Of Pregnancy and Prophecy

Prophecy and parenthood have little in common at first glance. But on closer examination, both require you to let go of the belief that you are in control of anything. 

And both are about hope.

Pregnancy and parenthood are a really good way to discover that you are not in control. Of anything. Of course, this is a lesson that we all have to learn sooner or later, but the path of parenthood certainly teaches it quickly. Just the circumstances of Mary’s and Elizabeth’s pregnancies are a perfect example. For some, like Elizabeth, img_5413the struggle to become pregnant is a lifelong ordeal, while others, like Mary, find themselves unexpectedly expecting. 

And then, once pregnant, the planning begins. These days, there are birth plans and announcements and gender-reveal parties and scheduled c-sections or inductions to accommodate the doctor’s schedules, all based on the basic idea that we can, somehow, be in control of this whole affair. 

But all of that planning is just a delusion. I went into labor with Grace 5 weeks early, but even before that, I had begun to come to terms with how little control I had over this pregnancy and childbirth thing. Gestational diabetes and hypertension put an end to my idealistic plans for a home birth or a new age-y Seattle-Style birthing center. It was a hospital birth – no midwife would consider anything else. Then, when I went into labor 5 weeks early, there was no further pretense of planning. This baby was arriving whether we were ready or not. And we were not. No bag packed, no freezer full of food, nothing ready. 

It was a crash course in how little control we had, a course that continues to this day and only grows more obvious with each additional kid. Holden arrived on the day of his baby shower, so that we had to tape a note to the door for our guests, who arrived at our house 3 hours after he had arrived at the hospital. 

And, of course, it was not part of my long-term plan to be ordained at 7 months pregnant, but Elinor had other ideas. She decided to get her first semester of Greek in utero and accompanied me into my first 6 weeks of ministry here at Peace.

But alongside this growing awareness that you have no control over, well, anything, this new life brings with it a sense of absolutely irrational purpose, promise, and hope. Even as the sense of our own inadequacy grows in the face of this immense responsibility, so does the feeling that this little life could be amazing, that because of this tiny human, who has now become a medium sized or even full-grown human, the world could become a better place. Has already become a better place. 

And that’s the other link between prophecy and parenthood: both lean into hope – the hope that something amazing and new and wonderful is brewing. 

This is what sends Mary with haste to the Judean hill country. 

This is what brings these two pregnant women, unexpectedly expectant, together to share their thrilling expectations, to share their words of prophecy and proclamation.

Elizabeth is an old woman by the time this story takes place. Like her ancestors Sarah and Hannah, she has long since given up hope of becoming a mother when she discovers that she is pregnant. A pregnancy she had once longed for but no longer expected. She had come to accept a long time ago that she was not in control. And now, she is in her sixth month of pregnancy and here comes her kinswoman Mary. 

Mary is so young, so full of promise, promise now seemingly ruined. Because at this time, in this place, what can become of a young woman pregnant out of wedlock, unexpectedly expecting, likely to face shaming and rejection for her pregnancy, shaming and rejection that Elizabeth herself had once faced for her own lack of pregnancy. Women’s bodies have ever been subjected to the hopes and expectations of their society, and when they fail to live up to those hopes and expectations, society demands a punishment.

But in this story the shaming and rejection never come. Instead of being the vessels of society’s demands, these two women’s bodies have become the vessels of the world’s hope, of God’s promises. They have been made into living prophecies, the proclamation that God is present and active in this world.

Prophecy in Scripture is not quite the same thing as it is in popular culture. In the movies and TV, our popular imagination always make prophecy about some prediction of future calamity or good, along with a series of signs that we can use to determine when the prophecy is going to happen. 

But Biblical prophecy is different. Biblical prophecy, like parenthood,is about control and hope. When a prophet speaks in the Bible it is most often to remind us that we are not in control,  or to point us toward the hope of the future. The prophets always speak uncomfortable truths. 

Sometimes they are reminding those in power of their responsibility for the poor, the widows, and the orphans. 

Sometimes they are scolding the people for neglecting the aliens, the foreigners who have come to them for help and shelter. 

Sometimes they are pointing out the abuses of the wealthy and the religious authorities. 

But always what they come back to is the reminder – you are not in control. God is. 

You may think that you are the one in charge, and you may be abusing that power, but at the end of the day, God is the king. Your administration is only a temporary thing. God’s reign is forever. 

