Genesis 16:7-13+Psalm 71:4-11+Philippians 2:5-10+Luke 1:26-38
“You are El-ro’i” (Genesis 16:13). You are the God who sees me. The slave-woman Hagar, fleeing from Sarai’s abuse, trying to escape from Abram’s household, this is the person who first names God. God who sees me.
Why would the Creator of the Universe take the time to see a slave girl? Abram was the chosen one, the one on whom God’s promise rested. But here, we have a twist in the narrative. God’s promise also rests on Hagar. “Greatly will I multiply your seed, so they cannot be counted for multitude” (16:10). Aren’t these the same words spoken to Abram in the chapter before this one?
The “God who sees” is not to be constrained in blessing whosoever God chooses.
God also saw a young girl from Nazareth. Why this young girl? How many others had Gabriel approached before this one? What if Mary had said, “thanks but no thanks?” In this era of “Me Too,” many question whether or not Mary had a choice at all.
In traditional translations of this passage, we hear the words, “Here am I, the handmaiden of the Lord,” (Luke 1:38). The Greek word used here, the feminine form of δοῦλος, is also sometimes translated as “servant,” but in our translation this morning, Dr. Gafney chooses the jarring “woman-slave.” While we did not read the epistle she pairs with these texts for the First Sunday in Advent, it is the well-known Christ hymn from Philippians 2, which says
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be seized,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave (δούλου),
being born in human likeness;
then being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)
God saw Mary. God knew that this Mary was the one. And just as Jesus willingly subjected himself to death on a cross, Mary, her questioning answered by the angel, also subjected herself to this pregnancy. The word for this Holy Spirit that would overshadow her is feminine, as are other references to the Spirit in Hebrew and in Greek. Rather than a victim of some troublesome and troubling impregnation, she boldly proclaims, “Let it be with me according to your word” (1:38).
God saw Hagar. God saw Mary. The God who sees also sees us.
If God could bless an enslaved woman and her descendants, if God could impregnate a young girl from a backwater town of the empire, then God can certainly see us, blessing us with unimaginable things and in unexpected ways.
As we make our way through Advent using these texts that are all about pregnancy and annunciations, some of us will find it challenging, because in these stories of infertility and miraculous births, we are reminded that 16% of women in this country have difficulty getting pregnant at all. About 13% of women have used fertility services of some kind. As many as 1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage. God’s miracles of answering the prayers of women longing for children do not fall easily on the ears for a lot of us.
And God sees that, too.
Remember that in the days when our scriptures were written, blessing was always attributed to God, and sickness, tragedy, loss, and infertility meant that someone had done something to prevent that same blessing. Today we know that sickness has biological origins. Infertility, too. Tragedies don’t strike just the sinful. Accidents happen.
So, if we know that we have God who sees us, where is the blessing in these stories for us if we are having a hard time getting pregnant, or our pregnancies are lost, or we have abortions for any variety of reasons?
I’m not sure I have answers that help. But what I do know is that God is faithful. God sees. We are entering a season of expectation and anticipation. I’m pretty sure that when Hagar fled into the wilderness, she was not expecting to find God there. And I’m pretty sure that Mary did not grow up dreaming that she would be the God-bearer. Our expectations and hopes and dreams are no match for the abundance of God’s blessing. It may not come today or tomorrow, but God’s blessings do come, maybe not how we wanted but always in ways that bless us. And we, in turn, can be a blessing to others.
We did not pray the usual Collect, or opening prayer, for this First Sunday in Advent because the Collects from the Book of Common Prayer are intended to match the lectionary readings of the day. It’s unfortunate, because the one for today is perhaps my favorite because it says, in part:
…give us grace to cast away the works of
darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of
this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit
us in great humility… (BCP 211)
As the days grow shorter and the world seems increasingly imperiled by hate, dissension, indifference, and conflict, we have a God who sees, who shields us in the armor of light. We are light-bearers, hope-bearers, love-bearers, Christ-bearers.
God sees us. God is with us. The baby who was born so long ago was called Emmanuel – God with us. It was true then. It is true now. In the coming weeks, be assured of this Good News. We are blessed by a God who sees. What a blessing that is for us, for those we love, for our neighbors, for our world.
Thanks be to God.