Advent Week 2: The Journey to Bethlehem

The following is audio and text from the teaching given by Leah on December 6, 2015.  Feel free to listen online, download, or read.

In recent years, as social media has continued to become a force for how people connect, foster and maintain relationships, a phenomenon has grown around announcing and documenting significant events on facebook or other social media outlets.  It starts perhaps with something like the moment you change your Facebook status from single to “in a relationship”.  To do that for many folks is in a sense to “come out” publicly as a couple of some kind.  Down the line a bit, and if everything works out well, the couple might get engaged.  Search for “Engagement Announcements” on Pinterest and site after site comes up, sharing the best ideas for how to announce your engagement on social media.  Long gone are the days of a couple of sentences being run in the local paper.  Now there are an array of adorable photos and videos online of couples announcing their upcoming nuptials.  These are usually followed by a series of sweet engagement photos published on Facebook, and then eventually the posts around the wedding.  And of course, another big announcement that generates lot of pinterest ideas is the announcement of a pregnancy.

Here’s a cute one that has been making the rounds this week and appeared in my Facebook feed.  

Sweet, huh?  You don’t need to know these people to understand that joy the grandfather expresses when he finally gets it; the relief his wife expresses when she can finally release her joy.  It’s sweet.  And at our best, I think that’s why we’ve started doing stuff like this.  We make these videos or do these photo sessions and post them online because we want to mark that this is a big moment.  A milestone is hit and we want folks to know, to celebrate with us.  Whether you’re married or not, whether you have kids or not, you’ve likely had some of these kinda moments.  A new job.  A move to a new city.  Acceptance into an academic program.  A graduation. If any of things have happened to you, and you are the type who shares a lot on social media, then you likely have posts about these events.  They probably have a lot of “likes”. They’re big moment events.

There might be other big, defining moment events too that are less post-worthy but equally, if not more significant.  Moments of emotional or spiritual significance, perhaps. Perhaps it was taking a class in school and discovering a new gift or passion.  Maybe it was a breakup, or the loss of a loved one.  Maybe it was one of those experiences where you go through something challenging with someone, and you come out the other side realizing this acquaintance has become a dear friend for life.  Perhaps there have been moments that are harder to articulate.  Moments when all of a sudden God was real - when something that was read, or some thoughtful words that were spoken, or some song that was sung, or just the presence that you felt in prayer or worship, made you aware of a Holy Other in the room and that that being was good and that in that moment, rather than being just a ritual or a routine or an inherited tradition, faith somehow made sense.  Those are big moments too, even if we might not make happy, silly videos about them.

Well, I start today talking about these “big moments” because this is the Second Sunday in Advent, the month that the church ponders and reflects and prepares for the coming of Jesus at Christmas.  There are a number of advent traditions around the second Sunday of Advent, and one is to focus on the holy family, the couple that was at the heart of this story that culminated in Bethlehem.  So the story we are looking to today as part of our own journey toward Bethlehem is a big moment kinda story.  For the people who experienced this, it was a “life’s never gonna be the same” moment. Look with me at this passage from Luke.  Throughout Advent, we’ll be bringing in different voices to do our readings, so Liz will be reading for us today.

“In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, 'Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.'

9 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.'

34 'How will this be,' Mary asked the angel, 'since I am a virgin?'

35 The angel answered, 'The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.'
38 'I am the Lord’s servant,' Mary answered. 'May your word to me be fulfilled.' Then the angel left her.

39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!'

46 And Mary said:
'My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
    of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
    holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
    just as he promised our ancestors.'
56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.”

So this is a big-moment story.  In the midst of everyday life, Mary was interrupted.  She had an encounter with an angel of all things, a messenger of God.  She was visited by the Divine.  And what we see as Mary reacts and processes this visit is a variety of emotional responses to her big moment with God.  So let’s take some time to consider them.  How did Mary, as well as Elizabeth, respond to the big moments they found themselves in?  And how might their reactions be instructive for us when we consider our own big moments?

Mary goes through a process of coming to terms with what’s happening to her.  The first response she has when the angel comes to her and says “Greetings, you who are highly favored” is not “My should Glorifies the Lord.”  It takes her quite awhile to get there.  No, her first response is what?  Fear. 

Mary sees the angel and the text says she is “greatly troubled”.  That’s probably an understatement.  Girl was freaking out.  And it’s not an unusual response when humans encounter angels in the Bible.  Generally the first thing an angel says is“Don’t be afraid.”  Same thing here because Mary is; her first response to communication from God isn’t joy, it’s fear. But the angel tells her not to be afraid; tells her she has found favor with God.  The angel is here with good news.  God is pleased with Mary.  And then comes the big announcement. You’re gonna have a baby.  This is what the angel has come to say. 

