Dec 18th, We See God In Each Other, with Tyler McQuilkin
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Dec 18th: We See God In Each Other, with Tyler McQuilkin.
It’s always interesting to see the variety of characters and scripture that God uses for God’s holy purposes in the world, whether it was choosing Moses as a prophet and savior of Israel. And Moses lacked confidence in his ability to speak on God’s behalf and even asked God to choose someone else to free the Israelites from captivity or picking the young David as the King of Israel. David’s father, Jesse, had eight sons, and David was the youngest. And through the prophet Samuel, God said that there would be one from Jesse’s family that would become the anointed King of Israel after Jesse assumed one of his eldest sons would become the chosen king. But it was actually David, the youngest and unexpected, who was chosen as God’s servant and King of Israel.
Jesse had not expected his youngest to even be chosen, so he didn’t even invite David to the meeting. Or in the New Testament, we have the apostle Paul. Paul was the leader of the charge to persecute the earliest Christians, and he was known for going doortodoor and killing believers. He has his famous conversion on the road to Damascus and eventually becomes the leader of the Christian church around the Mediterranean Sea. So again, we have God working in unexpected ways by taking the leading persecutor of the early church and instead turning him into the leading apostle, church, planter and theologian of the early church.
And as we celebrate this Advent season, we have perhaps the most unexpected act of God that we will celebrate next week on Christmas Eve. We have this unexpected birth of Christ in the manger, the birth of Emmanuel, which means God with us. Or as one friend likes to put it, God in the VOD. In Christ, we see the love of God shining through to creation. Not only was the birth of Christ unexpected, but then the entire life of Christ up into his death continually startled his followers and the religious leaders at the time, because Jesus was regularly doing the complete opposite of what people expected the Messiah to do.
God loves to startle us with the unexpected. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the women in this story were two unexpected characters that played an important role in this Advent season. On the one hand, we have Elizabeth, who is said to be Baron. Her and her husband Zachariah do not have a child, and the text indicates that they do not expect to have any children because they are both, quote, getting on in years despite their age. The angel Gabriel visits with Zechariah and tells him that his prayers have been heard and that his wife Elizabeth will have a son and that they are to name him John, who eventually becomes John the Baptist.
Zachariah has a response that I imagine most of us would have doubt. Zachariah doubts the possibility of this because of their old age and their inability to have a child up to this point. But Elizabeth soon becomes pregnant and praises God because she has finally conceived a child. She doesn’t let her husband’s doubt affect her and instead celebrates this unexpected gift. And then the other character with in this story today with this unexpected life change is the young Mary.
Mary is probably a teenager and is engaged to Joseph. When Gabriel later comes to visit her, calling her the favored one, she is told by Gabriel that she will also bear a child who will be the son of God. Mary hears this call on her life to be the mother of Jesus and willingly calls herself the servant of the Lord, agreeing to this unexpected plan for her life. Now, these two unexpected encounters with Gabriel lead us to our scripture passage today when the two women finally see each other for the first time. Now, Mary’s unexpected pregnancy was quite the scandal at the time.
She was not married yet, so she quickly goes to the Judean countryside to see her relative Elizabeth. The two women are in the same situation of having unexpected pregnancies, but their circumstances couldn’t be more different. One has been waiting patiently to have a child. Elizabeth waited to the point of almost giving up because she was so far along in years that her and Zachariah did not think that she would be able to have a child. For her, motherhood is coming much too late for her and pregnancy has come as a great surprise to be this late in life and then the other Mary, a young virgin, thought that her first child would probably come much later in life.
For her, becoming a mother is a surprise that has come much earlier and much too early. Despite their different circumstances for their respective pregnancies, they have come together to participate in God’s work in the world as carriers and mothers of John the Baptist and Jesus. The Eastern Orthodox tradition calls Mary the Godbearer because she literally brought God into the world in Christ. So when Mary enters Elizabeth’s house, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps because he senses the holy presence of God through the Godbearer. Mary and the baby’s response to the Godbearer causes Elizabeth to respond to this divine encounter with praise.
I imagine we have a lot of Elizabeth’s and a lot of Marys out there today. Some of us might be like Elizabeth, waiting for a Godbearer to come through our door, while others might be more like Mary, looking for someone in need of God’s divine love to encounter and to bear that love to others. No matter where you find yourself as Elizabeth or as Mary, this desire for holy encounters and God bearing individuals is something I think we all agree the world could use more of. In her book The Godbearing Life, theologian Kenda Dean reminds us that God calls us to be Godbearers. To those around us, we are called to be Godbearers, though not God.
It is often so easy to make this mistake of confusing our Godbearing with being God or of being Christ. Instead of being Christ like as those called to be Godbearers, we have to ask, so what does the Godbearing life look like? And in that book, Kenda Dean writes, while God does not ask any of us to bring Christ into the worlds as literally as Mary did, god calls each of us to become a Godbearer through whom God may enter the world again and again. I’m sure I don’t have to remind anyone here of the many Elizabeth out there who long for a Godbearer to walk through their doors so that God may enter their world. It is easy to look at the news cycle and see the need for more God bearing to break into our lives.
