by Nancy Hastings Sehested
The stories this time of year are so familiar that we might be lulled into the idea that they are tame and reasonable. There is nothing much tame in these stories, in spite of the fact that Luke begins his storytelling to most excellent Theophilus, “friend of God," by giving a really good reason for it all: "I decided after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you (Luke 1:3)."
Really, Luke? After investigating everything carefully, this is your orderly account? Aren’t you glad he told us?
Luke expected us to know quite a bit about the backdrop of the stories. His very first line after his introduction: In the days of King Herod of Judea.
Oh, most excellent Theophilus-es, all of you honorable friends of God—if we miss this opening, we miss the meaning. We might miss the divine mischief-making in the mayhem. It’s time to put Herod back in Christmas. Not because we need any more Herods, but because it reveals that the sweet manger was placed in the midst of grave danger.
In the days of King Herod . . . in the days when innocents were being killed, children were being killed.
In those days of King Herod . . . a census was devised to document the undocumented for government control, as well as to ensure taxation of the most vulnerable ones.
In the days of King Herod . . . the lives of the people without power mattered little to those who ruled the land.
In the days of King Herod . . . hunger was common, shelter was scarce and people lived in fear for their lives and the lives of their children.
So now we know for certain those days are our days. This story is our story.
The story unfolds not in the palaces of power but in tiny places, places hardly worth a mention. They were places where the “important” stuff usually didn’t happen, like in a sanctuary, in a hill country, in a house in Nazareth, in a town of Bethlehem, in a manger, in the fields. And into those small places walked people easily ignored and dismissed, like priests, peasants, animals, innkeepers, babies, and shepherds. Smallish things happened, things you might expect to hear around a campfire or a dinner table or a church retreat.
A priest lost his voice when his infertile wife turned up pregnant. The priest’s pregnant wife invited her shamed teenage pregnant cousin into her house for sanctuary. The priest’s wife gave birth to a baby who was named one of the most common names in the baby scrolls of those times, John.
Then the young pregnant girl found her voice and discovered she had a talent for song-writing and wrote a song for the ages. The young teen’s fiancé decided not to leave her but stayed with her through the whole labor and delivery as well as through the singing of a caroling group of shepherds. And a baby was born. A baby.
Fascinating story but not earth-shattering, except for those angels, the messengers who had the ability to pop up out of nowhere to give a message to nobodies and to frighten already frightened people.
The messengers stepped into the threshold places, between what is seen and unseen, between what can be calculated and what can be experienced. They offered an invitation to make a journey with the Spirit. They showed up during the worst of times, just when no one thought anything could be done, and their message was: God is busy, busy, busy. God is having the time of Her life, and you’re invited to be part of it.
Mary was troubled with the message. The angel Gabriel offered a slim shred of assurance. “Don’t be afraid.” Then the messenger made attempts to explain things, but his message showed some room for improvement.
He said, “God’s Spirit is popping up all over the place, and one of the designated sights is your body. God-life will be birthed through you. You’re going to have a baby! Yes, that’s right. Oh, don’t thank me. Thank the Holy Dreamer. She thought this one up. I’m just the messenger.”
The language of the angel was particular and scandalous. “This baby will be great. The son of the Most High. The son of God.” It was language used for the emperor of the land—you know the one—Emperor Caesar Augustus.
God was scheming up a radical plan of counter-insurgency, a divine gift of power that was embedded in the tiny womb of a woman of seeming insignificance. Mary’s question of “How can this be?” was more a question of theology than biology. What was God up to? And with her?
We stand beside Mary as astonished as she is. God’s spirit can be birthed through us . . . unlikely us. God becomes tiny hands and feet and face. God becomes a needy, squalling baby.
The angel left God’s calling card. “Nothing is impossible with God.”
And with that, Mary courageously said yes to what she could not fully comprehend, any more than we can understand how our seemingly ordinariness can become extraordinary holy creations. Mary went with haste to the hill country to see her cousin Elizabeth.
Elizabeth could’ve said, “Oh, no! This is a total disaster!” She could’ve shunned her. She could’ve said, “You’ve brought shame on this family.” She could’ve rebuked her, humiliated her, dismissed her.
But Elizabeth’s body spoke up even before her words could utter a sound. Her body told the truth before her lips had a chance to voice it. Her own baby leapt in her womb. There was life stirring in her dark womb where she never imagined such an impossible possibility at her age. She welcomed Mary. She blessed Mary.
And in such an embrace another miracle came forth. A song burst out of Mary. A song of joy and praise, oh yes. But a song that placed this miracle smack in the middle of the King Herod world. She said something like this:
I’m overflowing with thanks to God.
I’m dancing to the song of God.
God chose me, of all people.
I’m blessed beyond words.
God has done great things for me. Just look at me!
God’s mercy is endless.
I hope my baby knows such mercy.
I hope my baby knows a world full of God’s creating,
Where the high and mighty proud are put in their place—their place right alongside all of us.
I hope my baby knows a world where tyrants and terrorists become harmless,
And those whose lives never mattered, all matter.
I hope my baby knows a world where the hungry have a taste of plenty,
And the over-stuffed know the gnaw of hunger.
I hope my baby knows a world where mercies pile higher than cruelties,
And where the promise of peace cascades through every generation.
The hopes and fears of all the years burst forth in this song. Mary discovered that she mattered to God. Us too? Just when we think that our tiny life could not possibly matter in the ways that might matter against the horrors of Herod times, the Mischief-Maker shows up with divine design to give us a part to play.
Our faith is not a message until it’s an experience. It is first birthed in us through body and soul. Mary’s yes was a journey of love incarnated in the mess and miracle of a Herod world.
[Note: I picked up and held a small globe in one hand and a baby in the other hand for the final words of the sermon.]
Our hope is still for a world without the horrors of Herod. Such a hope requires all the love that is within us. God’s still in the birthing room and all’s wild with the world.
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