by Ellen Sims
text: Luke 1:26-56
Last month in the court of public opinion, state auditor Jim Zeigler was convicted of interpreting the Bible without a license and referencing the Bible while under the influence of Roy Moore. At least, that’s what I’d charge him with. Zeigler argued that it was perfectly fine if Roy Moore “dated” girls 14- to 17-years of age when he was a 30-something-year-old Assistant D.A. because Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, had married a young teenager named Mary. I quote Zeigler now: “Take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus . . . There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual.”
Yes, just before Advent a public official in Alabama defended Moore from multiple credible allegations of sexual harassment, abuse of power, and pedophilia not by denying the allegations but by comparing Moore’s pursuit of teenage girls to Joseph’s protection of his betrothed. There’s too much ignorance in Zeigler’s comment for me to unpack now. But in a way I’m especially bothered that Zeigler implies Moore is no different from the Bible’s privileged patriarchs.
Because there’s a bit of truth in that analogy. You see, the Bible does normalize patriarchy at times. Many stories in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament seem to normalize aggression toward and disempowerment of women. The Bible is a product of patriarchal cultures. To condemn patriarchy, by the way, is not to condemn men or say that all men support patriarchy or that women are immune to sins of violence and domination. To critique patriarchy is, instead, a criticism of societies and systems in which men generally hold the power and women are deprived of power. The cultures that contributed to the Bible imagined God as the Chief Patriarch—the father of all fathers. If there are biases and limited viewpoints in scripture—as there are in all human expressions—then we take that bias into consideration when we read the Bible and try to apply it to our contexts—and call out anti-women scriptures.
Of course, Christian scripture sometimes celebrates strong women. Jesus, who was counter-cultural, is key to understanding that God’s upside down Kingdom is not about domination and force and rules but rather about sacrificial love and nonviolence and grace. Luke’s Gospel, from which we read this morning and will read from again tonight, often lifts up the women, which was rare in Jesus’ day.
In today’s particular story, Joseph, upon learning Mary was pregnant, rejected his culture’s scapegoating of women and risked his own reputation to remain engaged to her. Luke’s nativity story not only honors Joseph’s devotion to Mary but, unlike Matthew’s version, focuses on Mary’s role as well as Elizabeth’s while de-emphasizing Joseph. This story of Jesus’s lowly birth, which begins even before he was conceived, offered hope to others living on the margins. In the patriarchal culture of 1st C. Palestine, Luke was stressing that Jesus was born to a woman who was, to borrow a current phrase, part of the resistance, judging by her defiant song we call the Magnificat. The setting for it which we sang earlier reminds me of the militant melody in the musical Les Miserables. (Mentally sub in the phrase “angry mothers” for “angry men” here to recognize that Mary’s “Magnifcat” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?” are part of the same musical genre):
Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the songs of angry men?
It is the music of the people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!
Songs of the resistance! There was a life about to start when Mary sang confidently, defiantly: “Magnificat anima mea.”
I want you to forget Mary as the helpless, hapless mother of Jesus. Get her out of your mind. I want you to hear raw courage in the defiant voice of a young woman living under Roman military occupation. She is singing a subversive song. In it she “magnifies” a God who “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, has lifted up the lowly,” “has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
These are dangerous words. I want you to imagine Mary eventually singing this song to the baby she would birth and nurse and instruct and raise to manhood. Surely Mary shaped her child’s understandings of the world. When my daughter took her infant daughter to Nashville’s “Women’s March,” and when she later dressed her baby in a onesie that read “#resist” she was laying a foundation for her child to lift up “the least” and love extravagantly.
Advent hope, peace, and joy have been pointing all along to the advent of love, the coming of love into the world in a particular way through the birth of Jesus and his life and self-giving death and amazing life eternal in union with God. Jesus followers see in him the law above all laws, the greatest and most enduring reality according to Paul: love. It’s only through the way of love that we have any hope of hope or peace or joy.
The powerful patriarchs in ancient and modern societies know nothing of real love when they pursue young women who cannot offer genuine consent . . . when they gratify themselves through force and threat and deceit . . . when they profess their concern for the people but govern in a way that beats down those they govern.
Real love does not take advantage of the vulnerable. When we watch for God’s powerfully loving actions at work in the world, we notice that God favors childless women and persistent men maintaining hope in the future, and the lowly who are not afraid of the powerful, and the peacemakers and merciful ones who will usher in God’s kin*dom. God’s love runs against the current of oppression.
