Christmas reminds us that every life is valuable to God even if the culture says otherwise.
Racial tensions throughout the United States have made this a tough week. The situations are distressing as we see people demonstrate and debate what happened in each situation and what it means. There are a lot things we don’t know, but two things are clear: We have a deeply racist history in America that affects every social conflict. And it is much tougher to grow up black in America than any other ethnic combination. And to grow up poor and black is harder still. At the same time we all know men and women who serve honorably as police officers, serving, protecting. These realities stand against our deep desire to know who the good guys and bad guys are in each situation. We like good guys and bad guys; we like blanket statements because it makes our lives easier.
When you turn to the Christmas narratives – the real narrative, not the one about the North Pole and elves — you see good and evil. There are good guys and bad guys. The challenge for us is not so much how to label them as to know which side we are on.
Through Mary and Elizabeth we learn that pre-born babies, hoped for or surprising, are a work of God.
The narrative begins as we meet Zechariah and Elizabeth. They are both from priestly families, both righteous, blameless and very old. They had no children (Read Luke1:5-6). The scriptures do not say how old they are but suffice it to say that when they grew up there were only 5 channels on TV.
Zechariah is called to serve as a priest in the temple and sees a vision of an angel who tells him that he will have a son. The son will be great, he will turn people back to the Lord in the Spirit and power of Elijah. Any devout Jew of that time knew that the coming of Elijah meant the coming of the Messiah.
He goes home and he and his wife sleep together and she becomes pregnant (Read Luke 1:23-25)
Martha hoped all her life for a child and when she got pregnant she was so amazed that he hid. Was it embarrassment, fear, just a need to be alone with her great blessing? We don’t know. But she decided to stay somewhere out of her village for while.
Six months later an angel comes to Mary.
The angel comes to Mary and announces that she will be pregnant with the Messiah. Mary cannot imagine this because she has never been with a man. The angel explains the miraculous conception of Jesus in her womb by the Spirit of God alone. God is calling her to carry and give birth to the messiah. In accepting this call she knows that she will be misunderstood and gossiped about, but she understood that God was doing something in her. That was enough confirmation to accept the will of the Lord.
She goes to the person she thinks will understand.
In the narrative of Mary and Martha the pre-born babies are central; they are the most important characters even though one was hoped for and one was a surprise. Not only are both unborn babies considered people but John the Baptist as a pre-born baby, a baby in the uterus, is the first person in the Scriptures to rejoice in the news about Jesus.
These babies are unborn, but they are the central characters in the narrative and in that fact we see something significant. One baby is a surprise of joy – a middle aged married woman who had always longed for a child finds out she is pregnant. The joy, the wonder, the amazement. This baby is wanted. The other baby is a surprise, a shock, a disruption. This would forever alter Mary’s life. She is pregnant and she is not even married. This baby is a surprise. Both babies are an act of God and part of God’s plan. This is significant because it reminds us – the Christmas story reminds us — that all babies are an act of God. There are no surprise babies to God. Christmas reminds us that all babies are acts of God
Now not all people saw these babies – especially Jesus as a welcome act of God. Some people were threatened by this baby
The account of Herod reminds us that for many, especially the powerful and self-worshipping, life is expendable if it gets in the way of ambition.
Herod was the appointed ruler over this portion of the Roman empire. He desperately wanted to be known as the King of the Jews. He was crafty and ruthless. Like many powerful men he could be charming and engaging and brutally violent depending the situation. As he got older he became increasingly paranoid about his power and position, and when the wise men came to him, he was quite old.
The wise men come seeking the king of the Jews and they go to Jerusalem. The King is very surprised to hear that there is a new king and asks for information. After conferring with the scholars they come to realize that if the king of God’s choosing, his messiah, has been born, it will be in Bethlehem.
Read Mat 2 :7-8
The wise men go there and worship Jesus but they do not return to Jerusalem. They are warned in a dream not to g back to Herod and not to tell him about the baby. It does not take long for Herod to figure out what has happened. If the wise men have deceived him then there must be something worth hiding in Bethlehem and it is most likely a baby. Notice that Herod does not see this baby as a gift of God but as an obstacle to his ambition.
