“Great Expectations of Birth and Justice”
God of Grace and Gravity, Visit us on this wintry morning, Rekindle holiness among us and Send us forth with hearts on fire. Amen.
We have just heard an amazing story from the Gospel of Luke, a story that has everything to do with faith and our future. All is amazing here: two remarkable women — Elizabeth and Mary, each bearing in her womb a remarkable son, the babes who we will come to know as John the Baptist, and Jesus the Christ. In every way this is a surprising story, a story full of great expectations for women and children, indeed for the entire human family.
Good people, as you probably know, preachers love to expand and exaggerate. Yet, this morning, I speak plainly. In this story, it is the Gospeler we name as Luke who turns normal, everyday expectations radically upside down.
First of all, Luke invites us into the world of women in order to learn the story of Jesus. This is astounding! The rural Palestinian women of Luke’s day were among the poorest of the poor. On the social ladder such women were even lower than shepherds.
It is shocking too that Mary, a teenager in a culture that restricted young women’s movements, dares to leave home and take a journey all alone into the hill country. We are told she traveled “with haste.”
Plus, just look at them, these two pregnant women, our heroines: one, Elizabeth, an old, formerly childless woman, old for child-bearing; the other, Mary, very young and, besides that, she’s not yet married to her betrothed.
Typically such women as these were targets of gossip and shame. What right has this morning’s Gospeler to surround them in this amazing narrative with blessings and hymns of praise?! What extraordinary tidings does this story hold?
In biblical reality this Gospel passage we call the “Visitation” is sobering. The Visitation is not a rosy Christmas picture on a Hallmark Card; it is not a romanticized Renaissance painting of lavishly dressed women; nor is it a sentimentalized Kodak moment! Here, instead, is a picture of two women, purposely drawn by God’s will and call, to spend time together. Each one speaks as a Spirit-filled prophet about her own family and about the future of God’s people. Together they promise liberation through the baptismal and messianic freedom that they know will be offered through their sons.
Luke presents a compelling picture of strong, prophetic women. These are not pale, placid, passive women. They are active, full-bodied figures. Think of it: today we would call Elizabeth and Mary “laywomen;” for they certainly are not priests. I would describe them as perceptive women having an impassioned theological conversation about the work and wonders, the grace and gravity, of God’s promises.
Mary hurries, bearing her own incarnate news, to see her aging cousin. Elizabeth is the first to hail Mary as the “Mother of my Lord.” Even the babe in Elizabeth’s womb “leaps for joy!” Mary then breaks forth in song, a prophetic song that joins birth with justice. Her “Magnificat” proclaims a God of trustworthy promises. This God lifts up the expectations of the lowly, feeds the hungry, and scatters the proud. These women perceive the just reality of God’s reign, and as evangelists sing out blessings of Good News!
What else does Luke, that artful weaver of birth narratives, want the community to know, to hear, in this story? Luke actually intends us to hear echoes of revolution. At the time this story was written, politics also mattered! Luke’s own community was living under Roman occupation. They were an oppressed and humiliated people. Mary’s brave song directly promises liberation and mercy to all generations. Elizabeth and Mary recall and extend the Hebrew legacy of women who are agents of deliverance: Deborah, Judith, Sarah, and Hannah, among others. Elizabeth and Mary stand in a powerful tradition of faithful women bearing great expectations of birth and justice.
I wonder, during this holy season, what are your expectations for your loved-ones, your community, your nation, and for this earth, our fragile island home? What visitations will you make? What concerns do you have not only for your own children and grandchildren, but also for “other people’s children”? What promises of grace and gravity, of God’s Good News, will you share with others? I encourage you to think and pray deeply about this.
Pause for a moment, make another visitation with me, a visit to one more Palestinian woman. A poor, rural woman living today in occupied Palestine. She and her family also live in the Judean hill country on lands which once were rich with olive groves of ancient 500-year-old Rumi trees. Yet today their ancient trees are no more. They have been dug up, plowed under, replaced by a high, deeply-trenched wall armed with electronic warning wires. She and her entire village are cut off from many other Palestinians, and often from the lands they have farmed for decades. The Israeli military calls this wall, which confiscates 55% of the Palestinian West Bank, a “security fence.” Many Palestinians refer to it as the “apartheid wall,” barring people from land and water resources, creating a territory the military describes as “clean” of Palestinians.
This woman cannot travel freely or visit her cousin. Her toddler’s first words are “wall” and “soldier.” Because of the Wall, her people face daily, repeated humiliation. Yet in this occupied territory, that many of us call the “Holy Land,” there are women—both Palestinian and Jewish—who pursue the long hard work of peacemaking. Such women have carried public banners with the message: “Make Peace, not Walls!”
Here, in this country, there are far too many communities implicitly walled off by poverty or gated by wealth, communities where the “wants of the few outweigh the needs of the many.” We need not travel far to visit women and children living in want and humiliation. Almost 40 million Americans now live in poverty, the vast majority being women and children. In our land of unrestrained affluence, we are losing the battle to reduce hunger, homelessness, and poverty. It is time, once again, to hear and heed Mary’s song of liberation.
Are our expectations of God’s promises too small? What keeps us, what keeps you and me, from knowing the God Elizabeth and Mary knew, an expansive, expectant God, a God who is larger than our own lives! Have we created a God who is only good for personal, private counsel, a “too small” God captured by our culture, our patriotism, our local, limited vision, a God we have confined and “walled up” in our churches? My longtime mentor, the biblical theologian and Christian educator, Verna Dozier, once put the question this bluntly: “Do you want to follow Jesus, or are you content just to worship him?”
The amazing visitation of Elizabeth and Mary gives us the picture of an extra-large God: a God who creates as an act of love, who commands public responsiveness for justice. In matters of birth, justice, and peacemaking, we are all called to be strong servants of God. This morning’s Gospel takes seriously the lives of women and children in want: then and now, in Palestine, in this country, and throughout the world. It promises justice and hope for generations to come.
In Luke’s Gospel, Elizabeth and Mary recognized themselves as God-bearers, expectant bearers of children AND bold bearers of justice. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa is fond of calling all of us, “God-Carriers!” Tutu insists that God holds great expectations for each of us.
What expectations of birth and justice will we, you and I, carry into the coming year? Will we who gladly sing Christmas carols, will we also boldly attend to the cries of women and children in poverty? Will we who call ourselves “Christians,” who worship the child-king, the Prince of Peace, will we also become evangelists of God’s promised, life-giving reign? Will we who offer private prayers, will we also become public partners in seeking justice for communities throughout the world?
On this last Sunday in Advent, it is my deepest prayer that we may be faithful to the great expectations our God tenderly holds for each and every one of us, now and in days to come. Amen.