But similar to the guy in the video, it takes some time for her to process it.  Mary seems to move from fear to confusion.  How can this be?  And she’s right to be confused because what the angel is announcing here is a medical impossibility.  And though we don’t know what sex-ed was like in the first century, clearly Mary understands the basics because she responds saying, “How can this be?  I’m a virgin.”  She seems to get that what the angel is saying is not, next year or so, when you actually consummate this marriage to Joseph you’re planning, you’re gonna get pregnant and have a baby, and let me tell you who he is gonna be.”  No, she is hearing him say, “Now you’re having a baby.”  But Mary was not in the position for that to happen, at least not without a lot of scandal.  

The way that marriage was done in those days was that young people were betrothed basically around puberty and the betrothal was equivalent legally to a marriage, but for a year or two, they still lived in their parent’s homes and the marriage was not consummated, as they prepared to fully start a life together.  So to separate was a bigger deal than breaking off an engagement nowadays, it meant a full legal divorce.  But to get pregnant in this period meant that someone was clearly doing something they weren’t supposed to do.  With whom they were doing it, wouldn’t be clear, but you were not supposed to have a big belly when you were a betrothed woman.  Not cool.  But this is the state Mary seems to find herself in.  The angel seems to be saying she’s gonna get pregnant now, while she’s betrothed and she wants to know, how could that even be possible?  She feels confusion.

Well, the angel explains to her that this baby is miraculous.  That God is going to give her a baby by His power alone.  He tells her about Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, who also has a miraculous pregnancy, because she had been barren for many years, and is now, late in life, bearing a child who was also angelically announced to Elizabeth’s husband, the priest Zechariah.  And as Mary hears this, she responds to the angel beautifully in that moment with what I would call hopeful agreement.  “I am the Lord’s servant.  May your word to me be fulfilled.”   But the story doesn’t end there, does it?  It could have.  The angel comes, he says you’re having a baby, she takes it in, she’s happy and on board. Scene. And cut to nine months later, we see her in a cave in Bethlehem, holding Baby Jesus.  But it doesn’t quite go that way, does it?

I used the words “hopeful agreement” because, to me, at least, Mary doesn’t sound fully settled in her response yet.  It sounds almost as if she wants to believe; she has hope that what she is hearing from the angel could be true.  And if it is, she will agree, come what may, to the cost of it; the scandal, the uncertainty, the fear.

But there’s another important component to the story.  Not long after the angel leaves, Luke tells us that Mary went on a trip.  She headed to the hill country of Judah to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Why?  I think she takes the trip to her cousin’s house, because Mary needs to see something concrete with her own eyes.  She needs some form of validation that this wasn’t some psychic break she just had in her living room.  That it wasn’t some fantasy or very vivid day-dream.  She needs outside confirmation.  And the angel, speaking for God, seems to understand Mary’s need for this.  He’s the one who tells her about Elizabeth’s pregnancy.  

So Mary treks off to her cousin’s house to see if there’s anything there to see.  And the moment Mary arrives at Elizabeth’s home and she is greeted by Elizabeth, another level of God’s power seems to be released.  Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, even as her unborn son John the Baptist is, and as he leaps in her womb, Elizabeth gets what’s happening and proclaims to young Mary, “Blessed are you among women!  Blessed is the child you will bear.”  And now, in that moment, this whole thing becomes a new level of real.   

This is indeed happening inside of Mary, but also it’s outside of Mary.  It is not just her word alone, the word she believes an angel told her; there is another witness, somebody who sees and understands that God is in the room, and celebrates it.  And that is so helpful, it makes such a difference to have those words of confirmation, that now Mary can move from the tepid agreement of hope to full blown worship.  “My soul glorifies the Lord,” she can confidently sing out.  But the song of worship, the famous Magnificat, comes only after Mary sees Elizabeth, not before.  It seems like she needed that validation from another human being, and she needed human companionship in her experience, to get her there.

I’m taking the time to tease out these elements of the Mary and Elizabeth experience, because I think there’s truth in them for us in some of our big moments, particularly our big moments with God.  Now most of us will never see an angel with our eyes, but particularly with the gift of the Holy Spirit, we can expect to have moments where God breaks through the ordinary and touches us; moments that speak into our lives and give us a vision of the future.  But like Mary, often these moments trigger an array of responses.

If you’ve known me for any length of time, or heard my story, you’ve probably heard me say that for years, for many years, I perceived of the dream of someday starting a church in Berkeley as a pregnancy; a very long pregnancy.  Thirteen years before we would move here to begin that project was my moment of conception; my significant moment.

