This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Jesus Wept.

Luke 2:7a.

When Jesus opened his mortal eyes for the first time, what does he see?  What do the eyes of God see from this new perspective?  Certainly he sees straw, and strips of linen, and the interior of a candlelit cave, for tradition has it that the Bethlehem municipal stable was situated in a cave.  And he sees barn animals, perhaps birds in the rafters, and the relieved face of his father, and the exhausted, gleaming, smiling face of his mother.
He would have heard and smelled the muffled sounds and musty scents of a barn.  He would have felt for the first time the sensation of cold air on wet skin.  He would have instinctively gasped for his first breath, which must be a bracing and weird feeling for all of us who were used to getting oxygen in liquid form for nine months.
These must have been his first experiences of life in this world.  They were not all that different from what every one of us experienced, even if we can’t remember.  For most of us it was the interior of a hospital room and masked doctors and nurses.  But the experience of this big world must come as a complete shock to all of us.  So the first thing we do is cry. 
And why should we not cry?  We have just been flushed out of paradise through no fault of our own, a place where all our needs were automatically met, a climate-controlled place of extreme comfort, where our whole life swum to the steady rhythm of our mother’s heartbeat.
Suddenly everything is an effort, starting with the breathing.  And nothing happens automatically anymore, now everything must be cried for.  So we cry.
One of our favorite Christmas hymns says of Jesus’ birth, “But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.”  I think these words represent the wishful thinking of a parent who has vivid memories of a baby screaming his lungs out at 3 am, and can’t imagine that of Jesus.  Or perhaps of a theologian who intends to make Jesus more perfect and spiritual than real.  But I find it hard to believe that Jesus did not cry when he was born.  Indeed, a doctor would probably be very concerned that something might be terribly wrong with a non-crying infant.
I think Jesus did cry... but not just for the reasons we cry when we are born.  Not out of anger, or discomfort, or fear, or shock, or reflex, any of the reasons we imagine a baby begins her or his interaction with the world by screaming bloody-murder.

Jesus is God.  And, though it is impossible for us to even imagine the thoughts of God, perhaps we may reflect on what it meant for God to suddenly start seeing the world through our eyes.  I think Jesus cried just out of sheer love and pity for us, that we could live and be conscious and see so little.  That we could be so lonely and fragile.  What must it be like to go from being able to see and perceive everything in the universe at once — galaxies, supernovae, molecules, subatomic particles, planets, gamma rays, ecosystems, elephants, amoebas, thoughts, feelings, angels and archangels, seraphs and cherubs, and everything — to being limited to this impossibly tiny space inside a barn? 
What must it be like to go from being, as one classic Presbyterian prayer has it, “infinite, eternal and unchangeable, glorious in holiness, full of love and compassion, abundant in grace and truth,” to being a little bundle of meat wrapped in a blanket?  One minute he is omnipotent, the next he needs someone to carry him around, keep him warm, feed him, burp him, change him, and rock him to sleep.  He who spoke the whole universe into being now can’t even communicate to his parents well enough so they can figure out whether he is cold or hungry or in pain.
I think he did cry.  But not out of grief for his own loss of stature, not because he missed the glories of heaven.  But because he now knows the kind of life we humans have to live every moment of every day.  Now he experiences first-hand the consequences of the sin that we have been enduring for generation after miserable generation.  Now he understands why it has been so hard for God to get through to people — he sends the Law, he sends the prophets, he sends the Scriptures, and people still don’t get it. 
Now he understands that the humans are just trying to stay alive from moment to moment.  Our life is incredibly delicate and we enter existence in a desperate fight for breath and sustenance and security.  We only live for a few decades at best, which is the briefest of fleeting instants.  And we can’t see beyond a few hundred yards and even that is only a tiny fraction of the light spectrum, and on and on and on.  And it must have broken his heart immediately. 
We know how our hearts break when our child experiences failure or loss, or illness or pain, or, God forbid, abuse or neglect.  When they come up against their limitations and realize their own weaknesses, we love them all the more because that is the human condition and we’re all stuck in it.  Or even more when they make mistakes and out of their own willfulness get themselves into pain and misery.  We warn them and they don’t listen.  And they make it worse for themselves and there’s nothing we can do about it.  Except watch with breaking hearts and be there if they come back to us.
In Jesus God experiences all this from the inside.  Like the good king who dons a disguise and goes to live with the peasants, or like the beneficent boss who surreptitiously works for a while on the assembly line or on the shipping dock, or like the general who mucks around in the trenches on the front-line with the troops.  In Jesus, God suddenly experiences the life of these others whom he loves, and loves them all the more.

