A Dancing Baptist?December 24, 2006, 7:00 pm & 9:00 am & 11:15 am & 7:30 pm
Fourth Sunday in Advent
Who said Baptists don't dance? Not only is this biblical proof that they do, it involves the one for whom the Baptists are named! How I wish I had seen this text when I was in High School, when the preacher in the Baptist church to which I belonged used to rail against the evils of dance--that much close bodily contact would surely lead to other, more dangerous things. Consequently, the youth pastor worked hard to schedule big youth events on the same nights as the school proms. No dancing was allowed. Ah, what victory could have been mine in pointing out that the Baptist danced--right there in his mother's womb!
I later learned this is not the only occasion of dancing in the Bible. King David got so caught up dancing in the Lord's presence that he quite literally leapt right out of his loin cloth as he led the arc of the covenant into Jerusalem.1 And, of course, that is what has the prenatal John dancing in his mother's womb--he is in the presence of his Lord. Elizabeth herself joins in the confession, when she calls Mary "the mother of my Lord," wondering at the awesome mystery of what is taking place within Mary. God is, in the words of our Epistle lesson this morning, "preparing a body" for his son. The old religious sacrificial system has been no cure for the reality of sin. As a means of reconciling sinners with God, it had its place, but the problem of sin is not thereby remedied. As Hebrews reminds us, the blood of animals cannot remove sins. And so God prepares to enter the world as you and I have entered it, as a child, in order that you and I might be sanctified.
To prepare for this, God sends John as the forerunner. Do you remember the story of John's birth? It dominates the first chapter of Luke, and is also filled with miracles and the work of the spirit. The angel Gabriel appears to the aged Levitic priest Zechariah and announces that he and his barren wife Elizabeth are going to have a child in their old age. The notion is so ludicrous to Zechariah that he asks Gabriel a question not unlike the one Mary will ask Gabriel some six months later: "How can this be?"2 The impossibility for Mary will be her virginity; the impossibility for Zechariah and Elizabeth--their age. But those have never been obstacles to God when making covenants, preserving a people, or working redemption. The names of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Hanna all come to mind--Elizabeth and Zechariah are in good company. And, like the children born to those other women, the child promised to Zechariah and Elizabeth will play a decisive role in the work God is doing. Gabriel tells his father the boy will be great in the Lord's sight and, even before his birth, will be filled with the Holy Spirit.3 He will minister in the spirit of Elijah--some will even think him Elijah returned--come to turn many people of Israel to the Lord their God, making "ready a people prepared for the Lord" himself.4
Zechariah's question earns him the judgment of being struck speechless from that moment until John's birth. As today's gospel lesson opens, the mute Zechariah's term of temple service is complete. He and Elizabeth have returned to their home in the Judean hillside, and Elizabeth is six months pregnant. Up in Nazareth, Gabriel has just appeared to Mary with his extraordinary news: not only will she have a son named Jesus, the child will be the Son of God. He will occupy forever the throne of David, just as the prophet Micah had prophesied so many years earlier. All of this will be the work of the Holy Spirit within her. Is it any wonder that shortly thereafter, Mary heads south to the hill country of Judea to visit her relative Elizabeth? Was Elizabeth a cousin, an aunt, an older sister? We don't know. The word Luke uses simply means "blood relative."5 But even before Mary's body gives her any confirmation of Gabriel's message, she heads off to see Elizabeth--a journey of four to five days from Nazareth--not so much to confirm what she has heard from Gabriel as to have someone to talk with, who, from her own experience, will understand. Mary has already uttered her famous "Let it be to me according to your word." She simply needs the companionship of an understanding loved one who is in similar circumstance. Only after three months, when the miracle within Mary is visible and just before John's birth, will Mary leave the shelter of Elizabeth and Zechariah's home and return to Nazareth and the troubles with Joseph that await her as her pregnancy becomes visible.6 But for now there is this retreat to the southern Judean hill country, where the Spirit-filled, prenatal John--forerunner of the Messiah--leaps for joy at his encounter with his cousin and Lord.
