Sermon: God's Love in Unexpected Ways and Places
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Micah 5.2-5a; Psalm 80.1-7; Hebrews 10.5-10; Luke 1.39-55
It’s the fourth Sunday of Advent, and the emphasis is on God’s love. An attentive reading of the Scriptures reveals that God’s love to us often comes in highly unexpected ways; it sometimes breaks through when and where we least expect it.
I suspect Micah’s prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem of Ephratha surprised more than a few people. Wouldn’t Jerusalem, the seat of power and authority, be the more logical place? If we were anticipating a Messiah, it would be reasonable to expect the Messiah’s arrival in Washington, D. C. Imagine our surprise if some lowly west-river prophet were to come along and announce us the Messiah would appear in Buffalo, South Dakota.
This is the only Sunday in the three-year lectionary cycle when we consider Micah’s prophecy. Micah prophesied In Judah during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, the time of the Assyrian invasion and the fall of Israel. Micah described his prophetic call as follows: “But as for me, I am filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin” (Micah 2.8; NRSV). And Micah thundered,
Hear this you rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, who build Zion with blood, and Jerusalem with wrong! Its rulers give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money; yet they lean upon the LORD and say, “Surely the LORD is with us! No harm shall come upon us.” Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height (Micah 3.9-12: NRSV).
In the midst of all of this corruption, Micah (in chapter 4) announces that God’s Messianic reign will ultimately break through – a reign in which we shall say to each other, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Micah 4.2a; NRSV). It will be a reign in which “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” – a reign in which “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” – a reign in which “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid” (Micah 4.3-4; NRSV). After characterizing the Messiah’s reign, Micah tells us the Messiah will be born in “Bethlehem of Ephrathah . . . one of the little cans of Jacob . . . when she who is in labor has brought forth” (Micah 5.2-3; NRSV). God’s love is coming in an unexpected place. Yet, there is precedent for Bethlehem, for here God’s love was present in the union of Boaz and Ruth who bore a son named Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of King David. God’s love breaks through in unexpected places.
Today’s gospel reading picks up after the story of the Annunciation in which the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, a young virgin engaged to Joseph, and says, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord s with you. . . . Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus” (Luke 1.28-31). Gabriel also shared that Elizabeth in her old age had conceived. At the close of their conversation, Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord: let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1.38; NRSV). Mary spoke in humility. We should consider making her words the model for our own humility: Here I am; the servant of the Lord: let it be with me according to your word. As a commentator has noted, where humility is present, there is room for God to enter in.
Mary visits Elizabeth. Upon greeting her, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaped, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and cried out, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has 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" (Luke 1.42-45; NRSV).
Mary responded with the words of the Magnificat, words undoubtedly spoken through the Spirit. The Magnificat possesses many similarities to Hannah’s song of rejoicing for the birth of Samuel.
The Magnificat begins:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: * the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name. (Canticle 15, BCP)
God’s love has entered in unexpected ways and places. God’s Spirit entered our world through two lowly women: Elizabeth, a woman getting on in years who has suffered consider social ostracism for her failure to be fruitful and bless her union with Zachariah, is about to deliver John the Baptist who will prepare the way for Jesus’ ministry. And Mary, a lowly virgin whom social custom would see stoned for becoming pregnant. I suspect Mary wondered how Elizabeth would greet her, how she would respond to her pregnancy. Elizabeth graciously accepted her, perhaps in part due to her own experience of having been socially ostracized for so many years. Elizabeth’ blessing must have meant a great deal to her. When we have experienced suffering and humiliation, we are more capable of ministering to others who are experiencing suffering and humiliation.
Elizabeth and Mary were open to the Holy Spirit. Through Elizabeth’s openness God prepared the way. Through Mary’s openness, God entered human form, lived, and dwelt among us. God’s salvation came through their openness. To once again quote one of my favorite Christian authors, Fr. Ron Rolheiser, “Christmas isn’t automatic, it can’t be taken for granted. It began with Mary, but each of us is asked to make our own contribution to giving flesh to faith in the world” (http://liturgy.slu.edu/4AdvC122318/reflections_rolheiser.html).
Yes, God’s love comes in unexpected ways and place. If we are open and humble, we have made room for God in our life, and if invited, God will enter it. With God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, we too can give flesh to faith in the world. Giving flesh to faith may take interesting forms. One of members recently shared how someone who was aware of economic need was anonymously given financial help. This was a blessing. The gifts we have shared with St. James is a means of giving flesh to faith. Throughout this Christmas, let us ponder how we might give flesh to faith in the lives of others. Let us assist in spreading God’s love in unexpected ways and places.