Herod orders the execution, the murder, of every boy under 2 in the whole village. There were probably 20- 50 boys in the village. On the grand scale of history, this slaughter did not even merit a mention.
So here we have the opposite of what we have with Mary and Elizabeth. In the women we see God’s people accepting the divine intrusion of birth as an act of God and building their lives around this new thing that God is doing. They accept life from the hand of God. In Herod we see someone who thinks life is expendable if it gets in the way of ambition or security. He rejects life and brings sorrow.
Matthew quotes the prophet Jeremiah – Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted. It is a picture of the weeping of the world when power wins out over life. It was true when the Babylonians conquered Judah and when Herod executed these boys. It is true today when we see children sacrificed on the altar of power.
One person welcomes joy and the other brings death and sorrow. One sees life as an act of God and another as an obstacle to ambition.
Transition: this is one of those times where it is easy to see who is the bad guy. And not only is Herod the bad guy, but so too are those who follow in the footsteps of Herod today. This sorrow still goes on in the world and it is equally horrifying.
When IS, the radical Muslim group has its soldiers surround a predominantly Christian village in Syria or Northern Iraq, they force the people to convert or die. They pull the children out and kill them if they won’t convert. This is the height of evil – I think we can all see that.
When Boko Haram kidnaps all the girls in a town in Nigeria, takes them away from their families, abuses them and forces them to both convert and marry Muslims, we are all outraged. Everyone is justifiably outraged. It is unspeakable.
These things are evil but they are not thoughtless. It is easy to think that Herod and Boko Haram and IS do these things because they are evil. We think that they are unlike us, savage and corrupt. But that is not true. They are people who have convinced themselves that this is what must be done.
These acts are an outgrowth of an inner evil logic. The Boko Haram people think Western education is an abomination. It is wrong to educate girls, therefore if we kidnap them and make them convert and keep them from education we are doing what is ultimately good for our cause. The same is said of the terrorists of ISIL; if these children need to die to bring about a holy war, then they are expendable in light of the ultimate good of bringing about a radical Muslim regime. It is easy for us to see how others worship the wrong thing and so bring sorrow and death. An inner logic justifies death. These terrorists are just like Herod. Their train of thought leads them to these outrageous acts. For them to stop they have to believe differently, see life in a whole new light
And so the challenge for us in not to simply label them as evil and unlike us, but to recognize that in this Christmas narrative we want to be life giving like Mary and not life taking like Herod. Mary was life giving because she realized something greater was going on in her. God was doing something in her and so even though it disrupted her life, if it is a God thing I must follow. The application for us is to see if what we are worshipping leads us away from life. Could we ever worship something so much that we would be life takers rather than life givers?
What we worship determines how we value life and in America we worship self determination and control.
Think for a moment:
In American culture we have two types of babies, in the womb that is – we don’t say it this way but it is true. There are two types of babies – welcomed babies that you rejoice over and plan for and babies that surprise you. In America we say that babies are the most valuable thing in the world – if they are wanted. And if they are not planned, then they are no longer babies and the are expendable. We don’t say it like this, but it is how we live. This is what abortion is in our culture. In our worship of control we are willing to re-label some people as not people.
We have a nation that is built on the pursuit of happiness: my life, my liberty and my happiness. And we cannot make any laws that get in the way of anyone’s happiness. We don’t talk about being given rights by our Creator just about pursuing happiness. The thing we cherish most is personal freedom and control. Abortion grows out of the worship of control.
I would say the at the “death with dignity act, the assisted suicide law also grows out of this worship as well as other things. This is why I have grave concerns about it being law – but we don’t have time to talk about that right now.
I feel like everything our culture worships pushes us to control having babies which makes abortion a very real option.
