Monday, December 21, 2009

Sermon: From Generation to Generation

 

Mandy Sloan Flemming
Saint Mark United Methodist Church
December 20, 2009

From Generation to Generation

The Sanctuary They Make in Meeting - Artwork By Jan Richardson

Gospel Lesson: Luke 1:39-55
Mary Visits Elizabeth
3In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be* a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

Mary’s Song of Praise

46 And Mary* said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 4and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

             
              To Abraham and his descendants forever… Our salvation begins, not with the telling of this Gospel story, but with a woman in Genesis. And it does not conclude with Mary, nor will it conclude with us. We have been connected through a chain of faithfulness, in which God has linked together one generation to the next. In her song of praise, Mary makes reference to the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, echoes the song of Praise that Hannah offers, and sings with joy at the news of her relative, Elizabeth. God has been working since the dawn of human history to seek us out and draw us in, and will continue to do so until Christ comes in final victory. 
              But, in this story, the chain of faithfulness begins with Sarah. She had counted the moons – marking each one with disappointing regularity.[1] As the narrow crescent disappeared into the darkness, so did her monthly hopes that a child would be born in the course of nine more moons. Months became years. She saw 924 moons die and rise again. But, her hope did not return. As the moon waxed, so waned her dream, her hope, her faith, her identity. A wise woman once told her that a child could bring her many blessings, but it could not bring her true faith. That faith had to come whether or not the child did. This was no comfort to her. Her empty arms, barren womb and useless breasts provided nourishment and sanctuary to no one. Her once joyful smile turned to a furrowed frown. Her infectious laugh ceased to be heard. All who knew her watched as her spirit faded.
              Until that one day, when she sat in the tent and listened as three strange men talked with her husband. They told him absurd things as they ate her food. They said that a child would be born to them. To her. Not only that, they told her husband that their ancestors would number more than the stars. Listening at the tent entrance, she couldn't help but laugh to herself. Now? After all this time! After she had grown old and her husband was even older?
              The messenger heard her laugh, and questioned her response. She was afraid to admit to him that laughed; but, she was more afraid of this news. Now? How can this be?
              She looked up at the sky that night, deep chortle lodged in her throat, and she began counting the stars. When she got to 925, she stopped.
              She counted the moon. There was only one – a thin sliver of shimmering silver to remind her that this heavenly being never disappeared, even on the darkest of nights. If she tried her hardest, she could see a perfect, circular outline in the sky. The moon remained in the sky, even if she could not see its beaming face.
              Sarah’s laughter was muted. The moon had always been with her. Its light had been dimmed, but it never disappeared. The child, whether it came in the Spring of her Youth or the Winter of her Discontent, was promised, and it was coming. Suddenly, there was nothing funny about the prophecy.
              The stars that shone on Sarah as she birthed her son, Isaac, shone down when the Lord said that his descendants would number more than the stars. The moon continued to wax and wane through years of exile, tribulation, and warfare.
              Generation upon generation came to be, as Sarah’s descendants became a nation and God called upon another woman who had counted these moons, her barren womb and empty arms, mocked by her rival. The chain of faithfulness continues with Hannah, the wife of a faithful man, who went to the temple each year to worship and sacrifice to the Lord their God. He had two wives, one of whom had children, but Hannah did not. Because he loved Hannah, he gave her a double portion of the sacrifice.
                These gifts were always deeply saddening to Hannah. Though she loved her husband, she could not bring herself to eat the meat that he prepared. His other wife mocked her, never allowing her to forget that the problem was not with their husband, but with Hannah herself. Year after year, Hannah wept and would not eat his gift. Finally, she took it upon herself to visit the priest in the temple. There, she prayed silently to the Lord, that she might be remembered. She promised that the Lord would open her womb, give her a son, and that she would return the boy to the temple when he was weaned. The priest looked at her with disdain, thinking her to be drunk as she moved her lips without making a sound.
              She stated her case before him, and he sent her away with the words she had forever longed to hear: "Go in peace, the God of Israel will grant the petition you have made."
              That night, Hannah ate and drank. She feasted and felt the tension of her burden lifted from her shoulders. She would strengthen her body for this duty to carry a child. She would know the joy and pain of labor and birth. She would know, at last, what it meant to be remembered by God.
              Three years passed, and Hannah treasured that time with her son, Samuel. She nursed him, she clothed him, she taught him her favorite melodies and let him assist in the preparation of the coarse meal and flour mixture. And on that day, when he was weaned, she prepared to take him back to the priest as she had promised. This child, though born of her womb, was a gift from God, and one that she freely offered.
              As they walked to the temple where Samuel would find his new home, she brought gifts of food and sang quietly to keep her heart from becoming heavy. For, in those three years, she had continued to count the new moons, knowing that this day would come. But, this time, it was a day of her choosing. God had been faithful, and now she could be faithful in return.
              When Eli took Samuel's hand, Hannah prayed, saying, "My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God! My mouth derides my enemies because I rejoice in my victory."[2] This was faithfulness, and its proper response. Her heart was not heavy, but rejoiced in the fulfillment of her lifelong dream. Samuel would always be her son, but now he was entrusted to the care of the priest, where he would be raised in the temple and would be called by God in the quiet of a night, to be a prophet and judge for the people of Israel, the descendents of Sarah.
              That night, as she slept in her too-quiet home, the same stars shone upon her, and the moon was dark. She slept deeply, peacefully, and long.
              Through Samuel, God named the first kings of Israel, including David, from whom Jesus would be descended.[3] As the moons continued to fade and return, the prophets arose and declared that the Lord would send one who would rule in Israel. One declared that “He would be from Bethlehem, one of the little clans of Judah.”[4] The story of our salvation is becoming more focused now; the prophets have told us from where our savior will come. The Israelites heard God’s promises, and they waited and watched for the day when the chain of faithfulness would be connected in their presence.
