Genesis 17:15 Thus God said to Abraham, “Now as for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, for Sarah is [now] her name. 16 And I will bless her, and indeed of her will I give you a son. And I will bless her, and she will become nations; rulers of peoples shall come into being from her.” 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to one a hundred years old? And can Sarah, ninety years old, give birth?” 18 Then Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael could live in your sight!” 19 God said, “Nevertheless your wife Sarah shall give birth to a son for you, and you shall call his name Isaac. And I will establish my covenant with him, an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. 20 Now as for Ishmael, I have heard you and I will bless him and make him fruitful and I will make him exceedingly, exceedingly numerous and he shall be the father of twelve chieftains, and I will make him a great nation. 21 But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall give birth to for you at this season next year.” 22 And when God had finished speaking with him, God ascended from Abraham.
Psalm 78:1–7 1 Give ear, my people, to my teaching; incline your ear to the utterances of my mouth.
2 I will open my mouth in a proverb; I will utter riddles from of old.
3 Which we have heard and known, and which our mothers and fathers have told us.
4 We will not hide them from their daughters and sons; we will recount to generations to come the praiseworthy deeds of She Who Speaks Life, and her might and the wonderful works she has done.
5 She gave her decrees for Rebekah’s descendants and placed teaching among Sarah’s offspring, which she commanded their mothers and fathers to make known to their daughters and sons.
6 In order that a coming generation, children yet to be, might know, and will rise up and tell their daughters and sons.
7 Then they will put their confidence in God, and not forget the works of God, but will keep her commandments.
Romans 8:18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the daughters and sons of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the daughters and sons of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Luke 1:39 Mary set out in those days and went to the hill country with haste, to a Judean town. 40 There she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 Now when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 Elizabeth exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 From where does this [visit] come to me? That the mother of my Sovereign comes to me? 44 Look! As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting in my ear, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Now blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of those things spoken to her by the Holy One.”
Good Morning, St. Matthew!
We gather on this morning in Itasca on the unceded tribal lands of the Kickapoo, Peoria, Ka-skas-kia, Potawatomi, Mya-a-mia, HoChunk, Winnebago and O-che-thi Sakowin nations, acknowledging that hard past and praying our way into a better future.
And so we pray.
Holy God – how we must tire you. You put so many obvious signs and signals in our path and we walk right past them, never seeing them. You place people all around us who have insight and wisdom to offer, and we refuse to listen, never letting them tell us their stories. You place within our ability the power of creation, and we let the seeds turn to dust, for lack of planting. This Advent season, we ask that you send your Holy Spirit to teach us how to see, how to listen, how to create. Help us to lay down all the blinders, all the earmuffs and all the fear and cynicism that keeps us from being the people you created us to be. Empty us of our self-involvement and fill us with your love and passion.
In your Holy Name, we pray. Amen.
This morning, I want to lift up one of the central themes of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that gets even more amplified in the miracles of Christmas – and that is our weird and constant inability to understand what we are looking at. From Genesis to Revelation, we are given the Biblical testimony of God’s action and humanity’s duh. As readers, we get it. We shake our heads at the stiff-necked Israelites and the dim-witted disciples. But then we turn back to our own lives and make the same exact mistakes! “There is nothing new under the sun” sighs the prophet Ecclesiastes in the very first chapter of the book that bears his name. And the reason is – nothing new presents itself until we learn the original lesson in the first place! We aren’t even smart enough to come with something new! And that reality comes into very real focus as we make our way to the manger, encountering so many signs, wonders and fulfilled prophecies that – if we are paying attention – we cannot help but understand that we are walking toward a starlit stable, filled with the glory of God.
In the lessons today, we begin with Abraham and Sarah, the ones who both inspire and frustrate us with their story. Abram is the guy from Ur, who packs up and goes when the Lord says go. Sarai is the one who follows her man in that journey – but then both of them start second guessing the Lord’s plan and screwing it up. God even invites them to step into new belief by giving them new names; Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah. But they still struggle! From our vantage point of being those billions of descendants, the promised stars and sand – we get frustrated with their choices and their doubts. But if an angel came into this sanctuary and said, “Karen! Congratulations! You’re gonna have a baby!” – what would we do? Or for myself, if God granted me the miracle of a husband, would I trust that at 60, I could still conceive a child – and moreover that that child would be a prophet? Or (and forgive me) if Lita announced that she was going to have a baby – a baby that would change the entire universe because he would be God incarnate – could we believe that God would ask this of us – of Karen, Lita and I – what was asked of Sarah, Elizabeth and Mary?
