A New Time
December 24, 2018
Text: Luke 1:39-55
Who could have thought it? African Americans from the state of Alabama turning out to vote for Doug Jones for US Senate in slightly higher numbers than they turned out for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, giving Jones a majority of their vote of 95% to 5%. Who could have imagined white women voting for Jones in numbers significantly diminishing the overwhelming margin white males gave to Moore? Who could image college students in an-off year special election going to the polls in large numbers for Jones? And self-described “moderates” voting for Jones 3 to 1 over Moore? Is this evidence of the living God of the Bible active in human affairs in 2017? I pose this question seriously: Is there a connection between the election of Doug Jones in Alabama and the activity of God? In secular society this question would be dismissed out of hand. I am asking you today to join me in taking it seriously as a God-loving and -fearing community of faith.
Over the last several years I have been writing a book with two main themes. One theme is how we can live with hope in the polarized world of our times. The second theme is how we can think, speak, trust and act wholeheartedly with the expectation that the living God of the Bible has our back and will assist us when we try to do the right thing. As I see it these two themes are inseparable. For me it boils down to
- with God in the picture I see hope,
- without God in the picture and humanity left to its own devices, I do not see hope.
With the election of Donald Trump as President, writing this book has taken on new urgency for me. I have never lived through a time as crazy and crazy-making as this. I yearn to see a way through these times without being sucked into despair. Hopes and fears rumbling inside me for years have gotten louder. They – both hopes and fears – are seeking voice, and the most trustworthy place I know to hear a clarifying voice is scripture.
Pundits are calling the Jones victory a miracle. They said ahead of time that everything had to go just right for Jones to win: an African American vote margin and turnout equal to that for Barack Obama, a sizable shift of votes among usually Republican-voting white women and a good turnout of one or more other voting blocks. In the end, he got all four of his targets: African Americans, disaffected Republican women, self-described moderates and students. Everything had to go just right and it did. Does this qualify as a miracle?
What is your understanding of miracle? Is it a magical intervention of the divine with no human involvement – a kind of Captain Marvel “shazam moment” that destroys the bad guys and liberates the good guys? Or is it an outcome that spills over with blessing as a result of multiple factors coming together at the right time in the right place that speak to us contagious hope?
Our sermon text for today is about the miracle of miracles, the gift of a single human life that opens human existence to the goodness, beauty and rightness that God intended for the world in Creation. We call this “the incarnation” to which Matthew gives the name “Emmanuel” meaning “God with us.”
Sadly, conventional Christianity has so domesticated the birth of Christ that we set it on a pedestal to glorify with the singing of hymns and pious language and ignore it in public life. When ignored in public life, the Christmas language and music we use in church is seriously marginalized, if you believe Martin Heidegger’s definition of meaning, which I do. Heidegger defines meaning as that which presents possibility for you, me and us, something we can decide and act upon. It is different from information or entertainment. It presents real-life possibility. Over time the culture-bound Christian church has let the meaning of God’s incarnation in Jesus slip away. What about us? What would it look like for the Christmas story to speak to us with its original power as possibility, something we can embrace and act upon?
Think about an occasion in your life when a relationship or event or message grabbed you and revealed to you possibility for your life. The possibility had your name on it. You said “yes” to the possibility and went from there. Today I invite you to join me in letting a young peasant woman from another age bring possibility to us right here, right now. Her name is Mary. Let’s dive into Mary’s story with the Alabama election in the back of our minds. As I see it, both stories have to do with who God is to us and how we can we think and speak about God so that he is real to us.
In a lectionary text from a few weeks ago, the prophet Zephaniah puts the issue succinctly. Zephaniah takes to task the majority of his generation who have turned back from following the Lord, who neither seek him or inquire of him, who, as Zephaniah puts it “… sit in stupor over the dregs of their wine” and say in their hearts, “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.” Or as the New English Bible translates it “The Lord will do nothing, good or bad.” (Zephaniah 1:5, 12) In short, in serious human affairs God is a non-factor.
A few years ago public polls indicated that upwards of 90% of Americans said they believe in the existence of God. But what does that mean? It seems clear that most Christians in America see God as perhaps bestowing personal benefits now and then but in the final analysis see God as an idea or a remote being who will not do good or harm. What about a living God as active in history – active in our personal histories and our shared history? I believe that the living God of the Bible encourages and enables good things to happen. I believe God also allows and even instigates consequences that hurt and are costly. What do you believe?
These two possibilities of “God in the picture” and “God not in the picture” are more at issue now than at any time I can remember. Of the many things I treasure about this community, one is that we share a belief in accountability and the mystery of a living God who is active ahead of us and alongside of us in this polarized, crazy-making world. I treasure our shared belief. I also treasure that we can’t settle for a vague belief in God. We yearn for a belief that enables us to think and speak with power and with hope in the face of all that contradicts hope, faith and love. This is our challenge.
A Roman Catholic scholar, Thomas O’Dea, writes that our country is going through a crisis of religious consciousness. The crisis has been 300 years in the making. In some ways the scientific revolution liberated us. On the other hand science revealed to us a world with which we have no inner resonance, in which we’re faced with the threat of meaninglessness and cosmic aloneness like never before. Humankind has achieved the technical capacity to alter the conditions of human life to an extent that was undreamed of less than a hundred years ago, but we are unable to go beyond piecemeal and contradictory programs in shaping these conditions for the common good. Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s novel commented that without God, everything is possible, including unimaginably horrible things. Modern humankind has experienced to our sorrow what this can mean. Scripture, on the other hand, tells us that with God everything that fits with his purpose is possible. We can now also experience what this means.