Elizabeth too, is filled with the Spirit, and responds to Mary's greeting with, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb." Under the aegis of the Spirit, Elizabeth becomes a prophet. Even before Mary can share her news, Elizabeth announces it: Mary has been chosen to be the mother of the Lord. Elizabeth blesses Mary with the title she will ever after bear in the church and world--Mother of God--and blesses her because Mary has believed and accepted the word spoken to her from God.7
Let us pause here, for a moment, to consider the weight and meaning of such blessings. From our vantage point, the blessings to Mary are without comparison. And when you and I talk about God's blessings in our own lives, are we not almost always pointing to the advantages, the favors, the good things that have come to us: wealth, health, standing, success, achievement and recognition? But consider what God's blessings will initially mean for Mary: a child conceived out of wedlock, a potential divorce with its disgrace, a son who will not only be strong-minded, but go his own way, run off with his friends and at one point renounce his family for those who follow him, never have a family of his own, only finally to be executed as a criminal of the state. These are blessings? As one commentator writes, "Acceptability, prosperity and comfort have never been the essence of God's blessing."8 Is it possible for us to begin to see the hardships in our lives as the means of God's blessing as well? Storm clouds are frequently filled with the blessing of rain. That is not simply a platitude. It is a recognition of God's sovereignty, and a confession that in all things within our lives, God is at work to bring about God's purposes for the redemption of us and the world. Can there be any greater blessing than to be a part of that, even when that leads us into and through hardship? Biblical faith does not deny the hardship, does not put on a pasty, paper smile to mask the pain. Rather, it bears the hardship and endures the pain, trusting that God is still at work and able to use even this, and thereby draw us closer to God to know the power of that fellowship to sustain in all things. One of the things that this fourth Sunday of Advent proclaims is how God works in and through ordinary people--and the ups and downs, the joys and sorrows, the successes and failures of our lives--to accomplish God's purposes. Not every blessing initially appears to be so. Mary is blessed among women, and will be blessed for her trusting that God's word will come to fulfillment in her, but the blessing will bring much pain before it brings final joy.
That said, a dominant theme for this day is God's love expressed in joy. The Baptist dances for joy in his mother's womb, already fulfilling his role as forerunner of the coming Lord. Two kinswomen hold one another in the joy of common motherhood--in their day no greater blessing could come to a woman. Their joy is the joy that comes to every expectant woman who looks forward with the mixture of wonder and awe as her body continues to reveal the miracle of coming life emerging within her. It is a blessing only women can know--I am always amused when I hear a young husband announce "we are pregnant,"--wrong! We men may know something of the joy of expectation, but we are never pregnant! In truth, we have to take Zechariah's part, waiting in silence until the birth brings forth its own promise. Then we are truly able to erupt in joy.
Finally, today there is the joy that comes from knowing the waiting is over, a truth most apparent when this fourth Sunday of Advent is also Christmas Eve! We are not only on the verge of celebrating Christ's incarnation long ago, we are reminded that each day of our lives can be a celebration of his incarnation--his presence in your life and mine. The savior has come to take residence in us. We are pregnant with his presence. He continues to come to be incarnate within us through the gift of himself in bread and wine, inviting us to join him in the dance of faith. Yes, here, in this church, dancing is allowed. But that Baptist preacher was right about one thing: such dancing can lead to other, more dangerous things--a life caught up in God's work and purpose, a life pregnant with the Christ child, a life filled with the presence and blessings of God. Blessed are you among people.
The Word of the Lord; thanks be to God.
- 2 Samuel 6:12-23, esp. vs. 20
- Zechariah's actual question is, "How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years." Luke 1:18
- Luke 1:15
- Luke 1:17
- Suggenes, which can be translated "cousin," "relative," or "female kinswoman."
- Note that Luke does not include the story of these troubles, but only that Joseph and Mary are engaged to be married, and that she is expecting a child. The story of Joseph contemplating a writ of divorce to end the engagement because of Mary's pregnancy is told in Matthew's gospel. Matthew 1:18-25
- Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year--C, (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), p. 25.
- R. Alan Culpepper, "The Gospel of Luke," The New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. IX, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 52f.
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