Jesus does cry.  He cries for us.  He cries the tears we don’t even know enough to cry because we don’t know any different.  This is just the human condition, we think.  You gotta play the hand you’re dealt, we think. 
But Jesus knows different.  He knows what the Father’s original intention was, for he is the Father’s original intention.  He knows the true nature of the life we are given, because he’s the One who gave it to us.  He knows the true expanse of the universe and our place in it.  He knows what we are still capable of, and what potential God has placed within us, and what our true destiny is.  And he sees how we throw it away in our blindness, trading in our destiny for trivialities and trinkets and ephemeral comforts and perishable securities. 
And perhaps this infant’s tears of pity and sadness changed into tears of hope and even joy when he looked into the face of his mother.  Because in spite of all this weakness he now knows, all this fragility, limitedness, smallness, and mortality; in spite of how much work and effort it took just to keep a body alive; in spite of the fact that these people couldn’t even normally see angels, much less the abiding Presence of God all around them, in the face of all that, some still trusted in God.  All they had was an old book and some arcane rituals, but some still believed.  Some still heard God’s call and said “yes” to it, even when it was very costly to do so.
“I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your Word.”  That’s what his mother had said to the angel who announced his conception.  And the mere fact that she could be a mortal human, as he now was, and not be God, as he was, and still have the depth of faith to say this... well, it must have meant that this baby’s life would not be in vain.  There was at least this something to work with.  There were still people who trusted in God and put their lives into God’s hands.  There were still people who would pay attention.
“God became human,” confessed the early Church, “So that human beings might become God.”  Just as God, in Christ Jesus, becomes one of us, so also we, in Christ Jesus, become restored to God.  Just as God sees our world through our eyes in Jesus, so also in Jesus we see things from God’s perspective.  And the Incarnation, which is the theological term for what we celebrate at Christmas, is precisely where this all comes together.  And it is all about love. 

God becomes one of us out of love, choosing and affirming and taking on our whole mortal existence.  And out of the same love we now choose and affirm and take on the very life of God, revealed to us in Jesus Christ, as did Mary.  This life is a life of love and joy, salvation and peace, goodness and truth, faithfulness and hope. 
God sees us through Jesus’ eyes.  Through Jesus’ eyes we see who God really is.  And in the process we come to see ourselves, who we really are in the sight of God, which is the only sight that matters.  In God’s eyes we are not the mortal, broken, limited, doomed creatures we think we are.  No.  To God we are children of light, destined for glory.  Christ comes to reveal that to us.  Just as he opened his eyes that holy night in Bethlehem, so now he opens our eyes. 
And we behold that our world is not as we perceive it with our eyes of flesh, but with our eyes of the Spirit we now see, as Paul proclaims ecstatically in Ephesians: that “Before the foundation of the world [God] chose us in Christ to be his people, to be without blemish in his sight, to be full of love; and he predestined us to be adopted as his children through Jesus Christ....  In Christ our release is secured and all our sins forgiven through the shedding of his blood.  In the richness of his grace God has lavished on us all wisdom and insight.  He has made known to us his secret purpose... namely that the universe, everything in heaven and on earth might be brought into a unity in Christ.”
Because Christ comes to be with us, through him we come to be with God.  That’s what’s going on here.  That’s the message of Christmas.  That is the good news.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Preparing for the Light.

