Fed in the Strength of the Lord

Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 23, 2018

Old Testament Lesson: Micah 5:2-5a

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.

Gospel Lesson: Luke 1:24-45

After those days [Zechariah’s] wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, 25 “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” 26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor 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. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

I love these stories about Mary and Elizabeth! I love that the Gospel of Luke spends so much time focusing on and hearing from two women who are central to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Luke, in fact, is known for the stories he tells about women: Mary and Elizabeth, Anna in the temple, the woman with the hemorrhage, the bent-over woman, the widow whose son Jesus raised, the daughter of Jairus whom Jesus raised, the woman who searches for a lost coin, the woman who bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears, the women at the crucifixion.

With the beginning of Advent, we entered a new church and a new cycle of lectionary readings centered on Luke’s gospel. One of the characteristics of Luke’s Gospel is that it gives equal time to men and women:

  • An angel appears first to Zechariah and then to Mary
  • Zechariah recites a psalm of praise and then Mary recites her “Magnificat” which we just read in today’s gospel lesson
  • First Simeon and then Anna both praise God for allowing them to live to see the Messiah as an infant
  • Multiple stories of Jesus healing, forgiving, or raising first a man and then a woman in succession
  • The story of a man planting a seed is followed by the story of a woman kneading yeast into dough

So I am looking forward to reading and preaching about these and many other women in the coming year.

But today I want to talk about Mary. I’ve mentioned to some of you that I often worship in a Catholic church near my house on Fridays—though, to be perfectly honest, I have to confess that working two jobs in the past six months has made sleeping in on Friday mornings a little more precious to me than going to mass. Nevertheless, my casual association with the Catholic church has made me wish that we protestants had a little better developed doctrine of Mary. And here is what I mean by that:

How do we tend to think of Mary?

[Invite responses]:

young, innocent (and by that we usually mean ignorant), taken completely by surprise, confused (What kind of greeting is this?], and yet immediately and completely submissive, gentle, meek, mild.

One of the traditions about Mary that we protestants never get to talk about is that Mary was a weaver. The Catholic tradition emphasizes Mary’s role before her marriage to Joseph as a temple virgin. As such, Mary was consecrated to temple life at the age of three, and was raised and trained to weave the temple vestments and curtains, the garments for the priests, and other fabric that was used in the worship life of the temple.

[Pass around images of Mary weaving]

But I’m not here to argue for or against the idea of temple virgins, and I’m not here to argue for or against the mystery of the virgin birth. I’m just suggesting that the idea that Mary was well-prepared for her chosen status makes a lot of sense. I doubt that any of us will ever have the kind of miraculous encounter with the living God that Mary had, but the more we prepare ourselves, the more likely we are to recognize God when God shows up in our lives. It just makes sense.

I’ll get back to Mary in a little bit, but first I want us to deal with Micah. The prophet Micah was active in Jerusalem when Assyria was the archenemy of Israel, in the mid-700s to early 600s BC. Micah’s words in this passage are meant to encourage and give hope to Jerusalem when it was under siege by Assyria. He sets up this scene in verse 1:

Now you are walled around with a wall; siege is laid against us; with a rod they strike the ruler of Israel upon the cheek.

Assyria was the superpower of its day, just as Egypt was a force to be reckoned with in the time of Moses, Assyria was a threat throughout the Near East in the time of Micah. It would take all Israel had to resist this threat. But God does not promise to make Israel another superpower, or to send Israel an equally warlike king, or to overrun Assyria. God, instead, does something quite surprising. He says:

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. . . . And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; 5 and he shall be the one of peace.

The hope of Israel will rise from the smallest clan of Judah. He will not be a warrior-king, but a shepherd king. He will feed his flock not from his own strength and for his own glory, but from the strength of the Lord and the majesty of name of God. He will not be a man of war, but a man of peace. The hope of Israel against the strength and power of Assyria is a peaceful shepherd-king “whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” If it sounds a little like David, it’s supposed to. Micah is recalling for Israel its roots, the days when the nation was united under the leadership of a man of faith and devotion, a man who trusted in God more than in his own strength or the strength of his army.

In sending Israel a shepherd-king, God is not only promising a king in the line of David but is also upending all understanding for how to defend against an invading superpower. From the origins of the nation in Deuteronomy to the prophet Samuel right up until the Babylonian exile, Israel’s history is replete with warnings about placing its trust in kings, in armies, and in foreign alliances. Deuteronomy warns against the king acquiring excessive horses (the long-range weapons of the age), excessive wives (the means to foreign alliances), and excessive gold (the means to horses and wives). Samuel says,

These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. . . . He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants.  . . . He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.

And in the end the King Hezekiah makes an alliance with Babylon that proves to be the end of the kingdom of Israel. But the shepherd-king will be different, for he will be a man of peace and will bring peace to the people of God. And he will do it by upending everything Israel understands a king to be.

