SCRIPTURE – Luke 1:26-38
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
Go, Tell It on the Mountain! Sermon series
#1 – Mary Had a Baby
Nov. 28, 2010
I’m glad all of you made it this morning and weren’t trampled at Walmart on Friday. We may scoff at those folks who get up at 3 a.m. to buy half-price flat-screen TVs, but that’s the reality of Christmas in 2010, isn’t it? It no longer belongs to Christians and hasn’t for a long time. It is increasingly difficult to hold onto the spiritual meaning of the holiday. The annual question we ask is: How do we keep the true importance of Christmas in front of us? But the more challenging question may be: How do we teach our children and grandchildren what Christmas is really about, making the birth of Jesus a priority over the more attractive aspects of the season?
We here in 21st century America have everything at our disposal; there’s virtually no luxury we can’t have, no freedom that we don’t enjoy. And that is most apparent at Christmas. The irony of this time of year is that while our culture seduces us with all the things we can have, the Christmas story reminds us of what we truly need: the goodness and mercy of God shown to us through Jesus Christ. With something that is both as familiar and as distorted as the Christmas story, I’ve found that what’s been helpful for me is to try and see the story through someone else’s eyes, preferable someone in a different place in their lives than me.
Last year during Advent, we went back about two thousand years to see Christmas through the eyes of the participants: Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds. This year, we’re going to travel back to the 1800s. With the help of a book by Cheryl Kirk-Duggan, we’re going to view the birth of Christ through the eyes of the slaves. We have so much, and soon we’ll be getting more. What did Christmas look like to a group of people who had virtually nothing to their name?
For the slaves, there was nothing about Christmas to be taken for granted. Jesus said in Luke 4, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom to the captives.” That’s a passage that slaves took very seriously, and the birth of Christ each year meant the renewed promise of freedom. While the rest of their year was filled with unimaginable cruelty and oppression, the slaves had much to anticipate during Advent, and they saturated their songs with the eternal hope of freedom.
This is true of many of the slave spirituals. There are over 6000 known spirituals; we have 27 of them in our Chalice hymnal. These spirituals were unlike any music ever heard before. They blended together African aesthetics and rhythms, European Christian vocabulary and musical influences, and a new spirituality of survival forged in the slave ships and plantation fields that sought to answer questions like, “How do you worship Jesus as Lord when someone else is your Master?” Slavery was often times justified using scripture, which forced the slaves to reinterpret basic Christian principles like obedience and freedom. How was obedience to God different from obedience to their owner? What did freedom through Christ mean when you were shackled together? The theology of the spirituals gives us a clue to the slaves’ perceptions of a God of mercy, justice, and love in a world of cruelty, injustice, and racism.
For the slaves, Christ was their hope for liberation, not just physically, but spiritually, and each Christmas was a reminder that their hope was grounded in something and someone real. We hear that in today’s spiritual, “Mary Had a Baby.” The song recalls some of the basic elements of the birth story: a baby is born, given a name by his mother, placed in makeshift crib. This is not the stuff of fairy tales; in fact, there’s nothing especially noteworthy about it. This could have easily described the birth of one of their own children. This is a birth like every other birth.
But it is also a birth unlike any other birth. There’s a call-and-response element to the song that is a prominent feature of African-American worship. The calls goes out, “Mary had a baby,” and the response is, “Oh my Lord!” which carries with it a deep sense of appreciation and awe. As Christmas approaches, we may find ourselves saying, “Oh Lord.” But for the slaves, each and every year this was a miracle that carried with it the hope and promise of liberation. “Oh my Lord!” It’s a response of reverence and gratitude, not only for Christ, but for the miracle of birth itself. I remember vividly the first time I saw both of my daughters. Is there any response more appropriate to the birth of a child than “Oh my Lord!”?
Childbirth during the time of slavery was a great danger as well as a great joy. We forget that in many parts of the world, childbirth remains a major cause of death for mothers. Birthing was dangerous for slave women because many complications could arise, and there were no doctors or medical equipment around to help. When Leigh and I were expecting our first child, we chose to be taken care of by a midwife, who encouraged us to have the baby in her home. But we were adamant about having the baby in a hospital, because you just never know what can happen. Mothers during slavery didn’t have the luxury of such choices, so each pregnancy was fraught with fear.
Each child brought with it profound but very real questions. Would they survive? Would they be abused? Would they be sold to another owner? Would they ever know life apart from being someone else’s property? The future of each child born into slavery was uncertain. But each baby that was born also fueled the hope ignited by the Christmas story. The slaves would look at each new baby and ask the question: “Is this the one? Is this our Moses, the one who will bring us out of slavery? Is this the one through whom God will bring salvation?” For the slaves, the birth of each child echoed the birth of the Christ child. Every baby born was a reminder of the promise of emancipation made by the one who came to proclaim freedom to the captives.
Not only did a birth renew hope in the future, but it gave comfort in the present. In “Mary Had a Baby,” as the slaves sang about the birth of a Savior so long ago, they acknowledged the arrival of Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” Each time they responded “Oh my Lord!” they were demonstrating a deep, spiritual understanding that, even in slavery, God was present with them as they honored the command to be fruitful and brought forth new generations. By continuing to bring new human beings into an inhuman world, the slaves were defiantly stating the plain truth that every child brings with it world the gift of hope, even in the most hopeless circumstances.
The last line of each verse may seem out of place with the rest of the song: “The people keep a’comin’ and the train done gone.” Trains were a new reality in the emerging industrial age of the early 1800s. This new mode of transportation connected places that had previously been isolated. In other words, trains represented a way out. For that reason, train imagery figures prominently in the history of the African-American people. There’s the Underground Railroad, which took passengers from station to station on their way to freedom. There were the real trains that ran through tunnels built by legendary heroes like John Henry. Even in the midst of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the Impressions were singing, “People get ready, there’s a train a-comin’. Don’t need no ticket, just thank the Lord!”
For the slaves, this line in the song was a somber reminder. Winter, and Christmas in particular, was one of the best times to attempt an escape. On many plantations, Christmas was the one time of year when everyone was allowed to relax and their masters were preoccupied with the festivities of the season. In order to make the escape, slaves had to be on alert and at the meeting place on time. They couldn’t afford to be late, or the freedom train might be gone by the time you get there.
This may feel about as far removed from our lives as we can get, but I believe this is a spiritual warning for us, as well. Mary’s baby represents freedom, salvation, and deliverance, and the hard truth of life is that every single one of us has something to which we are enslaved that keeps us from giving ourselves fully to God. Jesus Christ has come to liberate us from whatever holds us captive: negative relationships, unhealthy behaviors, our own pride or greed, the seduction of our materialistic society. In the letter to the Romans Paul says repeatedly that we are “slaves to sin.” What keeps you from moving closer to God? Is it a lack of time? Do you feel unworthy of God’s love because of thoughts or behaviors? Do you feel like you’ve moved too far away from God to return? Whatever holds you back from a full relationship with God, Christ has come to break the chains and set you free.
But if we’re not careful, Christmas will pass us by once again this year, and we’ll have missed an opportunity to worship at the manger. If we don’t pay attention, the miracle of Christmas will get buried in gift receipts and wrapping paper and our chance to truly celebrate Christ’s birth and give God glory and thanks will be gone. Is this the one? Is this the year we make Christmas about Christ first? Is this the year we let Jesus proclaim freedom for us, when we surrender our pride and follow him to a new life? Or will the true gift of Christmas remain unopened? Mary had a baby. Oh my Lord!