Sunday, December 6, 2015

Nativity Stories: The Heir and the Foundling

We're in Advent two Sundays deep now, as we reflect on what the Bible's nativity stories tell us about what the Nativity Story is so important. Last Sunday, remember, we talked about the nativity of Cain and Abel – Cain, whose name suggests greedy ownership and desire, and Abel, whose name suggests impermanence: everything is fog – and looking out there this morning, that may be the literal truth! 

The Fall puts us in a Cain-and-Abel world, where the more we see the world falling apart, the more desperately we try to grab onto achievements and possessions and build something that can't last. Our fragile existence makes us all the more sinfully bent on setting ourselves up as gods. The only way out is suggested by Seth, whose name reminds us that God has to appoint a solution for us to receive humbly as a gift, as pure unearned grace.

Well, Seth went on to have a son, Enosh – just a man, the name suggests, another step in humility – and on down through the generations until the tenth. Seth's descendant Lamech, weary from the continually mounting curse, has a baby boy of his own, and he names him “Noah.” He explains, “Out of the ground that the LORD has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and the toil of our hands” (Genesis 5:29). The name “Noah” comes from the same ultimate root as the word for 'rest' – it means something like a sigh of relief, like the one you'd make after coming in from a hard day's labor and finally getting to plop down into your comfiest chair with no more chores in sight until after the weekend.

Lamech had a touch of prophecy, and with the land filling with violence, with the curse just getting worse and worse and worse, Lamech knows that this Cain-and-Abel world is too out of control. Earth needs a break, and so does the human race. We aren't made for constant labor, perpetual suffering. In the midst of it all, we yearn for that sigh of relief. Sometimes our workaholic culture forgets that. In America, we're all about the “toil of our hands,” and we judge people, generations, and even nations on whether we think they'll be as unrelenting as we are. Work is good, but work becomes an idol and a demon when we don't get relief.

And we especially need relief from the war-torn world around us, don't we? Every day, the 24-hour news cycle brings us another report of multiple victims, another story of a rifle or a bomb in the hands of men and women who just want to destroy – maybe out of ideas full of hate, maybe out of a mind and soul that reject the care they need. Every night, I open up the newspaper, and there it is. Maybe every day you turn on the news channel, and there it is. It gets to be part of the daily routine, and it wears you down. Your neck aches from shaking your head in perplexity: “Why do people do this? What's wrong with the world?” Lamech knows how you feel – it was the same in his day.

But Lamech also knows what it's like to hold a baby, his little boy, and think, “Because you're here, there's going to be a better world. God will give us rest.” It must have been scary – to bring yet another baby into a world falling apart around him. But Lamech did, and Lamech had “other sons and daughters,” and his boy grew up and had three boys of his own (Genesis 5:30-32). On account of Noah and his blamelessness in his generation and his preaching that “condemned the world” (Hebrews 11:7), God did give rest to the earth – the Flood washed it clean of the constant fighting, the warring, and gave Adam's family a chance to start fresh. And, pleased with Noah's sacrifice of praise, the LORD said, “I will never again curse the ground because of mankind” (Genesis 8:21). That's relief – promised at the nativity of Noah.

As we hop, skip, and jump through the generations, coming into the world in nativities all their own, we meet the father of the faithful, Abraham. We've talked before about how Genesis tells the story of his faith-journey, his path to be cured by God from his imperfect faith until he finally got it just right. But that quest is also his search for a child to carry out his legacy. For years and years, he watched his brothers have children, and his cousins have children, and his neighbors have children – and he had none. I'm sure Abram and his wife tried the very best they could. But no children ever came. Maybe Sarai never conceived. Maybe they got their hopes up, only to have them dashed in a series of miscarriages. Abram's deepest longing, and probably Sarai's too, is to have a child of their own, a baby of their own flesh and blood to hold and raise.

So after Abram rescues Lot from the clutches of marauders, God speaks to Abram in a vision and says that Abram really ought to be rewarded for all this. And what do you think Abram says? “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is my heir” (Genesis 15:2-3). 

Abram knows, or thinks he knows, what God's plan has been – for his legacy to be folded into Eliezer's, to see Eliezer inherit all he's got. Abram's had a hand in raising Eliezer from infancy, but Eliezer isn't his child. God answers Abram: “This man shall not be your heir. No one but your very own issue shall be your heir” (Genesis 15:4). In fact, Abraham's own family will be vast, immense, dotting the earth like the stars dot the starry blackness overhead (Genesis 15:5). 

It sounds beyond belief. But that's exactly what Abram does: he believes God, he trusts God to bring the nativity he yearns for – and in that moment, that trust makes Abram a righteous friend of God (Genesis 15:6).

