This morning we celebrate the fourth Sunday of Advent. And today’s scriptures show us a study of contrasts. In the Micah passage, we hear about Bethlehem. The word “Bethlehem” means “house of food or bread.” Interestingly, Ephrathah, the same place as Bethlehem, means “fruitlessness”. So we have the contrast in Micah – the place where the ruler is to come, the place where Jesus is to be born, is both the place of food and the place missing food. To put it in the context of our focus on Advent, it is the place where the bread of life is born, but it is the place that perhaps needs that bread of life most because of its lack or emptiness. Which do the residents see? Which do the people of Bethlehem of Ephrathah experience? Do they see the fruitlessness, the struggles, the pain? Or do they wait for and anticipate the Messiah who is to come? - the one who is born who is himself the bread of life, the one to feed us, and to free us from hunger of all kinds with his very being?
In today’s passage from Luke, we are also shown two women in great contrast with each other. Elizabeth is old and, up to this point, considered barren, desperately wanting a son to legitimize her (because in that day, the only way for a woman to be “legitimate” was to birth a son). Mary is very young, single and therefore would not be choosing to be pregnant. We come to see and learn about both women in times that could be seen as either extremely difficult or extremely blessed. Elizabeth, scorned by barrenness remained secluded for five months. Mary, after the shame of unexpected and illegitimate pregnancy, stood to lose her legal and social rights as Joseph considered ending his betrothal to her. She could have been stoned to death, or simply left bereft, abandoned and without means. It is in the midst of this that they, too, have choices about what to see, and how to experience their lives. Do they focus on the scorn, on the scandals and rejections of their lives, on their fear because of their difficult situations? Or do they wait and look and anticipate with celebration the uniqueness of their situations and God’s promised coming to each of them through the births of their sons?
This contrast, as we hear repeatedly throughout Advent, is much greater even than this. God, we are told repeatedly, is a God who reverses the social order completely. This, too, then becomes a great study in how God works through these contrasts. The lowly are brought high, the high are brought low. In the choice of both Mary and Elizabeth we see this as well. To the religious faithful in that time, to the Pharisees, to those ensconced in the church life, it would have seemed absolutely scandalous that two women – one old and one very young; poor peasant women – would be God’s prophets in bringing in the Messiah. This is again the radical, outrageous message of Christianity, of Christ, of Jesus, of the God that we come to know through Jesus. Jesus shows us the God who raises up the oppressed and outcast into positions of leadership, into being God’s most highly honored and exalted people. God chooses to work powerfully in and through the people who appear most powerless.
When God shows up, everything that we know is challenged. Everything that we held in priority is shaken up and different priorities arise. When God shows up, it is God’s plans that take precedence, not ours. And we find that the vulnerable are the ones who are made strong, the rejected are the ones whom God chooses, and the outcasts are central to the story. As Mary herself says, “God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Mary prophesies, along with all the prophets to proceed her, the reversal of all we believe to be true about the world, about the ordering of society, about whom God most values, most cares for, most honors. Mary sees herself in this as well. Again in her own words we hear, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of this servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me.”
And in this study of contrasts, Mary, too, had a choice about how to see her pregnancy. She could have been devastated and felt imposed upon, recognizing and experiencing the hardship and risk to her already lowly position because of her vulnerable place. But she didn’t. Instead, she focused on the grace of God, on the gift of God’s amazing choice of her as mother of Jesus. Her choice, in choosing to magnify the Lord, to celebrate with joy and singing and gratitude the amazing and unexpected gifts of God is not insignificant. It gave strength to Jesus to be who he was, to become who he was becoming, to be the “I am” of God.
How both Mary and Elizabeth chose to see their situations, how they chose to focus on God’s coming, celebrating the amazing gifts of their sons and what God was doing through their lives, these are not unimportant choices that Mary and Elizabeth make. To quote Jann Cather Weaver, “(These two women) sought to live radically faithful lives in response to the call from their God. Not unexpectedly, these women lived lives like those of their soon-to-be-born sons. Do we think John and Jesus just “knew” how to live radically faithful lives? How to be preachers? How to be as eloquent as the Magnificat? How to be healers? John and Jesus knew how to live radically faithful lives because they were sons of two women who had faithfully faced a terrifying yet expectant reality.” As they waited for their sons to be born, as they waited for their redemption, Mary and Elizabeth chose to be faithful despite society’s pressures. They chose to celebrate the living and real presence of God in their lives. They chose to wait with open eyes to see what God was doing next, which they knew would be amazing, wonderful and beyond anything they could expect.
