Blessed is she who believed…
December 20, 2009
Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-56
“There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” -Einstein
The stories surrounding the birth of Jesus have their share of special effects. There is the visitation of angels. There is the star that leads the magi from the east. There is the angel choir singing in the fields where shepherds were living. There are plenty of extraordinary elements to this story, but I am not so much struck by those this morning. What I am struck by is the shockingly ordinary way in which God comes to save—to deliver. I am struck by the smallness…the weakness of God.
These stories in Matthew and Luke are also filled with the ordinary. Incarnation is about being human. We see the human dimension in an anxious, pregnant teenager going to visit an older relative to find comfort. A baby kicks in a womb. Perhaps to fully grasp how it is that God delivers we need to state the obvious. Our text this morning takes us into the lives of two ordinary women—human beings like you and me. Yet, their response to God makes it possible for their lives to be the habitation of the holy—divine grace flows through their extraordinary obedience.
Mary and Elizabeth are both pregnant through no ordinary circumstances. Mary is a virgin. Elizabeth is barren and seemingly beyond child-bearing years. The theme of remarkable births is part of the tradition of Israel. It was a part of the morning office for Advent 4 from The Divine Hours—“He makes the woman of a childless house to be a joyful mother” (Psalm 113).
According to the Book of Genesis, Abraham the father of Israel was given the promise that he would have many descendants. Yet he and his immediate descendants (the patriarchs of Israel) all had difficulty having children. Sarah and Abraham, we are told, were 90 and 100 years old when they finally conceived Isaac. Isaac married Rebekah, and they also were infertile until their old age, when they conceived twins, Esau and Jacob. Jacob became the child of promise, but he and his beloved wife Rachel also had difficulty conceiving.
The theme continues in the stories of the conception of Gideon and Samuel. Both were deliverers of Israel in a time of crisis, and both were born to barren women. This repeating theme suggests that the people of God come into existence and are sustained in their existence by the grace of God. Humanly speaking, it was impossible that God’s promise would be fulfilled, but by God it was.
Matthew and Luke both pick up on this theme. Just as God had acted in the history of Israel to create and sustain the people of God through remarkable births, so also God had now acted in the birth of Jesus. Just as Israel came into existence through the grace of God when — humanly speaking — it was impossible, so the early Christian community as the continuation of Israel came into existence through the grace of God. So we are right to expect and look for God’s deliverance to break into our ordinary lives in surprising—even shocking ways. N.T Wright challenges us—in all our modern sophistication—to be open to this possibility.
“Because I am convinced that the creator God raised Jesus bodily from the dead, and because I am convinced that Jesus was and is the embodiment of this God, Israel’s God, my worldview is forced to reactivate various things in the suspense account, the birth narratives included. There are indeed more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in post-Enlightenment metaphysics. The “closed continuum” of cause and effect is a modernist myth. The God who does not “intervene” from outside but is always present and active within the world, sometimes shockingly, may well have been thus active on this occasion. It is all very well to get on one’s high metaphysical horse and insist that God cannot behave like this, but we do not know that ahead of time.” –N.T. Wright
If the birth narratives are predicated on the God who intervenes in the physical world, we must also see that this way of delivering also requires shocking particularity. Incarnation is always local and ordinary. So salvation history requires human partners—Abram, Sarah, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, David, Bethsheba. Liberation is about deliverance in our real life situations of captivity. So when God gets most spiritual, he gets physical. Enter Mary…Elizabeth.
Where does God’s campaign of liberation begin? When God becomes flesh he opts for an area of town off the radar from the political centers of power. Micah anticipates this theme. He prophesies that the one who is to rule Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days, this one will come forth from the little town of Bethlehem. It is not in the halls of power in Washington D.C. or Beijing, not even in a cornfield in Iowa. God’s liberation breaks forth off the political map, in a powerless precinct—among one of the little clans of Judah.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. A modern day prophet has said that God lives among the poor—in the slums where the poor play house in cardboard boxes pieced together. When God identifies most fully with the human condition, the flesh he takes on is provided through the DNA of a poor, Jewish woman in occupied Palestine. You couldn’t get much lower in those days than to be a woman in a patriarchal society, a Jew under Roman occupation, and a peasant in a land of plenty.
Mary’s song of praise and hope, The Magnificat, picks up on the shocking way in which God’s deliverance comes. The one who looks with favor on the lowliness of his servant is the one who brings personal, social, political and economic liberation. In Mary’s song, the Mighty One has done great things. He scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He brings down the powerful from their thrones, and lifts up the lowly. He fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty.
How does God deliver? The one who is gestating in Mary’s womb shows the strength of his arm not through technological, militaristic capitalism. This is not Hope as pull yourself up by your boot straps—individualism. This is not salvation as the American dream. Nor is it Change as liberation brought about through guerilla insurgency–through violent revolution. The Magnificat is not pretext for a Marxist manifesto.
How does God deliver? The one who is gestating in Mary’s womb shows the strength of his arm by identifying with the human condition. Love takes up residence where there is hate. He comes to us as the one who feeds his flock in the strength of the LORD. He comes as the one of peace (Micah 5:5a). The deliverance has come and is coming—not top down—but bottom up. God comes in weakness as a fetus who takes up residence in a powerless young Jewish girl who chooses to be the bearer of God. This is the way God delivers.
Mary sees God’s favor on her small, ordinary story within the framework of the community and history of Israel. “He has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” Her three months at Elizabeth’s house, no doubt provided many opportunities to ponder the mystery of these things. She was grounded in a communal tradition and in embodied relationships which made it possible for her to hold this mystery—to live into it.
Joan Chittister suggests that friendship is a social sacrament, a sacred act far above and beyond ‘connections,’ acquaintanceship, or the neighborliness of social contacts. The ability to create and sustain friendships is a factor in mental health, in personal development, and in emotional survival. The modern age has shuffled friendships and authentic community to the back seat. Career and success order the life of the individual. We have little time for angel visits that bring disruption and inconvenience to our fast-track lives. This is a challenge to us if we (men and women) are to be able to open ourselves up to the transforming journey of incarnation.
What about us? How will we cultivate authentic community which has the resourses to live out of a different script than the dominant one around us? Where will we experience the depth of relationship necessary to understand our identity in a different way than the way our culture seeks to define us? All around us we see expressions of Christian community which grow up, seemingly thrive and then die within a very short cycle. We will need the grace of God, prophetic imagination, and the courage of Mary if we are going to partner with God’s work of deliverance in any kind of way that is sustainable–enduring.
What will this look like for this particular community–Sunnyside Mennonite Church? Perhaps it begins with a group of men gathering around food and drink at T.J. Rockwells. Perhaps it grows as people from many different backgrounds gather at table week after week (TATH). If we are to cultivate communities of faith, hope and love in many different places it will no doubt mean cultivating the sacrament of friendship. Only as we cultivate sacramental community will we have the resources to remain together past through thick and thin–through conflict and discernment, through the challenges of being a diverse communitysocio-economically, politically, ethnically, culturally. This will take a work of the Spirit.
We live in a world which is constantly changing. The perfect image of the invincible golfer is sullied by scandal. Reality and illusion become a confusing blur when we look in the mirror of our society. Into this world, we hear again the good news from this ancient text. We, along with Mary, ask: “How can this be?”
May we, like Mary, be filled with the capacity to situate our personal stories within God’s bigger story. And may we have the courage to cultivate the sacrament of friendship—the sacred acts of being and doing that center us as a community on God’s ongoing work of deliverance.
Blessesd, indeed, is she who believed…