Archives For Mary

The Visitation

Jason Micheli —  December 22, 2015 — Leave a comment

“In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country…” 

Luke 1.39

     Her hands kept shaking even after he departed from her.

     She gasped and only then realized she’d been holding her breath, waiting to see if he’d reappear as suddenly as he’d intruded upon her life. His words had lodged in her mind just as something new was supposedly lodged inside her. He must’ve seen how terrified she was. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ he’d said to her.

In those moments after he departed, she just stood there, looking around her bedroom. The posters on the wall, the books on the shelf, the homework on the desk, the dirty laundry on the floor in the corner- in the aftermath of an angel’s glow, it all seemed very ordinary.

It was an unlikely place for a ‘visitation.’ There wasn’t anything there in her bedroom to confuse it for a holy place. It was just ordinary.

Looking around her room, she caught a glance of her reflection in the mirror. And so was she: ordinary, not anyone that anyone else should ever remember or notice, not someone you’d pick out like a single star in all the sky.

Yet, that’s just what he’d told her.

She’d been chosen. Somehow, in the days ahead of her or already right now, God would come to exist in her belly.

The thought made her shake again.

She looked out her window, up at the multitude of stars in the night sky.

‘Do not be afraid,’ he’d told her.

Those same words, she knew, had been spoken long ago to Abraham.

Do not be afraid, Abraham had been told in the moments before God pointed to the stars in the sky and dared Abraham to count them, dared Abraham to imagine and believe that for as many stars as there were in the sky so his descendants would be.

She liked the thought, as unbelievable as it sounded, that through her and her baby the whole world would be blessed.

Still, she knew enough scripture to know that the angel’s words, ‘Do not be afraid,’ were auspicious words. She knew the child promised by God to Abraham and Sarah was the same child whose sacrifice God later required.

She knew the story- it was the sort of story you can’t forget even if you’d like to- how God one day told Abraham that the promised son would have to suffer and be sacrificed on top of a mountain. How the son obeyed and followed his father’s will all the way up the mount, carrying wood. How they built an offering place up there. How the son was spared only when it was clear how far the father would go.

She used to wonder how God could ask anyone to give up something so precious.

But now, looking out at the stars and rubbing her belly, she wondered about Sarah, Abraham’s wife, the boy’s mother, and what Sarah would have done if God had asked her to follow her boy to his death.

The wondering made her shake again. ‘Don’t be afraid’ she whispered to herself.

 

As the late night turned to early morning she resolved to leave home.

A part of her wanted to see for herself the truth of the angel’s words growing inside Elizabeth.

A still bigger part of her knew the angel’s news would make her a stranger now in her own home, perhaps a stranger forever.

Nazareth was a small town; in a town that size there’s no room to hide.

And she didn’t want to be at home when her body started to change, when the neighbors started whispering questions about legitimacy.

And she didn’t want to remain at home and face her fiance, not yet. The angel could say nothing is impossible but she knew, chances were, everyone would suspect the worst about her before they’d believe the truth.

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With haste, she packed her belongings into a duffel.

She folded her jeans and some blouses and wondered how long she’d fit into them. She zipped her bag shut and sadly glanced at the wedding dress hanging in her closet. Seeing it, she knew it would be too small on her wedding day, should that day ever come.

‘Favored one,’ that’s what he’d called her. Favored one. But now, hurrying before anyone else in the house awoke, it seemed more burden than blessing.

     ‘Favored one.’ 

She hadn’t known what to make of such a greeting when she first heard it.

    ‘Favored one.’ 

Hannah had received that same greeting. Hannah, who hadn’t let the gray in her hair or the crow’s feet around her eyes stop her from praying ceaselessly for God to fill her barren womb with a child.

Eli, the haggard priest, had called Hannah ‘favored one’ just before he spilled the news of her answered prayer.

But packing the last of her things and clicking off the bedroom lights she recalled that  even for Hannah a blessing from God wasn’t so simple. Even for Hannah the blessing was also a summons.

Hannah had prayed holes in the rug for a child but as soon as Hannah weaned her son, God called her to give her boy to Eli, the priest. Hannah’s boy was to be consecrated.

Tiptoeing through the dark hallway, she wondered how Hannah had explained that to her husband. She wondered what it had been like for Hannah, who lost out on all the memories a mother counts on: his first words, learning to walk, the first day of school, homecoming and his wedding day.

Everything Hannah had wanted when she’d wanted a child sacrificed for the purpose God had for her boy.

Hannah- she’d been called ‘favored one’ too.

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Leaving her house in the cold moonlight, she thought that God’s favor was also a kind of humiliation, that God’s call was also a call to suffer.

‘Let it be with me according to your word,’ she’d told him when she could think of nothing else to say. But if she prayed now for God to let this cup pass from her, would he?

‘Let it be with me according to your word,’ she’d said.

Standing out under the streetlight and looking back at the house where she’d grown up, she realized it wasn’t that simple.

Things would never be simple again.

 

Elizabeth lived in the country outside Jerusalem, several days journey from Nazareth. She’d stop in villages along the way to draw water from their wells.

She knew what others must have thought: a young girl, a single woman, resting at a well all by herself raised eyebrows.

It was in those moments with men and women staring at her, making assumptions and passing judgments, she wondered if the angel knew what sort of family her baby would be grafted onto.

Names like Rahab and Ruth leapt out, a prostitute and a foreigner. Not the sort of family you’d expect to be chosen.

She wondered what that said God.

And what her boy would one day make of it.

At night she camped out in the fields along the road where the only noise came from the shepherds and their flocks.

She got sick for the first time out there in the fields.

It was then she began to wonder about the stranger she would bring into the world. Who will this be? she thought. Here is something that is most profoundly me, my flesh and my blood, the sheer stuff of me, depending on me and vulnerable to me. And yet not me, strange to me, impenetrable to me.

She’d asked him there in the room how it would happen. She hadn’t gotten much in the way of explanation.

“The power of the most high will overshadow you’ is how he’d answered.

‘Overshadow’ was the word he’d used. She was sure of it.

She still didn’t know how that worked exactly. She hadn’t felt anything. But she knew that word, ‘overshadow.’ 

It’s what God did with the ark of the covenant when David brought the ark to Jerusalem with dancing and jubilation and not a little bit of fear. The power of the most high overshadowed the ark.

And before that when God delivered Israel from bondage and led them to freedom through the wilderness, in the tabernacle, the presence and power of God overshadowed.

Now, the most high had overshadowed her, and, if the angel could be believed, God was about to deliver on an even bigger scale.

Sleep came hard those nights on the road.

She’d look up at the sky and rub her nauseous stomach. It made her dizzy trying to comprehend it:
, as though her womb was now an ark; how the hands and feet she’d soon feel pushing and kicking inside her were actually the promises of God.