Luke 1:59-80.

            In our story for today, the newly pregnant Mary apparently stays with her relative Elizabeth, perhaps right up until Elizabeth has her baby.  When that day arrives, Elizabeth, in her old age, gives birth to a son.  And all her neighbors and friends celebrate this great miracle with her.  Elizabeth is not isolated and alone.  She is surrounded by a largely unnamed “they” who reflect and guide the process here. 
            On the eighth day, the proud parents present their son for the ancient ceremony of circumcision, a sign of the covenant between God and Israel since the time of Abraham.  Thus we see a community extended in back in time, longitudinally, we would say today.  Some of the “they” present may refer to the elders of the community who would oversee the circumcision and the official naming of the child.
            It was customary to name a first-born son after his father, and that is what the elders assume, until Elizabeth interrupts them and says that his name will be John, Yohanan, which means “the Lord is gracious.”  This is a break with precedent, and for confirmation they turn to the baby’s father.  John will be in this community, but his name, like that of Jesus, indicates that he is not fully of the community.  The one who gives him his name is not tradition or family or community but God.  And by giving John his name, God also gives John his identity, mission, purpose, vision, and calling.
            Zechariah hasn’t been able to speak for 9 months, since the angel in the Temple informed him that they would have this son.  This is the first indication that he may have been deaf as well, as they have to communicate with him by hand motions.  He takes a tablet on writes on it, “His name is John.”  Then he launches into his famous inspired poem about who this child will be.
            But Zechariah’s words are not just about John as an isolated individual.  But most of it is about God and the community God is choosing to address in this way.  John is sent to a people.  Zechariah’s hymn outlines the important qualities of the community that will receive his son, and thereafter the promised Messiah.  In other words, I propose that these words are not just about John personally, but they also point to the kind of community that will be prepared to welcome and nurture the good news of the Messiah.
            The Church of Jesus Christ has always sung this song.  It was part of the daily prayer of monastic communities; and it is also in our own Book of Common Worship for use every day.   This song has always been something we affirm defines us as Christians.  We see ourselves in continuity with and as a continuation of the people to whom this prayer was originally addressed.

            It starts off with praise to God, and, like Mary’s song, it is framed in the past tense.  It looks to the future as if it has already happened; that’s how firm is the trust and conviction of the people that these promises are in the process of being fulfilled. 
            This is the kind of faith we have to have as a community.  We have to so firmly believe in God’s redemption that it might as well have already happened, as far as we are concerned.  In fact, in a strong sense it has already happened, and it is humans who have not caught up to the reality.  I mean, our creation, redemption, and sanctification happen in time, but they are also timeless.
            Jesus says we should pray as if the things for which we are praying have already been done, that we should pray as if our prayers have already been answered.  We need to live so far as we are able in the world as God made it.  And so Zechariah prays a prayer that welcomes and celebrates something that has not yet taken place in history, but will.
            So the prayer looks ahead to promises fulfilled.  And then it also looks back at the making of those promises and their reception by God’s people.  He mentions David and the prophets, and Abraham.  The people of God are rooted in a specific tradition, which is expressed in Scripture.  Were it not for Scripture we would have no idea what to hope for.  We would have no clue about God’s promises.  We wouldn’t know anything about what God has already done for the people. 
            The “new thing” God is doing will not be totally unprecedented.  It will be consistent with what God has always been doing and what God has always promised.  That is how we recognize, verify, and identify it.  That is how we know when something is or isn’t God’s will: is it consistent with what we already know about God from Scripture?  It is consistent with the faith of God’s people from Abraham and Moses to today?
            So the community that dwells in expectation of the Messiah is one that is steeped in Scripture.  It’s stories become our stories.  They are the lens through which we interpret our lives.  And this is something that always happens together, as we gather around the Word.  These words are not meant for individuals in isolation.  The Bible was written to be read aloud to a group; the idea that everyone would have their own copy for private reading was incomprehensible to people prior to a few centuries ago.
            We are a community that bounces our experiences off of this book.  We are in constant dialogue with the word in Scripture.  It is a “light to our path” because without it we are absolutely clueless about what is going on in the world and what it means.

