Friday, December 28, 2018

Miracles at the Gate: The Conversation between Elizabeth and Mary in Luke 1:39-56 [1]

In a small, probably one room, cottage, two women met, one probably in her teens, the other well past menopause, at least 50 years difference in age. Animals were standing and sleeping in one part of the room too. The smell of olive oil was all around them. A lighted oil lamp was in the corner and some stools to sit on.[2]
At the very entrance of this cottage, Mary stood after having traveled about 3-4 days up the hills of Judah, saying something like: “Peace be with you, kinswoman Elizabeth.
And, as Elizabeth heard Mary at the door, two people were filled with the Holy Spirit: the unborn baby John and Elizabeth.
Sometimes pregnant woman can feel the baby move in the womb. For example, do you remember how Rebekah felt— two babies leaped within her, when she was about to bear Esau and Jacob? (Gen. 25:22). She found it agonizing!
But the angel Gabriel had warned Zechariah that the child he and Elizabeth would have would be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth (1:15). Thus, it was the Holy Spirit who communicated to the unborn fetus in Elizabeth’s womb that caused the baby to leap or spring about. This is what young calves do in the grass when they leave the stall (Jer 50:11; Mal 4:2; Ps 114:4, 6). And, when the baby was filled with the Holy Spirit, so too was Elizabeth filled with the Holy Spirit.
 The picture above is an unborn baby between 6-7 months old, the same age as John the Baptist. At 6 months the fetus’s immune system starts to develop and the baby has reflexes of seizing & wincing. At 7 months the eyes begin to open & the baby can cry. The fetus is very agile. The movements become considerably noticeable and the baby starts using legs & hand muscles. The baby is active and also still, can cough or hiccup and even see by the 28th week. The appearance and behavior of a baby at the end of the 6th month fully corresponds with the way the baby is at birth. The baby can distinguish the timbre of Mom’s voice & tunes and react to music and sharp sounds. The embryo can open its mouth. Thought begins at 7 months.[3]
The embryo John may have heard Mary’s greeting and he leaped in joy in Elizabeth’s womb. The Holy Spirit helped John, even as an unborn child, proclaim Jesus as Messiah (Luke 1:15).
Once our family all asked ourselves what is the earliest experience we remember. I remember some experiences before I began kindergarten, in the Dominican Republic, our school called it “Funtolearn”— that was one word! I remember that in Sunday school, we were studying Abraham and David and I thought, “I wish we could learn more about Jesus because there is something very attractive and important about Jesus that I want to learn more about.” Not till many years later did I get my answer. Jesus is God incarnate who loves us. I still find Jesus attractive and important!
At that time, we asked our son what he remembered. He said he remembered seeing lights and someone holding him and then someone took him away and he cried. Then he was brought back to that person who held him again.
The only time all that happened was when Steve was born. We did the Lamaze method where soft lights were used at birth. After birth, the nurses gave Steve to his dad, Bill, to hold, but when the nurses took him into another room to weigh him—he cried—and then they brought him back quickly to Bill to hold him again. They did it so quickly, they may have erred on his initial weight!
So, unborn babies may be much more advanced than we may imagine. John’s reactions were heightened by the Holy Spirit.
Then, Elizabeth shouted out with a great loud voice: “being blessed are you [Mary] among women and being blessed is the fruit of your womb!”[4]  Mary was blessed because of the child that she was bearing.
Elizabeth added: “and why has this happened to me that the mother of my Lord might come to me? For behold, as the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the child in my womb leaped in joy” (1:43-44).
What a conversation!
What miracles at the very entrance, in the midst of such a humble setting!
The Holy Spirit gave Elizabeth a phenomenal perception. She recognized the unborn child that Mary was carrying as the Lord God! She perceived that this child would be a great blessing to others!
And she was not jealous. “Why should this young girl’s child be greater than my own child?!” She was told that her child would: bring them joy and gladness, and many would rejoice at his birth, for he would be great in the sight of the Lord. He must not drink wine or strong drink because he would be filled with the Holy Spirit. (The Holy Spirit and intoxication do not mix!) This child would turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. The spirit and power of Elijah would go before him, as Malachi predicted (4:5-6), in order to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. That is what she had heard from her husband Zechariah.
Elizabeth certainly was different from the mother who stole another woman’s baby when her own died and was willing to have the baby cut in two, when King Solomon suggested this action as one way to discover the child’s real mother (1 Kings 3:16-27).
Elizabeth was so humble that she was surprised that Mary even came to visit her. Mary may have had to sleep in the open air as she traveled. Travelers were often in danger of robbery or assault. In the hills of Judaea lurked unemployed shepherds, beggars, mercenaries, escaped slaves, fanatical political killers, and other bandits.[5]
And then Elizabeth uttered what some[6] have called the first beatitude: “Blessed is the one having believed that there will be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (1:45). ¿How did Elizabeth know that the Lord spoke to Mary? There was no internet or telephone with which Mary could have in minutes or seconds text-messaged what had happened to her: “Liz, angel told me I will bear Son of God—coming soon! Mary.” Plus, who could have believed such a message??
When Mary heard that Elizabeth was 6 months pregnant, she left in a rush to see her so that she could be there when the pregnancy became self-evident and she would then spend 3 months with her and be present when Elizabeth’s baby was born (1:36).
Moreover, Mary may have wanted to leave her hometown of Nazareth. Joseph might not be the only person with doubts about the parentage of Mary’s baby.
What a different reception Mary got from Elizabeth! Somehow the Holy Spirit gave Elizabeth comprehension of what was promised to Mary:
“she would conceive and bear a son and would name him Jesus.
32 He 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.
33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
