An Expectant Church

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts,November 28, 1999
First  Sunday in Advent


Micah 5:1-5 A ruler promised from Bethlehem

Marshal your troops, O city of troops, for a siege is laid against us. They will strike Israel's ruler on the cheek with a rod. But you, Bethlehem Ephratah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor gives birth and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites. He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth, and he will be their peace.

Luke 1:26-38 The birth of Jesus foretold

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you."

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."

"How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"

The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God."

"I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her.

Arcana Coelestia #9042 Spiritual pregnancy

"A pregnant woman" means forming goodness out of truth. The reason it has this meaning is that in the internal sense, the birth of physical life that we receive from our parents stands for our rebirth, which is the birth of spiritual life within us. When we are born anew, we are first conceived, then carried in the womb so to speak, and finally born. And since rebirth, or the birth of spiritual life, consists of uniting truth and goodness--in other words, uniting faith and kindness--"carrying in the womb" means developing our truth into goodness. From this we can see that spiritually, "a pregnant woman" means a stage in which goodness is being formed from our true ideas.


Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. (Luke 1:30, 31)

Good morning! I hope all of you had a good Thanksgiving. We enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner with Patty's family on Thursday, and then spent some time with my family yesterday. When we are with family, we are reminded of times when we were younger. We share stories of the times when we were growing up, or when we were raising our own families. If we look back far enough, we come to the time of our birth--though most of us do not remember that particular event. And then there are the births of our children, our grandchildren. . . .

Now, with Thanksgiving past, we are entering into Advent: a time when we look forward with anticipation to the Lord's birth among us, which we celebrate at Christmas. Christmas is also a time of family gatherings. And it is a time of special gatherings for our church family, too. In fact, just as for many families, Christmas brings the biggest family gatherings of the year, here at our church--and in many other churches, too--the Christmas Eve service brings our biggest family gathering of the year as we celebrate the wonderful birth that happened two thousand years ago.

Let's look back to that birth for a moment. At this time, a few weeks before her child was delivered, Mary was still an expectant mother. We can imagine her, probably a teenaged girl, nine months pregnant, her first baby moving and kicking strongly inside her. She knew that the baby would be born soon. Perhaps she was already on her way to Bethlehem with Joseph, to whom she was engaged to be married.

Yet this was no ordinary baby moving about inside her womb. This was a baby with no human father, whose coming had been announced to Mary by the angel Gabriel. "Do not be afraid, Mary," the angel said, "you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end." This was not only to be a miraculous birth; it was to be a royal birth.

"How will this be?" Mary asked the angel, "Since I am a virgin?" The fact that she was a virgin was the most obvious problem with Gabriel's message. But she might also have asked, "How could I, a common girl engaged to a common craftsman, give birth to a king?" Surely this was too much even to dream of; too much to take seriously. Yet the angel reminded her that nothing is impossible with God. This is how this miraculous royal birth would take place, he said: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God."

Mary accepted the message which the angel gave her. "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said." And now, a few weeks before her baby was due to be born, Mary was expecting not only the birth of a baby boy, but the birth of a great king. And even more than that, she was expecting the birth of the Son of God. I suspect, though, that even after hearing the angel's message, and even after becoming pregnant before she had come together with her husband-to-be, Mary could not possibly have grasped the full implications of what the angel was telling her.

Even today, two thousand year later, the world still does not fully grasp what the angel Gabriel told Mary so many centuries ago. Even today, much of the world's population, even many of the people in so-called Christian nations, do not see the birth of Jesus Christ as any different than any other birth--though they may recognize that this particular baby had more influence on the world's history than most.

Becoming more personal, even those of us who are committed Christians--even you and I--do not and cannot ever grasp the full implications of that birth. Our finite, limited minds simply cannot grasp the full infinity and eternity of God's greatest miracle. No matter how deeply we open our minds and hearts to the wonder of that birth in Bethlehem, there will always be infinitely greater depths remaining for us to explore.

And yet, each one of us is expectant in our own way. Each one of us hopes that something special will happen this Christmas. Each one of us hopes to feel some of the magic of Christmas. Yes, we want it to touch our children and grandchildren. But none of us is so old and worldly wise to have that we do not still have somewhere in our heart the childlike wish that we, too, will be touched by the wonder of Jesus' birth.

Each one of us is like an expectant mother. And what a mixture of feelings expectant mothers have! Of course, being male I had to share these feelings vicariously through Patty as we waited together for each of our children to be born. But I do know something of them myself--for as a father, my heart is also bound up with my children. There is a feeling of anticipation of the new life about to enter the world. There is a sense of awe at the amazing miracle of a new human being forming within--so quietly, so intricately, so powerfully.

And yet, mixed in with these joyful feelings of wonderment is a feeling of anxiety, even fear, lest anything should go wrong with this precious new life. Will the baby be healthy? Will there be any problems with the birth? And then there are concerns about the practicalities of life: of making ends meet and getting things done with a helpless new baby to care for. Yes, our anticipation of the birth of a baby is a mixture of joy and fear, of anxiety and awe, of mundane concerns and high aspirations.

