Repairing the World (Part 2)
Repairing the World (Part 2)
December 23, 2018
So, a couple of weeks ago, we talked about the amazing and surprising place where Luke’s Gospel begins. He tells us the story of a couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were faithful and upright people but who had never been able to have a child. The first surprise (which we easily miss) is that their childless marriage was not God’s judgment on them (which is what everyone would have been thinking.) Right out of the box, Luke challenges what the people think they know.
The next surprise is that Zechariah wins the annual lottery to see who gets to go into the holiest of places in the temple. (Who doesn’t love to watch the lotto winners hold their press conferences, right?) As I suggested, a lot of folks must have considered it a well-deserved “perk” for Zechariah’s faithful life as a priest: “Aw…how nice is that?”
The real surprise, though, in the Zechariah story is that something holy actually happens in the holiest of places. After all, it had been a long time since anyone had actually heard from God. No one would be more surprised than a priest who had gone through the motions and held onto faith mostly through the, “Well, I think I felt something” approach, to actually be staring down an angel, to actually be encountering a miracle beyond words. So, when the angel appears and tells Zechariah that there’s a baby on the way, who can blame him for looking the angel in the eye and saying, “What are you talking about?” A lot of people talk a good game when it comes to the holy but are just as unprepared as anyone else for the moment when the holy appears.
So, essentially, the angel puts Zechariah in the penalty box. Until the child is born—the one who was going to prepare the way for the Messiah, the one who was going to be named, John—until that son was born, Zechariah was going to remain silent. (I’ll be honest…I have often wondered how much that silence changed Zechariah. How much did he learn when he wasn’t busy thinking about what he was going to say next? How much might we learn, too?)
So…Luke says, “If I could have your attention please,” and taps the microphone a few times…and then he shocks people. The barren are going to give birth. The child born is going to prepare the way for the Messiah. Sometimes, the most faithful thing that the most faithful people do is stay silent…and what is created is room for wonder and awe.
And then Luke says, “Now, I’ve got another one for you now. Catch this…” It seems that when Elizabeth was six months pregnant, there was another lovely couple—only this couple was very young and engaged to be married. Luke points out that the man is descended from the tribe of David which would have made everyone’s ears perk up because everyone knew that the Messiah was going to be a great warrior king like David. (Later, these expectations only get ramped up when the birth happens in Bethlehem, the city of David!)
Now, Luke goes out of his way to tell us that Mary was a virgin. For centuries after, theologians (in my ever humble opinion) would miss the point of this. In a very patriarchal culture in which women were blamed for many things (Anyone remember Eve?) and were considered unclean, many people heard that Mary was a virgin and thought that the important thing was that she wasn’t “tainted” in the same way as other women. All of which would reinforce the stigmas placed on all the other women, stigmas that Jesus would battle in his ministry. (Remember, the women are the most faithful followers that Jesus has…)
I don’t that Luke tells us that Mary was a virgin so that we know that she wasn’t “icky” like all the other women. Rather, I think Luke tells us this so that our judgements would be challenged. Everyone considered Elizabeth and Zechariah cursed by God because they couldn’t have a child. In a similar way, everyone would have considered an unwed, pregnant young woman to be completely worthless. In fact, by law, she could have been killed. And culturally, the expectation would have been that since she hadn’t slept with Joseph that he would file the charges against her for sleeping with someone else. Being unmarried and pregnant was a capital offense! Not filing those charges would have led everyone to judge Joseph, as well. The whole moral code was being challenged—the code folks believed was set up by God.
