He goes ahead

File:PikiWiki Israel 19308 Settlements in Israel.JPG


This is a reposting of a reflection for Good Shepherd Sunday in 2014

John 10:1-10

4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.

Palestinian shepherds are different than most shepherds worldwide. Most places in the world the shepherds come behind, driving their flock. In Palestine they walk ahead and the sheep follow.

This contrast alone makes this chapter of John priceless. How much religion consists of people being driven? Driven by guilt, by rules, by demands, by self-righteousness, by the psychological needs of the leadership, by history, by desire. Most of life is driven. Driven by our need to provide, our need to succeed, our need to feel safe. Driven by our fears, our wants, our restless sense that we are missing something. Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden in their shame. The prodigal son is driven home by his desperate hunger – but the prodigal father runs to welcome his son with open arms.

Jesus leads his flock. He goes before. He goes ahead. And though that often results with us running to catch up, it means we are not going anywhere that Jesus has not already been. Every sorrow he has tasted first. Even the grave. But also the resurrection.

He is our elder brother. He goes ahead. He paves the way. He opens the door. He does not ask us to wash feet before he has washed our feet. He does not ask us to take up the cross before he has taken up his cross. He does not ask us to give what he has not given. He does not ask us to walk where he has not walked. He does not ask us to love anyone he has not loved or forgive anyone he has not forgiven.

There is all the difference in the world between the command to go and the invitation to “Come with me.”

My brother got me to do all kinds of things by doing them first. I learned to swim because my brother went first. I learned to ski because he went first. I learned to hold a pigeon, I walked the streets of Brussels, I picked up a live crab, I left home for college. And there were some things I didn’t have to do because he did them, battles he fought I didn’t have to fight.

God does not sit on a throne spouting orders; he has come as our elder brother, leading the way. There are commands in the scripture, to be sure. We know of the ten, even if we can’t name them all. Jesus himself gave a new commandment – and tightened the others. He talked about forgiving seventy-seven times. But he went first. He goes ahead. He calls our name and bids us walk with him.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APikiWiki_Israel_19308_Settlements_in_Israel.JPG ארכיון עין השופט [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“Strengthen the weak hands”


This reflection is a reprint from three years ago (though with a different title and picture).

Isaiah 35:1-10

3Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.

It is hard not to hear in this line the many I have known over the years whose walk into church was compromised. The decision to let me bring them communion in their pew does not come easily. It is like giving up the car keys. I have watched people labor to kneel at the altar rail, and tried to persuade them that the more ancient practice was to stand. I have sat at hospital bedsides while contraptions kept a new knee moving – and when a hip replacement had gone horribly wrong. It is not easy to watch age advance on people you have come to love. I give thanks for the wonders of modern medicine, but I have also had to wrestle with its limits.

There is a promise in the words of the prophets that “sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” God’s day shall come when the blind shall see and the lame walk, when our mortal bodies put on immortality. As hard to comprehend as that promise is, we all share the yearning for our vitality to be restored.

But the promise in this text is not about worn cartilage. This promise speaks to lost courage, lost hope, lost faith. The next line of the poetic proclamation is:

4Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!

The prophet speaks of a highway through the desert, of lush vegetation where thirst once reigned, of safe passage where highwaymen and wild beasts once ruled. The prophet speaks of a pathway home to people who know that home is lost to them, people so used to their bondage they cannot imagine freedom.

A highway through the desert. A pathway so well marked that no one will lose their way. A road filled with joy and song. And those who hear the words of the prophet shake their heads and walk away. “Dreamer,” they say.

How do you convince people that God has a future for them? How do you proclaim it in a way that doesn’t sound like wishful thinking and fantasy? We know life’s limits so well. It is hard to imagine a God who parts the seas or prepares a safe road through the wilderness. Even on Easter morning, with the empty tomb in front of us, people are afraid to step away from old patterns and follow God’s pathway. “I am the way” (the path, the road, the highway) – “I am the way, the truth and the life,” says Jesus. But we don’t risk it.

