*Sermon preached on 23 Dec 2018, at First Christian Church of Hampton, VA. (No sermon on the 16th, due to Christmas Cantata). Blessings, Vinson
Gospel of Luke 1:46b-55 (New Revised Standard Version)
And Mary said,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
It came in the mail, in the days after Christmas, a cool surprise for the kids. Literally. My brother Loren, who still lives in upstate New York, had made snowballs out of snow that had fallen there on Christmas Day. Packing them into a Ziploc bag, going to a dealer to obtain dry ice, Loren mailed them to Ben and Grace. In those pre-9/11 days, so it was that a box leaking wisps of vapor appeared at our home in Hawaii. Our amazed children immediately put them into the freezer, where they remained the rest of our years in Hawaii, a bit of a shrine, with kids from around the neighborhood coming to our home to ooh and ah over authentic Christmas snow. I think if our children don’t remember any other gifts they received that Christmas, they both well remember the joy of those snowballs!
WHY I BRING THIS UP
Let’s face it, some things we just don’t expect to experience in life, like snowballs packed in dry ice, reminding two kids of their uncle’s affection and his affinity for pulling off wondrous events. But after all, isn’t Christmas meant to be the wondrous event which shakes up life with the unexpected?
We may not expect to find the religious professionals are the skeptics with Zechariah having earlier asked for proof that the angel’s word was to be believed as to Elizabeth’s pregnancy, while lay folk like Mary asked only for an explanation as she is commissioned to her prophetic task.
We may not expect a text where the only speaking parts are that of the women – Elizabeth and Mary. Certainly not in that age. And, to be honest aren’t we still culturally resistant to fully hearing women?
We may not expect that in a culture where a woman’s primary purpose in life was to have children, an elderly and infertile wife who had endured a lifetime of being treated as a failure would have had her status reversed. Yet, Elizabeth declares: “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” [Luke 1:25]
We may not expect to encounter the miracle of this aged pregnant woman, only for her to encounter her younger cousin with an even greater miracle.
We may not expect social conventions to be cast aside with an unmarried pregnant woman having every reason to expect judgment, shame, even being turned away entirely – to instead be greeted with honor, before she can even begin to speak. Elizabeth opened her arms, her heart, and her home to a relative whom her neighbors would likely expect her to reject, given how she herself had been treated during her years of infertility or perhaps out of some arcane notion of propriety as a preacher’s wife.
We may not expect Mary’s voice to prompt an immediate response from Elizabeth’s unborn child – whom we know as John the Baptist – fulfilling the angel Gabriel’s prophecy that “even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit” [Luke 1:15] and point to the coming Messiah.
We may not expect the first prophets in the New Testament to be women, just as much as later on we wouldn’t anticipate they would be the first apostles – as witnesses to the Resurrection. Prophets, you see, aren’t volunteers nor consulted about their role, although they always seem to object with words of inadequacy, like Moses’s plea that he was “not a very good public speaker” or Jeremiah’s response that “I am only a boy.” In Mary’s case, the angel Gabriel confronted her with news that “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus,” to which Mary raised the logical question: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” [1:34] Nowhere in the Bible does God pay attention to objections by those whom he has called, nor suggest God will keep looking until He finds the right one. God has chosen, and in Mary’s case no details are offered other than she “has found favor.” As a friend of mine often says, “We don’t know what God knows.” Time and again, our expectations are overcome by God.
We may not expect Elizabeth to not just prophesize, but to be one who utters what could reasonably be called the first beatitude of the New Testament – in a series that weave through this narrative and intensifies with joy and praise. Mary being blessed as mother of our Lord, but also for her supreme trust in God’s promise. In one instance “blessed” in that each generation will speak of her with praise. In the other instance, the Greek word for “blessed” being the exact word Jesus would later use in the Beatitudes. It is as if Elizabeth has proclaimed: “Happy is she who believes God promises, for she is given divine joy.”
We may not expect for a young woman, like Mary, to be the first to fulfill the word of the prophet Joel as to the Spirit of the Lord being poured out upon not just young men, but young women – as her praise presents a bold voice for justice. God is shaking up the status quo, Mary declares, “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.” [1:51-53]
We may not expect the impossible, as Elizabeth declares: “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?” even as the younger sang a psalm of Jubilee. We forget that the prophet’s job isn’t to speak out of his or her own wisdom or eloquence, but to be a messenger for God – doing and speaking what is commanded in the spirit of the angel Gabriel’s proclamation to Mary: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” [1:37]
We may not expect the inclusive love Jesus will show among those whom society rejects and excludes – the invitation for us to reflect and act with openness to the ways that God chooses to act in our world, even as we observe Elizabeth bestowing joy and honor in welcoming Mary, blessing and celebrating her; treating her as more honorable than herself.
In of this, what we CAN expect is that God will always surprise us, surpassing our sense of justice and mercy, His grace greater than our imaginations, His love beyond comprehension, as God goes on surprising us – shattering the container into which we have too often confined ourselves and the container into which we have too often confined others. Far more than we “can ask or think,” it seems to me that in this duet of prophetic women, we are reminded of our God’s expansive love for us and His affinity for pulling off wondrous events in the joy God has for the redemption of his creation.