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Fruit of Thy Womb

Luke 1:46-55

Luke 1:46-55

“My soul glorifies the Lord

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has been mindful

of the humble state of his servant.

From now on all generations will call me blessed,

for the Mighty One has done great things for me—

holy is his name.

His mercy extends to those who fear him,

from generation to generation.

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

He has brought down rulers from their thrones

but has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things

but has sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,

remembering to be merciful

to Abraham and his descendants forever,

just as he promised our ancestors.”

*****

There is no Christmas without Mary, the mother of God. In Jesus, God takes on flesh, but it’s Mary who gives the flesh. “Flesh of her flesh and bone of her bone,” as Eve was pulled from Adam, the New Adam comes by miracle from the New Eve. New creation begins in her belly. Mary is the Mother of God, and she’s also the first Christian, so she’s the mother of the church, too. This is why our Catholic sisters and brothers ask Mary to pray for them, because she is the mother of every Christian. I think Protestants have missed out on how much Mary has to teach us about what it means to have faith.

Mary is the mother of God, but she’s not an angel. She’s holy but she’s holy in the world. She lived a hard life. Her faith was not easy. From an outsider’s perspective, the circumstances around her pregnancy didn’t exactly look reputable, after she had her baby she had to flee to Egypt because in those days Egypt was safer than the Promised Land, and then one day, she has to live every parent’s worse nightmare and watch her son die. So whatever Mary has to teach us about faith, it won’t be from some felt board version of her life where she kind of floats above the kinds of things that make our lives hard. No, Mary’s story shows what faith looks like fully immersed in the world. Mary has faith against everything that might take her faith away.

Her story begins in Nazareth. Nazareth, up in Galilee. Ew. Nazareth is nowhere. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Luke’s Gospel began in Jerusalem, in the Temple, at the center of everything, and now all of the sudden here we are on the borderlands, nowhere near anything important, with this young woman. She’s engaged to a man named Joseph of the house of David. Why is someone from the house of David living in Nazareth? Wasn’t David’s house supposed to reign forever in Jerusalem? The fact that he’s living in Nazareth shows how the mighty have fallen. So here she is, a nobody in a hick town with nothing but a Dairy Queen and a really nice football field, engaged to some guy from a family of failures. He wasn’t important. She wasn’t important. She wasn’t sitting around in a palace waiting for an angel to tell her she was pregnant. She was poor and had to work with her hands and was probably cold and hungry a lot of the time. And in that situation things don’t get easier when you have another mouth to feed.

But then one night the angel Gabriel comes to her: “Greetings favored one! God’s blessing is on you.” I can imagine Mary looking around and thinking, “Really?”

A couple of weeks ago, the background image for the sermon was a picture by an artist named Henry Ossawa Tanner. It’s my favorite painting of this scene, because instead of a beautiful palace, Mary is sitting on raggedy bed in a dark room, wearing nothing but rags; as the bright light comes to her, her eyes are downcast. This is a scene where hope comes to the lowly in the lowliest of places. (Henry Ossawa Tanner was a black man painting during reconstruction, and you can feel the way he identifies with Mary.)

But the angel says to Mary, “You will have a child, and this child will be called the Son of the Most High. He will restore David’s kingdom and rule over the house of Jacob forever!”

Now, in that moment, there are any number of responses Mary could have. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the proverb, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Given who Mary is, given where Mary is, a lowly woman in a lowly place, there would be every reason to be skeptical of these lofty claims. Surely this is a rouse. What’s the catch. That’s not how the world works. What you’re talking about is completely impractical, fantasy really!

But that’s not how Mary responds. She’s perplexed. She has some questions. She’s also the only person I know of in the Bible who doesn’t fall down on her face in fear before an angel. The angel says, “Don’t be afraid,” but there’s no indication Mary was. So it’s not that she’s a starry eyed optimist either. After hearing this grand proclamation that she will have a child and the child will be king, she listens, asks her questions and then says, “Hear I am, the servant of the Lord. May it be unto me according to thy word.”

May it be unto me according to thy word. Yes. I’m in. This response is what people are talking about when they call Mary the first Christian, when they say she is the model for faith, the mother of the church. Mary’s faith looks like openness and willingness (some have used the word “obedience”) to participate in what God is doing in the world, no matter how unlikely it might seem. Mary’s faith is that with God, the way things are now, the patterns of this world, are not necessary and what’s more faith means joining in with the way God wants things to be instead.

