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Fourth Sunday of Advent
Pastor Anke Deibler
- Micah 5:2-5a
- Luke 1:46b-55
- Hebrews 10:5-10
- Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]
Grace be to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Prophet Micah announces the imminent coming of One who will rule Israel like a good shepherd; who will feed his flock; under whose care everyone can live securely; who will bring peace to everyone.
This promise evokes in me the image of a safe space, of a peaceful space, of breathing room, of a place where I can be the way I truly am, of a space where God’s presence is tangible. It makes me think of sanctuary.
Ever since I read the readings for today, the thought of sanctuary has been in my mind.
I remembered what one of our catechism students said a couple of years ago. I had asked the group of 7th and 8th graders to go around the room and share what they loved most about Calvary. Many listed the youth program, friends, music, service projects, and worship that isn’t too boring.
Then one young lady said: “I love Calvary because here I can be myself and share my thoughts.”
I was so happy to hear this. Life in middle school is really hard. Peer pressure is at its worst ever. Everybody is judging you for your looks, for your clothes, for your music choices, for who you hang out with, and on and on. Pecking orders are established, and all the teenagers feel like they need to perform correctly or else get demoted on the Totem pole.
But here, at Calvary, among God’s people, this young woman felt safe to just be, safe to drop all pretenses, safe to share her true thoughts. After a long day at school, she could come here and take a deep breath and relax. This place was sanctuary for her.
This past Sunday, a woman came to worship at Zion in downtown Baltimore. She was there for the first time and obviously had no idea that she had landed in a German congregation. I greeted her and clued her in, and she decided to stay. She stayed through the whole German service and then came to the coffee hour afterwards.
It was then I learned her name: Aisha. It was then I learned she was homeless. I complemented her on sticking it out in the German service. She said it was just so nice to be in that warm space among people of God; she did not have to worry about her safety; she did not have to be on the lookout for danger. She could just sit and take a deep breath and relax and pray. She could just be. She was in a sanctuary space.
I became aware of another kind of sanctuary offered by a church in The Hague in the Netherlands. Our member Rebekah King sent me an article about Bethel Church, which is offering sanctuary to a family with three young adult children from Armenia.
There is an obscure Dutch law that doesn’t allow police to make an arrest during worship in progress. To protect the family, Bethel Church has been holding worship services around the clock, for over six weeks. Neighboring congregations have helped out. Some pastors drive long distances to be part of the rotation. In all over 550 pastors from 20 different denominations have taken part in this marathon worship service, all to protect this Armenian family.
The oldest child of that family, age 21, wrote on her blog: “I often think the only space where I am safe is the church. It really feels like a refuge.”
All these people, the teenager, the homeless Aisha, and the Armenian family, find sanctuary among the people of God. Breathing room, safety, love, affirmation, and hope are offered by the faithful to provide another with sanctuary.
The same happened for Mary.
Right before our gospel reading today begins, Luke has told us about the angel Gabriel who had come to Mary to announce that she was going to carry God’s son. At the end of their conversation, Mary had responded to the angel, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”
It must have been an awesome moment for Mary: The angel appearing and speaking to her, probably surrounded by brilliant light and the aura of the divine. In that spectacular moment, it was probably easy to say, “Sure, I can do that!”
But now the angel had departed. Now her bedroom looked the way it had before. Now the enormity of what was happening to her dawned on her. Here she was, unmarried, pregnant with the son of God. I can only imagine just how overwhelmed she would be.
Where could she turn for help? Who would believe her strange story? Who would support her in the challenging weeks ahead?
The angel Gabriel himself had pointed Mary to where she would find this support: From Elizabeth. Mary’s cousin Elizabeth was also experiencing a strange pregnancy, very late in life, after all hope for a child had been given up. She was expecting John the Baptist.
Elizabeth would believe Mary’s story; she herself had a very similar story to tell. Elizabeth would not judge Mary; she herself had experienced the looks and wagging tongues of villagers, and she would not do that to her young cousin. Elizabeth would understand what it is like to be called by God into a special role that meant both honor and sacrifice.
Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, with haste, we read. And I can totally understand her eagerness to get out of Nazareth with its gossiping neighbors and into Elizabeth’s house.
As soon as she gets there, Elizabeth warmly welcomes her. The two women embrace and rejoice in each other and their special pregnancies. Elizabeth wholeheartedly affirms Mary’s calling: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
These words must have been balm for Mary’s soul.
Elizabeth’s welcome and affirmation bless Mary with love and acceptance, with a safe space to relax and ponder what is going on in her life, to take a time-out and adjust to this new calling, to just be and breathe. Elizabeth offers Mary sanctuary.
Providing sanctuary is what we are called to do. When Jesus calls us to love our neighbors, then he asks us to bring welcome and safety and breathing room to our neighbors. When the Prophet Micah announces a savior who will feed his flock, provide safety, and allow everyone to live in peace, he preaches about sanctuary for all people. One of the pastors helping with the round-the-clock services in the Netherlands said that participating in this project means practicing what she says she believes. Providing sanctuary is our calling.
The Prophet Micah begins his prophecy with the words: “You, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for one who is to rule Israel.” Bethlehem was a small town in the country side. Nobody was expecting great things from that little hamlet. And yet, it was there that God’s messiah would be born and the world would get to know God in a totally new way.
Mary responds to Elizabeth giving her sanctuary by singing about a God who lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things. God’s grace is breaking into places where nobody had expected it, and people experience God’s presence in a new way.
When we are willing to be a person of sanctuary for someone, we help that person get to know God in a new way, experience God’s care in a new way. The teenager in our catechism class, the homeless woman in Zion, the Armenian family in the Netherlands – they will never forget what God has done for them through the people of God willing to bless them with a safe space.
Interestingly enough, when we provide sanctuary, we give witness not only to the people we minister to, but onlookers also sit up and take notice. In the news article about the church in The Hague, a woman was quoted saying this:
“I’m not religious, but when I heard about this, I said to my husband, ‘Don’t be shocked, but I want to go to church.’” This woman is a public relations consultant and is now helping the host church deal with the news media. She said, “This type of thing makes the church relevant again.”
By speaking up for people, giving them a safe space, and welcoming them the way they are, we witness to God’s love in real, tangible ways. That blesses the recipients of our ministry, and it attracts the attention and curiosity of those observing our stance. In both recipients and onlookers, this creates faith.
Today, I would like you to think about the people and groups who have given you sanctuary over the years. Who made you feel safe? Who made God’s love real and relevant for you? Who allowed you to be yourself and to breathe? Say a prayer of thanks for all those wonderful people whom God sent into your lives at just the right time.
Just like Elizabeth was there for Mary at just the right time.
My wish for you this Advent is that you have people in your life that give you sanctuary; that offer you welcome and love and breathing room and affirmation.
My call for you this Advent season is to be that sanctuary person for one another. Let us bless one another with welcome and love and support, with sanctuary time, as we await the birth of our savior. Amen.