“The Holy Spirit will come upon Mary, and the power of the Most High will overshadow her; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.
36 Moreover, her relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren” (1:32-33; 35-36 NRSV paraphrased).
Elizabeth also knew that Mary had answered: “Behold! The Lord’s slave! Let it be with me according to your word” (1:38).
Did Elizabeth remember that there are at least two prophecies in the Old Testament about Mary, both around the same time? Isaiah told King Ahaz that “the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel” (Isa 7:14 TNIV).
God also told Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah and Hosea:
And you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, the smallest among thousands of Judah, from you—to me—shall go forth a ruler in Israel; and his origins are from ancient times, from eternity. Therefore, he will give them until the time when she who bears has brought forth; and the remainder of his fellow citizens will return with the children of Israel. And he shall stand, and shall feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God; and they will return because then he will be great unto the ends of the earth; and this one will be peace” (5:1-4a).
God told Micah about 700 years before Jesus’s birth where he would be born: Bethlehem, a small village in Judah, and that he would be a ruler in Israel whose origins are from eternity. “She who is in labor” refers, of course, to Mary (Mic 5:3).
The rest of Jesus’s fellow citizens “shall return” with the “children of Israel” (5:3) alludes also to John the Baptist’s ministry. Remember how Gabriel told Zechariah that “many of the people of Israel will [John] bring back to the Lord their God”? (1:16). John the Baptist was supposed to “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (1:17).
The Lord also told Micah that the Messiah “shall feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God” and he “shall be great to the ends of the earth and he shall be the one of peace” (5:4-5a). Jesus, of course, called himself “the good shepherd” who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11, 15, 17).
Why do I mention all this?
Many times we have heard of Mary’s beautiful responsive Magnificat where she shares her joy upon being used by the Lord and she identifies with all other humble people, including the hungry and the poor, those who fear God’s holy name (1:46-50), but we do not always appreciate, as well, Elizabeth. Elizabeth, too, was filled with the Holy Spirit.
She proclaimed the truth boldly.
She was humble and she was prophetic.
She would participate in fulfilling these great Old Testament prophecies in her own time.
1.     We too need, like Elizabeth, to share boldly this good news now with our own family and friends. For example, we can make sure the Bible is read before presents are opened;
2.     Also, Elizabeth and Mary model what great events can be accomplished in humble settings. (We do not need a million dollar grant to do God’s work!)
The Lord can work among us to accomplish great things today, as well, because the Holy Spirit is still amongst us, helping us;
3.     Finally, Elizabeth and Mary can model for us holy conversations between humble people: encouraging, perceptive, holy, people-centered conversations because God moves us, looking for God’s work in others’ lives and in our own lives too, glorifying and thanking God.
What did Elizabeth not do? She did not say: What, Mary, you just rode in on a donkey! Look—we have just bought ourselves a wagon on wheels so I can travel in style. You can’t afford a wagon on wheels??
How come you get to be the big shot around here?! I have served the Lord blamelessly more years than you can even imagine and what do I get? Second best! How come you get the Messiah and I simply get the forerunner??
How come you get to bear a child and you not even married yet and still a virgin and I had to wait, married and with a husband, till way past menopause and suffer through all the disgrace from my family and neighbors. They treated me like I was nobody! (1:25)
How come no angel ever came to speak to me! Zechariah gets an angel and he doesn’t even believe him! He asks Gabriel for a sign, as if finding an angel in the holy place of the temple isn’t sign enough! And you get an angel who speaks to you directly, but not me—everything is second rate for me!
No! This was not the conversation between Elizabeth and Mary! Mary sought Elizabeth out because Elizabeth was a righteous, humble and bold woman who believed.
It was Elizabeth who would not let them name her child in the traditional custom, after the father or grandfather. Some families still have this custom today. For example, Bill (William David Spencer) was named after his father (William Day Spencer) who was named after his own father (William Douglas Spencer).
Instead, Elizabeth insisted: “Absolutely not!” The baby must be called “John,” as the angel directed.
Her bold faith was then affirmed by her husband: “His name is John” (1:60-63).  
(By the way, “John” in Greek is iōánnēs and in Hebrew johanan. It means “God is gracious.” And God indeed was gracious to Zechariah and Elizabeth. God’s message to the Israelites through John was also a gracious message. If they repented, God would forgive them. Also, God was gracious to send Jesus through whom all could be forgiven.)
As a result of Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s testimony, all their friends and neighbors were filled with wonder and they spread the good news throughout the mountains.
I entitled the sermon: “Miracles at the Gate” because this happened at the gate, the entrance, to Elizabeth and Zechariah’s house.
“Miracles” because both Elizabeth & Mary had children through the Holy Spirit.
As well, their conversation was a miracle and a model for us today.
This gate was also a gate that opened up to the future, to God’s work among us, to the future coming of the Messiah: the forerunner John and the Messiah Jesus.
    May we too be able to bless other people as God works in their lives, even to accomplish greater things than we could ever do and affirm them as they believe in the Lord as he fulfills great things in their own lives. We can do this because the Lord is with us all and we each need the other.
Mary needed the loving and encouraging presence of Elizabeth, and Elizabeth needed the excitement of being present and participating at the culmination of prophecies hundreds of years in coming.
The angel Gabriel greeted Mary: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!” (1:28). The Lord was also with Elizabeth. And the Lord is with all of us today.
May we find favor with God by being obedient to our calling and by encouraging others in their calling. Amen!!