These are exactly the feelings that we have when we are expectant mothers for the birth of the Lord Jesus into our lives. We do have within us a sense of anticipation of the new spiritual life represented by the Lord's birth at Christmas. We do wonder at the miracle of this divine birth. Perhaps sometimes we can't quite accept the miracle, and begin to think of Jesus as a merely human being like any other. And yet, our souls reach out to a God who is so human and so loving that he would be born among us as a baby and share with us our life on earth. We want to believe that God could be so human, so present with us. And when we open our hearts and minds to our deeper, spiritual aspirations, we begin to feel more certainty that indeed, the Lord has come among us in this wondrous, miraculous way.

But we cannot always hold onto those feelings. All too often we get so caught up in the hustle and bustle of Christmas preparations that we begin to think that Christmas is simply a lot of extra work to make others happy, while we ourselves feel the magic of Christmas passing us by. "I'm too old for Christmas," we may say. "Now it's my turn to work, work, work so that the children and grandchildren can enjoy their Christmas--just as I loved Christmas when I was young."

Or perhaps we have even deeper doubts. Perhaps we have fears within us that the Lord Jesus will come stillborn into our lives; that we could never feel that divine presence within us; that God cannot be present for us in that personal way; that we have strayed too far away, and are lost to the deeper, spiritual magic of Christmas. Perhaps we have anxious fears that there really is nothing more to Christmas--that it is a hollow celebration.

These, too, are the feelings of an expectant mother. And yet, through all our elations and our fears, there is something more powerful than we could ever imagine working within us. The power of the Most High overshadows each one of us as well. And the holy one that will be born within us and among us is cared for by Almighty God. This is no ordinary birth. This is the birth of the divine presence within us. This is not a merely human birth, but the birth of the Son of God. And if we are willing to open our hearts to that birth, we will feel its miraculous divine power working in our lives.

What is this new and powerful birth that is even now growing and gestating in the spiritual womb of our hearts and minds? This new birth is not a material birth that gives us more money, a better car, a better house. It is not a birth of new status, a higher reputation, more worldly influence. No, the birth of the Lord into our lives is a birth of new truth and new goodness in our lives.

In fact, Swedenborg tells us, when the baby Lord is growing within us, it is a time when the truth ideas we have learned about loving God and loving our neighbor are forming not just our minds, but our hearts into new human vessels of love and goodness. It is a time when our thinking minds and our feeling hearts are being knit together within us, forming us into a new, more thoughtful and more loving person.

I would like to share with you how this has been happening for me lately in relationship with you, the members of this congregation. One of the items in my job description as Pastor here is "To attend to Pastoral Care: visitations and counseling (from a pastoral view) and to be available for crisis care." Of course, we learn in seminary that pastoral care is a vital part of ministry; and we are taught many things about providing pastoral care, and about what an active program of pastoral care can do for a congregation and its members.

These are all concepts in a minister's head until he or she actually goes out and begins visiting members of the congregation, being with families through weddings, funerals, and other times of joy and of crisis. This fall, knowing that I have a three month sabbatical coming up, in which I will not see very much of you, I have given extra time to visiting. My goal has been to spend some time with as many of you as I can before January rolls around. I have also reached out to a few people I hadn't met before, and to people I hadn't seen for some time. Meanwhile, there have been various family events--some happy, some painful--that have brought me into closer contact with some of you.

Through all of my personal visits with you during the three years I have been here, and now through the greater amount of time I have spent with you this fall, something has happened within me. Pastoral Care has moved beyond being something I learned about in seminary and began to practice through the Field Education program. Pastoral Care has become far more than an item in my job description, and something that I know is good and healthy for the congregation and its members.

Visiting with you and spending time with you in your joys and sorrows has touched more than my mind. It has touched my heart. As I get to know you better, and share with you both your painful struggles and the goodness and love that is in each one of you, I find that I am growing to love more and more the uniqueness of each one of you, and the warmth and genuineness of this group of people bound together as a church family.

You see, the true ideas I learned about ministering to others have been knit together with the love and kindness that we have shared with one another. And now I do feel a bit like an expectant mother, eagerly anticipating with both anxiety and joy the birth of a new relationship with this congregation as we move through and beyond the sabbatical.

This expectancy is happening at the very time we as a church are expectant of the new birth of the Lord Jesus among us. It is happening as we look forward to Christmas, hoping that we will be touched anew by the Lord's presence within us and among us.

Yes, we are an expectant church. It is to us, too, that the angel Gabriel speaks those beautiful, powerful words: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God." Yes, the Holy Spirit is coming upon us, too, this Advent. The power of the Most High is overshadowing each one of us, and all of us together as a church family. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ loves us, and has a wonderful new spiritual birth in store for us. Amen.



Music: Mary's Boy Child
Traditional Carribean Carol