Can the loving way of Jesus disrupt and reform destructive systems of power the likes of which Mary named? Theologian John F. Haught describes how evolution makes possible a more compassionate future for the vulnerable ones like Mary, mother of Jesus, and the oppressed ones she championed. The power of this force called love comes from a God who may SEEM powerless because this God’s sole power is love.
If God is love, God’s power is love alone. Any other power operates against the freedom, selflessness, and invitational quality of love. That’s because real Love does not force itself on the beloved, does not pressure or compel or command. God’s power is exerted by invitation and attraction only. Which means God’s power is, according to some theologians, limited to love. Which can be an appealing concept to some. We want to love and be loved. But others may push back and say, “Hey, anyone can love. It’s not really POWERFUL. We’d really like God to intervene against our enemies and compel the universe to bend our way, right.”
Like Haught, who imagines God beckoning and alluring us to a more compassionate world, I, too, gave up the zapping God long ago. I’ve found more hope in love than in coercion. In process theology, God does not impose but invites, persuades, but doesn’t violate my freedom because real love cannot force, which implies at least a degree of violence. Since love cannot pressure or compel, God can’t MAKE you or me or an earthworm or a virus do anything. That’s good news and bad news. I’m glad I’m not a puppet with God pulling the strings. I’m sad that God’s not pulling the strings to make the people I deal with everyday and the people in power behave the way I’d like.
This unforced, uncoerced love also makes possible a world where there is chance and choice. According to Haught, if God loves the world “with an unbounded love, then God’s grace must . . . mean letting the world be itself.” If we truly love our children, our partners, our friends, we love them enough to give them freedom for self-definition and a certain independence. If God doesn’t dictate specific actions in the universe, then “accidents” (genetic mutations, for instance) can sometimes lead to advances and sometimes can lead to problems or deadends. Evolution (another name for the ongoingness of creation) relies on variation so something new can happen. And that means the end to some things is also going to happen. The God of evolution has to permit losses. This kind of God is self-emptying, self-sacrificial, a God we see best in Jesus. But that doesn’t mean God is passive. On the contrary, love can be a force that stems the tide of violence, that reroutes the flow of hate.
I meet in Jesus, especially in Luke’s opening chapter of his Jesus biography, a God who is as vulnerable as a baby, which means this God doesn’t go around smiting my enemies and finding me a parking place when I’m running late for an appointment. I sort of miss that God sometimes.
But the vulnerable, non-coercive, freedom-granting God I recognize not only in Jesus but in the sweep of chancy evolution uses the most underestimated and underused power in the world: love. I suppose Love’s power is under-rated because it just has not yet been FULLY deployed. And because it is HARD, so very hard, to rely so fully on that power. And because the power of domination is far more convincing. Besides, the power of force/violence/coercion/ strength/certainty/control is what the majority culture admires.
Oh, we say we admire the underdogs like Mary and her baby. But culture’s underdogs (like Clark Kent) are popular only because they eventually reveal their superhero identity and super powers. With rare exception, the “save the world” epics resort to some form of violence. But the persistent flow of compassion is the only power that can overcome domination without devolving into the very power we would oppose.
It is the loving God of Mary, peasant mother of a fatherless child, who is going to save this world. God is always in the process of saving us through chancy, evolutionary, and revolutionary love.
And God’s love has a communal reach. It’s a love not just for those closest to us but to people some might consider our enemies. How odd is Mary’s response to the news that she, a virgin, will become pregnant and will bear a son. She is at great risk of social ostracism and possibly worse, but Mary places her people’s future ahead of her own predicament. So she sings a song of hope for her people.
It’s when we recognize that our futures are all bound up together that we can love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. We will not make the next evolutionary leap until we take up the great spiritual challenge: to recognize fully that we are all one. The truth that will save us is this: what happens to you, happens to me. A fulsome, mature love will usher in God’s Kin*dom and save this earth. We resist the powers that be with the anti-power of Love.
PRAYER: We sing each advent this prayer: “O Come to us, abide with us, our God, Emmanuel.” But already that prayer is reality. Christ Jesus shows us a God-lit life of eternal love. Let us now rest trustfully in Love and be a conduit for that Love. Amen.
Haught, John F. God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000.