The Love of God: Luke 1:39-55
Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Luke, where we just were reading, in chapter 1. A beautiful passage.
Here we are at the end of the year. How did that happen? Annie and I have been married for eleven years, my son’s a year older. I’m in my mid-thirties, I’ve been at this church for two years. When did all of that happen? Teach us, O Lord, “to number our days, so we might get a heart of wisdom. Return, O Lord, how long?”
According to the church calendar, advent begins the new year. I didn’t grow up with the church calendar, so I’ve been discovering it over the past few years. I enjoy the thought of beginning each year of our lives with the celebration of the advent of Christ in our world. The birth of Jesus Christ into human history is only surpassed in importance in human history by his death in our place and resurrection, which marked the beginning of the new creation.
And speaking of creation, I’ve been talking with my son lately about the solar system. It started this way: we were in the car driving home from Fontainebleau park and it was already getting dark. He can’t tell time yet, so his only metric for time is the sun, and he thanked us for letting him stay out so late, to which my wife replied that it wasn’t even dinnertime yet, the days are just short this time of year.
He considered this for a moment, and then he asked how a day could become shorter or longer, and who had this incredible power to lengthen and shorten days. The question sounds profound and theological if you don’t know my son well, but I’m pretty sure he was trying to figure out how he might acquire this power and subsequently never have to sleep again. My wife, who is actually a scientist, a speech pathologist, has decided that my teaching high school science for like a year and a half means she’s able to refer all science questions to me to explain. She tells me she’s specialized, that she will answer all mouth or throat related questions he asks.
So I’ve been talking to my son lately about the solar system. I told him about the earth going round the sun on a tilted axis, and every time the earth completes it’s course, that’s a full year. The sun travels, each year, about 584 million miles according to the internet. When I taught high school I would teach the difference between distance and displacement. Distance is how far you’ve traveled, and displacement is how far you are from your starting point. So in relation to the Sun, each year the distance we travel is about 584 million miles, plus however far you’ve walked or driven, I suppose. And yet, our displacement is pretty much zero. Each year, we come right back to where we started.
So by one metric, we’ve come further than we’ve ever thought possible, we ever could have imagined, and by another, we’ve not moved at all. Does it make sense to say I feel both of those things? This is, in my mind, a word God speaks to us through creation each year, over and over again, that no matter how much time and space separates us from the event of Jesus’ birth to Mary so long ago, we’re actually in the midst of it. By one metric you might claim activity and progress as humanity, but in more important ways, we’ve not moved on at all from this event. We come back to it as a church every year at the beginning of the year, because the advent is just as central to our world today as it was central to the lives of Mary and Elizabeth and John and Zechariah and Joseph. Today Christ has come, and today we celebrate, we prepare the way, we worship in humility and praise God for the great miracle of the messiah, of God with us, Jesus Christ, our Lord and savior at long last come.
Read with me again, Luke 1:39-55. […] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
Well, I already taught some science, now I’m going to teach some history—we’re going to do a little ten-minute historical theology class here. When I was in seminary, one of my professors was writing a book on an early church doctrine called the economic work of the Trinity. The economic work of the Trinity. From what I can tell, the doctrine seems to begin in the thought and work of Athanasius of Alexandria, who together with the real Santa Clause, Nicholas of Myra and others, worked throughout their lives, using the doctrine of the economic work, to uphold the divinity of Jesus in a time when the divinity of Christ was broadly questioned. As in our world now, Jesus was thought of as a good man, perhaps, a teacher, even a miracle worker, but not divine.
The fruit of their work is preserved today in the words of the Nicene Creed: “true God from true God, begotten, not made…” At the council of Nicea where the creed was created, jolly ole’ St. Nick got so angry that he punched the leader of the opposition in the face right there in the middle of the council. Violence. Just something to think about before you set out milk and cookies. Make sure you know who you’re letting into your homes.
The economic work of the Trinity. The word economic here has less to do with the economy and government and more to do with home economics—you know, like home ec. class, where you would learn to cook and clean and sew and otherwise manage a household. That’s the original meaning of the word economics—managing, having a plan for your family and working it out in the day to day.
Paul first applies the word to God. He says, in Ephesians 3, that not only has God made a plan of salvation for his household, to save us, his adopted children—but he is managing it, working it out day by day. He says that God’s work in the world is an economic work, and we are a part of it, all of us in the church, the whole family working according to the plan of our father toward the single end of salvation.
In my family, we have certain phrases we say over and over again, ritually. They help define who we are as a family, just as our church rituals define us as a family. One of our phrases is “team Brian.” We usually shout it, “team Brian!” It’s our way of reminding ourselves to act economically, together toward a single end. It’s our way of saying that we may have different roles in what we do as a family, but we’re all working together towards the same ends. Our approach to major decisions, for example, has always been economic. A recent example is how we talked with our son before we opened our home again to foster care and explained that he would have to be a brother to any child we parented. We can’t be foster parents without him being a foster brother. That’s impossible. His role is different than ours, but he’s a part of the economic work of fostering.
