Advent we are Waiting in Hope, and our guides for that waiting are
going to be Isaiah and Luke. All too often we jump into Luke chapter
2 on Christmas, without examining Luke chapter 1 to prepare the way.
This means we are going to spend Advent with Mary, with Elizabeth,
and with Zechariah. Which means that we need a content warning
1, not unlike Genesis, spends a lot of time dealing with issues of
fertility and infertility. These are tender topics for many people,
and I will be seeking to deal with them tenderly. However, you are
not obligated to stay present if these topics are simply too much for
you right now, and I am available to talk if you want to. (Or, I’m
willing to find you someone else to talk to if you’d prefer.)
starts by telling the story of Zechariah, an old priest, and his wife
Elizabeth. They had no children. This is a VERY common story in the
Bible, in fact it feels like a throw-back to the matriarchs and
patriarchs who all had trouble conceiving until God intervened. (And
this is part of why these stories are so hard. If infertility could
be solved with prayer alone, there would be much less of it.) This
story rings of Abraham and Sarah, of Issac and Rebecca, of Jacob’s
wife Rachel, of Hannah and Elkanah.
This is a familiar story. An angel tells Zechariah, while he is
serving in the temple, that his prayers have been heard and Elizabeth
will become pregnant. Zechariah expresses some disbelief because of
their age, which is punished with being unable to speak until the
baby is born. The baby to be born will be, according to Luke, John
months later, with Elizabeth pregnant, the story is interrupted with
our reading today. This story is NOT familiar. It doesn’t sound
like the Hebrew Bible at all – although it does sounds like its
contemporary Greek stories. As far as the Bible goes, though, this
is a brand new account. And it is breaking into an old, old story.
In this new account a young woman, who has been legally married to
her husband but is still in the one year waiting period in her
father’s house before she joins her husband in his house, is greeted
by that same angel. The angel says “‘Greetings, favored one! The
Lord is with you,” and the story says that Mary is perplexed.
make sense, I think. By the standards of the world, Mary wasn’t
favored. She was poor, she was young, she was female, she had very
little power, and she lived in an unimportant little village that was
outside of a city that had recently been ransacked by the Roman
Empire. She was, by no means, favored by anyone nor anything. Nor
was their any previous evidence that she was favored by God. R. Alan
Culpepper writes in the New Interpreter’s Bible, “’Yet, Mary, God’s
favored one, was blessed with having a child out of wedlock who would
later be executed as a criminal. Acceptability, prosperity, and
comfort have never been the essence of God’s blessing.”1
Mary seems to still be processing this.
is, however, wise enough to keep her objections to herself – unlike
Zechariah. So the angel continues to tell her about her upcoming
pregnancy with the child who would be named Jesus, “the rescuer”,
and would claim a unique connection to the Divine. This time Mary
expresses her confusion, indicating that she understands how
conception works and thus that it shouldn’t be happening to her.
Perhaps because she doesn’t ask for proof, she is given it, in the
form of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.
point, the story comes to one of the greatest acts of courage I know
about. This impoverished young woman, with everything to lose by
taking this risk (including her own life), responds “Here am I, the
servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” I
know that this story is Luke’s creation, Luke’s intentional
foreshadowing of the Jesus story. I know this didn’t HAPPEN. And
yet I can’t help but be stuck by this line. It feels like the sort
of answer that the woman who raised Jesus and taught Jesus of God
would give. It feels true in a way that is deeper than the story
itself. Mary is a risk-taker for God. She trusts in the
Divine even when it makes no sense and by all reasonable standards
should be done.
story, through this brief interaction, Mary moves from confused at
the idea that she could be favored by God to an unquestioning
willingness to do whatever it is God needs of her. The foreshadowing
of Jesus couldn’t be much better. This unique story about Mary has
echoes all over it of Hannah and her faithfulness. These are the
stories of the women’s faith, the women who raised men of great
faith. The men didn’t come to their faith alone.
will come back to Mary next week, and to her extraordinary courage
and unique insight. But for now we’re going to transition to the
vision of Isaiah, a vision that came when everything else looked like
it was going downhill. Most of the time first Isaiah (the first 40
chapters) has to warn the people of what will happen if they don’t
trust in God, but this vision is an after vision. Of what will come
SOMEDAY, one way or another. The more I examine it, the more
striking it is.
Many of us
are familiar with the closing lines,
shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword
neither shall they learn war
really struck me this week that these lines are about much more than
peace and a lack of a need for war. These lines are about not
needing defenses anymore, about not needing borders anymore,
about being unafraid for safety, and a sense of deep security.
way that people could be so secure is if they AND EVERYONE ELSE
already had enough, and resources were already fairly shared, and
there was no injustice or inequality that needed to be rectified.
I’m told that the threat of violence is what allows for income
inequality. Thus the opposite must be true, where there is equality
there is no need for violence. Furthermore, this has to be
widespread equality and equity, because there is no fear that
outsiders will break in wanting to share in the prosperity –
because they have it too.
this makes perfect sense as a correlation to the earlier parts of the
passage. It has already said that YHWH-God has become acknowledged
as THE Sacred one, and EVERYONE is worshipping YHWH-God.
Furthermore, they’re all learning God’s ways. Well, God’s ways is a
way of speaking of the Torah, the first 5 books of the Bible, which
contain a vision of a just and equitable society. In that society
land is distributed to all so all can provide for themselves, those
who struggle are helped by their family and community, anyone in need
is cared for by the excess of those who have enough, and justice
itself is blind to power and influence. This is the society that God
dreams of, and this is what people would be studying as “walking in
vision, this message is shared far and wide AND God’s self is the
judge arbitrating between people – so justice is definitely just.
So, yes, this is a reasonable set up for what otherwise feels like an
overly idealistic vision of peace.
context, it is the reasonable extension. If everyone buys into God’s
vision and enacts it, of course there would be equity, equality,
justice, and peace. Of course weapons of destruction could become
tools of creation and means of food production. That’s what God is
capable of doing.
got me to thinking. Do we dream this dream deeply enough? Do we
consider what it would be like to be fearless? To feel safe? To
live in peace?
haven’t spent nearly enough time living into this dream. What would
it be like to assume that all people, as they age, will have enough
resources to be cared for with tenderness and love in ways that
respect their humanity and maintain their freedom? What would it be
like to know that all children, whether or not they have living and
able parents, will be nurtured, played with, fed well, have safe
places to sleep, clothing appropriate for the season, and access to
great education to help them thrive in body and spirit? What would
it be like to remove locks from all doors, knowing that no one aims
to do us harm, and no one would have a need to take anything we have?
What would it be like to know that all people, regardless of their
employment status, or marital status, or socio-economic status, could
receive great healthcare when they need it? What would it be like to
know that people all around the world shared all these gifts, and no
one in any other nation wished us harm because of harms we’d caused
taking resources we needed? What would it be like to know that there
were no guns left in the world, and no one had motivation to make any
more? What would it be like to live without the threat of nuclear
war, nor biological warfare, nor even internet viruses????
What if we
weren’t afraid, and didn’t need to be? What if we could all care for
each other, and support each other, and grow together?
that’s the sort of hope we’re preparing ourselves for in this season
of Advent. Not because we necessarily expect to see it in our
lifetimes, but because that’s what we’re working for and we have to
keep God’s vision in front of us so we can be a part of enacting it.
May we, indeed, beat swords into plowshares, nuclear warheads into
flower gardens, and study war no more – because it isn’t needed!
in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. 9
(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994) 52-3.
Rev. Sara E. Baron
First United Methodist Church of Schenectady
603 State St. Schenectady, NY 12305
December 1, 2019