The Gifts of God

The other morning, in the shower, I thought about the curious fact that the church calendar begins at the end of November. Long before January 1st, when much of the world wakes up late to a new year, the church begins the Christian year on the first Sunday of Advent. We may plan our programs and ministries following the school year, and our fiscal year may begin January 1st or July 1st, but we count time from Advent to Advent. Long before we make our most well-intentioned (and usually short-lived) new-year’s-resolutions, we are already immersed in God’s time. We begin with promise and hope because God already has done great things for us. God’s time is ahead of the world’s. Long before we begin another round around the sun, God has already made a new beginning with us. And because that is so, the new year isn’t just a continuation of the old, or its merciless consequence, but comes with the possibility of true newness.

In Advent we remember that our future is not closed. Our future is not bound by our past, nor defined by our tired routines or unshakable inertia. The future is open for genuine newness from God. So this is the spring season of the church year, and in this season our hope is rekindled for God’s coming and for possibilities beyond our calculations and prognostications. When January 1st comes around, we will have already sung the songs of redemption with the prophets, songs of exuberant praise with Zechariah and Mary, songs of glory and joy with the angels and the shepherds. God’s time is ahead of the world’s. When January 1st comes around with the relentless tick-tock of the clock, we are already living in God’s time, to the rhythm of grace and gratitude, and to the tune of promise and faithfulness.

During Advent, we learn to sing the songs and tell the stories that proclaim how God has come to us in the past, and the singing and telling expand the horizon of our hope, preparing us for God’s advent now and in the future. And who wouldn’t agree that our hope needs expanding.

Many of us struggle with the slow recovery of the economy and the uncertainty of how long it will take before businesses will start hiring again.

Many of us struggle with the impression that the disparity of wealth in our country also represents a disparity of voice and influence in the political process.

Many of us struggle with the reality of a global climate conference that produced little except more hot air.

The world doesn’t offer a lot of reasons to begin the new year with expectancy and hope – but we are already immersed in God’s time.

On this fourth Sunday of Advent, Luke paints a picture for us. We see Mary entering a house and greeting her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth had been waiting her whole life for a child.

“Years of trying to have a child of our own was like having to drink bitter waters from a poisoned well month after month,” a man who wanted to be a father wrote a few years ago, reflecting on the experience of infertility.

“Nothing could break the sinister hold of barrenness on our lives, not strict adherence to whatever expert advice we could get, not prayer, not the latest fertility techniques, not fasting, nothing. One hundred months’ worth of hopes, all dashed against the stubborn realities of bodies that just wouldn’t produce offspring. … Every time we would go to worship, the laughter and boisterous-ness of the little ones milling around … would remind me of unfulfilled dreams. The season of Advent was the worst. ‘For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,’ I would hear read or sung in hundreds of different variations. But from me a child was withheld.” [Miroslav Volf, The Gift of Infertility, The Christian Century, June 14, 2005, p. 33]

Elizabeth had been waiting her whole life for a child. Her womb had remained barren, and she and her husband were getting on in years. Elizabeth stands in the line of Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah, the great mothers of our faith who had their barren hopelessness transformed by God, and her story is a new variation on that ancient theme. In the picture Luke paints for us today, Elizabeth is in the sixth month of her pregnancy.

Mary, on the other hand, is just entering her childbearing years, a young teenager, engaged but not yet married, and she is pregnant, too. “How can this be?” she said to the angel who made the announcement, and we can imagine why she went with haste from Nazareth in Galilee to the Judean hill country to see her cousin. She enters the house, and the two women meet. Mary speaks a greeting, and the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy.

You know I have no idea what I’m talking about. I don’t know what it’s like to be pregnant. I don’t know what it means to live with a new life inside of me, let alone how it feels when the child leaps for joy. The closest I ever got was when I put my hands on my wife’s belly and I could feel the baby kicking or boxing or whatever it was he was doing in there.

Little John jumped for joy in Elizabeth’s womb when the promise of Jesus entered the house. It was the dance of ancient hope upon the arrival of fresh fulfillment.

We look at the beautiful scene Luke has painted, and we see two of the great mothers of our faith. To Elizabeth God has given that which she always wanted to carry and hold, but had long despaired of ever receiving. To Mary God has given the entirely unexpected gift that goes way beyond anything she could have imagined. Surprised by God’s advent into their lives, the two shout blessings and sing.

In our stories, barrenness is a powerful metaphor for a reality drained of life, promise and hope. However, barrenness is too quick a description for the suffocating reality of pain, blame, and shame that infertility can cast over a life and a relationship. Miroslav Volf, the man who wanted to be a father, gets closer to that reality when he writes about the bitter waters his wife Judy and he had to drink from a poisonous well month after month. After nine long years of waiting, they adopted two children, and he was surprised by what he discovered then.

“During those nine years of infertility, I wasn’t waiting for a child who stubbornly refused to come, though that’s what I thought at the time. In fact, I was waiting for the two boys I now have, Nathanael and Aaron. I love them, and I want them …, not children in general of which they happened to be exemplars. Then it dawned on me: Fertility would have robbed me of my boys… Infertility was the condition for the possibility of these two indescribable gifts. And understanding that changed my attitude toward infertility. Since it gave me what I now can’t imagine living without, poison was transmuted into a gift, God’s strange gift. The pain of it remains, of course. But the poison is gone. Nine years of desperate trying were like one long painful childbirth, the purpose of which was to give us Nathanael and Aaron.”

Elizabeth was given what she had wanted all her adult life. Judy and Miroslav were given what they wanted, but in a way they never expected. And Mary was given a gift she didn’t dream of wanting at the time, but she agreed to let her life be turned upside down in order to serve the purposes of God.

Barrenness is a powerful metaphor for a reality drained of life, promise and hope. Mary wasn’t barren, and yet, the child she carried put an end to the world’s barrenness. The child she carried continues to bring life, forgiveness, healing, hope, and love to the world’s dead ends, to our barren places and our fruitless debates.

We count time from Advent to Advent. We remember that into the empty greyness at the end of our rope, echoing with impossibility, God comes. We celebrate that into the traps we have built for ourselves with our sinful actions and lack of action, God comes. We sing with Mary that into the world as it is – vulnerable and violent, pulsing with life and groaning in pain, fragmented and yet one – into this world as it is, God comes with the gift of fulfillment and new beginning.

Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” Lowliness isn’t all humility and meekness. Lowliness describes social reality. Mary is poor—worse, she is poor, pregnant and unmarried. But she sings with all her heart and soul and voice because the God who brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly, has lifted her up. She sings because what is happening with her and through her is like rain on the dry and barren land. She sings because she knows in her womb the advent of divine possibility, the advent of mercy and justice and hope that brings to an end the world’s barrenness. She sings because she is the mother of our redeemer.

We sing with her because we too are beginning to know that whatever is proud in us and powerful is being brought down by God’s coming. And whatever is poor in us is being lifted up. We sing with her because we are beginning to taste and see how our hunger is being stilled by God’s coming, and our need to control is being sent away empty. We sing with Mary because we have come to know that fullness of life and true humanity are waiting to be born in us.

Again, this may sound like a guy talking about being pregnant; what I mean is, her song is an invitation to us not just to sing along, but to come along. She agreed to let her life be turned upside down in order to receive the gift and serve the purposes of God, and she invites us to do the same. She is the angel sent to us to remind us that we too have found favor with God, and that nothing will be impossible with God. And like the angel who was sent to her didn’t depart until she said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word,” she is waiting for our response. Our faithful, courageous, and world-changing response. What will it be?