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Sermon: Visitation Reverberations. December 23, 2018

December 23, 2018

Here’s my sermon from today, the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. If there’s video, I’ll post it later, but by then we’ll be in Christmas, so I thought I’d post the text today.

“Visitation Reverberations”

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name of God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. I have three children but I’ve never been pregnant. Don’t worry, there’s no punch line coming, no story winding it’s way toward a lark or a laugh. I just want to be clear: I’ve never been pregnant. And so, listening to the gospel text for today, I feel somewhat like I did each time Erika was pregnant, like I was a highly involved, deeply invested interloper, overhearing conversations that I could not understand. Today we listen in on Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, relatives separated by age and geography but now united by the gift of pregnancy, of motherhood, of preparing to birth something new into the world. And I think it’s good to say, before I dare to say anything else, that I don’t quite understand. I can see myself in this story, but it’s with Zechariah, and with Joseph. Oh, you didn’t notice them in the passage from Luke? Well, that’s because they’re not there, of course. Joseph hasn’t even been mentioned in the story so far, and Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband? Well, he’s been rendered mute by God for not believing the words of the angel Gabriel. So I’m with Zechariah and Joseph, shut out of this private moment of mutual support shared between two expectant, hopeful women. And that’s okay; it just seemed worth mentioning.
  2. But I certainly do understand what I’m overhearing in this conversation! No, not about the finer points of pregnancy but about the world into which these baby boys will be born of Elizabeth and Mary. For the world in which they live is not so different from our own. The proud are enthroned, lording it over the lowly. The rich eat until they burst while the only thing the poor have in abundance is their hunger. The children of God feel forgotten, but those who worship anyone, anything other than God seem to have it all. It feels like the same world because, of course, it is. A confused world of shutdown government, tumbling stock markets, heightened geopolitical chaos and fear; and that’s just what’s newsworthy this week. Never mind the ongoing sufferings of the truly oppressed, the truly hungry, those who live in poverty or fear on the margins of society. This is the world into which Elizabeth and Mary will bring their children. And thank God, because this is the world that needs John the Baptist. This is the world that needs Jesus the Savior.
  3. Their encounter, in uteroas it is, brings recognition – somehow! – between the children and joy to their mothers. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and understands the wonderful mystery that is unfolding: Blessed are you! Blessed is the fruit of your womb, for that fruit is the Savior of the world! The prophet Micah had long ago spoken to a people in fear of a Messiah who would come forth from one of the little clans of Judah, from Bethlehem of Ephrathah. Of One who would somehow be both newly arrived and ancient of days. Micah spoke of Jesus, born of David’s kingly lineage, yes, but also of a clan of Judah of little importance. Micah spoke of a king who would come through backwater Bethlehem, sometimes called Ephrathah. Ephrathah, which means fruitful. This fruitful place of prophecy becomes the place where Jesus, Mary’s fruit, will enter the world to feed it. This Bethlehem – House of Bread, it means – is the place in which Jesus will be born. In a fruitful house of bread, Bethlehem of Ephrathah, Jesus will be born to feed the world.
  4. And while Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit’s prophecy, Mary is filled with the Spirit’s song. She, too, hears the echoes of prophecies from long ago. Her heart reaches back past Micah to Hannah. Hannah, who once was barren. Hannah, who is gifted with a son, Samuel. Hannah, who couldn’t keep herself from singing: “My heart exults in the Lord,” she once sang, “my strength is exalted in my God.” Mary picks up this old song, this standard of the faith, and she riffs on it. She improvises. To improvise: from the Latin, not foreseen, unexpected. A few years ago in The Christian Century, Lauren Winner imagined Mary as jazz singer. For what does a jazz musician do but improvise, taking known scales and modes and themes and reimagining them anew, in the moment? “Surely Mary,” Winner writes, “did not foresee that one day while she was home, calmly practicing her scales, an angel would show up, announcing that Mary is pregnant with a baby whose father is God and who will be the savior of the world. But while hard for Mary to foresee, pregnancy that is a gift from God is also not without precedent.” And so Mary picks up an old song and sings it anew, improvising for a new moment; singing the song of the Spirit; the song that has been from the beginning; the song that is brand new; the song that still echoes; the song the enlivens the church. It is a song into which the notes of Adeline Poppy’s life are now woven through the gift of baptism today, as she is grafted into the life, death, and resurrection of the One who would be born of this singer to save the world.
  5. Winner points to the pianist Frank Barrett, who says “the best jazz is always on the verge of falling apart.” Goodness, Mary must have felt that way. Elizabeth, too. God’s plans for the world hanging on the fragile state of pregnancy? So, too, do we who have picked up Mary’s song feel today. Some days it can feel like the whole enterprise is held together by duct tape and prayer. But maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be as we pick up the old tune of Jesus Christ and sing him anew into the world. After all, the point of the Church is not to exist for itself and to strengthen its own position against the world. The Church exists because God wills it into existence – over and again, week after week – through Christ given in Word and sacrament just so thatwe can be fed, in fruit and bread, blood and body, to bear Christ into the world. It turns out that I am pregnant – not in that beautiful way of motherhood, but because the Spirit has filled me with grace, and you, too. God fills us up with Christ that we may birth him into this world that so desperately needs him now, just as it needed him then.
  6. A few months after Mary sang her song, she would take the long walk to Bethlehem, with Joseph. They would find there would be no room for them in the inn. Is this not still the case? The American poet-monk Thomas Merton writes, “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ came uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it, because he is out of place in it, and yet he must be in it, his place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.” And so, friends, as we prepare to celebrate once more the birth of Jesus, remember where to look for him: in lowly, faithful Mary and her song; in little, no account Bethlehem of Ephrathah; at the margins of this world; in the lives of those who seem of no value. And in your sinful, broken self, as well, for Christ has come to make his home in you, that you can know God’s grace; that you can birth God’s grace into the world.
  7. Mary’s song still reverberates. It echoes in our hearts, filling us with Christ that we may magnify our God through prayer and praise and works of love. Keep singing Mary’s song, and the songs of angels and shepherds, too. Old songs announcing God’s new plan in Jesus Christ. We might be improvising, but this child of Mary, this Jesus? He knows what he’s doing. He isthe song. And maybe there’s the punch line for this whole thing, for what a lark, what a laugh, that God would come as a baby, born to faithful, singing Mary. Come back tomorrow to laugh with joy, to sing the song, to welcome your king. Amen.


And now may the peace that passes all human understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

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