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Luke 1:39-64, 67-79
Until last Sunday, I had never attended a simchat bat, the Jewish ceremony for naming a baby girl, celebrating her birth and being, and welcoming her into covenant with God and into community with God’s people.
Until I participated in a simchat bat last Sunday afternoon, I am not sure I knew a space could hold so much joy. But every seat in the beautiful sanctuary of the Jewish Community of Amherst was filled; the congregation of adults and children, JCA members, and families and friends of the baby girl’s adoptive parents and brother spilled out of the main floor and up into the balcony. Children sat on their parents’ laps, couples held hands or wrapped their arms around one another, and when we weren’t smiling or laughing or singing or blessing, we were wiping away tears of joy and wonder.
That this tiny baby with a head of jet-black hair had made it from southern Arizona to Western Mass. That the same family who felt so blessed to have been chosen to become her family had participated in the welcoming rituals of her birth culture, and, on this special day, honored and gave thanks for her birth mother. That her proud seven-year-old brother kept bounding up from his front-row seat and onto the bimah to kiss her gently on the head. That her precious name incorporated her mother’s love for her late grandmother, her birth mother’s input, and a beloved Jewish matriarch. That her father movingly connected the seemingly miraculous and providential process by which she had come into their family with how the baby Moses, ordered to be killed by Pharaoh’s henchmen, was instead laid lovingly in a basket by his mother, floated on a river, and rescued and raised by none other than Pharaoh’s daughter.
So much joy. So much love. So much wonder and mystery that two days later I still could not speak of it without weeping. So much promise and hope that for a little while I did not even think about small children held in cages and young children gunned down at school.
So much ritualized beauty and blessing that I could not help but think of baby Jesus, God’s Love incarnate, God’s Love revealed in human form, God’s Love with skin on, God’s Love born as a baby Jew in occupied Palestine and, sometime later, according to Luke, presented by his parents to God in the temple. So much tradition and holiness that I couldn’t help but wonder about Jesus’ brit milah, or bris, his circumcision and naming ceremony. So much tenderness and courage and love for life, along with a bittersweet awareness of the world’s danger and brokenness, that I couldn’t help but think of our brokenhearted, long-suffering, powerful and boundless God, and how much love it took to take on flesh and limitation, vulnerability and mortality to be fully present with us. To be wholeheartedly and bodily for us. To be us.
Which is to say: So much Light that, at least for a little while, I forgot all about the darkness. So much Love that, for a moment, I forgot about loss. So much of the way things are meant to be that I wanted to capture that moment, bottle up that joy, tie a ribbon around it, and give it away to everyone I know. So much that was good and holy and purposeful that I wanted to sing with all my might, to say, “Watch out world, this Love is going to make all things right.”
Which, as it happens, is exactly what Mary and Zechariah are doing in our readings today: praising and rejoicing, exulting and singing Magnificat and Benedictus.
Mary, as she considers God’s promises and the wonder of the child in her womb, praises God, recognizes herself as blessed, rejoices in God’s deliverance, proclaims what God has done, and what, through her child, God will continue to do to fulfill God’s plan for turning this world upside-down and right-side-up. God’s Love will bring down the mighty and lift up the lowly; God’s Love will fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty-handed.
The priest Zechariah, speaking for the first time in nine months after his cynicism had rendered him mute, sings joyfully of God’s past deliverance, and sees in the future of his newborn son the preparation of a path for God’s tender mercy and peace.
The elderly Elizabeth and Zechariah are, in fact, celebrating their son’s bris, or brit milah, the same traditional ceremony that some Jews now modify to name and celebrate their daughters. To everyone’s surprise, Zechariah and Elizabeth name their son John. The baby who leaped in his mother’s womb when Mary the Mother of God showed up will grow up to be the wilderness prophet who prepares the way for Jesus. The newborn whose birth has redeemed his mother and humbled and delighted his father will one day sit in the darkness of a prison cell, in the shadow of death, wondering if Jesus is The One.
Thinking, as we do, that we know how these stories end, it is hard to give ourselves over to the joy of their parents, much less the hopes of our God. Knowing, as we do, so much about the state of the world and our own hearts, it feels almost reckless to let our defenses down and get our hopes up, to live into the joy of oneness with God and the fulfillment of purpose that is ordained for every creature on earth.
But what the birth of John the Baptist tells us, what the birth of Jesus, Love With Us, shows us, and what the birth of every child on earth demonstrates is that God’s plan for our healing and wholeness, deliverance and justice, transformation and empowerment, is not a one-time thing. God’s plan for redemption never gives up. God’s plan for love pulls out all the stops—again and again and again. God’s plan for Love With Us never hesitates. God’s plan for Love With Us is always at work in the world, forever disrupting the status quo, constantly breaking vicious cycles of violence and revenge, endlessly surprising us with love’s irrepressible power, continually showing up in the most unlikely people and places.
What the births of John and Jesus and every single person here and everywhere show us is that God’s Love is not simply an idea or a creed, not only a book or a law or commandments, not fully revealed in the best synagogue or church, mosque or prayer circle. God’s Light and Love With Us is not even limited to Jesus of Nazareth and the Risen Christ.
After John had grown up to become the prophet we know as John the Baptist, after he had baptized Jesus in the River Jordan and continued calling his people to humility and repentance, John’s troublemaking landed him in King Herod’s prison. Knowing that his execution was likely, John wanted nothing more than to know whether Jesus the rabble-rousing rebel and healer was the deliverer his people had been waiting for.
And so, from his prison cell, he sent his disciples to Jesus with a most impertinent question: “Are you the one who was promised, or are you, too, simply preparing the way?”
Look and see, Jesus tells them. Listen and hear. Echoing the promises of the prophet Isaiah, he says: In my presence the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor receive news of justice and liberation.
John’s followers delivered Jesus’ message to John. Matthew doesn’t tell us how John responded, but I like to picture him weeping tears of joy, maybe even dancing a little jig. I like to imagine him singing—maybe something from the psalms: Happy are those whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever, who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.
I like to imagine John echoing the joy of his parents at his birth and naming, so grateful to his God, so assured of God’s goodness even in his suffering, that he keeps right on singing, moving on to that song his mother taught him, the song that Mary sang:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for the Mighty One has done great things. The powerful are brought down and the lowly lifted up. The hungry are filled and the rich sent away empty. God has remembered God’s promise. God has fulfilled God’s plan.
This justice, beloveds, is for us and our children, too. This Love is with us and our beloveds, too. Even now, as the frightening darkness deepens. Even here, in our messy lives and our broken world. So let us prepare to celebrate Love’s birth and rebirth among us. Surely, the Mighty One has done great things for us, and she is not finished yet.