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The Birth of a New Age

Sermon - 12/20/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke 1:39-55

While the choir is moving, let me invite you to open up your hymnals to page 131, because that's going to be part of our scripture reading this morning.

The text that I am using comes from the first chapter of Luke's gospel.  I'm going to read the first half of the text, and then I invite you to join me in the second half of the text, because it's a song, and we're going to sing part of it.

This is probably a familiar story, in Luke's gospel, you may recall, Luke goes back and forth between Mary and Elizabeth -- between the birth of John the Baptist and the birth of Jesus.  And so the story opens with the announcement to Zechariah that his, well, what should we say. . . . "old" wife (she's up there in the years), who is barren, is going to conceive and bear a child.  And you remember of course what happens to ol' Zech in response to that (was stricken mute).

Then the word comes to Mary, and Mary and Elizabeth get together.  That's where we pick up the story in verse 39:

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

46 And Mary said,

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47   and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
   and holy is his name.
50His mercy is for those who fear him
   from generation to generation.
51He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.
54He has helped his servant Israel,
   in remembrance of his mercy,
55according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

 

When Judy was pregnant with our first child, we decided to surprise my folks by sending them flowers with a card that said, “Congratulations, you are about to become grandparents for the 5th time.”  That’s all it said.  Didn’t sign it because we figured it was obvious.  My older brother and sister each had two kids and made it clear that they were done populating the planet. 

I also have two younger sisters.  Taerie was single and was still living at home at the time and not a likely candidate.  It’s not that she doesn’t like children, but when one member of the family suggested that we build a family cabin where all the siblings could retire, she replied:  “If I wanted continuous human company, I'd have given birth to some!”

The other sister and the baby of the family, Sherri, had just been married for a couple of years, whereas Judy and I had been married for nine years.  I figured it was our turn.

Mom comes home, sees the flowers on the doorstep, opens the card and what does she do?  Rushes into the house, grabs the phone, and calls Sherri.  She had given up on us.  Figured we were like Zechariah and Elizabeth, way past that time.  I didn’t think we were THAT old.  Mature parents make better parents I’ve always said.  Fortunately, for my children’s sake, I am married to one.

As is true for every parent, the birth of your first child is the dawning of a new age.  The degree to which it changes your life and your lifestyle is simply unfathomable.  You know intellectually, hopefully, and you do all you can to prepare yourself for it, buy the right equipment, read all the baby books, fix up the room, you get all ready—but nothing really prepares you for that moment. 

Indeed there is a sense in which you can never be fully prepared or ready for all the changes coming once that new human being enters your life for which you are fully responsible. The time comes and there she is, ready or not, a brand new life full of all kinds of potential and possibilities placed in your hands.  Awesome.  And scary.

Form that moment on, everything changes: Your sleep habits, your finances, your entertainment, your perspectives, your priorities, even your values.  And nothing you do can fully prepare you for all of that.

Here we are on the last Sunday of Advent.  Just four shopping days left.  Christmas is coming, ready or not.  Mary and Joseph are on their way.  The inns of Bethlehem are all filling up.  No place to go but the baby can’t wait. 

As much as we try to prepare, when the time comes, we can only be partially ready at best. How can we possibly prepare for the coming of the Son of God into our world?  Certainly Mary & Joseph were not ready.  They didn’t even have a place to stay.  Bethlehem wasn’t ready.  The town’s residents and guest were oblivious to what was happening in their midst. 

As Luke tells the story, the only ones in the entire world to take notice were a few shepherds who had been tipped off by some angels.  Even then I doubt they had an inkling of how drastically the birth of this one baby would impact human history.  So radical, so life-changing, so new was the birth of Jesus that we, in the western world, mark our time by it.  And yet it is often difficult to comprehend the outrageous nature of this story we use as window dressing for our annual winter ritual of shop till you dorp.

Luke goes to great lengths to convey the radicality of God’s actions in the birth of Jesus.  There are first of all the main characters of the story:  Elizabeth, an old barren woman, and Mary, a young pregnant teenager, not yet properly married. 

One is a has been who has been shamed by her inability to bear her husband any offspring, an embarrassment only compounded by the fact that he is part of the priestly establishment to whom such things are not supposed to happen. 

The other, a small town girl with no pedigree, a persona non gratis by virtue of her scandalously premature pregnancy.  The one thing that binds them together is the condition in which neither is supposed to be.  Taken together they are powerful symbols of the past and future, and how God can use both to do what no one thought possible.

The role of these women, and women in general throughout Luke’s gospel, cannot be overemphasized.  In contrast to Matthew’s story, which centers around men--the angel appears to Joseph, not Mary; the dialogue occurs between King Herod and the magi, not Mary and Elizabeth--in Luke’s version, Joseph is nothing more than a figurehead who stands silently in the background as in a children’s Christmas pageant, looking over Mary’s shoulder rather helplessly. 

Worse, there is Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist and husband of Elizabeth, who doubts the word of angel Gabriel and is immediately struck dumb.  Not one of the more positive role models for men you will find in scripture.  Whereas young, innocent Mary accepts the word given to her and then sings her praises to God.  You cannot get a starker contrast. 

