Sermon: Anticipation

December 19, 2021

Micah 5:2-5a
Luke 3:39-55

by Eric Anderson

The honu was snoozing gently on the warm sand of Kona. The pueo was taking a rest after a morning of nest-building; she would be laying her eggs soon. The ‘io was stretching her legs and wings and neck and muscles of all description after spending most of the last day or so on her nest.

“I don’t know how you do it,” she said to the pueo. “Do you really settle on your eggs for the entire time from laying to hatching? I’d be stiff as a tree stump if I tried that.”

“I’m sure if I had to sit with my eggs as long as you sit with yours, I’d get my husband to keep them warm for a while,” said the pueo. “As it is, I rather like it that he does all the hunting for a while.”

“That must be nice,” agreed the ‘io, “but I’d miss the wind in my feathers.”

“Well, so do I,” said the pueo, “but the best thing about keeping my eggs underneath me the whole time is that they’re underneath me the whole time, and I’m not worrying about my husband getting clumsy or distracted.”

The ‘io laughed. “I do worry about that,” she admitted, “but I’d worry about my stiff wing muscles more.”

The pueo laughed, too. “After a couple seasons, I stopped worrying about the wing muscles. I knew they came back into shape by then.”

The looked at the napping honu. “I wonder how she does it,” mused the pueo.

“What do you mean?” asked the ‘io.

“She buries her eggs in the sand and swims away,” said the pueo. “I would go crazy not knowing how things were at the nest.”

“I would, too,” said the ‘io. “If my husband weren’t there on the nest, I could never leave it.”

The honu opened her eyes. “Do you know what happens when a honu doesn’t leave her nest?” she asked. The startled ‘io and pueo didn’t know, so they didn’t answer.

“She becomes a magnet for all the creatures that like to eat honu hatchlings,” she said. “The crabs show up, and the dogs, and the pigs.” She was too polite to mention carnivorous birds like, well, the ‘io and pueo. “In the water, I might be able to do something to protect them. On land, well… I don’t move as fast.”

The pueo and the ‘io looked at one another in amazement. It had never occurred to them that a honu might protect her eggs by abandoning them.

“We each work hard for our eggs,” said the ‘io thoughtfully.

“Each in our own different way,” said the pueo.

“May they thrive!” said the honu, and to this they all agreed.

The first authoritative prophetic word by a human being – not an angelic messenger – in the Gospel of Luke belongs to: Elizabeth. It could have been spoken by Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband and father to the not-yet-born John the Baptist, but he didn’t believe Gabriel when that divine messenger brought the conception announcement, so he didn’t get to say anything at all for nine months. When Elizabeth told Mary, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord,” it was something of a zinger in the direction of Zechariah. Zechariah had told the angel, “No way.” Mary said, in essence, “Yes, but how?”

There’s a difference. One is a denial. The other is a quest to understand.

“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.’” People tend to get excited about the baby’s kick, but it wasn’t the kick that told Elizabeth what her cousin Mary’s visit meant, it was the Holy Spirit. That made her the first person to speak for God in Luke’s gospel.

I don’t think I want to accuse Mary of one-upsmanship (should that be one-upswomanship?), but she did outdo Elizabeth, didn’t she? “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Mary’s Song has echoed down the centuries for its tone of rejoicing, its celebration of God’s mercy, and its clarity of God’s favor for those who have so little. Writer Kaitlyn Schiess wrote on Twitter this week, “Every discussion of ‘biblical womanhood’ should include the fact that in Luke 1, two pregnant women celebrate their new motherhood by passionately discussing the coming overthrow of every earthly empire.”

That is the curious thing about Mary’s Song, isn’t it? It’s not really about Mary. It doesn’t mention Jesus. It could easily be sung by someone not expecting an addition to the family. It is about a radical change in the living conditions of every person – perhaps with some additional emphasis on those currently trying to live beneath the yoke of the Roman Empire.

