John Hougen, Elkins Park, PA
In one minute, how many examples can you list of underdogs beating the odds in sports or politics or entertainment? In the next minute, list unlikely heroes and contributors to the common good: people you know or have heard about who were thought to be ordinary, but then did something extraordinary, showing great generosity, talent, compassion, or courage. End by naming people you know who have “hidden talents,” people who have the ability to do something extraordinary, but are not yet recognized.
God’s Odd Choices
Today, the forces of evil (e.g. illness and death, cruelty, war, violence, hatred, and fear) seem to have the upper hand in our world, in our country, and in too many neighborhoods and homes. Those who contribute to the common good and give us hope that good will prevail, often emerge from obscurity, beat the odds with courage and tenacity, and surprise the world with their success. They are God’s odd choices.
Personally, I waver between pessimism and optimism that good will ever overcome evil. Keeping up with current events pushes me toward pessimism. The media is saturated with news of epidemics, poverty, hatred, and violence. Plus, everyone I know knows several others who are hurting emotionally or physically or are afflicted with life-shattering mental illness or addiction: problems that afflict the wealthy and the poor, strong families and broken families, children, youth, and adults.
My work pushes me in the other direction: toward optimism. I am blessed to be in contact with people and organizations that I firmly believe are God’s allies, inspired by the Holy Spirit (who, in my world-view, inspires Christians and non-Christians alike) to address the root causes of violence, overcome hatred with respect, and relieve suffering with acts of compassion. Knowing them makes me optimistic that the world will not spiral down into irretrievable chaos.
If pessimism is on one end of the spectrum and optimism is on the other, I am near the middle. I’m not wildly optimistic because the power of evil seems so great; but I locate myself slightly off center, toward the optimistic side, because I see so many people of good will helping others, doing their best to make flawed institutions better, and creating a better life for themselves.
- Do you agree that God’s spirit “inspires Christians and non-Christians alike”?
- Do you believe people from diverse races, cultures, religions, and socio-economic circumstances share the values necessary to work together for a common good?
- What are the chances good will win out over evil? What personal experiences have contributed to your optimism or pessimism?
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]
(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings
For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.
Today we are considering God’s choice of Mary to be the mother of Jesus, and whether you and I might also be chosen to be God’s allies, to partner with God in saving the world. Mary was “perplexed” when the angel announced to her she was God’s choice to bear his child. She couldn’t understand how this could happen or how someone as young and insignificant as she was could do anything really important.
Luke reports that a few days after Mary “was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18), she went with haste to visit her relative, Elizabeth. The Lutheran Study Bible suggests that she went “with haste” because she was (probably) thirteen years old and (certainly) afraid she would be severely punished, even stoned to death, for becoming pregnant before she was married. She had to get out of town, and fast!
After Elizabeth greets her, Mary responds with the “Magnificat” (Latin for “magnifies”): “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
This is an extraordinary song because it was sung
- 2,000+ years ago;
- in the boonies (a “town in the hill country”)
- “of Judea” (a tiny territory at the far eastern edge of the Roman Empire)
- by one of the oppressed citizens in that occupied territory;
- who was a pregnant thirteen year old,
- running away from home.
In her song, Mary proclaims that, though she has no worldly status, (see bullet points above), God has “looked with favor” on her and “done great things” for her. She feels privileged and sings these words in spite of the fact that God’s odd choice of her to be the mother of the Messiah has brought shame to her family, alienated her fiancé (Matthew 1:18-19), and put her life in danger. We also know the rest of the story: God’s “favor” will cause Mary tremendous sorrow and suffering some thirty years later. Her beloved child will become a wanted man, a tortured man, a man dying a cruel death in front of her eyes. Life would have been easier for Mary and for many others called by God, if God had just left them alone. We learn from Mary’s experience that God’s favor does not shield us from suffering and pain.
Mary ends her song in Luke 1 verse 55 by stating her conviction that all God’s saving actions, including asking her to be the mother of the Messiah, are meant to fulfill “the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (God’s promises to Abraham are found in Genesis 12:1-2, and 28:13-15).
Mary thinks she will be remembered in the company of Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, David, Bathsheba, and Jeremiah. She believes that, just as God enabled each of them to rise above their situations in life to do something extraordinary, so she will be enabled to take on the challenges God sets before her.
Mary understood that if she did her part, did what God called her to do, God would find a way to make her contribution fit with the contributions of others, all working together to bring God’s mercy and justice to the world. Somehow, God would enable her to have a part in bringing down the haughty and the proud: those who have riches and power but lack humility and compassion. God would enable her to have a part in lifting up the suffering and oppressed. Somehow she would be involved in blessing the lowly both spiritually and materially, bringing them hope, freedom, healing, prosperity, and peace.
- Are you one of God’s odd choices? If not, what makes you less qualified than Mary was? If so, do you believe, as Mary did, that if you do your part, God will enable you to make an important contribution to God’s work in the world?
- What opportunities is God giving you (right now) to participate in bringing down the haughty and / or lifting up the suffering and oppressed?
- More than 40 years ago, Frederick Buechner wrote about “vocation”: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, p. 95) Ten years from now, what can you imagine you could be doing that would place you where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet?
- Read the other texts assigned for this day (Micah 5:2–5a; Psalm 80:1–7; and Hebrews 10:5–10). Working in pairs, note which verses in these three texts make a point similar to a teaching in today’s Gospel reading (Luke 1: 39-55). Then, pair the pairs so you are now in a group of four, and compare your notes. Explain why you think these texts teach similar lessons (or why not).
- Write your own “magnificat,” (individually or as a group). Compose a song, poem, or prayer of praise and thanksgiving for God’s role in your own life. Include examples of how you have experienced “God’s favor” in spite of your “lowliness.” Include examples of the “great things God has done for you” or that you know God has done for others, recently and in the past.
A prayer attributed to Francis of Assisi:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.