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Sermon for Advent 4

Luke 1:39-56

Note:  This sermon includes a story of one of he families I ministered to while at Bethesda Naval Hospital.  Now five years after leaving the hospital, I’m starting to process those encounters and I am starting to realize some of what was happening in them.   Unfortunately, I left my recorder at home so there is only the text.

Augustana 2012

Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

If you stand near the center of the Sistine Chapel and look up, you can see it. The creation of Adam.  Perhaps you know the picture.  Two hands reaching out toward each other.  I’ve seen reproductions of it on coffee cups and greeting cards, umbrellas and even a tie.  I’ve not seen it in person, but I just found the Vatican’s website which has a virtual reality version of it.[1]  You can see a lot more detail in that version than if you were there.  The tension of the picture lies in that small empty space between two fingers, the finger of Adam and the finger of God.  They are about to touch.  Heaven and earth, divinity and humanity, eternity and time are about to collide.  On the ground, there is Adam, resting.  Without soul.  Without life.  Hand outstretched awaiting a touch from his Creator.  In the clouds, there is God, surrounded by angels in a creative rush.  His garments are furled.  There in his arm is the figure of Eve, a future gift for Adam.  Present life and future gifts are suspended there in time as the figure of God rushes toward Adam.  And in that moment, as hand reaches out to hand, with the smallest of gaps between the two fingers, we anticipate God’s creative work.

I can imagine being there, standing there for what seems like eternity, near the middle of the chapel, looking up and waiting for that moment to occur.  Waiting like that, with your head tilted back as you look at the ceiling, causes your neck to ache.  But it’s better than looking away, because when you turn your eyes away from the ceiling and look out at the world, then you feel an ache in your heart instead.

Look at the world around you and you will see a much larger gap between heaven and earth, between humans and God.  This gap occurred after creation, in the fall from grace, and everywhere you look you can see evidence of it.  We certainly have more than enough evidence of it this year.  All of it telling us how far humans have fallen from the touch of God.  And your heart hurts.  The story in Connecticut still dominates the news but there’s plenty more going unreported too.  It makes your head whirl and your heart ache.  People are not resting peacefully on earth like Adam awaiting God’s work.  No, the world is a whirl of activity and most of the actions demonstrate how far we have fallen from the touch of God.

But if you close your eyes and listen, you can hear it.  A voice from the edge calling out to us, across centuries, asking us to stop and to see and to trust in something wonderful.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” 

“for he who is mighty has done great things for me,”

“And his mercy is for those who fear him”

“He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.”

“He had filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.”

“As he promised of old. To Abraham and to His Children forever.”

Mary’s song encourage us.  She helps our hearts hope more and hurt less as we prepare to celebrate the coming of our Savior into the world.

Yet how can Mary do that?  Consider her situation from a purely human viewpoint..  Her betrothal to Joseph was marred by quite a surprise.  She was in a mess.  I’m not entirely sure she didn’t go out to visit her aunt because girls in her situation go out to visit their aunts.  Her betrothal was a mess and her cover story?  And angel spoke to her she’s carrying the Son fo Yahweh?  On top of immorality, blasphemy.  She could not be in a bigger mess.

So Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, her cousin in the hill country, who has likewise experienced something very odd.  Almost as miraculously as Mary’s claim, she is with child, too, in her old age.  And what happens when the disgraced cousin arrives?  At the sound of her greeting, the prophet John the Baptist leaps in her womb.  And Elizabeth greets not a disgraced cousin but the mother of her Lord.  There is something very different going on with these two women, Elizabeth and Mary.  God is doing something new; out of His great love, He is bringing about His new creation.

A family once sat there in need of that love, that hope of a new creation.  They didn’t know what to do.  They had come very close to the end of their youngest son’s story.  He was a grown man and a Marine recon scout.  He had been ten-feet tall and bullet proof.  And now, there he was.  One sniper’s bullet found his head on a patrol outside Fallujah and the EEG showed no brainwave activity.  I was on duty and the medical staff hearing how religious the family spoke thought it would be good to have the chaplain on board with telling them the bad news.  The MRI had showed that the sniper’s bullet had done incredible damage to their son’s brain.  I was told by the neurologist, “Chaplain, you gotta help us out here.  We don’t see a way back for this one.  You need to help prepare this family for the bad news.”  And so I prayed silently as I walked to the conference room where families are given the really bad news.  “Lord, help me help them.  Lord, help them where I can’t.”  And then I was in the room.  His whole family was there down from Long Island, New York.  They were trying to be brave and hope against hope but they were facing a mess, the mess of human life in this broken world.  Their hearts ached for their son.  My heart ached for this family, for the medical staff.  What could I say?  What could I point to?  Not my skill.  Not my experience or that of the doctors.  Not even my love, as powerful as it was.