            And the first thing that the word has to do with, according to Zechariah, is being rescued from the hands of our enemies.  He mentions this twice in the first 7 verses.  In verse 74 he says that this rescuing happens so that we might serve God.
            So the community that gathers under the Word of God gathers sustained by the experience of having been liberated from “enemies.”  Obviously, the biggest enemy from whom the people have been liberated is Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, who held all the people in cruel bondage for centuries.  Other enemies include the tribes that harassed and attacked them in the wilderness, like the Amalekites.  There are the petty tyrants who ruled in Canaan, there are the Philistines with whom they were in constant competition.  And finally the succession of cruel imperial powers that swept through the area, finally taking the people into exile in Babylon. 
            And each time, God delivered the people from their hands.  Not always without great suffering.  But God always saves them.  Always.  Sometimes even by great miracles like the parting of the sea or the return from the exile.
            Enemies can just be those humans who are thorns in our sides; we all have them.  But more significantly I think enemies are these forces and powers within us that keep moving us away from God.  Addictions, habits, ways of thinking, fears, angers… enemies are stories we tell ourselves because they make some hurt part of us feel good, but they are not good.  They turn us away from Jesus and lead us into idolatry: tempting us to depend on something or someone or some power other than God.  They focus us on our losses, or just our potential losses; they dwell on our defeats and failures, they blame someone else.
            Enemies tell us lies like that we are worthless, weak, disliked, stupid, ugly, or sick.  They oppress us by taking our labor, or by obstructing our progress, or by undermining our community and our relationships. 
            These enemies can only be defeated in community.  Only by sharing stories together, where we hear how God has helped others to overcome them, do we find the strength within to overcome them ourselves.  Our internal enemies want us alone, like a lion waits for a zebra to separate from the herd.  But when we stick together, relying on each other’s experience and wisdom, listening together for God’s Word in our lives, then we are strong and secure.
            Then, even when our enemies are actual other people who bother and annoy us, their powers to do any real harm are often limited by the fact that we have the arms of a loving community to counteract their hurtful activity, a loving community representing a loving God.

            The point of all this, says Zechariah, is “to serve [God] without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”  Serving God, obeying God, following God is what we are set free from our enemies to do.  God does not free us for the sake of our own private, personal agenda.  Not even for the sake of our community’s collective purposes are we freed.  Like the Israelites, God liberates us so we may serve God.  The Israelites do not go their separate ways after the exodus; they stick together and receive the Torah so as to serve God as God’s people.
            The whole theme of my career as a pastor is that it is about discipleship.  Christianity, the spiritual life, is about following Jesus.  It is about putting your body where your faith is.  When God defeats our addiction to death, God replaces it with a freedom for life.  Now we may follow God, the Source of life, and participate in God’s life and God’s destiny.  And to follow God is to live forever because it means that eternity is present in your whole life.
            Zechariah then starts to talk about his son and his mission: “You child will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.”
            We know God in being forgiven.  Forgiveness is what opens us up to the knowledge of God.  Not judgment.  Not condemnation.  Not threats.  But forgiveness.  If we don’t know God in forgiveness, we don’t know God at all.
            The word used for forgiveness in Greek literally means “release.”  John is to proclaim freedom, liberation, emancipation, release, letting go.  What we are to be released from is our sins, the acts of failure, our shortcomings, our habitual turning away, that separates us from God.
            In other words, it will be John’s job to proclaim to people, and give them a liturgical ceremony to make visible, their release from their separation from God.  That ceremony would be baptism, of course, a full-body immersion representing a cleansing and a new birth.  A person’s sin, a person’s opposition to God’s purposes and God’s life, was supposed to fall away like the water sheds off a body emerging from it into the light.
            The person and the community that prepares the way of the Lord proclaims and witnesses to release, liberation, forgiveness.  Our message is, “you are free!”  And it is people who receive and take to heart this message who are best able to turn and receive the Messiah, the Lord, when he comes.