Made flesh.

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As soon as she saw Elizabeth in the distance she knew it was true. All of it.

Seeing Elizabeth, it hit her how they were immeasurably different.

Elizabeth’s child will be seen by all as a blessing from God. Elizabeth will be praised, the stigma of her barrenness finally lifted.

But for Mary, as soon as she started to show, it would be different.

A young girl, engaged, suddenly pregnant, with no ring on her finger, no father in sight and her fiance none the wiser? That invited more than just a stigma. She could be stoned to death.

She could see from the end of the road the beautiful contradiction that was Elizabeth: the gray wiry hair, the wrinkled face and stooped back, and the 6 month pregnant belly.

To be sure, Elizabeth was a miracle but it was not unheard of. Sarah, Hannah…Mary had grown up hearing stories of women like Elizabeth.

Mary knew: hers was different.

An unexpected, miraculous birth wasn’t the same thing as a virgin birth.

With Mary, it was as if the angel’s message- God’s words- alone had flicked a light in the darkness of her womb.

Life from nothing- that was the difference.

Not from Joseph or anyone else.

From nothing God created life.

Inside her.

From nothing.

The same way, she thought, God created the heavens and the earth: from nothing.

The same way God created the sun and the sea and the stars.

The same way God created Adam and Eve.

From nothing.

As though what she carried within her was creation itself.

The start of a new beginning.

To everything.

For everyone.

A Genesis and an ultimate reversal all in one.

As she walked up Elizabeth’s driveway, she considered the costs that might lie ahead, and with her hand on her stomach she whispered to herself: “The Lord has done great things for me.”lightstock_55124_small_user_2741517

michelangelo_pieta_grtI’m in Ohio this week for my grandfather’s funeral.

Six years ago I attended the funeral of my other grandfather. His death occurred in the winter, just before Advent.

This is the Advent sermon I preached shortly after his burial. Though the sermon is about Mary’s ‘Let it be…’ I think it’s still appropriate for Holy Week, for this is the week we confront the full measure of Mary’s words.

November 30, 2008

This past weekend I helped Father Stephen Bloom bury my father’s father.

It was the first time I’ve participated with the funeral of someone in my own family. The service was held at St. Charles Catholic Church in Northern Ohio. In the sanctuary, stained glass scenes wrapped around the pentagonal spire. In the center was a picture of creation. To its left, the disciples were fishing in what looked like the Ohio River. Next to it, Jesus was feeding loaves and fishes to a multitude of hungry factory workers.

Carved, wooden reliefs of the Stations of the Cross lined the circumference of the cross-shaped sanctuary, and in front of the front pew where I sat with my sister was a copper drum filled with baptismal water.

I watched numbly as Father Bloom draped a pall over my grandpa’s oak casket- the casket’s pewter crucifix bulging through the pall’s gray cloth. I watched as the Father took what looked like twiney bristles from a broom and flicked baptismal water over my grandpa.

Try as I might I didn’t really hear any of the scripture readings read by my cousins and I sang along to the 23rd Psalm without really thinking- but then, maybe that’s the point of such familiar words.

I spoke and when I was done I watched Father Bloom celebrate Mass for the Catholic members of my family. I knelt in the front pew and watched while others received the sacrament.

Now, there was a statue of Mary with her hands folded together on the wall in the front end of the sanctuary. While I was on my knees- because of the architecture and lines of the room- I noticed that it looked like Mother Mary was standing directly above my grandfather, praying for him. A sight my Protestant eyes are unused to seeing.

In fact, Mary was more of a fixture in my grandpa’s funeral service than I was prepared for.

During the intercessory prayer when the priest intoned over and again: ‘Blessed Mary, pray for us…’ I wasn’t sure whether or not I should join in and echo back.

And during the committal, when Father Bloom placed his hands on my grandpa’s casket and prayed: ‘May angels guide you and may Holy Mother Mary come forth to welcome you and lead you into the Holy City’ I didn’t know whether to say ‘Amen’ or ‘Hold on just a minute!’

When it comes to Mary, it’s my experience that most Protestant Christians know more about what they do not believe than they actually know about her.

For example, as a Protestant I know I don’t believe that Mary, after Jesus’ birth, was forever, perpetually a virgin. Nor do I believe that Mary herself was immaculately, miraculously conceived in her mother’s womb.

As a Protestant Christian I know I’m supposed to shake my head ‘no’ at the notion that- rather than suffering death- Mary, like Elijah, was lifted up into heaven. And I know that Mary is not the one whom I worship. Mary is not the one who decides my salvation and praying to her seems to walk a suspicious line.

When it comes to Mary, I know what I don’t believe.

I know too that we could rename this church St. Matthew’s, St. Paul’s or St. Stephens. We change the sign out front to read Faith or Wesley or Collingwood Community United Methodist Church. No one would ever let us get away with St. Mary’s United Methodist Church.

As a Protestant Christian, I know Mary’s name would be off limits but, to be honest, I don’t know why.

After all, Mary’s name comes up 217 times in the New Testament, nearly as many times as Peter or Paul. When almost everyone else has given up and fled, it’s Mary who’s at the foot of Jesus’ cross. And if she was in Jerusalem for Jesus’ arrest and trial then chances are she was by his side throughout his entire ministry.

As a Protestant Christian I know what I don’t believe about Mary, but why is it I forget that when Pentecost comes and the Holy Spirit descends like fire on the faithful, Mary is among those set loose to prophesy and proclaim?

Or that when Luke describes the early church breaking bread, praying and sharing their possessions with one another, Mary is one of the few leaders he identifies by name.

Most commentaries on today’s passage go out of their way to stress how the Annunciation is a story of God’s initiative and power. When Gabriel climbs in through Mary’s bedroom window, it’s God’s grace at work. You don’t see Him but God is the main character here.

The Annunciation, these commentators stress, is a display that God can work through the unlikely and unable- just like with Sarah, Hannah and Elizabeth. What God can do through Mary’s womb is just a foretaste of what God can accomplish on a Cross.

Nothing, after all, is impossible with God.

It’s a story of God’s initiative. It’s not a story set in motion by Mary’s goodness- that’s all you need to remember in order to be a good Protestant. But once you’ve gotten that bit of doctrine nailed down, what else do we say about Mary?

Because there’s got to be more to say.

For most of us, Mary disappears from Jesus’ story as soon as the Christmas crèche is put away, but it’s ridiculous to think that once he’s born Mary simply disappears from Jesus’ life.

If Jesus is fully human, if the paradox is true and he’s as much flesh and blood as you or me, then someone taught Jesus his aleph, bet and gimmels.

Someone taught him to pray. Jesus sat on someone’s lap and learned the meaning of his name: God saves.