When we started giving our son an allowance last year, too, we explained that his allowance wasn’t going to be dependent on any action of his—he has chores he does, of course, but we told him chores are things you do to allow our family to operate day to day. We told him we give him an allowance because he’s part of our family, and whatever I or my wife make doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to team Brian, and we all have a role in deciding how to spend it. He then asked for all of our family’s money to spend on toys, and I explained it’s requests like that which motivate me to limit his role in spending decisions.
But hopefully you can see what Athanasius means by describing the work of the Trinity as economic—there’s one goal and one plan, which Paul says is salvation, the coming of the kingdom of God—and God is economically working toward that end. Each person in the Trinity has a role, and the roles may look different, but the work is unified and the will of God is one.
In families, it’s always healthy when each member of the family is able to recognize and to appreciate the role of each other person. I’m only able to pastor this church, for example, because my wife agreed to take on more of the work of our household, and provides emotional support for me in this role. I wouldn’t be able to do this without her, not healthfully.
In churches today, we tend not to talk a lot about the Trinity, because it touches on the great mystery of our infinite God, and it’s easier just to remember that we worship and serve the one living God perfectly imaged in Christ. I have a suspicion most people are at least a little confused about Trinity and don’t want to say the wrong thing and have Santa Claus turn against them, that sort of thing. But I find the doctrine of the economic work of the Trinity beneficial in understanding God’s work in these major points of history—the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ. It’s healthy, spiritually, to be able to see and appreciate the role of each person.
I say all of that to explain the question I want to ask and answer for the rest of our time this morning. In advent, we remember the coming of God, Jesus, the son, to live among his people, but Jesus is not acting in this without the Father or Holy Spirit. In fact, if you’re looking closely in the gospels surrounding the birth of Christ, especially in Luke, the Spirit and the Father are all over the place. Each person of the Trinity has a special role in economically working toward the incarnation and the salvation of humanity, and I want to spend the rest of my time looking closely at the Trinity’s economic work in the advent of Christ.
Because at the heart of our passage, there’s a story of the love of God, what his love is like, what we are like because he loves us. “God loved the world in this way: he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him won’t perish, but will have life in eternity.”
Our passage this morning, in Luke’s account, comes immediately after Gabriel tells Mary she will miraculously conceive a child. But Mary is not the only one who experiences a miraculous conception in this first chapter of the gospel of Luke. Notice, Elizabeth’s pregnancy is also miraculous. Mary, because she was too young, and a virgin, and Elizabeth because she was too old. The Holy Spirit, scripture tells us, causes both women miraculously to conceive.
I want you to notice another connection between Elizabeth and Mary, one that the original readers would have seen immediately but one we miss in our day and age. Mary and Elizabeth are both experiencing shame in this. Mary, because she was not married and yet bore a child, and Elizabeth, because she had been barren until now. Shame is, in many ways, what brings them together.
And when I say shame, I mean it in the Biblical sense, not that they’ve done anything wrong, but that the people around them look down on them. It may help to think about it in our context. Think about how parents will tell their children, in our time, you’re running out of time. Settle down already and have a family. In our society it looks like pressure and expectation. For Elizabeth it would have looked like exclusion, the family being discredited, everyone assuming something must be wrong with her, or him, or the marriage.
I spent my middle and high school years in a small town in Tennessee, and I saw there the kind of shame Mary was experiencing. A girl you knew would disappear from school, and about a week later, people would notice and the conversations would start about how she’s pregnant and her parents sent her to her cousin’s house to “benefit from a new environment.” People would say things like, “well, at least she didn’t get an abortion,” or “she was always kind of asking for it, so it makes sense.” That’s shame.
Luke just goes straight from Gabriel to Elizabeth, because in Roman culture no one would have cared about whether or not a woman was married, and the book of Luke is written to a Roman audience. But in Mary’s town, among Jewish people, everyone would have cared. Matthew, writing to a Jewish audience, gives us a glimpse into what everyone assumed: he writes, when Mary disappears to her cousin’s house for three months, everyone thought Joseph merciful when he decided to divorce her and not tell anyone, break off the betrothal, rather than going after her, stoning her as the law would have allowed, killing her as an adulteress for the sake of his honor.
When Gabriel comes to Mary and tells her she’s going to conceive, Mary would have been living still in her father’s home, but we have no mention of her parents in any of the gospels. Luke just says “she went with haste into the hill country.” Very strangely, she seems to be making this journey on her own. The ancient version of disappearing from school. Matthew tells us that Joseph took her into his home after she came home from Elizabeth’s house, and they leave town, not to return for years.
When you focus on what people are doing in the story, it’s tragic. And I want you to see, that’s true of any story. If you focus on what people are doing in the world, the story is tragedy. But if you are able to see what God is doing in any specific situation, tragedy turns to laughter and beauty.
