December 29, 2021
Micah 5:2-5a and Luke 1:39-55
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
19 December 2021
Six and a half years ago, as I was awaiting the birth of our son Sebastian, like many other American parents of recent decades, I read the bible for parents, otherwise known as What to Expect when You’re Expecting. Of course I was able to skip over the pregnancy parts and go right to the details about those first few days and weeks. I must have read the section on the first couple of days at least three times before he was born and then consulted it as a reference more than once in those days. I remember in those early months reading ahead so I’d be prepared for the next developmental stage. But also the growing sense over the first few months that I now knew my baby and was more comfortable taking care of him. And then that weird feeling sometime when he was one or two when I donated the book to the Thrift Shop because I didn’t need it anymore.
When you are expecting your first child you are riven with wonder and anxiety in equal measure. For all the joy, there’s also fear. The nervousness that you will make a catastrophic mistake with this fragile infant in your care. It’s easy to look back on those emotions later with mild amusement, but they were not amusing at all at the time.
And this experience of the expectant first parent so adequately grasps the themes of this Advent season. We come with expectations of joy and wonder, but also all the fears, uncertainties, and anxieties of our time.
Even Micah the Old Testament prophet knows how effective this metaphor is. He writes about daughter Zion who is in labor as an image for the people awaiting the coming of the Messiah. In his commentary Marvin Sweeney writes that “The oracle employs the metaphor of a woman giving birth to express the necessary interval until the rest of the [the] kindred are sufficiently restored so that they might bring about the new era of peace.” The “necessary interval.” Peace is coming, justice is coming, joy is coming, but there’s a “necessary interval.”
Of course the images of pregnancy and labor pains pervade the Bible. God tells the prophet Jeremiah that even before he was formed in the womb, God knew him. The Psalms rejoice in God’s knitting us together in our mother’s wombs. In Romans Paul uses the image to describe how all of creation is groaning as if in labor to await the revelation of the children of God. And in Revelation the culmination of history is also likened to a woman giving birth.
In her classic text God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, Phyllis Trible taught us to understand how central are the images of pregnancy and labor to our biblical understanding. She wrote:
God conceives in the womb; God fashions in the womb; God judges in the womb; God destines in the womb; God brings forth from the womb; God receives out of the womb; and God carries from the womb to gray hairs. From this uterine perspective, then, Yahweh molds life for individuals and for the nation Israel. Accordingly, in biblical traditions an organ unique to the female becomes a vehicle pointing to the compassion of God.
What Phyllis Trible goes on to demonstrate in her classic text is that the Hebrew word for compassion, used repeatedly to describe God in the Old Testament, has its roots in the word for womb. Divine compassion, divine love, divine care is, thus, like the love of a mother for the child she carries within her own body. This fundamentally maternal, feminine, uterine image is, then, one of the central themes of our faith.
And, so, the prophet Micah imagines a woman in labor, awaiting the restoration of Israel’s children so that the age of peace might dawn. As Phyllis Trible writes, the image of the divine womb is about imagining that “wholeness and well-being may happen.” Micah’s dream is for an age of well-being in which all of us feel secure, all of us are at peace, when together we shall be fed.
And for Micah that age will be ushered in by the child born in Bethlehem.
This Advent season we’ve been emphasizing the topsy-turvy nature of the biblical story. How God works through the unexpected. Two weeks ago I drew parallels with fairy tales, where frogs turn out to be princes and beautiful women are sometimes witches. Katie’s play emphasized how those who think they are wise, often are not, and that God’s gifts are found in surprising places. And today we have the wonderfully comic story of two pregnant women and the children leaping in their wombs, followed by Mary’s song that the mighty will be brought low and the lowly will be lifted up. The Bible is constantly telling us to be ready for the unexpected.
And Bethlehem is a core symbol of that idea. For Bethlehem is the home of David. As Calvin Miller writes in his commentary, “Instead of another boring, bloody generalissimo, there would arise a shepherd king.”
Let’s remind ourselves who David was and why he was so central to the biblical imagination. He was the shepherd boy, who didn’t look like a potential king. The last of a series of brothers. Small even. From a rural village. Yet, he was the one of which the story is told that as a boy he had the courage to face the giant and prevail. He was the one who defied King Saul’s paranoia and violence and defeated Israel’s enemies and established a just kingdom centered in Jerusalem around the worship of God.
Walter Brueggemann has a fascinating little book in which he explores the roles that David played upon the Hebrew imagination. And the stories about David start as those of the outsiders, the subversives. Brueggemann writes, “One may then understand this narrative to be hopeful, because it tells, generation after generation, that the marginal ones can become the legitimate holders of power.” One of the conclusions Brueggemann believes we can draw from the David stories is that “This Yahweh is not committed to the moral civility of entrenched order.” In other words, the status quo social arrangement doesn’t have some divine imprimatur. God imagines something different and takes action in history to bring it about.
Now, of course, the story and image of David gets taken over by the power elite eventually. The rule he established in Jerusalem becomes a hereditary monarchy and that monarchy begins to justify itself by its claims to be Davidic. And while they might be biological descendants of David, rarely are the kings spiritual descendants of David, for they often seem to represent the complete opposite of the original Davidic idea.
But, Walter Brueggemann writes, the people will not give up on the ideal of David the underdog, David the unexpected, David the beloved of God. And so the Hebrew imagination also upholds an idealized David, often used as a counterpoint against whichever descendant of David is currently sitting upon the throne. This idealized David, according to the Brueggemann, is “the bearer of the promise, the one who keeps the future open against every vexed present.”
Brueggemann goes further, “The very name of David in these traditions asserts that God has dreams and intentions, that history is not closed, and that the person of David is a means for God’s purposes to come to fruition in the future.”
And it seems to be this idea that underlies Micah’s use of David. Micah, the eighth century prophet, is critical of the regime in Jerusalem. They are unjust and unrighteous. Therefore, they are unworthy of any claims they make to be descendants of David.
And so Micah draws upon the memory of David to subvert the current authorities. He imagines that just as God picked a shepherd boy from Bethlehem to topple the king and defeat Israel’s enemies and establish a new order, God can do that again. God will bring forth a new shepherd king who will bring about a new era of peace and security. God still has dreams. The future still is open. God’s promises will be fulfilled.
But, right now, we are in the necessary interval as we wait for God to act, to bring all of this about. Right now, we are in labor. We are expecting.
So, what can we expect when we are expecting? Some fear, some uncertainty, some anxiety. Everything isn’t right yet. We shouldn’t resign ourselves to the way things are. We should still be dreaming. We should imagine different future possibilities. We should also learn to expect the unexpected.
What else can we expect while we are expecting? We can expect wonder, hope, beauty, joy, and delight. And if we believe God is acting in human history to bring about God’s dreams, then we can also expect justice and righteousness and security and peace, because that’s what God has promised us. That’s who God is at God’s core.
For God is love. God is compassionate. God is like a mother nurturing us within her womb.
Or, as Frederick Bauerschmidt writes in his beautiful little book The Love that Is God, “This divine kindness is the endless sea of love upon which our created being floats. This is the love that can heal the failures of our human loves.”
So, we wait, in labor, with our hopes and our fears. But even during this interval, we rest in the deep, nurturing, compassionate, mothering love that is God.
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