I wonder if we have that kind of faith? In so many ways the world around us is designed to produce resignation rather than faith. “Oh that’s just the way things will always be.” Virgins don’t have babies, poor girls from hick towns don’t give birth to kings. That’s impossible. What’s impossible in our world? What are the patterns in our communities that seem immovable? What are the forces that make some people among us lowly, so that we could never imagine them with any power? Some people are just poor. Some people are just homeless. Some people just have to live paycheck to paycheck. Some people are just addicts. Some people are just lonely. Some shootings are just going to happen. Some people just don’t want to come to church anymore. It’s just how things are.

But maybe we are called to listen for inklings of a different world, ask, “How is this possible?” and then say “Here we are Lord. Let it be with us according to thy word. What our whole world says is impossible, we are here to say it doesn’t have to be this way. We are willing to risk everything, even that a sword should pierce our sides in anguish, to catch a glimpse of new creation.” The Gospel is foolishness to the wise and so part of what it means to have faith is to say, “Maybe common sense doesn’t make as much ‘sense’ as people think it does.” That’s what Mary said when she said yes to God.

Mary’s faith looks like openness to what God is doing in the world. But that also means that Mary takes a certain stance toward the world. After the angel comes to her, Mary goes to see her cousin Elizabeth, who is also miraculously pregnant with Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. I imagine that Mary must’ve been nervous going to see her relative. In the story, this is the first person Mary tells about her pregnancy. Can you imagine? She’s not married, and she’s going to tell her older relative that she’s pregnant. We know how this script goes. Except that we don’t. Elizabeth is ready for her and when Mary comes to her house, the baby in Elizabeth’s belly leaps with joy—John is already testifying to the Messiah—and Elizabeth says, “Mary, blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”

Where she might’ve been chastised, Mary is met with belief and acceptance and even excitement. In that moment it’s like it hits her for the first time, and Mary sings out in her joy:

“My soul glorifies the Lord

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has been mindful

of the humble state of his servant.

From now on all generations will call me blessed,

for the Mighty One has done great things for me—

holy is his name.

His mercy extends to those who fear him,

from generation to generation.

The child isn’t even born yet, but Mary already sounds like another Mary, Moses’ sister Miriam who sang a song of salvation on the far side of the Red Sea as Egyptian chariots bobbed in the tide. Salvation is here in the child and this is cause for joy.

But joy is not just a happy feeling. It’s not just being happy on the inside while the world continues on as it always has, making some lowly and some always needing more. Mary rejoices not just because she is having a child but because that child has:

Performed mighty deeds with his arm;

scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

He has brought down rulers from their thrones

but has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things

but has sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,

remembering to be merciful

to Abraham and his descendants forever,

just as he promised our ancestors.

Mary’s faith takes the form of obedience to God but in the world openness to God looks like defiance to the powers and the principalities. In Jesus, God has come to the lowly to lift up the lowly, to make the poor rich, the hungry full, to identify a woman with the very life of God. And this means that the powerful lose their thrones, the mighty are cast down, and the rich have their wealth taken from them.

This is the kind of God Mary gives birth to. This is what faith looks like. Obedience is not something owed to the mighty of this world. “May it be unto me according to thy word” is what faith looks like before God, “the rich have been sent away empty” is what faith looks like in the world.

So Christmas is not just a holiday. It’s a revolution. It’s little Mary from Nazareth becoming the Queen of Heaven, because her little Jewish baby is the king of kings, the prince of peace, God in Flesh.

The world has many ways of making us lowly, of depressing us so that we cannot imagine that we might be blessed. Mary reminds us that faith hears all of the ways the world tells us no, and in those same sounds hears God in a still small voice saying “Yes” instead. If something this morning is bringing you low, some grief, some fear, some debt, some lack, know that God is with the lowly, as near as a child to their mother in the womb. If you are mighty, you should probably give everything to the lowly now, because Jesus is coming to take all your stuff anyway.

Either way, may we learn faith from our Mother. May we be open to all that God is doing and could do in the world, even if it defies what we think is common sense. May we be ready to jump in and participate however we can, even if it’s scary or risky or new. May we be unafraid to call the mighty to account, to demand redistribution from the rich, to say to the full, “No, enough is enough.” May we lift up the lowly even as we are lifted up in our lowliness. May we too give birth to Christ’s presence in 10,000 places. Amen.

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