You have to wonder how Mary thought she would be greeted by Elizabeth. She went with haste, Luke tells us, so there’s probably no warning that Mary was coming, just a young girl, pregnant, showing up at her relative’s house without anywhere else to go and without any warning. How would she explain herself? Would Zechariah even let her inside? Would they assume what everyone else assumed? Would they even listen to her story?
I imagine Mary spending the whole journey praying, praying that one person in her life would believe her, would see this child for what he is, would understand that far from acting shamefully, Mary is really in the center of God’s plan of salvation.
The role of Christ Jesus, the son, in the advent is where we usually place our focus, and rightly so. In our passage, he is in the womb still, and already he is turning the world upside down, restoring and recreating the earth. He is the one who “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” In him all of the promises of God find their fulfillment. Jesus is the one who left his throne for us. Who gave up everything for our sake, who commands the hosts of heaven and yet became a child. Not just any child, a despised child. One his grandparents didn’t want, one his dad was ashamed of at first. Jesus didn’t just enter into the world, he entered into the deepest darkness of this world—to be a light in the midst of it. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
I would invite you to believe in Christ, the son. To let his light shine on you, not just so you can see Christ’s light, but so “by [his light] you can see everything else.” I pray you would trust him for salvation, forgiveness of your sins, to allow him to turn your shame into joy.
And I also want you to see the work of the Holy Spirit in the advent of Christ. If I can sum up the Spirit’s work at the advent, I would say the Holy Spirit is preparing the way. Not only does the Spirit prepare the way in the sense of the miracles of these two conceptions, but also when Elizabeth first sees Mary, Luke says God, the Holy Spirit, fills her with joy, and she greets Mary by calling her blessed. I’m guessing it was the first kind word Mary had heard for weeks. “Blessed are you, Mary, of all women, and blessed is your child.” She calls Jesus Lord; Elizabeth and Mary, two women everyone else has assumed God has cursed, are the first two people to know and believe the salvation of God, because of the work of the Spirit in her.
The Holy Spirit, we’re told in our passage, also fills Elizabeth’s child from this moment, and his whole life is lived preparing the way of Christ.
I would invite you to allow the Holy Spirit to prepare the way in your heart today so you could see the coming of Christ into the world rightly. That you would know Jesus, our Lord and God, is come to save us. That you would pray to God, the Spirit, and ask him to fill you just as the Spirit filled Elizabeth, together with great joy.
And lastly, I want you to see the work of the Father in the advent, and if I had to sum up the role of the Father in the advent I would say the Father’s role is celebration and rejoicing. In every account of the advent of Jesus into humanity, it seems God is bursting at the seams with laughter and joy, and everyone who is involved in the story is filled with the father’s celebration and laughter and rejoicing.
Mary, sent away from her parents in shame and walking for miles into uncertainty is filled with rejoicing she says, because of God, her savior. All of heaven, too, it seems, is uncontainably celebrating, it’s overflowing from the Father, himself, and the angels, the messengers of the Father seem to have one word on their lips, over and over again: behold. Look! Do you see? Do you see salvation come? Finally! He’s here. My son, and I’m well pleased, so happy with him.
The angels of heaven have already broken out into song, and Mary joins them—Mary and Elizabeth, and since we still live through this pivotal moment in time, we can join the chorus. God’s done it! All the things he always said he would do. All of his promises. Look! Behold. Do you see?
And it may seem silly to talk about the Father’s role being celebration, but that’s only because we’ve forgotten how powerful celebration is, how much celebration can do in the world. God is constantly celebrating things that otherwise would go unseen. That otherwise would seem shameful. We’re always forgetting to celebrate things like raising a child, caring for a loved one, serving a meal, welcoming a young woman who can’t go home. But God sees it, and he rejoices.
Celebration is powerful. With our son, for instance, one of my roles in his life is celebration. It’s vital. My celebrating him, telling him I’m proud of him and I’m pleased with him, is the difference between a child growing up thinking he has to earn his parents’ approval and one who grows up confident of grace and forgiveness. Celebration changes the course of people’s lives, and here, at the advent, the Father’s celebration changes the course of the world. The Father’s celebration at the advent of Christ causes the kingdom to break through, the stars to realign, lets the whole world know what’s happened. Celebration was created by God before the history of the earth for this moment to be known in full.
This year, at Christmas, I want to invite you into the celebration of the Father, celebration that causes light to shine in darkness, that changes the course of the world. Celebration that fills our lives and lungs and causes us to sing together with the angels about the glory of God.
And in the three persons of the Trinity at the advent, we see the fullness of the love of God. His love is one that empties itself for the sake of the beloved. That leaves everything and goes to her. It’s a love that saves, a love that prepares a way and follows through on promises. A love that rejoices and turns shame into gladness. A love that sings and overflows. A love that can be shared with everyone around you.
Rejoice and be glad, allow the Spirit to prepare the way in your life for the coming of Christ our King. Amen.