But what do Micah and the shepherd-king have to do with Mary and being prepared to recognize God when God shows up? Mary shows herself intimately wise in the ways of God to act in unexpected ways by her response to the angel Gabriel. She does not argue, she does not doubt, she does not ask for proof, she does not seek a sign (though the angel gives her one in the news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy). She asks “How?” And this is where I disagree with almost the entire interpretive history of this passage. Most people read doubt and disbelief into her answer. But I think the angel is more perceptive than we are. Zechariah’s oh-so-subtly-different question—“How will I know that this is so?”—wins him nine months of silence. But Gabriel hears the difference in Mary’s question—“How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Zechariah wants proof. Mary wants an explanation. How will this occur, since I am a virgin? And Gabriel explains it as matter-of-factly as we explain conception to our children. Satisfied with the angel’s answer, Mary gives her concurrence, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary’s “let it be” sets her apart from others who have been called by God to participate in God’s extraordinary means of salvation. Sarah laughs, Moses argues, Elijah hides, Isaiah claims uncleanliness, Jeremiah begs to be excused because of his youth, Jonah runs away. But Mary accepts the call with extraordinary poise and grace. And, of course, the King James version captures it best—“Behold, the handmaid of the Lord”—as though she is introducing herself to Gabriel!

Mary’s extraordinary fiat is not simply a product of youthful enthusiasm and naïveté. It comes from a deep faith cultivated by being fed in the strength of the Lord, just as Micah promises the shepherd-king will feed his flock. Woven into her story like the threads woven into her temple vestments are a contemplative and humble spirit. When she first hears the perplexing news (the KJV calls her “troubled”), she responds as anyone trained in contemplative practice would do: she ponders it—or turns the news over in her mind. After the baby’s birth she will continue to contemplate its meaning, treasuring all these things and pondering them in her heart. Gabriel has only high praise for Mary and her son: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you . . . you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will . . . bear a son, and . . . He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” But despite this, she calls herself “the handmaid of the Lord” putting herself in line not with royalty but with slaves.

Mary shows a keen perception of the implications of her pregnancy in her psalm of praise. She praises God for showing her favor, for the power and holiness of God as seen in the great things God has done for her, for God’s mercy and strength, for the might with which God has overturned power structures, and for fulfilling God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants. Mary has looked deeply at her experience and at God’s salvation history with Israel, and has comprehended how the two come together in the announcement of her child. Mary’s comprehension, discernment, humility, contemplative depth, and knowledge of salvation history make her much more than gentle Mary, meek and mild, they make her a prophet.

It’s a rare person who can see and articulate as clearly as Mary the intersection of her own experience with God’s saving purpose for the world, not in the “are you saved?” sense of the word (we’ll talk about that on Christmas eve!), but in the “what does the Lord require of you?” sense. There are some obvious modern-day prophets: MLK, Jr., Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, William Barber, Gloria Steinem, Malala Yousafzai, Thich Nhat Hanh, Al Gore, the Dalai Lama, Ghandi, Eleanor Roosevelt, the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Rachel Carson, Bernice Johnson Reagon. I’m sure y’all could name many more. But perceiving God’s presence in our ordinary, every-day lives is accessible to us all. I think it requires two basic practices: reading scripture and listening for God. Daily scripture reading steeps us in the word of God: “Keep these words . . . in your heart,” God commands. “Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” And it requires a discipline of prayer, not necessarily the kind of prayer in which we speak to God, but the kind in which we listen for God’s word to us. If there is any truth at all to the tradition of Mary as temple weaver, this occupation would have given her plenty of opportunity to listen for God. Years ago, I used to be a weaver. It was probably my introduction to contemplative practice—though I never thought of it that way at the time. But now I understand it as embodied contemplative prayer. The rhythmic, repetitive actions of threading the heddles, throwing the shuttle, changing the treadles, and battening the weft become a bodily mantra. Weaving and reading medieval mystical literature in graduate school were probably the roots of my call to preaching. By the time I took up reading scripture and practicing centering prayer, these activities came to me as naturally as breathing.

Making time for scripture and prayer demands that we put aside other habits. Mary had to put aside her childhood, a decision that was made for her by her parents when they dedicated her to the temple at the age of three. But we need to make that decision daily for ourselves. I have great admiration for folks like Erma, who dedicate a part of their lives every week to the study of scripture so that we can gather on Sunday mornings to read, discuss, share insights, and laugh a good deal in the process! And I love and admire the prayer warriors I’ve known and whose prayer lives have enriched my life: Joan DuBose, who used to meet with the pastor at Kirk of Kildaire weekly to pray for the congregation—sometimes I think her prayer life alone was what held the Kirk together through rough times!—Virginia Anthony who speaks with God as naturally as we speak with a best friend, and my centering prayer and meditation groups are some of the most faithful pray-ers I’ve known.

There is a cost to everything. If you want to be a world-class fiddler you might have to give up playing baseball on Saturdays. If you want to weave together your own personal experience with God’s saving purpose in the world, you need to make space for the kind of contemplative practice that teaches you to look deeply into the treasure store of your own heart to find the words of God written there. Mary looked, and her “Let it be” altered the world forever. Amen.