God's Promise

Luke 1:39-55

“In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “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? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” And Mary said, “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. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 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. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.”

Prayer – God of promises – as we continue our journey to the stable in Bethlehem we hear again of your promise and assurance. In our present day it is difficult to perceive your saving hand with so much going on around us. Remind us, as you did Mary, that you are not only a God of promise but a God who delivers – amen.

We’re coming to the end of the calendar year.  Each of us knows someone who may feel like they are at the end of something, whether it is the end of life, the end of a relationship, the end of time serving in ministry.  Each of us can probably identify with that feeling that we have been denied something that he/she really wanted. And in not receiving the hoped for future, we are left feeling sad and wondering why the promise of a future didn’t turn out.

This sermon, on the Sunday before Christmas, is for all people who have wondered why the promise of a future didn’t turn out.  This is the Sunday of the year when God goes gynecological. Even if you are not a woman, listen up. This Sunday’s gospel lesson, as we stand of the threshold of Christmas, the Incarnation, could be good news, a reminder of good news, for any and all of us.

There are not many places in scripture where women play major speaking roles.  But in Luke’s gospel, women frequently play a major part in the drama. Mary’s words evoke a response from Elizabeth’s unborn child.  In a culture in which women’s honor was tied to their childbearing, Elizabeth’s dishonor of childlessness has been taken away. Even more revealing, Mary is blessed as the one “who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises made to her.”  Mary is blessed not only with the gift of this child but also because of her faith that God will accomplish what God promises to do for God’s people.

I find myself wondering about Mary now . . . wondering how it is that one so young came to be so articulate, so poetic, so very wise at such a time as this.  While there is much about this young woman we don’t know, we can only imagine what it was like for her to be chosen as the mother of God. No doubt she was raised on the stories of her people, stories of women that shaped her for this role.  And as she ran to her cousin Elizabeth’s house she came up with new, hopeful, world-altering lyrics of her own, carrying forward the themes of God’s promises for her day.

Mary’s song is music that comes from deep within her, perhaps, we would say today, from her DNA.  On that doorstep, she sings for Elizabeth and both of their babies, and maybe for the world. This young girl, inexperienced and sheltered, sings about God’s blessings in her life, and about God’s vision of a world made right.

Mary’s words were quite profound when you consider the context of first century Palestine.  Herod was the ruler and he demanded high taxes to support his lavish lifestyle, executed great cruelty for any and all who spoke out against him, and promised that on the day of his death he would have some of the Jewish elite executed so that Israel wouldn’t celebrate his very own death.  It was this setting that Mary sang a song of divine promise, a song of promised hope and deliverance for the powerless.

It’s true that things aren’t as they should be in our age, either, even without a Herod ‘the Great’ (we might wonder what that word ‘great’ means anymore).  Even though there are proportionately many more people with enough, and more than enough, to live comfortably than there were in Mary’s time, the church is still called to proclaim ‘God’s challenge to good order’, wherever that ‘order’ requires or results in suffering of God’s beloved children.  Again, we have to wonder about greatness and why good order requires tear gas on children and toddlers at the border.

As long as millions of children go to bed hungry or homeless or afraid of going to school out of fear of being shot, there are tables that need to be turned, that is, if we’re going to mean what we sing in our Christmas carols of righting of things when all of God’s children will have what they need.  Perhaps Mary’s dream for her time is relevant in our time when an economy marked by scarcity and competition is replaced by an economy of generosity when all have enough. (Sharon Ringe)

In this Advent season, we’re keenly aware that we wait in community for the promises of God to unfold in our lives.  Here, in community we hold each other up when one of us needs encouragement or support. We help one another search for meaning, rejoice with one another, walk alongside each other.  Sometimes we just sit in the dark and quiet and wait, together, trusting in the promises of God, listening for a word from the God who still speaks to our hearts. Mary sings not just for Elizabeth and Zechariah but "for every son and daughter who thought God has forgotten the promise to be with them forever, to love them forever, to give them fresh and endless life". (Barbara Brown Taylor, Singing Ahead of Her Time)

We all long for a time when suffering will end and everyone will have enough, when nations and families will live in peace, and the earth will be restored and healed of the damage that has been done.  This is a vision for the future, but we live in the present, counting on the promises of God. And so I think we have a unique opportunity this Sunday to not only talk about Mary’s song, but also to enter into those promises to which it gives voice.  Mary sings of God’s mercy, promising that God lifts up the lonely, the downtrodden, and the oppressed, not just of her day, but of our own as well. So as we take up her song, we call upon God to remember those families whose children didn’t come home from school because of a senseless shooting, those families who had dreams and hopes for their children which will never be unwrapped, those families who will struggle not just this Christmas but for many to come.  And we pray God’s promises for those who mourn, or are lonely, or do not have enough food on the table, or live in places of strife and war, or who struggle with mental illness or care for them, and so many more.

When Mary sang she didn’t just name those promises but she also entered into them.  Notice, that all of the verbs in Mary’s Magnificat are in the past tense. Mary recognizes that as she sings that she has already been drawn into relationship with the God of Israel, the one who has been siding with the oppressed since the days of Egypt and who has been making and keeping promises since the time of Abraham.  Mary’s song reminds her and us today that we, like Mary, are already included in God’s history of redemption.

We are now in the last week of Advent, on the verge of another Christmas celebration, learning from Mary, to stand expectantly at hope’s window.  Some of us look back longingly on Christmases past, hoping to re-create better, more secure, less troubled times. Many we know are grieving or are depressed or lonely during this holiday season, and the church’s call to tell this story once again, to comfort and inspire and just be with those who need help looking forward in hope.  

Hope, God’s promise requires patience, of which most of us are in short supply.  Yet, we all know the development of hope within community takes time. How many Marys and Elizabeths might be sitting here in our circle this morning, awaiting an opportunity to connect more deeply with the people around them?  How many long to connect their small story with the larger story of God? How is God at work in our congregation? In what ways does it make a difference that we listen for God’s word in community rather than alone? What is our greatest hope as another Advent season comes to an end?  

It is in these questions and hope that we find ourselves on this fourth Sunday of Advent.  In a world that longs for a gentle peace, a generous sharing of goods of the earth, a time of quiet joy and healing, we stand by that window with Mary, expectant with hope and filled to the brim with joy because our tenses have been jumbled, too, and we have seen in every moment of tender love and forgiveness the promise of what is yet to come.  Let us sing with Mary, welcoming God’s promise, God’s goodness into not only our world but into our lives as well. God’s promise – it is already ours just like it was already Mary’s. May we live it together – now and always – thanks be to God – amen.