Now I am pretty sure that God does not repeat stories exactly – but the themes of those stories, like a musical reprise, repeat over and over again throughout history, and like a musical reprise, they don’t stop until they are resolved. Music and history that don’t resolve are painful and hard to listen to – we resist them, we seek their resolution. I recently heard a really good interview on the NPR program, “Fresh Air”, with the filmmaker James Gray who made “Armageddon Time”. The story is reflective of his own childhood as the grandson of Jewish immigrants and Holocaust survivors. In the film, Gray recalls that choice he had to make between fitting into his elite school and standing up to the racism his Black friend was facing. I haven’t yet seen the film, but the interview was uncomfortable because Gray made clear, he made the choice to fit in. He abandoned his friend. But then he said something that for me was very insightful – we all want life to be about the good examples and the heroic choices – but most of us are neither good examples or heroes. Like some German monk said, “We are all in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves”. Like some apostle said, in his letter to the Roman church, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
So what do we do with these tendencies that have been a part of the human story from Eden on? What do we need to do to change that story, to resolve that conflict? A fair bit ago, the Indigo Girls sang:
And I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountains
There’s more than one answer to these questions
Pointing me in a crooked line
And the less I seek my source for some definitive
the Closer I am to fine.
There is something of the Gospel in their words – God repeatedly tells us that we do not hold the answers to our own salvation. Yet from Eden on, we have insisted, we do have those answers and we find ourselves crashing out on those assumptions again and again. We tell God – we can do this in our power and in our own capability – only to find out that the power and the capability was never ours to begin with! Abram doesn’t move in his own power, nor does Sarai and when they try to take the reins, they screw it up. They even conspire to tell God what God can and cannot do and create the whole trouble that lingers to this day between the descendants of Hagar and Ishmael and Sarah and Isaac.
But there is another example in the lessons today – a resolution to this jumbled theme of personal pushing. As we come into the story of God’s incarnation, we begin to hear the dissonant patterns resolve and we can glimpse how we are to live our faith through the example of the main characters. Both Elizabeth and Mary say yes – they place their agency into God’s hands. In their actions, we see what is possible when we say “Ok God, here I am.” And don’t try to figure it out or interpret it or translate it into something we can control. In the witness of these two women – women who were part of a disgraced nation, who were considered to be utterly irrelevant to human history – we see – IF WE OPEN OUR EYES TO LOOK – what happens when we place our trust in God and empty ourselves of schemes and plans.
Paul lays this out clearly for the Roman church when he says “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the daughters and sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the daughters and sons of God.”
Freedom is not hard to find – but it IS hard to grasp. To be free is to understand that we are part of something greater than ourselves. That despite all the striving and finagling we are doing; God is the one in charge. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved.” Here’s the thing: the miracle of birth and adoption – even with all the fertility tricks we have to hand – are not processes we control. Even if we get to the point of creating truly science-based life forms – we have no way of knowing what those lives will release and how they will transform creation. But God does – and with that Divine view, God asks us to trust and to place our agency into God’s hands.
The women of the Gospel today have made that choice – to accept life and to trust God that that life will do what God promises it will do. And I also want us to understand something else that’s very important. God calls us to relationship, to community. As we watch this story unfold, we see that God has given these women to each other. Imagine how Elizabeth feels; there is a miracle for her, but it is at the edges of possibility. We have all heard of “oops babies”. So maybe Elizabeth can talk herself out of the miracle. But then Mary is at her door and the baby leaps in her womb – and she is emptied of doubt and filled with knowing. And for Mary as well, in her youth, she might have thought that there was some weird logical, unknown to her reason for this pregnancy, but Elizabeth affirms for her that the child growing in her is Divine and Divinely conceived. They are for each other the voice of angels and why does this matter to us? Cuz they are not just hearing the Divine speaking – they are listening! They are allowing all their doubts, questions and worries to be emptied out, to be laid aside, and they are saying “yes!” to being filled with the power that has always been surrounding them – and us. The power that sustains, leads and births life in them and in us.
And that Divine power allows us the faith to embrace hope. “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Patient hope that allows itself to trust in God’s Divine leading, that opens its eyes, ears and hearts to all that God is actually doing in the world is filled with the holy, and the assurance that God is acting – from Genesis to Revelation to today. What happens when WE live that faith? When we release our pretended agency into the hands of God? “As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting in my ear, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Now blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of those things spoken to her by the Holy One.”
As we walk to Bethlehem, will we lay aside all our doubts and fears and believe in the fulfilment of all the promises the Holy One has spoken to us?