But I did have one thing: the story of Jesus, his death and his resurrection, his coming into human flesh to suffer all things.  This is not the only thing I said and, yes, their son had a long struggle after that.  But, this was a moment, one small moment, when a voice from the edge cried out: “His mercy is on those who fear him, in every generation.”  This twenty-something Marine, clinically brain-dead for three days, claimed by God, touched by God’s hand in baptismal waters, and God recreated him in that ICU.  Here, even here, in the ICU, one can see God at work.  And he was restored, recreated.  Not just as he was before but he could sing Jesus Loves Me and he knew all the family jokes.  He was himself but different, more childlike.  He even regained the ability to walk with braces and crutches.  But he did not die from that sniper’s bullet.  Behold, God is remembering His mercy.  He is renewing His creation.

The moment of creation captured on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel focuses upon a gap, a space between the finger of Adam and the finger of God.  The story of Mary visiting Elizabeth however, focuses not upon a gap but upon a connection: that day when Christ was conceived in the womb of his blessed mother.  That day, when the hand of a human was the hand of God.

Mary sings that in the coming of the child in her womb, God was beginning the great reversal of all the messes in world.  the writer to the Hebrews today shows us this communication between God the Father and the Son, “Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.” (Heb 10:7)  God the Father sent his Son Jesus into this world on a mission.  God did not simply stand outside of our world, looking down upon us from some heavenly realm, waiting for us to stop sinning and come back to him.  No, God came into our world to seek us and find us.  This is what we are preparing to celebrate: Christmas, when God takes upon himself human flesh.  He becomes man and he calls us back to God.  His work, however, involves more than simply announcing the kingdom of God, as if that’s all that is needed.  No, instead, he actually opens the way.  Again the writer to the Hebrews helps us understand this, “And by that will [that is, by the will of the Father mentioned earlier] we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (10:10)  The hand of Jesus is the hand of God, touching all of our sin, gathering all of our mess, and being nailed with it . . . being nailed by it to a tree.  Christ takes upon His own body the wrath of God.  He bears the eternal punishment of our rebellion and, through that act, opens for us the heart of his Father.  Jesus then rises from the grave and opens for us the hope of a new creation. We now experience the eternal love of God, our Father.  A love that will not abandon his children or hold their sins against them but works in their lives and brings about his new creation.

And that is what Mary, wants the church to remember all its days.  Not just the Church but this church, our church.  Today.  Left to ourselves, looking at our world, looking at our lives, our heart will hurt.  But Mary sings and directs our attention to what God is doing.  Not on some ceiling far away, but here in our presence.  God comes today in an act of reconciliation.  He comes to us in his word proclaimed here this morning.  He comes to us in his body and blood celebrated at this altar.  He comes to us in words on the lips of those he has called and chosen and sent.  Relentlessly.  Lovingly.  Tirelessly.  He reaches out his hand to touch you and bring about his new creation.  Unlike God’s hand on the Sistine chapel ceiling, this hand is wounded and its wounds are precious.  All of your sin and your suffering, your harmful actions, your hopelessness, your despair, these are taken into the wounded hands of God as he comes this morning and touches you, bringing about his new creation.  “The Lord remembers His mercy.  He is bring about His new creation.”  And when you see that . . . God’s new creation . . . your heart fills with hope.  Even as you sit there in the place God has place you and wonder what the future holds.  Whatever it is, you have hope in the hand that holds you.  No wonder Mary points to this working of God.  On the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, you have the act of God’s first creation.  It is breathtaking and beautiful and larger than life.  But, for many, it is something that they will never see in their lifetime.  It’s too far away.  In our text from Luke, however, you have a much more wonderful working, God’s new creation.  It’s not far away but near. It is simple and profound and happens in the most ordinary of circumstances.  Even here, this morning.  God’s hand reaches into this world, with its conflict and suffering and brings about hope.  Here.  In our midst.  For you.  And as you enter the world with its hurt, God has given you a message of hope.  God can take your voice and make it, like Mary’s, a voice that shares his gracious work.

This morning, Mary calls us to stop and to open our eyes: behold the wonder of God’s new  creation.  There, in the hill country of Judea.  Here, in this place.  Out there, in the world.  Behold and see.  God is bringing about a new creation.  With hearts that hope more and ache less, we believe this is only a glimpse of the eternal kingdom of God. Amen.

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