Jason and I were engaged at the time, and I found myself in a powerful prayer time at a church conference in Chicago, where we lived.  There, during that prayer time, I heard in my spirit a divine voice speak to me with total clarity, "Someday you guys are going to start a church."  And like Mary, receiving this first communication from God did not bring me to joy and worship.  It brought me to fear and confusion.  I had no idea what this word meant.  Hearing it, I thought  with anxiety, that God would call my then-fiancee to be a pastor.  I was afraid I’d be stuck being a pastor’s wife (not that there’s anything wrong with that, honestly, but it felt far from what I thought my life was supposed to be about. I thought I wanted to be a rock star at the time.)  So I was scared, and confused about this message.  I didn't know that in that moment something profound and powerful was being conceived, not in Jason, but in me. But, like Mary, even as I was confused and afraid, I was also hopeful that perhaps God really did have something meaningful for us, and perhaps it would be good.

For years the pregnancy remained a tiny seed, too small to be observed by those outside, but Jesus was creating in me, even when I didn't understand what or why.  There were trips to San Francisco around 2003 and 2004, where my heart burned and I found myself weeping over that city as I walked its streets.  I was being stirred internally (my own version of morning sickness, perhaps), but I didn't understand what it meant.

And then in 2006, there were amazing circumstances that brought me to getting it.  They brought me to the clearer, "oh......I'm pregnant" moment.  The revelation and recognition that Jesus had put the stuff in me to start a faith community for the people that stirred my heart.  I said "yes" to being a solo senior pastor church planter, though I had no framework or model for what that would mean as a woman, a wife, a mother.  So Jesus brought me a big sister named Adey.  She was a woman who had walked this path, and invited me to walk behind her and beside her.  The first weekend we really met, she looked at me and said, "Leah, it's as if you are Mary and I'm Elizabeth, and the child in my womb is leaping to meet you."  Indeed.

Similar to Mary, I had a process to go through in coming to terms with my big moments wth God.  I had a process to go through to accept that God had planted things in me, that my life was pregnant with hopeful possibility and promise.  

But our response to the big moments isn’t just about how we come to terms with it when those big moments happen.  Our response also has to do with how we then live after the significant moments have taken place; after we’ve come to terms with them and the excitement has died down.  After the thrilling Facebook video has been posted and liked, and commented on until it’s done.  Because it’s easy to skip forward as we tell our stories from big moment to big moment.  You can skip from that time I first heard those words “someday you guys are going to start a church” to the first gathering of what would become Haven, but there was actually a lot of life lived in between those two high points.  Over thirteen years of life.  In the same way, it’s easy to skip in our minds from the conception of Jesus to the birth, but anyone whose ever had a baby, or been close to someone who has, knows that the process isn't that simple.  There are many long days between the pregnancy announcement and the birth announcement.  They might not be exciting enough to warrant fun Facebook posts, or details in our Bible narrative, but they are just as significant.

We’re gonna take a few minutes now to watch a short film.  In this film you’ll see an actress reflecting as she imagines Mary might have reflected on what happened to her.  Listen and enter in as we hear this Mary’s account not just of the familiar stories we’ve heard and been processing tonight, but also on what the actual Mary might have said about the days that aren’t recorded in Luke.

This Mary started by saying, “What was so wonderful at the beginning was just how obvious it was.”  Everything in her big moment seemed clear.  But then comes the waiting.  Isn’t that what happens after we’ve had the moments that were clear.  After we’ve had the significant big moments in our lives that we come to eventually trust have shifted the landscape around us in some way.  After we’ve moved through fear, through confusion, we’ve gotten outside confirmation, we’ve landed in wonder and joy and anticipation.  And then comes the waiting.  And the waiting is a whole new ball game.

A lot of life happened for Jason and I in our season of waiting.  We got married.  We spent the first eight years of our marriage putting him through school; helping him get his undergraduate degree in computer engineering.  We spent the next five years with me in seminary, working on my graduate degree.  We moved from Chicago to Iowa so that I could go on staff at a church to train towards eventually starting a church myself.  We had three children.  And there were a lot of hard moments along the way, too. 

One of the bleakest seasons in those thirteen years came during our last two years in Chicago.  I had already figured out all of the pieces of the puzzle.  I had processed this calling.  I had met Adey, we had had our divine encounter and she had invited me to move to Iowa and train under her.  But Jason still had over two years left in school, and I knew I couldn’t ask him to sacrifice his dream for mine, so mine was put on hold.  And in the mean time, we had baby Elliott.  And Jason was in school full-time at that point and working half-time and we needed health insurance for ourselves and our infant son and so I went back to the job I had had before Jason and I had been married.  