              And, in their waiting for the promised and coming king, the moons continued, and another woman began to count them. The chain of faithfulness, which was pulled taught by years of struggle, was connected to the faithful Elizabeth. She was the wife of a priest, and both of them were righteous and blameless. But, like so many before her, she had seen the moons become round and full, then waste away in the heavens. Her monthly hopes, scattered like the proud. She had come to a place of relative peace, when an angel of the Lord appeared to her husband as he offered incense in the temple with the news for which she had always longed to hear. They would have a son, who would be filled with the Holy Spirit and would be endowed with the power to turn the people of Israel to the Lord their God.[5]
              As Elizabeth watched the moons in this season of her life, she counted for a new purpose. Her husband silently helped her as she struggled through her days. The fatigue was more than she could endure, and her house was beginning to show it. Her old body was weak, and it took all that she had to make their bread each morning. He made her hot cups of tea, and she kept to herself as her body began to show physical evidence of the miracle growing inside. Her strength returned. Her smile brightened. Her husband patted her hand, communicating as he could that he was glad to have her back.
              And, as she watched the sixth moon disappear in the sky, she received her first visitor since she conceived. It was her relative, Mary who knocked on her door, and the instant she looked upon the young girl’s face, she knew something marvelous was happening. Elizabeth felt her heart take a beat that made her breathless, the baby felt like it was dancing inside, and her mouth opened as she exclaimed loudly, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Elizabeth’s own silence had been broken – she, herself, muted with no one to speak with for these six months. Her voice was loud – too loud – it shouted the words that came to her with exuberance and without hesitation. She didn’t know where this voice, these words, had come from. But, she knew what she was shouting was the truth. She was the mother of a prophet, and this was the family’s first prophecy. Here, before her, was her young relative, blessed with child. It was just as miraculous as her own conception, and together, they could celebrate the mystery that was occurring in their wombs. As they stood at the door, women who intuitively knew the other’s deepest secret, they created a sanctuary. A small habitat where life could be created and they could share the words of women in this peculiar state of life. As Elizabeth welcomed Mary into her home, she welcomed Mary into her story, her miracle.
              That night, Mary and Elizabeth counted the stars together in silence. The moon, plump and round, shone on their grateful faces.
              Mary, unable to tell anyone, even her betrothed for fear that he would reject her, had come to Elizabeth knowing that here, she would be safe. Elizabeth had received the same message of a child coming in a season of inconvenience and impossibility. For Elizabeth, this meant the end of her shame. But for Mary, it was just the beginning. She did all she knew to do, which was to travel to her relative, who was older, wiser, and yet a peer in this journey.
              When Elizabeth opened the door, Mary saw the oddity of this thin woman with a protruding belly. She saw the light in Elizabeth’s eyes and the shared secret of what their bodies were producing. As Elizabeth shouted her greeting, Mary felt her own silence broken. Her dreams as a young girl were taking a new turn. She had always envisioned her life proceeding in a particular direction – saving for a dowry, being betrothed to a good man, making a life and a family together with him. As far along as this plan had proceeded, she could not have imagined that they would be interrupted by an angel.
              How terrified she had been in his presence! He said such strange things to her, telling her that she was favored by God He told her that she would conceive a son through the Holy Spirit, and that his name would be Jesus – the Son of the Most High, the heir of David’s throne, and the rule over the house of Jacob forever. These names were familiar to her, but only as an uttering in the temple. They were lauded men, not a humble young girl such as her. And, here they were, being named as if they were close relatives.
              “How can this be?” She replied. How could it be, truly? How could she be pregnant? Who was she to be remembered by God? God had gifted her with this responsibility, but how could she possibly fulfill it? Before she could say any more, the angel told her about Elizabeth, her relative who was said to be barren. She was carrying a son and was in her sixth month. “For nothing will be impossible with God.”
              Nothing will be impossible with God… Not for Sarah, not for Hannah, not for the prophets, not for Elizabeth and not for Mary. Nothing will be impossible for God, who had found her to be favored.
              Then, echoing the words of all of those who had been called upon before her, Mary replied, “Here I am, a servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
              When she arrived at Elizabeth’s home, her reception warm and just what she had needed. Elizabeth softly touched her belly as she shouted, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Caught in the same spirit of joyfulness and acceptance, Mary unleashed the hopefulness she had contained within her since the set out on her journey:
              “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. Surely, from now on, all generations will call me blessed!”
              In the next generation, the stars continued to shine as the chain of faithfulness was continued through Jesus’ disciples, who taught the Good News of our salvation in Christ.  They preached Good news to the poor and release to the captives.
              In the next generation, the church rooted and grew in cities and nations and countries far from Bethlehem, far from Nazareth, far from the people of Israel, as God’s promise to shine light on those who walked in darkness came true for people of all ages, nations and races. The power of the Holy Spirit, who has been present with each link in the chain, continues to be present with us today.
              In this generation, as we gaze upon the stars, their light still shines as the moon waxes and wanes and continues to be a reminder of the promise that God made to Sarah… to Hannah… to Elizabeth… to Mary…  to us. God is with us. God is always with us. In this is the faithfulness of a loving God to a people whom will never be forgotten. We have walked in darkness, but we will see a great light, for the true light, which enlightens everyone, is coming into the world, according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
              And ever.
              Amen.


[1] Genesis 17-18, 21, 26:4

[2] 1 Samuel 2:1b-10

[3] I Samuel 7, 9

[4] Micah 5:2-5

[5] Luke 1:8-25