Welcoming the Goodness of God

Sunday, December 23, 2018
Fourth Sunday in Advent Year C

Focus Theme:
Welcoming the Goodness of God

Focus Prayer:
O Shepherd of Israel, you gently support the one who is with child and call forth the Lamb who dances in the womb. Stir our hearts to recognize Christ’s coming, as Elizabeth recognized his presence in Mary’s radiant obedience to your desire, and open our souls to receive the one who came to love your flock. Amen.

Focus Scripture:
Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

(And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 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.”)

All readings for this Sunday:
Micah 5:2-5a
Luke 1:46b-55 or Psalm 80:1-7
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]

Focus Questions:

1. Can you imagine singing a Magnificat of your own?

2. How well do the Elizabeth and Mary generations interact in your community?

3. How does it make a difference that you listen for God’s word in community rather than alone?

4. Are there, in your community, “Marys, Elizabeths, Zechariahs and Josephs” who long to connect more deeply with the people around them?

5. What would an “economy of generosity” look like in our nation?

by Kate Matthews

We’ve just heard three weeks of preaching from Jesus and John the Baptist, those prophets out of the wilderness, about world-shaking events, part judgment, part exhortation to get our lives turned around in preparation for what is to come. In this week’s unique situation, we have four unlikely prophets gathered not in the wilderness but on the front step of Elizabeth’s home, two of them not even born yet (and John is already able to acknowledge the One who is greater). The other two prophets are women, women with names and stories, women with voices and something to say, or in Mary’s case, something to sing.

Women and babies: we’re definitely not “at the top of the heap,” here, especially not when there’s an actual priest in the house, Zechariah, a professional, licensed and learned, knows-what-he’s-doing expert in matters of faith. Ironically, though, Zechariah is the very one in this scene without a voice, literally, since he’s been struck speechless during his own angelic visit. The stage is set this week, then, for us to have the rare opportunity to hear from the women and children for a change. And what a change they dream of!

Listening to the women

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s book, The First Christmas, offers an excellent lens through which we might read the familiar and beloved Nativity stories. Matthew and Luke each provide what the authors call an “overture” to their Gospel in which important themes in that Gospel are first heard. Borg and Crossan describe each evangelist’s “overture as microcosm to his gospel as macrocosm.”

In Luke’s Gospel, his emphasis on women, the marginalized, and the Holy Spirit is evident in the birth narratives, including the one we read this week. In this short passage, the prophetic words of these two women, filled with the Holy Spirit, give voice to those who are lowly, like the shepherds to whom the angels later announce the birth of Jesus.

Easy to miss but very important

In his book, The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey, Henri Nouwen reflects on the encounter between Elizabeth and Mary. This meditation from a priest is worthy of the best feminist theology, which draws our attention to the easily missed things that are happening to and with the “little ones” in our Scripture texts.

It may be true that the mighty are brought down, and the great promises of old are kept, but in the meantime, on a dusty road, on a well-swept doorstep, two women meet to share the ancient, womanly experience of being with child.

An expectant time

Advent is indeed a time of waiting, a time pregnant with hope. On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, Mary and Elizabeth could be seen as two ordinary, pregnant women in the most extraordinary time and circumstances, on the brink of greatness but first tending to their relationship with each other and with God.

Motherhood is daunting to every woman, especially the first time around, and these two women have found themselves pregnant under most unusual and unexpected conditions, one past the age to conceive, and the other a virgin. So, like women in every place and time, they spend time together, keeping each other company, learning and praying and perhaps laughing together, as they face first-time childbirth and motherhood.

Focus on new life

The new life promised in Mary’s pregnancy, of course, is the focus of Luke’s story, as it fulfills promises to all humankind, but one wonders how these two humble women must have felt about what was happening in their own lives. Nouwen says, “Who could ever understand? Who could ever believe it? Who could ever let it happen? But Mary says, ‘Let it happen to me’, and she immediately realizes that only Elizabeth will be able to affirm her ‘yes’. For three months Mary and Elizabeth live together and encourage each other to truly accept the motherhood given to them.”

