Advent 4B — December 21, 2014

Interrupted By Blessing

For audio, click here:                                
Luke 1:39-56                                                                                                                                               39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 56And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.           
This week, I showed up at the travel clinic, stuck out both my arms and received 6 necessary immunizations in preparation for my trip to South Sudan.  Well, 7 immunizations, if you count the flu shot I’d been delaying and decided to get since I had my sleeves rolled up anyway.  The nurse at the place where I got my shots spent a lot of time telling me about all the health risks I was taking in traveling to Africa.  She gave me a book of information that may have just as well been titled, “Planning Your Trip To South Sudan.  Where You’re Probably Going to Get Really Sick and/or Die.  Have A Good Trip!” If I were a person who is easily frightened, I may have called the whole thing off there and then.  But I didn’t.
What struck me most weren’t all the possible issues involved in traveling to the developing world.  I didn’t even really mind all of those injections .  What struck me was how all of this was familiar somehow.  It reminded me of how I have felt at other times in my life.  The only way I can explain it is that it was that feeling you get when you’re heading into something brand new and you’re not quite sure what to expect and you’re not sure if it’s the smartest decision you’ve ever made.  But you feel something like an irresistible and almost holy energy pulling you forward into something entirely beyond your capacity to imagine. 
You know that feeling.  Really, you do.  It’s the feeling you had the moment before your first child was born.  Or the moment you said, “I do.”  Or even the first time you stepped onto an airplane that was going to fly over an ocean to a place you’ve never been before.   They are moments in which you step out without certainty into something that may be the best idea you ever had or the worst mistake you’ve ever made. 
But I’m not sure I’m talking about that moment in particular.  Maybe what I’m talking about the nanosecond before that the “I do” moment.   The best way I can describe it is it’s like a long slow fall through space, and I have no idea how long it will be before I land on solid ground, and all I can do is pray that I might land on my feet.  That’s how I felt this week while getting all those shots.  I felt like the falling part has begun and I’m not sure when it will end.  But I also feel the holy pull of it while I’m falling.  Which makes me suspect that God has something to do with it.
I wonder if that’s something of how Mary felt when the angel Gabriel shows up.  I wonder if Mary also felt an irresistible holy pull into the unknown when she heard the outrageous idea the angel tells her.  I wonder if it felt a little bit like falling when she pondered the call for her to give birth to the Son of God, the Lord most High.  Did she feel like she had found favor with God?  Did she really imagine herself as blessed?  Did she wonder if the angel might have the wrong girl?  Or did Mary feel like somebody whose life has just been interrupted by God in the most extreme sort of way?
We call this scene the annunciation, and I love the way a poet describes so many holy moments in which we are both gratified and horrified by what God has in store for us:
Behold the moment that is a doorway, a threshold,
upon which history itself has paused its stride,
poised to take a new unguessed direction, sensing
like someone whose eyes have seen dawn coming
on a different horizon, that this moment is God’s creation…[1]
Every year, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, history pauses for moment when we come to these texts about Mary, mother of Jesus.  This is the big day for a young girl that most Protestants don’t give much thought to beyond the pale portrait we see of her on our Christmas cards.  Mary exists in many imaginations as the pretty young girl, dressed in blue, permanently glued into the crèche and gazing adoringly into the manger containing her son. 