I became a Starbucks barista again so that we could have health insurance while I worked only 20 hours a week.  But because every shift I worked that Elliott needed care, the cost of care was the same if not more than my hourly wage, I worked the earliest shifts I could so he would only need care for some of that time.  I got up each morning at 4.  I was at work at 4:45 to open the store.  Jason would drop Elliott off at day care around 7:30 or 8 and head to school or to work.  I’d pick Elliott up around 10 or 11, go about the next part of my day as mom, doing feedings, laundry, changing diapers.  Jason would bounce back and forth between his tech job and campus all day.  If we were lucky, we’d see him for dinner before the studying started.  And for a little more cash, I’d spend my evenings, once Elliott was in bed, teaching voice and guitar lessons, before finally collapsing and then getting up to do it again the next day.  

Jason and I were like ships passing in the night.  We were stressed. We were overwhelmed.  And then in the midst of a season that was already difficult, Jason’s parents marriage, what had always seemed stable and God-centered, fell apart.  We found out his father had led a double life for many years with numerous integrity issues; his father who had been a pastor and spiritual mentor, not only for Jason’s family but for a whole community.  And when all that went down, I saw Jason struggle to even absorb what was happening.  I feared that when he finally had time to feel it, the grief would overwhelm him.  It might even cost him his faith.  And I remember looking to the year and a half we still had before Jason would graduate.  Before we would move to Iowa.  Before I would do seminary, and I wondered, “are we gonna make it?”  God, are you even here?  If we get there, are either of us gonna have faith?  Or will we move to Iowa and I’ll come on staff at a church only to find out I no longer even really believe in Jesus any more.  The thought made me sick, and yet, I couldn’t take myself out of that desert.  I couldn’t force myself to feel close to Jesus in that season.  All I could do was continue to take steps forward, sometimes what felt more like little crawls forward, dragging myself by my fingernails, even amidst doubt, and fear, and pain, clinging to my story, trying to remember that it had happened.  I was calling upon my own witnesses, my own companions to remind me that it was real.     

It was in that season, that space, that I wrote a song; a song that we have done here in Haven, “Here with me.”  The lyrics start talking about overwhelming circumstances “When sorrow feels deeper than an ocean and hope further away than mountains peak.”  It talks about calling out to God when I’m at the end of my rope, with the bold assertion in the face of so much counter-evidence “I believe you when you say You’re here with me”.  I believe you are here with me.  I don’t see you.  I don’t feel you.  I don’t hear you.  But I stand in this space of knowing my life has been altered because there were moments that seemed clear.  And so in the hope that those weren’t just psychic breaks, that this isn’t all some grand delusion, that those big moments really happened, I choose to say “I believe.  You never walk away.  You never turn your face.  I can trust in you because you’re here with me.”

Advent is not only about entering into the big moments of Jesus’ coming.  It’s also about entering into the waiting.  It was in the midst of the waiting that this young couple embarked on a trip to Bethlehem.  And we each have our own journeys to take.  For me, all these years later, I’m so glad we hung in there.  I’m so glad we packed our bags, we loaded the donkey, and with my belly hanging low we headed on a ridiculous journey to Bethlehem.  Because now I get to be here, with all of you.  None of this would even be happening today if God had not been present, and if we had not stayed present, not only for the big moments, but the many more quiet moments.  The difficult moments, the in-between moments, the mundane-but-pregnant moments.

So, as we close today, I want to leave you in this second week of Advent not with tips for how to do something in the weeks to come, but instead, I want to leave you with questions to ponder.  My challenge to you this Advent is to take some time for reflection.  There are so many tasks to do in the next few weeks, it’s easy to miss the waiting.  As it is, in our culture, I think we resist unprogrammed time.  We resist waiting.  We fill the moments we do have in the day with media.  We pull out our phones at the Bart stop, at the stop light, as we wait in line for the bathroom. What if instead of filling all of the space in our Advent, we carved out some time to wait and to reflect.  And as we do, I invite you to consider these four sets of questions. Write them down or let them sink in to your memory, so you can ruminate on these in the next few weeks of Advent.  Let them ground your conversations with Jesus this Advent.  Let them be the soundtrack, perhaps, to your waiting.

So as we end, here are the questions I leave you with to reflect on this Advent:
    1. What are you waiting for in your walk of faith?  What seeds have been planted in your life but have yet to reach their fulness?
    2. What questions does the process of waiting prompt for you?  What doubts surface?
    3. What companions have you been given for your journey?  What words of confirmation are they speaking into your life?
    4. What are your significant stories?  Where are your high points?  What memories do you need to come back to as you wait?

Tonight, we light the second candle on our Advent Wreath.  The Bethlehem Candle, also called the Candle of Preparation.  As we light it, we ponder our own Bethlehem journeys. We come longing to prepare the way of the Lord in our own lives, to make straight paths for Jesus to enter in.  Amen.