As Nouwen reads this story, neither woman had to wait alone for the extraordinary events to unfold, slowly, as pregnancies do: “They could wait together and thus deepen in each other their faith in God, for whom nothing is impossible. Thus, God’s most radical intervention into history was listened to and received in community.”

Watching the promises unfold, together

In this Advent season, we’re keenly aware that we wait in community for the promises of God to unfold in our lives. Here, in community, we hold each other up when one of us needs encouragement or support. We help one another search for meaning, rejoice with one another, walk alongside each other.

Just as Elizabeth must have listened to Mary, and helped her prepare for what was to come (at least, as much as such a marvelous thing might be prepared for), we help one another work things out.

Rejoicing as we wait

Sometimes, we just sit in the dark quiet and wait, together, trusting in the promises of God, listening for a word from the God who speaks to our hearts. “In a way,” Timothy Mulder writes, “here is a preface for Emmanuel. We humans are not meant to go through the tough or the wonderful alone. Both need to be shared.”

And in the midst of our waiting, as Paul, writing from prison, encouraged the Philippians; as Hannah and Mary sang God’s praise; and as Elizabeth welcomed her beloved cousin and companion, we rejoice, our hearts dancing within us. That is the way that we move with Mary’s song.

A song of generations

There is a generational theme underneath this story, too, as we recall again the interview with the Reverend Otis Moss III, senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, who offers this encounter between women of two generations as a powerful image for the life of the congregation.

He calls the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth “a Pentecostal moment,” a moment filled with the Holy Spirit, as an older generation makes space for the younger, as Mary shadows her older cousin in order to learn, as Elizabeth includes Mary in imagining the future they share and welcomes her fresh ideas even as they share the core treasure of faith.

Reverend Moss exhorts congregations to value the creativity of the youth in our churches and count on the older, more experienced generations to shape boundaries for that creativity, for it’s through the elders that the narrative of what God has done is perpetuated.

What is happening underneath this story?

In her sermons on this text, Barbara Brown Taylor uses her religious imagination to re-create the scene in ways that are poignantly human and full of insights that we might miss if we rush too quickly through this wonderful little story, if we don’t bother to let our imaginations run free (imaginations tend to need a little time and some freedom, too).

No one knows with certainty, of course, why Mary sets out immediately on a long and undoubtedly dangerous trip to see her relative, Elizabeth. I grew up hearing that Mary had parents, Joachim and Anna (another woman, we are told, who conceived in old age), but they never appear in the stories in the Bible. We’re left to wonder, and to imagine, with Taylor, that perhaps a frightened Mary looks for reassurance from Elizabeth, an older and trustworthy person in her life.

Mary needs a mother figure

Would we say today that Elizabeth is a kind of mother-figure to Mary, or a spiritual mentor? Mary seems to need both, and perhaps a protective figure as well. Taylor evokes Mary’s plight, alone and disadvantaged in the system: “What she does not have is a sonogram, or a husband, or an affidavit from the Holy Spirit that says, ‘The child really is mine. Now leave the poor girl alone.'”

However, the young girl doesn’t have to explain her situation to Elizabeth, or ask her questions in search of answers, or even to ask for acceptance. When Mary sees her much older cousin, Taylor imagines, she sees a “gorgeous” woman, “so full of life that it is hard to see much beyond her joy.” Is it any surprise, then, that in her relief and joy, Mary begins to sing?

Trouble and beauty all in one song

Mary’s song is music that comes from deep within her, perhaps, we would say today, from her DNA. On that doorstep, she sings for Elizabeth and both of their babies, and maybe for the bewildered priest in the background, watching the whole scene. This young girl, inexperienced and sheltered, sings about God’s blessings in her life, and about God’s vision of a world made right.

