Salvation Comes Like an Unwanted Pregnancy – A Sermon for Christmastide (December 25 – January 5)

"The Annunciation" by Teresa Jordan
“The Annunciation” by Teresa Jordan

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.” (Luke 1:26-38)

Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus begins with the strange encounter between the girl Mary and an angel with the news that she is about to fall pregnant. It’s clear Mary was in no position to be pregnant. Although she isn’t exactly unmarried – she’s engaged to Joseph – she still has no business being pregnant before they’ve celebrated the wedding feast and she’s moved into Joseph’s house. It’s shameful. It implies unfaithfulness and the illegitimacy of the child. In the Deuteronomic Code it’s a capital offense (Deuteronomy 22:23-27). It’s no wonder that Matthew’s Joseph, “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly” (Matthew 1:19). It’s a disaster!

And at Christmas we remember that salvation comes into the world like an unwanted pregnancy.

Even today, what’s a single teenage girl supposed to feel as she watches the second blue line appear on her home pregnancy test? “Do not be afraid…for you have found favour with God”? I don’t think so. Angel or no angel it’s more likely to feel like the end of her world.

Feminist theologian Ann Loades, of Durham University, has said that even though the rate of pregnancy terminations “indicates that something is profoundly amiss” in our society, moralising won’t achieve much. She says that we have to face the reality that in societies like ours “the young and healthy finding themselves pregnant will (some of them) opt for abortion on the grounds that ‘having this baby will ruin my life’. … And the trouble is that in a sense, in our societies, they are right. That’s what needs changing.”

And at Christmas we remember that salvation comes into the world like an unwanted pregnancy.

I have a friend who didn’t have an abortion. She was young, single, half way through getting qualified. The relationship with the father had ended before she knew she was pregnant. And when the doctor told her what was actually wrong with her, her immediate reaction was “I can’t have a baby! I can’t have a baby!” In Australia, of course, she didn’t have to have a baby either. But it was still very early in the pregnancy and the doctor insisted that she go away and think about it.

So why didn’t you have an abortion? I asked her, sitting in her kitchen with her nine month old daughter clambering hand over hand between the table legs and ours. It was a near thing, she told me. At first she was certain that an abortion was the only option for her. But her doctor gave her a week to think it through, and by the end of the week she wasn’t so sure.

She didn’t want a baby. But she didn’t want to have an abortion either. She did some sums, and found that although she’d be poor if she had the baby she could manage on the various social security benefits that she’d be entitled to as the child grew up. (I fear that this calculation might come out differently now, especially if the government, against the advice of two inquiries, follows through on its decision to push 100,000 single mothers off parenting payments and on to the dole in January.)

She thought about her family and friends and realized that even if they thought she’d been a goose, they wouldn’t reject her or be ashamed of her, and they could certainly be relied on to give practical and emotional support. She thought about herself too. She’d come from a big, interesting, precarious kind of family. Hand-me-downs, improvisation and budgets. She didn’t want to be poor again, but she still knew how to do it. And crucially, she realized that she wasn’t actually afraid of being poor.

So she started telling the people around her that she was pregnant. She had the baby. The life that she’d been making for herself came to an end, and a different life gradually took shape.

And at Christmas we remember that salvation comes into the world like an unwanted pregnancy.

Another friend, Teresa, sends us the best Christmas cards. One year it was a woman hanging out washing. The caption read: “URGENT SALE Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh – unwanted gifts. Willing to swap for one month’s nappy service.” Another year it was a girl holding a baby, with a poem by Madeline l’Engle:
This is the irrational season
when love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
there’d never have been room for the child.
And then another year it was a card she called simply, “The Annunciation”. There are two women. One shows only her back as she speaks to the other who faces us. The woman is young, not much more than a girl. Her arms are crossed – making her look defensive, self-protective, or perhaps just self-possessed (you can’t really tell). But her head is tilted to one side showing that she’s listening. The look on her face. Sceptical? Critical? Certainly weighing up what’s being said to her. Making a judgement about it. Making a decision. Making up her mind. That’s the thing, this girl is actively considering the angel’s story and taking responsibility for what will happen to her.

Teresa’s “Mary” isn’t the model of passivity and submission that I’d tended to associate with the Christmas story. This girl is a model of discernment, personal responsibility, courage. In the middle of a total disaster – the end of her world, possibly the end of her life, explosions, screams, sirens, everything – she has the presence of mind to listen for that quiet voice which says, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.”

And at Christmas we remember that salvation comes into the world like an unwanted pregnancy.

The martyred theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer taught that “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. …Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it people will gladly go and sell all that they have. …Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a person their life, and it is grace because it gives a person the only true life.”

It’s this kind of grace, costly grace, which is at the foundations of the Christmas story – in the annunciation, when Mary conceives Jesus. For at Christmas we remember that salvation comes into the world like an unwanted pregnancy. Derailing your life, ruining your reputation, forcing you to make an awful choice. Is it any wonder that salvation comes with the words, “Do not be afraid…”?

My friends, this is the good news of the Christmas season for us: Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. For you have found favour with God.

2 comments

  1. I am a bit late discovering this but I am glad I did. this is the best Christmas message I have heard Andrew, thanks,
    Sandy

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