2But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little ones of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from old, from ancient days.
3Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel.
4And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth;
5And he shall be the one of peace.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God
39In those days Mary set our and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed in the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,
47and my spirit rejoiced in God my savior,
48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.
On my way to the church this morning, I heard an interview with Ramón Estévez, a devout Catholic and an activist. Most folks know him as the actor Martin Sheen. It was one of those Holy Spirit moments, because right as I tuned in, he and the interviewer began talking about love in a spiritual sense. I’ve been a fan of Mr. Sheen’s work as an actor since we used to watch the West Wing as a family. The Christmas episodes from the first two seasons are still part of my holiday canon. I did not, however, expect to develop a respect for him as a theologian over the course of a half-hour drive to the church.
Sheen talked about the very human need to know that we are loved, and how he had gone “looking for God” in a quest to meet that need. Over the course of his seeking, he discovered that God had already found him, and didn’t need to be searched for. Martin’s task was to look for the love of God in the places he would least expect. For Sheen, that meant within himself, and the love of the God who had already found him was the foundation for joy.
We are days away from the arrival of God's anointed one. We are so close that the final preparation threaten to distract us from the amazement and joy to which this season points. The season of waiting is coming to a close, we have hope, peace, and joy. But the season is mostly clearly defined by the love that this Sunday points to. We can watch for the love of neighbors coming together. We can watch for the love of families that gather around trees to exchange gifts. We can watch for the love of friends and co-workers who spend a little more time reminding us that they value us.
But not everybody gets to see those things. For some folks, neighbors are more closely associated with fear than with love. For some folks, family is a source of heartbreak rather than generosity. For some folks, friends and co-workers cannot cross the despair that divides them. Sometimes, those Christmas specials with their overly-sweet happy endings are not a comfort.
The Christ child is coming and he brings a love that is so much stronger than the warm fuzzies of our favorite holiday movies. The love of Christ redefines reality in such a way that it moves the lowly to leaping.
Micah’s congregation needed a word to hold back hopelessness. In those days, invading armies threatened to sweep God’s covenant people off the map. The prophet speaks, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,” are just a little town, barely able to field enough troops to defend yourselves from the armies that marched across what we now call the Middle East. And yet the prophet promises a future. In a world full of unpredictable regime changes and campaigns for new conquests, "...the Prophet declares that the going forth of Christ would be different - that God had from the beginning determined to give his people an eternal King.” The king that is coming is not a new or unplanned-for event. It’s a future that has its roots in the powerful identity of God’s loving covenant with an undeserving people.
The love of Christ enters the world through a small city, and through an unwed mother. God did not choose out of some hidden merit, but out of boundless love for those who are lowly. God looks at those of us who deserve coal and switches and instead chooses to fill us with love. "What God has done for Mary anticipates and models what God will do for the poor, the powerless, and the oppressed of the world... The triumph of God's purposes for all people.” The love we will celebrate this Christmas has been a long time coming, its “origin is from old, from ancient days.” Yet it still reshapes our lives, moving us from fear into faith, from lowly to leaping.
We join, therefore in Mary’s song, “for the Mighty One has done great things for [us] and holy is his name.” We do not deserve it, but God loves us anyway, and comes to us in ways that show us that great things can be come from lowly origins. Just as God chose a childless old man and his wife, Abraham and Sarah, to give birth to a tribe. Just as God chose a slave population in Egypt and made them a nation. Just as God chose Bethlehem, one of the little ones of Judah and made it the home of the one of peace. Just as God chose Mary, and made her the bearer of God. So too God still looks “with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”
God has already found us, waiting in the midst of Advent, and is bringing us out, by stages, according to his steadfast love. The time is coming when “she who is in labor has brought forth.” The time is coming when the lowly will be lifted up. And until that time, we continue to wait in love, knowing that ”…we have been delivered up to Christ's care and defense, there is no cause why we should doubt respecting our safety.” Because we are a lowly Presbyterian Church in a little town called Lowell, full of history that is given to us by the saints who have gone before, and united by the stories we read in scripture.
Most importantly, though, we are those who have seen the powerful love of God, which found us long before we were looking for it.