            The last two verses celebrate what we are waiting for, and they finally prepare us for chapter 2.  “By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
            “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”  That’s the way John puts it.  “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.”  Isaiah puts it that way.  Having prepared ourselves by serving God together and accepting the forgiveness and liberation God offers, we experience the divine light of God’s mercy driving away the darkness so we can see to walk in the ways of peace.
            Now, where others see an unfortunate baby whose mother is  forced to give birth to him in a barn and lay him in a feed trough for animals, we see the living God, the Creator, emerging into the creation!  Where others see just another Jewish man coming to John to be dunked in the river, we see the Holy Spirit descending upon and blessing him as Messiah!  Where others see a ragged ascetic emerging from the desert, we see the One who has defeated the temptations of Satan!  Where others see an itinerant rabbi and miracle healer, we see God-with-us!  Where others see another victim of Roman terror, nailed to a cross and left to die in agony in the hot sun, we see God’s love poured out for the release of the world from bondage.  Where others see an empty tomb, we see the salvation of the world in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from death, defeating death and hell, and leading us to the final victory of life.
            And seeing what we do see in faith, we know ourselves to be guided in the way of peace, the way of shalom, of justice, equality, righteousness, blessing, beauty, goodness, and truth.  The way of healing, forgiveness, liberation, and renewal.  And so these qualities are what characterize our lives.  We are witnesses to the love of God which is always being poured into the world.


Sunday, December 16, 2012

Dead Babies.

Luke 1:39-56.

            This week, after the terrible events of Friday, I can’t help but think about the passage in Matthew 2, where King Herod, enraged that the magi from the east escaped without telling him where he could find the infant Messiah, sends soldiers who slaughter every male child in Bethlehem, two years old and under. 
            Matthew’s only comment is to tell us that this was in fulfillment of a passage from the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled because they are no more.”
            I imagine there is no consolation when you lose a child, especially in such a horrific and violent way.  I suspect that such a thing is something you bear in your soul for the rest of your life.  It is a grief that never fully goes away.
            There is no way to make sense of it.  There is no rational explanation.  It is the invasion into our world by a malevolent force reaching up out of the bowels of hell.  That’s the only image I can think of.  What else can we say when 20 children are slaughtered, along with 7 adults?  We mourn without consolation.
            Where was God?  Why didn’t God stop the gunman?  For that matter: Why doesn’t God stop any of the mindless tragedies in our lives?  Why didn’t God stop the cancer?  Why didn’t God stop the drunk-driver?  Why didn’t God stop the hurricane?  Where was God, anyway?  We might ask, “Who needs a God who doesn’t show up when you need him?”
            It is a not a new or original question.  It is something that all of us, and every generation, has to ask at some point.  Because sometimes it sure seems like no one is in charge, like there’s no one protecting us or saving us, like if there is a God he’s just not very good at his job. 
            Such questions are honest and not unjustified.  They express real emotions.  And sometimes just expressing such emotions is a healing thing.  There are many Psalms that express these, and even less “nice” emotions.  God understands this.  So God even gives us suitable prayers and hymns to use when we are particularly angry with God.
            As far as what we can do, we can pray for those suffering the depths of grief.  We can be of service to them, stand with them, listen to them, identify with them, and hold them.  For we are all in this together.
            And so we do offer our heartfelt prayers and condolences, and we hold in our hearts the families of those killed, and the whole community of Newtown, Connecticut.

