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“The In-Breaking of God”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Luke 1:5-20, 24-25
Luke 1:39-45
Luke 1:57-79

Luke 1:5-20, 24-25

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense.  Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”

Luke 1:39-45

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

And Mary said,

“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.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
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.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Luke 1:57-79

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”


 

Luke’s portrayal of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth and the words she spoke by the Holy Spirit are rare.  Of all the names mentioned in the Bible, only between 5.5 – 8% are thought to have been female, and of those, only half have their words recorded.

This means that at most, less than 5% of individuals spoken of in the Bible are women whose words are remembered.  This is significant, because it makes these words of Mary, very special.

 

What possessed Luke to include these details in his story?  Of all the Gospel writers, Luke alone includes these details of the story.  Luke alone gives us insight into Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s journey and Mary’s journey alongside them.   And as if recording Mary’s words was not enough to make his readers sit up and listen with surprise, Zechariah, the only male in this section of story, is made mute because of his unbelief when the angel told him that his aging and barren wife would bear a son.

So we have the entire first chapter of Luke unfolding very unusual dialogue.  First we have Zechariah being met by an angel, and then we have Mary met by an angel.  Zechariah disbelieves and so is made mute.  Mary believes and is filled with words by the Holy Spirit.  And so the very first long string of spoken word is that of Mary.  Mary’s words.  Mary’s song.  And it is not until John is born and Zechariah names him according to the angel’s instruction that Zechariah’s tongue is freed and he too begins to speak by the Holy Spirit.  Zechariah’s prophecy.

 

Luke opens his entire gospel story with the words of a woman and a muted man.

 

THIS is not going to be your usual story.

THIS is the kind of story where everything is topsy turvy.

THIS is the kind of story where God’s Kingdom crashes into our reality, making things right.

 

Those who are too high and lifted up shall be made low.

Those who are too low and wrongfully despised are lifted up.

Those who are hungry shall be filled.

The meek and virgin bears God’s child.

The barren woman bears a son.

 

God is flipping the world as we know it on its head.  God is making wrong things right.  God gives the young, unmarried, virgin, pregnant girl a voice.  God takes voice from one in power when he does not believe.

 

And so, in every possible way, this story starts out gripping, unusual, radical, and unbelievable.  The reader in Luke’s day KNOWS that this is not your ordinary story.  The reader is Luke’s day is jarred out of the lull of the ordinary and into the extraordinary, in-breaking of God.

The virgin is pregnant.

The barren will bear a son.

The man of the house is mute.

A girl is filled with the Holy Spirit.

GOD is breaking in.  

 

And Luke sees this extraordinary breaking with the-way-that-things-are-done,

these curious coincidences,

these miracles,

and he lays before us each remarkable nugget

so that we too might see

take note,

sit up,

and be amazed!

“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

These words of Zechariah and those of Mary speak to the dawning of a new age.  The old rules will not apply.  The old script is out the window.  It is NOT same-ole, same-ole.  GOD is doing something new.  GOD is breaking in.  GOD is keeping God’s promise to the people of Israel and the whole world.

“Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.” Isaiah writes,
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

 

Christ is coming, and for those who see it, nothing will be the same. 

 

Our Lord comes.

It springs forth,

Shining a light on all who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death…

 

Do you perceive it?

“Christ or Culture”

Rev. Katherine Todd
John 10:10b
Mark 7:1-8

John 10:10b

Jesus said to them, … “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

Mark 7:1-8

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”  He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”


In seminary, we read a book called Christ Or Culture by religious scholar, Richard Neibuhr.  While I cannot remember the details of the book, my take-away was that it is a complex thing to untangle Christ from our culture, but that we are each responsible to work on it.

 

The basic gist is that when a people has lived with Christ for some time, the knowledge of Christ gets integrated into the way things are done and vise versa.  Culture gets mingled into our understanding and worship of Christ.  Our traditions, rites, and rituals are all a co-mingling of Christ and culture.

