First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
July 16, 2017
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
Luke 1:26-52 (NRSV)
26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.”
38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
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;
This is a story that we hear in December, just before Christmas. Which is when we should hear it. But, when it’s the week before Christmas, what are our minds usually focusing on? Christmas shopping? Traveling? Christmas pageants and Christmas Eve services? What’s going to happen when the family comes together? Cleaning house, shopping, wrapping, shipping, cooking, cleaning…. Not many of us are thinking about the roll the Holy Spirit plays in all of this. But it’s there. It’s a big part of the story. It’s a big part of this event that is central to Christianity.
But the third person of the Trinity, once again, ends up getting relegated to the back of the stage along with scowling teenager whose parents have made them do the pageant one more year. Not much attention is paid to the expression of the divine that gives Jesus his Holy nature. Not much attention is given to the movement of God that beats out the rhythm of John’s pre-birth dance. Not much attention is given to the music that accompanies Mary’s song that we have come to know as the Magnificat.
The Holy Spirit, moves in, rustles through the grass, blows open closed doors, windows, minds and hearts and fills people up for God’s work, and then moves on down the road, kicking up little Holy Spirit dust devils along the way.
And it doesn’t happen just at Christmas time…. Or to Jesus and John the Baptist. Scripture tells us all kinds of stories about the people who get stirred up by the Holy Spirit. Moses, David, Sarah, Mary and Martha, the disciples… named and unnamed. Our focus ends up being, not so much on what empowered them to do what they did but what they did, what they said, what happened to them and how the world was changed. For the most part, they were all ordinary folk, like you and me, going about their business when something got ahold of them and breathed a new way of being into them, used the gifts that they had and the rest is history. Their amazing stories are told and they get played out in Sunday School and church skits. But the Holy Spirit is often set aside in the telling the telling of the stories.
This third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, although usually identified with fire and wind, descending doves and flowing water, ends up being the most silent of it’s companions in the triangle. Yet, it is key and central to the ongoing movement and adaptation of faith across the ages. I don’t think we pay as much attention to the Holy Spirit in the world today as we ought. I don’t think we pay as much attention to the working of the Holy Spirit in our own lives as force for action as we should. I don’t think we pay as much attention to the attempts that the Holy Spirit is making to unify, empower, equip and advance the church as God would like us to.
We recognize the work that the Spirit has done in the past and we celebrate it. We re-enact Pentecost with our best attempt at creating flames on the wall but we shut the damper on the attempts of the flames that the Holy Spirit is trying to ignite within us. We recognize the significance of the Holy Spirit working through the founders of our faith 2000 years ago and the reformers of the faith 500 years ago but we shy away from the bold decisions and risky actions that might be called for today.
I have to admit, I’m right there. At this point in my life and ministry, it’s easy to simply step into this work and gently flow along with the tried and true, known, comfortable work that the Holy Spirit has done with those who have gone before. It is comfortable. It’s predictable. The work of the Holy Spirit that is contained in history is safe. But, it’s history. That particular movement of the Holy Spirit has done it’s job and it has done it well. I don’t think God needs us to simply sit and wait for the flames to return to the same people who received them 2000 years ago, or 500 years ago or even 50 years ago. That work is done. The world has moved on from the first Pentecost, and from the great reformation, from the great ecumenical movement of the 60’s and 70’s and is now at an entirely different place. If we are waiting for the Holy Spirit to blow in and empower us to repeat the past, we will be mightily disappointed.
There’s a reason that the writer of Luke’s gospel brought Mary and Elizabeth together in the story of the coming of Jesus. It’s a way to show how the work of the Holy Spirit shifted from the old to the new. Elizabeth is at the end of a long line of God’s incarnation coming forth from the most unlikely: old women who were beyond childbearing years. That old way of telling the story shows how God can and does bring new life where fertility had ceased. It’s a great way to talk about breathing new life into old traditions. Sarah, Hannah, and now Elizabeth were all in that genre. But, with Jesus, God would do something new and it had to be expressed in a new way. This wasn’t going to be about doing the same thing and expecting different results. In order to get the message across that the messiah wasn’t simply rearranging the deck chairs, God had to send in a whole new ship. (All due respect to expectant mothers who feel like a tanker carrying a full load….) Not only was Jesus the new thing that God was about to do, Mary was the new way of going about it. Completely new.
I believe the Holy Spirit is blowing among us and is all excited about empowering us for the future, as individuals as well as a community of faith and is looking for some new ways to do that. Don’t worry, we don’t need to give birth to a new Messiah. The one we have is more than sufficient. However, we do need to be open to know that God is empowering us to express the love of God revealed through that Messiah in some new ways. We may need to be ready to teach those who value the old, old song that the new songs can be just as meaningful. Don’t forget…. Even the oldest of songs were once new. And, we have to be able to express why, whatever song we are singing, it’s important to sing it. We may need to be midwives for one another as we go through these labor pains, knowing that most of us have never been this way before for it is a new world—one in much need of the ageless love of God. We will need patience, understanding, courage, hope and faith for the work of the Holy Spirit isn’t always clear or calm.
One of my favorite reflections about the Holy Spirit comes from Annie Dillard. She writes of calling upon the Spirit to come upon us,
“Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
And if we’re fearful of any of that, we can still go back to the ancient story for some advice. Whenever God is about to do a new thing, the message is usually preceded with some advice. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. When God is about to do a new thing, there’s usually an inclination to be afraid. But that’s when that holy spirit gently blows in like a still soft voice and says, do not be afraid. For I am your God and you are my people.
The winds of the spirit will blow. The music will change. Traditions will change. But the persistence of the Holy Spirit will keep reminding us that, through it all, God will be God and we will be God’s people.