December 12, 2021
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
Children really make the Christmas story. Literally.
It starts with the baby Jesus, which is kind of amazing if you think about the way the world viewed children in that time. Children were unimportant and disregarded. In fact, it was legal in Roman society to practice exposure, leaving unwanted children in the elements to die. If you didn’t want a child based on gender or if a child was born with a deformity, you could simply abandon the child.
In Greek and Latin the words for children meant “not speaking.” Children were to be seen not heard. So what does it say about the character and nature of God that God would come in the form of a baby? How would you finish this sentence, “The fact that God came as a baby says God is…?”(Put the questions in lower thirds.) If you’re watching online I invite you to put in the chat the words you would use.
Of course, the manger is not the only appearance of children in the Christmas story. The Gospel of Luke begins with another couple finding out they will have a baby, Zechariah and Elizabeth. Elizabeth is a relative of Mary, the mother of Jesus. She and her husband were too old to have children, but that’s where Christmas starts, new life coming where new life was not possible. Can you imagine being at a stage in life where you’re having to use dentures and a walker and all of a sudden you have to start buying diapers and baby clothes. But that’s what happened to Zechariah and Elizabeth. Their son, John, would prepare the way for Jesus. Why didn’t God just call an adult like he did with Moses or the disciples, to simply begin that work. Why a baby?
And as we heard in the reading a moment ago, when Mary and Elizabeth met while they both of them were expecting, John, inside of Elizabeth, began jumping. The reality of Christmas was first recognized by a child in-utero.
But, children appear in the story even before this. You first see children associated with Christmas all the way back to the prophecies of Isaiah. This is where I want to spend a few minutes, because this is where the word Immanuel comes from.
Isaiah is the prophet to the king of Judah who’s name is Ahaz. Judah is under threat because the two nations to their north, Ephraim and Aram, have banded together to form an alliance against another empire, Assyria, but Judah won’t join them. So they have declared war on Judah and everyone is in a panic.
Isaiah goes to his king to speak a word from God. The word is, “Have faith. Don’t worry about the threats of Ephraim.” And then to give added assurance, the prophet promises, “Within sixty-five years Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people.” (Isaiah 7:8)
Wait. What? 65 years? The prophet says, “Rest easy. 65 years from now you’ll have nothing to worry about.” Is that supposed to be a word of comfort? Wait 65 years? How would you have responded to that? How many of you expect to be around 65 years from now? Those of you with a hand up, if you don’t mind, would you keep it up high for just a minute more.
What is Isaiah saying to the king? I need you to live today for the ones with their hands up. I need you to show faith for the few. For the future. Let everything about your faith not be for yourself, for your own preferences, but for the people who will be here 65 years now. Okay, you can put your hands down now.
The prophet is asking a hard thing of the king. Demonstrate faith in the midst of your own immediate fears and challenges that you would like God to help you with, and God says show faith that benefits people who will come after you.
So Isaiah tells Ahaz to ask for a sign from God that proves this is the right thing to do. I’d take that offer. If I’m being asked to look beyond my worries for the sake of future people, I’d like to have some assurance, but Ahaz won’t accept. He makes himself look righteous as if to say, “How dare I put God to the test!” But the real reason he won’t ask for a sign, is he doesn’t want to wait. He’s about to form an alliance with the enemy, Assyria, to protect him. In other words, he is going to take the easy road, and do what is in his immediate best interest.
So Isaiah says, “Fine, you want ask for a sign, I’ll give you one anyway. He points at a woman. Some scholars believe it was the prophet’s own wife. He says, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, the word for “young woman” became virgin, but that’s not what was used here. The word literally just meant a young woman of child-bearing age. Isaiah wasn’t talking about a virgin birth. He was simply pointing out a fact of nature. His wife will conceive again and have a son he will name “God with us.” His point was that we experience God being with us as we look to the future and focus on doing things now that care for the needs of the generations after us. He was telling Ahaz to invest his faith in the future.
Father Elias Chacour, Palestinian-Israeli Christian peace advocate and former archbishop in Greek Orthodox Church, was once asked if there will ever be peace in the Middle East? He said, “Only when we choose to love our children more than we hate our enemies.”
You could say that this is exactly what Isaiah was recommending to the king of Judah. Quit living in fear. Don’t waste time worrying about and hating people you perceive as an enemy. Instead look to the future. Look at a future child, and act now in a way that gives a better future for those who come after you.
This is what the appearance of children throughout all aspects of the Christmas story means. This is what Christmas reveals about God’s mission: invest in the lives of those coming after us. Make our emphasis on what reaches and blesses them. The Christmas story even shows how children are at risk in the world. Herod would execute all the male babies in Bethlehem. Children were at risk then and they are at risk today.
---Every four seconds a child dies somewhere in the world because of hunger. (Christmas Is Not Your Birthday, p11)
---Last year there were over 15 million AIDS orphans worldwide.
---Every 10 seconds a child dies from malaria, something as easily preventable as having a $10 mosquito net.
---Over 85,000 children die each year from unsafe drinking water and dehydration.
