Of Mothers and Sons
1 Samuel 1: 12-20 Galatians 4:4-7 Matthew 1:18-25
There are some expressions of human suffering so terrible that the pulpit can mention them only with fear and trembling, in view of the fact that sitting in the pew are those who are suffering the anguish under discussion. One such anguish is childlessness. I have been a pastor now for 32 years, and I have concluded that there is no anguish like the anguish of childlessness.
If it is less than wise for me to discuss this publicly, what I am going to say next is even more foolish, since it may be pilloried as sexist. I think that while it is husband and wife together who are childless, women suffer more, and suffer in a way that is difficult for men to understand. When Hannah was tormented by her childlessness her husband, Elkanah, no doubt heartbroken himself over their infertility, no doubt near-frantic at his wife's inconsolability, and no doubt clueless as to what to say next; Elkanah finally blurted out, "Am I not more to you than ten sons?" (1 Sam. 1:8) No, he wasn't more to Hannah than ten children. He was her husband; she was his wife. But she wasn't anyone's mother. Wife is categorically different from mother! Elkanah was her husband; he couldn't be more to her than ten children; he couldn't even be more to her than one child.
Today, in this Advent season, we are going to look at four childless women -- and at four children (sons) whom the world will never forget, as it will never forget their mothers.
I: -- The first we shall look at is Sarah. She was to be the foremother of all God's people. God had promised her and her husband, Abraham, descendants as numberless as the sands on the seashore. Before there can be numberless descendants, however, there has to be one; yet Sarah was childless. It's difficult to believe in God's promises, isn't it, to keep on believing year after year!
Then Sarah was told she would conceive. She laughed. Being told, at her age, that she would conceive was as ludicrous as my being told that I am going to be the next middleweight boxing champion of the world. Laughter befits the ludicrous.
But Sarah did conceive, and gave birth to Isaac, the Hebrew word for "laughter". Now it was easy to believe in the promises of God.
Or was it? For the day came all too soon when her faith in the promise-keeping God was tested. Her husband was told to offer up their son Isaac as a sacrifice to God; Isaac, their son, their only son.
Their dilemma was this. God had promised numberless descendants within the household of faith, generation after generation. Two things were needed for the fulfilment of the promise concerning the household of faith: people who were descended from Abraham and Sarah, and people of faith who were descended from Abraham and Sarah. If Ab. and S. obeyed God and offered up Isaac, then their faith was intact but their descendants were snuffed out. On the other hand, if they second-guessed God and preserved Isaac, then descendants were guaranteed (biological descendants), but in their second-guessing and disobeying God faith was snuffed out -- with the result, of course, that there would be no descendants of faith.
In other words, if they obeyed God in faith, the promise was null and void since there would be no descendant. If, on the other hand, they disobeyed God in unfaith, the promise was null and void since there would be no descendant of faith. Regardless of what they did, the promise was null and void -- when all the while they had been called to faith in the promise-keeping God. So what were they to do?
With unspeakable anguish of heart they elected to obey God and trust him to keep his promise to them even though they couldn't see how God was ever going to keep his promise! Rather than second-guess God and try to sort out for him what he couldn't seem to sort out for himself, they elected to trust God and trust him to sort out for them what they couldn't sort out for themselves. And so with breaking hearts they trudged up Mount Moriah, knife in hand, determined to trust God to fulfil his own promise in ways beyond their imagining -- only to find that a ram had been provided for the sacrifice.
God has made many promises to us. One is that the powers of death will not prevail against the church. But right now the powers of death seem to be prevailing against the church. So what are we going to do? We can trust God to keep his promise, in ways that we can't see at this moment; or we can second-guess him. We can continue to hold up the gospel, even though it is steadfast allegiance to the gospel-message that seems to keep contemporary secularites out of the church, or we can develop a new message, a new attraction, new entertainment, new gimmicks -- all of which we hope will keep people here even as the gospel has long since gone. So what are we going to do?
Ten times per year I am asked why I won't approve of raffles or other games of chance for church fundraising. Wouldn't a raffle bring in truckloads of money? (And everyone knows it takes truckloads of money to maintain any congregation.) Wouldn't a raffle get us past our chronic financial squeeze and let us concentrate on other matters? Concentrate on what other matters? Certainly not on the gospel, because by the time we got around to the raffle the gospel would have been long given up. What answer would Sarah give to us, even as she wept over Isaac?
A friend of mine, a pastor in Montreal, "locked horns" with his congregation (the conflict ended in his dismissal) over the Sunday morning prayer of confession; confession of sin. They told him they didn't believe they were sinners; at least they weren't sinners in the real sense of the term. Furthermore, in an era of declining turn-outs on Sunday morning they needed to attract upwardly mobile young couples. How were they ever going to do this as long as the pastor told "wannabe" social climbers every Sunday that they were sinners? What would Sarah say to all this? We know. She was willing to give up the son she had awaited for decades.
