I, let it be to me according to your word.”
We can only imagine what Mary thought over the years as she watched Jesus grow. We catch only glimpses of her throughout the rest of the Gospel narrative. But as she went through thee 9 months of waiting and then the pains of labour and delivery, we can guess that she felt many of the same things that every mother and parent goes through. As another Anna Groff says in her editorial, “Traditional church pageants omit the pain, stress and bodily fluids of giving birth…” But they were there.
This morning we celebrated three births among us, those of Nicolette, Arwen and Cassia. I don’t know what hopes their parents have for them or for Jacqueline and Lilly. And we don’t know what the future holds for any of our children. Whether they will fulfill any of our hopes and dreams for them is mostly beyond our control.
But we do know some things for sure and perhaps the most profound, and most obvious, is that children change us. And I don’t mean just in the obvious ways of needing to change our routines or getting used to having another body or two to deal with in the household. We can make those adjustments and what those require changes quickly as children grow.
But the birth of a child changes us in more profound ways as well as we become attached to this new presence in ways that touch us deeply. We can no longer not be a parent. For better or worse, these are our children for the rest of our lives – whether they outlive us or not. And their lives continue to affect ours, sometimes in spectacular positive ways, and sometimes in ways that hurt deeply.
The birth of Jesus was a unique experience for Mary and Joseph, just as each birth is a unique experience for every parent. But it was also a birth that went well beyond Mary and Joseph and became a birth for a whole people and eventually for the world. “God so loved the world,” John writes. And so it is a birth that has a profound effect on us as well, if we claim Jesus as part of our lives. As Carolyn Lewis says in her on-line commentary, Working Preacher, “It acknowledges that the activity of God in our lives cannot acquiesce to easy assent or understanding, that God coming to us will set in motion a course of life, a series of events, a believing trajectory over which we will have little control.”
Just as having a child changes our lives in ways we don’t know about in advance, so acknowledging the birth of Jesus as significant in our lives will also change us and lead us to places we may never foresee. It may bring utter joy, and indeed it may bring pain and sorrow, just as it did for Mary as she watched her son being led away to die as a criminal.
Whatever the case may be, the birth we celebrate and remember this week is above all a sign of hope, just as every child is. But this child brought hope to the whole world and continues to affect our lives even today. Sometimes that means we need to offer confession and sometimes it means we can shout with joy. Through it all we know that the hopes expressed be the angels can still be ours today and for that we can be truly grateful and celebrate.