SCRIPTURE – Luke 1:26-38 – In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Go, Tell It on the Mountain! Sermon series
#1 – Mary Had a Baby
Dec. 3, 2017
Well, it’s that time of year again. Advent is probably my favorite season of the year. I love the to see the sanctuary fully decorated, as if it put on it’s best outfit to show off for God. I love the traditions that go along with this season: Christmas caroling for the neighbors, baking Christmas cookies, putting up our Christmas trees, sitting in mall traffic, cussing at the strands of lights that won’t work, complaining about how materialistic our culture has become. Tis the season to be angst-ridden!
Christmas is also the season that reminds us that 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. The irony of this time of year is that while our culture seduces us with all the things we don’t know we need but have to get, the Christmas story reminds us of what we truly need and already have: the goodness and mercy of God shown to us through Jesus Christ. When dealing with something that is both as familiar and as distorted as the Christmas story, there’s a tradition I try to live out each Advent: I try to see the Christmas story through someone else’s eyes, preferably someone much different than me. If I look at the same thing over and over, I miss the details, the nuances, the qualities that make something unique. But looking at something through fresh eyes can give you a new perspective on something you thought you knew.
This year, with the help of a book by Cheryl Kirk-Duggan, we’re going to view the birth of Christ through the eyes of the people who were enslaved in this country. 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, with no promise of getting anything?
Jesus said in mission statement 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 as Christmas approached, and they saturated their songs with the hope of freedom the Christ child brought with him.
This is true of many of the slave spirituals. There are over 6000 known spirituals; we have 27 of them in our Chalice Hymnal, like “Wade in the Water” and “Standing in the Need of Prayer.” These songs are unique in the history of music. They blend together African aesthetics and rhythms and European Christian vocabulary and musical influences. They also proclaim a resilient spirituality of survival forged in the slave ships and plantation fields. 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 master? 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 some made-up fairy tale; in fact, there’s nothing especially noteworthy about it this story. Babies were born every day. In many ways, this was a birth like every other birth.
But it was 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. We learned this last month when Chris Dorsey preached here. He told us that in African-American worship, the congregation would respond with “Amen” when they agreed with the pastor and “Lord, help him” when they weren’t sure what he was saying. I have to tell you, I’ve preached a few times in an African-American church, and I heard a lot more of “Lord help him” than I did “Amen.”
In our song today, the call goes out, “Mary had a baby,” and the response is, “Oh Lord!” which conveys a deep sense of appreciation and awe. The legend goes that, right before he died, Steve Jobs’ last words were, “Wow. Wow. Wow.” That’s the weight that the phrase “Oh Lord” is meant to carry. It is a response of reverence to a genuine miracle.
As Christmas approaches, we may find ourselves saying, “Oh Lord” in a very different tone, probably in the direction of store clerk or disgruntled driver. But for the slaves, each and every year, this was a miracle that carried with it the hope and promise of liberation. “Oh Lord!” It’s a response of 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 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. The harsh reality was that not every pregnancy led to birth.
And even if it did, each newborn 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.
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 designated meeting place on time. They couldn’t afford to be late, or the train to freedom might be gone by the time you get there. “The people keep-a comin’ but the train done gone.”
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. Now, let me be clear in saying we can never, ever understand what it was like to live as a slave in this country, and so we have to be careful about equating that situation with our own. In the letter to the Romans Paul says repeatedly that we are “slaves to sin.” 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. What keeps you from moving closer to God? Is it a lack of time? Faulty prioritizing? 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? It’s going to happen again this year. Mary is going to have a baby. It’s a birth like any other birth. And it’s a birth unlike any other birth. May our response be nothing less than, “Oh Lord!”