Sunday, December 20, 2009

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Luke 1: 39-45 (46-55)

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Here we are again. Even though it comes around every year, the Fourth Sunday of Advent always seems to sneak up on us. It’s a busy time. There’s such a lot to do and seemingly not enough time in which to do it. I’m feeling a sense of urgency, and I suspect you are too.
There’s certainly a sense of urgency among our neighbors over at Urban Ministries. What’s even more noticeable is the sense of unease that pervades the place. You can almost reach out and touch it. There are more bad moods and arguments in the soup kitchen line than there are at other times. Too many people show up on the food pantry days and we have to turn several away. Earlier in the year this news might not elicit a strong reaction, but now it may result in an angry outburst, pleading, or even tears. This year is particularly difficult given the high rate of unemployment.
Some folks at Urban Ministries have a sudden sense of focus that they didn’t have just a few weeks earlier. James (all the names are changed), who normally seems perpetually distracted, is all of a sudden focused on getting a bus ticket back home to visit his grown children. Annie, who’s normally a fairly laid-back woman, goes into high gear to assemble all the trimmings of Christmas for her children. Alvin, who normally just hangs out on the corner, is suddenly looking for a way to make a little cash. Between my minimal Spanish and Maria’s halting English I learn that she will leave no stone unturned to make sure she has an extra blanket for a visiting relative.
The time leading up to Christmas is stressful for most of us, but even more so for the poor and homeless. In a season that’s so often defined by buying, how hard it is for those with no money for gifts. In a season that glorifies the concept of being home for the holidays, how devastating it is to have no home at all. In a season that celebrates families getting together, how painful it is to have blood ties strained by poverty, addiction, or abuse. In a season known for feasting, how sad it is to have little to put on the table. Even attending a church service this time of year seems daunting for those without even a coin to drop in the collection plate. For the broken in purse and spirit, Christmas is anything but merry. It’s a season of embarrassment, even shame.
This season may be painful even for those who are more prosperous. The dark secret hidden underneath that pile of presents may be a huge credit card debt. Family gatherings may expose the estrangement that lies behind the hearty greetings and forced festiveness. Christmas may well be an emotional and logistical nightmare for those who must tread carefully in the minefield of split families and step-relations. The anxieties and addictions we’ve held in check the rest of the year may get the better of us now. If we’ve lost friends and family members this past year we feel their absence sorely. In this season even those of us who are rich in worldly goods may feel poor on some level. We truly need some good news right now!
Good news is exactly what we get from today’s Gospel. The thing is, it doesn’t look like good news at first. Think about Elizabeth and Mary for a moment. Talk about embarrassment and shame! Elizabeth is pregnant at an age far past the acceptable age for childbearing. Her earlier childlessness was a problem in her world, to be sure, but this latest development could be seen as strange or even ominous. After all, to everything there is a season, and Elizabeth’s season for childbearing should be long past. And what about Mary? What do you think the neighbors were saying about this poor, unmarried teenager who claimed that an angel told her that she would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit? And if that’s not enough, consider what will happen to Elizabeth’s and Mary’s unborn sons. John the Baptist will be beheaded by Herod, and Jesus will be crucified by the Romans. Does this sound like good news to you?
At this point we may want to pause a moment and reflect. God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s values may not be the same as ours. As we’ve seen time and time again, God works through people and in situations that may appear very unpromising to us. In fact, God does some of God’s best work with powerless people whose lives most of us would consider impossible.
As first century women in Palestine, Mary and Elizabeth were certainly powerless. In their culture women had very little standing. They weren’t just women, but they were poor women as well.
But God saw these women differently than their contemporaries did. Remember that God chose Moses to deliver the Ten Commandments despite Moses’ stutter. Remember that God chose David, a younger brother and a lowly shepherd, to be be God’s anointed. In the case of David, Samuel explains that “The Lord does not see as mortals see, they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” The world’s standards of excellence and prestige don’t matter to God. What matters is what God finds in our hearts.
Luke expects us to make the connection between Mary and God’s work with the lowly. Mary’s song—known as the Magnificat—echoes the song of Hannah in First Samuel. Luke wants us to know that this choice of a low-status person isn’t an isolated incident or a novelty. Luke wants to make sure we understand that this is the way that God works. God judges and selects people not by worldly criteria but by what Martin Luther King called the content of their character.
Our lesson from Hebrews reinforces this idea. God isn’t impressed by our outward and material actions and appearance but by our inward and spiritual condition manifested in obedience to God’s will. Hebrews tells us, “Sacrifices and burn offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me” and “See, I have come to do your will.” What God wants is an obedient and willing heart, not a big show. God isn’t interested in having us bow and scrape to prove our love for God. God would rather we incarnated God’s love for us and show forth God’s praise, as the Prayer Book says, “not only with our lips but in our lives.”
So God’s ways are not our ways, and if you look all over scripture you’ll find plenty of evidence. Isaiah announces God’s reversal of the so-called natural order of things by saying, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low.” Doesn’t that remind you of Mary’s words in today’s Gospel lesson? She says of God, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”
Mary’s next words announce that “God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” Where else in scripture have we heard words like these? We’ve heard them in the Beatitudes. Every one of the Beatitudes is a reversal of what we think is the usual order of things. We don’t think of the poor in spirit, or those who mourn, or the meek, or those who hunger and thirst for righteousness as blessed, yet Jesus says they are.
But Jesus in the Beatitudes and Luke in our reading today aren’t talking about how things are in their culture or in ours. They’re talking about who is blessed and who is valued in a community that looks forward to the coming of the kingdom. Here is real Gospel, good news about what the kingdom is like and good news about what and whom the kingdom values.
Jesus never said, blessed are the rich and powerful. God didn’t choose the daughter of the chief rabbi or the temple high priest to be the mother of Jesus. Instead, God chose Mary, a poor young girl from Nazareth. Jesus wasn’t born on a soft bed in a palace but on straw in a stable among the barnyard animals. The shepherds are the first to learn of Jesus’ birth in Luke’s Gospel. Remember, shepherds occupied the lowest rung of the social ladder.
Do you see the picture here? Jesus never said it was fun or lucky or enjoyable to be poor, but he said it was blessed. God is with the poor. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never run into Jesus at a country club or at the mall. I never even ran into him at Duke Divinity School. But I think I’ve met him in a soup kitchen a time or two, and I’m willing to believe he stays in the shelter from time to time.
God is with the poor, and poverty is only partly about money. There isn’t anyone among us who isn’t poor in some way. Many of us are poor in purse and many others of us are poor in health or poor in spirit. There is not a person on this planet who isn’t broken in some way or another. We all have our wounds, inside and out. This season, as we prepare to welcome God into our midst in the form of a homeless baby, let us welcome God into our brokenness so that it may be healed. Let us welcome God into our hearts and experience a transformation beyond any we could ever ask for or even imagine. Come Lord Jesus, heal us and save us. Amen.