O’Dea says, “Religion must nourish and sustain an interiority that makes external relationship and accomplishment possible. But this interiority must never lose itself in its private accomplishments. … To be relevant today, religion must support those human aspirations that cry for fulfillment. … It must become relevant to the effort toward a more abundant life for humankind.”
So let’s turn to what Mary has to say to us. When Mary arrives to see her relative, the fetus in Elizabeth’s body leaps as if to join in the celebration. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, praising God and blessing Mary. Then Mary replies with a psalm of joy and vision.
This psalm that tradition has named “the Magnificat” consists of three parts. The first part expresses Mary’s joy at being chosen for her call. The second part expresses who she believes the God who calls her to be. The third part expresses what she believes this God does in the world. Let’s look briefly at these three parts.
Mary is aware of her status in society as among the lowly. A great reversal is involved here. Those who are powerful, rich and looked up to in society and who look down on people like her are by-passed as Mary is brought to the stage with honor. Given what she is asked to do and the child she will bear, Mary will be remembered throughout the world for all time, as we are remembering her today.
Secondly, Mary praises God as holy, merciful and strong. She challenges the people in her day and ours who say that God is simply a metaphor and does neither good nor harm. Accordingly to Mary, the people who love him and fear him know differently.
Let’s explore these three adjectives. First, holy. Holy is a key word in scripture. In Leviticus 19:2, God tells Moses to say to the people in the wilderness “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” In radical contrast to the way modern people lampoon the word in calling someone “holier than thou,” the Hebrew word for holy has two dimensions, one is incorruptible and the other is closing the distance. This is who God is, his character – one who is incorruptible and his activity – one who closes the distance from humankind and calls us to do the same.
Corruption is not a word to be used lightly. According to the dictionary, it means “dishonest or illegal behavior especially by powerful people” and “inducement to wrong by improper or unlawful means.” The tax bill is not illegal, but as E.J. Dionne called it in his column in the Washington Post, this tax bill is a dishonest power and money grab on behalf of the already powerful.
The God in Mary’s heart is holy, merciful and strong. Because of who he is she loves him and fears him. Those who fear God are like my 10 year old grandson, Riley, who from time to time says emphatically to his mother, “I hate you. You are the worst mother in the whole world.” He lets that stand for about 10 seconds and then lowers his voice to say, “And I love you.”
None of us in our right mind want to alienate the deeply significant people with whom we are bonded, most of all our own parents. At the same time we have things on our chest that we need to get out of our system. Fear and anger are big pieces of a love relationship. God welcomes them. My stepdaughter Jocelyn has heard Riley’s outburst a thousand times. Each time she waits for the sequence to play out, eager to respond with a hug when Riley asks for it. God is like that with us and for people on both sides of the conflict in Alabama. God welcomes the sinner, the human being who has lost his cool and the human being who has done outright wrong and repents of it.
Thirdly, the God in Mary’s heart is not only holy, strong and merciful, he acts and does things that have an effect. When he so chooses, he scatters the proud, breaking apart their unity and power. He has a track record of bringing down the powerful from their thrones, lifting up the lowly, filling them with good things and sending the rich away empty. Mary concludes by recalling that God has been doing this for those who fear him all the way back to Abraham.
Now let me ask a pertinent question: Where did this psalm came from? Who wrote it? Was it Mary who conceived it and passed it on to her children and her community of faith? Or was Luke the composer? Or a third option? The question is relevant because the origin of a writing shapes its meaning.
The New Testament scholar Raymond Brown believes the psalm originated in a poor congregation of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem who called themselves the “anawim” meaning the poor. This was the mother church for which Paul raised his collection of funds from Gentile churches on his missionary journeys to help them in hard times. Brown thinks, and it makes good sense to me, that Luke in our text makes Mary the spokesperson of the anawim, singing this psalm created and sung in that particular community. Mary thus in our text is the voice of the poor who have not surrendered to despair. For the anawim, with God in the picture there is hope.
Jesus brought hope to the peasant folk of Galilee. That hope ended in tragedy when Jesus would not back down from his call to holiness—his incorruptibility and his unabashed closing of the distance with the poor and his friends and his enemies. As he was dying on the cross he looked out at his jeering enemies and prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” His death because he would not back down from his call to holiness was followed by a second miracle: God’s vindication of Jesus crucified by his enemies as a criminal by the miracle of resurrection through which God gave this same life back to his followers to lead and empower them to continue the ministry Jesus had started.
My encouragement to those of you who don’t know what to make of the virgin birth or the resurrection of Jesus is to listen to the meaning – the way this story presents as possibility to you and me and the world, as something we can decide to receive and act upon.
Thomas O’Dea describes the “foolishness of the cross” as a synthesis of joy and tragedy. Here we get to the crux of the relevance of the cross of Christ to the whole world – a synthesis of joy and tragedy. As we look at what is going on about us, we see in many places tragedy in the making: deepening poverty and injustice, the ignoring of climate change multiplying its future costs, the threat of nuclear war and so on. In the face of the possibility of tragedy in the making, the foolishness of the cross tells us, “Be not afraid. With God in the picture, we will get through this, but we must not take this on alone. We need community. We need others to lean and invite to lean on us. God is faithful, and God works through community.”
What about the election in Alabama? In Alabama, the anawim rose up again from their suffering and fear and cast their vote for a future of hope. A small window opened. Whether that window will get wider or shrink, whether hope will grow and materialize or be overwhelmed by this world’s corruption is beyond our capacity to see in the near term. Until God finishes his work of making all things new, tragedy is not going away. In the meantime tragedy is penetrated by joy. The bottom line is this: with God in the picture there is hope. Let us embrace and feed on that hope and live life to the fullest.