Sunday, May 29, 2016

A Visit from Grace (Luke 1:39-56)

39 Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands. 40 She entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 With a loud voice she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. 43 Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. 45 Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.”

46 Mary said,

“With all my heart I glorify the Lord! 47     In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. 48 He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
    Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
49         because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
50     He shows mercy to everyone,
        from one generation to the next,
        who honors him as God.
51 He has shown strength with his arm.
    He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
52     He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
        and lifted up the lowly.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty-handed.
54 He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
        remembering his mercy,
55     just as he promised to our ancestors,
        to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”

56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months, and then returned to her home.

We are used to hearing the parental stories of Joseph and Mary, Zechariah and Elizabeth, in the weeks leading up to Christmas as we prepare for the birth of Jesus.  The story we’ve read today, however, comes around twice a year in the Christian calendar.  That’s worth paying attention to!

If you use December 25 as your birth date of Jesus, and then back up the other events according to the timeline in the story, you end up with the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth taking place right about this time of year. It’s a beautiful story of gracious hospitality and persistent hope, and it points us to the promise of God’s preferred future.  May we pray.

We were barely back from our honeymoon when the questions started, “So, when are you two going to have some kids?”  It’s always baffled me that people are so comfortable asking such a personal question about someone else’s reproductive practices.

Last week, we were down at the beach for a couple days for a wedding Ashley was doing.  We were waiting for the elevator in the hotel, when a little boy of about four looked at us and said, “Do you have kids?”  And I said no, to which he replied, “Why not?” and I was thinking, “Because of Exhibit ‘A’ talking to me right now!” but his Mom said, “Because maybe they actually want to enjoy themselves when they come to the beach!”

I don’t ask people about their plans for children.  For one, I figure that’s their story to tell, and when they are ready to tell it, they will.  For another thing, I have come to realize what a deeply personal and sometimes painful topic that can be for folks.  I think of those I know who desperately want to be parents, but for some reason can’t be.  I think of those who have made an intentional decision not to have children.  I think of couples where one partner desperately wants children and the other doesn’t, and it’s a source of constant fighting between the two.  I think of those who are struggling with issues too painful, complex and difficult to talk about.  I think of those who waited for years to adopt a child, only to have the whole thing unravel at the last minute.

Kids, and the issues around having them, can be complicated and difficult, to say the least.  If anyone knew that, it was the two women we’ve met in today’s Scripture reading: Mary and Elizabeth.

Mary, a young girl between the ages of 12 and 15, from a backwater village in the middle of nowhere, handed off in an arranged engagement to a man twice her age, and now, she was pregnant.

Elizabeth, an old woman, unable to have children, which, in her day was embarrassing.  She had endured a lifetime of whispers, speculation, hurtful comments and advice and questions of a rather personal nature.  Now, she too, is mysteriously with child.

They are an odd pair to have chosen to be the mothers of John the Baptist and Jesus. One seemed too old to have anything left to give to God. The other too young, to be wise enough or mature enough to offer anything of value to God.  One well past her prime, the other with plenty of living and learning left to do.

However, God doesn’t see as we do. In this story, God reveals again that God is on the move irrespective of age, gender, or status. God is always showing up in the most unlikely and ordinary of people, people like Elizabeth who seemed to be left out of “normal life” (whatever that means-married with 2.2 kids with a 2 car garage and a midsize SUV or Minivan...) Certainly she was too old to be a soccer mom now! 

At the other end of the spectrum, God is always surprising us by choosing people like Mary, who at the age of 12-15, was chosen to be entrusted with the most important work God has ever asked anyone to do-bear the incarnation, bear God for the world! A 12-15 year old! You know your teenager, you barely trust them with a car.

What does God see in both the old and the young that we might miss? Where we look for something great to come from people in power, or people with fame and influence, or only men, or only women, or only up-and-coming-20 somethings who can navigate this digital age, or only 50 somethings who have had enough life experience to be wise but are young enough to still have some energy...they’re the ones who can be trusted to do something great! We have all these caveats about who can do something great.

God doesn’t have these same hang ups. What we measure as greatness, God declares foolishness.  What we elevate, God knocks down a peg.  God is recklessly indiscriminate, appearing to and working through all kinds of people: slave, free, young, old, refugees, foreigners, non-religious folks, widows, the divorced, women, men, fisherman and lawyers. What do they all have in common that allow them to do something great for God?

Each of them willingly say “yes” to partnering with God to change the world.

In the Old Testament, Abraham says “yes” to partnering with God to be a blessing to all nations and goes to a new country/new land. Moses, at the burning bush, says “yes” to partnering with God to bring the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Deborah says “yes” to partnering with God to be a righteous judge over the people. Jonah finally relents and says “yes” to proclaim repentance to his enemies in Ninevah, saving their lives. Isaiah says “yes” in worship to being God’s prophet proclaiming God’s longing for repentance and new life in Israel. Esther says “yes” to partner with God, using her status and position as Queen to help save God’s people.

This narrative continues in the New Testament. Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph...later Matthew the tax collector, Peter, James, and John the fishermen...Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus...all very different people...but the one thing they have in common...they all say “yes” to partnering with God by becoming disciples of Jesus.

This is what all the major players in scripture have in common – they say “yes” to God.

How about you?  When your life is said and done, as someone is writing the epitaph on your tombstone, your obituary for the paper, the eulogy for your funeral – how do you want to be remembered, as one who said, “Yes” to God, or as one who said, “No, thanks”?

Mary and Elizabeth were two people who said, “yes” to God.  Theirs is a beautiful story of hospitality and grace lived in the midst of difficult and threatening times.  It happens sometimes that hard times or a hard life can harden a person’s heart.  They become ill-tempered, angry, and short.  We excuse it easily enough, knowingly saying, “That’s just their way,” or “You’ll have to excuse so-and-so, but they’ve had a hard life,” or “Nobody ever taught them any better than that.”

What I love about Mary and Elizabeth is that they didn’t let a hard life or hard circumstances harden their hearts.  They were open, flexible, pliable to the new thing God was literally doing within them.  In an unkind and difficult world, they were hospitable and gracious, open to each other, and open to God.

Both women have an unshakable faith in God’s ability to do extraordinary things, and an openness that God would do those things through them.   Mary wasn’t too young.  Elizabeth wasn’t too old.  The only thing to say “no” to is our excuses.

Like Mary and Elizabeth, be a person who says, “yes” to God.  Will you do that?  Yes to the presence of God? Yes to God within you?  Yes to God working through you?  Yes to God changing you and changing the world through you?

Say yes, and open yourself up to visit from grace in your own life.  May something jump for joy within you, may a new song be on your lips, and may you find yourself pregnant with the hopeful promise of God’s preferred future.

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