For that matter, the entire song is in the simple past tense – not quite as the translation has rendered it. God showed strength, God scattered the proud, God brought down the powerful, God lifted up the lowly, God filled the hungry, God sent the rich away. In Mary’s Song, all these things have happened already.

What’s curious is that in the time of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, that simply wasn’t true. After the death of Herod the Great – who the gospel writer Matthew did not think was so great – there was a rebellion in the town of Sepphoris, just north of Nazareth. According to the first century historian Josephus, the Roman governor of Syria, Publius Quinctilius Varus, burned the town and enslaved its people. That is precisely the opposite of Mary’s Song, which envisioned the overturning of empires, not their triumph.

The empire had not been humbled, but Mary sang the song as if it had. As Niveen Sarras writes at Working Preacher, “God rules instead of Caesar. The Magnificat is inviting us to imagine how the world would look like if Jesus sat on Augustus’ throne and ruled with peace and justice.”

Mary and Elizabeth had something of an advantage over us. For them, the promises of God were blood and bone real, real in a visceral way, somersaulting on their viscera, in fact. As Debie Thomas writes at journeywithjesus.net, “The story of the Visitation reminds us to return again and again to the center of the scandal, the center of the mystery.  The center is not abstraction; it is blood, stem cell, placenta, cervix.  It is God’s alignment with the material, the embodied, the raw, the messy.  It is God looking with favor on what religion so often fears and ignores: real bodies, real lives, the real flesh-and-blood experiences of simple and singular human beings.  The story of Mary and Elizabeth’s worship teaches us that God’s preferred realm is the nitty-gritty realm of the forgotten, the fragile, and the unformed.”

That raw reality, however, is also a prophetic possibility. This is the already and the not yet that I, as a Christian preacher, keep yammering about. Look! God is present and the world is changed! Look! The world is not yet changed! Look! For the things that might change it!

Mary and Elizabeth could feel that literally within their bodies.

We, in turn, have an advantage over Mary and Elizabeth – at least, at this stage in the story – because of the intervening hundreds of years. Jesus has been born, he has grown and been baptized and taught and healed and suffered and died and risen again. That has all happened already. We sing songs about it.

But the world has not yet changed to look like Mary’s vision, has it? The rich are still walking away with all the things, and the poor continue to be hungry. When the powerful come down from their thrones, it’s rarely the lowly that supplant them. As for the proud, I suppose you can call them scattered, if by that you mean that they’re all over the place.

Anticipation. Like Mary, we anticipate what God has done. What God has done has yet to grow to its full blossom. Like Elizabeth, we can only wonder at the truth that we have heard of these things, that we have experienced a glimpse of God’s mercy.

I wish – oh, how I wish – that these glimpses of mercy meant a steady, even if slow, journey toward the reality that Mary celebrated and Elizabeth affirmed. I wish it meant even a steady, if slow, journey to the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. It doesn’t. It just doesn’t. This pandemic has had its ebbs and surges, and the ebbs have been a relief and the surges have been laden with fear and suffering and death. 800,000 gone now in the United States, over five and a quarter million worldwide.

No, there is no sure and steady journey. What there is, is support and companionship and guidance and reassurance and the living blood and bone of Jesus present all the way. Like the process of pregnancy, this is no abstraction. It is a visceral reality. It is a support for the soul and an inspiration for the body. It is, at one and the same time, fulfillment and anticipation.

And it is a declaration for then, for now, and for all time, that the conditions we experience are not the conditions of God’s intent. As these women perceived, the world has still to be up-ended so that the meek may inherit the earth.

Amen.

Watch the Recorded Sermon

The video above includes the complete service of December 19, 2021. Clicking “Play” will jump to the beginning of the sermon.

Changes are intended to be improvements. Perhaps they are.

The image is Visitation by Pietro Negroni (16th cent.) – Musée du Louvre, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6623602.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on December 19, 2021

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