[1] This sermon was delivered at Pilgrim Church, 300 Cabot Street in Beverly, MA December 23, 2018.
[2] Henri Daniel-Rops, Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (Ann Arbor: Servant, 1962), 220-1, 226)
[4] The translations from the Greek and Hebrew are by the author.
[5] Henri Daniel-Rops, Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (Ann Arbor: Servant, 1962), 264.
[6] A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures of the New Testament vol. 2: The Gospel according to Luke, rev. Wesley J. Perschbacher (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005), 31.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

"How Long Can You Tread Water?" The "Drowning" of Bill Cosby

Image & quotations from "The Best of Bill Cosby" WS 1798 Warner Bros Records 1967

     When we were young, Bill Cosby was a positive force for encouragement and reconciliation. Growing up in a hyper-conservative church, coping with a spirit of marginalization that typified the us and them estrangement of fundamentalism, I and my peers found Bill Cosby’s borderline irreverent Noah routines startlingly refreshing.  His 1963-64 album Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow…Right!” included several comic dialogues between Noah and God that captured the humor often missing from sermons, but all too accurately portraying humanity in all its foibles, cleverly typifying our own struggles to be the people God wanted us to be, even though we were clearly not.  Being teenagers, my friends and I regularly amused and assailed each other with the payoff line of Noah’s snide reply to his puzzled neighbor about the purpose of this gigantic thing he’s building that’s spilling across his neighbor’s driveway: “How long can you tread water?” (“Noah: And the Neighbor”). In the final routine, “Noah: Me and You, Lord,” God fires back the same words to the exasperated Noah’s angry complaints and resistance to finish the project in obedience to God’s will, “How long can you tread water.?” Suddenly, amid the sound of crashing thunder and driving, a chastened Noah bleats, “Me and You, Lord – all the way!”
As is still true today, those were days of great tension between white and black people, as the trajectory arced from the white-entitlement resistance to the civil rights movement, through the murder of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to the responsive riots in many cities, including my birth city, Plainfield, New Jersey, where a policeman was stomped to death by an outraged crowd of citizens.  But Bill Cosby’s was a consistent voice of reconciliation in those years. 
Wikipedia notes, in its excellent entry, updated on September 30, 2018, the Sunday after Bill Cosby was incarcerated, that he remained a positive force for peacemaking: While many comics of the time were using the growing freedom of that decade to explore material that was controversial and sometimes risqué, Cosby was making his reputation with humorous recollections of his childhood. Many Americans wondered about the absence of race as a topic in Cosby's stories. As Cosby's success grew he had to defend his choice of material regularly; as he argued, ‘A white person listens to my act and he laughs and he thinks, “Yeah, that's the way I see it too.” Okay. He's white. I'm Negro. And we both see things the same way. That must mean that we are alike. Right? So I figure this way I'm doing as much for good race relations as the next guy.”[1][i]