I talked a few weeks ago about my experience of waiting on mission trips. Each time that we have gone we spend more time than we could anticipate waiting. We wait for the host church or host site to tell us what we need to do and where. We wait for the “experts” to show up and tell us how we are supposed to accomplish whatever it is that we are doing. We wait to get the materials we need to do the job. We wait some more for new materials, or for the materials that didn’t work to be replaced by ones that do. We wait for the time, the situation, the opportunity, the tools…all of these things - we spend an incredible amount of time waiting. This is hard and frustrating for all of us. We are there to work. We have a job to do and we want to see it done. It can be easy in those moments to focus again on the challenges and struggles. We struggle not only to figure out how we can get the jobs done in the short time we have when we are encumbered by delays and waits and other challenges. We also struggle at times to understand why we are there when we know things are so hard for the people we are struggling to help that it is hard to see how our little jobs can really make a substantial difference in their lives. And we ask the harder questions: Why do we bother fixing the floor when the roof is leaking? Why do we paint the walls when the building should frankly be torn down and replaced? But as I mentioned before, the waiting was also an opportunity to talk to the people we were helping, whose homes we were fixing, and to talk to each other. Through listening, through working together, through being together, we were given glimpses of God’s deep grace. We heard each others’ stories and saw God at work in the lives of those who struggle so deeply. We heard our own stories anew as we shared them with strangers. We waited for God’s coming in different ways – sometimes through our own hands as we built and listened and created relationships. And like Mary, we, each of us, experienced moments when we were touched by the awe of God having chosen us to be in that place at that time, helping God usher in and create something new as we were given the gift of being bearers of a bit of God’s grace to those individuals we met and served. That choice on our part, too, was not unimportant. When we chose to serve in joy, rather than focusing on the frustrations of the waiting, of the stumbling, of the jobs that just aren’t done 100% perfectly; our choice to see God’s hand and to look with eyes of gratitude and grace inspired others to do the same. It inspired those we helped, too, to look more deeply at their lives and to see God’s hands at work. It inspired them also to give back, to pass forward the gifts of God. And our choice to look for God’s hands and feet kept us going through the times of waiting until we did have the things we need to build, to work, to be part of bringing in God’s realm in that little corner for that little bit of time.
One day a young man named Tim who had wild hair, wore a t-shirt with holes in it, and no shoes made his way into a very conservative, well-dressed church. He walked into the church with his messy appearance, a little late. Since the service had already started Tim walked down the aisle looking for a seat. It was Christmas time, so the church was completely packed and he couldn’t find a seat. By now, people were really looking a bit uncomfortable, but no one said anything. Tim got closer and closer and closer to the pulpit, and when he realized there were no seats, he just squatted down right on the carpet. By now the people were really uptight, and the tension in the air was thick. About this time, the minister realized that from way at the back of the church, a deacon was slowly making her way toward Tim. The deacon was in her eighties, had silver-gray hair, and a beautiful suit. A godly woman, very elegant, very dignified, very courtly. She walked with a cane and, as she started walking toward this boy, everyone was saying to themselves that you couldn't blame her for what she was going to do. How could you expect a woman of her age and of her background to understand some dirty young man, a kid really, sitting on the floor? It took a long time for the woman to reach the boy. The church was utterly silent except for the clicking of the woman's cane. All eyes were focused on her. You couldn’t even hear anyone breathing. The minister couldn’t preach the sermon until the deacon did what she had to do. And then they saw this elderly woman drop her cane on the floor.. With great difficulty, she lowered herself and sat down next to Tim in order to worship with him so he wouldn’t be alone. Everyone choked up with emotion... When the minister gained control, he finally said, 'What I'm about to preach, you will never remember. What you have just seen, you will never forget.'
God does work in mysterious, wondrous ways. As today we being the celebration of Christ’s coming to us, as a beautiful baby, but weak, innocent, helpless and poor, we don’t only celebrate but we also anticipate Christ’s coming anew, I pray that all of us might have Mary’s eyes to look with trust, and joy; with hope and celebration, with gratitude and faith for the amazing thing that God is doing next. Thanks be to God!