---The average age of a homeless person in the US is 7 years old. ( www.dayspringindy.org)
God’s mission is to make the world better for future generations, but to do that, God needs people who do now, not what is in their own best interest, but in the best interest of those coming after them. So when God called Zechariah and Elizabeth to have a baby in old age, and when God came to earth in person in the form of a baby, God is just being true to form.
God is calling us to think about the future. That is part of the power of the Christmas story, God reminds us that we have the power now to change the future for others. One day the baby Jesus would one day grow into a man who said, “Let the children come to me.” Because his followers took that call seriously it changed the world. Remember how I said a moment ago that the Romans made exposure of infants legal? The only people who rescued abandoned children were slave traders who could sell the children. When did all of this change?
When Christ followers came along and said, “Because we follow a Lord who cared for children, we should to.” They lived by a code that believed every child is a gift from God. Every child deserves to be safe and loved. Christians communities began rescuing children. Some speculate that infant baptism became popular during this time. In baptism the church said, “Because you belong to God you belong to us.” What is certain is that God-parents came from this period. People in the church who vowed to raise abandoned children as their own took special vows at their baptism.
The church said if we are to be faithful, we must care for those who will come after us.
Next month, to start the new year, I am going to share a 4-week visioning message on the future of St. Luke’s. This past year leaders from our church worked with a consultant to strategize on where God wants us to go. Two weeks ago we had gathering to hear updates from different teams working on parts of this future vision. The team overseeing future missions shared some information I found quite enlightening, and I asked them to share with us today…
Nicole and Lisa Rockacy come up
I look forward to where this might lead in the future and the supporting outreach ministries this might create. Of course, more immediately, we continue out Angel Tree ministry…still 23 children waiting to be sponsored; children don’t only receive gifts, but parents receive gift cards for groceries. This is really important during Christmas break when kids in school are not receiving food support at the schools.
Also, another immediate need involves families displaced by the fire at the Lakeside Apartments in Nora a few weeks ago. There are seven families still displaced and are in need in basic support. Bob Dillingham in our church, leader of our housing outreach ministry, has been connected to this event, and providing resources such as hotel costs for a family. If you are able and would like to provide financial assistance for these remaining families, you can give to “Lakeside Family Support.”
Helping the most vulnerable in our society, children and their families, is what Christmas is about. But there is another angle to this emphasis of children in Christmas which is important. Not only are we called to help those in need, but when we help our kids understand that Christmas is about helping others, we change the future for the better.
So one last opportunity we highlight today is Operation Cookie Drop…
Let me close with a story. The hymn It Is Well With My Soul was written by Horatio Spafford as a result of tragedy. The Great Chicago fire had devasted his business, but two years later life was beginning to return. It had been hard but things were finally looking up, sort of like our world right now. So the family planned a trip to Europe to celebrate Christmas in 1873. But Horatio was detained by some last minute business. He sent his wife, Anna, ahead with their four daughters planning to come after them and meet them in Paris. But on the way their ship collided with another and sank, only Anna survived. Once she was rescued and brought to Wales she cabled her husband the simple message, “Saved Alone.”
Right before leaving to meet his wife, Horatio said to a friend, “There is one thing this experience is showing me, “I must not lose faith.” On the way to England, the captain summoned him when they passed the place where his daughters drowned. He refused to look down. Instead he looked to heaven and began formulating the words of a hymn, “When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot thou hast taught me to say, It is well with my soul.”
A few days before Anna had a similar experience. After being rescued she was in utter depression. She wanted to throw herself back into the water when she felt God say to her, “You are spared for a purpose Anna. You have a work to do.”
The Spaffords would have two more children who would live to maturity. Horatio’s business prospered, but they felt called to do something different. Their strong Christian faith led them to move to Jerusalem and begin a mission colony for the poor near Bethlehem. Even though they had strong convictions they were not there to proselytize. They were there to help people regardless of their nationality or faith. They simply wanted to relieve poverty, disease and strife wherever it was found.
Here’s where the story gets really interesting. Because they raised their children in an environment of helping others, after Horatio and Anna died, their daughter Bertha expanded the humanitarian work of her parents helping those shipwrecked by life. One Christmas Eve on the way to Bethlehem to attend services with her family she met a poor family, a husband traveling with his sick wife and their new born baby. She said she felt as if she met Mary, Joseph and the babe. She brought them back to the center to stay but by morning the mother died and the father asked Bertha to take his child. She did, and this began an emphasis of the Spafford center caring for children in need. It became a children’s hospital and after 1948 played a vital role in serving families of all faiths in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and surrounding villages. The Spafford Children’s Center continues to this day caring for children, providing women’s empowerment training, and offering overall support to families.
It’s a beautiful story still being told of how a family absorbed with their own immediate needs and crisis focused on the future, focused on the needs of others, and in raising a child influenced by such example had her own Christmas experience that led to even greater hope. This is often how we find hope for ourselves, that look beyond, we look ahead, we act now in ways that will bless those far beyond the horizon we see and experience the miracle of Christmas to bring a light that never dims.