Someone taught him to treat others like he would want to be treated. When other children were mean to him, someone probably patted Jesus’ back and said ‘forgive them for they know not what they do.’

And once a year someone sat Jesus around the family supper table and broke bread and poured out wine and taught Jesus to remember the violent night when God rescued them from bondage.

Someone kept faith and kept Gabriel’s promise alive during those growing up years when the angel’s promise was anything but obvious- and that someone was probably Mary.

Mary was most likely only 13- certainly no older than 16. She was poor, from a poor, obscure town.

Maybe she was dreaming or praying or planning her wedding day when the angel Gabriel erupts in her room and surprises her with the news that just like the opening day of creation God was about to bring a very big something from nothing.

But the biggest surprise has to be that Mary says ‘Yes.’

A surprise because Mary says ‘Let it be’ to Gabriel, many months before she says ‘I do’ to Joseph.

Mary and Joseph were not yet married but Mary’s betrothal to him was legally binding in 1st century Judaism. She couldn’t yet sleep with Joseph, but she could be charged with adultery should she sleep with another man.

Maybe Gabriel didn’t know that but you can bet Mary did.

Don’t forget. No one else is in the room when the angel breaks the news. What’s Mary supposed to tell people- that the Holy Spirit overshadowed her and she’s pregnant with the long-promised Messiah?

As far as public scrutiny went, God was asking Mary to become an unwed, teenage mother.

When Mary says ‘Yes’ to Gabriel, she’s saying ‘Yes’ to being labeled an adultress.

People would question the integrity of her marriage. People would gossip about her son’s real father. People would curse her, shun her, call her names not fit for church or temple and they would wish disaster on her pregnancy. Her husband’s reputation would be ruined and her son would be forever ostracized.

You see, Luke doesn’t spell it out in his Gospel because he assumes you know what treatment Mary can expect to receive for saying ‘Yes’ to God’s calling.

According to Old Testament law, for her untimely pregnancy, if accused Mary would have her clothes torn and her body exposed. She’d be forced to let her down. She’d be displayed at the town entrance where the public and passersby would be encouraged to stare at her and shame her.

If Mary protested or denied any wrongdoing, then, according to Numbers 5, Mary would be forced by a priest to drink a bitter concoction mixed of dust, ink from her written condemnation and holy water.

If the potion made her sick, then she was guilty and, according to Deuteronomy 22, she would be led to the town gate. There, she would be stoned.

Mary’s suffering begins 33 years and 9 months before her son’s suffering.

She carries her cross before Jesus even learns to walk.

That’s what Luke assumes you know when he tells us that Mary was “troubled” by the angel’s news.

What’s remarkable is that, in spite of the many risks, Mary says: ‘Let it be with me according to your word.’

Unlike Moses or Jonah or Jeremiah, Mary doesn’t protest: Isn’t there an easier way? Can’t you choose someone else? Can’t you wait until next spring when Joseph and I are married? Can’t you send out a press release so everyone will know who his real father really is? But I’m afraid.

Mary doesn’t protest. She just says: ‘Yes.’

As a Protestant Christian, I know what I don’t believe about Mary, but how is it that I so easily miss the fact that, in the middle of Galilee, was an ordinary girl whose faith had prepared her to make a risk-filled commitment to God?

My skepticism about her perpetual virginity or her assumption into heaven doesn’t change the fact that Mary knew and trusted God in a way no one had since Abraham.

The only explanation for Mary’s unhesitating ‘Yes’ is that she knew God, in his mercy, would look after her.

She knew that following God doesn’t necessarily lead to comfort or safety or material blessing, but it does guarantee that God will use you to be a blessing to the world.

Mary must have known the stories of people like Ruth, Tamar, and Rahab- she must have known that more often than not God uses ordinary people with ordinary means and ordinary gifts to do redemption’s work.

Mary knew that faith in our God doesn’t exempt you from hardship or struggle, but it does mean you’ll never be alone. You’ll never be forgotten. You’ll never be abandoned.

If you were to tell the story of my grandfather’s life, you would find that it’s a simple story to tell. Still, in the telling of it, you would, from time to time, have to use words like: FEAR, WORRY, DESPAIR and DEPRESSION.

Depending on which part of my grandpa’s story you were telling, you would have to use other words like: ADDICTION, INFIDELITY, ANGER, ILLNESS, GRIEF, LONELINESS.

Because of my parent’s divorce and our having moved away, I hadn’t seen much of my grandpa since I was 12 or 13 so I don’t honestly know what role faith played in my grandpa’s story.

But I know enough of his story to know that faith could have made all the difference.

It was only 10 degrees at my grandfather’s burial- so cold that Father Bloom’s numb fingers couldn’t turn the pages of his prayer book when it came time for the final prayer and benediction.

Standing at the head of my grandpa’s casket, Father Bloom improvised. He looked at the living gathered around my grandpa and said: May the grace of Jesus Christ fill you, and may the faith and obedience of Mary guide you. 

You could see my breath hit the cold air so loudly did I say: Amen.

Rubens-adoration_des_magesFor the 4th Sunday of Advent, we did something a little different. The text was Mary’s Magnificat in Luke, a song Mary takes from the Old Testament Matriarch, Hannah, and makes her own. A cover song so to speak. A sample.

With Mary as my muse, I decided to prepare 5 different beginnings to a sermon.

We spun a wheel to choose a beginning at random. I preached that introduction and then tagged in to Dennis Perry who, like Mary, had to take my words and make them his own and then I finished up where Dennis leaves off.

I’d almost forgotten, but here’s the video from the 4th service that weekend. The theme chosen at random was ‘virgin birth.’

 

Mary’s Cover Song

Jason Micheli —  January 2, 2014 — Leave a comment

401px-Adoration_of_the_Shepherds-Caravaggio_(1609)For the 4th Sunday of Advent, we did something a little different. The text was Mary’s Magnificat in Luke, a song Mary takes from the Old Testament Matriarch, Hannah, and makes her own. A cover song so to speak. A sample.

With Mary as my muse, I decided to prepare 5 different beginnings to a sermon. We spun a wheel to choose a beginning at random. I preached that introduction and then tagged in to Dennis Perry who, like Mary, had to take my words and make them his own.

Obviously, I only have the introductory text for each sermon but here it is. You can listen to one of the 4 services here or download it in iTunes or, even better, download the free mobile app.

 

      1. Mary's Cover Song

Cover Song

Not knowing what to expect once she learns from Gabriel that she’s expecting, Mary travels to her cousin Elizabeth’s house.

Elizabeth is like the photo negative of Mary.

     Both women are pregnant with the promises of God and both unbelievably so. Whereas Mary is young- a virgin- Elizabeth is old enough that she and her husband’s hope for a child had long since past its expiration date.

