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

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Dead Babies.


Luke 1:39-56.

I.
            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.

II.
            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.

III.
            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.

IV.
            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.

V.
            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.
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