I was privileged to preach on Luke 1 last Sunday. Here are a few excerpts from that sermon...
Luke begins his gospel with two stories about two people who have unbelievable encounters with a messenger from God and receive news that will change the course of not just their lives, but all of history.
Two very similar stories. Yet there are some subtle and, I think, significant differences.
Zechariah, a priest, older in years, known for blamelessly obeying the Lord’s commands. He enters the temple to light incense at the altar, stepping behind the heavy curtain that separates the temple from the court of the priests. I imagine the small space would have felt dark to us, who are so accustomed to bright, electric lights. Candle light bouncing off the walls, casting dancing shadows around the room. A few steps in, the shadows shift. Something is different. There, by the altar, is an angel! Does Zechariah, in his fear, drop the incense he was carrying? Does he wonder if this is his end? Does he think he is dying?
When I imagine Mary’s experience with the angel, I picture her outside, taking care of some kind of daily household chore—maybe kneeling before a wash basin scrubbing clothes, arms wet up to her elbows. When Gabriel appears, maybe Mary is so startled that she knocks over the wash tub, grey water splashing over her feet, freshly washed tunic flops onto the now muddy ground. I imagine her heart beat racing, a sense of panic. Does she want to flee? Do her eyes dart left and right to see if anyone else is around?
Both Zechariah and Mary are told they, in their unlikely, even impossible situations, will have a son. And they both respond with a question. Two questions that don’t appear all that different on the surface:
“How will I know that this is so?” Zechariah asks.
“How can this be?” Mary asks.
One is deemed as disbelief, while the other is credited as faith. Was Gabriel just in a bad mood when he visited Zechariah? Why does he treat Mary with such tenderness, but Zechariah gets a bit of a finger wagging and is struck mute?
Maybe it’s because of what lies behind their questions. Zechariah’s question sounds close enough to Mary’s, yet instead of asking how can this be, what he’s really asking for is proof. Prove it to me, Gabriel. Give me something I can hold onto. His question seems to reveal his doubt. Mary’s question, on the other hand, seems to reveal not doubt, so much as wonder.
I think these two responses, so subtle in their differences, speak so poignantly into our own journeys in faith, journeys where faith and doubt dance together in our souls.
Perhaps you know what it is to have faith and doubt in the same breath. At any point, we can tip towards Zechariah, saying, “Give me some proof!” Or we can tip towards Mary, saying, “How can this be,” with wonder at what is unfolding.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the one in the temple, the priest of the Lord, is the one who speaks out of doubt, while the unknown girl, far away from the religious centre, speaks out of wonder. Shouldn’t the priest, especially this priest who has lived faithfully his whole life, exhibit a bit more faith?
Would those of us at the centre of religious structures today believe it if a messenger of God showed up on a Sunday morning, in the middle of our well-ordered worship service?
It wasn’t those in the centre of the religious systems who first believed the incarnation—it was a peasant girl who wouldn’t have even been permitted into the part of the temple where Zechariah encountered Gabriel.
Mary, an unknown girl, a person of no power and no prestige, is the first to hear and receive the news of Christ. It’s not an accident that Gabriel tells her first—not Joseph, not her father, not the local rabbi. In Luke's gospel women and the poor are continually being lifted up and welcomed in, and right at the beginning of the book he wants to make sure we're noticing this.
But it’s not easy, when we look at our world, to believe that Jesus ushered in a new Kingdom where the forgotten and the powerless are welcomed as equals at the table. Especially these days. These days when government budgets and tax cuts feel like they bend over backwards to benefit the rich, but do very little to help the poor. These days when there is a lot of clamour about whether our borders should be open to refugees. These days when one of the first things we teach our kids is “don’t talk to strangers.”
It’s not easy to believe that the gospel is good news for women when we have generations of church history where women have been silenced, generations where women have been treated as second class citizens.
Show me the proof, we might want to demand along with Zechariah, show me the proof that this new Kingdom really changes the rules. Show me the proof that things won’t just keep on going in the same direction they always have been, where the powerful are free to use their power to silence and oppress whomever they choose.
