This week I bumped into Sarah Mcwhirt-Toler at Fido. After handing her my notarized shot record, she let me hold little 45 day old Francis. Pastoring has its privileges. I found the quietest space in the coffee shop and swayed with Francis looking at the lights, gazing out the windows, and trying to focus on the reflections dancing off my glasses. Only a waiter’s warm laughter and gentle question reeled me back into the present. Back inside the here and now, I realized I was singing aloud to the baby. Hold a baby, make up a few songs, and you likely will start dreaming of a better world.
Expecting. We use the word “expecting” to describe pregnancy. Mary and Elizabeth are expecting. They hold within their bodies the the promise and miracle of life. Pregnancy sets our minds to dreaming about or longing for a better world. Mary and Elizabeth expect a better world and labor to make one! Faith longs and works to bring it about! Oh, that the Bible held more women’s stories, but perhaps sinful men failed to see God working through female leadership, Some don’t even see it today!
As a teen, likely less than sixteen years old, Mary’s faith is wisely cautious. When God sends messengers, the angels do not come preaching the prosperity Gospel. Gabriel does not come to offer Mary a luxurious Mediterranean cruise. Angels do not call us to comfort but to put us to work: Sarah, go to a land I will show you. Go down Moses, preach freedom to Pharaoh. Ester, risk your crown for justice! Mary, stand at the cradle and the cross. God’s message is more about saving the world rather than napping on the beach.
From the start, Mary wonders what kind of greeting this angel brings. The angel reassures her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus (God’s salvation). This child will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High” No less perplexed, Mary asks, “How can this be? ” Do you ever bow your head and ask, ”Lord, how can this be?”
Mary knows pregnancy outside of marriage holds great risk and danger. The best outcome would be exactly what Matthew writes, “And Joseph, her fiancé, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace Mary, planned to send her away secretly” (Matthew 1:19). What does “send her away” imply? Where would Joseph send his pregnant bride? Without a husband, a woman could not own property and many were reduced to panhandling or prostitution. God sends a dream to Joseph, and does more than Mary likely hoped or imagined.
In a warm holiday air, we might like to gloss over the culture that surrounds Mary. We might want to ignore the deepest fear Mary holds. We might avoid preaching about the danger that Mary faced because the deep threat to Mary’s life and the life of the Baby Jesus literally comes from the Bible. “If no proof of the young woman’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done an outrageous thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you” (Deuteronomy 22:20-21 NIV). The letter kills. The Spirit resists the unjust laws with angelic visits and god-filled dreams!
So imagine yourself as Mary hearing God’s messenger? What would you expect? What would you believe? What would you risk? Would you drink the bitter water? (Numbers 5) Mary asks, “How can this be? How can it be? How will this happen?” Pause and ponder her question: how can it be? Faith always asks ‘how can it be?’
There is something holy about asking! Faith inquires. Faith ponders. Faith is perplexed. Faith asks, ”how can this be, even as it whispers, ‘Lord let it be’.” A faith that never reasons, weighs the risks, or challenges the status quo is not faith at all, but a distracting opiate! There is a holy pondering and divine perplexity! When Mary missed a cycle and knew something miraculous, holy, and risky was growing within her body, surely she felt both fear and hope. How can it be? and let it be – all at once! A deep faith asks and follows!
Did Mary need to flee her hometown and find sanctuary with her Aunt Elizabeth’s and Uncle Zechariah? Was it the religious police? Did Mary fear her own family might seek her life? How could a father, brothers, or others demand a “dis-honor” killing?