The first to give witness to God’s new action in the manger and at the tomb are in each case, according to Luke, women, who, according to the laws of the time, were not legally acceptable as witnesses in any court.

Sojourner Truth, the 19th century black evangelist for abolition and women’s suffrage, summed up Luke’s perspective well when once she was questioned by a white minister on her right to speak at a church assembly.  She challenged the preacher by asking in a most accusatory tone, “Where did your Christ come from?”  When he did not answer, she said it even louder, “Where did your Christ come from?”  Following a pause pregnant with expectation, she then bellowed, “From God and a woman.  Ain’t had a man nothing to do with him.”  That is the radical nature of Luke’s story.

It is not enough for Luke, however, to just tell the surprising story of these women.  The conversation he records between Mary and Elizabeth is not some casual chit-chat of a bridge party or baby shower.  This is history in the making, and not any history, but the history of God’s redeeming interaction with humanity.  It is the history of God’s unending love and the uncontainable joy it produces as evident by the leaping child of Elizabeth’s womb.  So marvelous, so incredible is this history it cannot be simply told, but must be sung.

And so Elizabeth signs, Mary sing, Zechariah finally sings when his mouth is opened and then the angels themselves sing.  It is a story that invites one to sing, which is precisely why we have so much wonderful Christmas music, unlike any other time, any other holiday, any other tradition.  Christmas is the song of love God sings to us and we cannot help but sing along.

Lastly, there is the message of Mary’s song itself, a virtual manifesto of the poor and oppressed.  Mary, a lowly handmaiden, embodies the message she proclaims of the divine reversal that is to take place because of the birth of this child.  So sure is Mary that God will now fulfill the promises of old that she sings of them as already accomplished deeds.

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.

 

This is Mary’s witness to God’s activity in the world.

 

The overall message conveyed by Luke is that of a radically New Age marked by the birth of Jesus.  This New Age, symbolized by the young virgin Mary, stands in direct contrast and opposition to the existing age, symbolized by the old, though no longer barren, Elizabeth.  The primary distinction of this New Age will be the divine reversal that lifts the lowly and dethrones the mighty, bringing new life even out of the barren, existing age.

Thus the actions of Jesus in feeding the hungry, preaching Good News to the poor, giving sight to the blind and calling on the rich to surrender their wealth, were not actions of charity performed along the way to his main mission, rather they are central to the establishment of God’s reign, this New Age in Christ.  They are the reason Jesus was born, to reconcile all of humanity, all of creation, to God, beginning precisely there, at the bottom of human society among those the world discounts as of little value.

Such reconciliation begins with conversion, a complete reversal, what we often call repentance, the turning from the ways of the world to the ways of God.  That this repentance or conversion is more than an individual’s change of heart is made clear here in Mary’s song.  Through Christ, God seeks no less than a complete conversion of all society.  A conversion that will permeate all our relationships and establishments, turning the world upside down.

Some will point to the world today in which there are nearly two billion Christians and yet just as many wars, just as much hunger, just as much or more suffering and poverty as 2000 years ago and they will say that God’s New Age was still born.  In looking at the state of the world with the growing problems of climate change, the continuing recession and high unemployment, the increasing threat of terrorism, the divisions within the church, the worsening of the situation in the Middle East, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Congo and Sudan, it is easy to question if another Christmas will make any difference. 

And yet even in the midst of it all, there are signs of hope, signs of conversion and divine reversal:

--the remembrance we had on Friday for the first anniversary of the death of Major Thomas Egan on the street and the resulting Egan Warming Center that successfully housed over 300 homeless individuals in four churches for 9 nights when temperature where below freezing.

--the enormous effort going into both health care reform in this country and global climate change, though full of problems and woefully inadequate, at least show some hope as the beginning of real change

--the election of a black man as President and a lesbian as mayor of Houston give witness to the increasing acceptance of diversity as a positive value and the rejections of the old politics of prejudice, fear and hatred

--a return to the tools of diplomacy to settle international disputes rather than threats of violence.  (If only we could get Democrats and Republicans to do the same.)

--a likely new START treaty between the U.S. and Russia that will result in a 25% reduction of nuclear weapons.  (Here’s a rather startling fact I just learned this week:  the single largest source for nuclear fuel in U.S. power plants comes from what?  Dismantled Russian bombs.  I’m not a big fan of nuclear energy but better that than nuclear bombs.)

Could these be signs that God’s New Age is not still born, but rather is still being born?  Can we affirm that even amidst all the barrenness of the world, that all things are still possible with God as Mary and Elizabeth learned?  That the hungry really can be filled, the lowly can be lifted up and peace can be found on earth among all people?

Even in the greatest emptiness of our own lives, virgin territories we dare not open to any intruder, is there a possibility that we will give birth to Christ, allowing God to turn us around that we might become heralds of God’s New Age?  Can we, dare we, make Mary’s song our song?

Christmas is God’s invitation to us, an invitation to come to the manger, to witness the birth of the Holy Child as lowly shepherds struck with awe by singing angels, as Joseph filled with the excitement and innocent idealism of a new father, as Mary, overwhelmed by being chosen to be the ones who bring God’s child of the New Age into the World.  We, like Mary, have been chosen.

This Christmas may we be the ones blessed because we believed there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to us by the Lord.

 


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