The Bible has several stories about the birth of a baby. They are often a result of some presumed intervention by God as is the case with both Elizabeth and Mary in our reading today. When all is said and done, is there anything more exciting than the birth of a baby? Just look at how much we enjoy it when a baby is presented for baptism during worship. One of my joys at baptism is being able to hold the child so that each of you can see her or him. If you have had a child then you remember that birth as one of the most joyous experiences of your life, despite the fact that if you are a woman and had to go through seemingly unbearable pain to give birth. The pain disappears the moment you hold that wee body in your arms. You want the world to see how you have been blessed. You send out birth announcements and these days that happens even at the time of birth itself through the use of social media. Then there are the steady stream of photos for every new thing the baby does—at least if you are the first born. The second and following children tend to have fewer and fewer photos taken of them.
Luke understood our fascination with babies and decided in telling the story of Jesus, recognized as the saviour of the world only after his death as a man in his thirties and his subsequent resurrection to new life, that the story needed to begin with the birth of a baby. Everything about Jesus the adult would suggest that he was born of humble means. Everything about Jesus the adult would suggest that he was particularly tied to God. Everything about the ministry of Jesus would suggest that here was a man in whom the traditions of the faith were honoured and revealed, and the contemporary expression of that faith in the lives of everyday people was both a sign of hope and a promise of new life. Why not then have it all begin with a lowly teenage girl, engaged to a carpenter, who was so favoured by God that she would, in a way in which it is impossible to explain, give birth to a son, not just any son, but the Son of God?
How can this be? Well Scripture would insist that with God anything is possible. There could have been any number of ways for God to come among us as a human but, writes Luke, this is the way God chose to be made flesh. The idea of men and women not being able to have children, referred to as the women being barren in the Bible, is a metaphor for new life used frequently throughout the Old Testament. Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Hannah come readily to mind. They all lived good lives but needed special intervention by God for they and their husbands to send out the good news of a new baby. Such babies were often seen as a blessing not only to their parents but a blessing for the whole Hebrew nation. The priest Zachariah and Elizabeth were more contemporary versions of that ancient theme. Well past the age of giving birth they nevertheless were told by the angel Gabriel that birth was indeed in the offing. This baby, to be named John, would play a special role as the one who would announce the coming of the Messiah in the person of Jesus. Jesus would be born into the line of David, part of the dynasty that God had promised David would last forever. It did live for ever and it does live forever in the person of Jesus, born some 1,000 years after the promise first was made to King David.
Luke’s emphasis is that God keeps God’s promises…first to Elizabeth, then to Mary, but even back a thousand years to David now long dead but not forgotten. The child promised to Mary is part of the continuing relationship of God’s spirit with God’s people. It was an old, old promise but a promise fulfilled in the birth of every child, particularly so in the birth of Mary’s boy Jesus. When Hannah gave birth to Samuel she sang of God’s goodness and favor to her. So too Mary sang of being favored by God in a poem/song that we refer to as the Magnificat which was the final part of our Scripture reading. It is a song that every mother can relate to and every father hears with joy. In terms of our faith this miraculous birth and every birth is an affirmation that with the journey comes the blessing. The journey may be the four weeks of Advent, the 9 months of pregnancy, the 2000 years of the life of the Church or even longer than that in terms of God’s presence with God’s people dating back to the Garden of Eden narrative. It is in the journey, always, that we experience blessing.
What does it mean to be greeted by God? For Mary it was a cause for both confusion and consternation until she could hear the voice of God saying ‘do not be afraid’. Only then was she able to see this unexpected change in her life as being a blessing. She learned, suggests Rolf Jacobson, that when God decides to show up nothing is impossible. That is why the theme of barrenness becoming new life has been such a strong image throughout time. That is also why something as simple as the promised birth of a baby to a poor, working class woman, would shortly become such a threat to one of the strongest Empires the then world had ever known. God’s promise was one of life and no matter which empire sought to deny life to God’s people, no matter how barren their lives had become, God would hold true to God’s promises and new life would burst forth in the most unlikely of places and in the lives of the most unlikely people. Barrenness is not just about the inability to have children. It is about whatever condition in your life, in your community, in your nation that prevents life from blossoming. It can be poverty, a lack of education, the absence of good paying jobs, a legal system that advantages one group over another. In this year we think immediately of Covid-19 as that condition that prevents life from blossoming. In whatever circumstances where life is denied God will, in the most unlikely of places and with the most unlikely of people, cause the birth of a new life, the birth of a renewed promise. Walter Brueggemann writes that “Our history always begins with the barren…Among those almost as good as dead, the wondrous gift is given.” It is often news, good news, just as if it was news of a baby’s new birth. It is often good news—doxology—that brings the new future to effect and the new energy to birth.”
The songs of the Scripture, like the folk songs of our day, and increasingly along with the new songs of today’s youth, often begin with lament or with a sense of a promise broken or unfilled yet just when the unthinkable seems impossible the song captures again a sense that the promise is in fact still being worked out, that the promise is coming to fruition, and that the promise even when it seemed late in coming would yet bear witness to God’s mercy and grace, light and peace. Covid has forced us to re-think the way we organize and support benefit our society. We have seen some remarkable changes occur in those who lead us. No one and nothing is perfect but we see with pregnant anticipation that maybe, just maybe our society, even our world, might be about to blossom in some new and exciting life-giving ways. It is not all about the virus…for so many the concern is about income, overall health, housing, and education. We know we have a long journey ahead of us but for so many others there is light to be found just knowing that we are on that journey. It is an energizing hope. Brueggemann writes that such hope “…comes precisely to those ill-schooled in explanation and understandings. It comes to those who will settle for amazements they can neither explain nor understand.” For people like Mary it is enough to simply know that they have been incredibly favored by God for them to find the strength and purpose to fulfill their lives.
As with Mary, there is so little that we can do. We are often left with the sense that the needs of the world are more than we are able to comprehend, let alone address. Yet time and time again it is through women like Mary that God changed the world. Time and time again it is through men like Joseph that those with meagre means but with patience and perseverance lives are changed and the faith is honoured. Despite everything in their lives, living as they were under a foreign occupying power, that came to an awareness which Brueggemann describes as “The old world is not a given; it is a fraud. Another world is possible–in our imaginations: we listen and imagine differently.” Eventually then with our imaginations so inspired another world is not only possible in our imaginations but in our practice as well. That is what Christian living is all about: putting into practice the promise of God as we find it in Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Elizabeth and today Mary. They were all God’s people and recognized that God was with them in their journey and that they were not alone on that journey for God called them into that new day. In his commentary on this passage Prof. Kyle Schiefelbein-Guerrero notes that all three sections of our reading are “…about God’s working in the world, even before Jesus birth. God promises ‘with-ness’ to Mary and by extension to all creatures of the cosmos.”
Whatever stage of our journey we believe ourselves to be at, the incredibly good news is that we are not alone, we live in God’s world AND that with the journey comes the blessing. Amen