But what if we let wonder, rather than doubt, take the lead?
What does it mean to look at our world, instead, with the wonder of Mary, and ask, “How can this be?” To ask, “How can this be that outsiders are welcomed in when those who hold the power don’t seem to be changing?”
What does it mean to see possibility, to find places where structures and systems are wearing thin, where new life is growing, new communities are doing things a bit differently?
What does it mean to look for glimmers of hope, to see glimpses of light? What does it look like to step out in wonder, in the wonder of what could be, and live as if this new Kingdom way of doing things is worth the work to live against the grain?
Maybe it looks like places like Jacob’s Well where staff and volunteers work to create community in the poorest area of Vancouver.
And maybe it looks like taking a meal to the young couple who live across the street and just returned home to discover their house was broken into.
Maybe it looks like a group of people gathered at the Edmonton airport to welcome and watch a refugee family be reunited.
And maybe it looks like an 8 year old girl inviting a classmate to play with her every day, especially when that classmate has picked on her and broken her crayons.
Maybe it looks like inviting a senior over for tea, or babysitting for a single parent.
Maybe these are all ways that God is at work through us.
How can this be? we can ask, with hope and faith that this new community that Jesus is forming is in process. Have we tasted it? Have we experienced enough moments of its reality to keep believing that the world is about to turn?
As Gabriel tells Zechariah and Mary what is about to happen, he’s proclaiming that God is about to make good on his promises.
Maybe Zechariah’s response was more than just a bit a disbelief about the ability of his wife to conceive, but was rooted in a disbelief about God actually fulfilling the promises made generations earlier.
Some days doubt wants to lead the dance.
Show me some proof. Show me some proof that a day will come when weapons will be put away, when every tear will be wiped from our faces. Show me some proof that one day the lamb and the lion will lie down together. Show me some proof that you are fulfilling your promises.
But what if I allow wonder to lead?
How can this be?
How can it be that God is at work in the world in ways seen and unseen, drawing everything closer to the day when things really will be made new, when tears and weapons will be put away? What an incredible vision, what a beautiful picture. What if it’s true?
What if all around us God really is working,
like yeast in dough,
like seeds in the ground,
like a shepherd searching for his lost sheep?
What if it looks like little glimmers of light in dark places?
What if it looks like this:
This is a picture Shane Claiborne posted on social media earlier this month. Here is what he wrote:
“This handcrafted Christmas ornament was made in the little town of Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. It’s made out of the metal from a tear gas canister… a somber reminder that the holy land is a troubled land. Originally the canister was produced in Jamestown, Pennsylvania. Then it traveled to Israel, where the Israeli Defense Forces fired it into the Palestinian territory in the West Bank, where Bethlehem is. It happens all the time -- tear gas fired on crowds of Palestinians… sometimes hostile crowds of protestors… sometimes peaceful crowds of pedestrians. Eventually, some of our Palestinian friends said “Enough”. They began to gather the tear gas canisters from the streets and turn them into Christmas ornaments. They are creating jobs for Palestinians, residents of Bethlehem.”
How can this be?
How can it be that shrapnel of hate can be turned into gifts of beauty?
How can it be that even now, even today, God is still about the work of fulfilling God’s promises?
How can it be that we are invited to participate in what God is doing? To love our neighbours, to welcome the stranger, to sow seeds of peace, to offer hope in places of fear?
When my soul wants to do this dance with wonder and doubt, I find that Advent allows wonder to take the lead.
The birth of Christ and the season of Advent invite us to see the world through eyes of wonder,
for is there anything that can produce more wonder
than the infinite God who created the cosmos becoming the size of a poppyseed,
dependent upon the body of a young girl,
born as a baby, sharing our humanity?
And all of this because this God loves us so deeply? It is this mystery, this miracle, this moment of incarnation that draws me out of my need to demand proof and allows me to bask in the wonder of it all.