Sunday Morning Sermon for July 4: ‘Expectant Living’

224th Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — July 4, 2010


Marlys Hershberger, pastor of Hollidaysburg (Pa.) Church of the Brethren, preached for Sunday morning service on the theme, “Expectant Living.” Photo by Glenn Riegel

Preacher: Marlys Hershberger, pastor of Hollidaysburg (Pa.) Church of the Brethren
Text: Luke 1:26-55

So Mary was expecting! We can say pregnant, with child, carrying or bearing a child. “Expecting” is especially appropriate because one is living expectantly, awaiting a special day of fulfillment. Expecting—a time of waiting, anticipation, anxiety, even fear.

My own strongest memories of pregnancy are moments of fear and questioning.

• Will I be able to do this right, well—the pregnancy, the birth?! Oh, what kind of mother will I be? Will I be a disappointment, especially to my kids?

• With my first child, I attended birthing classes. I learned how to care for my body and the baby growing inside. My husband and I were taught how to wait when the labor pains would come. Walk around, breathe—the labor pains would last a long time. But my labor started days early and the pains came fast and hard. What a wimp, I thought. If this is the early stuff, I’ll never make it. I was crawling on the floor in pain to finish packing a hair brush. Within an hour we were in the local maternity ward and Jeremy’s head was ready to pass through when the first nurse checked!

• With the second child, Stephen, I went to a doctor and hospital farther away. Concerned about an even earlier, faster labor I asked Dr. Grabb what to do if the baby started coming too fast. “Now, don’t rush,” he said. “More people die from car crashes than births. If that baby wants to come that badly, it will just pop right out.”

• In my third pregnancy I was scared when, during one visit, the doctor listened and listened and then listened more for the heartbeat, moving the stethoscope all around my extended belly. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he put the stethoscope down and said, “Well, you’re having twins.” Relieved nothing was wrong, I giggled. My husband Terry was a strong, quiet, calming force in all this—until he heard the news about twins. But that’s his story to tell.

Expecting! Forty weeks of anticipation. Forty—that biblical number of bearing trials, of waiting. Forty weeks of living in expectancy as transformation takes place—as new life is developing within, growing ready to come forth, to be revealed.

But it is certainly not a passive time. Rather, it is a time of active waiting—attentive to good nourishment and a balance of rest and exercise, seeking expert advice and sharing insights with all who will listen.

It is a time of anticipation, filled with hope. A seed is planted and in the darkness of the womb new life is being formed. There are new possibilities.

Life’s center shifts. Every decision is made in light of the child, taking into consideration the present time of formation, as well as the future day of birth.

Mary pondered the words of the angel, perplexed. So troubled, the angel spoke up. “Do not be afraid, Mary,” he said. What were Mary’s fears? What were her questions? Her obvious question, recorded, was “How? How will this happen?”

But with the angel’s mysterious answer regarding the activity of the Holy Spirit, Mary assented to this summons, this ministry. “Okay. Here I am. Let it be.” A bold, audacious “yes.”

Why Mary? we wonder. There is no clear answer in the text except that Mary was open to God and the working of the Holy Spirit. She was willing to trust God to be in this new situation and make it good, make it right—bringing to a good result to the seeds he planted.

She sought the support of a sister in faith and it was in her spirit-blessed encounter with Elizabeth that Mary burst out in what is called “Mary’s Song” or “The Magnificat,” meaning “the utterance of praise.” Mary displayed a remarkable knowing in her words. Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Her baby is no bigger than a thumbnail, but already she is reciting his accomplishments. . . Her faith is in things not seen, faith that comes to her from outside herself, and that is why we call her blessed.” 1

Mary perceived that she was bearing the Christ, the savior of Israel, savior of all nations—the new fulfilling the old. “God remembering covenants kept and making good on promises made”2—peace, justice, an end to oppression, extravagant love and mercy—the kingdom of God come. And although Mary could not know just how God would achieve all this, she was willing to let go of her fear, obey God’s summon, and let God do mighty things—in her and through her.

Is our ministry as the church in the present age very different from Mary’s? Well, we live like Mary in the age of “already, and not yet.” We live in a time when the kingdom of God has been inaugurated, revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ and yet in a time when the kingdom of God is not yet present in all its fullness. All is not yet restored and set right. We dwell in this world of God’s creation that teems with craziness—with chaos and self-indulgence.

The apostle Paul uses the language of pregnancy and birthing to describe our ministry in this age. In the eighth chapter of Romans Paul says, “The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now,” and we too, who have received the first fruits of the Spirit “groan inwardly” (Romans 8:22-23). Lee Camp writes, in his book “Mere Discipleship,” “Only the pain of a mother in labor with a child suffices to get at the nature of current existence of both the creation and the church.”