Perhaps she gets carried away: “She is no longer singing the song; the song is singing her,” Taylor writes, and this teenager is transformed into “an articulate radical, an astonished prophet singing about a world in which the last have become first and the first, last.” Taylor says that Mary sings not just for Elizabeth and Zechariah but “for every son and daughter who thought God has forgotten the promise to be with them forever, to love them forever, to give them fresh and endless life.”

What kind of God does Mary sing of?

We linger for a moment on the meaning of Mary’s song about God filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty. Scholars agree that this wasn’t just a “My God is stronger than your god” song. It wasn’t a call to violent uprising or bloody vengeance, either, then or now, even though it was seen as “subversive” – and banned – by the authorities in Guatemala in the 1980’s (John Ortberg, “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century, December 15, 2009, drawing on the work of Scott McKnight).

I remember hearing years ago that in the Latin American base communities, the people read the Bible and heard in the Good News that God did not want their children to die of hunger and disease, or their husbands and sons to be disappeared, or their daughters lost in poverty. All sorts of trouble can start when the people get their hands on the Bible, it seems.

Maybe the governmental authorities in Guatemala were just paying more attention than most of us do, as we sing our hymns. What, for example, do our Christmas carols really mean, when they sing about Jesus and the coming rule of God’s righteousness? What is all of that really about?

A deep, desperate hope

Let’s compare, for example, “God’s righteousness” with the way things were in Mary’s time. We can better understand the deep, desperate hope of this young girl if we look more closely at her setting, in the time of Herod the Great. Ortberg’s reflection describes the burdensome taxes of Herod’s reign, taxes that built the temple and supported Herod’s lifestyle but also cost the poor their land, concentrating wealth at the very top and leaving the masses impoverished.

Herod was so brutal and so unpopular that “[h]e knew people would party when he died, so he supposedly had 70 elite Jewish citizens imprisoned with orders that they be executed on the day of his death so that there would be tears in Israel.” Ortberg goes on to wonder with a religious imagination of his own whether Jesus himself learned “his material” – about the poor and the hungry and the meek being blessed – from his mother, who must have taught him that God dreamed of a very different world, one of justice and healing and peace, that was surely coming to be.

Tables that need to be turned

It’s true that things aren’t as they should be in our age, either, even without a Herod “the Great” (we might wonder what that word “great” means anymore). Even though there are proportionately many more people with enough (and more than enough) to live comfortably than there were in Mary’s time, the church is still called to proclaim “God’s challenge to good order,” as Charles Campbell reminds us, wherever that “order” requires or results in the suffering of the poor. (Again, like last week, we have to wonder why “good order” requires tear gas on children and toddlers at our border.)

As long as millions of children go to bed hungry or homeless or afraid each night, there are tables to be turned, that is, if we’re going to mean what we sing in this year’s Christmas carols. Sharon Ringe describes the righting of things, when all of God’s children will have what they need: The rich and the hungry, the lowly and the powerful “represent economic and political opposites, and as a result of God’s action, they are said to move toward a common middle ground.” Ringe’s claim for Mary’s time is our dream, too, when “an economy marked by scarcity and competition is replaced by an economy of generosity in which all have enough.”

Daring to sing the Magnificat

Wouldn’t it be something – a miracle, in fact – if our Christmas dreaming led us to begin the new year with a new vision for our economy, one of generosity and abundance? After all, Mary’s song is “not intended to raise violent resistance or to drive the wealthy and powerful to despair,” Stephen Cooper writes. Instead, “the well-off are exhorted to deal with their wealth in a way that brings them into a positive relation with the poor in order to partake in the same promised salvation.”

Still, even this kind of conversion would take considerable courage. Richard Ascough asks, “I wonder whether we would dare to sing the Magnificat today. What would it mean?”

A contemporary Mary, a song of defiance?

The destruction of our environment is perhaps the most pressing problem of our moment in time, as much an existential threat to life as the existence of nuclear warheads. Young people (the “Mary” generation) understandably feel frustration over the inaction (and even refusal to act) of the “Elizabeth” generation, although it’s more accurately the “Zechariah” generation, as men continue to dominate the leadership of the world.

