We are in our third week of Advent, where we anticipate the coming of Christ. We have been working our way backwards. We started with Jesus’ return, the Second Coming. Last week, we listened to John the Baptist as he encouraged people to prepare for adult Jesus and the beginning of his earthly ministry. Today, we begin to anticipate his arrival on earth. God made flesh, the full human experience. We will listen to the joy and faith of a young woman who could have interpreted the situation in which she finds herself very differently.
We are in the first chapter of Luke, starting at 1:46. I will be reading out of The VOICE translation. Zechariah has been told that he and his wife, Elizabeth, will finally have a baby despite being older. Mary has been visited by the angel Gabriel and told that she will also have an extraordinary baby called the Son of God. Mary, who may still be shocked, scared, resigned, goes to visit her older female cousin Elizabeth who is now six months pregnant. Elizabeth provides great encouragement. It is as if in that moment Mary realizes that despite the very real difficulties she will face, this really is a blessing, not a curse, and she breaks out in song. Despite all of the things she could lament about her circumstances, she sings with Joy, Unabashed Joy. It takes courage to sing songs of joy in the middle of our suffering.
Luke 1:46b-55 (The VOICE)
46 Mary says: My soul lifts up the Lord!
47 My spirit celebrates God, my Liberator!
48 For though I’m God’s humble servant, God has noticed me. Now and forever, I will be considered
blessed by all generations.
49 For the Mighty One has done great things for me; holy is God’s name!
50 From generation to generation, God’s loving kindness endures for those who revere Him.
51 God’s arm has accomplished mighty deeds. The proud in mind and heart, God has sent away in disarray.
52 The rulers from their high positions of power, God has brought down low. And those who were humble
and lowly, God has elevated with dignity.
53 The hungry—God has filled with fine food. The rich—God has dismissed with nothing in their hands.
54 To Israel, God’s servant, God has given help,
55 As promised to our ancestors, remembering Abraham and his descendants in mercy forever.
What would make you so happy and excited that you couldn’t contain it. Maybe shout, “YES!” “Thank you, Lord!” Or, even sing! “I’m so excited. I just can’t hide it!” News that you or a loved one got that job or promotion they were going for? What about when you asked out that special someone, and they said, “Yes.” Maybe, you were the one waiting to be asked out. The date went well. Maybe it was even news about a baby, your child or grandchild, a niece or nephew.
One thing about musicals whether movies or on the stage is this spontaneous breaking out into song. Sometimes, it seems so unrealistic, forced, but then, there are those times when the only appropriate response to events is song. You might make one up. You may borrow parts of songs and poems that you’ve heard in the past. You might add a few phrases that reflectyour great celebration.
This is how we should hear Mary’s song. It is referred to as the Magnificat because that is the first word in Latin. This is one of the most famous songs from the Bible. It is referred to as “the gospel before the gospel” because it tells of the salvation brought by God before it happens as if it has already happened. Mary comes to the realization of what a great honor that God has bestowed on her, and she bursts into song. “My soul lifts up the Lord! My spirit celebrates God, my Liberator!” I might sing, “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee. God of glory. Lord of love.”
The first part is about her specifically. “God has noticed me … The Mighty One has done great things for me.” The second part is about the world and Israel. It effectively is pronouncing that through what is happening through her with Jesus, what we read about earlier in Isaiah 35 is coming to pass.
They will see the Lord’s glory, the splendor of our God. 3 Strengthen the weak hands, and support the
4 Say to those who are panicking: “Be strong! Don’t fear! Here’s your God, coming with vengeance; with divine retribution God will come to save you.” …
10 The Lord’s ransomed ones will return and enter Zion with singing, with everlasting joy upon their
heads. (Isaiah, 35:2b-4, 10a)
With her song, Mary “encourages faith that God can and will intervene for the rest of the world and not just for Mary.” (Tannehill, Abingdon)
Do you believe that in your heart and soul … that God intervenes in our lives specifically and in the world as a whole? That is what Mary is talking about here. That is what we are saying when we celebrate that Jesus was born. God took this specific action to accomplish a particular goal, saving people from the brokenness, the corruption of creation. Saving people from their own brokenness that keeps them from relationship with God, that keeps them from living life the way that God intended it. Do we think like that in our day-to-day lives? As we pray?
I am reminded of a line from the recent remake of Murder on the Orient Express. Hercule Poirot notices a young missionary woman’s hands.
Poirot: Why do your hands have the calluses of a boxer?
Estravados: I do my work in dangerous cities, where I cannot be governed by fear.
Poirot: You do not trust your God anymore since your surprise?
Estravados: No, in case he is busy.
Does that indicate a lack of trust, or is she simply being prudent? (Also, considered a virtue.) If we do say that we believe that God intervenes, we may also ask then why doesn’t he (at least why doesn’t he seem to)? The best answer I have for that is my least favorite … Because. Because we don’t know the purpose of all things. Because it is often easier to see God working in hindsight, after the fact. We might ask, why isn’t God intervening now in our chaotic world?
Perhaps, God is, but we won’t be able to see it until after.
Our faith is premised on the idea that God DOES take an active role, for you and for me. Jesus’ conception and birth were specific steps that led to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. God took this specific step to rescue us. Would anyone in Rome for example have known the significance of Jesus’ birth at the time? Would they have even had the opportunity to know that he had been born in real time, let alone know the implications and what that would lead to? No way.
So here, we have Mary contemplating a VERY difficult future, unwed and pregnant at a time when that could be a death sentence, a fiancé who is going to have some trouble accepting this. It will be a scandal that will follow her the rest of her life. And yet, and yet, she now considers herself blessed. She is blessed because she trusts that the God of the universe sees her specifically and the world generally and is doing what he always promised he would do, even if it doesn’t look the way tradition expected.