When Mary sees Elizabeth, she bursts out in prophecy. She sings a song. We call it the Magnificat because of that first line: ‘My soul magnifies…’ Perhaps because we’ve given it a unique title, called it the Magnificat, most Christians don’t realize the song isn’t original to Mary.

It’s a cover song.

Actually it’s more like a sample. From the song Hannah sings when she learns, despite her own unlikely circumstances, that she will give birth to a son. Samuel.

Mary samples Hannah’s song and makes it her own.

In other words, Mary takes someone else’s words and, spontaneously, she uses them to proclaim.

This weekend Dennis and I thought that, rather than just preach about what Mary proclaims, we would instead actually do what Mary did. We thought we would take someone else’s words and, spontaneously, use them to proclaim the Gospel.

So, imagine I’m the Old Testament matriarch, Hannah.

Here’s how it’s going to work.

I’ve written five different beginnings to a sermon. Without Dennis’ input or knowledge.

All four halves of sermons are about Mary.

We’ll spin the wheel to find out which beginning we’ll begin with. I’ll preach that beginning of the sermon and then I’ll tag out to Dennis.

Like Mary, Dennis will have to take my words and, in the moment, use them to proclaim something that’s cause for rejoicing.

Sermon #1: 

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”  

– Matthew 1

Growing up, I always felt this sneaking suspicion that Christmas for me and my family wasn’t what Christmas was for other families. I suspected as much because I knew that my family wasn’t like other families. Norman Rockwell didn’t paint many quaint images of a children sitting around a tree wondering if their Dad would actually come home that night.

Many of us want to experience a perfect Christmas every year, but perfect experiences require perfect people and I don’t know many of those.

And I doubt you know many either.

Nonetheless, Christmas is a time when many of us feel the need to pretend.

And those without the wherewithal to pretend simply conclude that they don’t belong in this story celebrated by the people better than themselves.

It’s odd that so many of us would think this time of year demands either perfection or pretense from us. It’s odd because the Gospel story itself makes absolutely no pretense about how imperfect was the family into which Jesus is born.

It’s all right there in the lengthy genealogy of Jesus which Matthew provides at the beginning of the Gospels. The genealogy is, in fact, the beginning of Matthew’s Christmas story.

The matter-of-fact list of names strikes the average reader as needless, boring prologue to the Gospel story proper. Readers anxious to get on with the meat of the story miss what Matthew might want us to know by telling us Jesus’ lineage in groups of fourteen.

Fourteen, in the Old Testament, is a perfect number- a number which represents completion. Readers in a hurry during the Christmas season risk failing to notice how in all of Matthew’s begats there are some names which shouldn’t be there if a traditional, legitimate- not to mention respectable- genealogy is what Matthew has in mind.

If you know your bible then you know Jesus’ family tree resembles what would happen if Jerry Springer wrote the season finale for House of Cards.

Jesus’ family has liars and cheats in it, adulterers and murderers, prostitutes and illegal immigrants. The branches of Jesus’ family tree betray secrets like incest and political intrigue and even a woman who got pregnant out of wedlock.

So what is Matthew getting at by beginning things with this imperfect family tree?

You can’t answer that question in isolation from what immediately precedes and proceeds the genealogy.

Before this family tree, before the New Testament begins, the Old Testament had ended and God had been silent for over 400 years.

What God had begun in the Garden. all the promises God had made to his People, were over. It seemed. There was nothing now but the darkness and chaos of exile.

And then Matthew begins the New Testament with a list of begats. And that list of begets begins with the word ‘genesis’ which we translate as ‘in the beginning.’

Sound familiar? It’s how the Hebrew Bible begins the creation story.

And then after the family tree, Matthew tells us how ‘Yeshua’ will be born of/from a virgin; in other words, God will bring forth the Messiah ‘out of nothing’ (ex nihilo) from a virgin’s womb.

God doesn’t require procreation in order to create.

God’s Word will create something from nothing.

We affirm the virgin birth every time we recite the Apostles’ Creed, yet often I wonder if its really more like lip service with which we treat the ancient doctrine.

For many Christians, I suspect, the virgin birth is more like a museum piece of Christian belief- an artifact that belonged to those who came before us.

The doctrine today strikes many as curious and weighted with superstition, others as a ‘miracle story’ with little immediate relevance to the incarnation and still others as an embarrassing fragment of the faith that should be hidden away to make the faith more palatable to enlightened, modern minds.

For those who have no trouble affirming the virgin birth, the doctrine instead becomes a sort of litmus test upon which all of Christian belief rests. Ever since Charles Darwin made the Church’s life more complicated, the virgin birth has been one of the ‘fundamentals’ for evangelicals. Thus all the emphasis is put on believing the virgin birth rather than on what Matthew intends by it.

Few ever give attention to what Matthew may have intended by linking the word ‘genesis’ to a list of less than perfect people and then following it with news of a birth out of nothing. A virgin birth.

The bible is the story of salvation but it starts with the story of creation which we call Genesis. The gospel is the story of salvation but it begins with a story of creation which Matthew calls “genesis.”

 

And just as the beginning of the Bibles speaks of a genesis from nothing, the Book of Matthew speaks about a genesis from nothing, from a virgin birth.

 

And all of it is brought about by the Holy Spirit.

 

You see, all of this is Matthew’s way of telling us that Christmas, the incarnation, is the beginning of God re-making creation. Jesus is the genesis of God’s New Creation such that if you or I are in Christ, then, Paul says, we are a new creation.

 

And that’s why Matthew can put these embarrassing, shameful characters in Jesus’ family tree and make a part of the Christmas story. That’s why we don’t have to be perfect or pretend that we are to be a part of this Christmas story.

Because no matter who we are, what we’ve done, from where we come if we’re in Christ we’re a new creation.

Sermon #2: 

‘He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.’ 

– Luke 1 

We’ve had a mission team in Guatemala this past week. They’ve been working to complete the village-wide sanitation project you all helped fund during Lent.

This is the first Advent I’ve not led the team, and I regret it.

I do so because working and living and worshipping in the Highlands in Guatemala during Advent was how Mary first came alive to me as a character in scripture.

I mean you read or hear about how Mary was very likely poor, coming from a no-account town like Nazareth. You can read or hear about how Mary was very likely only 13 years old, but the Mary of scripture really comes alive when you’re sitting in a little church in Guatemala next to an impoverished 13 year old girl named Maria, who has little education, fewer hopes and a baby strapped on her back.

It was that Mary who, several years ago, whispered to me in Spanish how many Christians in Guatemala didn’t know the Magnificat. Because, she said, Guatemala’s dictators had banned any public reading of Mary’s song in Guatemala.