He goes on to compare our experience of this age

“to that of a mother, say, eight months pregnant, on the telephone with an old friend who had heard the news of the pregnancy, but did not know the anticipated date of delivery: ‘Do you have your baby yet?!’ the old friend might ask. To which the mother would undoubtedly be thinking, ‘Yes! —of course I’ve got a baby, of which I’m reminded on every frequent trip to relieve my bladder, or every time the dear one decides to roll over in the womb, or each time she rakes her sweet little arms across my belly.’ But then again, she does not yet have her baby. To remain eight months pregnant indefinitely would be nothing short of torment. And so she waits for the day—and the day comes, with pain and tears. The mother’s body is transformed, and everything changes. Crying gives way to laughter, cursing gives way to joy, the groaning gives way to life. In the meanwhile, the expectant mother must live respecting the day. To live without respecting the day would be nothing short of disastrous. A pregnant mother is already a mother. What a horror for a pregnant mother to live a dissolute, [depraved, self-indulgent] life, to care nothing for her body or for the baby within, or to abuse her body. In the same way, the church lives respecting the day—the kingdom is not yet fully present, but it’s already here—and to live otherwise is nothing short of disastrous.”3

We live in a pregnant time. A time of waiting, of anticipation. A time of attentiveness to our condition and the working of God in his creation.

Is our ministry as the church very different from Mary’s? Are we not called to pregnant living also—men and women, young and old? Jan Richardson agrees, saying, “We are a pregnant people, for God calls each of us to bring forth the Christ.”4

It is in the witness of the Bible, the witness of our spiritual ancestors who have lived out God’s call since the days of 1st-century Palestine, even many among us, that we are still asked to make room for God in our lives. When we accept God’s summons, we become pregnant with the indwelling God through the work of the Holy Spirit. And since it is in Jesus that we know God most fully, Jesus the Christ becomes our life-center. Every decision is made in light of him.

Attentive to the new life that grows within us, we are at our best when we are in active, expectant waiting—attentive to nourishment of body and soul, living with a healthy balance of rest and exercise, seeking understanding, and sharing insights—nurturing a new life full of promise.

In God’s time then, we bring forth the Christ to all creation, sharing the good news of salvation and new life. I birth Christ here, you there, my congregation over there, your congregation there, and then me again, then you, and you. Real, life-changing stuff: helping people see their worth, worth that comes from God’s creative design for them—not from their appearance, their love-life, their bank account, their worldly power; helping people forgive and love themselves in the light of God’s amazing grace; helping people discover their gifts and providing opportunity for them to apply their gifts and experience real satisfaction and wholeness, not hindering the Holy Spirit evident and working in their lives; helping people see again the beauty and value of Christ-centered living in a new century, obedient to God’s will and ways as passed on to us in scripture and the continuing revelation of the Holy Spirit. God has chosen to work through Mary and you and me and we live out his kingdom on earth. We are able because God is able.

Hesitant, afraid, uncertain of God’s call for you? Mary turned to a sister of faith for assurance and the Spirit blessed her with insight beyond her ken. We Brethren gather as communities of faith in our churches and in this place and when we focus on Jesus the Christ—who dwells in our pregnant bellies, our center—we find insight and strength beyond our ourselves. Hear the stories of faith shared in our worship services, reports, insight sessions, and meal programs this week. Check out the literature in the many booths and engage in conversation with those involved in the ministries they represent. Celebrate the ways God is creating new life among us and around us.

God summons us, asking us to allow his seed to fall on us, to fill us, to birth the new life of peace, justice, and extravagant love and mercy—sowing his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

Here it is, July already. Did you see the growth in the fields in your travels here?

“One July a farmer sat in front of his shack, smoking his corncob pipe. Along came a stranger who asked, ‘How’s your cotton coming?’
” ‘Ain’t got none,’ was the answer. ‘Didn’t plant none. ‘Fraid of the boll weevil.’
” ‘Well, how’s your corn?’
” ‘Didn’t plant none. ‘Fraid o’ drought.’
” ‘How about your potatoes?’
” ‘Ain’t got none. Scairt o’ tater bugs.’
“The stranger finally asked, ‘Well, what did you plant?’
” ‘Nothin’,’ answered the farmer. ‘I just played it safe.’ “

Mary could have played it safe. She could have said, “Oh, Gabriel, God asks too much. I need to know more before I take on this ministry—this pregnancy. No, I won’t.” Instead, she said, “Yes, I will.”

God is at work to bring about the liberation and healing of a groaning creation. God can do for us, and through us, what we could never do ourselves. God seeks to work as God-within-us, in the Christ we bear, through the work of the Holy Spirit.

May we live boldly, in grateful and joyful expectancy, respecting the day when all creation will experience the fullness of God’s reign.

1 Barbara Brown Taylor, quoted in “Sacred Journeys” by Jan Richardson, p. 31.
2 Fred Craddock, “Luke,” in “Interpretation,” pp. 23-24
3 Lee C. Camp, “Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World,” Brazos Press, 2008, p. 71.
4 Jan Richardson, “Sacred Journeys,” Upper Room Books, 1996, p.19.
5 James S. Hewett, “Illustrations Unlimited,” Tyndale, 1988, p. 204.

The News Team for the 2010 Annual Conference includes writers Karen Garrett, Frank Ramirez, Frances Townsend; photographers Kay Guyer, Justin Hollenberg, Keith Hollenberg, Glenn Riegel; website staff Amy Heckert and Jan Fischer Bachman; and news director and editor Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford. Contact .

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