The question is what do we really believe. It doesn’t seem like God intervenes in our lives, in world events like this, continually. We might think that we notice big things from time to time. We pray, and sometimes God says no. Sometimes, we’re not sure if God has heard us at all. We see no difference. That doesn’t mean that something isn’t happening.
I recently heard of the faith of a young girl. Jesus told us to come to him as little children. When we get older, we become less trusting and more cynical. This story was of a young girl and her faith. Maybe you heard it too.
“On a dark night in Central Africa, not so very long ago, Dr. Helen Roseveare worked hard to help a mother give birth to her premature baby. The baby was finally born, but sadly, its mother didn’t survive the night. She left behind her weak and tiny baby as well as an inconsolable 2 year-old daughter.
“Dr. Helen knew that the chances of survival for the little baby were small. They had no electricity, no incubator, and no special feeding facilities. Although the equator is known for [its] warm temperatures, many are surprised to learn that the nights can be chilly and the drafts can prove deadly for premature babies.
“The new little orphan was placed in a special box and wrapped in cotton wool. The fire was stoked to warm the room and water was heated for their most critical life saving device, a hot water bottle. Carefully the student mid-wife poured the warm water into the bottle. But the equator is a harsh environment for rubber and all too quickly it falls apart in the elements. The mid-wife cried out in frustration as the last of the hot water [bottles] burst in her hands.
“Dr. Helen says that ‘as in the West, it is no good crying over spilled milk; so, in Central Africa it might be considered no good crying over a burst water bottle. They do not grow on trees, and there are no drugstores down forest pathways. She told her interns to put the baby as close to the fire as possible and to sleep between the door and the baby in order to block the cold drafts.
“The next morning the baby was still alive, but not out of danger. They desperately needed a hot water bottle.
“Dr. Helen would often pray with some of the children who lived at the orphanage. This day was no exception. At noon she gathered the children and shared some of the prayer needs. Ten-year-old Ruth listened intently as Dr. Helen told them about the premature baby and the battle to keep it alive and warm without a hot water bottle. Ruth’s heart hurt for the two-year-old sister who had been crying since her mommy died. When they bowed their heads to pray, Ruth knew just what to ask for.
“Dr. Helen said that Ruth’s prayer was in the usual blunt consciousness of the African children and it caught her totally off guard. ‘Please, God,’ she prayed, ‘send us a water bottle. It’ll do no good tomorrow, God, the baby’ll be dead; so, please send it this afternoon.’ While Dr. Helen was still recovering from the audacity of Ruth’s prayer, the young girl added, ‘…And while You are about it, would You please send a dolly for the little girl so she’ll know You really love her?’
“What was Dr. Helen to do? If she said, ‘Amen’ would she be a hypocrite? She truly did not believe that God could answer Ruth’s prayer. She says that, although she knew that God could do anything (the Bible told her so) she admits that when the rubber meets the road (no pun intended!) there were limits…weren’t there?
“The reality was, in order to answer Ruth’s prayer, God would have had to have someone send a package from the homeland to Africa. In the four years Dr. Helen had been in Africa, she’d never received one package from home… not one. And if, by some miracle someone did send a package, who would think to put a hot water bottle in it? No one would dream of sending a hot water bottle to the equator!
“Have you guessed what happened? … In the middle of the afternoon Dr. Helen received a message that a package had arrived at her home. Gathering the children she went to find a large, 22-pound box on her veranda!
“It was like Christmas morning as thirty to forty pairs of eyes watched her open the lid and lift out the contents. Brightly colored, knitted jerseys were handed out to their delight. Knitted bandages for leprosy patients and a box of raisins and sultanas came next. Dr. Helen reached in the box again. She felt it before she saw it. Her hands wrapped around the unmistakable texture of rubber! When she pulled it from the box she cried, “A brand new rubber, hot water bottle!”
“Dr. Helen may not have prayed for it, or believed that God would send it, but Ruth did! The young girl ran to the package and cried out, ‘If God has sent the bottle, He must have sent the dolly, too!’ Sure enough, at the bottom of the box Ruth found a small, beautifully dressed dolly. Her dark eyes sparkled with excitement. ‘Can I go over with you, Mummy,’ she asked Dr. Helen, ‘and give this dolly to that little girl, so she’ll know that Jesus really loves her?’ How could she say no?
“Five months before Ruth prayed for a hot water bottle and a dolly, Dr. Helen’s former Sunday school leader was prompted by God to have the class send her a package. In that package they … included a hot water bottle and a dolly for one of the African girls. As Dr. Helen says, ‘five months earlier [God answered] the believing prayer of a ten year-old to bring it “that afternoon!”'” (“The Hot Water Bottle,” Kathy’s Korner, 1 June 2011, http://blog.dg4kids.com/kathy-brights-korner/faith-and-a-hot-water-bottle/)
Is God’s action in our lives, in our community, in our world going to look like that every time? Are we ever going to understand why God waited so long to come as Jesus and has waited so long to return? Are we going to understand why God works through people the way he does or is so patient with us despite failing over and over again? Not until we see him face-to-face. But if we say that we believe in God, the God that is described in the Bible, the God that is moral, good, and keeps his promises. We have to believe that God is one who can and does take action for us and for the world. In a week and a half we are going to celebrate one thing that he did that changed the whole world in an instant. *Snap* It would never be the same, and that’s a cause for unabashed joy!
“My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.” (Luke 1:46-47, NIV)
Thanks be to God!