Strengthen the weak hands. Make firm the feeble knees. Dare to hold the living bread in your hands. Dare to step out on the pathway of faith and hope and love. Dare to practice forgiveness, generosity, compassion. Dare to speak the prayers of your heart. Dare to listen. Dare to trust the one who turns water into wine. Dare to bear witness to the living water and bread of life. Dare to walk the royal highway.

3Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
4Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!

10And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Michael shall arise


Daniel 12:1-3

File:Giovanni di Paolo - St Michael the Archangel - WGA09465.jpg1“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise.

We have a pretty good idea of the exact moment in which the Book of Daniel in its final form was distributed. Suddenly the exquisite detail of Daniel’s visions of the kings that rise and fall and the woes that come upon God’s people gets rather generic. The reign of Antiochus Epiphanes IV about which Daniel’s visions speak so precisely suddenly becomes vague. Our author knows what has brought the nation to its present moment in 164 BCE. He doesn’t know what lies ahead. But the purpose of his book remains. God knows. History is in God’s hands. The kings of the earth may take their stand against the Lord and his anointed, but God has them in derision. God knows his plans and purpose for the world. Michael shall arise.

God will not let his people fall. God will not let the earth fall. God will triumph over evil.

These are words of great courage spoken in a time of great tribulation. We confess them to be inspired. Inspired doesn’t mean that Daniel was an historical figure of the Persian era to whom God granted visions that would have no meaning for hundreds of years. Inspired means that God speaks through these words of hope (presented in the mouth of the cultural figure of Daniel) to summon us to faithfulness, to remind us that God is yet God, to proclaim to wavering hearts that the God who cast down pharaoh will establish his justice on earth. Somehow.

ISIS will not reign. Not ultimately. No injustice shall endure. Not ultimately. Mary sings of this at the visitation: God has cast the mighty down from their thrones and lifted up those of low degree. The psalmist declares that all nations shall come and bow down before God. The prophets proclaim that all the boots of the tramping warriors will be burned as fuel for the fire,” that “God’s word will go forth from Zion” to bring peace to the world.

God will not let his people fall. God will not let the earth fall. God will triumph over evil.

It is a hope hard to hold onto sometimes, when we see the bodies of children lying in the surf, when children are murdered by police, when nations war upon nations, when earthquakes shake the foundations of the earth.

It is a hope hard to hold onto sometimes when we see evil close to home, when death and tragedy strikes, when misfortune prevails.

But then comes the promise of Daniel: “At that time Michael… shall arise.” At that time. At the right time. The world will not be surrendered to evil. We will not be surrendered.

The author of Daniel confesses this even though he knows that many faithful have been slaughtered at the hand of imperial troops. He sees beyond our narrow horizons into the great mystery: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake.” Even death shall not prevent God’s deliverance.

The prophetic writer is not giving us a doctrine; he is giving us a promise – God’s promise. What we see is but a city surrounded by armies, but there is much more beyond our sight.

God will not let his people fall. God will not let the earth fall. God will triumph over evil. Michael shall arise.


Image: Archangel Michael, Giovanni di Paolo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Free to do the right thing

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Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath


1 Kings 17:8-16

10When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.”

It seems like such a simple little request. But it is during a three-year drought. Water itself is scarce. Who knows whether Zarephath still had easy access to fresh water? Dry sticks, on the other hand, are sure to be available.

The prophet is in foreign territory. The widow refers to the LORD as “your god.” Her god – or, at least, the god of her people – is the god Ba’al. The worship of Ba’al is the source of all this trouble. He is the Canaanite storm god. The bringing of the winter rains. The source of water for the community and for the fields. The source of prosperity and abundance. Israel has adopted the worship of Ba’al. They have become part of the modern world. Tyre and Sidon are great cosmopolitan cities. They are the home not just of foreign trade and the rich abundance of this world’s goods; they are the home of art and culture. It is from Tyre that Solomon hires workmen to build him a temple – though Solomon at lead dedicated his temple to the LORD.

The king of Israel has married the daughter of the King of Sidon. She has come and brought modern sensibility to this backward nation in the hill country. They have built a temple to Ba’al and she has brought with her 450 prophets of Ba’al (and 400 prophets of the goddess Asherah).

She has also tried to stamp out the backward religion of this God of the desert who commands justice for all.

Few girls are named Jezebel today.

