Wild Card Birth

Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-25, December 22, 2013

Maybe you’re thinking I’m going to be talking about the last few weeks of the NFL regular season, rating and handicapping the various scenarios for which teams will make the playoffs. Look at the title again, birth, with an “i” means that event that we all experienced at a very young age. The gospel lesson this morning tells an unbelievable story about a child born to a couple who had not at that point in their relationship done what couples need to do to have a baby. It’s remarkable, unbelievable…but not exactly unprecedented in the Bible. Three other places we hear stories of miraculous, long-awaited births that are important signs.

God called Abram and told him to leave his home. Abram was 75 years old and his family had lived in Ur a long, long time. God told him to leave and go to a new place that God would lead him to. He left his whole family, his father, grandfather, great grandfather, great-great grandfather…all the way back to his 8 times great grandfather, Shem. You might remember that name, Shem’s father was Noah, the guy who built the ark. God called Abe to trust and follow and God promised to make him a great nation and to bless those who bless him and curse those who curse him. So Abram and his wife, Sarai, and Abe’s nephew Lot left Haran for Canaan. God promised to give the land of Canaan to Abram’s offspring. That was in the 12th chapter of Genesis. A few chapters later, when Sarai and Abram still had not had any children, Sarai gave Abram her maid Hagar and Abram and Hagar had a son together named Ishmael. This happened when Abram was 86 years old. God appears to Abram thirteen years later Abe fell on his face, which is to say Abram bowed in worship before God. God changed his name to Abraham and Sarai’s name God changed to Sarah. And God promises that Sarah will have a son. This time Abraham fell on his face and laughed at the idea that he and Sarah might have a child at such an advanced age. Laughter and worship are thisclose together in this story.

But God got the last laugh. I love this story. The birth of Sarah and Abraham’s son, Isaac, is the only place in the whole Bible where laughter is recorded as a response to a humorous incongruity—that is, this is the only time that anyone laughs at something funny in the Bible. I’ve given many presentations about laughter in the Bible and have challenged churches and other groups to find another place in the Bible where laughter is recorded as a response to something funny. So far, no one has found a story besides the set of passages around the birth of Sarah and Abraham’s baby.

The best part of the story, I think comes in the chapter 18 of Genesis when Abraham is visited by the Lord, or is it three men, or is it the Lord in the form of three men? Abraham offered them traditional hospitality and one of the men said, "I will surely return to you in due season and your wife Sarah will have a son." Sarah had been eavesdropping and laughed to herself. The Lord asked, "Why did Sarah laugh?"...But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh'" [Genesis 18:10-15]...the Lord "said, ‘Oh yes, you did.'" [New Jerusalem Bible, Genesis 18:15]

I love this little exchange. Here's the Lord, who 17 chapters earlier was saying things like "Let there be light," and "Let us make humankind in our image," who's engaged in a playground argument with a 90 year old woman. "Why did Sarah laugh?" "I didn't laugh!" "Did so!" Oh, and this 90 year old woman is the matriarch of Judaism and Christianity. Friends, our story, our history, started with a divine joke. The sorrow of Sarah's bareness and Abraham's despair at having the son of Sarah's slave as his heir, is turned into laughter. And that's what they name their son, "Laughter," Yitzak in Hebrew, Isaac, in English.

The birth of Isaac is the first wild card birth in the Old Testament. We’re not exactly sure then that happened, it’s really, really early in recorded history—8 generations after the Flood, or so. Fast forward a millennium of so. At the very start of the book we know as First Samuel there is a woman in distress. Here’s her story. The woman’s name was Hannah. She was married to a man named Elkanah—who was also married to a woman named Peninnah. And the text puts this situation plainly: “Peninnah had children, but Hannah didn’t.” [I Samuel 1:2b, Common English Version] Elkanah’s family made an annual trip to Shiloh where they offered burnt offerings as sacrifices and acts of worship to God. Here’s what is says, “So that is what took place year after year. Then [Hannah] would cry and wouldn’t eat anything.” [1 Sam 1:7]

One time, after eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah got up and presented herself before the LORD. (Now Eli the priest was sitting in the chair by the doorpost of the LORD’s temple.) Hannah was very upset and couldn’t stop crying as she prayed to the LORD. Then she made this promise: “LORD of heavenly forces, just look at your servant’s pain and remember me! Don’t forget your servant! Give her a boy! Then I’ll give him to the LORD for his entire life.”

