“You Can’t Stop the Birthing of God’s Joy”
Luke 1:46b-55 Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook
Northwood United Church ~ December 17, 2017
Pregnant! You are … pregnant! And I…am pregnant! Oh what joy! This is truly a day of joy for our households! Oh Mary…I am so happy for us! And then…Mary sang. Mary’s song, “the Magnificat”, which echoes Hannah’s song from First Samuel 2, is among the most beautiful pieces of sacred music that we are drawn to at this time of year. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name”. This was the energy and excitement that was in the room when Mary shared the good news of her coming birth with her sister Elizabeth. You can almost imagine the infectious joy that was shared between these two women. Elizabeth ~ a woman in her older years, who had yet to give birth and Mary, a young woman in her teens ~ a virgin, as she is named in scripture, both pregnant and elated at the possibilities of what lay ahead. I love this image on the screen of the two pregnant sisters, Mary and Elizabeth. It just begins to capture what we can only imagine as being the joy these women truly felt.
It is probably helpful, at the outset ~ as much as this is possible ~ for us to put aside our own association that this dynamic might have in our own lives. Pregnancy carries varying dimensions of meaning for all of us ~ many of them fraught with sadness, loss and struggle. But for the moment, I would invite us to enter freshly into this narrative with open eyes and to receive the story speaking to our lives. For Mary and Elizabeth, a child in their womb represented the fulfillment of promise. It was a promise, in an era with no social safety net, of a child who could provide in their older years. It was the promise of life continuing. For Elizabeth and Mary, their pregnancies were the coming of Joy.
For Elizabeth, she finds herself within the long line of those for whom God provided the possibility of life when it seemed impossible. It goes all the way back towards to the beginning ~ to Abraham and Sarah, who were blessed and through their future generations would be a blessing. Except, there was a problem ~ they yet to conceive a child. And then they conceived Isaac. We might think of Manoah and his wife (sorry scripture never gave her a name), who wait and wait until finally they give birth to Samson. Or we might think of Hannah and Elkanah who wait and wait and finally give birth to Samuel. Time and time again, God had been faithful in providing life and hope ~ even when they thought that life and hope had passed them by ~ even then, God still provided. And it continued in the time of Mary. For Elizabeth and Zechariah, it happened once again ~ John the Baptist would come to them. God faithfully, in time, provided life and hope…John the Baptist, Samuel, Samson, all the way back to Isaac. God provided life and hope…For these older couples, who had all but given up, God did provide, God provided life and hope. Yet, things changed in the case of Mary. Mary’s situation was a little different…in fact it was a lot different!
As Mary and Elizabeth gather together we see a complete contrast to the old and the advent of the new. In the past, God provided after a long, long, long time of waiting. You might recall back to our conversation several months ago about chronos time versus Kairos time. There is the time clock ~ chronos time that our world works on, and then there is the time clock ~ Kairos time, that God works on. All of those couples were tired and frustrated with waiting, and when God finally provides, they shout with delights of joy. In Mary’s case, it was very different. She had not been waiting for a child; she had not been praying, she had not been hoping for a child. Mary was a young woman, engaged to her beloved ~ Joseph, and just beginning to dream about the future of life together. And in the fullness of time, in Kairos time, God interrupts all things and says I am going to birth my Son in you. In Elizabeth, and all the others, they had waited and waited…and eventually received God’s promise of life and hope. In Mary, the tradition of waiting, and waiting and waiting is interrupted, God takes over and God is coming NOW ~ God’s Son is about to arrive. Ready or not, God is coming to change the world!
And what God is about to do is to turn the world upside down! Biblical Commentator, NT Wright referred to this passage as “the gospel before the gospel”. This is the good news before the good news of Jesus is even born! God will come for the poor, the powerless, and the oppressed of the world. The text says 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty”. This is the moment when the fullness of time arrives. It is when the upside down world of the gospel is conceived and prepares to be birthed into the world. The hungry – fed, the thirsty – given drink, the weak – strengthened, the lonely – companioned, the lost – found, the poor – a future, the universe whole, and complete. It is a time of the coming of Joy to the world!
In Desmond Tutu’s book “Crying in the Wilderness”, he views the role of the church in the world as being this embodiment of Jesus Joy in the world. He writes: “the church of God has to be the salt and light of the world. We are the hope of the hopeless, through the power of God. We must transfigure a situation of hate and suspicion, of brokenness and separation, of fear and bitterness. We have no option. We are the servants of God who reigns and cares. God wants us to be the alternative society; where there is harshness and insensitivity, we must be compassionate and caring; where people are statistics, we must show they count as being immense value to God; where there is grasping and selfishness, we must be a sharing community now.