For the powerful and the wealthy and the insiders, this is not good news. Because it turns out that God’s administration has different priorities, and God’s priorities almost always take power and wealth and insider status away from those who abuse it.

But even as they are speaking these uncomfortable truths, the prophets of the Bible are also delivering hope and speaking words of promise. 

Because if you are poor, a widow, an orphan, an alien at the door, an outsider, an asylum-seeker, a beggar, oppressed, imprisoned, afflicted in any way, God’s priorities bring hope. 

For these people, the prophets speak of new life, of a world in which all have enough and everyone is accepted as they are, and the flocks are fed. 

The prophets promise that the mighty will cast down from their thrones while the lowly are lifted up, that the hungry will be fed and the proud will be scattered. 

The prophets promise that God’s lovingkindness, that God’s steadfast mercy and love, will have the last word.

In the Book of Luke, the Messiah who has arrived in Jesus Christ is first and foremost a prophet. 

As I said on the first Sunday of Advent, in Christ, God comes to us in History, in Mystery, and in Majesty. And in the four Gospel accounts, the authors each emphasize a different one of these, although all three can be found in each. Sometimes the Messiah is a King, coming in Majesty to set human thrones aside. Sometimes the Messiah is a Savior, coming in Mystery to forgive sins and defeat death. 

But for Luke, who begins his book as “an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us,” the focus is primarily on History. And so the Messiah is a Prophet, come to remind us of God’s presence, of God’s activity, of how God turns human history into God’s story.

And so Luke begins with pregnancies and parents and prophets. These pregnancies themselves, like all pregnancies everywhere to some extent, are embodied prophecies, living instances of hope and promise. A barren woman unexpectedly expecting well past her years of motherhood. A young virgin impossibly expecting by the grace of God. These events themselves are so telling that no words are necessary, and in fact, Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah is silenced by the angel Gabriel, as if to remind him and us that God’s work does not require our interpretation and manipulation, our planning and our perfecting. God is at work and God is in control, and our plans and priorities will take a back seat. If parenthood in his old age won’t convince Zechariah of this, maybe 9 months of silence will. It is only after Mary’s song, after Elizabeth gives birth, after John is named, that Zechariah’s silence ends and he breaks forth with his own song, declaring that God’s plans are good enough for him.

Meanwhile, Mary receives the angel Gabriel with the open guileless trusting hope of the young, simply saying, “Let it be.” For this trust, Elizabeth declares, Mary will be praised throughout the ages, blessed throughout the world, and has the embodiment of hope already growing inside her.

These babies, John and Jesus, will both grow, as babies do, and become something amazing. They will surpass their parents’ expectations, and they will bring grief to the women who carried them. These women, who stand here today with hope and joy on their lips will someday witness the brutal death of these children at the hands of corrupt and violent regimes. And again, their prophetic lives will bear witness to the harsh truths of human power, abused and misused for power’s sake.

But here at the beginning of Luke, it is all about the God who shows up in history, who comes with words and deeds of prophecy, whose very birth is itself prophetic, showing us that God can and will come to us where and when we least expect it. We are not in control, and we encounter that truth in our daily lives, through the unexpected ways that God shows up. Through the joy we inexplicably receive when we give of ourselves, when we share what we have, when we become for someone else the embodiment of hope.

So Mary sings what her body lives, and Zechariah echoes her song at the birth of John, and Simeon in a couple weeks will sing his prophecies as well, on encountering the baby Jesus in the Temple. And all these songs, all these births, and even their ultimate deaths, tell us the truths that the prophets have sung for centuries: 

God is in control, and God’s priorities are not ours. 

And though we will try to manipulate and interpret, to make our own plans and bring our own power to bear, to make history reflect human priorities, though we will build higher walls and rehearse the stories of insider privilege, and though we will place tyrants on thrones and think proud thoughts and hoard wealth and neglect the widows and orphans and aliens who turn to us for help, God is busy coming into this world, being born in every time and place, bringing God’s unexpected mercy and God’s steadfast love into being

Mary is the embodiment of God’s already and not yet, a continuation of the long line of God’s prophets. Mary’s song, sung in the past tense, is about the God who has always been up to this exact thing. Always been coming to God’s people and blessing them, down through the ages, always giving the hope that comes with new life. 

