My friend Shawn has something new that he does every morning at 5am. He’s always been a guy who’s in shape, and he’s run marathons in the past, but his new goal is to compete in the Ironman. The only problem is, at 45 years old, Shawn has never learned how to swim. In order to compete in the Ironman you have to run, swim, and ride a bike. So Shawn has begun swim lessons each morning at 5am. At first, he had to pull himself out of bed. He was up before his wife, before his kids, and definitely before it’s light out. And each day when he got into the pool and felt completely humbled knowing that five year olds could do what he wasn’t able to do, Shawn wondered why he was doing it. He was more tired than usual, his schedule was more packed than usual, and he couldn’t see any improvement from day to day. But Shawn has kept at it, and now he looks forward to it. It’s become a place of refuge for him— of joy. He has met people he would’ve never known; amazing people of all ages, including his teachers, who have shown him a world he never knew existed. The very thing that felt impossible, that seemed to throw his life out of balance, is also the place where he has found refuge.
Where do you find refuge? I often find that true refuge surprises me. It’s rarely in the places I expect it to be. Sometimes I can plan for it, but more often than not, it comes unexpectedly— a gift from God. And we have often been through a long, hectic journey by the time we find it.
In just two weeks we are going to be celebrating my youngest daughter’s fifth birthday. And of course every birthday celebration is a big deal when it’s your own child, but this one is especially poignant for us because of the journey we have been on with Annie. Many of you know that Annie was born premature, 10 weeks before her due date. We spent 7 weeks going back and forth from the hospital, trying to keep something of a normal life going for our oldest two, but wanting to be with all three pounds of Annie whenever we possibly could. And in those early days, they would only allow us to hold her for an hour a day— 60 minutes to hold our newborn baby because it was too difficult for her to keep her own body temp up for much longer than that. And that 60 minutes became my refuge. Time seemed to stop for that 60 minutes. I didn’t dare waste the time worrying about everything else that had to happen or even to worry about what the future held for her and for us— that 60 minutes was too precious. I would just recline in that hospital BarcaLounger and hold her as close to me as I could and for 60 minutes I knew she was okay and I was utterly present and content just to sit and stare at her tiny face. My place of refuge during that time was exactly the same as the center of chaos— that time with Annie was like the eye of the storm.
Mary, too, seems to find both chaos and refuge in the same place. Her call story is very similar to others in the Bible— Moses, Jeremiah, Eli. There’s a pattern that seems to emerge when God calls us. Maybe you can recognize it in your own life. God, or a messenger from God, greets the person; the person is always confused, perplexed, and presumably scared since the messenger of God almost always says, “Do not be afraid.” The messenger shares what it is God desires for the person to do; the person responds negatively, wondering how God could be calling him/her, and then eventually, the person agrees in some way and the messenger says there will be a sign to confirm that this is indeed coming from God. Here, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she is favored and to rejoice. Mary responds with confusion. Gabriel tells her that she will bear a son. Mary wonders what kind of a message is that and how she can possibly do that. Then she says, “Let it be to me according to God’s will” and Gabriel tells her that her cousin Elizabeth is also pregnant, and that she is a sign that nothing is impossible with God.
Chaos and refuge in one place— from one event— that will change her life.
I’m not sure where Mary got her reputation for being mild. If she was before Gabriel visited her, she certainly isn’t afterwards. Jan Richardson wrote a poem about Mary’s experience once the angel left:
Take this message back: that when the angel left I wept that I thought I was insane that I sat in the dark for three days that I dreamed of stones that I dreamed of angry crowds that I dreamed I spread my arms to meet them.
Say on the third day a wind through the door say the smell of perfume say fire say ancient, familiar music say I opened say I laughed say just a bit.
We can only imagine the fear, the confusion, the trepidation that Mary felt after she was left alone to wonder how this could be and who would possibly believe her. Like Moses and Elijah and Jonah before her, the stakes are high and the odds are against her that anyone will believe her; that God’s plan will work; that she can even believe it herself. And yet she does. She fully trusts in what God is doing and by the time Mary gets to Elizabeth, there is joy exuding from her, even though the circumstance is hardly safe. We often think of a refuge as a place of safety, but not for Mary. Mary finds refuge in this news even though it risks her life. She finds joy in the news Gabriel gave her, and is willing to share that joy. And when she opens her mouth to sing, amazing things come out. Mary sings about how amazing God is; Mary sings about how salvation has already come; Mary sings about how God has lifted up the lowly— and the whole time Mary sings, she sings as though these things have already happened. Because she can see what God is doing. She is full of joy at how God is at work in the world. She knows that God’s salvation is never just for one person— that what God is doing is for her whole community and for the whole world.
In fact, if we look closely at the first and second chapters of Luke, we can easily see that Luke equates God’s presence with joy and it’s not just for one person, it’s everywhere. Gabriel tells Mary to rejoice— to be full of joy— because God loves her. When Mary visits Elizabeth, Elizabeth is filled with joy and the baby in her womb leaps for joy. If we look ahead a bit we see the angels tell the shepherds that they are bringing them good news of great joy for the whole world. And even, as we continue, when Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple eight days after his birth, Anna and Simeon, two elders who have been waiting to see the Lord all of their lives, rejoice and give thanks for getting to meet Jesus— they are full of joy. This is not just good news for Mary, and she knows it. God’s joy is for everyone, refuge for all, because God’s Kingdom is different than anything they’ve experienced.
If you listen closely, as Jesus grows, you’ll hear Mary’s joy in his life too. This woman who was as courageous as St. Francis, as determined as Joan of Arc, as revolutionary as Martin Luther King, Jr. , as loving as Mother Theresa, birthed the one who was the reason all of those others were who they were. And in Jesus’ preaching we hear echoes of his mother’s song as he proclaims release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, the lifting up of the lowly. And it is to be our song too— a song of good news for all people, a song of great joy— for God is still coming, is still being birthed, is still calling to each one of us to be part of the story of faith, to be part of the Kingdom of God; to trust in God’s promises, finding refuge and joy in the one who has given us life.
So I will say to you, church: Greetings, favored ones. The Lord is with you and intends to do great things through you. The Holy Spirit will come upon you, guide you, and work through you to care for this world and people God loves so much. For nothing is impossible with God.
workingpreacher.org, specifically Karoline Lewis’ article and David Lose’s article Interpretation, “Book of Luke”, Fred Craddock “What Joy is This?” by Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap; Christian Century, December 6, 2017 All I Really Want: Readings for a Modern Christmas by Quinn G. Caldwell