4th Sunday of Advent, 2015

4th Sunday of Advent, year C, 2015 (preached 12/20/15)

first reading:  Micah 5:2-5a

psalm:  Luke 1:46b-55

second reading:  Hebrews 10:5-10

gospel reading:  Luke 1:39-45


Church of the Visitation, Israel, photograph by Deror Avi

Church of the Visitation, Ein Karem, Israel, photo by Deror Avi

Today’s psalm and gospel readings are part of the same story, what we call “The Visitation.”  Shortly after Mary became pregnant, she went to spend time with her cousin Elizabeth, who was also pregnant.

We learn earlier in Luke’s gospel that Elizabeth was about 6 months pregnant when Mary’s visit took place, while Mary was still very early on in her pregnancy. One author I read commented that The Visitation is a wonderful human interest story, but that its primary function is theological.  I disagree.

I think it’s a wonderful human interest story PRECISELY because it tells us a great deal theologically.  And I think it makes an amazing theological statement PRECISELY because it’s intimately involved in humanity.  I don’t separate human interest and theology.  Not only that, I don’t think GOD does either.

So, what is so profound about The Visitation?  WHY is it such a good human interest AND theological story?

The human part is pretty clear.

Mary had been visited by an angel, who told her she would conceive and bear a son even though she was still a virgin. Elizabeth, who was beyond normal childbearing age and up till then childless, was having an “unexpected” pregnancy herself, after an angel appeared to her husband Zechariah announcing that their child would be born.

Both women had concerns and fears I’m sure.  We read earlier that Mary was perplexed and pondering.  Her condition was not easily explained – and in that time and place an out of marriage pregnancy could be a deadly scandal.

For Elizabeth, the concerns and fears might also have been deadly.  Many women died in childbirth, and for older women the odds were even greater.  As thrilled as she was to be pregnant, I’m sure Elizabeth was also frightened for herself.

So we have two women with very unexpected pregnancies that were announced by ANGELS.  That makes for a definite human interest story.  Not only that, but for a religious book that is dominated by men, here the men are unseen and unheard, except for a little leaping in the womb.

This story is all about the women – and of course about God.

Intertwined with the human story of the women is the story of GOD – God choosing to become part of human history.  That’s the whole point of Christmas after all, isn’t it?  God taking on our flesh – our flesh holding God.

God chooses not only to preside OVER human history, but to become PART of it, to step into our lives.

And by choosing to do so, God makes Godself part of every moment, the good and the bad, the joy and sorrow, success and failure.  When God became one of us in Jesus, God became a part of Mary and Elizabeth’s joys and fears – and even their grief – OUR grief.

It struck me, as I prayed and pondered these passages, that the story of The Visitation isn’t only about two pregnant women – it’s also the story of two women who would bury their children.

Elizabeth and Mary would know the joy of motherhood, but also its unimaginable grief with the death of their sons.

As I reminded (one of our parishioners) when I visited with her on Friday – we need to remember that Christmas isn’t just the story of the happy baby – it’s the story of the baby who would die.  The joy of this moment of visitation is colored by our knowledge that John would be beheaded and Jesus crucified.

God through Jesus CHOOSES to become a part of this mess we call life.

Not just the line from the popular song, “God is watching us, from a distance.”  NO.  God is NOT just watching us from a distance, God is WITH us.  God knows it all, experiences it all, WITH us.

This is the gift of Christmas.  It’s not happy or sappy.  It’s not “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” or “Holly Jolly Christmas.”  It’s not about inflatable snowmen, or Santas, or mistletoe.  It’s more like “In the Bleak Midwinter,” and “the hopes and fears of all the years.”

It’s a couple with no place to stay.  A young woman with her husband, forced to give birth away from their family and friends – in a BARN.  It’s not about fancy nurseries and cribs – it’s a feed box filled with straw.  It’s what Mary sings in her song – that God has come to lift up those who are lowly and hungry – to bring MERCY.

Our culture puts a lot of pressure on Christmas to be happy and sappy, because our culture doesn’t want to deal with life’s underside.

People would much rather fight an imaginary “war on Christmas,” than look at their own shortcomings in loving their neighbors and themselves and God.

People don’t want to connect Christmas with Good Friday, but when we don’t connect the two – then the consumerism and the inflatable snowmen win.  When we don’t connect Christmas with Good Friday we feel guilt over our grief and/or sadness because we feel it doesn’t belong, that there is something wrong with US.  When we don’t connect Christmas with Good Friday then all we celebrate is a baby and we stay lost in our sin.

We need Good Friday to be part of Christmas if Christmas is to have any depth, any real meaning in our faith.

God CHOOSING in love to be with us in all our moments from life to death is a profound theological truth.

It tells us that God loves us, strengthens us and carries us no matter where we are.

It tells us that God understands our fears, our grief and our anxieties.

So, as we approach Friday, some of us with joy and celebration, some with sadness, grief, or anxieties and fears, let us remember that God holds it all, and is WITH us through it all.

Emmanuel has come.

AMEN.

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