First Reading Micah 5:2-5a
Second Reading Hebrews 10:5-10
Gospel Reading Luke 1:39-55
Sermon “Believing as an Act of Love”
I was intrigued by yet another of Steve Garnaas-Holmes’ blog posts this week. He notes a key line in today’s Gospel Lectionary reading. It is Elizabeth, the mother-to-be of John the Baptist speaking to Mary, the mother-to-be of Jesus: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by God.”Luke 1:45
“This time of year we’re told to “believe.” But what does that mean? Judging from the movies to believe means to believe in magic, or Santa, or romance, to be optimistically wishful and naïve. In many Christian circles to believe means to think, as in believing certain doctrines are true. But the word “believe” comes from old English, rooted in German, belieben—to love. In scripture to believe means to give your heart: to lovingly entrust yourself, not to an idea but to a person.”
He goes on in a poem in praise of the faith of Mary that I’ll share with you at the end, but I got hung up on the introduction above. And I want to spend some time with you this morning exploring those thoughts around what it is to believe. Our secular world has built up quite an industry around Christmas. I’ve got to admit, it is in fact fun to pretend that reindeer can fly and magical hats can bring snowmen to life. But pretending is not believing. Some parents even go to a fair bit of work to try to get their children to believe in a fiction known variously as Santa Claus or Saint Nick or Chris Kringle. Like many stories there is a tiny kernel of actual history buried somewhere down there, a jumping off spot for flights of pure fantasy. It might be useful to remind you of that this morning before we turn our attention back to Mary and Elizabeth. It is useful because the original story is about caring, giving and acting to care for the down-trodden.
Wikipedia has this to say: “Saint Nicholas of Myra (traditionally 15 March 270 – 6 December 343), was an early Christian bishop of Greek descent from the maritime city of Myra in Asia Minor during the time of the Roman Empire. Because of the many miracles attributed to his intercession, he is also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, unmarried people, and students in various cities and countries around Europe. His reputation evolved among the pious, as was common for early Christian saints, and his legendary habit of secret gift-giving gave rise to the traditional model of Santa Claus (“Saint Nick”) through Sinterklaas.
Little is known about the historical Saint Nicholas. The earliest accounts of his life were written centuries after his death and contain many legendary elaborations. He is said to have been born in the Greek seaport of Patara, Lycia in Asia Minor(modern day Turkey) to wealthy Christian parents. In one of the earliest attested and most famous incidents from his life, he is said to have rescued three girls from being forced into prostitution by dropping a sack of gold coins through the window of their house each night for three nights so their father could pay a dowry for each of them. Other early stories tell of him calming a storm at sea, saving three innocent soldiers from wrongful execution, and chopping down a tree possessed by a demon. In his youth, he is said to have made a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine. Shortly after his return, he became Bishop of Myra. He was later cast into prison during the persecution of Diocletian, but was released after the accession of Constantine. An early list makes him an attendee at the First Council of Nicaea in 325, but he is never mentioned in any writings by people who were actually at the council.”
Now folks that’s a long way from a “right jolly old elf” who drives a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. We humans are endlessly creative and we love to pretend. That is all well and good except when the fiction supersedes the original. We dare not treat the birth of Jesus as just another story to tell to make us feel warm and fuzzy for a few minutes once a year. In the nativity stories of the gospels we have various accounts of how God fundamentally changed how his human creation is to relate to him. In Jesus the Christ, God entered this word personally in the form of a human being through the power of the Holy Spirit and the humble consent of a young girl. Jesus was born, lived, died, rose again and forevermore retains that form, belly button, nail scars and all and he will come again in great power to renew all things and rule this world with the resurrected saints of all the ages. That is what we say we believe and it is a mouthful! And to many, if not most, out there in the world, they find it easier to believe in flying reindeer. Why is this so?
If all we had to go on were just stories, I might have to agree with them. But thanks be to God, we have so much more. So what do we have? Well, let’s take a quick look. First of all, we have of course the testimony of scripture. This is not just some story, but written accounts of the interactions of God with people over the course of thousands of years. It is not some new imaginings of a creative mind, but rather the carefully tended and treasured history of the community of God’s faithful over the millennia. Fictional Stories don’t have that staying power, but the truth does. That community itself is a further kind of evidence. The witness of the church stands in unbroken continuity from the time of the first disciples to this very day. Peoples lives are changed and shaped by the power of the Holy Spirit and their witness to the living presence of God in their lives only reinforces the words of scripture.
Add to that, our own experiences: the power of prayer, the voice of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and minds guiding and prompting us, cautioning and reminding us of the things of God. These are not dead words on a page, nor are the the fanciful musings of folks with too much spare time on their hands. They are the very words of life handed down to us and we find them active and growing within us. That is something that Rudolf cannot do even with his allegedly oh so shiny nose! We are not asked to believe an impossible story, we are called to join a growing family that stretches back through the ages and into eternity.
Think with me about the key people in our gospel reading today. They were told some pretty incredible things were they not? Elizabeth, who was past child bearing years is suddenly pregnant and her husband Zachariah, the one who actually got to talk with the Angel Gabriel, could not speak for her entire pregnancy. Yet when her young relative Mary came to see her in her 6th month of pregnancy, she was filled with the Spirit and she gloriously knew exactly what was going on with both of them. Mary herself had a lot to absorb. She was to have a son by the power of the Holy Spirit; Her son was to be the long awaited Savior of the world. The Angel Gabriel found her willing to be so used by God and told her that all nations would call her blessed and so we do. But can you imagine the talk at home? How about that incredibly awkward first talk with her fiancée Joseph? If you recall, the Angel didn’t clue him in until after he found out about the pregnancy and knew it wasn’t his child and had already decided to divorce her!
That meeting between Elizabeth and Mary was so important to both of them. It was vital to have someone who understood to share with, to reflect with and to offer mutual support. They believed the promises of God together. They shared the wonder of it all together. They knew that however strangely and unexpectedly God was moving, that God was good and loving and trustworthy and so they could embrace their call and believe that God would lead them through it.
That, dear friends is what we are to be for each other as well. A community of Believers dedicated to reminding and supporting and encouraging each other on the path that God has called us to walk. We stand in a long line of those who have continued to do this: Sara, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Elizabeth, Mary, and so many more down the ages. Oh yeah, there were a lot of guys in there to, but there is something special and so winsome about the quiet faithless of those women. Believing is not something we are supposed to sit and think. Rather, it is daily living in trust and hope and love as we reach back towards our God who has already reached out to touch us. Love is the key. It is why God sent his son into this world and it is what binds us to God and to each other. It is why I believe – God is Love.
One last thing. Here is the poem from Steve Garnaas-Holmes I promised. It is written about Mary, but consider it as an invitation for you as well, for you see, since we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit through believing in Jesus. We, in this way, also carry God with us. We are those who lovingly believe and live out what God has told us – What wonders will God birth in our lives? Listen:
Blessed is she who trusts God, and the power of love.
Blessed is she who trusts
that God’s promise will be fulfilled in her.
Blessed is she who trusts
that her love is more powerful than empires.
Blessed is she who entrusts herself
to the One who births her,
and who is in her, and whom she births.
Blessed is she who trusts her worthiness,
that her calling is sure and her gift is needed
and her voice carries weight.
Blessed is she who gives herself over
to the divine work of bearing love into the world.
Blessed are you,
and blessed is the fruit of the womb of your heart.
(Steve Garnaas-Holmes, Unfolding Light, December 17th.)