First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
December 23, 2018
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
Luke 1:39-55 (NRSV)
39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
The choir has sung the story. The children have dressed up as angels and shepherds to tell the story. What’s left? What’s left for a preacher to do? How does one rise to soaring melodies and adolescent wise men?
I suppose it’s time to simply sit with the story for a while and let it settle in.
I suppose it’s time to let the gestation of all that has gone before ripen and let it rest in our soul before…. Before… before the next part. The birth.
It’s threshold time… that time between anticipation and arrival. That time before prophecy and fulfillment… that time between preparation and entrance.
So before the final push into that event that humbles the mighty and reveals the odd way that God keeps the great promises of old, before the star bursts open the heavens to let the angels out… we take a journey down a dusty road where we find ourselves on a well-swept doorstep and witness two women who meet to share the ancient experience of being with child.
There’s not much left to do with all of this other than look into the soul of what is about to happen and ponder a few things in our own hearts. It’s too late to go back. The pregnancies have already been announced. The amazement and fear have already run rampant, leaving a trail littered with questions: Why? How? Where? Now what?
On this threshold of time and place, a mere 36 hours before the day arrives, it’s time to let the story settle into us. It’s time to rest with the reality of what is about to happen. It’s time to set down the shopping lists, the wrapping paper, the greeting cards and all that food preparation and just be in the midst of a life-changing, world-changing, eternity opening moment.
Before we are immersed into the angelic announcements, the shepherd salutations and the worship of wise ones, we are brought to the meeting of mothers… well, soon to be mothers. Although kin, we have no reason to believe that these women have much else in common other than their expanding bellies and the unbelieve-ability of their circumstances. Then, here, here on this threshold, they discover they have more to share than they thought – a song. Here, on this threshold between promise and fulfillment, they are given voice to sing out their part of the meeting of God and earth on the threshold of salvation.
Elizabeth’s song is humble “Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Mary’s takes it up a notch and sings of broader blessings of what it is that God is about to do in her world: “scatter the proud, bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly; fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty.”
It’s not the first time such promises have been made, promises that echo the one made to Abraham and Sarah. It’s not the first time such promises have been revealed in song. Miriam sang of it as her brother, Moses, led their people from slavery. Hannah sang it at the birth of her son, Samuel, one who would be the anointer of kings and serve as the voice of conscience to keep their power in check. The songs themselves give voice to the major theme that underlies the covenant made with Israel, a covenant that established a divine-human relationship characterized by care for the poor, the powerless and the marginalized. Walter Brueggemann suggests that Hannah’s song paves the way for a major theme – “the power and willingness of God to intrude, intervene and invert.” Mary pulls that song forth through the ages, dusts it off and helps give it a brand new look.
God’s promise to be in relationship with humanity is nothing new. But this time, this time, it’s given a different substance and style: A body that carries compassion in it’s flesh and bones; a heart that beats with the rhythm of justice; words that heal the broken and make those who break them think again… change, seek forgiveness and go about things differently.. new. It’s a promise worthy of song. It’s a promise that merits some heart-pondering. It’s a promise that justifies pausing on the threshold between expectancy and entrance.
In Celtic Spirituality, thresholds are sacred places. They mark a boundary across which we move from one entity to another. We cross thresholds every day… from the safety and security of home into the broadness of the world – the threshold is a place of setting out, stepping out, entering in, commitment to a decision. Thresholds divide two different territories, rhythms, ways of being. So, the space held between these two women became the threshold, the sacred space where God’s love transitioned from an old way of being revealed in the world to something new. The former, the old way, it wasn’t working, not because of the love itself but humanity’s unwillingness to trust it.
That old way had brought Elizabeth to the threshold that day where the promise of the future presented itself. Her child recognized it first and did a little happy dance in utero.
On the other side of the threshold was the new covenant that was being carried into the world in a new way. A way that was new, not only for the world but for God. And Mary recognized that she, a poor, unmarried, very young woman was playing a major role in the new thing God was doing. And a song emerged from the depths of her soul. I imagine it filled the space around them with light and love and hope and courage.
The threshold upon which they stood, facing one another, recognizing the immensity of what was happening held them both. For that brief moment in time there was certainty in their world. And their unlikely circumstances were brought undoubtedly into focus. Within that space between eras, they were drawn away from where they had been and even relieved from the stresses of what was going to be and given pause to be only where they were at that time, in that place, for a singular purpose: that of carrying creation across a threshold into a new time.
We, too, are on a threshold. A boundary between our being ready and receiving. A boundary between waiting and welcoming. A boundary between preparation and completion. And I’m not talking about decorating or baking or shopping or wrapping. The threshold upon which we stand today is that horizon where we are given the opportunity to recognize our role in carrying God’s new covenant more deeply into the world in such a way that it is as real and hope-filled on June 25th as it is on December 25th.
It’s a sacred time, this threshold, for it offers us the gift of setting all else aside and face the values of the one whose birth we will soon celebrate and let our soul connect with what those values have to offer the world. It’s a sacred time, for in it, we can recognize the role we are all given in giving birth to the new thing that God continues to do through the spirit of the risen Christ. It’s a sacred time, this threshold, for in it, we can listen to the songs of two women who stood on a different sacred threshold so long ago and sang their humble joy and brave commitment for God doing an old thing in a new way.
May your time at the threshold be one of wonder, amazement, listening and commitment. The birth is about to happen. There’s nothing more we can do to prepare, but wait, and listen, and gaze into the crazy, beautiful, needy, hope-filled future that is on the other side of the threshold.
 Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel (Interpretation; Louisville; John Knox, 1990), 21.