When we’re in our own cultures, it is almost imperceptible which is which at times.  For example, our Christmas trees feel very Christian, though their origin is distinctly pagan.  We have taken things that had no association with Christ and connected them to Christ, so those things acquire new meanings.  Now, Christmas trees are in most churches in America.  Few even think to question their place.

This merging of Christ and culture is honest and natural.  It’s as natural as our own American melting pot.  Made up of people from most nations, our country indeed begins to take on the blending flavors and cultures of those nations.  We take for granted the fact that we can buy Chinese, Italian, or Mexican food on the same block, get our nails done by a Vietnamese shop owner and have our clothes dry cleaned by a Korean family.  Obviously these are stereotypes, but as with most stereotypes, they communicate because there is truth behind them.  My point is that we are accustomed to this blending of very different foods, people, and culture.  It is the natural outcome of our nation of immigrants.

In the same way, when a culture hears the good news of Christ, their own traditions and rituals start blending with the Good News of the Gospel, and in the end, it can be difficult to tell one from another.

All of this is just fine.  Where it has most often gotten problematic is on the mission field.  When well-meaning Christians leave home and culture to share the good news with a people who’ve not yet heard, they, as would any of us, can have quite a time discerning where their own native culture ends and Christ begins.  Since our own cultures are simply our “normal,” they can become invisible to us.  They are the air we breath and the ground we walk on, so to speak.  We take them for granted.  We rarely question them, if we even notice them at all.  But when we encounter folks from another culture and try sharing our faith in Christ with them, our own culture inevitably is also communicated.

Now, this isn’t all bad.  Learning of another culture can be a beautiful and eye-opening thing.  IT gives us new eyes to see the world around us.  Where it has gotten toxic is when culture is mistakenly presented as being part of Christ and one way is presented as the way.

Now, I don’t think all cultural traditions or mindsets are made equally.  Some native traditions are full of the honor and respect we learn in Christ.  Some are filled with domination, cruelty, and the things Christ warns us against.  But when we share the Gospel with another, we need to let Christ be the center and the guide and not impose our culture on others.

This is easy enough to say, but it’s quite another things altogether to do.

How do we separate Christ from the culture in which we’ve come to know Christ?

How do we separate Christ from these walls in which we’ve worshipped, year after year?

How do we separate Christ from the creeds we’ve memorized?

How do we separate Christ from the songs we can sing by heart?

How do we separate Christ from our experiences of Christ in this community?

 

All of these are excellent questions.

And while we cannot answer them all cleanly, it is important that we ask them and keep asking them. 

The reason can be found in the Hippocratic oath Doctors take.  They promise “first, to do no harm.”  And when we impose our own cultures onto others in the name of Christ, insisting that our way is superior to their ways, we can do a great deal of harm to that people.

Now, I know you guys are not missionaries in the traditional sense, so all this talk of Christ & Culture may feel misdirected, but if you are a Christian, you are indeed a missionary because Christ lives in you.  You have the Spirit of the Almighty God living in you, and God’s heart is for the whole world.  God’s love is for the whole world.  And God is pouring out love and light in the world through each of you.

Now you can rightly point out that if you haven’t left your culture, this information is not exactly pertaining to your sort of mission work in the world, but I would argue that in our culture today, Christ is not the center.  And even when we thought it was, it probably wasn’t.  Truly, when cultures have adopted Christ as the main religion, they have often, if not always, done so with covert motives, using Christ to one’s own ends.  And even if motives started purely, the result of aligning Christ with power and regimes is growing corruption of faith for political power and personal gain.

My point is that we live in a post-Christian society.  Most families and people do not go to church.  Many do not claim Christ.  And a great number do not consider themselves religious.  So our experiences may be a great deal different than that of our neighbors.

But we know that God’s heart is for each of them.  We know that God’s love extends to each of them, just as they are, right where they are, many here all around us in this neighborhood, in their houses, running trails, or perhaps in the park just blocks away.