Recently, I saw a short article about Greta Thunberg, a young woman who leads a youth movement in Sweden about climate change. Sitting right next to UN Secretary General António Guterres, she gave a startling but very Mary-like speech to the powers-that-be at the UN climate talks (COP24) being held in Poland, bluntly telling them that she and her generation aren’t asking for permission or help – or even demanding that the inert leaders do anything about the problem. She simply informed them that, whether they like it or not, change is coming: “Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago” she said.

As the grandmother of a 17-year-old girl (and six other grandchildren; I worry about all their futures), my first thought was, “Good for you.” But I was also reminded of that young girl on a doorstep thousands of years ago, not so meek and mild, daring to dream and sing of tables overturned and the powerful brought low, not out of vengeance but for the sake of what is good and just and right for all: speaking truth to power.

Longing for an end to suffering

We all long for a time when suffering will end and everyone will have enough, when nations and families will live in peace, and the earth will be restored and healed of the damage that has been done. This is a vision for the future, but we live in the present, counting on the promises of God.

Interesting, though: Mary had the nerve and the imagination to claim such a future for herself and her people, but Barbara Brown Taylor says that “she was singing about it ahead of time – not in the future tense but in the past, as if the promise had already come true. Prophets almost never get their verb tenses straight, because part of their gift is being able to see the world as God sees it – not divided into things that are already over and things that have not happened yet, but as an eternally unfolding mystery that surprises everyone.” Might we be able to mix up our tenses, too?

Marys and Elizabeths and Zechariahs and Josephs in our pews

We are now in the last week of Advent, on the verge of another Christmas celebration, learning from Mary, Fred Craddock says, to “stand expectantly at hope’s window.” Some of us look back longingly on Christmases past, hoping to re-create better, more secure, less troubled times. Many folks are grieving or depressed or lonely during the holiday season, and the church’s call is to tell the story once again, to comfort and inspire and just be with those who need help in looking forward in hope.

Michael S. Bennett encourages us to be patient: “The development of hope within community takes time. How many Marys and Elizabeths (or Zechariahs and Josephs) might there be sitting in the pews, awaiting an opportunity to connect more deeply with the people around them? How many long to connect their small story with the larger stories of God?”

What is your greatest hope?

How is God at work in the life of your congregation? In what ways does it make a difference that you listen for God’s word in community rather than alone? How have you, together, deepened your faith in ways you might not have experienced in isolation? What is your greatest hope as another Advent season comes to an end?

In the season of Advent, our waiting is accompanied by beautiful and treasured music. The Reverend Dr. Jo Hudson, Co-Pastor of the New Church-Chiesa Nuova, United Church of Christ in Dallas, has written evocatively of the power of Christmas carols to “speak to the deep places of my wandering from God and my wondering about God.” Perhaps that’s why this music is so beloved, so imprinted on our hearts and souls as Mary’s own song was part of who she was.

In a world that longs for a gentle peace, a generous sharing of the goods of the earth, a time of quiet joy and healing, we stand by that window with Mary, expectant with hope and filled to the brim with joy because our tenses have been jumbled, too, and we have seen in every moment of tender love and forgiveness the promise of what is yet to come. We sing with Mary, welcoming the goodness of God into that world, and into our lives as well.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Meister Eckhart, 14th century
“We are all meant to be mothers of God.”

Simone Weil, 20th century
“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, 20th century
“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

Mother Teresa, 20th century
“One filled with joy preaches without preaching.”

Cheyenne saying
“A people is never defeated until the hearts of the women are on the ground.”

Swedish Proverb
“Those who wish to sing always find a song.”

Ann Patchett, 21st century
“Because of her singing they all went away feeling moved, feeling comforted, feeling, perhaps, the slightest tremors of faith.”

Gangai Victor, 21st century
“It’s easy to sing the song, but to pray the lyrics from deep within… that’s worship!”

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, 21st century
“Talking is the voice of human, singing is the voice of soul.”

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