Jezebel is the one who schooled king Ahab in the use of ruthless power, taking Naboth’s vineyard – land God gave to Naboth’s family that now belongs to the king even as Naboth now lies in the grave.

So here is the prophet in the homeland of the queen. And he has asked for a drink. The widow shows hospitality to this stranger and goes to get him some water.

And then he asks for a bit of bread.

A bit is all she has. Her last handful of meal. Enough for one last small cake to enjoy with her son, and then nothing awaits her but death. It is why she is gathering sticks. Fuel for the fire to bake the one last small bit of bread.

The woman is faced with a challenge. Hospitality is the supreme value of the age. To feed the hungry is not only noble, but the one true thing. But this is her last bread. This her final meal.

She protests. She explains to this foreign prophet what she intends to do. “That’s fine,” he replies. “But first make some for me.”

First do the right thing.

And to this he adds an incredible promise: the jar of meal will not fail until the drought is over.

She is a hero of the faith. She dares to trust the promise of a foreign prophet and his strange desert God. She dares to do the right thing though it costs her everything. And she is sustained. She and her son and the prophet live from that small bit of never failing daily bread.  The gods of prosperity have failed her; the LORD, the God of justice and mercy has not.

It is a story like the manna in the wilderness: enough for today, trusting God for tomorrow.  It may seem like a hard way to live. But it is actually quite liberating. Let God worry about tomorrow. Let us be free to do the right thing today.

Image: Bartholomeus Breenbergh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“The prudent will keep silent”

File:Polycarp, Vincent, Pancras and Chrysogonus.jpg

Early Christian Martyrs: Polycarp, Vincent of Saragossa, Pancras of Rome, and Saint Chrysogonus

Sunday Evening

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

10They hate the one who reproves in the gate,
and they abhor the one who speaks the truth….
13Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time;
for it is an evil time.


Early Christian Martyr, St. Perpetua

We all know there are times its best to keep your mouth shut. And though the United States has a tradition of a more or less free speech – free speech we don’t tolerate well when it burns flags, or criticizes the nation, speaks up about injustice or opposes a war – we understand the principle, at least. Monarchies and dictatorships have much less room for unregulated speech. Jeremiah’s message gets him ‘arrested’ and thrown into a the mud at the bottom of an empty cistern – ‘arrested’ in quotes because it implies a judicial procedure rather than the SS knocking at your door in the night…or, rather, not knocking.

There are times to keep your mouth shut: when the powers that be are against you, when the mood of the country is against you, when the nation has set itself on a destructive path (The March of Folly), when “it is an evil time”.

But listening to this reading in worship this morning I realized the irony that though the prophet declares he lives in a time when “the prudent will keep silent”– he, himself, is not silent. He dares to name the injustice of his day. He dares to challenge the ruling powers. He dares to challenge the dominant ideology, declaring that God is not on their side.

After David has contrived to murder Uriah to cover his affair with Bathsheba, Nathan comes to the king with a parable that incites the king’s wrath at an injustice by a man of wealth and power – and then points his long bony finger at the king and says, “You are the man.” It is evidence of David’s sincere faith that Nathan survives.

When the worship of Baal (god of the storm) became the practice of the monarchy in Israel, Elijah announced that the LORD would send no rain. During the famine, Elijah was forced to hide in the wadi of the river Jabbok – and then outside the country in the home of the widow of Zarephath. The king called him “my enemy” and accused him of being the source of the nations trouble. The Queen sought to kill him (and all the prophets of the LORD).

At the command of the king, Zechariah was stoned to death in the temple courtyard.

And, of course, Jesus is crucified.

So, when Jesus bids us take up the cross, there is a rich lineage of prophets and martyrs to share our journey, from Polycarp and Perpetua & Felicity to Martin Luther King, Jr. Speaking the truth in love, decidedly. But daring to speak truth nonetheless. They recognized the time, but answered the call to not be prudent.