And I have felt that – I worked with youth at three different churches before I came to Cornerstone. I remember once –a long time ago –a youth group kid came to me and said his girl friend or ex girlfriend was pregnant. They were both seniors in HS, their whole futures were in front of them. They had already been accepted to college. I remember I knew what I was supposed to tell him, that this life is from God, that he is the maker of al life. And I did tell him that. But in the back of my mind I couldn’t help thinking that his life would be so much easier if there wasn’t a pregnancy. And I had nowhere to send him, no one to tell him to talk to. The pressure of everything we worship in this culture weighed against this kid. Eventually the baby became expendable.
I have never been part of an abortion, and I can tell you why. Because I have never had to make that decision. I have never been put in the position of trusting that God was interrupting my life. What would I have done at 20? I don’t know. I would like to think that I would have been like Mary and chosen the courageous step of life – but to do that I would have had to go against everything the culture was telling me about what is important. Take control of your life, get ahead, live your dreams then have a baby, a real baby, one that is wanted.
If you are here today and you have an abortion in your past for whatever reason, I don’t judge you. Every voice in your life probably convinced you that it was the best way to go, the only way to go. Everyone in American wants abortion to be legal in cases of rape incest and my daughter. We want, above all to be in control. Unfortunately even those of us who call ourselves Christian often worship control and personal freedom more than we worship God. And you don’t realize it until you are faced with a choice like Mary’s
The truly heroic people in our culture are the people who hear the voice of God and accept the path of life despite what that will mean. They are the heroes. I think it is very difficult to make that decision. I believe that with all my heart which is why I support the work of Lighthouse Pregnancy Resource Center. It is why Debbie and I made the choice to allow her to take the job being the Executive Director. I remember thinking “everything in this culture is against you. you have nothing on your side except God and the awesome power of life growing inside a woman.
You see I believe that even when a woman make the choice to end a pregnancy she grieves. But there is no one to grieve to. If you go to your friends and tell them “I am grieving because I had an abortion,” they say “its no big deal, get over it.” But if they go to the church, those people that should value life, they think they will be judged as outcasts and sinners. So they swallow their grief and don’t tell anyone.
But I want to tell you a story of hope. Something that moved me so deeply that I am not sure I can get through the telling.
The church is at its best when they help people make the choice for life
Over the summer Cornerstone was able to partner with Lighthouse in a very special small group that I think exemplifies what it means to help people find God in the midst of a culture of convenience.
Over a year ago my wife Debbie heard about a curriculum called Embrace Grace which was aimed at helping young women facing unplanned, and therefore scary and life-altering, pregnancies. She thought it would be great to do it in conjunction with a church. She talked with some people – me but also important people in the church like the women’s ministry team.
The women’s ministry bought the curriculum and two of the women agreed to lead the small group. There were three young women in the group besides the leaders – one from our church, one from another church and one from no church at all. You have to realize that when you go against the culture and decide to go through your pregnancy, you feel all alone. Others go to college, move on with their lives and you are stuck. The other pregnant women are 10 years older than you. The people your age are just looking to have fun. There is no one to walk with you – until they found each other in this group. There were older women who could say “I know what you are feeling – I have been there” and friends who understand because they are in the same situation.
But wait it gets better. The women’s ministry had a small group meeting at the same time – over the summer. They were studying Nehemiah, by Kelly Minter. And as they studied they were challenged to care about the suffering of people around them just as Nehemiah did and so they started to pray for the Embrace Grace group. Then they decided to have a shower for these pregnant teens, here at the church. They celebrated them because they knew that these are the courageous ones. As women they understood what this took. Some of them knew that in that same situation they did not have anyone who said, you can do this. So in grace – embracing grace, they came together.
Our behaviors are an outgrowth of what we worship. If we worship ourselves and our own agenda we will eventually see the people around us as expendable if they get in the way of our pursuit of happiness. But if we follow Jesus we will be ready when he interrupts our lives. I challenge you today to look at yourself, at your own attitudes, you own behaviors toward other people and to ask yourself am I a life giver like Mary or a life taker like Herod?