December 24, 2017 – 4 Advent B
2 Samuel 7:1-11,16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
So there’s big news in the Wisnewski household. Our daughter Meg and her husband Erle are expecting their first child, our first grandchild, in about three months. So far we don’t know if this child will be a boy or a girl, left-handed or right-handed, better in English or Math, grow up to be a lawyer or a priest, be loyal to Sewanee or Furman, vote Democrat or Republican or perhaps start a new party altogether. We just know that this child is on the way and already that event, three months out there and yet to be realized, is making some changes in our world.
About this time last year, we were deep in conversation with Jamie Osborne about joining our staff after he graduated from seminary. In some ways the arrival of the Osborne family has been a helpful sort of precursor for Mary Ward and me. When we first met Rowan and Phoebe, Jamie commented when he saw that we got along so well with his children, “This is like having built in grandparents.” That comment from somebody with more guile may have been interpreted as an editorial on my age but Jamie’s natural way of saying things helped me get ready for Meg and Erle’s announcement about their child.
In one way birth announcements can be seen purely as personal events. A couple is expecting their child. Their parents are expecting their grandchild, as if the child belongs only to that family. In another way birth announcements are more public and universal in their implications. It’s not just about a family line being extended. It’s about the continued renewal of creation. A grandchild is not just about me. That child is comforting news for the whole world. When Meg was born, Bob Riegel – the rector I worked for at the time – visited us in the hospital. I was holding my first child and Bob said, “Now remember, she doesn’t belong to you; she belongs to God, so don’t hold onto to her too tightly.” New births say much more about who God is than they do who we are. While new births totally change our lives, they bring with them the clear message that this really isn’t about us at all.
When the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will bear a son, she is clearly full of questions and fears: “How can this be? What will happen to me? What will people think? How can I handle all this?” Gabriel soothes her as he tells her not to be afraid but his message is less about Mary and more about the child she will bear and what will be accomplished as a result of this birth. “The power of the Most High will overshadow you. The birth of this child, Jesus, is about the transformation of human history. All of the future hangs in the balance. God is working to restore and renew all things. Will you allow that great work of God to be done, Mary? Will you offer yourself? Will you take part? Will you let this be more about God’s work than it is about you?” “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
The Old Testament lesson helps us see this message too. David is becoming the great King David, as events in history are playing themselves out. He’s getting pretty wrapped up in all that is going on. “You know, God, I’ve been thinking about how cool it would be if I were to build a huge temple for you so that the whole world could see how great I am, I mean how great you are.” “Yeah, David, I think there’s a better way here. I don’t really need a big fancy house and if you built it, your head would get really big so that’s not going to happen. I’m going to build a house for you. I’m going to establish my kingdom to be led by your offspring. The things you’re imagining will come true and a whole lot more but it won’t be because of you. It will be because of the grace and power that has put you where you are.” David accepts that, though less gracefully than Mary will accept her message later on.
Perhaps the worst sin is self-absorption. We get too wrapped up in ourselves and can’t just be faithful to our world as it is given to us. The worst sort of parents are the ones who are self-absorbed and approach their children’s lives as extensions of themselves. They hover and protect and rescue and enable. They can’t let their kids fail because they fear being a failure themselves. They can’t just let their kids be who they are because they are so insecure about who they are as parents. We call them helicopter parents, always hovering around. In Scandinavia and Canada they are called curling parents, after the sport of curling where a disk is sent sliding down an ice track and two people on ice skates scurry in front of the sliding disk sweeping the ice with brooms so that the disk can land in just the right place. Helicopter parents, curling parents. The worst sort of parenting, it turns out, is not negligence; it’s exercising ownership and control of children. Children are not a reflection of me; they are a reflection of God’s grace and continued renewal of creation.
We love Mary because she humbly accepts her role without it all becoming so much about her. She sees, in this miraculous birth, God’s own greatness because the birth is impossible without God. Funny how we fail to apply that to our births, as if human conception is somehow our accomplishment rather than a miracle in itself. Funny how we fail to apply that to anything we do, as if we can succeed at any task without the miracle of God’s grace. Even the breaths we take are all because of the way God created and sustains the world. Life itself, and all that goes with it, is impossible without God.
“The power of the Most High will overshadow you.” That’s good news for us. We don’t have to build a house for God; God is building a house for us. We don’t have to make a name for ourselves. God is making himself known and God invites us to be part of that. When our lives are all about us, we tear down all that God is building. As we accept our humble and holy place in God’s world, we are faithful servants.