Before Jesus Came - Hope Was Born (Advent 4C 2015)
Micah prophesied: “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”
Jesus was to come from a “little town”, named Bethlehem. Bethlehem is in Israel, the “littlest” country in the region. Jesus was called the “Son of David”. David also came from the little town of Bethlehem. David was the littlest of Jesse’s sons. When Samuel came to Jesse to anoint a successor to Saul, God told him to anoint little David.
When the Angel, Gabriel came to Mary, he came to a teenage girl, probably 13 to 15 years of age. God seems often to seek out the little – the least - to bring about something new-something worth hoping for.
We’re less than 1 week from Christmas – the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus. But we’re still in Advent, so before we celebrate the birth of the Messiah, lets recognize that something else was born BEFORE Jesus was born.
BEFORE JESUS CAME – HOPE WAS BORN
This painting is of Mary greeting her cousin, Elizabeth before either John the Baptist or Jesus was born. I love this painting because you can just feel the excitement of these two expectant women. I smile every time I look at it.
Both were pregnant with their first child. Mary, a teenager; Elizabeth an elderly woman. Young and old; both celebrating the hope of the children within them. They weren’t waiting to give birth to begin celebrating!
Before Jesus came – hope was born.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. 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.
These two improbable, expectant mothers were filled with hope BEFORE they gave birth! We can understand this can’t we? We can relate to a pregnant mother being hopeful and excited BEFORE she gives birth.
But all was not well in the lives of Mary and Elizabeth.
Elizabeth had been unable to have children, and before she became pregnant, her elderly husband, Zechariah was serving his turn as priest in the Temple. As he was serving, the angel, Gabriel appeared to him, saying,
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.” (Luke 1:13)
Zechariah didn’t believe Gabriel, so Gabriel said,
“Now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.” (Luke 1:20)
Zechariah went out of the Temple, and sure enough, he couldn’t speak. There was quite a crowd there, and all Zechariah could do was motion, but he couldn’t say a word.
Now, what do you suppose all these people thought about this? Do you think they thought, “Oooooh, something really awesome must have happened in there!”
NO! If a priest went into the Temple, he would have purified himself and he would have had no physical defect. Priests had to be without physical defect in order to serve. So when Zechariah came out, UNABLE to speak, everyone would have thought that Zechariah must have done something terribly wrong in there; that God was displeased with him and had struck him mute so that he would never be able to serve in the Temple again. They would have considered Zechariah cursed by God.
So even though the angel gave Zechariah some great news about his barren wife Elizabeth becoming pregnant, there was the shadow of this “curse” hanging over Elizabeth’s pregnancy.
Mary’s pregnancy also had a shadow over it. She had become pregnant before she was married to Joseph. It’s actually a miracle that she was not STONED to death for having sex outside of marriage.
So, Elizabeth became pregnant, in her old age while married to a priest who was considered to be under a curse from God, and Mary became pregnant before she was married which made her a candidate for capital punishment.
THESE WERE NOT HOPEFUL CIRCUMSTANCES FOR EITHER OF THEM.
I wonder if these shadowy circumstances were to some degree the reason that Mary and Joseph raised Jesus in relative obscurity, and why John the Baptist lived in the wilderness for some 30 years. Rumors likely would have been circulating. Perhaps, “out of sight – out of mind” was a prudent course of action for both John and Jesus.
But even with these shadowy circumstances, Mary and Elizabeth were celebrating when they came together this day.
And this is what I’d like us to consider today. We’re living in a time when people’s hearts are failing them for fear. It’s not that different from the time Mary and Elizabeth lived.
There was the constant threat of violence. The religious were split into different factions that didn’t see eye-to-eye on much of anything. There was disagreement about politics and disagreement about how to practice religion. Idolatry in various forms was rampant, yet in the midst of all this, I think Mary and Elizabeth were dancing and laughing and filled with hope.
You might call them clueless…unaware of the huge challenges facing them and their world. You might even make fun of them.
One talk radio show today has a regular segment where they call people randomly and ask them questions about current events. They then laugh about how clueless many people are about those things. I think if they could call Mary and Elizabeth, they’d be laughing at them too.
But I think Mary and Elizabeth are having the last laugh.
We’re still talking about Mary and Elizabeth today, 2000 years later. I seriously doubt that we’ll be talking about these talk radio hosts even 10 years from now.
I wonder, as people who follow Jesus, as people who serve a different kind of King, in a different kind of kingdom…will we make our best impact in the world by slinging mud in the current religious and political battles? Or, with Mary and Elizabeth, will we do more good by singing a song of hope?
By dancing in the midst of the rain.
By being a “voice from elsewhere” that might even seem foreign at times.
By actually living as though Jesus IS LORD right now.
I think we already have enough people living as though there is no hope for the world.
I think we already have enough people who are pregnant with cynicism and hopelessness.
I think we already have enough people who are pregnant with their own righteousness and are seeking to force it on everyone else.
Perhaps what the world needs instead are a people who are pregnant with hope; people that sing with Isaiah of the increase of a kingdom and a peace of which there shall be no end. People that sing with Jesus of a mustard-seed kingdom that is growing and expanding and making room for everyone. People that sing with Mary and Elizabeth of a hope that makes them dance while the world around them seems on the verge of falling apart.
And then, maybe we can begin to give birth to that kind of kingdom, right here, in the middle of a world that is desperately in need of some good news.
I think that’s what Mary and Elizabeth are telling us today. Hope in the Lord! Believe that the kingdom Jesus said is within us is there so we can bring it into existence right here where we live today.
Sure, there are many who won’t dance to that kind of song. Even Jesus said “We played a pipe for you and you did not dance; we sang a dirge and you did not cry.”
Yet, amazing things begin in little obscure places. We’re still singing, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” today – we’re not singing the Roman national anthem.
Amazing things begin in little insignificant people. We’re still reciting Mary’s Magnificat today – we’re not singing the songs of ancient Rome.
We’re still deeply moved by Handel’s Messiah – but you’ve probably never heard the “Secular Ode of Horace”. Perhaps hope is the song the church is supposed to be singing to a world fraught with fear, disillusionment and pain, because Jesus didn’t just come once, 2000 years ago. Jesus comes every time we put our hope and trust in him. Jesus comes every time we care for someone in need. Jesus comes every time we love our neighbors as ourselves.
Perhaps this Advent, young or old, we can learn to sing a song of hope written by an insignificant teenage girl and an elderly woman some 2000 years ago.
Perhaps that song is still worth singing.
Because even before Jesus came, hope was born.