We know that God doesn’t require conformity first, in exchange for love and acceptance, but that God has loved and accepted us first, and we are called to respond in faith, walking in God’s ways.

We are bearers of light.  We have a message folks deeply need to hear.

But we will lose people and do more damage than good, unless we can untangle our own histories of Christ & culture and begin to imagine what Christ is doing in new cultures, in a new people, in the lives of those who’ve sworn never set foot in a church.

Because God IS moving in their lives.

God IS inviting them to come close.

God IS calling, through work and rest and play.

God is reaching out first.

 

It is not therefore, our job to INITIATE God’s work in their lives.

Rather, it’s our job to listen and follow God’s work in their lives.

It becomes a matter of listening for what is profoundly Christ-like in their unchurched lives and affirming those commitments to love and justice, respect and community.  It becomes a matter of listening for what may be destroying life and listening for God’s invitation to wholeness and healing.

So, our children do not have to do exactly as we do.  They don’t necessarily need to sing the same songs or speak the same creeds in order to hear God’s still small voice.  But perhaps when they love as God has loved us, we celebrate the beauty and goodness of their lives.  Perhaps when they undo themselves with poor decisions, we forgive as we have been forgiven and call them to a better way.

In other words, we affirm the love and goodness of God in their lives, listening for God’s lead and following.  And we echo the words of God for all who are suffering in sin saying, “You are made for so much more.  You dear and beloved, just the way you are.  Please do not hurt yourself or anyone else anymore.”

When we truly begin doing the work of separating Christ from Culture, we will find that things and rituals, traditions and nostalgia matter far less than we may have thought.

For as Christ quotes Isaiah, saying to those criticizing his disciples for not following the rituals, “This people honors me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me.  In vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrine.”

All our routines and rituals are beautiful but only a vessel for the divine.  And without Christ at the center, all of it is meaningless.  For it isn’t what we say, but what we mean that matters.  It isn’t calling ourselves Christians but rather living as little Christs that matters.  It isn’t singing hymns, saying creeds, or even coming to church that is the most important thing.  What matters is following God, day by day.  What matters is loving as Christ has loved, forgiving as Christ has forgiven, doing justice as Christ brings justice, loving mercy as Christ has shown us great mercy.   And none of that requires a steeple or an organ, a pastor or a sermon.

Now all those things can help us a great deal.  We have reasons for doing them.  But these THINGS, these ROUTINES are meant to be a vehicle of God’s presence and power.  These expressions of faith are meant to empower us in the living of our faith.  They are not meant to be obstacles or litmus tests or criteria for inclusion in the club.  Our forms and ways of being church are meant to flow out of vibrant lives of discipleship, and not the other way around.  And when Christ is truly at the center, we may find that there are an infinite number of ways we can follow faithfully – at least as infinite a number as we have one-of-a-kind children of God in the world.  And just as the rituals we follow were once birthed from new vision and ideas, new rituals and traditions are emerging still.

And so may we not be as the Pharisees in the scripture today – criticizing those who do not do as do we do, looking down on those who do not come when we come, …thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought.  But rather, may we recognize that what matters most is on the inside.  And may we each tend to our hearts and minds and spirits with great and loving care.

So that when God moves in new and unexpected people and places and rituals – those outside our circles, who look differently, and live differently, and see the world differently – we might see and hear and follow – ever following Christ, beyond the borders of these walls, of our own cultures and ways, and into new broad vistas of an ever-deepening and living faith.  For our God is calling, calling each one out of darkness and into Christ’s marvelous light.  And that broad place is like nothing we have ever experienced before, transcending all the ways of this world, and all the things we’ve come to know.  Christ alone remains.

 

In an ever-changing world

where church as you may have known it, no longer exists,

where potlucks no longer fill the hall and Sunday School isn’t packed…

May we keep our eyes on Christ.

It is Christ who knows the way;

Christ IS the way.

The landmarks and scenery will ever change,

Our tools and methods and rituals will also change,

but our God remains the same and is ever with us.