Martha M. Shiverick
Sermon December 23, 2012

Scripture: Luke 1: (21-)39-55

What a week it’s been. We as a nation have grieved the deaths of all those babies and teachers in Connecticut, we experienced our darkest day of the year on Friday in our Winter Solstice, two of our oldest members died, and a 21 year old child of this church committed suicide, and neighbors of many of our members died in a house fire. We are ripe for some good news… Some word of comfort and care from God.

Listen now for that good news as it is told to us in Luke’s Gospel 1:39-55.

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 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. And why is this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

And Mary said,
“My souls magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoiced 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;
For the mighty one has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;Z
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
According to the promise he made to our ancestors,
To Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

As you all might have heard once or twice, I went to McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. It was a great experience and one that thirty years later I am still processing and becoming a better pastor because of what I learned and experienced there. One of the community celebrations we had at McCormick was a celebration of the “Feast of the Fools”. The festival was actually an old Christian Festival which subverted the pretentions and hierarchy of both the church and society. In small towns, the fool became the ruler and all the residents roles were reversed in a wild celebration that lasted for several days after Christmas. I found a description of the festival in a book published in 1903 titled “The Medieval Stage” by EK Chambers.

“Throughout medieval and early modern Europe, Christmas was a time for festive reversals of status. As early as the ninth century, a mock patriarch was elected in Constantinople, burlesquing the Eucharist and riding through the city streets on an ass. And as late as Innocents Day (December 28th) in 1685, in the Franciscan church of Antibes, lay brothers and servants “put on the vestments inside out, held the books upside down,…wore spectacles with rounds of orange peel instead of glasses,… blew ashes from the censors on each other’s face and hands, and instead of the proper liturgy chanted confused and inarticulate gibberish.”

Cross dressing, masking as animals, wafting foul-smelling incense, and electing burlesque bishops, popes, and patriarchs mocked conventional pretentions. So did the introduction of an ass into the church, in commemoration of the Holy family’s flight into Egypt, and the braying of the priest, choir, and congregation during mass.”

I believe the seminary used it as a way for us to let off some steam and pressure in the cold January days in Chicago but it really was a fun time. The least likely person to be the President of the Seminary became the president for the day and allowed all sorts of new rules to be enacted, roles of professors and students were reversed, and merriment was had by all as we all gently made fun of the structure of an institution with our professors and the school administration.

But the theological reason for the festival is a profound one. And in spite of the merriment, the lesson hits home. There is something that happens at Christmas which rocks the world order. There is something that happened on that quiet night two centuries ago that is still happening today which changed the order of power, something subversive to all man made institutions, and we are still discovering what it means today.

And this morning’s scripture passage exemplifies this reality. The visit of Mary, the mother of Jesus, with her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, is well known to the Christian. We read about these two pregnant women visiting each other and we hear the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise every year as we approach Christmas. They are a part of our history and a part of our celebration and tradition.

But this morning I thought we might look at the passage a little different and gain a new insight into something that has become institutionalized into our Christmas tradition. (I find when we institutionalize things, we no longer pick them apart and think about them. They just are.)

So I ask you to think about these two women. They are very unlikely choices for the mother of the man who is to herald the coming and arrival of the messiah and the messiah himself. One is an old woman who was barren and unable to have children. When the angel told her husband that she was going to bear a child he did not believe it, it was so outside his reality. And the other woman was almost a child herself. She was not married and a virgin. These two very poor powerless women meet… actually one pregnant woman travels about 80 miles from her home town of Nazareth to this Judean hill town, and one of the most famous recognition scenes takes place. The coming of the Messiah who will redeem Israel is anticipated here not by angels, or high priests, or emperors, but by two marginalized pregnant women out in the middle of nowhere.

Charles Campbell, professor of homiletics at Duke University, says that this text is to be preached in all its wildness and absurdity. He says that as we read this text we are to prepare for Jesus’s birth not through serious theological reflection, but with laughter, singing , and astonishment. Mary, young, unwed, and pregnant gives voice to this subversive incarnation. Her voice seems amazed… My soul magnifies the Lord!…for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…. The rest of the song sings of the topsy-turvy message of God with us. The social and power structures that once were, will change with this birth!

And we know the rest of the story of our savior’s birth is as topsy-turvy as this passage. Our Messiah is not born in a palace, a grand home, or even a third rate inn. Our savior was born in a stable outside with any warmth coming from animals’ heated bodies, as there was not even a fireplace to keep them warm. I think about that when I drive down Fairmount Blvd. from County Line Road to River Road. On that part of Fairmount there is a house whose owners have llamas. The llamas live outside and have little shacks for cover that kind of look like the barns in the manger scenes we have for our crèches. This time of year the owner of the property put a star on top of the stable, so it really does look like the barn where Jesus was born. It looks primitive. It looks cold. It does not look like a place where any child should be born, particularly a little baby who will become our messiah. The whole story is not right. The whole story is not what we expect! No wonder the Feast of the Fools became the acting out of the Magnificat, when social orders turn upside down or inside out.

But this is also the good news for us today. AS crazy as the story is, God came to us in the form of a baby. AS crazy as the story is, this child changed the world and the definition of what power and greatness is right from the first announcement of his birth. And if God can make this story into one of power and might, think of what God can do with us. If God can use those two women into the mothers of John the Baptist and our Lord Jesus Christ, think of what God can do with us!

The reality is, it is not about Mary, not about Elizabeth, not about the powers and structures made and broken by humankind. The story is about God. The story is about God’s love, God’s power, and God’s plan for creation. That is the Good News at Christmas. As we celebrate Christmas again this year, we do so realizing that in spite of the violence, the pain, the loneliness and the grief our imperfect world is in, that God promises to be there with us. God does not abandon us but comes with a plan and a purpose for even the most unlikely of us. God is indeed with us. Amen.