a sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent [Year C]
Luke 1:39-45 and Micah 2:2-5a
Did you ever have the experience of finding out where your parents or your spouse were stashing the Christmas presents? I think that is one of the biggest unnamed challenges of this time of year, especially in households with (ahem) overly-curious children: hiding the gifts.
I’m not saying I was one of those overly-curious children, but I do remember one Christmas where I innocently happened upon my parents’ hiding place. They had put the gift, which was not wrapped yet and in a long-ish, medium-sized box, in the trunk of my mom’s car. I happened to need to open the trunk door for some reason before Christmas and I spotted it there. I quickly shut the door so as not to ruin my surprise. What I thought I saw was a trombone, which was kind of an odd gift since I did not play trombone nor had I ever said I wanted to play trombone. I played violin, and I wondered if my parents were trying to tell me something. Turns out it was actually a boom box, which was so much cooler. It was the 80s, after all. What I learned, though, is that if I wanted to be surprised in the future about what I might receive on Christmas morning, not to look in the trunk of my parents’ cars.
Where would we look if we wanted to find the surprising grace of God? In which places would we look to discover the power and blessing and might of the Creator of the Universe tucked away? Where has God decided to stash the gift of his Son Jesus, until the time comes to unwrap and reveal him to all? You might say that’s the question for this fourth Sunday of Advent as we wind down our season of preparation and head into Christmas Day. It’s an important question, since we are still preparing to receive him, and it would help to remember and know where Jesus has appeared once before.
Would we think, for example, to look in Bethlehem, one of the little clans of Judah? Sure, Bethlehem is a royal city, where King David was from. It was a beloved little place, but it was still little and kind of forgettable centuries later, by the time of King Herod. Some experts in Hebrew prophecy might have pointed us there, if we thought to consult them. If you were looking for the gift of a new king, one who is to rule in all of Israel, one who is to stand and feed his flock with the strength of the Lord, and in the majesty of the Lord’s name, then Jerusalem might be a better hiding place or one of the many bustling new cities that the Emperor had constructed. But the prophet Micah reminds us that it is little alleyways and shepherd hangouts of Bethlehem where God goes and hides his plan to bring forth a great ruler. Would you and I think to look there?
And then there is Mary. What kind of clever and unlikely hiding place is she—the womb of a young, unwed, no-name maiden from an even smaller and less important village called Nazareth! Again, for some really intelligent and tuned-in experts in what the prophets said, this approach isn’t so surprising, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s unprecedented! Whoever would expect the Most High God to stash anything with her, much less have her bear a holy son named Jesus whose kingdom will have no end? Even Mary herself is a bit taken aback by this move. When the angel Gabriel first announces the news to her she asks in wonder, “How can this be?” And then she consents. For a time the one whose kingdom will have no end will take up residence within her.
The first people to know of this incredible plan, the only other one who is “in on the hiding place,” is her relative Elizabeth and, apparently, Elizabeth’s unborn son. Here, in a Judean town in the hill country we have two women who by any other account are regular, ordinary people with no claim on power or prestige—two women who spend each day like so many other women around them busied with the mundane work of village life without many of the rights and privileges that men have. And yet here, in a Judean town in the hill country we have two women discussing the real future of the whole entire universe.
I mean, this is expert hiding, folks. The gifts of God’s mercy and unconditional love will be hidden away for a time in the most unlikely of places and people: Bethlehem, Judean hill country, Elizabeth, Mary. This is the work of a God who is really, really insistent on making sure his gift of love will eventually be found and received by everyone, when the time is right. This is the genius of a God who really can’t wait to surprise us. This is the hallmark of a God who plans to cast down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly—which is precisely what Mary sings about. She knows what this God is up to. The proud, the rich—they will meet their match with this God. This God has his eye on the hungry and the humble.
It is at this point when I need to say that perhaps only a woman could understand and explain what Mary’s decision here really entails. In consenting to God’s will to conceive a child within her, Mary actually puts her body and her life on the line in a way that a man can never do. In fact, I often fear it can sound a bit glib for a male preacher to speak about this subject, about the strength and bravery of her response, even though her faith and her decision clearly impacts me, too, because her Son’s kingdom includes me.
Pregnancy is a dangerous, risky endeavor, and even moreso for a peasant woman living about 2000 years ago. She may call herself lowly, but don’t confuse lowly with weak. She gets no permission from a man in her family to go through with this. She decides this on her own. Perhaps Mary thought, “Well, this is God’s child so it’s going to come to term without incident,” but on the other hand there are still so many burdens to bear for her—so many more emotions and hormones and fears involved in bringing forth a child regardless of what the situation is. We shouldn’t overlook this. When God goes looking for the perfect hiding place for his Son, God is somewhat at the mercy and confidence of Mary and Elizabeth and it is their faith and their humility that make it work. The faith and humility of regular, ordinary women in ordinary places who have no claims on power is where it all begins. Without their voices, it is doubtful we’d know this, which is one reason why lifting up the voices of women preachers is so vital, not just on this topic, but on all.
Given all this, where will we look for God’s movement these days if we’re one of those overly-curious children? In the platform of a major political party that wheels and deals with the proud and wealthy? In the halls of government where power is wielded? In the popular crowd at school who have the right clothes, who use bullying and clique-forming to keep people in their place?
Or somewhere more toward society’s other end, like in the shelter for those who are homeless? The woman in the nursing home who rarely gets visitors, even at Christmas? The rubble of a town in western Kentucky that has been all but wiped off the map?
Elizabeth, God bless her, can teach us. With her one little question to Mary, she becomes the first person to articulate the crux of the gospel message. Seeing Mary come in through the door from her journey, she bursts forth with, ‘Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Jesus isn’t even born yet, and still Elizabeth realizes something hits different. The Lord is coming to her—to her little room in her little house in her little life all the way here in the hill country. Considering who this is, the Lord of all, shouldn’t it be the other way around?
As she declares, the gracious movement of God is always towards us…always first. God never expects or requires us to come to him. God doesn’t say, if you’re good enough you’ll get me. Or if you’re smart enough, you’ll find me. This is a God who launches out in grace and determination into our direction, to find us, to seek us out, to meet us where we are. It is perplexing that our God would choose this. Perplexing, but wonderfully gracious and world changing. God comes to hide his grace, for a time, in each of us.
As many of you know, young children who are not receiving Holy Communion yet in our worship services usually get a blessing instead. They step forward in the line and, if the pastor is feeling especially limber that day, he will crouch down at the level of the child and trace the cross on the child’s forehead and say a blessing. A few weeks ago I looked up the line of people coming forward and noticed one four year old boy was already holding his bangs up for a blessing. He was still a couple of minutes away from me, several people back, but, man, he was ready. He walked all the way to me with that hand on his head holding his hair back so I could easily plant that cross right there. So he could easily receive the Lord who was coming to him. So he could become a little place for the Lord to hide, for a while.
He does this trick every week, in fact, and I think about the conversations his grandparents or parents must have had with him about what’s happening. It’s hard to know exactly what he’s thinking, but I can’t help but seeing him like a little Mary, open to God’s will, or a little like Elizabeth and the child in her womb, excited and amazed at the close presence of God.
May we each, like that child among us, learn to hold open our lives to be ready to receive this Lord who hides love in a cross, who conceals holiness in the ordinary. May we each, with the wisdom of Elizabeth, trust this God who comes to us as we are!
And then may we, with the courage of both women bear that news to the world. Stash it everywhere, in everyone we meet. May we sing the songs of a powerful God who lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things.
And then may we be ready to watch the rich be sent away empty the mighty be cast down from their thrones!
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.