Fourth Sunday of Advent
Micah 5:2-5a; Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45 (46-55)
God is on the move! We have heard this phrase many times before. The Holy Spirit is moving us! Yet, sometimes it feels like nothing is moving; like the world is flying past us as technology moves ever further into the future, while we, as a race of people, can feel very spiritually stuck. Yes, the world has advanced technologically and scientifically in leaps, but have we learned to be kinder, gentler; a wiser and more peaceful people? Or have we, rather, found more sophisticated ways to wage war, funnel money to the super rich who get forever richer, while so many more grow poorer and poorer. We have a lot of fancy gadgets that actually have, on many fronts, made life easier and better. But it is easy to understand why we are not moving toward a more verdant, loving, holy, and peaceful world; actually, quite the opposite. Maybe I am merely singing the Advent blues but we, as a people of this beautiful planet are being pulled down by the weight of our own genius and have struggled, as a world, to embrace the reality that Christ has come among us and will come again.
But, in reality, God is on the move and has been since the beginning. He has used people great and small to work through and it is impossible, when God lays hold of us, for us not to be caught up in it. God’s movement, when it strikes us, is something we, thanks be to God, never really get over. The characters in our Gospel story today, Elizabeth and Mary, are caught up in the powerful movement of God. Mary, a very young woman, said yes to the Angel who came bringing good news that she had been chosen to bear witness - to physically bear - the Son of the Most High God. She is full of fear and amazement as she is swept up in the powerful movement of God’s promise. The angel promises Mary – when he announces to her that she will conceive through the Holy Spirit and bear the Son of God named Jesus – that his kingdom will have no end. God is on the move. We do not achieve grace and salvation, it is not something that we have done. God acted, God moved, and now, we are about to bear witness once again to the wonder of what God has done.
People in Holy Scripture are always getting caught up in the power, love, and hope of God. But they have their moments, when they are stuck and feel terribly abandoned by God. Take King David. He was a man after God’s own heart, Samuel tells us. But by the end of his life, he had lost at least two sons, including his favorite, Absalom, the son who tried to overthrow him by force and become king. By the time of his death David was so weak he could not even sit up, and was perpetually cold. Nothing seemed moving. We may remember that after the life of David, his house would have one more shining moment, with the King Solomon who built the Temple. Then the house of David was reduced to ashes, the kingdom divided, and a series of corrupt and feckless kings reigned until the Assyrians, and then the Babylonians, came and brought it all down.
John Updike, author and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for fiction, wrote in 1987, in the New Yorker, of an episode that happened on a trip to Finland, when he was 55. He had achieved huge fame by then; riches and notoriety. But, as he arrived in Finland, he talks about how bad the weather was. And that night he was stuck in his hotel room, alone, depressed, and isolated. He went out onto the balcony of his sterile hotel room, it was raining outside, he spoke no Finnish, and he couldn’t sleep. He wrote, “Nothing moved. Not even the clouds moved – yellow layers of nimbus that seemed the hellish underside of some other realm ...” We sometimes feel like nothing moves.
Time hurtles apace but, in our human capacity, we can feel that God is far away and we are stranded, not able to move on our own steam. And we are not alone. There are untold billions in the world people stuck in cycles of poverty, violence, depression, inequality, and general unhappiness. And if we cannot hold onto the image of the great king, David, or the great persons of the world – because they have no answers for the real unmoving clouds that threaten to engulf us – what can we do? What promise can we trust in?
Fleming Rutledge, a preacher that I love to quote, reminds us that the people of Israel held onto the promise of God, through David, not because of David, but because the promise “was of God and not man.” God had made a promise to His people that he would save them, redeem them, and be the God of their lives and not abandon them. Truth be told the people often felt abandoned; just read the Psalms and we know that Israel had its moments.
But, today, we have Blessed Mary, the Mother of God, who Elizabeth praises above all women because Mary believed the angel when he said that God would fulfill His promise to her and to all people. Mary sings of God’s promise in the wonderful Canticle or prayer that we call The Magnificat. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of His servant.” Mary had received the promise of God that though she was poor, unmarried, and had an uncertain future that God would deliver her people from their plight. God would lift up the lowly, show favor to the poor, bring down the powerful, and remember the mercy that He had promised Israel, and all people. Mary’s Magnificat, which means to magnify the Lord, is the preamble to Luke’s Gospel – that all are blessed because of the promise that God made to Mary which is – the promise of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the new promise, the new hope, and the one who shows forth the movement of God in every way and at every turn.
Life without the presence of God is a life without movement. We achieve, we strive, we create but, without the promise of God, it all comes to nothing. The history of humanity is one that repeats over and over: war, violence, conquest, the rich getting richer, the poor and minority in nearly every circumstance being cut off and out from the happiness that so many enjoy. The coming of Jesus Christ that Mary sings of today in Luke is the realization she is having that God keeps His promises and it is in embracing them, believing them, that we are able to begin to live into the them. We know this to be so is because it is not predicated on human hope and movement but on the glory, the love, and grace of God.
Elizabeth and Mary are caught up in the movement of God. Elizabeth, who must have dealt with the cultural shame of being childless, the grief of never holding her own child – imagine the joy she must have felt at the news she was pregnant. Mary was young, pregnant and unmarried but imagine being told and shown by an angel that you would raise the child of God. Fear for both, joy for both, but as God speaks and moves in their lives they are caught up into the joy, the challenge, and the blessing of knowing God’s grace and purpose in their lives. God is on the move. And a God on the move in us is a powerful force in not only our lives but in the world. When we live into the purpose of God for our lives, whatever that may be, it carries with it the power of God. The movement of God in our lives means we are moving away from merely human goals and living into the reality of God in our lives. And God desires all of us; He wants us to be swept up and away into a new way of viewing the world, with hope, possibility, and blessing. It is hard to imagine a young woman, pregnant by the Holy Spirit with the Son of God (who will believe that), and not certain the man she is engaged to will want her anymore. And yet she says, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.” The movement of God in Jesus Christ is a force that can move mountains and raise the dead. What can it do in us?