I imagine Abram was eager to watch God do this miracle. So he and Sarai try again, even in their old age, to have a child. And... they don't. I wonder how many years this goes on before Sarai gives up. I can't imagine very well what Sarai must have been thinking at this point – her husband's been so very excited about what God told him, but that vision didn't say anything about her, did it? She decides that she must be the problem; she feels she's the one to blame, that she's holding Abram back. So she makes a choice. Her Egyptian slave-girl, Hagar, will be a surrogate for her (Genesis 16:2). That must be what God meant by his promise, and if God seems silent, even absent, then they'll just have to get creative in helping God along.

And so Ishmael is conceived and later born, when Abram's eighty-six and Sarai's just lagging a decade behind (Genesis 16:15-16). Sarai isn't happy, but at least the burden of God's promise – the wondering, the waiting – isn't hanging over her head anymore. Or so she thinks. 

Thirteen years pass before Abram hears from God again, at least as far as Genesis tells us. Thirteen years as Ishmael grows up into a young teenager, as Sarai watches her husband dote on the son she feels isn't really hers. And then God shows up. God wants to strike a deal, put the terms in writing. Again with the offspring, even many nations. Abram becomes Abraham. Sarai becomes Sarah, and “I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her, … and she shall give rise to nations” (Genesis 17:16).

Knowing his reputation, you'd think Abraham would jump for joy. You'd imagine that Abraham would bow humbly and say, “Thy will be done!” But the Bible paints a realistic picture. When God first showed up before Abram's very eyes, “Abram fell on his face” in obedient worship (Genesis 17:3). He got up to listen to what God had to say. He's staring into the eyes of the One he serves, the Maker of heaven and earth. 

And as soon as Abraham hears this news, he falls on his face again – not because he feels overcome with the urge to worship, though. He falls on his face because he's doubled over in laughter (Genesis 17:17). He thinks God's turned into a stand-up comic! Abraham's about to leave double-digit ages behind; Sarah's turning ninety. God's got to be pulling his leg... right? Abraham wants to settle, asks God to just bless Ishmael (Genesis 17:18). “God, if you'll just rubber-stamp what I've already done, we'll call it even; I can settle for that.” God says no, he means it (Genesis 17:19).

It's easy to judge Abraham here. To read about it in black-and-white lettering, it's obvious what's wrong with his reaction. You don't laugh in God's face! Hasn't Abraham even heard of having faith? But before we judge, think about it: Isn't that our reaction a lot more than we'd care to admit? How often do we scoff, even mock, what God turns out in retrospect to have been trying to tell us all along? 

I know the first time God suggested to me that I should be a pastor, I didn't react any differently than Abraham did here. I laughed it off, came up with a list of ways I could serve God better that would play more readily to my strengths, and marched headlong for years in that direction. I was so busy raising my own Ishmael that I seldom paused to even consider the possibility that God had something else in mind, something he'd already told me but which I'd ignored. I bet, if you think hard enough, you might remember a time you scoffed at what God seemed to be saying – maybe a path he wanted you to take, or maybe clearly sound advice he offered you through a friend, or maybe something in the Bible that just seems too shocking or too good to be true. It's easy to judge Abraham, but we're works in progress, just like him.

God corrects him, God gives him the specifics, God says he'll visit again later (Genesis 17:19-22). Time passes. God visits Abraham again in the shade of the oaks. God repeats himself: “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son” (Genesis 18:10). Sarah's been eavesdropping from the tent, and she does what her husband did earlier: she laughs to herself (Genesis 18:12). It's a silly thing she hears, this idea that she'll have children. Might as well tell her she'll grow antlers at the first snowfall! Sarah's faith is no stronger than Abraham's was before. She's no Mother Mary. 

But God calls her out on it. Why did she laugh? What's so funny? “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?” (Genesis 18:14). Where's the joke? Do they think God's bitten off more than he can chew? Have they forgotten who they're dealing with? So the both of them swallow their incredulity and believe in a God who can bring new life out of what seems as good as dead (Hebrews 11:11-12) – they finally believe that the LORD is the God of resurrection. And that's been his point all along.

The year goes by – Abraham blunders again – but even so, “he is a prophet” (Genesis 20:7). And “the LORD dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as he had promised” (Genesis 21:1). Right on schedule, she gives birth to a son, and Abraham passes along the very name that God had told him in advance. “Isaac” – “he laughs.” Here's the son you've always wanted, Abraham. Raise him – he's the promise of God. But every time you call his name, remember that the both of you laughed.

And yet... and yet Sarah gets something else from this. She says, “God has brought laughter for me. Everyone who hears will laugh with me” (Genesis 21:6). That's no scoffing laughter. That's a different kind of laughter, a laughter of joy and delight at a story that's just too good – and yet all true. That's the laughter of celebration. The nativity of Isaac, a miracle of God, is a reminder that even in the midst of our faithlessness, God is merciful beyond imagination. He magnifies mercy, he spreads joy and cheer. God does what we deem absurd, what we refuse to believe could be done, because God is such a fierce lover of life. That's the mysterious way he moves. And when we hear what God has done, we laugh – not out of disbelief, but out of a faith that grins.