Polycarp, Vincent of Saragossa, Pancras of Rome, and Saint Chrysogonus.  Image: By at Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.  Pagelink:https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APolycarp%2C_Vincent%2C_Pancras_and_Chrysogonus.jpg
Perpetua: Image: By onbekende Venetiaanse kunstenaar. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.  Pagelink: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APerpetua.jpg

A sweet little verse


2 Kings 4:42-44

File:Roti-obaid.jpg42A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to Elisha, the man of God

This is one of those sweet little verses in the scriptures pregnant with meaning easily overlooked. First, it is a time of famine, but this unnamed man still gives away the first fruits of what little harvest he has. There is not enough in the harvest for himself or his family, but that first portion still belongs to God and he will not dishonor himself or God by keeping it for himself. His allegiance to God and God’s commands trumps even his hunger.

Second, he gives an offering of first fruits. However small his drought stricken harvest, he will give thanks to God for what he receives from the ground. Everything that grows, even when it is not enough, he sees as gift from God.

Third, he is from a town with the word ‘baal’ in the title. None of my study Bibles explains the meaning of this name. The word ‘baal’ can mean husband, lord or master, but it is also the name of the god of the thunderstorm, the god of fertility and abundance worshipped by the wealthy city-states of Tyre and Sidon. King Ahab built for Queen Jezebel a temple to Baal. It was the official royal cult for a period, the progressive modern faith of the time, a worship of prosperity and power. Jezebel worked to extinguish the culturally backward faith in the LORD. So while the allegiance of the larger culture has turned towards mammon, this man from Baal-shalishah is bringing his offering to a prophet of the LORD. Fidelity against the cultural tide. Allegiance to God over allegiance to the times. Generosity over acquisitiveness. Taking care of others rather than possessing for oneself. As I said, a sweet little verse.

A nameless faithfulness, a nameless generosity, a nameless courage, remembered forever.

And then there is Elisha, who trusts that what could not feed ten will feed a hundred.

And finally there are leftovers. This does not mean they were stuffing things into plastic containers and stashing them in the refrigerator for a late night snack or tomorrow’s dinner. What the men do not eat is given to the women and children. What the women and children do not eat is given to the poor. That there are leftovers means that everyone along the way remembered the needs of others, just like the man from Baal-shalishah.

As I said, a sweet, sweet verse full of meaning easily overlooked – and a faithfulness that ought not be.

Photo: By Obaid Raza (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A beacon in the dark

Sunday Evening

2 Corinthians 3

File:Peggys Cove Lighthouse (3).jpg17Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

Jesus is fully human. This is a very bold declaration of the Christian tradition. What he is able to do he does by the power of God working through him – not by his own power. What he is able to see in the hearts of others he sees by the power of God working in him – not by his own power. What he is able to see in the future he sees by the power of God working in him – not by his own power. The sins he forgives, the bread he breaks, the water upon which he walks – it is all the power of God working in and through him. Jesus is not a fundamentally different creature than we are. He is just better at it. He is a better human being. He is a human being in whom the link between God and himself is never broken. His trust in God does not fail.

The Transfiguration of Jesus doesn’t belie what is to come; it sustains us through it. Jesus is not Superman, letting Peter, James and John peek behind his Clark Kent suit. He is not revealing himself as the Lord of Glory as though the suffering that is to come were but a minor detour. We look at Jesus through the lens of the centuries and the doctrine of the Trinity and we tend to think that Jesus was God in a way that denies his full humanity.

But Jesus is not a divine being hiding in human form. He is not omniscient and omnipotent pretending to be limited by time and space. He is fully human. And the works that we see in him are done by faith, by his perfect trust in God. Jesus mediates the blessing and wonders of God. Technically, Jesus is not healing the sick and casting our demons, he is bringing into these places the healing power of God. He is God’s anointed, God’s Christ, God’s agent to dispense the gifts of God, to bring God’s reign of grace and life.

What happens on the mountain is not a sign of Jesus’ divinity, but a witness to Jesus’ authority – that Jesus is, in fact, God’s beloved son.

Peter, James and John need to hear God make this declaration because Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. And ignoble end is coming. A rejection. A suffering. An accursedness. The apparent failure of the promise. The apparent triumph of Rome.

The customary response to the crucifixion of a hoped for Messiah (assuming any followers survive the purge) is to go home disillusioned. We were wrong. We hoped, but we must have been mistaken. This is what the disciples on the road to Emmaus say: “We thought he was the one.” … Apparently not.