Sarah trusted God to keep the promises he had made, even though she couldn't see, at this minute, how it was all going to work out. Sarah trusted.
II: -- Hannah longed for a child so ardently and prayed so intently and wailed so incoherently before God that her clergyman, Eli, thought she was drunk. "Put away the bottle!", Eli rebuked her. "I'm not drunk", Hannah had said, "I'm troubled; I've been pouring out my soul before the Lord."
And then it happened. A child. Samuel. "Samuel" is a Hebrew expression meaning, "His name is God." What an unusual name to call a child! But before Samuel was born Hannah had consecrated him to God. She didn't give him up to death as Sarah had done before her; nevertheless in the profoundest sense Hannah gave up her son unconditionally to the service of God. "As long as my son lives", Hannah had cried, "he is lent to the Lord." (1 Samuel 1:28)
Samuel became a prophet, one of those uncompromising truth-tellers who made politicians and rulers wince when the truth was made public. Samuel anointed Saul the first king of Israel. Upon witnessing Saul's disobedience, however, Samuel deposed Saul and anointed David king. Plainly Samuel wasn't one to waste time.
Samuel grew up in the town of Ramah and lived in Ramah for the rest of his life. "Rama" has a familiar ring these days. Rama is a town near Orillia; Rama is one more site of the provincial government's protracted disgrace: casino gambling. What do you think Samuel would say if he were to visit the Rama casino? What do you think he would have said (or done) if he had gone to Casino Rama on opening day several summers ago when the parking lot was crammed with milling children, neglected, while their parents (chiefly single moms), were inside squandering the money they keep telling us they don't have? What would Samuel have done when the public address speakers kept pleading with mothers to go to the parking lot and take charge of their children -- all to no avail?
The province of Ontario will sell anyone a return GO-rail ticket (Toronto-Rama return) for only $29.95. Plainly the ticket is heavily subsidized. The government (the tax-payer) subsidizes the poorest people in our society to squander their money on a set-up rigged in favour of returning six billion dollars per year to the provincial governments of Canada. The day the Ontario government introduced state-sponsored casino gambling (Windsor) it eliminated all funding to psychiatric programs for gambling addicts.
What do you think Samuel would have done? King Saul had cozied up to a foreign king who was tormenting God's people in Israel of old. King Saul had kept the best of this foreign king's livestock in order to enrich himself even though he had been told he must not profit from the foreign ruler who had brutalized God's people. Samuel had come upon Saul at that time and had said, "For personal gain you have cozied up to the fellow who tormented your people? You aren't fit to be king, Saul, and as of today you are deposed." And then Samuel had slain the foreign king, Agag.
So what would Samuel do in Rama today? We can only guess. But we needn't guess in one respect. We know for sure that Samuel, distraught at the spiritual declension in his people, would have pleaded with God until the sweat poured off him as it was to pour off Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Samuel would have pleaded with God concerning a government so conscienceless and a people so stupid and a greed so shameless. A heartbroken Samuel would have pleaded until he was hoarse. To be sure, Samuel had deposed Saul and slain Agag; but this wasn't the sort of thing Samuel did every day. Then what did Samuel do every day? He had a reputation for being a tireless intercessor. He would have interceded with God for his people every day. When he looked out over the broken-down, soft-headed, hard-hearted people of Israel, meandering like sheep without a shepherd and following whoever was making the biggest noise, Samuel cried to the people, "Far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you." (1 Sam. 12:23) A fierce prophet in public, in private Samuel was the intercessor whose tear-runnelled cheeks told everyone what he was doing when no one was around to see him doing it.
III: -- Elizabeth and Zechariah had been childless for years. Then they learned they were to have a child: "Yo-chan", "gift of God". Their child would be a prophet; not any prophet, but a prophet "in the spirit and power of Elijah", Luke records.
Elijah wasn't merely Israel's greatest prophet; Elijah was the end-time prophet. Elijah was to come back when the Messiah was at the door. Elijah was to prepare the people to meet the Messiah.
Jesus himself insisted that John the Baptist was Elijah all over again. John had been sent to prepare the people for Jesus.
What was the preparation? What is it, since John still prepares people to receive the gift of Christmas?
(i) "You've got to make a U-turn in your life", thundered John, and so we must. And we had better be sincere. If our "repentance", so-called, is nothing more than a calculation designed to get us "fire insurance"; in other words, if our "repentance" is just one more expression of our endless self-interest; if it is anything other than horror at our sin and anything less than a repudiation of it, John will say to us what he said to the fire-insurance phonies of his day: "You nest of snakes, you slithering creeps; you are revolting. Get serious while there's time to get serious."
