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The Day God Held His Breath: The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Sunday, December 23, 2018:
Micah 5:2-5a
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-55

One of the big religious books of this past year is by a professor at Duke University named Kate Bowler, called Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved. It’s a memoir about how, in her mid-30s, married, raising a kid, and thriving in her academic career, she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. (And, before we get too sad here, I’ll fill you in that based on her podcasts, blog, and media interviews, it seems that she survived and is doing well.) But initially, when things were looking dire, she received a lot of support in the form of slogans that we’ve all heard before: things like: “this is a test,” or the big one from the title, “everything happens for a reason.”

These neatly-packaged sayings are, of course, pretty common. And they’re easy to reach for in awkward and trying situations. But the author, Bowler, felt first-hand how these catchphrases can be unhelpful and even sometimes hurtful. I came across a review of the book on a cellphone app I use to track books I’ve read and want to read, called Goodreads. And one reviewer points out the dark side of this ‘everything happens for a reason,’ cause-and-effect approach to life:

All four of my grandparents were deeply devout members of a Christian sect who believed that if you got sick, it must be because you did something to deserve it. When one of my grandfathers became seriously ill, he struggled to figure out what he might have done wrong. He couldn’t think of anything, so he blamed his wife. He died thinking she had caused his illness by committing some unknown sin.

That very open bit of sharing came from book reviewer Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft. But even if we aren’t billionaire philanthropists, perhaps we can relate to this experience, of a messy, complicated, tragic, and very personal situation getting crammed into someone’s too-tidy cause-and-effect worldview. I remember in my adolescence, when a friend of mine was struggling with a mental illness, the family consulted a faith healer who laid at least part of the blame on the Spider-Man poster hanging on his bedroom wall, because, he judged, it looked diabolical. Ridiculous to many of us, yes, but for some, an attempt (misguided as it might be) at making sense of the situation.

So Kate Bowler, in her book, and Bill Gates in his review and recommendation, are critical of a very neat and tidy, black and white, cause-and-effect, everything happens for a reason way of thinking. And I am too, though you certainly don’t have to agree with me. My view, informed by the Christmas story, is that we live in a messy, messed up world, but God chooses to come and be with us in that mess, and reaches out, and ministers to and with us, and brings some light to our dark situations. And that works for me.

But even if we’re willing to step away from that Hallmark card catchphrase fatalism, it doesn’t mean that life is meaningless. It doesn’t mean that NOTHING happens for a reason. But it does mean that meaning and purpose and goodness can come from random and even bad things. And it can mean that yes, maybe, SOME things happen for a reason.

And that’s a big part of what today is about. When Elizabeth says “blessed are you among women,” and Mary agrees, “all generations will call my blessed,” as churches have held and articulated for centuries (admittedly to varying degrees and levels of devotion), she is calling attention to God’s direct action in the world. That something significant is happening here. That heaven and earth are coming closer together than ever imagined before, and these two women are at the very centre of it. Elizabeth, older and unable to have children; a shame in that time and culture. And Mary, young, unmarried, yet pregnant; a scandal in that time and culture. This is a huge moment in salvation history; this is happening for a reason. And they mark it in poetry. Maybe put to music with spoons and fiddle, because I was ordained a deacon alongside a friend of mine who’s originally from Newfoundland, and he kept describing it as a kitchen party. And I’m OK with that, because kitchen parties sound to me like moments of God’s Kingdom being realized among us.

But for the Messiah, or Saviour to come and rescue God’s people, God, for whatever reason, doesn’t just appear, like an apparition, or beam down, like in Star Trek. The Saviour is to be born into the world, and that takes two. There’s a bishop from England who died about a year ago, named Michael Perham, whose writings I particularly like, and he describes the situation this way: that God is always on the lookout for partners. “The initiative [is] God’s of course,” he writes, “but the human response [is] vital to the enterprise.” And I love this, even if he’s perhaps stretching things theologically a bit: “With a vulnerability that our forebears did not recognize, [God] holds his breath and waits for our response.”

Perham is subtly shifting how we usually understand the scene. Throughout history Mary has most often been characterized as meek and mild, and obedient. But the bishop instead depicts Mary as an active co-worker and collaborator — strong words — and he describes God as vulnerable in this moment, with breath held, wondering if she’ll say yes.

And Mary did say yes. And because she said yes, the Incarnation was able to happen. And Jesus able to show us the fullness of God’s grace, while also experiencing the fullness of human existence. Without Mary this would not have been possible, and so with Elizabeth we can call her blessed, too. As a co-worker with God, in a way that no one else before or since has ever known. An excerpt in today’s Advent reflection leaflet that you’ll get after the service puts it like this: “I am sure she wasn’t just another Joe Schmo who doesn’t deserve any more honor given her than any other character in the Bible. That ‘yes’ she gave was fierce.”

In my imagination I wonder if others were approached before Mary. Did others ask for a rain cheque because the timing wasn’t great? Were others turned off by the likelihood of gossip spreading about adultery (or more likely, the possibility of stoning). Did others just think that they weren’t up to it, unable to affirm themselves with a bold statement like “all generations will call me blessed”?

That we’ll never know, but we do know that Mary said yes. And with her ‘yes’ God’s plans for rescuing the world from itself are able to proceed. And Mary, in her words, reminds us (or warns us) of where God’s allegiance lies:

He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

These aren’t meek and mild, or sentimental and warm and fuzzy; they’re the types of words that tend to be uttered by God’s justice-seeking prophets. Today we give thanks for Mary and her role in our salvation. We mark how God had a special purpose for her; that these things happened for a reason. And even though we might not be given the same level of responsibility as Mary, we would do well to remember, as Bishop Perham said, that God is always on the lookout for partners. And that’s us. We might not give birth to God in quite the same way that Mary did, but we are — each one of us — called to bear God in our everyday lives.

May Mary’s fierce yes become ours. Amen.

©2018 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

*Quotations by Michael Perham are from Glory in Our Midst (London: SPCK, 2005).