Receiving the Child

I preached this sermon on December 14, 2014 and based it on John 1. In the early part of this week, I’m sharing some previous sermons in the hopes of offering some quick help to preachers who are dealing with multiple worship services and gatherings and the probability that they will also have a Sunday service hard on the heels of the Christmas festivities.

A young couple drove to the hospital to have their first child.  On the way, the baby decided to speed up the schedule.  The young father-to-be pulled into the parking lot of a convenience store.  He sprinted inside and yelled, “Call 911!  We’re having a baby!”  One employee made the call.  The other followed him back to the car.  Soon a little girl was born.  She was received into a tomato and grease stained apron that had been warmed in the store’s pizza oven.

It wasn’t the quality of the receiving blanket that mattered.  The important thing was the willingness to receive the child.

We travel toward the birth of a child.  All the lessons remind us today to get ready.  As we get ready, let’s think about our hearts as “receiving blankets”.  We will treasure a child, keep him warm, hold him close. 

Let’s get ready to receive a child.

Paul’s words to the Thessalonian Christians (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24) steer us in the right direction.  Rejoice, pray, give thanks!  Receive the Spirit’s guidance.  Don’t turn up your nose at prophecy.  Test everything you see and hear, and keep what gives life.  These are instructions for preparing the receiving blankets in our hearts.  These instructions are best summarized in Paul’s words: “Do not quench the Spirit.”

Think about Mary, the mother of our Lord.  Here is someone with her receiving blanket prepared.  Let us not minimize the difficulties she faced.  She was not married, but was to be a mother in the most unbelievable of ways.  Sometimes we pretend that ancient people might have taken this all in stride.  But they knew how babies arrive—and this was not the way it happened.

At best, Mary faced rejection by family and friends.  At worst she risked being stoned to death for adultery.  Her family honor would be damaged beyond repair.  She might be reduced to selling herself in order to survive.  It would have been rational for Mary to reject the child rather than to receive the child.  Madeleine L’Engle puts it this way:

This is the irrational season

When love blooms bright and wild.

Had Mary been filled with reason

There’d have been no room for the child.

Mary’s response is remarkable.  “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”  She was willing to receive the child, the gift of God’s Spirit.  This is the Advent invitation.  Do not quench the Spirit.  Get your blankets ready.

Of course, ours is a rational society.  Children often are not welcome—especially those who come to us outside of normal channels.  Children are too often regarded as a choice rather than a gift.  Children are too often regarded as burdens rather than blessings.  Children are too often regarded as distractions rather than as delights.  We may never think such things about our own children.  But only a few minutes of the day’s news tells us that our culture does not welcome children.

I say this with the full awareness that we live in a time when some people think they are all about the children, especially before they are born. The minute those children hit the real air of life in this world, however, they become unworthy of attention, support, and care. Political posturing is not care.

Receiving the child is always a ministry of self-sacrifice.  Think about John the Baptist.  He came first.  He should have gotten top billing.  He should have been the star.  But John took his place.  He received the child.  He was the voice crying out, “Get ready for the baby!”

The glory of it all is that we were received long before we were called to receive.  That is what it’s really all about.  Listen to these words from John one, verse twelve.  “All who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the power to become the children of God.”  And so we are the ones who are received.  This is the first gift of the Holy Spirit to you and me.  The Holy Spirit tells us that we are God’s beloved children in Jesus.  Can you allow God to be as good and loving as God wants to be?  Do not quench the Spirit.

My favorite Christmas carol has a verse that says it best:

“O Holy Child of Bethlehem,

Descend to us we pray.

Cast out our sin and enter in.

Be born in us today.”

This is our prayer in receiving the child.  Be born in us today.

There is nothing easy about being open to the Spirit.  That’s especially true when that guidance contradicts our hopes, our plans, our ambitions, our images of ourselves.  We have high opinions of our own priorities.  Winston Churchill was once told that his opponent, all things considered, was a very humble man.  “That is just as well,” Churchill replied, “since he has a lot to be humble about.”

This is true for us as well.  The temptation is powerful to quench the Spirit, to turn up my nose at God’s word to me.  There is nothing easy about receiving Jesus, God’s son.  He comes to tell us that world is to be turned upside down.  He comes to tell us that the poor, the helpless and the oppressed get God’s special attention.  He comes to tell us that strangers are to be received like neighbors and enemies are to be welcomed as members of the family.

If this is the Spirit to be born in us, it is no wonder that the process feels like labor and delivery!

But we know how to do this.  Today we practice these skills.  At our second service, we honor our children as they tell the Christmas story.  We share our gifts with children in our community who need our care—children who are impoverished; children with a parent in jail; children without a home for the holidays; children who suffer abuse or neglect.  I thank you for all the ways that you receive the child in and through our community of faith.

As we move toward the Christmas celebration, let us welcome the Spirit.  Let us open our hearts for that baby to be born in us, among us, and through us.  Let us pray to receive the Child.

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