Mary runs to Elizabeth, as the Holy Family ran from an evil king finding refuge in Egypt, or as Moses’ mother laid her beautiful child in a basket to escape Pharaoh’s genocide, or as Central American mothers walk north, or as addicted mothers enters rehab, or as abused mothers raise sons saying never again, or as, as, as, as…
But what if her righteous aunt turns her away? What if Egypt closes the border? What if her preacher uncle judges her harshly? What if a place of love turns its back? Maybe Mary whistled a pop song from 2015, as she walked up into the hill country, ” like how a single word can make a heart open… This is my fight song. Prove I’m alright song. My power’s turned on. Starting right now I’ll be strong. I’ll play my fight song. And I don’t really care if nobody else believes. Cause I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me.” (songwriters: Platten, Rachel / Bassett, Dave)
But what if nobody else believes? Without a cellphone, post office, or carrier pigeon, a teenage Mary arrives on the edge of the village. She calls out, “Hello Auntie, Uncle, anybody home?” Do you think Elizabeth ran to embrace Mary? Luke tells us that when Elizabeth hears Mary’s hello, “the child (little John the Baptist) leaps in Elizabeth’s womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” With a loud voice she blurts out, “Oh Mary, blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! Above all women, God has blessed you and the child you carry. Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” How wonderful when someone else joins in the fight song God has given us! How beautiful to hear the harmonies of love resonate with our voice!
Mary has left behind her mother and father, perhaps fleeing, and she enters Zechariah and Elizabeth’s sanctuary with this crazy story of an angel telling her things that contradict the law! How will she be received? Did she see the streams of joyous tears flowing down Elizabeth’s face? Did this uncertain teen, see her dignified Pastor Uncle, struck mute, dancing a jig? Oh, let us always remember the divine embrace often comes through our arms. To have someone sing harmony to your dream often changes the world! Listen again to Elizabeth’s Ave Maria, as she sings: “Hail blessed one among women, blessed is the fruit of your womb! God is with us, oh babies in the womb are dancing. For happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises God made to her. Blessed is she who believes.”
Take this moment and make it holy by pausing and pondering those who believed deeply in you, who spoke words of hope when you were afraid. Blessed are they among all people. And having remembered or longed for that affirmation, let us lift up a beacon of hope, sanctuary and inclusion. Let us encourage those pushed to the side, running away, speaking to angels, out on the edges of the church or society! Let us lift a hopeful tune! Let us never let the hurting sing alone! Let us saying to all those seeking to better this world with labor and dreams: “Blessed is she, blessed is she, blessed is she who believes, blessed is she who dreams about making this world as in heaven! Blessed is she who believes God is with us!”
Later in the week. I found myself in Fido again, where I bumped into Ingrid McIntyre of Open Table. Ingrid greeted me with funny hyperbole of old friends, and then sang out a blessing on us today, “Hail Belmont, the Lord is with you! Blessed are you among Nashvillians, for your amazing Covenant Class is greeting refugees at the Greyhound bus station, and jumping right up from their computers to answer my email, taking down technology from 61st avenue and then installing it at Open Table- lickly split! Hail favored ones, who believe in helping those without homes, we help out Jesus. God is with us! Hail, Paul Purdue, you lucky duck, who gets to pastor such a wonderful church, the Lord is with Belmont!” Blessed is she who believes and works to create a better world!
Strengthened by Elizabeth’s embrace, Mary finds her own song. Hear her song- creating a new world. Hear her prophetic song that no doubt she sang to Jesus, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor in my lowest place. Oh, to imagine that generations might call me blessed. The Mighty One does great things, giving mercy from generation to generation.God scatters the proud and breaks evil thrones, God lifts up the lowly and sends the rich away empty handed, keeping covenant with us!” Oh, did Jesus sing that song in the garden or on his walk to the cross?
Oh, friends, when your head is bowed low in lament and you, and you “How can this be?”, Hear Mary “Here I am Lord, I hear your divine plan to change this world, let that plan begin with me.” And Let us never let our Mary’s sing alone, but let us make everyone feel safe enough to sing the song God is writing in them, even if they seem to hear things from God that we have not! Let us with Elizabeth embrace and encourage lifting up the sacred chorus: “Blessed is she who believes what God promised her. Blessed is she. Blessed is she.”
God is with us! Do not be afraid! Join the song and let us make a run at changing this world! Be not afraid! Amen.