In the face of those moments in life that seem to belie the grace and power and love of God, we need to remember that God spoke with Jesus face to face. We need to remember that God has designated Jesus as the beloved son. We need to remember that Moses and Elijah came and bore witness that in Jesus the reign of God is dawning. Even when we lose sight of it.

The Transfiguration stands as a beacon in a dark world. It is one in a chain of lighthouses that mark the coastline and sustain us in the storms: the voice from heaven and the descent of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism; the voice from heaven and the heavenly visitors at the Transfiguration; the angelic witness at the empty tomb. Again and again God bears witness that Jesus is the one in whom earth and heaven are reconciled, in whom the new world is born, in whom we are born of God.

For a long time I didn’t understand or appreciate the importance of this story. I kept thinking it was Jesus who shines when, in fact, it is God who shines upon Jesus. Jesus is radiant because he is the perfect mirror of God.

Would that there were more in the world who glowed with the radiance that comes from true faithfulness to God and one another. Would that there were more in the world who were clothed in Christ as a daily garment.


By Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Acts of courage


Psalm 111

File:Auguste Bigand - Visage capuchonné.jpg

Auguste Bigand, Visage capuchonné (A cloaked figure)

1 Praise the Lord!
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
in the company of the upright, in the congregation.

It’s not the most creative of the psalms. One study Bible I possess describes it as rather pedantic, as if it were a student’s exercise to write a brief acrostic that he then fills with conventional aphorisms. It doesn’t have the majesty of Psalm 145 or the indomitable will of the 176 verses of Psalm 119. It doesn’t have the passionate intensity of the acrostic poems of Lamentations or the imagery of Psalm 34.

And yet…

Artur Weiser, normally quite generous with his praise of the depth of faith in the psalms, describes the verses as “a string of unmatched pearls, in the form of general propositions, and without any very systematic arrangement.” (The Psalms: A Commentary, OTL, Philadelphia:Westminster, 1962, p. 698) He blames the form as “not conducive to a consistent thought-sequence.” But the problem is not the form.  Other poets – like the author of Lamentations – have mastered it brilliantly.

This is not brilliant. Any yet…

There are times that platitudes are no more than platitudes, cheap and easy slogans that require no effort and challenge little. But there are also times that such platitudes are the thin handholds of the desperate. “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” is a cheap knock-off when spoken by the well fed and well heeled. But it is a rock in a weary land to those who are at life’s edge.

So I will not dismiss this psalm so easily. I do not know whether the poet sat in a classroom or at the edge of desperation. I do know that simple phrases like “Praise the Lord!” are words not always easily spoken. They are, at times, acts of great courage.


Auguste Bigand [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Arise, shine”


Isaiah 60

winter sunrise copy

Winter Sunrise, Anna Bonde, ca. 1996

1 Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

I hear the words to arise and shine, but I do not really hear them. They reach out to embrace me. They draw me into their sweetness. I slump into them as into the arms of a friend when troubles abound. What I hear is “the glory of the Lord has risen upon you,” and this seems a perfect embrace.

There is no want of darkness in the world, no want of cruelty, no want of evil men and women and even children, on occasion. The divide between whites and blacks in America is so profound that few can hear the other when they speak. I assume it is the same between Shia and Sunni in some parts of the world or they would not blow up each other’s sacred spaces or their children. And certainly there are other such divides. Men and Women. China and Japan, at least so I’ve read, the font if not the legacy of a brutal war.

The assaults on human dignity and freedom and life seem to lie all around me. So when I hear, “Arise, shine; for your light has come,” it sweeps my heart up in its grand arms.

But beyond the wonderful word that light has come are these two little commands to arise and to shine. Is the poet saying no more than “Get up, get up” in joy and excitement of God’s advent? Or is there a call to stand, though the forces around us would beat us down? Is there a call to stand tall and firm at the lunch counter, though milkshakes and mockery and hate and dumped upon your head? Is there a call to stand tall though a spouse or teacher or coach degrade you? Is there a call to stand, though adversity besets you?

And when the prophet says, “shine,” is this just the shining face, alive with excitement, bright eyes joyous at the present laden tree? Or is there a call to shine forth love and compassion into a world often lacking in both?