Too often, we've forgotten the art of holy laughter. That's one of the problems with the church today, I think. We forget to laugh with God. Sure, we listen quietly and respectfully as the word is preached. We sing sober-minded songs of praise. We take it all very seriously. But God made us to laugh! When Sarah said that, she was imagining her friends marveling at God's grace, delighting in telling about it over and over again, savoring it with gladness and exuberance. Laugh with God! Nothing is out of his reach. Laugh with God! He does what we'd call crazy so that we can share his joy. I think it was Chesterton who quipped that angels fly because they take themselves lightly. We could use some of that. The nativity of Isaac reminds us to loosen up and laugh in celebration of what God has done.

In time, Isaac grows up, has twin boys of his own. One swipes the other's birthright, wrestles with God, becomes father of the twelve tribes. And just as God promised, the time to inherit the land wasn't yet: “Your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years,” because “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:13-16). In due course of time, there arises a new pharaoh “who knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8) – a king who forgot all that Abraham's children, the people of faith, contributed to Egyptian society in their time. They didn't come to break Egypt down; they came to save Egypt and build it up, to be salt and light there.

That's what the faithful do, when they come bearing God's blessing for the nations. This pharaoh only has so much power because he's inherited, down through the generations, the effects of what Joseph did for his ancestors. But this pharaoh either hasn't heard or doesn't want to hear about Joseph. He looks at Joseph's people and doesn't see a blessing there. Pharaoh's government refuses to open itself to the faith-based influence of the Hebrews – only their purely secular contributions in the form of slave labor for the pharaoh's pet projects, to serve his ideas and his agenda. It's a familiar story, maybe.

Pharaoh looks at the Hebrews, and he feels threatened. He wouldn't have felt threatened by the little bunch of seventy people in Jacob's family a few centuries earlier (Exodus 1:5). But this pharaoh feels threatened now. The problem, as he sees it, is that these Hebrews did exactly what God had told Adam and Eve to do: they “were fruitful and multiplied” (Exodus 1:7; cf. Genesis 1:28). 

Pharaoh said that the problem had to be contained. And that problem was Hebrew nativity. Nativity is a constant threat in the eyes of worldly powers. It isn't a surprise that Pharaoh tried to find ways to limit it. When I read this story, I can't help but think about China's one-child policy, recently tweaked but not by much, and all of the awful heartbreak it's caused. To the Communist authorities in China, the nativity of their own people is a threat that has to be kept under strict control.

But China isn't alone. Sometimes, it's the nativity rates of certain groups that trouble those in power. In the first half of the twentieth century, the latest progressive cause was called eugenics, an attempt to breed a 'better' kind of society by filtering out the 'unfit', urging the best and brightest to have more 'children', and turning the country into a carefully manufactured utopia. 

It sounds insane to us now – we've seen how the eugenics experiment in Nazi Germany turned out. But before World War II, our own country – or thirty-two states of it, anyway – passed laws that allowed the state to sterilize undesirable people – the poor, immigrants, Native Americans, the disabled, criminals. California's aggressive program partly inspired Nazi Germany. The Supreme Court gave the okay to such laws in the case Buck v. Bell, infamously saying, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” 

It's a dark park of our history, but even prominent ministers in the more 'progressive'-leaning denominations were enthusiastic to jump on the latest bandwagon. And, of course, one of the most famous advocates of eugenics was Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, who denounced the 'undesirable' people as “those human weeds which threaten the blooming of the finest flowers of American civilization.” For Sanger, for Chief Justice Holmes, and for the Third Reich, the nativity of some groups was a threat to their vision of a better society – one shaped by the power of their ideas, their standards of health and purity.

Sometimes, it's the nativity rate of people in general that trouble those in power. Maybe you remember back in 1968, when Paul Ehrlich wrote an influential book called The Population Bomb, predicting that the world's population was out of control, and that unless we chose to limit growth, the overpopulation would lead to everyone starving in the next couple decades. Ignoring the evidence, he still insists he was right, even that he didn't go far enough. 

Fears about population control are still influential in the world, especially some parts of the environmental movement – including, at its most extreme, the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, a group that wants us all to stop having children so that all humanity can die off and leave the planet a better place without us. For them and others, nativity in general is a threat to their vision of a healthy world. 

And lest Pharaoh and his ilk seem too foreign, we can't forget that in today's American culture, millions of people see nativity as something awful – a threat to our comfort and control over ourselves. We have entire industries devoted to maintaining our veto power over nativity, and many clinics where nativity is thwarted with barbaric tools in procedures we euphemistically call “abortions.

