A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr C ~ Advent 4 ~ Luke 1:39-45
It’s just so ordinary.
Two women – relatives – who both happen to be pregnant – get together and talk about the future. “What will it be like to be a mom? What will my child be like? Who will my child become? I can feel the weight of it – it’s my responsibility to bring this child into the world and then to teach them everything I can, to help them become who they’ll become. Am I ready? If not me, who?”
Two women – one probably too old to be having a baby – the other probably too young to be having a baby. And yet, they can sense that God has blessed them – that the life they bear is incredibly important – and holy. It’s so ordinary. The same scene probably happens a million times a day in the world today. The joyful hope of expectancy – expectant, but also inevitable – a blessing to be sure, but also the sense of a burden.
Two women with suspect pregnancy stories – or at least unconventional ones. Why is such blessing conferred upon such obviously “flawed” women? Neither Mary nor Elizabeth were particularly special. If you were going to choose mothers for a great prophet and the one who would be called the Son of God would you have chosen them? And yet, that’s exactly what happened.
Whether you interpret these writings as history or as theology doesn’t change the fact that both John the Baptizer and Jesus of Nazareth had very ordinary parents, and unusual circumstances surrounding their conceptions.
Elizabeth was “well on in years” – and Mary was barely a teenager.
Who among you who are well on in years would want the blessing of a baby now?
Or what would we call it if one of our church teens found herself “blessed”?
Would we see a blessing, or just a burden?
When she’s first told of her pregnancy, Mary, the probably 14-year old, shows courage and faith well beyond her years and answers, “Let it be with me as you say.” It’s an astonishing reaction to such surprising news! And then upon sharing the news with her relative, Elizabeth, Mary sings out what has been named the Magnificat, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favour 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.” [Luke 1:46-49]
Could you sing that song? Do you see the touch of God’s hand in your life? Can you feel the blessing of God’s presence and grace? Doesn’t it make your heart want to sing with joy?!
What great work is God doing in you? Do you believe that something great can come of your life?
We are filled with spiritual potential – with spiritual promise – the Lord has done great things for you and more are coming! You will receive blessings – and there will be burdens.
God gave Mary the blessing and the burden of bearing Jesus. The story goes that the angel Gabriel came and announced it to her.
What a blessing – bearing the Son of the Most High – a child who would save her people.
What an honour. What a privilege – and yet…… what a burden – an unexpected pregnancy in a time when such things were seriously frowned upon.
She was unmarried, uneducated, and unprepared to handle this. What if she screwed up in raising him? What if Joseph divorced her – he had every right to – even if he was the father.
So which is it? – a blessing, or a burden – or both? Well of course it’s both.
Aren’t all the greatest, most important things – the things that really matter in life – aren’t they all both a blessing and a burden? The mix of the blessing of experiencing weighty things with the burden that comes with them is what makes our lives so rich and worth living.
Think about it. Marriage – a blessing and a burden.
Love – a blessing and a burden.
Friendship – a blessing and a burden.
Parenting – your career – and, of course, faith.
We are people of faith – followers of the Way of Jesus. And staking that claim means accepting an amazing abundance of overflowing blessings from God – and it also means accepting that those blessings come with a burden – a burden to give as we have received – to forgive as we have been forgiven – to love as we have been loved.
People of Faith – I bring you a message from God. You’re pregnant!
(Everybody look at the person beside you and tell them that they’re pregnant.)
We are all pregnant with the potential of spiritual purpose. We’re just like Mary and Elizabeth. We’re pregnant.
In early Christianity to honour Mary she was given the Greek title “Theotokos” which means “God Bearer” – and that’s exactly what we’re supposed to be too.
We are pregnant – we are God-Bearers.
Meister Eckhart said, “We are all meant to be mothers of God.”
Think about it. How does God choose to usher in a new vision for humanity? How does God transform the world? Through kings? Emperors? Armies? No.
Through ordinary, everyday people like Mary and Elizabeth who brought forth children and raised them in love and in faith.
The revolution that changed the world didn’t come through the powerful but through the powerless. God chooses to work in unconventional ways through unconventional people – ordinary people – just like you!
We are God-Bearers. We’re pregnant.
Pregnancy is such a great metaphor for faith.
It all begins with a very special moment – a holy spark is ignited and something inside you is changed.
Maybe you were a skeptic and you find yourself oddly open to a new way of looking at things.
Maybe you were a church-goer as a kid but drifted away and find that you’re reawakening to the movement of the Spirit.
Maybe you’ve been in church your whole life but for whatever reason you felt something moving you deeper – asking new questions – feeling a hunger and thirst that you perhaps hadn’t felt before – or lately.
That movement – whether it was a lightning bolt or a slow burn – is the spark of conception – the time when something new and holy was conceived in the deepest part of your being. You became pregnant – just like Mary.
Maybe you feel like you’re too old to become pregnant – or too young – or too busy – or too stressed – or too worldly – or too whatever.
