Advent 4 Sermon: “Palm Sunday in December”

The following is the draft for my upcoming sermon at St. Paul’s UCC, Dallastown, PA, this Sunday.  The lection is Luke 2:1-7.

A reading from the holy book of Islam, the Quran, Sura 19, verses 16-36: 

Mention in the scripture Mary. She isolated herself from her family, into an eastern location. While a barrier separated her from them, we sent to her our Spirit. He went to her in the form of a human being. Mary said, “I seek refuge in the Most Gracious, that you may be righteous.” 

He said, “I am the messenger of your Lord, to grant you a pure son.”

She said, “How can I have a son, when no man has touched me, I have never been unchaste.”

He said, “Thus said your Lord, ‘It is easy for Me. We will render him a sign for the people, and mercy from us. This is a predestined matter.”

When she bore him, she isolated herself to a faraway place. The birth process came to her by the trunk of a palm tree. She said, “I am so ashamed; I wish I were dead before this happened, and completely forgotten.” The infant [Jesus] called her from beneath her, saying, “Do not grieve. Your Lord has provided you with a stream. If you shake the trunk of this palm tree, it will drop ripe dates for you. Eat and drink, and be happy. When you see anyone, say, ‘I have made a vow of silence; I am not talking today to anyone.’”

She came to her family, carrying him. They said, “O Mary, you have committed something that is totally unexpected. O descendent of Aaron, your father was not a bad man, nor was your mother unchaste.” She pointed to him [Jesus].

They said, “How can we talk with an infant in the crib?”

The infant spoke and said, “I am a servant of Allah. He has given me the scripture, and has appointed me a prophet. He made me blessed wherever I go, and enjoined me to observe the salat and the zakat for as long as I live. I am to honor my mother; He did not make me a disobedient rebel. And peace be upon me the day I was born, the day I die, and the day I get resurrected.”

That was Jesus, the son of Mary, and this is the truth of this matter, about which they continue to doubt. It does not befit Allah that He begets a son, be He glorified. To have anything done, he simply says to it, “Be,” and it is. He also proclaimed, “Allah is my Lord and your Lord; you shall worship Him alone. This is the right path.” 

Since I finishing graduate school one of the foci of my studies has been on Islam, and a big part of the course I am occasionally asked to teach at Lancaster Theological Seminary in on the Holy book of Islam, the Qur’an.  Islam is so much part of the news and part of what is going on in the world that I think it’s an important use of my study time to engage it, and I have a deep interest in how Muslim scripture and Christian scriptures interrelate and deviate from one another.

To be sure, this is not to say that I revere the Qur’an, but I respect it, as I believe that we Christians are called to respect the religious texts of all great religions.  I don’t think everyone needs to be an expert on the Qur’an, but I have a personal interest in it, so I spend some time in study with it.

One thing that really struck me the first time I went through the Qur’an the first time is how much of the Christian Bible is present in the Qur’an, and how much reverence Muslims have for Jesus as a historical figure.  Muslims don’t believe that Jesus was God, and they don’t really believe that Jesus died in a crucifixion which led to a resurrection, but Muslims do believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus.  This really struck me because, which I have a deep faith in the resurrection of Jesus on the first Easter, the Virgin Birth story is one that I have always struggled with and I have learned to simply accept the story as a story, a story with deep meaning, but not one that I am going to get my faith hung-up over.

The second time I read through the Qur’an, then, I was genuinely struck by how much more there is of Mary in the Islamic holy book—in fact, there is more about Mary than just about anyone else from the Christian story in the Qur’an.  Her perpetual virginity—the belief that Catholics have that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life—and her station as the mother of Jesus seemed very Catholic to me, and perhaps even very, very Christian.  Mary is the only woman who is actually mention by name in the whole book of the Qur’an, and there is more content devoted to her in the Qur’an than in the Bible.

This most recent time reading through the Qur’an, I was discussing this role of Mary with a student, and he led me to notice the differences between the story of Jesus’ birth in the Qur’an and the story of Mary giving birth to Jesus in the Bible.

As we know, in the Christian version of the story, or at least in one of the Christian versions of the story, Mary and Joseph travel together, and Joseph does not shun Mary for being a single mother, and Mary accompanies Joseph to Bethlehem, where they find no vacancy in any of the inns.  Because of the fact she is pregnant, she is given a barn to deliver Jesus into the world.

But in the Muslim version of the story, Mary travels alone, Joseph is not with her, and she gives birth to Jesus under a single Palm tree.  As the story goes, Mary, traveling in the desert, knew that the time was now to give birth to the baby Jesus.  Near a palm tree, she grasped onto the tree, and Jesus began to speak words of comfort to her from within her womb, and as a result Mary vowed not to speak to any man on the day of Jesus birth, which she held true, as she only had a palm tree as a midwife for the delivery of Jesus.  (As per Sura 19.)