For Pharaoh and for many Americans past and present, nativity isn't a gift to be welcomed in the right context; it's a burden, a curse. But Pharaoh does have one thing right: nativity is powerful. Nativity disrupts, nativity upends, nativity changes things. Nativity can redirect the course of history, can sculpt a culture, can topple thrones. 

Pharaoh tries to resist Hebrew nativity with oppression. He wants to overwhelm the power of new life by outpacing it with death: throw the babies into the Nile to die, he says (Exodus 1:22). That's all Pharaoh can think of: cancel nativity with mortality. Many tyrants through history have found a role model in Pharaoh. But note that he only wants to kill the boys, the potential warriors. He isn't bothered by girls. He doesn't find them threatening. He fails to see women as formidable. Which is why it's all the more perfect that Pharaoh isn't outwitted by sages or soldiers, but by mothers and midwives, and even his own daughter's maternal instincts. Never let it be said that any woman is “just a woman.” That's what Pharaoh thought. And Pharaoh was wrong (Exodus 1:15-21).

And that brings us to another nativity story, set in the middle of a nativity war. This man and this woman both have Isaac's grandson Levi in big bold letters on their family tree. In secret, they have a son. In secret, they hide him for three months, defying Pharaoh's rules (Exodus 2:1-2; cf. Hebrews 11:23). To preserve his life, the fruit of nativity, they take him to the river where the baby boys were meant to be drowned. 

But before they plop him in the water, they put him in a waterproofed basket – the Hebrew word is the same as Noah's Ark. Yet again, safely in an ark, he goes to safety. Gets found by Pharaoh's daughter, taken in, raised by his own mother, and adopted and brought up as a child of the royal nursery alongside children of foreign kings and dignitaries. But the name he gets is “Moses” – maybe reflecting an Egyptian name, but also echoing in Hebrew the fact that his adoptive mother “drew him out” of the water as a foundling. A fitting name: he was drawn out of the water, and so God will use him one day to draw the Hebrews out of Egypt during the exodus. In a way, Pharaoh was right to be nervous over nativity. The nativity of Moses would be the eventual undoing of his slaveholding ways.

Noah's nativity offered rest, relief. But this is still a Cain-and-Abel world, at heart. The ground is cursed, and there are days when “the wickedness of mankind is great in the earth” (Genesis 6:5). The nativity of Noah does not restore the world. Isaac's nativity offered laughter; it was the catalyst that perfected Abraham's faith. But Isaac's birth can't promise that we'll always laugh. Isaac looks forward to something more. Moses' nativity offered deliverance – salvation from the Nile, salvation from Egypt, salvation from slavery. But still we grumble and long to go back. Still there are pharaohs a-plenty in this life.

What we need, and what Advent leads up to, is another Nativity. Not Cain, not Abel, not Seth; not Noah, not Isaac, not Moses. We need a baby born who can give us real relief from our sin-cursed toil – a baby who might invite all the weary and burdened to come find rest in him (Matthew 11:28), who could speak the words of God: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:14). We need a baby born who would be the true Ark-Builder, saving us through the water in the sealed-tight protection of his own life (cf. 1 Peter 3:20-22). We need the Nativity of One-Greater-Than-Noah.

We need a baby born who can bless us with real faith, a resurrection-faith, who can be the proof that God brings life out of the grip of impossibility; a baby whose birth transmutes mockery into celebration, an infant who makes light-hearted angels sing “Joy to the World” by his arrival and gives us cause and capacity to join their heavenly laughter. We need a nativity that answers the longstanding promises of God, the true Seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:16), and who would gladly invite us into the promises with him, so if we belong to him, then we “are Abraham's seed, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29), making us now “children of the promise like Isaac” (Galatians 4:28). We need a baby who will lead us, not to Mount Moriah and a knife in Abraham's trembling hand to offer God his own son, but who will lead us to Mount Calvary, where nails will pierce the hands of God's own Son as the provided sacrifice. We need the Nativity of One-Greater-Than-Isaac.

We need a baby born who reveals to us a story – like Moses, an escape from a tyrant who sees nativity as a threat to be canceled by death. We need a baby whose nativity challenges the grips of all tyrannies, even the tyranny of our own vision for society and the world, the tyranny of our comfort and control; a baby whose birth means that we can adopt his vision and let him be in control; a baby whose birth means the reign of life, and life in abundance. We need a nativity that promises that we too can be drawn out of the Nile's twisting flow, out of the clutches of our former slavery to sin. We need a nativity that says that God has a Greater Exodus in store for us, a rescue from our plight through God's appointed grace. We need the Nativity of One-Greater-Than-Moses. That need is what Advent is all about. And thank God: in the Nativity of Jesus, we're given all we need. Hallelujah. Amen and amen.

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