Sunday, December 11, 2011

Advent 4: Discipleship Beyond Barrenness & Shame -- Luke 1:26-38

4th Sunday of Advent
A Homily for
December 18, 2011, 
Year B
Luke 1:26-38
(See Text below)

The fourth Sunday of Advent shifts our attention directly to the birth of Jesus into the first century world of Judea, with its Roman occupation. Here St. Luke offers us background on the calling of Mary to be Jesus' mother -- even in her virginity, and the story of Elizabeth to be the mother of John the Baptizer -- even in her old age.

Of course, Luke's account falls with much static on post-Christian ears. For the majority it seems rationality demands that we dismiss these words as fable -- a story conveying only a moral, or farce -- a ludicrously, improbable situation.

That this idea is included in the Apostle's Creed:

...conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried...
tells us that the ancients believed St. Luke's account, even if post-moderns cannot so much. To be sure, we are much more sophisticated and nuanced in our thinking than they were, after all.

Interestingly, Luke himself offers the following words at the beginning of his Gospel as a way to introduce as credible what would follow:

"Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed." (Luke 1:1-4)
This has led many to believe that Mary herself gave Luke an account of Jesus' birth. 

I suppose, ultimately, how one comes down on this depends upon where one stands on the possibility of the supernatural (re: beyond the natural) occurring in the world. I confess, I am a more a natural leaning person rather than supernatural, but strangely, I have come to be warmed by this old, old story, and I hold this account as somehow both accurate and important. In short, the truth is here presented to us.

Having said that, there is much in this pericope that demands our attention, not the least of which is St. Luke would have us know that Jesus, even in the face of his mysterious divine origin, is in fact human. Luke presents Jesus’ coming into to the world as we came into the world, and he is plunked down into the same squalor of the human condition as we are.

Here, I am reminded of the Genesis account of the fall, and the curse GOD leveled on the fallen Adam:

And to the man he said, "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, "You shall not eat of it,' cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return." (Genesis 3:17-19)

This is the world Jesus inherits -- hard work, sweat and toil. Of course, there are many good things in the world, much to commend it, but in reality Jesus is born into greed and poverty and hate and revolution, a world facing the brutal dictatorship of the Caesar. And in the midst all that brokenness, comes this gentle word from GOD
-- "Fear Not!"

To Elisabeth the angel said, "Fear not." Later, to the shepherds the angel said, "Fear not." And to Mary the angel said, "Fear not." Why this message? First, because to be visited by an angel, I suppose, would be a fearful experience. But also, we know there is much to fear in this world. We know loss is everywhere. And so the angel is offering the greeting with the most profound resonance -- "Don't be afraid -- you'll be alright."


Now Elisabeth needed this message, to be sure. She is at the end of life, a barren life; that is a life without children. In those days, as today this is a big deal. But for the ancients much was at stake. Professor Sharon Ringe reminds us that:
"In the absence of knowledge about the biological process of conception and the reasons for infertility, ancient cultures usually held the woman responsible for a couple's inability to conceive children. Her 'failure' was often interpreted as God's judgment against her, by which she brought suffering and shame on her husband." (Westminster Bible Companion, pg. 28)

Therefore, we can be sure that Zacharias suffered the barrenness of his wife, but oh how Elisabeth suffered as well. And we can also be sure that in her old age she had long given up her dream for children, and yet whenever she saw a family, full and bursting with love, no doubt her heart ached again and her mind thought of what could have been.

Imagine her surprise when pregnancy suddenly came upon her! Imagine the joy and the sheer laughter that peeled out of her mouth when she started to show! I’ve tried to imagine it and I have no words for what she must have felt.

The scriptures are flat in this regard, saying simply:
"And after those days his wife Elisabeth conceived, and hid herself five months, saying,'Thus hath the Lord dealt with me in the days wherein he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men.'" (Luke 1:24-25)
But, of course, for every Elisabeth there are hundreds of those who were not visited by the angel of hope. They did not receive their dreams come true. They faced a world of dark, dead dreams. What were they to do?


They, we, must rely upon the closeness of the LORD, the present-ness of GOD through his powerful Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Christ. The appearance of the angels as messengers remind us that GOD is, in fact, not far away at all. And that the present-ness of the Almighty conveys the constant truth that the reality of women and men continues under the notice of GOD's care and concern.

The "Emmanuel," the GOD who is with us, the GOD who became part of us, this is the hope for the barrenness of dashed dreams. Theologians refer to this as the immanence of GOD, which is shorthand for GOD's closeness or nearness to the world.

Barrenness, therefore, though real and desperate, is not the last word! Not all will give birth in old age but all who choose to do so will experience the faithfulness of the LORD, GOD in the midst of barrenness and loss.

This reminds me of what preacher Maude Royden said, "When you have nothing left but God, then for the first time you become aware that God is enough."


Which leads to the final idea, that of Mary's amazing and resolved discipleship. For, saying that GOD is enough is the stance of the disciple in the broken world.

The angel said:
"Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."
Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word." 
Mary could have said no to the angel, but she did not do so, even though this decision would cost her good reputation and maybe even her betrothed's favor. Luke tells us that she accepted on the face of it the angelic explanation and she offered her allegiance to GOD, no matter what would come.

Whether in barrenness (Elisabeth) or disgrace (Mary) every disciple faces a cost in following the Jesus-way. In fact, we could say that if in your following the Christ you have experienced no loss, you might want to check and see if you truly are walking the narrow way.

Said differently, the Good News announced to Elisabeth and Mary by the angel so long ago still rushes to us from the past as a proclamation of power and wholeness. A new King has come into the world; a new ruler will sit on David’s seat, and to his Kingdom there will be no end!

Or, said still differently, GOD always has his surprises! And in the midst of barrenness and loss, in the midst of Empire and crushed human hopes, suddenly, there is a light that shines through the streaks of the bleak winter night.

I was reminded this week of the lyric of the Christmas hymn: It Came Upon A Midnight Clear. The last two stanzas read:

O ye beneath life's crushing load,

Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow;
Look now, for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
Oh rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing.

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
When the new heaven and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace, their King,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing. 


Luke 1:26-38

The angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin's name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
"Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you."
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her,
"Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.

"Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his kingdom there will be no end."
But Mary said to the angel,
"How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?"
And the angel said to her in reply,
"The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God."
Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word."
Then the angel departed from her.