But that spark – that new sensation that there’s something more to this life than just living – is a special blessing from God – whether you’re ready for it or not.
Like any pregnancy the initial spark is just that – a starting point.
What comes next is a lot of waiting, watching, wondering, dreaming, planning, preparing, hoping, and worrying!
You don’t get touched by the Holy Spirit and instantly become Martin Luther King Jr or Mother Teresa. It takes time – it takes commitment – it takes love.
The blessing needs to grow inside you.
It needs to be nurtured so it can grow strong and healthy.
And sometimes that’s a burden because you can’t always do the stuff you did before you accepted the blessing – not because you’ll be punished or anything but just because you know that it’s not the healthiest thing to be doing. Make no mistake – being a God-Bearer isn’t easy – but it is awesome!
It requires a long period of formation – spiritual formation.
When you’re growing a baby you don’t smoke or drink, you try to exercise, you try to cut out bad habits, and you do everything you can to grow a healthy baby inside of you.
Being a God-Bearer isn’t much different. Our burden is to grow spiritually – to pray – to read – to learn – to praise – to share – to give – to serve – and the amazing thing is that as we put energy into this burden we find we receive more and more blessing! How wonderful is that!
Spiritual formation is one of my favourite topics. It’s that whole love God, love people, love one another thing. It’s the burden of nurturing the blessings of our faith.
Mary and Elizabeth teach us another really important thing about being God-Bearers – we’re supposed to support each other through our pregnancies.
We’re supposed to journey together.
Mary and Elizabeth spent time together to help one another – to remind one another how blessed they were to be bearing God’s miraculous gifts to the world.
That’s us too! We too need to support one another and teach one another and love one another because we too are blessed to be bearing God’s miraculous gifts to the world!
What are those gifts? What’ll they be like? What’ll my gift become?
I don’t know the answers – but those are questions that we need to dream about together.
There’s an old African proverb that says “It takes a village to raise a child.” And we know that – we don’t raise our children in isolation – we raise them in community.
And that’s how we should be nurturing our faith too. The burden and the blessing of bearing God to the world is not something we do on our own, but as a community of followers of the Way of Jesus.
Ok – we’ve had the spark – we’ve done the growing, dreaming, and preparing – now comes the big burden. It’s birthing time!
Let me tell you from my own personal experience – birthing isn’t all that bad. [grin]
Birthing is an exceedingly painful yet supremely joyous event. An incredible burden mixed in with an indescribable blessing.
When we give birth to something in our faith life we’re doing something public with it – bringing it out into the open. It may be as simple as saying out loud that you’re a follower of the Way of Jesus. Owning that statement may be a burden – but claiming it is also a blessing.
You may birth a ministry – or an outreach project – or even just pitch in and help with something.
Birthing is that act of putting your money where your mouth is and actually following through with something in the name of your faith.
For some of us talking about our faith is a burden right up there on the painful scale with delivering babies.
And we’re so afraid of the pain of it – maybe they’ll laugh at me – maybe they’ll think I’m nuts – maybe I’ll not be welcome anymore – or (gasp) maybe they’ll want me to keep talking about it and pray with them and stuff – we’re so afraid of that pain that we do everything we can to avoid it – and in doing so we cheat ourselves out of an incredible blessing.
Faith is a blessing, and it brings with it the burden of risking, and giving of ourselves, and sharing it. And the paradox of it all is that the meeting of that burden becomes even more of a blessing to us. We find that as we put ourselves out there and share the hope, peace, joy and love that we’ve experienced through our relationship with God that we’re blessed with even more hope, more peace, more joy, and more love because we’ve birthed the greatest thing there is – a humble, willing, obedient heart that strives to love God and love people. It’s a burden all right, but what a blessing!
But of course birthing is not the end of the story – it’s really just the beginning – because you don’t birth something and then just walk away. You nurture it again – not in the same way as you did at first but you still nurture it. It’s never-ending – it’s ever deepening.
And it’s another burden that’s really a blessing because as you engage in your expression of gratitude for God’s grace, as you serve and minister, you continue to grow. As you teach you understand more – as you share you deepen – as you love you learn to love more deeply – ever deeper…
And so like Mary, like Elizabeth, like the prophets, like the disciples, like so many who have come before us – we are God-Bearers.
Because we have received the Holy Spirit, Jesus lives in us just as surely as he did in Mary.
We then give “birth” anew to Jesus whenever we truly walk in his Way – when we give as he gave – when we care as he cared – when we love as he loved. Holy love is one of God’s great gifts to us – the kind of gift that we receive with open arms, hold and nurture for a while, and then give it away to someone else – and in doing so, we are blessed again. Our blessing brings a burden, which in turn becomes a deeper blessing for us.
Our Advent season is just about over.
Tomorrow night we begin to celebrate the birth of Jesus – and we pray that his blessing and burden may rest upon us all – empowering us to be God-Bearers in his name.