But I’m not sure that any faith tradition knows what is true about Mary.  Throughout Christian history, she’s been buried under so many layers of theology, piety, and politics that she’s nearly impossible to know.  Some people pray to her.  Others ignore her on principle.  Some call her a victim of divine coercion.  For some, she represents a troubling model of pious femininity – ever pure, ever virginal, ever a doting mother.  Mary can often seem too good to be true.  In truth, she’s probably one of the most complex characters in Scripture.  In other words, Mary, mother of a wholly human, wholly divine baby is pretty darn human herself.  I think that’s why she’s so troubling.[2] 
 When the angel tells Mary the outrageous and scandalous plan that God has in mind, Mary says, “I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”  We so often hear that answer given with an air of perfect confidence and serenity, as if God had only asked her for a cup of tea. 
But what I hear in Mary’s answer is a sort of breathlessness, maybe because she really does understand the full implications of the task God is asking her to take on.  She’s in that moment of feeling lifted up off her feet, not knowing where or how she will land, or how all of this will turn out.  The rest of us who are well-versed in this story know what will happen, but Mary didn’t have a clue about how this plan would work.  Can you imagine how it sounded to her? 
Difficult.  Risky.  It was a divine interruption, to be sure, but a complicated one for any human being to undertake, especially a young woman in an ancient society.
No matter how you hear the answer Mary gives to Gabriel, I think we can all agree that by the time Mary arrives at Elizabeth’s house, Mary is probably a wreck.  The distance from Mary’s town to Elizabeth’s was nearly 100 miles, so even if Mary went “with haste,” she still had plenty of time to worry during the long journey. 
But when Elizabeth looks at Mary, she doesn’t see a poor, dirty, tired, troubled, unwed teenager running away from home.  Elizabeth takes one look at Mary and says, “Blessed….Blessed…Blessed are you among women.  And blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
And then there’s Elizabeth.  Elizabeth is another complicated woman whose life has also been upended by a strange and holy intervention.   Unlike Mary, whose pregnancy came inconveniently early without Mary asking for it, Elizabeth’s pregnancy had been exceedingly delayed, despite years of prayer and long after Elizabeth had reasonably given up hope on ever being a mother.
Maybe Elizabeth is more able to see Mary’s pregnancy as the miracle it is because Elizabeth has learned something about God’s power to bless, even when any reasonable person has given up on hope.  This old woman, with the same sort prophetic intuition that the son in her womb will inherit, takes Mary into her arms and affirms what Mary was afraid to believe – that God will work in Mary’s life to make everything work out.  Mary isn’t just pregnant a baby, but has been called to be a prophet herself and bring God’s love and justice and mercy and peace into the world. 
And with that holy call tucked firmly into her servant heart, the prophet Mary begins to sing:
“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.”
Without casting any aspersions on Mary’s originality, the song she sings has echoes of a much older song, sung in the Old Testament by Hannah.  Hannah, like Elizabeth, grew old and despaired of ever having a child until God heard her prayer and blessed her with Samuel.  When her child was finally born, Hannah took him to the temple and she sang just like Mary.  Perhaps Mary had heard Hannah’s song while she was growing up, and in the moment of her joy remembered the song.  Maybe Mary remembered something in Hannah’s story that reminded her of Elizabeth’s story and her own.  Some have suggested that the singing of Hannah and Mary contain themes so universal that they crop up again and again whenever God stirs people’s hearts and they know that they have been blessed.
Mary sings.  She believes what she has seen in Elizabeth’s eyes and words.  Mary embraces the truth of how God is working in her life.  Mary sings that she has received the blessing of God.  Even she – the lowest of the low, the smallest of the small – has received a promise that she can believe in with her whole heart. 
This is a very happy scene and we could envision a smiling Elizabeth and singing Mary on a Christmas card too.  We may think that Mary is just singing about how happy and blessed she is, but… listen…what do we hear? 
Mary is singing, not only about her own blessing, but also about the blessings of other people.  She is singing about powerful and rich people losing everything, and about the poor and hungry being lifted up.  This ordinary young woman is singing about an extraordinary shift in the balance of power in the world.  “Her song is for Abraham, Issac and Jacob – and for Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel – for every son and daughter of Israel who thought God forgotten the promise to be with them forever, to love them forever, to give them fresh and endless life.”[3]The last will be first and the first will be last.  The world will be made right because of the child Mary is carrying inside. 
The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls it, “…the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings.…This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”[4]
If we wonder about the power of Mary’s song, we only need to look at the son she will raise.  Mary’s song becomes the song of her son, whose ministry will echo his mother’s outrageous tune about God’s blessing on the least and the lost.
This is the Mary we need this Christmas.  We need this disciple – the first disciple – to show us how to say yes to this blessedly crazy plan of God to be born into this sulking world, not just once, not just at Christmas time, but also every day. We need Mary to teach us the song of joy that God is still interrupting the lives of lowly people — people like Mary and people like you and me – and entrusting them to do great things.  Mary invites us into this story that affirms what our hearts so often do not dare to believe.  That God is fully present and fully in us, just waiting to be born.  Here and now.  Again and again. Every single day we are alive. This is the good news of Mary’s Christmas carol. 
But do not be naïve.  Mary may have at some point regretted ever teaching this song to her beloved son.  Later, when Mary witnessed the human expression of God’s love slaughtered by an empire who saw God’s purposes as a threat to their own, perhaps she wished that she had stayed silent.  We may also choose silence as the safer course for ourselves, even now. The world still does not much like the upside down view that Mary sings in which the values of a violent, cruel and unjust world are replaced with peace, kindness and mercy.   
Thanks be to God that Mary was courageous enough to sing.  And thanks be to God that, in every age, her song is still being sung.
In the face of all the wrong that is all so strong, we need to sing and keep singing Mary’s song of liberation and hope.  Mary’s song is our song. Mary’s song is our inheritance. And if we are at any moment tempted to think of passive, pious, placid Mary as a model of Christian life, we need to shake off the dust of inaction and start singing.   Here and now.
Can you be open to the interruption of Christ being reborn in you, this Christmas?  Will you welcome the invitation into the dance, or resent God’s summons that completely disregards your sloth or anxiety or insecurity or fear? 
When we allow God to be born in us, there is no telling, no telling at all, what will come to pass.  Let us in these quiet moments of waiting dwell deeply in the mystery that was God’s gift to Mary and God’s gift to us.   Angels are still speaking if we only have the courage to listen.  There are messages of joy for us to hear if only we have faith enough to receive them.  We have been chosen – you and me — to birth God’s love into this world. How can this be?  With God.  All things are possible.
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Andrew King, “A Poetic Kind of Place,” downloaded on 12/18/14.
[2] Debie Thomas. Journey With Jesus website, “The Pause Before Yes.” Downloaded on 12/17/14.
[3] Taylor, Barbara Brown. Home by Another Way, 17.