Mary, Jesus’ mother, was deemed too politically subversive.

It’s remarkable how easily we disguise the Christmas story with sentimentality.

We even hear much talk about how Jesus ‘is the reason for the season,’ yet the reason for his coming is never precisely explained.

We talk about the ‘War on Christmas’ but we’re not talking about King Herod and his death squads we’re talking about how we’re greeted at Tyson’s Corner.

When we allow ourselves to be vague and even sentimental about Jesus’ coming, we inadvertently allow Christmas to get abstracted away from Jesus’ life, teaching and death.

What does Christmas then have to do with the rest of the Gospel?

Or is it, as it seems to many, just an origins story designed to satisfy our curiosity or prove the fulfillment of prophecy?

Or does Jesus come down from heaven, as many Christians seem to suggest, just so we can invite him into our hearts and go up to heaven?

What does Christmas have to do with the rest of the story?

It’s odd that we should be so uncertain about the reasons for Jesus’ coming when his mother Mary is quite explicit about what Gabriel’s news means.

She even puts in a song so it’ll be easier for us to remember.

What does Mary sing about?

She sings about the Lord’s mercy to those who fear Him.

She sing about God’s generosity to the poor and hungry and God’s hostility to the proud and rich.

She sings about a King- she is, after all, engaged to a man from King David’s family.

Mary doesn’t sing about the forgiveness of sins or going to heaven when we die. Mary doesn’t sing about how her boy will one day give us timeless principles to live by.

Mary sings about God making good on his promise to Abraham, his promise to Abraham that through Abraham God would set the world right, bring forth a New Creation.

Mary sings about a Messiah who will topple the kings of the world and then rule AS King of Creation.

As confused as we can sound about the purpose behind Jesus’ coming, Mary knows in an instant how to interpret Gabriel’s news. The one she will bear will be the one to bring God’s promise to Abraham to fulfillment.

Even though we often reduce Jesus to being an object of our personal piety, Mary, who perhaps has more cause than anyone to reduce Jesus to personal terms, understands that her boy’s birth will have much larger, political implications.

A few lessons we can draw from Mary’s song:

That Mary magnificates- literally ‘bursts forth’- with these particular words should tell us something about Mary’s faith and the hope to which she clinged.

No passive, pastel or one-dimensional character, Mary is someone who obviously longed for God to set things right in a broken world. Her faith was active and strong so that, when the moment presented itself, she already had the words within her to respond.

That Mary sings this song while Herod and Caesar are still very much on the throne tells us something of her courage. In the face of the world’s power, she boldly casts her lot with the newness God was about to wreak.

We’re so accustomed to seeing Mary painted with stoic, beatific hues we forget how really she was a woman ready to shake her fist at the powers of the world and call upon God’s power.

That Mary sings this Kingdom song not in the future tense (God will cast down the mighty…) but in the past tense (God has cast down…) should tell us something even deeper about Mary’s faith.

Despite the unlikelihood of a Messiah being born to a poor, unknown, teenage girl, despite the long odds that the kings of this world would ever give up their thrones- in spite of everything common sense might suggest, Mary is confident in God’s promises enough to sing as though God already accomplished them.

Mary knows that any promise of God is as good as done.

That Jesus’ very first sermon in the synagogue sounds an awful lot like Mary’s song is suggestive.

Mary’s boy grows up to express the reason for his coming in exactly the same terms Mary sings about here. Not only is she a woman of obvious faith, which we seldom acknowledge, she also has a hand in forming the faith of Jesus, which we never acknowledge.

So rather than being vague and sentimental about the reason for the season, maybe we should just consult Jesus for his reasons. Or his mother.

Sermon #3:

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.’ 

– Luke 1 

We’ve had a mission team in Guatemala this past week. They’ve been working to complete the village-wide sanitation project you all helped fund during Lent.

This is the first Advent I’ve not led the team, and I regret it.

I do so because working and living and worshipping in the Highlands in Guatemala during Advent was how Mary first came alive to me as a character in scripture.

I mean you read or hear about how Mary was very likely poor, coming from a no-account town like Nazareth. You can read or hear about how Mary was very likely only 13 years old, but the Mary of scripture really comes alive when you’re sitting in a little church in Guatemala next to an impoverished 13 year old girl named Maria, who has little education, fewer hopes and a baby strapped on her back.

Protestants have tended either to ignore Mary outright or to treat her exclusively as a Christmas character.

While she gives birth to the object of our faith, Christians don’t often consider Mary herself as a woman of faith.

Both Luke and Matthew agree in their nativity accounts that Mary became pregnant prior to her marriage with Joseph, a fact embarrassing enough for us to conclude that it must be true.

Not to mention, no one in Israel expected the Messiah to be born of a virgin so it’s odd that both Luke and Matthew would independently tell us that in their different ways.

Both Gospels agree as well that Joseph knew he was not the father of Mary’s child.

The darker side to the annunciation is that when Mary receives news she will become pregnant by the Holy Spirit, she is almost certainly hearing news which no one else will believe.

Nazareth was a small town. You can be sure wagging tongues and whispering gossip will almost certainly follow Mary from here on out, speculating as to the ‘true’ cause of Mary’s premature pregnancy.

According to custom, Mary would have been no older than sixteen when she became engaged. According to tradition, Joseph most likely was an older man, marrying for the second time.

According to Torah, because Mary and Joseph were betrothed, any sexual activity prior to her wedding day would have been understood as adultery not fornication (Deut 22.23).

What if a woman in Mary’s position claimed she had been raped? What if her husband had brought false charges against her? What if she flatly denied any wrongdoing?

For such murky, disputed circumstances, as I showed you last week, Numbers 5 prescribes the ‘law of bitter waters’ wherein a suspected adulteress would be brought before a priest, required to let down her hair, and under oath drink a mixture of ash, holy water and the ink from the priest’s written indictment.

What I didn’t share with you last week.

The woman’s oath in the bitter waters ritual goes like this: ‘May the Lord make me to become a curse among my people when he causes my womb to miscarry and swell.’

Whatever we may think today of such customs, this was the reality which governed Mary’s world. It was the reality in which she nonetheless, hearing Gabriel’s news, replies: ‘May it be…’

Mary would’ve known the likelihood she’d be accused of adultery. Just as surely she would have known the proscribed punishment she might receive.

Mary would’ve known how Torah insisted Joseph divorce her, and she certainly would’ve known that whatever child she gave birth to before marriage, regardless of the angel’s promises, forever would be regarded as an illegitimate child and banned from the cultural and religious life of Israel.

Still, in the face of all those likelihoods, Mary summons the courage to say ‘May it be with me according to your word.’

Over 1500 years ago, St Augustine preached a Christmas sermon in which described all the angels of heaven holding their breath and peeking down through the clouds, waiting to see if Mary would say ‘yes.’