(ii) The second item in John's agenda of preparation: "Put your life in order. If you are truly repentant inwardly, your life must display integrity outwardly". Those whose occupations give them social clout (like police officers and military personnel) must stop brutalizing people; those whose occupations give them access to large sums of money (like accountants and bankers) must stop lining their pockets; those who hoard money and ignore the human suffering around them had better open heart and hand and home. Inward repentance must issue in outward integrity.
(iii) The last aspect of the preparation John urges: "Don't linger over me; look away from me to my cousin. Don't stop at listening to me; hear instead my younger relative. He is the one appointed to be your Saviour and Lord in life and in death!"
When John announced he was preparing the way of the Lord many responded. Many more did not. Among the latter was Herodias, Herod's wife. John looked her in the eye and said, "First you married Phillip, your uncle Phillip, no less. Then you 'fooled around' with the man who is currently your husband. Then you had your daughter dance like a stripper in order to inflame a crowd of half-drunk military officers. You, Herodias, are incestuous, adulterous, and a pimp all at once. It's an abomination to God; you yourself are a disgrace; and the stench of it all looms larger than a mushroom cloud."
What happened next? Everybody knows what befell John next. Elizabeth had to make that sacrifice required of all the mothers we are probing this morning; she too gave up her son for the sake of the kingdom.
IV: -- And then there is Mary. While Sarah, Hannah and Elizabeth had become pregnant through an extraordinary intervention of God, there was no suggestion of anything other than ordinary intercourse and ordinary conception. But it was different with Mary, and different with her just because her Son was to be different; Mary's conception was unique just because her Son was unique. Isaac was a patriarch; Samuel and John were prophets; but Jesus was -- and is -- the Son of God incarnate. Isaac and Samuel and John pointed away from themselves to God; Jesus pointed to himself as God-with-us.
Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus indicated over and over that to worship him was not idolatry. He persisted in using the formula, "I am" ("I am the door, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, etc.) when he knew all the while that "I am" is the self-designation of God. He agreed with his enemies that only God could forgive sin -- and then proceeded to forgive sin himself. He admitted that the law of Moses was divinely authoritative -- and then went ahead and announced its definitive meaning. Everyone knew that God alone is judge; whereupon Jesus announced himself to be the judge and insisted that the final criterion for all of us would be our attitude to him.
Mary was unique just because her Son is unique. He -- he alone -- is the world's redeemer. He has to be the world's redeemer just because the world cannot generate its own cure. Every time the world has attempted to generate its own cure (there have been two notable instances of this in the 20th century alone, one in Russia and the other in Germany), it has left the world worse. The cure for a world gone wrong has to be given to the world. History cannot produce the saviour of history; history's saviour has to be given to it. And if the current talks about "world government" give rise to some kind of international mega-sovereignty, then we shall have to learn all over that humankind's attempt at self-sovereignty issues in self-annihilation. For precisely this reason Jesus Christ has been given to us -- not produced by us -- as the world's sole sovereign and saviour. And if we are ever so foolish as to try to program any form of the superhuman we shall have to see -- again -- that all such attempts issue in the subhuman. Humankind cannot generate humankind's redemption. Our redeemer has to be given to us. This is what Mary's virginal conception is all about.
Mary learned what it was all about the day she was told she would bear Jesus, "Yehoshua", "God saves". On the same day she learned that a sword would pierce her heart; a sword would pierce her heart as surely as a spear and nails would pierce her son.
Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth. Each offered up her son. Mary offered up hers too. Mary gathers up in herself all that her sisters knew before her.
Isaac, Samuel, John. The Lord Jesus whose birth we celebrate in this season gathers up in himself all that his brothers knew before him. Yet even as he gathers up them all in himself he is so much more than they. He himself is God's incursion into human history, and for this reason he himself is the action of God saving us.
Because our Lord Jesus is himself the action of God saving us, he is unique. His mother's uniqueness testifies to his uniqueness. Rightly, then, did Mary cry, "Henceforth all generations will call me blessed."
We too are eager to call her blessed, for we too have been blessed in her Son. We have been blessed pre-eminently in the Son's resurrection from the dead. In that kingdom which his resurrection established the wounded hearts of Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth and Mary have already been healed. In that selfsame kingdom your heart and mine -- wounded and broken, savage and self-contradictory, devious and disconsolate -- whatever our heart-condition it is to find its cure in him who has been given to us to do for us and in us and with us all that will redound to the praise of his glory and the splendour of his kingdom.
Victor Shepherd December 2002
392 Hark, a Herald Voice stanzas 3&4
390 O Come, O Come stanzas 3&4
391 On Jordan's bank stanza 2
415 O Come, Let Us Adore Him stanzas 2&5