Now, there is a theological question here as to why Islam changed the story of Jesus’ birth, and where this story came from; honoring, of course, the Muslim belief that these stories came directly from God via an angel to the prophet Mohammed.  It is an unusual story and very odd that the Qur’an would take issue with the Bible story of Jesus.

We don’t need to figure out the answer to the question, but I am struck by the two different portrayals of Jesus’ birth: one, Mary gives birth to Jesus surrounded by her new husband and barn animals.  In fact, in most of our nativity scenes around the church, and outside, we invite the whole cast into Jesus’ birth scene:  shepherds, wise men, and stars—and we like to portray the barn as not being enclosed, as if Jesus’ delivery was a kind of public event, which might explain why there was such a crowd gathering!

But on the other hand, we have Mary, alone, with only the comfort of a random tree, and the movements of the interiors of her womb, to comfort her.  The Qur’an goes out of its way to teach that Mary had no companions, no male companions, and not even a barn to give birth.  She had not even reached her destination as she gave birth in the middle of the desert.  The only gifts she received from the world, the Qur’an says, is that the palm tree provided dates for her to eat to give her sustenance after giving birth to Jesus.

What strikes me about these images are the locations of Christmas that we find ourselves at different times in our lives, and the contradictory ways that we locate ourselves with others around the holidays.  We come to church and worship with others—and the church is a little more full during Advent and Christmas than other times of the year.  We may have family gatherings before or after Christmas, or even on Christmas Eve and Christmas day.  We may attend Christmas parties or carol with friends, or have carolers interrupt our evening with singing in the neighborhood.  We may even find Christmas cards in our mailboxes, and receive and give gifts.

But we also contrast this community celebration with the loneliness that we have during the Christmas season.  Many of us go from being overwhelmed to being alone quite suddenly, and the sudden transition from being around lots of friends and family to being in an empty home seems a bit more jaunting during the holidays.  I had years in graduate school where I had a tradition of making myself a frozen pizza for Christmas every year and watching Star Wars by myself.  But even if we are surrounded by our friends and families, we recognize the joy of new faces that gather around our tables and the absences of those who are no longer with us during the holidays for any number of reasons.  The presence of their absence sometimes stings more harshly during these cold and bitter days of the holidays.

We can relate to Mary during the holidays in both stories—Mary surrounded, and Mary alone.  But in both cases the comfort given to Mary is the delivery of the Christ child, a delivery of God into the world for the delivery of his people, that is, all of humanity, all of us, to be liberated from the wages of oppression and death.  That even in loneliness in the desert, God provided for Mary with the fruit of the palm tree, and that the palm tree is part of God’s plan:  We should remember that, in this version of the story, the trunk of the palm tree helped deliver Jesus, the fruit of the tree sustained Mary, and the branches of the Palm Tree welcomed Jesus into the city of Jerusalem as a King, to overthrow the hypocrites in the mainstream of society, only to be betrayed and killed a few days later.

It would seem then, that the Jesus story might be the story of the Palm tree—that God provides and sustains his plan for us in ways that are unexpected, unplanned, interrupting, ironic, and sometimes not with the most pleasant events.  But it is assurance of being part of God’s love and protection and being part of God’s plan.

In the Christian version of the story, Mary came into town with her husband, soon to become teenage parents, on the run from the law, to find inns with “No Vacancy” signs.  We stand today in these last weeks of Advent, too, with “No Vacancy” signs.  We don’t have enough money, we don’t have enough time, we don’t have room in our inns for more presence or interruptions of the Holy in our lives.  We are too busy, our schedules and calendars say “no vacancy” to those in our families and community who need our vacancies, and for the Christ who is waiting to be delivered.  Not even having a barn, we leave Mary out in the desert to only be comforted by the shade of a palm tree, even while we ourselves spiritually have only the shade of a palm tree to offer.

Instead, we should choose neither of these stories as our Christmas story, but subvert both of them, and authentically invite the Christ child to truly occupy our homes, our barns, our desks, our offices, our cars, our family and neighborly relationships, and most importantly, our church.  The world did not truly accept Jesus as God into the world 2,000 years ago, and now is as good as time as any to understand that the Christmas story is not about the details of history but instead is the lure of opening the doors of our hearts and of our selves, to expose our selves to one another and to open a window for the Spirit to blow in and a new rose to be planted in the bleak midwinter.  It is to open our hearts to Jesus, a Jesus whose power transforms us from the inside out, the same Christ who lept and spoke from the womb now resurrects and transfigures our hearts and spirits.

I know that it is still Advent and not yet Christmas.  But my Good News message is for us to prepare the way of the Lord for this Christmas to be one that more authentically bears Christ in new ways we may have though unimaginable before—whether we find ourselves jolted by the overwhelming nature of the season or the blueness and loneliness of the season, Christ comes to us in abundance and in solitude.  We often don’t get to choose the context and situations in which we find ourselves in the holidays, but we do get to choose whether the Christ-child comes as a story which brings us sadness and mourning over the holidays, or a deep joy and comfort that pierces through our tough times.  The choice, and this community challenge to bear it for others, is now upon us for each other.