The obvious conclusion we can draw from this scene is that Mary had a faith sufficient to say yes to the vocation God had for her.

We can assume Mary had faith that the God of Israel is merciful and would protect her.

We can assume Mary knew from her scripture stories of women- suspect women- who nonetheless played a part in God’s plan and were safeguarded and ultimately rewarded by God. Mary must have known, we can imagine, that God’s call is very often a summons to serve and to suffer for love’s sake.

When Mary assents to the annunciation, she does so knowing her life will never be the same. Her Nazareth, she had to have known, would never look at her the same way again.

It’s in Mary’s ‘Yes’ to God here in Luke 1 that we can spot for the first time the shadow of her Son’s cross.

If we allow Christmas to be merely about sentimentality, we miss how Mary suffers for the Messiah before the Messiah himself suffers.

Indeed one could speculate that Jesus learns suffering love and the demands of faithfulness on his mother’s knee.

Sermon #4: 

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host…saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”            

– Luke 2 

Megyn Kelly at Fox News caused quite a storm a few days ago by asserting on-air that both Santa and Jesus are white.

Never mind that Saint Nicholas was originally a 4th century Bishop of Turkey and so most definitely not white but you don’t necessarily need to know skin color or ethnicity to understand the story of Santa Claus. It’s incidental.

However, you do need to know Jesus’ ethnicity to understand his story. It’s the essential ingredient to the story.

To understand the Christmas story, you need to know that Jesus wasn’t white. He was a 1st century Jew from Nazareth.

And, perhaps just as importantly, so was his mother.

We can’t get too upset over Megyn Kelly’s misrepresentation of Jesus though.

We’re just as guilty as her.

In Roman Catholic tradition, Mary is most often depicted as beautific.

In our Christmas crèches, she’s gentle and passive. She’s sweet and fresh-faced on Hallmark cards, and in Christian art for two thousand years she has been somber, sober, soft and white-faced.

Making Mary and Jesus just like us is a way of making them a-political; that is, it’s a way of removing the politics from their story.

But what Luke knows is that Jesus is born with monsters at his manger and that Mary delivers him into the world at a cost to herself that we have difficulty imagining.

When the Holy Spirit overshadows her, the Spirit also, for all practical purposes, hangs a bulls-eye on Mary’s back.

By the time her belly begins to show, Caesar Augustus had already been emperor for longer than she’d been alive. Caesar ruled the known world, and he was revered for bringing “peace” to it- peace, by any means necessary.

While God was beginning to work a different plan in the shadows of Mary’s life, Caesar ruled a kingdom of absolute power, a kingdom that brought “glory” to the man on top and “peace to those on whom his favor rested.”

By her second trimester, 1500 miles away in Rome, Caesar will lift his little finger and a young Jewish couple will find themselves submitting to a census, to be taxed, to pay for Caesar’s brand of peace.

And by the end of her third trimester, in Israel, Caesar’s puppet, Herod, will hear news of a promise rising with a star and this young Jewish couple will find themselves hunted. Like so many other Jews before and after them.

Before Jesus grows and preaches one himself, Rome already had a gospel of its own. About their emperor, Roman citizens- ordinary men and women- would proclaim with thankful hearts: ‘Caesar Augustus, son of god, our savior, has brought peace to the whole world.’

To a first century world grown numb to the 24/7 headlines of war, the advent of Caesar was considered “good news.”

It can’t be accidental that when the angel Gabriel surprises Mary with an unexpected future, he tells her that the child she’s to bear will be called ‘son of God.’ 

     It can’t be accidental that when the angels break open the sky directly above the shepherds, they make a threateningly familiar proclamation: “…GOOD NEWS of great joya SAVIOR has been born.” 

     And then the angels all sing: ‘Glory to God in the highest…and on earth, PEACE TO THOSE ON WHOM GOD’S FAVOR RESTS.’  

No doubt the shepherds then tell the news to Mary.

When the wise men show up at the scene, Mary just as surely would’ve known that Herod’s interest in stars and babies was far from innocent.

For Mary, it could all add up to only one thing. If her son was Savior, then Caesar- even if he could compel a census- was not. If her boy was King, then Herod- even if he could hunt them- was not.

The annunciation makes Mary not just a mother. It makes her a Middle Eastern political refugee because Mary was delivering not only a baby but a new Gospel story.

And this new Gospel made Mary’s life dangerous. Gabriel didn’t have to spell it out, Mary knew that by saying ‘Let it be with me according to your Word’ Mary was agreeing to have God place her in the dangerous middle of two competing Kingdoms.

You see, Mary didn’t just have a baby entrusted to her. She had a different, dangerous story to steward safely.

It’s not just the fact of this new baby that sends Mary running into Egypt; it’s this new Gospel that makes her a target.

It’s this news that God was about to bring down the mighty and fill the poor with good things, that those who sit on thrones and in the halls of power don’t have the last word, that the limits and circumstances of our lives are never final.

Christians around the world and throughout history have venerated Mary for being sinless, chaste, and pure- for being the ideal woman and for having such faith that she was ready to say ‘Yes’ when God called her.

Yet Mary gets no credit for being someone who safeguards and shares the Gospel story at risk to herself. We owe Mary more than we think- we owe her the story we gather around this time every year.

I mean, we never stop to think: who was the first person to tell the Gospel story?

After Jesus is born, Gabriel is not heard from again. The shepherds go back to their flocks. The wise men return home. The Story stays with Mary.

Rome called Caesar SAVIOR and SON OF GOD. His rule was GOOD NEWS because he brought PEACE TO THOSE ON WHOM HIS FAVOR RESTED.

Not so subtly, the angels use those very same expressions to announce the birth of Christ. And not so safely it’s Mary who begins to tell the Story, no matter what it might cost her.

The Story of the Son’s birth and what it means and what it contradicts comes to us by word of the Mother.

When Mary runs for her boy’s life to Egypt, you can bet she holds this Story as closely to her as she holds her baby.

Behind our proclivities to picture her in gentle pinks and blues, Mary should be painted with the boldness that can face down empires.

Sermon #5: 

‘All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.’ 

– Acts 1, 2

I was surprised the first time I realized that Mary, after only Peter and Paul, receives the most mention in the New Testament- 217 mentions in the New Testament.

I was shocked the first time I read the beginning of Acts and noticed Mary’s name dropped in there among the list of those who comprised the first church.

A Christian legend holds that, following the crucifixion, the Beloved Disciple took Mary with him to Ephesus where they lived quietly and while he cared for her. It’s a legend that, perhaps unwittingly, portrays Mary as rendered helpless by her grief.

The legend abides and you’re likely to hear it repeated upon a visit to Ephesus today.