The voice of God that presents itself to us through the prophet, speaks a wonderful grace. But it also calls us to come stand in that grace. To come live that grace. To shine forth as a bright moon reflecting the sun’s light. To shine forth as Jonathon’s weary eyes are made bright by the taste of honey. To shine forth as one who knows the true heart of the universe is an imperishable and unconquerable love.

This is not something we can simply be commanded to do. A candle doesn’t light because you tell it to burn brightly; it shines when touched by the flame. We are meant to burn brightly. We are meant to be touched by the flame. We are meant for heaven’s exquisite embrace. We are meant to bring to our mouths the sweetness that is God’s dawning light, God’s wondrous glory, God’s unfathomable love.

And so to shine.

Shouldering her burden in joy


Luke 1

File:Ikona na Blagoveštenieto vo Sv. Blagoveštenie Prilepsko.jpg

Icons from the treasury of the Church of the Holy Annunciation in Prilep

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

It is such a sweet verse to those who know the story, shaped by the celebration of Christmas filtered so many Christmas services and pageants, through songs like “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger”, and through storybooks about the cattle in the barn or the little drummer boy.

There are times for Christmas Candy. But we need more than candy to live.

When we strip away the glossy and sentimental layers of the story, we find a different kind of narrative. It is still a narrative that intentionally echoes the literary style of old Biblical stories like the wondrous birth of Samuel, with Hannah’s desperate prayer and the song of joy at her conception (wondrous births are a standard part of God’s repertoire). It is as if Luke wrote his narrative in the language of the King James Bible. But the old language doesn’t eliminate the dramatic content of the story.

Mary is betrothed. A marriage contract has been negotiated – this is normally done by the mothers and confirmed by the fathers – but this is not a plan for a coming event; it is signed and sealed. Money has changed hands. Mary has not yet been taken into Joseph’s house, but to break the marriage contract requires divorce. Such an action would bring shame on the families and likely lead to generations of enmity between the families that were to be united but are now divided.

The reference to the betrothal tells us that Mary is a married woman, yet young – still at the home of her parents and under their careful guard. Encounters between men and women are tightly controlled and supervised, lest the woman’s virginity or reputation be compromised. That Mary finds herself alone with an angel in a private interior of the house is a potentially scandalous encounter. (In Hellenistic culture, the gods frequently sleep with women, and the relations between angels and human women is one of the scandals that leads to the flood at the time of Noah.)

For us to appreciate the emotional impact of the story we may need to imagine Mary confronted on a dark street by a stranger far larger and stronger than she. Only it’s not Mary’s personal safety that is at risk, but the honor of her whole family.

Into this tense moment comes the word of the angel: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

On a dark street, we would be “much perplexed”, too – though ‘perplexed’ is hardly a strong enough translation. The verb is a form of the word used for Pharaoh’s anguish over his nightmares; of Joseph overcome with emotion when he meets up with his brothers; of David weeping for his murdered son Absalom; for the woman pleading with Solomon for the life of her infant when he commands that it be cut in two, giving half to each of the two women claiming it as their own. The author of Lamentations uses the same root word for grief over the brutal destruction of Jerusalem. Mary is not ‘perplexed’ as though faced with the New York Times crossword puzzle; she is shaken, overwhelmed, overturned.

And the message does not ease her fear. For a married woman to become pregnant apart from her husband is social death. And the declaration that her son 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,” wouldn’t necessarily bring comfort given the likelihood of violence by the ruling powers against any potential claimants to the throne.

But against this shattering encounter with the divine is the costly vision of a world transformed, of high powers thrown down and the poor lifted up, of grasping greed sent away empty and the hungry fed, of justice and mercy replacing power and privilege.

It is always humbling to ponder the cost to Mary of bearing the earth’s redeemer. She submits to the divine purpose despite the personal cost in shame and grief. The promise of God trumps her natural impulse to self-protection. Not that she could have done anything about it. God isn’t asking her permission; he is thrusting her onto the world stage.

But Mary shoulder’s her burden – not in obligation but in joy, trusting the promise that the price of her humiliation will be a far greater good: the redemption of God’s earth.