December 20, 2020
Luke 1:26-38, 46b-55
I have to say that I like the subversiveness of our readings today. Now… I know that’s not a word that shows up in a lot of our Christmas carols… subversive. I’m not even sure what that rhyming scheme would sound like. But I do think that some of our carols do manage to catch the spirit of subversiveness for this season.
It’s easy to forget that Luke’s gospel begins with a different birth story… the story of an old priest named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth… a childless couple getting on in years… and the miracle conception of the child who then grows up to be John the Baptist. In Luke, Gabriel first appears to Zechariah with the words… “Do not be afraid…” And he tells him this fantastic tale about how he and his wife Elizabeth will have a son and that Zechariah will name him John. Gabriel tells him all that his son will do to prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. Zechariah… this old priest who has served God his whole life… Zechariah is taken aback and like Mary, the first words out of his mouth come in the form of a question. But unlike Mary there is doubt and unbelief behind his question… doubt and unbelief not fitting a man who has served God all his life… who has sought to be in God’s presence all his life… “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years?” He wants some kind of proof… some kind of assurance in exchange for his belief in the words of Gabriel.
For Zechariah, he is faced with an old impossibility… no pun intended. What I mean is this… his is not the first story to be told of a child being born to an, old barren couple. Yet, he hesitates… he… the man who should be primed to believe that with God nothing is impossible… especially this kind of impossibility… he hesitates and he doubts at what Gabriel is telling him. And in response to his doubt, Gabriel makes him mute until John is born. But Zechariah was already mute… truth be known. Gabriel only reveals that truth.
That’s… perhaps… the first bit of subversiveness in this story. The one who should be the most prepared to proclaim the surprising nature of the coming God… that one is struck mute. Or if it isn’t subversive… maybe it is a commentary on how the message was no longer being heard… because Zechariah’s son will not follow the path of the priest and the priesthood… a path to which he is born into… but instead John will follow the path of the prophet who will challenge the people and call them back to the wisdom of the righteous. John will shake things up rather than follow in the mute footsteps of his father.
But I don’t want to get too harsh with Zechariah because after this happens… after he hears Gabriel’s message… his wife does conceive. Even if he was afraid… afraid of Gabriel and Gabriel’s message… after the encounter… he believes the message and he does his part… so to speak. Although he falters, there is still room in this story for Zechariah.
Of course, Zechariah and Elizabeth are supposed to evoke in us the story of Abraham and Sarah and their promised son. Isaac’s birth so long ago was confirmation of the covenant… the promise God had made. Because that birth was also perceived as a growing impossibility as the two of them… Abraham and Sarah… got older and older… Isaac was the proof of God keeping God’s promises… and that nothing could get in the way of what God willed to be. God made covenant with Abraham and Sarah… and although they tried their best in different ways to assure that covenant… in the end it was God alone who showed that assurance through Isaac… with the two of them doing their part and acting in faith… acting in trust… that the promise would be fulfilled. The birth of Isaac… the birth of John… was more about God overcoming the impossibilities that lived in and through their parents in order to reveal the very real possibilities of the promise.
God reveals the way. We start acting and living towards that way in a manner that reflects the way God has revealed… we do our part… joining with God in the way revealed. But God makes the way.
It just seems that in these stories God likes to make that point in the most difficult manner possible. I guess that’s what I mean by subversive. Expectations and the way of things… they don’t stand a chance against God’s determination to fulfill God’s promise of redemption and salvation.
Cue Mary. Mary is the epitome of the impossible. Elizabeth at least had Zechariah. She may have been old. She may have been barren up to that point. But… the two of them conceiving a child together… ok. No, with the Messiah let’s not go that route. Let’s choose instead a young, unwed girl in first century Palestine. Can we make it anymore of a God thing? It’s a good thing Gabriel shows up and again says, “Do not be afraid” because fear… fear is probably the first and most natural response to his message. And we go through that fear every year like a litany. Matthew’s gospel makes clear the risk this puts upon Mary. She can be stoned to death. She will be shunned. That’s what Joseph struggles with over in Matthew’s gospel. How can I get through this thing in a way that is best for both us? I’ll put her away quietly so that I can move forward and get on with my life.
But… again… would we say that it is part of the subversive nature of this story that this isn’t one of those “move forward and get on with my life” type of stories? Mary’s question to Gabriel’s is more inquisitive than one of doubt. “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Explain how the impossible is going to be made possible. Or maybe Gabriel cuts her some slack because she isn’t an old priest who should have known better… who should have expected the impossible when it came to God.
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” As much as we might marvel at a virgin birth… or demand the belief in such a miracle… I think that putting our focus there we really miss the point when it comes to making the impossible possible. It is easy to expect with God all things are possible. God who created the universe out of nothing. God who we describe as all powerful. It’s not a great leap to be open to the belief of a child born to a virgin. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” This response. This commitment. This is the real miracle of faith… not the bit of biological magic. I am one of those who when I read this story I think… Mary is no fool. She knows what this means for her personally. She knows almost instantly like you might know if you were her… if you were there hearing this message. She understands the world in which she lives. She knows the cost of obedience to God. “Here am I” is the response to that cost. Mary is the first disciple who responds by leaving everything behind in her decision and stepping forward onto this way of God’s word. When Jesus later calls his first disciples… they do the same in their own way… going forward even if not fully understanding what that way will bring to them. Throughout this Christmas story, it is Mary who keeps her focus on what all this means… how this is revealing the promise of God… while others… often ourselves… get distracted by the other shiny things swirling around.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” It’s not the impossibility of a child born of a virgin… it’s the possibility of God’s way coming into the world. The possibility of God’s way and the creation of the impossibilities that blunt and distract us from being able to say “Here am I.”
God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. God has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and his descendants forever. The Magnificat is the subversive message of Christmas… that this age old promise is being fulfilled… that it is not forgotten… that God has not capitulated to the powers of this world… powers that would see a small child… a small child born to an unwed young brown girl in a backwater town… the most nobody of nobodies… this child would be seen as more than nothing by the powers of this world. But in this child is the promise of God… and that makes this child everything.
And it begins with her… with you… with me saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your Word.” It begins with following God as the way is revealed… and staying committed to that path no matter what gets placed in our way.
Saints, with God nothing is impossible. Mary is one of God’s impossibilities. Elizabeth is one of God’s impossibilities. God, throughout scripture, is making impossibilities out of ordinary people like you and me. The people are ordinary. God is extraordinary. With God nothing is impossible. You too can be one of God’s impossibilities made possible. Your soul can magnify. Christmas miracles have been known to happen. Amen.