Luke, in Acts, gives us a much different take on Mary. There Mary is quietly mentioned as a leader in the Acts church, devoting herself along with everyone else to Jesus’ teaching, to the fellowship of the community, to the Eucharist and to prayer.

How is it we never think of Mary as one of the believers gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost in Acts?

How is it we never think of Mary as one of the disciples who receive the gift of tongues at Pentecost?

Yet surely, since she’s mentioned here along with the others, she also participated with them in the Pentecost miracle.

If Pentecost is a story of God unwinding the effects of Babel and creating a new community, a new family of God, then Mary is there at this new family’s birth, as one of its leaders.

I like to think that in the birth of this new community Mary finally sees the promise of Messiah coming true, that in the life of this new community the Jubilee she’d sang about in her magnificat was finally being fulfilled.

After all, here was a community ruled by love rather than thrones, a community where the lowly are indeed lifted up and the hungry filled because ‘everyone held everything in common.’

Just as she’d sang about before his birth, all of this is made possible by her Son.

What Mary must realize in Acts, little more than month after her Son’s death, is what she must have started to guess at the Annunciation: that God was bringing together a new People, a people distinguished not by the usual lines of blood or family but a people called together by the particular life which claimed them, a people brought forth not through simple biology but through practicing the life of Jesus.

20121124-123103.jpgThe Sunday of Advent is traditionally known as ‘Guadete Sunday‘ from the Latin for ‘joy.’

It’s the Sunday we focus on Mary and we light the pink (sexist, huh) advent candle.

The Third Sunday of Advent is also when churches traditionally read Mary’s song, the Magnificat, which is really equal parts Hannah’s song from the Old Testament and a Jubilee song.

Christians don’t often pause to muse over Mary’s words, in which she gives praise that her boy will be the one to shame the proud and powerful and send the rich away empty. Not what we normally associate with Christmas.

There’s a contradiction sitting square in the middle of the Nativity Story we seldom acknowledge:

What Mary thinks her child has come to do (turn the status quo on its head) and what Christians tend to think Jesus comes to do (die for our sin so we can go to heave when we die) couldn’t be more divergent. 

Sometimes it’s useful to have an outsider remind you of who you are and what you should be about. That’s the case with Jackson Browne’s unlikely Christmas Carol, ‘The Rebel Jesus.’

Looking ahead to hearing Mary’s Magnificat, there’s probably no better musical appetizer than Browne’s insight that her son came to question the status quo, challenge the authorities and customs of the day, and generally turn things upside down.

Here are the lyrics:

“The Rebel Jesus,” by Jackson Browne

All the streets are filled with laughter and light
And the music of the season
And the merchants’ windows are all bright
With the faces of the children
And the families hurrying to their homes
While the sky darkens and freezes
Will be gathering around the hearths and tables
Giving thanks for God’s graces
And the birth of the rebel Jesus

Well they call him by ‘the Prince of Peace’
And they call him by ‘the Savior’
And they pray to him upon the seas
And in every bold endeavor
And they fill his churches with their pride and gold
As their faith in him increases
But they’ve turned the nature that I worship in
From a temple to a robber’s den
In the words of the rebel Jesus

Well we guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why there are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus

Now pardon me if I have seemed
To take the tone of judgment
For I’ve no wish to come between
This day and your enjoyment
In a life of hardship and of earthly toil
There’s a need for anything that frees us
So I bid you pleasure
And I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan
On the side of the rebel Jesus

Every year at Advent, when the Mary scriptures come around, I compose what are generally received as terrible sermons. I don’t intend to but I’m also not surprised by the reaction. You see, Mary’s experience is so unique she is unlike any other character in scripture.  It’s also the case that the Protestant Church generally does her a disservice by ignoring her outright. To address the former and remedy the latter, I always try to write sermons that privilege Mary’s voice. I avoid making her an illustration of a larger point. I avoid making her experience analogous to our own. I avoid distilling her narrative down into ‘points.’

Instead I just try to let her story speak for itself, which proves difficult because that requires a lack of explanation listeners can find puzzling or just downright confusing. Of course, with Mary, there’s also the tricky issue of yours truly, an obviously manly man, assuming the voice of a woman but that’s an issue for another day.

For all their failure as sermons, Mary has given me some of the best writing I’ve done (at least I think so.)

Case in point- and definitely in the Final Four for Worst Sermon Ever- is this sermon,  ‘The Visitation,’ from a few years ago. The text was the visitation of Mary and Elizabeth in Luke. In it, I tried to narratively imagine Mary’s journey to Elizabeth’s house and the thoughts running through her head, having just been visited by the angel Gabriel. In doing so, I also attempted to weave into the text the many Old Testament narratives Mary’s story hearkens back to- something only bible nerds were able to notice because, again, I refused to stop and explain what I was doing.

So, terrible sermon but decent piece of writing for Advent.

——————————————————————————————-

Her hands kept shaking even after he departed from her.

She gasped and only then realized sheʼd been holding her breath, waiting to see if heʼd reappear as suddenly as heʼd intruded upon her life. His words had lodged in her mind just as something new was supposedly lodged inside her.

He mustʼve seen how terrified she was. ʻDonʼt be afraid,ʼ heʼd said to her.

In those moments after he departed, she just stood there, looking around her bedroom. The posters on the wall, the books on the shelf, the homework on the desk, the dirty laundry20121124-123103.jpg on the floor in the corner- in the aftermath of an angelʼs glow, it all seemed very ordinary.

It was an unlikely place for a ʻvisitation.ʼ There wasnʼt anything there in her bedroom to confuse it for a holy place. It was just ordinary.

Looking around her room, she caught a glance of her reflection in the mirror. And so was she: ordinary, not anyone that anyone else should ever remember or notice, not someone youʼd pick out like a single star in all the sky.

Yet, thatʼs just what heʼd told her.

Sheʼd been chosen. Somehow, in the days ahead of her or already right now, God would come to exist in her belly.

The thought made her shake again.

She looked out her window, up at the multitude of stars in the night sky.

ʻDo not be afraid,ʼ heʼd told her.
Those same words, she knew, had been spoken long ago to Abraham.
Do not be afraid, Abraham had been told in the moments before God pointed

to the stars in the sky and dared Abraham to count them, dared Abraham to imagine and believe that for as many stars as there were in the sky so his descendants would be.

She liked the thought, as unbelievable as it sounded, that through her and her baby the whole world would be blessed.

Still, she knew enough scripture to know that the angelʼs words, ʻDo not be afraid,ʼ were auspicious words. She knew the child promised by God to Abraham and Sarah was the same child whose sacrifice God later required.