This is the kind of Joy that is around places of deep faith like Northwood that makes them so holy, especially at this time of the year! This Sunday, we wrap up our White Gift ministry campaign. It shouldn’t be this way in the world, yet many have had profoundly difficult years and this ministry seeks to turn the world upside down ~ because that is what the JOY of Christmas is about. You have all collectively shopped for people you do not know, donated your hard-earned money, and together we will change lives and give the gift of Christmas to families who would have had a difficult time celebrating. It shouldn’t be this way, yet many live life on the street. Earlier this week, our bank ~ Prospera Credit Union ~ became so excited about our ministry with the homeless that they decided to dig deeply and support us. Their manager delivered dozens and dozens of socks, mitts and toques which we will give away with our meal service in January. And for a brief moment, we have the chance to turn the world upside down and offer the dignity of a warm meal and …. some nice warm clothing items. Many will have noticed that the candle for this third Sunday in Advent is pink, not blue. It is meant to be a brief shift away from the softer, penitential preparations that we focus on in this season of preparation. Because for many people it has been a difficult, challenging season. And the Sunday of JOY is a reminder of a God who will birth a Son whose way will turn the world upside down. One commentator put it this way “the joy of the mother will become the job of the son” Mary’s words here will be echoed throughout Jesus’ life ~ when he addresses the synagogue, in his parables of the rich man, in his raising of Lazarus, in his teachings to the Pharisees, and to the tax collectors…Good news of a ‘JOY-filled’ new world will come!
There is a realistic part to this text that threatens to bring us back to earth and remove the Joy, isn’t there? And I didn’t want to close our reflection without touching on it. To fail to do so, takes away from the authenticity and depth of our ponderings. We, of course, are all eminently practical and cautious by nature. Images of a pregnant teenager conjures up as many feelings of caution as it does of JOY. Our cautious side wonders…Will Joseph marry her? How will this teenage couple provide for the child? To be sure there may be as many images of uncertainty and fear as there are of JOY and delight in the realist’s mind. And to make matters worse, we already know how the story unfolds. We know the plight of Mary’s son: that the world will not receive him kindly… some will follow … yet the powers of the world will resist this child-Rabbi-Messiah with all its might. We know that he will be deceived, denied, and ultimately hang on a cross ~ all at the hands of those who loved him. And we know that Mary will watch all this unfold ~ the ultimate pain a mother could ever endure.
Jaida and I have been praying an Advent resource together that contains scripture and reflections from Catholic writer named Henri Nouwen. I found myself really troubled and disagreeing with one of his reflections last week. Nouwen writes about the interconnectedness of Joy with sadness and pain: “When you are moved by the quiet vastness of a sun-coloured ocean, you miss the friend who cannot see the same. Joy and sadness are born at the same time, both arising from such deep places in your heart that you can’t find words to capture your complex emotions. But this intimate experience in which every bit of life is touched by a bit of death can point us beyond the limits of our existence”. This was not the reflection I wanted to hear amidst the expectant season of Advent. Now, arguing with seminal theologian like Henri Nouwen, whom I have an entire shelf full of his writings seems almost heretical, yet I find myself just ~ even for a moment ~ wanting to pause at this rest-stop and just experience the gift of God’s JOY and not to leap ahead to what must be. Can’t we ~ amidst the chaos of this season’s busyness ~ open ourselves to God’s pure Joy; Can’t we ~ amidst the hectic pace of this season of giving and getting ~ open ourselves to God’s Joy. For I think that this is what this Sunday’s text invites, for a moment to do. To be reminded that into the chaos and pain and suffering of this world, God will birth JOY. And so today, let us prepare to meet him in a cradle ~ God’s pregnant possibility of Joy. Indeed, the full meaning of God’s gift is not complete without a consideration of his passion, his death and his resurrection. And, soon enough, the cradle will be torn apart and repurposed into a cross. But today, let us anticipate the cradle that will be filled with the Joy that Mary will birth. And so, just for this moment, today, let us receive the purest gift, this innocent gift, pregnant with the possibility of changing the world ~ let us receive it and let us Re-Joice!
Joy to the world, the Lord is Coming…Amen.