Timothy C. Ahrens
The First Congregational Church
United Church of Christ
Christmas Eve, 2000
(Part III of VI in the sermon series "The Birth of Faith")
In sermon one of this series of six, we explored how faith is born through waking up to the need for faith, the need for God. The second sermon looked at crying out of your need to express faith in God who listens and cares. Both of these sermons are available to you in the information rack by the office, on-line at our web-site, or through our e-mail service. As you might note, the series continues on through January 7th. It is a unique series that traverses two seasons of the church - Advent and Christmas.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was probably 12-14 years old when she set out on her own to see her older cousin Elizabeth. As she went from Nazareth to the hill country of Judea, she was carrying the son of God in her womb along with the great and terrible news that she was pregnant. Great - because the one whom she was to bear would carry the sins and struggles; the hopes and joys of humanity upon his shoulders. Terrible - because she was betrothed (or "promised") to Joseph, not yet married.
Mary was in search of wisdom, love and friendship. For Mary, turning to Elizabeth made perfect sense. Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah were older, and wiser and kinder than anyone she felt she could trust with her great and terrible news. Elizabeth had welcomed the birth of her young cousin not that many years before. She had probably wondered then if she herself would ever bear a child, even as Mary was being birthed into this world. Now, pregnant with the one named "John" (the Baptist!), Elizabeth faithfully welcomed her little cousin into her household. Elizabeth respected and adored her cousin and she would not abandon her in this her period of greatest need. This, Mary knew. This, Mary needed. This, Mary sought.
Both women had received news that they would bear a son through visitations from an angel of the Lord. In both cases, the Angel Gabriel began with the words, "Do not be afraid." To the aging Zechariah, Elizabeth's husband, Gabriel appeared in response to his constant prayers and petitions for a child. As with Abraham and Sarah generations before, the angel announced, "You will have joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth." (Luke 1:14).
Gabriel's appearance to Mary was different. Her prayers to God had probably been more searching and wondering: "Lord, is Joseph was the right choice as a husband? Will I have a good and fruitful marriage?" When she received the Angel Visitation, Gabriel told her that she was favored by God among all women. He told her, as well, that Elizabeth was six months into her pregnancy. He told her that the Son she would bear would save the world. Humbled, frightened, overwhelmed, she accepted the news.
As Mary entered the household of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the baby leaped in her womb, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and thus knew that Mary was pregnant. She proclaimed, "Blessed are you among women and blessed is the child that you will bear!...Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!"
With this welcome, Mary with the words we now know as "The Magnificat" - the magnifying of the Lord! In her magnificent words, Mary declares that God is to be extolled and celebrated! God will bring a Savior who hears the cry of the poor, the lowly, the oppressed, and the hungry. Through the Savior, God lifts up those who are most in pain and in the suffering they are experiencing. And, in that same Savior, God pulls down those who create the pain and the suffering in others. In 1:47, Mary speaks with theological clarity and purity when she says, "My spirit rejoices in God, my Savior!" So, even as we proclaim her Son our Savior, Jesus Christ, we must also live in the knowledge that Jesus is always acting in accord with God's purpose and plan. Knowing this and living into a faith which is clear about this saves us both from theological arrogance and redeems us as Christ's followers from religious pride and ignorance. God redeems through Jesus, but God also redeems!
After Mary's words of glorification, we feel like the air has left the balloon. The passage continues to simply say, that Mary's four day trip to the hill country turned into a three-four month stay. We can assume from this, that Mary was present for the John's birth and naming. She would witness her cousin's absolute joy while pondering what it was that God ultimately had in mind for her son.
Two women in very different circumstances, but if you look deeper, you can see the challenge to faith that one faced. One woman had felt for years the social scorn of barrenness and in spite of this lived her life as a woman of joy. She had not needed babies to define her. She was defined by her joy in the Lord. She was clear about who she was and to whom she belonged! The other woman, barely a woman at all, was about to know the social scorn of rejection and persecution because she had conceived out of the bonds of marriage. Now, in our day and age, when young women are pregnant before marriage, the word "scornful reality," may seem extreme. But in First Century Palestine, Mary would have faced at least constant derision and at most stoning to death.