            The Bible is not unfamiliar with such horrors.  It is written by and for people who continually find themselves on the receiving end of the world’s violence and injustice, tyranny and exploitation.  The gospels are in fact addressed to people who experience the depths of human sorrow, anger, frustration, fear, loss, and helplessness.  They know gratuitous violence and mass-murder.  People back then had the same questions we do. 
            In answer to horrors like this massacre in Connecticut, God offers mainly a story, and a community rooted in and expressive of that story.  In that story, the answer we receive to our heartfelt questions about where God is, is that God is here, with us.  God is with us in our pain and our loss, our confusion and even our anger.  In Jesus Christ, the God who suffers with us and for us and because of us, is also the God who thereby forgives, and heals, and saves us. 
            And in taking on our suffering, God gives us a way to new life, both now and forever.  This story is embodied and revealed and fulfilled and given to us in Jesus Christ.  Through him, by the power of his Spirit, we participate in God’s eternal story of salvation and deliverance.
            For our God is the One who brings life out of death, light into darkness, goodness out of evil, and healing into our pain.  The gospels are the story of how that happens.  The early church had a saying: “God redeems whatever God becomes.”  God saves us by becoming one with us in Jesus, opening the way to eternal life.
            Where was God Friday?  God was in and with the suffering, bleeding, and dying children, crying with them in their pain and terror, blessing their gentleness and goodness, and gathering them into the everlasting arms of love.  And God is also there in the souls of that broken community and shattered families, saying: “You are mine.  I am with you.  I will never forsake you; not even this can separate you from my love.  Indeed, this only draws you closer to Me.”
            It just so happens that this is the particular message of this season of Advent.  These stories about Jesus’ and John’s parents, and the circumstances of their births, serve to open us and prepare us for the coming of God into the world to save.  This is how God emerges in our world; this is how God manifests in our own hearts, and in our communities.  This is how human life is lifted up out of the sewer of despair, horror, and fear.  This is how we are brought out of slavery into freedom. 
            Here is God’s answer: to show up… not as the magic genie who fulfills our every desire; not as the Omnipotent Avenger comic-book character.  But really to show up, to appear, to emerge as one of us, among us, with us.  Emmanu-el: God is with us.  God enters the messy, painful, confusing, ambiguous, challenging world.  That’s the way God saves, heals, and liberates the world and all of us.

            God’s very presence in our world in Jesus Christ is revolutionary.  Some of the writings of the early church about the Lord’s Nativity make this clear.  They talk about the immortal becoming mortal, the eternal becoming temporal, the highest becoming low, the Creator becoming part of creation, and so forth.  And they also talk about how because God did this, because God condescends from eternal glory into the small, smelly, vulnerable container of human flesh, therefore also we created fleshly earthlings were exalted into the very Presence of the eternal God!
            This descent by God, which Paul calls God’s self-emptying, sets the pattern for God’s revolution in which all hierarchies and pecking orders and classes and castes, and divisions and separations in creation are reversed.  I’ve said repeatedly that this is what God’s law in the Torah wanted to do: bring down all Pharaohs and kings and rulers, and lift up the slaves so that all were equal sharers in God’s rule. 
            In Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, God demonstrates what the gathered community comes to know: the way up… is down.  Jesus says that the ones who are blessed, that is, the ones who are closest to God, are the ones who have hit bottom: the poor, the gentle, the peacemakers, the merciful, the pure in heart... the mourning.  Those wracked with grief and sorrow beyond bearing, are closest to the love and joy at the very heart of the universe.  God’s presence is revolutionary; it is about reversal, overturning. 
            In today’s story we begin with a little dance between Mary and Elizabeth over their comparative status.  Formal etiquette dictates that the person of lower status should come to the higher.  Yet here is Mary, the bearer of God’s promised Messiah, making a trip to visit Elizabeth, the one who will only bear the Messiah’s forerunner.  Elizabeth is older, of course, and probably of a higher status socially.  But she herself quickly sees that she is inferior to Mary.  She reasons that Mary should not therefore be coming to her.  She should have gone to visit Mary.
            This upending of social rules and roles is precisely what both of these boys whom the women will bear will be about.  Those kinds of status divisions and hierarchies will be wiped away in their ministries.  Now it is no longer the case that older is better than younger, or the wife of a respected priest is better than an unwed, pregnant teenager from Nazareth, or even that the mother of the Messiah is privileged over the mother of a prophet.