She knew the story- it was the sort of story you canʼt forget even if youʼd like to- how God one day told Abraham that the promised son would have to suffer and be sacrificed on top of a mountain. How the son obeyed and followed his fatherʼs will all the way up the mount, carrying wood. How they built an offering place up there. How the son was spared only when it was clear how far the father would go.

 

She used to wonder how God could ask anyone to give up something so precious.

But now, looking out at the stars and rubbing her belly, she wondered about Sarah, Abrahamʼs wife, the boyʼs mother, and what Sarah would have done if God had asked her to follow her boy to his death.

The wondering made her shake again. ʻDonʼt be afraidʼ she whispered to herself.

As the late night turned to early morning she resolved to leave home.

A part of her wanted to see for herself the truth of the angelʼs words growing inside Elizabeth.

A still bigger part of her knew the angelʼs news would make her a stranger now in her own home, perhaps a stranger forever.

Nazareth was a small town; in a town that size thereʼs no room to hide.

And she didnʼt want to be at home when her body started to change, when the neighbors started whispering questions about legitimacy.

And she didnʼt want to remain at home and face her fiance, not yet. The angel could say nothing is impossible but she knew, chances were, everyone would suspect the worst about her before theyʼd believe the truth.

With haste, she packed her belongings into a duffel.

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She folded her jeans and some blouses and wondered how long sheʼd fit into them. She zipped her bag shut and sadly glanced at the wedding dress hanging in her closet. Seeing it, she knew it would be too small on her wedding day, should that day ever come.

ʻFavored one,ʼ thatʼs what heʼd called her. Favored one. But now, hurrying before anyone else in the house awoke, it seemed more burden than blessing.

ʻFavored one.ʼ

She hadnʼt known what to make of such a greeting when she first heard it.

ʻFavored one.ʼ

Hannah had received that same greeting. Hannah, who hadnʼt let the gray in her hair or the crowʼs feet around her eyes stop her from praying ceaselessly for God to fill her barren womb with a child.

Eli, the haggard priest, had called Hannah ʻfavored oneʼ just before he spilled the news of her answered prayer.

But packing the last of her things and clicking off the bedroom lights she recalled that even for Hannah a blessing from God wasnʼt so simple. Even for Hannah the blessing was also a summons.

Hannah had prayed holes in the rug for a child but as soon as Hannah weaned her son, God called her to give her boy to Eli, the priest. Hannahʼs boy was to be consecrated.

 

Tiptoeing through the dark hallway, she wondered how Hannah had explained that to her husband. She wondered what it had been like for Hannah, who lost out on all the memories a mother counts on: his first words, learning to walk, the first day of school, homecoming and his wedding day.

Everything Hannah had wanted when sheʼd wanted a child sacrificed for the purpose God had for her boy.

Hannah- sheʼd been called ʻfavored oneʼ too.

Leaving her house in the cold moonlight, she thought that Godʼs favor was also a kind of humiliation, that Godʼs call was also a call to suffer.

ʻLet it be with me according to your word,ʼ sheʼd told him when she could think of nothing else to say. But if she prayed now for God to let this cup pass from her, would he?

ʻLet it be with me according to your word,ʼ sheʼd said.

Standing out under the streetlight and looking back at the house where sheʼd grown up, she realized it wasnʼt that simple.

Things would never be simple again.

Elizabeth lived in the country outside Jerusalem, several days journey from Nazareth. Sheʼd stop in villages along the way to draw water from their wells.

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She knew what others must have thought: a young girl, a single woman, resting at a well all by herself raised eyebrows.

It was in those moments with men and women staring at her, making assumptions and passing judgments, she wondered if the angel knew what sort of family her baby would be grafted onto.

Names like Rahab and Ruth leapt out, a prostitute and a foreigner. Not the sort of family youʼd expect to be chosen.

She wondered what that said God.
And what her boy would one day make of it.
At night she camped out in the fields along the road where the only noise came from the shepherds and their flocks.

She got sick for the first time out there in the fields.
It was then she began to wonder about the stranger she would bring into the

world. Who will this be? she thought. Here is something that is most profoundly me, my flesh and my blood, the sheer stuff of me, depending on me and vulnerable to me. And yet not me, strange to me, impenetrable to me.

Sheʼd asked him there in the room how it would happen. She hadnʼt gotten much in the way of explanation.

“The power of the most high will overshadow youʼ is how heʼd answered. ʻOvershadowʼ was the word heʼd used. She was sure of it.

 

She still didnʼt know how that worked exactly. She hadnʼt felt anything. But she knew that word, ʻovershadow.ʼ

Itʼs what God did with the ark of the covenant when David brought the ark to Jerusalem with dancing and jubilation and not a little bit of fear. The power of the most high overshadowed the ark.

And before that when God delivered Israel from bondage and led them to freedom through the wilderness, in the tabernacle, the presence and power of God overshadowed.

Now, the most high had overshadowed her, and, if the angel could be believed, God was about to deliver on an even bigger scale.

Sleep came hard those nights on the road. Sheʼd look up at the sky and rub her nauseous belly. It made her dizzy trying to comprehend it: how she could carry within her the sign and the seal of the covenant, as though her womb was an ark; how the hands and feet sheʼd soon feel pushing and kicking inside her were actually the promises of God.

Made flesh.

As soon as she saw Elizabeth in the distance she knew it was true. All of it.

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Seeing Elizabeth, it hit her how they were immeasurably different.

Elizabethʼs child will be seen by all as a blessing from God. Elizabeth will be praised, the stigma of her barrenness finally lifted.

But for Mary, as soon as she started to show, it would be different.

A young girl, engaged, suddenly pregnant, with no ring on her finger, no father in sight and her fiance none the wiser? That invited more than just a stigma. She could be stoned to death.

She could see from the end of the road the beautiful contradiction that was Elizabeth: the gray wiry hair, the wrinkled face and stooped back, and the 6 month pregnant belly.

To be sure, Elizabeth was a miracle but it was not unheard of. Sarah, Hannah…Mary had grown up hearing stories of women like Elizabeth.

Mary knew: hers was different.
An unexpected, miraculous birth wasnʼt the same thing as a virgin birth.
With Mary, it was as if the angelʼs message- Godʼs words- alone had flicked a light in the darkness of her womb.

Life from nothing- that was the difference. Not from Joseph or anyone else.
From nothing God created life.
Inside her.

From nothing.

The same way, she thought, God created the heavens and the earth: from nothing.

The same way God created the sun and the sea and the stars. The same way God created Adam and Eve.
From nothing.
As though what she carried within her was creation itself.

The start of a new beginning.
To everything.
A Genesis and an ultimate reversal all in one.

As she walked up Elizabethʼs driveway, she considered the costs that might lie ahead, and with her hand on her stomach she whispered to herself: “The Lord has done great things for me.”