Whether it is places where war has become the norm for so many people or the mental health crisis especially common in the lives of young people today, or our environmental crisis that is making us question, what the future? Of our planet will look like. Or the COVID-19 pandemic that continues to linger and affect the lives of so many people in the world. No, I don’t think we need to remind anyone that our world is in need of Godbearers. Instead, there are plenty of Elizabeth out there who are waiting for a Godbearer to enter their life and cause them to leap for joy as the child in her womb does.
Through this Godbearing encounter leading up to World War II, the politics in Germany and Europe were causing so much division among the people. Either you were a patriot on one hand, that would support the Nazi cause, or you were a pacifist that would not submit to the Nazi rule. C. S. Lewis articulates this division in his book The Screwtape Letters, which was originally published in 1942 in the middle of World War II.
In this book, Lewis writes letters as a senior devil named Screwtape that are addressed to his nephew named Wormwood. These letters are pieces of advice or a playbook to help the young Wormwood best tempt his assigned human being toward a path of destruction. One of these letters focuses on this choice between patriotism and pacifism. Screwtape encourages his nephew Wormwood to just get his human to commit to one side of an extreme because this extreme commitment will cause strife and division in society. He says it doesn’t matter if his human becomes a patriot or a pacifist.
All that matters is that he picks one and becomes extremely devoted to the cause. Now, this was the reality for so many people living before and during World War II, and that was the case for one young German teenager named Jurgen Moltman. Jurgen Moltman was seven years old when Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933. He says his family was divided as either anti Hitler socialists or prohitler Nazis. His father was a teacher, and he was eventually given the choice to either join the Nazi Party or be dismissed as a teacher if he refused.
So in order to save his family, Moltman’s father joined the Nazi Party, and when he was ten, Moltman was sent to a Nazi youth camp. Although Moltman was never an all out nationalist that swore total allegiance to Hitler and the Nazi Party, he also never spoke out fully against Hitler to indicate he was against this cause. But his reality as a teenager was centered on this division that drove a massive wedge in society. Moltman was drafted by the German Army in 143 when he was only 16 years old. After fighting for two years in the army, including a battle that took place near his hometown where over 40,000 people were killed, he was ordered to a German forest on the front lines.
One night, he encountered a British soldier and immediately surrendered himself when they met. After his surrender, he was a prisoner of war from 1945 to 1948, where he moved from camp to camp. During his time as a prisoner of war, Moltmont claimed to have, quote, lost all hope and confidence in German culture because of the atrocities at the German concentration camps. The horrors of the war continued to haunt him and his fellow prisoners to the point where he said he wished he had died with his fellow soldiers rather than live with the terrible things his country had done. Molemont had lost hope in his country and his future because of the things he had seen and experienced during his time as a German soldier.
At one point in his life when he was a prisoner of war, Moltman met a group of Christians in the camp. In this encounter with this group, Moltman was visited by an American chaplain and given a copy of the New Testament and the Psalms that he began to read in the camp. He admits that his upbringing was a very secular upbringing and that he had limited experience with the Christian faith. As he read his New Testament and the Psalms, he slowly began to identify with and rely on the Christian message of hope and reconciliation. He was later transferred again to another camp and met several students of theology, where he read his first ever book of theology by American theologian Reinhold’s Neighbor, which he says had a massive impact on his life.
After being released as a prisoner of war, Moltmann began to study theology in Germany and eventually became a pastor and professor. Now Moltmont is actually still alive today at the ripe age of 96 years old. He has published over ten books, much more than that, and has been an important voice in the world of theology for many people because of his emphasis on suffering, hope and liberation, which have all been largely impacted by his experience as a prisoner of war. When he was a prisoner of war, Moltmon had his initial encounter with the Godbearer and that unexpected encounter transformed his life. The chaplain that was so impactful to Moltman’s transformation is unnamed and unknown today.
And yet their work as a Godbearer has made a lasting impact on Moltmon and as a result, on other people that have been impacted by Moltman’s life and work. And later, Moltmon had the godbearing encounter through the work of another theologian, Reinhold Nieb, which had that massive impact on his life and his worldview as a prisoner of war, moltmon was unknowingly, like Elizabeth, waiting for an unexpected holy encounter to come into his life through a Godbearer. After this important moment in his life, he transformed and became a Godbearer like Mary for so many people in the world today. And this transformation happened only because of others being godbearers that carried this message of hope, peace, joy and love to him. So again, maybe you see yourself more like Elizabeth right now, longing for the same hope, peace, joy and love that someone might bear to you.
Or maybe you see yourself like Mary, as one, ready to bear the hope, peace, joy and love of God to others. There is no right way to be or right way to live right now. We cannot all be Godbearers all the time. But if this story of the two unexpected pregnancies can teach us anything, it is to look for these holy godbearing moments that cause us to leap for joy, because it could could very well be a sign of God’s presence and work with us. Amen.