And Mary’s body, Mary’s very being as the Mother of God, is about the God who is always going to come to us, always looking to be born into this world, to embody the hope and blessing, the assurance that we are in fact not in control, and this is indeed good news.

What Happens in Bethlehem Doesn’t Stay in Bethlehem (with a nod to Unvirtuous Abbey)

Last night was the longest night of the year, the winter solstice. It is the moment of the year when the Northern Hemisphere tips the farthest from the sun, dipping us into the cold black reaches of empty space, before spinning us ever-so-slowly back into the warm embrace of our star. So darkness is a thing that is happening. Now. Which makes this opening to John’s Gospel somehow more real, more visceral, than it usually is. Image

I imagine that for most of you, this passage is very familiar. Many of you can even recite it from memory, or bits of it, anyway. But sometimes, in its familiarity, a passage like this can fade. It becomes background noise, no less beautiful, but a little more remote. Like a favorite song or movie that you know so well that you can do the crossword or read a book while it plays. It becomes a comfortable companion, and we don’t quite hear it anymore.

And then, one day, we hear it in a different context, and the words come into focus again, and that old comfortable passage takes on new colors for us, and we reexamine it. Like when we hear, after the longest night of the year, that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

This passage reads like a hymn. It has a rhythm and a cadence to it and draws us along in the way a hymn does, circling back on itself and twisting familiar notes in new directions. But like all good music, its simplicity and beauty hide a complexity and depth that become apparent to a more practiced ear. Trust me, I am not a more practiced ear, either in music or in Scripture. For me to hear the layers of complexity concealed in this introduction to John, I need a guide. Fortunately, my dad gave me one for my birthday, a 1200 page commentary on the Gospel of John by Frederick Dale Bruner. Don’t worry, I’m not going to delve into the whole thing here today, but I think it will come in handy over the next few months. Since we are following the Narrative Lectionary this year, we are going to have a very unusual opportunity, one you never do get when you are in the common lectionary. We are going to walk through the Gospel of John together, in narrative order, from now until Easter. We will listen together to the story of Jesus according to the fourth gospel, a story that we usually only hear in bits and pieces, spliced into three years, in between the stories of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I hope it will be a fruitful time for us, and I plan to make good use of that 1200 page commentary. But for today, I just want to point out a few things. Because this, today, is John’s overture. It is his chance to lay out for us what is important to him, and he does this with a hymn. And to understand the hymn, we have to zero in on a few notes.

In the beginning… Well, already we’re in familiar territory. These three words, in the beginning, elicit a response from us, they take us back to another story that starts with these words. It is the story, the story of Creation, the story of Genesis. It takes a good bit of audacity to start a book this way, setting your story on a par with the Book of Genesis. But for John, it is not his story, it is God’s story, and he wants to make clear to everyone who reads this or hears this, that Jesus Christ is the story of creation. This is not a new story. This is the story of what God has been up to all along.

And what was in the beginning was the Word. Which we know from that other story, because what that story in Genesis says is that God was there in the beginning, and then God spoke. And God’s speech does something. God’s speech is powerful speech. It is speech that changes things, that shakes things up, that makes things happen. Which is what we are led to remember when John tells us that God was there in the beginning, and God’s Word was there in the beginning, a part of God, and all things came into being through this Word.

Without this Word, John tells us, not one thing came into being. Not one. Not the sun, not the stars, not the seas or the mountains. Not me. Not you. You exist, you live, you came into being, through the Word of God. Life itself. What has come into being in the Word is life itself, and the life is the light of all people, of all human beings, it says in the Greek. And again, we hear echoes of the first story of Scripture, because the Word of God spoke into the chaos of the beginning, and the first speech of God that we have recorded there is, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And now we learn from John that all of God’s Creation is life and that life is light. But there’s more, because the true light, the light that actually is the Word of God, was coming into the world. No longer content with just creating the world, the Word is coming into the world.