            These two women are co-conspirators in this revolution, this insurrection, this insurgency, against the established order of things.  These are the people whom God chooses to overthrow the principalities and powers that rule the world: two pregnant women, an old one and a young one.
            If you or I were going to start a social movement, choosing two pregnant women as leaders would probably not be what our consultants would advise.  Yet this is where God starts.  God always starts at the bottom, with some of the least likely people imaginable.
            Mary then erupts into her famous poem of praise to the Lord.  “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.” 
            Mary doesn’t grovel.  She doesn’t consume herself with ruminations about how she is not worthy.  She does not have that deer-in-the-headlights look, as if she has been taken and thrown into something far beyond her abilities.  Of course, she has been taken and thrown into something far beyond her abilities, and that’s the point.  She does not have to rely on her abilities!  She simply trusts in what God is doing through her and enthusiastically goes along for the ride. 
            She realizes and embraces her selection to bear the awesome responsibility of being the mother of the Messiah, knowing that it is not because of anything she has done or may do, but that God will give her what she needs to do this. 
            It is sometimes said that “God never gives us more than we can handle.”  That’s nonsense!  God always gives us more than we can handle; that’s how we know it is from God.  What God doesn’t do is give us more than God can handle.  No way Mary or any human can do this on their own.  The point is that this is something God is doing through her.  In fact, she has to let go of whatever abilities she thinks she has for this.
            What works for Mary in her unconventional pregnancy, also works for us in our times of less promising and more horrible crisis.  Having your 6-year-old child shot at school is more than any of us can handle, believe me.  Don’t even try to handle it yourself; the weight of that much sorrow and grief could kill you.  But God, the Creator/Redeemer/Sustainer, can handle it for you, in you, with you.
            When God acts, our job is to not get in the way.  Our job is not to be an obstacle or a hindrance to what God is doing.  Mary’s entire responsibility was exhausted when she said “yes.”  “I am the servant of the Lord.  Let it happen to me according to [God’s] Word.”  We only say that knowing that God’s Word and will in Jesus Christ is always and only to bless and heal and deliver and save.

            This weekend we distracted ourselves with a light movie called The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  One of the themes of the film is something the young Indian hotel manager says: “Things always work out for the best in the end.  And if things aren’t working out for the best, it’s not the end.”
            That sounds a little glib when you tell it to someone in profound grief and sorrow.  But it’s still true.  It is the message and meaning of the resurrection.  Martin Luther King famously said that “the arc of history is long, but it always bends towards justice.”  The Apostle Paul said that “All things work together for good to those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”  The resurrection means that God and love and life always win, in the end.  If Satan and death and hatred seem to be winning, well, it’s just not the end yet.
            In terms of Mary’s hymn: if the proud, the powerful, and the rich appear to be winning, it’s just not the end.  There’s more to come.  Because God’s will is to lift up the humble, the lowly, and the hungry.  And God’s will is always done.  Always.
            All this could be mindless wishful-thinking, even sentimental platitudes, were it not for the cross.  The way God brings good out of evil, and light into darkness, and life from death, is by giving up life, identifying with us even unto death on a cross, suffering the depths of human pain, bearing the consequences and rancid fruit of our sinfulness, becoming a sacrificial offering, going into the deepest, darkest, most painful and fearsome place in human existence, descending even into hell itself, and emerging with us in his arms. 
            That’s how God saves us.  By venturing into our worst places, and pulling us through.  God is most present to us in our most extreme pain and loss and failings.  In our brokenness is where God shows up.  That’s where we identify with God and God identifies with us. 
            Most of Mary’s hymn is in the past tense, even though the things she celebrates haven’t happened yet.  But because God promises them in the end, they might as well have happened already.  They have happened in the sense that these promises are even now becoming realized in our lives.  These promises are real; it is we who are slow to get the memo.  It is we who continue to make the world a living hell, in spite of the truth that hell is vanquished. 
            In the meantime, we live in the light of the end as it shines forth in the community of those who love and follow Jesus.