Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)
Here we are, just two days from Christmas and my sense of expectation is about to go through the roof. The family will all soon be gathering to exchange gifts and spend some time together, which is as I grow older, what I like very best about Christmas, just being together with my family.
What are your expectations for Christmas?
This year I approached Advent, the season of approaching incarnation, with questions of expectations and the unexpected. I'm thinking of the Gospel of Luke's description of the unexpected pregnancies of Mary and her kin Elizabeth. Luke tells us, Elizabeth, barren and post-menopausal, "old" as the book reads, becomes unexpectedly pregnant. Mary, a teen aged girl, a virgin, also unexpectedly finds herself pregnant. How these unexpected events must have changed their expectations for life.
How must have Mary viewed this unexpected pregnancy, living in poverty, living in a land governed by a brutal occupation force which handed out crucifixions as readily as we today receive parking tickets. It was a common sight to see the roads into and out of Jerusalem lined with the crucified. How at times her heart must have been gripped with fear for bringing a child into a world of madness, violence and fear.
And yet, amidst the fear and doubt of day to day living, from her mouth come these words, unexpected words, from some ancient expectation she carried in her heart, in spite of her trepidation and anxiety… her fear… come these amazing words, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on me his lowly servant.”
I don’t think this would be my expected response if I were in Mary’s place… I expect honestly my response would have been, “Why me Lord, why me?”
In these last days, of Advent, how many of us truly expect ourselves to approach an encounter with the One in whom the divine should come to us, as a human reality and experience? Who would expect the Spirit of God to be fully realized, incarnate, to us in human form, in the person of Jesus? Most of Jesus’ contemporaries expected the Messiah to be the great warrior prayed for in Psalms, as the mighty King with a sword strapped to his thigh and with countless sharp arrows to slay the oppressors of Israel.
And yet, Micah describes the Messiah not as one who comes with expected greatness, but instead, unexpectedly, comes from “Bethlehem of Ephrathah who are one of the little clans of Judah”, the least of Judea, and who comes not to secure peace as one bristling with arms, but who, as Micah says, that instead “he shall be the one of peace.”
Not exactly the expected solution to the violent Roman occupation.
How does this, unexpected Messiah, change our expectations for ourselves and each other? How does this unexpected God change the expectations of who it is we search out in each other? How are we expected to find resolution to conflict in ourselves and each other?
The author of Hebrews reminds us, from Psalm 40, that God desires not sacrifices and offerings,
but desires instead a “body prepared for me”, where God’s law of love is “deep in my heart.”
“See I have come to do your will” Hebrews continues, meaning I and we have come to love God in loving our neighbors and unexpectedly, loving even our enemies alike.
Though Caesar rules over the Israel of Elizabeth and Mary, though this Caesar calls himself the living son of god, though he calls himself the Prince of Peace, his god is Mars, god of war, and he is Mars’ son, and his peace is a boot on the throat, life held at bay by sword and spear point. His peace is driven home in the mind of Israel with nails and crosses lining the roads between Jerusalem and Bethany, between Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives. Jesus is not the expected answer to the Lordship of Caesar or of Israel’s liberation from Roman occupation.
Four weeks ago, as we approached Advent, the final readings of the year for the Daily Office had the Gospel of Luke telling us about Jesus nearing his death in Jerusalem. The disciples have been told over and over by Jesus that he will soon die on the cross. Yet, the disciples will still view Jesus' death as unexpected. This past week’s final readings in The Daily Office have been Luke’s telling of the Passion from which the disciples will later view Jesus's resurrection as unexpected joy from the sorrows of his death.
From his conception, to his life, ministry, teaching, death and resurrection, we can name him rightfully:
“Jesus, the Unexpected!”
Jesus, his life, death and resurrection are all things unexpected. His teachings, condemning the religious and embracing sinners, rejecting power and wealth, for the company of the vulnerable and poor, in the common thinking of the world, are all unexpected, of the Great Priest, Messiah and God, and are all leading us to different expectations of God's realm and judgment as being of compassionate forgiving, where we rather would expect God’s condemnation to be like ours in the way we might condemn each other.
A week ago Friday an unexpected horror and evil was visited upon an elementary school and community. And again the blood of the innocents was shed as a misguided offering, to some angry idol of mechanized violence… shocking us all. Seven who died will not celebrate Christmas with their loved ones. For the parents of 20 children, their expectations for Christmas are changed, by a grief, I cannot begin to imagine, and grief sure to be re-lived as they take away every unopened gift from a Christmas morning, now made much more quiet absent the joyful sounds of children tearing open packages.
Sadly too, in the face of this and in no time, the spirit of the Accuser rose from his sullen pit and began finger pointing and laying the blame on one group or another instead of being silent as an offering of respect for the dead and the mourning. Sadly as well, there were the disrespectful voices of some preachers of lost faith, who instead of offering the compassion of the Lord, which as the Psalms says “covers all his works”… all his works… instead they slapped the mournful in the face, proclaiming in misbegotten voices that God had abandoned Sandy Hook as a condemnation, and that the promise of Jesus to remain with us always was somehow forgotten, was somehow lost in the hearts of these empty voices.
Yet, we are people of faith who know God is not only in our midst, but that God is with us, and not only with us in our blessings, but shares in our wounds, in the wounds of Jesus. We know God is with us in Jesus sharing our suffering and sorrow. We know God is with us even in our dying, as Jesus shares in our dying. We also know that resurrection, new life, is with us in Jesus by sharing his resurrection with us through our baptism, and also in the comfort of God’s compassion, which covers all his works, given to us as a gift for us to give each other.
In a few moments we will come to the table and celebrate God’s great compassion for us in the breaking of the bread, the Body of Jesus, for which God exacts not vengeance, but instead gives to us as life to feed on, so that we may feed those in need. We will receive the innocent pouring out of Jesus’s sorrow, as life’s blood poured out and shared with us, for which God’s justice is mercy poured out, so we may better pour ourselves out and share ourselves with each other, in sorrow and in the joy of the New Creation.
Unexpectedly, God is with us in places where we least expect.
From Bethlehem, the least in Judea, Emmanuel, comes unexpectedly a peasant, poor and itinerant who will be given reign over the heart and soul of humanity. Emmanuel!
A girl born into the burdensome world of oppression, poverty and violence, will now bear an even greater burden, and still this girl’s heart is so full that her response to these burdens is “My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”
She knows she bears the unexpected joy of healing and love within her, Jesus. And we, baptized by water and Spirit, know we bear Jesus inside us as well, as Jesus promises us, the Spirit of love dwells within us. We are written into the scroll, the book of love.
In any loving thought and gesture God remains with us. In the face of evil, God remains in our knowledge of a love which ultimately overwhelms it.
By God with us, we reply to Mary’s song: we lift up the lowly, we fill the hungry, we live mercy by the promise of God’s love in us, and to every generation, from Abraham and his children forever, for us, our children, and their children’s children for as long as the sun shines in this world and beyond.
In every act of compassion and condolence, learned from the acceptance of our own suffering, God remains as our strength, and is in our strength, to persevere towards healing and our making what is wrong, right.
In every healing tear and every healing embrace, God’s joyful expectation is with us, deeply in our hearts, to heal and be healed.
Come, God is with us!