Isaiah 7:14, 9:2-7
And maybe we have become world-weary. We have lived through enough history that we know how unrealistic some of the prophetic hopes are. I find myself looking at them with a sad nostalgia because I don’t see the kind of progress that I used to believed was possible. As much as I love the prophecies of peace and visions of the Kingdom of God, I know that in my lifetime, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction. We always seem to be at war, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer and the divide wider. There was a time when the church actively sought solutions for the ills of society. The Church created hospitals and orphanages. The Church formed Sunday schools to teach children who worked in factories six days a week how to read. The point was to teach children whose work supported their families how to read—the Bible was their text. The Church founded schools and universities to educate the poor. The Church advocated for the end of slavery. The Church created soup kitchens during the Great Depression. Most of these improvements to society eventually came under the purview governments or private industry as their value was recognized.
But we live in a time when the church no longer seems to matter very much in our culture. Even though we have been given good news to share, our voice has become mostly irrelevant. For all practical purposes, we are as mute as Zechariah. God has seemingly impossible work that needs to be done, but we see a glass that is so much less than half full because our experience tells us that what once seemed possible is improbable.
And yet, and yet, Elizabeth’s story tells us that God can raise from our aging Church a prophet, or prophets, that will prepare the way for the Lord. The prophet Joel tells us that our old men will dream dreams. And isn’t that one of the iconic images of our time, a prophet named Martin proclaiming his dream? The urgency of that dream remains to be fulfilled as we see daily in riots and demonstrations all across our nation. We can dream the Kingdom of God and raise up prophets who cry out for justice that may seem impossible, but can be won.
In Luke’s birth narrative, the aged Elizabeth is overwhelmed with joy when she greets her young relative Mary whose youthful response to the angel’s message was, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” For Mary, the future is a blank page where anything is possible, even the seemingly impossible fulfillment of the prophet’s visions of a world made new—of peace realized because justice has been attained. Several years ago, I attended a United Methodist School of Congregational Development. We were given a list of congregations that were on the cutting edge and invited to worship with them. One church I visited set up worship each week in the cafeteria of the local high school. The other was a new church start that was ready to move into a church building, but had not found one willing to share their space until they found a United Methodist church with a handful of aging members who offered to let the new church rent space and worship on Sunday afternoons. A few of the morning worshipers attended an afternoon service and came back to report on their experience. The afternoon group, who called themselves Jacob’s Well, were a vibrant group of young adults with some young families. The older church members decided that God was calling them to give away their church. Most of them loved their worship style and chose to join other churches. But four members decided to stay and worship with Jacob’s Well. The music and worship style didn’t move them, but they wanted to financially support something that was giving others new life. They were like Elizabeth beholding Mary with joy!
The night I worshiped at Jacob’s Well, there was a black out in the neighborhood right in the middle of worship so we finished the service by spur of the moment candlelight. There was a worship band with enough musicians to take turns, creating an A band and a B band, each with about ten members. The musicians were writing their own worship music and putting old hymns to modern tunes. The sanctuary was full. The pastor invited us to take communion as our way of joining Jesus in dangerous ministry, signing up to be ready to respond in love to whatever God sent our way. We were joining the people of God on a mission to reveal the Kingdom of God. There was an urgency to taking communion. Are you in or not?! The message was true to the gospel, but unlike any I had ever heard preached with an urgency toward social justice that called for action now. They could sing Mary’s song with hope and commitment because the future was theirs to write.
God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Brian McLaren suggests the two improbable birth stories that Luke tells may be designed to blur the line between what we think is possible and what we think is impossible. I believe that God is birthing a new Church. Those of us who have been faithful are being given the gift of preparing for that birth. We are blessed indeed! That gives me a new sense of hope in watching and waiting. I am not afraid of what God will do next with this church or the greater Church. Whether we raise up prophets or say, “Here I am,” God is moving in a powerful way.