And the world is a nasty place. You don’t need me to tell you this, I know. But I just want to make sure you’re clear about where John is coming from here. The world, whenever you hear it in this Gospel, the world is the thing that works against and rejects God. It is the cosmos, the chaos, the darkness. It is the place that no one in her right mind would go, if she had a choice. And it is the very place that God chooses to go. Because the world is not only that which works against and rejects God, it is also the thing that God loves more than anything else. For God so loved the world. What that really says is, for God so loved the God-rejecting, God-hating world. What this book of John is, in many ways, is a love story, the story of a jilted lover, this love-sick God, who loves this world so much and is utterly heartbroken by how much this world rejects God’s love, and God tries over and over again, through the prophets and through the law, to show the world God’s love, and still the world rejects God. And finally God doesn’t know what to do, except to throw it all in with the world and become a part of the God-hating world. It’s almost like the plot of a bad romantic tragedy, the jilted lover who says, look! I’ll show you how much I love you! I’ll die for you! And that’s what God does. God comes into the darkness and allows the darkness to overwhelm, to win, because God loves this world that loves the darkness.

Bethlehem is an old, old city. Older even than Jerusalem. The streets of Bethlehem are a maze of cobblestones and bricks, patched together with cement. The walls of the 19078_260290218497_3947436_n-2 19078_260290623497_5715940_n-2 19078_260291008497_2244731_n-2buildings rise straight up and even hang over the streets, and little alleyways jut off at odd angles and in surprising places. As you walk the streets, you think there is no way that motorized vehicles can fit through these narrow passages, and yet there they are, inexplicably carrying every kind of thing to the merchants who line the streets, raisins the size of half-dollars, melons grown in the desert, scarves, shoes, baklava, chestnuts to roast on open fires. Seriously. So the first thing you want to do when you arrive, is to go for a walk and experience these streets. After you take a nap, because you are jet-lagged. So you look at the streets from your hotel window, and then you nap, and you wake up and it’s dusk, and time for dinner. You all decide to eat, and then go for a walk. By which time the sun has set. But Manger Square is only a half-mile away, you’re told, so you decide to go anyway. And you set off. The streets are fairly well lit in this part of town, and your group straggles out, walking in twos and threes, taking in the scenes of merchants closing down for the night. And then, quite abruptly, everyone stops. Because there is no light in this part of town. For the next hundred yards or so, there is no light. Not a single drop of electricity. No candles. Nothing. Who knows why. Perhaps these people are too poor to pay for electricity. Perhaps this part of town is being punished for some crime. Perhaps they are waiting for unsuspecting and stupid tourists to walk through here on their way from the Lutheran guesthouse to Manger Square. Whatever the reason, it is dark. Pitch dark. And so you cluster together for safety and for something to cling to, and you inch your way through the darkness, feeling the walls with your hands and the cobblestone steps with your feet, and then, just as suddenly as it began, it ends, and you are in the square, surrounded by Christmas lights and neon-lit mosques and groups of people enjoying roasted nuts, and it is hard to remember the darkness and the fear it brought.

You don’t have to go so far as Bethlehem to be afraid of the dark. We are in it. And our fear of the dark is less about the darkness itself than it is about what we know of darkness. The darkness of human hearts. Darkness that would put one group of people behind a wall because of centuries of fear and persecution suffered by another people. Darkness that would force some to desperate measures because they do not have enough, cannot get enough, to feed and clothe their families. Darkness that would drive people to despair, that causes some to live with mental illness, addiction, depression. Darkness of war that leaves its mark on the earth and on the hearts and minds of people who have lived it. We are afraid of the dark. Because we know it. Because, sometimes, it lives in our own hearts. Because we have brushed up against it, in our grief, in our pain, in our shame, in our regrets.

Bethlehem is where the light came into the world. It is the physical location, the place where you can actually touch the spot where the light came into the darkness. But the light didn’t stop there. When God came into the world, when the Word became flesh, what came into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. God came into the world, came into the darkness, and darkness cannot recognize the light. People did not recognize God’s Word, even when they stood before it, and they poured their darkness on the Word. But the story doesn’t end there. Over the next few months, we will walk that story. The story of how the light shines in the darkness. How the light continues to shine, it shines on, and the darkness is nothing to it. The darkness rolls back before it. For our sakes, God comes into the darkness, lives in the darkness, gets to know the darkness as we know it. But for our sakes, the light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it. Darkness never has the last word. The earth, created as it was in him and through him, the earth will move forward, and will turn back towards our sun, the star at the center of our solar system. We, created as we were in him and through him, we will be drawn forward. You, created as you were in him and through him, you will be drawn into God’s promised and preferred future, where you will live in the light of the Son, the Word made flesh, the Bright Star of Bethlehem.