As she kept praying before the LORD, Eli watched her mouth. Now Hannah was praying in her heart; her lips were moving, but her voice was silent, so Eli thought she was drunk.

“How long will you act like a drunk? Sober up!” Eli told her.

“No sir!” Hannah replied. “I’m just a very sad woman. I haven’t had any wine or beer but have been pouring out my heart to the LORD. Don’t think your servant is some good-for-nothing woman. This whole time I’ve been praying out of my great worry and trouble!”

[I won a bar bet at Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap on 55th Street in Chicago because of this verse.  I proved that "beer" appears in the Bible.  The real surprise, though, was not that I found "beer" in the Bible, but that someone found a Bible in Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap]]

Eli responded, “Then go in peace. And may the God of Israel give you what you’ve asked from him.”

“Please think well of me, your servant,” Hannah said. Then the woman went on her way, ate some food, and wasn’t sad any longer.

So in the course of time, Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, which means “I asked the Lord for him.” [1 Samuel 1:9-18 & 20]

Samuel went on to have a quite a career. He started out assisting Eli, the priest at Shiloh. Then, because of his faithfulness he succeeded Eli as priest. It was Samuel who anointed Saul when the Israelites wanted to have a king, like all the cool nations around them. When Saul went crazy and stopped being a good king, Samuel went on a secret mission and found a guy named Jesse near Bethlehem. Jesse had 8 sons and the youngest one, a red-headed shepherd with a good ear for music was named David. This whole crazy sequence of events started because Hannah was bullied and barren, and poured her heart out to God. She was thrilled to have a son, and she dedicated him to the Lord. That’s the second wild card birth.

About 300 years later, or so, sometime between 735 and 715 years before the Common Era, there was a king of Israel named Ahaz. Ahaz wasn’t a very good king, he wasn’t especially faithful and two nations to the north, Ephraim and Syria were threatening to invade Israel. The prophet Isaiah and Isaiah’s son visited Ahaz and asked him what sign would reassure him that God was with him, what would be an omen of God’s support and care, “Name it, Ahaz, anything you can think of—as deep as the grave or as high as the heavens.” they said. But Ahaz wouldn’t do it. So Isaiah went ahead and gave Ahaz a sign: A young woman who was already pregnant would have a son and name him “Immanuel.” That name is a sentence; it means “God is with us.” And before this little guy eats solid food, or can tell right from wrong, these two strong, scary kings that you’re so afraid of will be powerless. You’ll be singing “Happy Days are here again.”

In what we call the Old Testament there are three important, symbolic births. Babies born to women as signs of God’s having heard their pain and sadness. Babies born that point to the future and Hope and God’s presence in the world. This is really, really important to Christians, and if you want to find one thing that makes Christianity distinct from other religions it’s this: Christians believe that God came into the world as a human being, that God was born just as each of us was. We believe that God’s son, whom we know as Jesus really, physically was completely human and completely God. That’s wild, crazy, impossibly good news!

And when people who encountered Jesus went looking into their holy writings to find a way to understand this one they called “the Christ.” It’s appropriate that they started with his genealogy—we skipped that this morning, but take a look at the start of Matthew’s gospel and you’ll see Jesus’ pedigree. It starts with Abraham, father of Isaac, then after 7 or 8 generations we get to Jesse and David, then after 8 or 9 more generations we get to Ahaz, then 15 or 16 generations on we get Joseph and Mary. There’s a history of wild card, miraculous, unbelievable births all in Jesus’ family tree. So our story starts with one of them. A story that says “God with man is now residing” as we sing in “Angels from the Realms of Glory.” That’s the true meaning of Christmas. God’s love for all the world is expressed—yet again—in a miraculous, crazy, impossible birth. As Carl Sandburg said, “A baby is God’s opinion that life should go on.” God did it again with the birth of Jesus.

And this history started way back in Genesis with God remembering His promise to Abraham and Sarah—and the gift of laughter. Here's what Samson Hirsch says of Sarah's laughter:

The entire beginning of the Jewish people is laughable, its history, its expectations, its hopes. God waited with the foundation of this people until its forefather had reached a "ridiculous" high age; therefore He began the realization of His promise only after all human hopes had come to an end.

We know wild card births are just another way that God gets our attention and reminds us that we are precious and beloved. So be surprised at this great gift at Christmas and every day. Amen.