Gabriel, God’s messenger, comes to visit Mary. (Pause and hear the power of this. It is one big surprise when God’s messenger speaks to Zechariah in the first story. It would have been mind blowing to think that God would speak to a woman. In that ancient world, this would have been unthinkable!) The first thing he says to her is this: You are beautiful inside and out and that beauty is a reflection of God’s presence in you. Does Mary know he’s an angel right away? We don’t know. If not, she would have been wondering why a stranger was speaking to her at all, much less why he was telling her she was so beautiful. She would have thought to herself, “This is trouble!” Gabriel goes on: “God has a surprise for you. You are going to get pregnant and have a son and his name will be Jesus.” (At which point, I think Mary, like the rest of us, would have assumed that God’s planned to fit her timeline: “Yup…I’ll get married to Joseph and then Joseph and I will have a son and we’ll name him, Jesus. Sounds good!” Things happen in God’s time, not ours…)
This is the point at which things start to become clearly not about Mary’s plans. “He will be called great.” He’s going to sit on his father, David’s throne. (“What? His father is going to be Joseph.”) He’s going to rule the house of Judah forever.
Imagine Mary’s questions! First and foremost, the question would have been, “And I’m getting pregnant how?” Again, this is going to put her life in danger. At the very least, it is going to put her in a position to be judged by everyone. It is going to challenge her relationship with Joseph in unbelievable ways, “No really, Joseph…this is God’s child…honest!” The angel has told her this: “Your child will be called Holy, Son of God.” Who is going to believe that?
That’s the kicker here. The angel tells Mary about her cousin Elizabeth getting pregnant at such an elderly age. If God can do that don’t you think God can do this? In Gabriel’s words, “Nothing, you see, is impossible with God!” This is the tale that Luke is beginning to weave for us. Put aside your preconceptions. Set aside your judgements and expectations. The God who has been distant and silent for so long is re-entering the world. That presence—God’s immersion in the nitty-gritty corners of this life, the places of pain and shame and judgement, God’s incarnation—is going to be a healing force. However, to accept that presence will likely leave us without a leg to stand on in the world’s eyes.
Let’s review…Elizabeth—that nice old lady from town—she’s pregnant as can be and did you hear? Her husband, Zechariah, hasn’t spoken a peep for months now. And Elizabeth’s willingness to walk beaming through the town, no matter what anyone might think and Zechariah’s willingness to just be silent—well, sometimes, that’s what faith looks look in a changed world. Sometimes, for the world to be repaired things have to feel a little uncomfortable. Sometimes, people have to learn to wait.
And Mary—Joseph’s fiancee? She takes in Gabriel’s words—and all the implicit threats to her standing in the community, her upcoming marriage and her life—and says, “I am the Lord’s maid, ready to serve. Let it be with me as you say.” She doesn’t hem and haw. She doesn’t argue. She doesn’t fall on the ground laughing. She doesn’t run for her life. Instead, she stands upright and with great courage says, “Here I am, Lord. Work through me!” You see, Mary is the Mother of God not because she wasn’t tainted but because she was so amazingly brave. She didn’t care what everyone else was going to think. She cared about being a part of God’s work in the world.
It’s probably worth pointing out that against all the odds, Joseph believed her. He didn’t quietly leave her. He didn’t loudly stand in the village square and accuse his fiancee of adultery. Instead, he stayed with her, all the way to Bethlehem, to a barn full of animals, where his son, Jesus was born.
Here’s what Luke is saying to us. Forget everything you think you now about who is blessed and who is cursed by God. Forget everything you think you know about how God would enter this world. Forget everything the authorities have ever taught you about the law and judgement and shame. All bets are off. God is here. And what God is doing is repairing the world, one person at a time.
And…oh, yes…forget one other thing. If you expect to be a part of God’s work in this world, then you should forget the notion that God will only take you to the comfortable places in this life, that God will only put you in a position in which others will admire you and respect you. It is often the case that God will call us—as a matter of faith—to do what we would rather not do and face what we would rather not face. There are more important things in this life than being liked or admired or understood. If God is going to challenge this world and the people in it to grow, then we should expect to that our faithful living will also challenge that world.
Zechariah and Elizabeth and Luke and Mary’s stories are Luke’s way of telling us that God came not only to repair the world but to challenge it to be made new.
Then, with a wink, Luke says, “Just wait until you see what’s coming next…”