When I think of Mary, I can't help but picture one of my favorite Christmas cards. The card bears the inscription, "A few days later the angel of Mary appeared unto the Lord." This modern angel pictured in high-top sneakers and holding a trumpet, is saying, "Do not fear, Lord!" Mary is still considering your offer." Indeed, this offer was something to consider - being the mother of God. Although her words were "I am your servant, Lord," did she have any misgivings? In the face of perplexities, doubts, and fears, did she wonder what her future would hold? Or, what life would be like as the Mother of God? She must have wondered. But, also in the midst of her wondering, she had tremendous faith - faith which reached out to Elizabeth.
In his book The Dynamics of Faith, Paul Tillich defines faith by what it is and what it is not. He says, "Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned: the dynamics of faith are the dynamics of a person's ultimate concern" (p. 1). Faith is not only ultimate concern, that is essentially tied into the very being of God, it is also a centered act and is dynamically connected to that which is holy. As a centered act, faith comes from deep within a person. It is never peripheral, always central. Tillich continues, "She who enters the sphere of faith, enters the sanctuary of life. Where there is faith, there is an awareness of the holy...and the awareness of the holy is awareness of the presence of the divine" (p. 12).
On the other hand, there are elements of what "faith is not." Faith is not an act of knowledge, nor is it something that can be voluntarily attained by active pursuit. Nor is it an emotion that surges within a person, although faith can be emotional in nature.
Tillich concludes The Dynamics of Faith with these words: "Faith stands upon itself and justifies itself against those who attack it..." Faith is real in every period and comes to life in every time.
I think of Mary and Elizabeth in this observation of faith. Each one stood in the absolute confidence of their faith. The scriptures tell us that Joseph needed his own angel visitation so as not to reject Mary. And Zechariah becomes speechless for the final three months of Elizabeth's pregnancy when he catches word of Mary's God-given conception.
But, Mary and Elizabeth proclaim God's glory and God's presence to them. This difference between men and women calls to mind the closing scene in the classic film "Grapes of Wrath." The Joad family is riding along in the cab of their broken down truck. During the course of conversation, Mother Joad says to her daughter, "You know dear, men are herky-jerky, they constantly stop and they go. But God made us women like the river, we just keep flowing along." How true in the Biblical sense, as well. Mary and Elizabeth have faith in God which will not yield or collapse in on itself when social stigma and possible derision meets them. They are centered in God and their faith is dynamically connected to that which is holy. In the sphere of faith, in the womb of God, if you please, they have entered the sanctuary of the holy.
So what about us, do we reach out to others from the center of faith that cannot be taken away or destroyed? I have observed, through the years, that all too many people do not reach out from faith, but for faith. They experience the challenges of life from a reality that is "un-faith-full." That is, the challenges meet them as they live with a minimum of faith-fullness. This observation applies to folks within and without faith communities. Reaching out from an "un-faith-full" place means that one hopes to attain faith and help in the same moment. When they struggle to attain their expectations, they blame the lack of fulfillment on the ones they expect to give it. I see this with many folks who enter our doors from the streets, but also those who enter these gates of beauty for worship, too. There is an expectation that faith will be provided because I need it.
It is paradox of faith that faith cannot be attained this way. For so often when you provide the help, the provision of help does not bring about a new spirit of gratitude or thanksgiving or faith in the receiver of help. Faith has to come from within the soul, from the center, from ultimate concern. In our consumer-istic worship, we expect to get faith from the sources which have faith. But, faith cannot be bought, nor will it be bought. In fact, faith cannot be purchased, because it cannot be sold! Faith can only come from a change of heart and change of perspective. The great irony is that so often it is the one who is giving who is transformed in the experience. I would say that the lesson we learn from the reaching out of faith is that when we are the one reached out to, we are the one that is changed.
In Luke's Gospel lesson, it was Elizabeth who was transformed first by Mary's reaching out. The Holy Spirit filled her entirely when her little cousin entered her home. Then, and only then, was Mary transformed from a scared teenager to an expectant and magnifying Mother of God. The birth of faith happens that way. In the reaching back, the high-top sneakered teen of the Christmas card answers God, "Do not fear Lord! I have accepted your offer!" Glory be to our God who saves us by reaching out and reaching into our lives. Amen.
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