Toorak Uniting Church

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Cartwheels in the womb

Luke 1: 39 – 45   Genesis 18: 1 – 15
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
12 December 2004

May I speak in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Over the last two weeks we have been exploring the stories that precede the story of the birth of Jesus in the gospel of Luke. On the first Sunday of advent we read the story of the annunciation, of an ordinary girl called Mary receiving a visit from an angel telling her that she would get pregnant with a son who would change the course of history. We heard how she accepted that promise with some hesitancy. Last week we left Zechariah dumbfounded after he also received a visit of an angel promising him that he would get a son who would be a great prophet.
There is a lot of coming and going of heavenly messengers it seems, in Luke’s story, and later on, in the fields of Ephrata there will be a whole host of them, announcing the birth of Mary’s Son. But that’s the finale of Luke’s birth story, this is only the prelude to that finale, setting the scene, preparing us for the good news the heavenly host will bring later on, for the coming of the saviour.

And before we get any further into the story: Let us be clear that it is a story we are talking about. The stuff of legends, put together by Luke in such a way that he not only hands on traditions that were most probably already in existence, but shaping those traditions, those bits and pieces in such a way that they form a worth while introduction to the gospel as a whole and are a good prologue to the message of Him who the gospel is all about: Jesus Christ.

In the passage we read this Sunday two women take centre stage: Mary and Elizabeth. Mary the young and unmarried girl who finds herself pregnant unexpectedly and Elizabeth, the elderly woman who’d given up hope of ever producing offspring also finding herself pregnant unexpectedly.
Two women in a situation that can’t have been easy for either of them. Unmarried and pregnant, too old to be pregnant, I am sure the village gossips were having a lovely time in both cases!

Anyway. Mary after she has received the message of the angel and accepted it with an open heart and open hands hurries over the hills of Judea to visit her relative Elizabeth.
We hear echo’s here of that text from Isaiah so wonderfully put to music in Handel’s Messiah: How beautiful are the feet of those…… Mary the very first carrier of the good tidings of Christmas: the coming of the saviour.

As with Easter also with Christmas, according to Luke, it is the women who become the first heralds of the dawning of the New Age, the first witnesses, the first to see and believe, the first to proclaim the gospel.

Mary hurrying across the hills, burning with the news, hardly able to contain herself. In that one sentence there is a lot of energy, of movement, of intense involvement in what is happening. As soon as Mary has received and accepted the promise given to her by the angel the story accelerates it seems, and things start to happen, the Holy Spirit starts to move.
Which is the more remarkable if we compare it to the slow and very secondary reaction of Zechariah, who after the visit of the angel first finishes his duties in the temple and then returns home at his leisure.

An intensity and energy that reaches beyond ordinary boundaries: The child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps at the sound of Mary’s greeting. Even in the womb it seems does this prophet know the Lord has come. Even in the womb, as the angel told his father, the Holy Spirit is upon him and the deeper truth of God revealed to him. Cartwheels for joy is what baby John does inside his mothers tummy when Mary’s Son gets near. He knows, even then, somehow what Jesus is already communicates itself even before his birth. Amazing and very powerful stuff. Echoing the prologue of John’s gospel where similar things are said with different words: He was with God and God was with him from before creation.

Immediately mother Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit too, and it is hard to imagine she wouldn’t be with the child moving around inside her like that.
Blessed are you, and blessed the child you will bear, who am I that the mother of my Lord comes to me……
And the turning upside down of the existing order Luke will so fervently talk about all through his gospel as one of the main consequences of Jesus mission starts here and now: The older bows to the younger, the first puts herself in last position, the Holy Spirit working and speaking through babes and old women first. Another prophecy fulfilled.

The whole story, from beginning to end interspersed with the Greek word egeneto, a word that is used in Genesis 1 to introduce every new action of God when creating the world. Suggesting that there is some major creating going on here, through these two women, in this leaping unborn child, inside the girl whose greeting calls the Holy Spirit into action in both the very young (how much younger can you get?) and the very old. A new creation has started, even before the last of the great prophets and the first of the new dawn have left the womb. John, part of the old testament tradition, son of a priest and a daughter of a priest, bringing together in one person the traditions of the old testament prophets: The camel coat, the locusts, the long hair, the non shaven face and the harsh and confronting words to his contemporaries. And Jesus, the first born of a new era, not conforming to the status quo from the start, bringing shame upon his mother even before birth, turning the existing order of things upside down, even as a babe in the womb, but so powerful, so profound that John, in his mother’s womb can do no other than react to it with joy.

And Mary sings, of that reversal of the existing order, of the proud being scattered, of the mighty kings brought down from their thrones, and of the lifting up of the lowly, of the filling of the hungry with good things. A song so subversive and revolutionary that the Tsars apparently forbid it being sung in Church. Mary proving herself a worthy mother for the Messiah, not only able to submit herself to God, but also able to stand up and speak words so strong they frightened the mighty centuries down the track.
A young and lovely girl, but also a powerful unyielding woman this Mary, most blessed of all women.

Now what with the story of Abraham? Why did I put it alongside this very powerful story of those two women meeting? Didn’t we have enough angels already? Wasn’t there enough miraculous goings on as it was? Why put the story of the three visitors and the promise to Abraham and Sarah in there as well?

I must say that I wondered about that once I’d started writing the sermon. How in the world was I going to bring it together? Well very simple: In the opening up of Mary and subsequently the open arms of Elizabeth there is an echo of the open arms with which Abraham receives his three heavenly guests and the promise they bring him. And it is that promise, that was made all those centuries ago that will come to its final fruition in the two children those two women are carrying inside them.

In the story of Abraham as in the first chapter of Luke the promise is met with unbelief. The laughter of Sarah and the questioning of Zechariah echoing through the ages wherever God’s promise is announced: But how can that be? And yet: where God comes to visit history alters its course, and the Spirit starts to move.

And it is there I think we find our point of connection, here this morning, sharing communion together, receiving God’s promise that in Christ another world will take shape, a world where bread and wine is shared in community and peace given regardless of who and what we are outside this church in the world. What Mary sung about happening, just for a moment, when we gather around the table as the body of Christ.

Some will laugh at that image, as Sarah did: It’s nothing, 10 minutes of pretence, at the most. Or shake their heads like Zechariah did: how can this come true? We’re old, we’re past it, there is nothing much that can be expected of us Kingdom wise. But others will get the fatted calf out and start to celebrate as Abraham, and say: Would anything be too hard for the Lord? Or they might take over the hymn Mary sung and make it their battle cry: Lift up the lowly, fill the hungry, cast down the mighty!

Let our meal together be as open as the hospitality of Abraham, drawing others in, as the image on the icon does, inviting others to become part of that wonderful promise that has called on people through the ages to become God’s people. Let it be as charged with expectancy and excitement as Elizabeth’s warm and enthusiastic greeting to Mary. Let the Holy Spirit be doing cartwheels in our tummies while we praise God’s name and receive the tangible symbols of his promise.

And if we can’t feel that way today, let the fact that both Zechariah and Sarah caught up in the end be a comfort to us. There is a place for everybody in God’s story of salvation. For those who hesitate and need their time like Zechariah and for those who gladly accept and get going straight away like Mary, for those who can only laugh at so much foolishness like Sarah and those who put words to God’s dreams that are deemed dangerous by the powerful on their thrones like Mary. There is a place for those who thought their use by date had long since passed and for those who are only just conceived.
All of us part of that great recreating that is going on since Jesus came and showed us how. Amen.
Reading the Magnificat….

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2004


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