When Aída and I were ministering in Newark, one of our most enjoyable times of snatching a little relaxation on a Saturday night was to join the mothers and babies, the young men and women on dates, the elderly residents and other neighbors, all of us squirreled away in small apartments, many crowded into walk-up efficiencies above the city stores, gathering together at the local theater to see the latest urban-oriented action movie. By the time we arrived, those who had been there all day were quoting the lines before the actors up on the screen did and hooting at their various pratfalls and foibles.  One of the best was Bill Cosby’s Let’s Do It Again, in which he co-starred with the distinguished actor Sidney Poitier.  VideoHound’s Golden Movie Retriever dismisses this film with the words, “Lesser sequel to ‘Uptown Saturday Night,’” and rates it with a mere bone and a half,[2] but that, I believe, is because their reviewer did not see the movie with an urban audience and so missed how exhilarating a movie it really is for its target crowd. A milkman and a factory worker on a mission for their lodge struggle with gangsters and all other comers by using completely non-violent tactics to succeed.  What a salutary message for 1975 – or any year!
That same spirit of reconciliation filled “The Cosby Show” (1984 and on), and its celebration of family, which, along with all his other prolific work, earned Bill Cosby numerous honors and Emmys and honorary degrees (besides his earned degrees, including a doctorate in education).
So what on earth happened?  How is it that this past week on Tuesday (September 25) he went to jail for three to ten years on three counts of “indecent assault” amid a host of allegations of drugging numerous young women with methaqualone (Quaaludes) and sexually assaulting them. How could this have happened over so many years to a person who worked so hard to promote a spirit of reconciliation in some of the modern United States’ most difficult times of estrangement? How could this public paragon of peace, end up being revealed as a private predator, destroying so many women’s lives? His crime was not a one-time event when someone gets drunk, inhibitions drop, he rapes someone, and sobers up horrified and repentant from then on. His pattern of sexual violence went on and on and on, year after year, victim after victim.  This was an addiction to violent assault and Bill Cosby became a permanent victim of his violent addiction.
In that way, his own life less paralleled Noah’s (who himself may appear to have had an addiction to alcohol [see Genesis 9:21]) and more paralleled that of King David, whose own sexual addiction (see 2 Samuel 5:13) escalated to his rape of Bathsheba  and murder of her husband (see 2 Samuel, chapter 11), a failing passed on to his heirs: Amnon, his first born, who violently raped his half-sister Tamar (2 Samuel 13:14-15), Absalom, who slept with his father’s ten concubines in order to steal the kingdom from him (2 Samuel  16:22), Solomon, his surviving heir, whose “seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines” “from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, ‘You must not intermarry with them,because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods…led him astray,” having “turned his heart after other gods” (2 Kings 11:1-4).  David’s, Amnon’s, Absalom’s, Solomon’s sexual weaknesses destroyed their rule and blighted their lives.
Addictions unchecked in private, lead to headlines like this in public: “The Bill Cosby Case: Glimpses of a Downfall” and “Bill Cosby, Once a Model of Fatherhood, Is Sentenced to Prison.” A reputation of honor so carefully constructed, destroyed at the end in a ruin of disgrace.
The lesson is obvious: an addiction, whether it be to criminal actions like rape and other instances of violent assault, child pornography, use of illegal drugs or even to such common and somewhat currently socially accepted yet predatory, invasive, and pernicious habits as use of soft  core pornography, marijuana, alcohol use to drunkenness, all undermine one’s well-being and ultimately threaten to destroy one’s health, positive image, and walk with God. If we don’t take effective steps to eliminate it, trying to live with an addiction is like trying to tread water as the sea of their consequences engulfs us.  It’s only a matter of time until we drown in it, for how long can we tread water?
Please see our video on Aída’s and my new novel, CAVE OF LITTLE FACES (Wipf and Stock), an uplifting adventure full of mystery and romance,

[2] Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale, 2005, 480