“The Risk of Birth”
Sermon Preached by Jack Cabaness
Covenant Presbyterian Church, Palo Alto, CA
December 24, 2023
Sermon Text: Luke 2:1-20
This is no time for a child to be born.
With the earth betrayed by war and hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out and the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born.
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honor and truth were trampled by scorn-
Yet here did the Savior make his home.
Those are lines from a poem by Madeleine L’Engle entitled, “The Risk of Birth.”
This is no time for a child to be born. That was no time for a child to be born.
Is there ever the right time for a child to be born? Birth is always a risk.
There has always been a risk of death for the mother and the baby. I’ve still never forgiven Jullian Fellowes for killing off Sybil during childbirth in Season 3 of Downtown Abbey, and yet we know that birth is always a risk. Even when mother and baby both survive, there is the uncertainty about what happens next. Birth is always a risk.
Mary knew it. The stirrings in her womb whether there was any room in the inn or not. All the things spoken to her by the Angel Gabriel. The knowledge that somehow her son would be responsible for the rise and fall of many in Israel. What was that supposed to mean? The Gospel writer Luke simply says that Mary pondered all these things in her heart. Birth is a risk.
And God knew it, too. God knew of the risk of this particular birth. How does the Gospel of John put it? “He came unto his own, and his own received him not.”
And yet the plot of this storyline is that God continued to take that risk, anyway.
In the words of one preacher, God is persistent in love. God takes the risk to come to us, in the midst of our craving for meaning and a search for significance beyond ourselves and gives himself to us in the form of a human life. The risk is that in a world of cancer and AIDS and opioid epidemics, terrible wars and genocide, broken and breaking hearts and families, a world which often bears no real evidence of God’s loving presence, God still takes the risk to come to us and live our human life and know our joys and sorrows.
There is a third stanza in the Madeleine L’Engle poem I quoted at the beginning. After declaring that this is no time for a child to be born and that was no time for a child to be born, the poet asks,
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth.
And by a comet the sky is torn—
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.
All of that risk, God takes for us. The very swaddling clothes that are wrapped around Mary’s baby could very well be the same swaddling clothes that the shepherds used to swaddle the baby lambs that were raised for sacrifice in the Temple. It’s a sign that God is willing to risk it all and not hold anything back.
In the words of my friend and mentor Roland Perdue, “behind all the colorful bundles and bright lights, behind all the froth and merriment, there lies the unmistakable shape of God digging deep into the history and the flesh of people! Greater than the angels, bathed in glory, King of Kings and Lord of Lords—all of that, yet there is this awesome risk that this infant could die in the cold or be killed by King Herod. Birth is always a risk.”
Rosacoke Mustian understood the risk. She’s the heroine in a novel by Reynolds Price. The novel begins with Rosacoke attending the funeral of her friend Mildred Sutton, who died giving birth.
And the novel ends with Rosacoke taking part in a church pageant on Christmas Eve. Rosacoke is chosen to play the Virgin Mary, and a little baby named Frederick Gupton is chosen to be the baby Jesus.
Now unbeknownst to everyone in the church that night, Rosacoke is pregnant with her own baby. There is a moment in the pageant when Rosacoke wonders what would happen if she were to stand up under the star and testify,
“I am Rosacoke Mustian and the reason I look so changed tonight is because I am working on a baby that I made by mistake and am feeding right now with my blood against my better wishes—but a baby I am meaning to have and give my Daddy’s name to if it lives and is a boy, one I will try to raise happy, and I’d thank you for helping me any way you can.”
But that’s not what she does. She worries that no one would believe her at first, and then, when they did believe her, they would start to shun her, and she worries about breaking her mother’s heart. So, she doesn’t testify under the star. Instead, she holds baby Frederick Gupton and allows him to suck on her fingers. As the cast and congregation sing all five verses of We Three Kings, Rosa has some time to think.
During the singing of the final stanza of We Three Kings, Rosa comes to a decision about her life and the still unanswered marriage proposal from Wesley Beavers, the father of her baby. She realizes that she is prepared to take all the risks that this choice will entail, and she further realizes that this is truly her wish, and that she must speak it right away, but who could she speak it to but the baby Frederick Gupton asleep in her arms?, so she touched the baby’s ear with her lips and she whispered, “Yes,” and then silently wished him a long and happy life.
In an even deeper and more profound way, God holds each one of us in the everlasting arms and whispers over us, “Yes.” And our breath is taken away. God with us. Emmanuel! Our own lives are worth the risk. In the words of my friend Roland, what this means, is that even though God intends for us to be good, God does not withdraw love when we fail. God loves us anyway, in spite of all the risks.
W. H. Auden in his Advent poem, “For the Time Being,” wrote,
Time is our choice of how to love and why!
We are the offspring of God’s risk. We, too, can take risks in how we choose to love and why. We, too, can share in the birth of peace, compassion, and justice for all people.
In the words of another poet,
God’s mothering and fathering places the manger in our lives.
Nurses of our bruised world are we,
Binding up the broken hearts,
And nursing at our breasts the hungry, the lonely and one another.
Love still—in this time and that time—takes the risk.
All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.
Please note: Each week I try to write a complete sermon manuscript in advance, but in the preaching moment I often use an outline or sparse notes. Accordingly, this written blog post will likely differ slightly from the sermon as actually preached.