Worth the Wait

This sermon was written for Third Presbyterian Church for December 29, 2019.

Luke 2:21-40 (NRSV)

21 After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
    according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31     which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
    and for glory to your people Israel.”

33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Sermon:  Worth the Wait

I was told in high school sex ed. class and by the Christian club that I was worth the wait and that I should tell boys that I’m worth waiting for.  Abstinence only education was the order of the day and the Christian club emphasized the “silver ring thing” that began in 1995[1] to make sure that teens knew that virginity was the best and only way to be a good Christian.  And the proof of virginity was in the female hymen and so the responsibility to say I’m worth waiting for was the girls.  We weren’t told exactly what and where the hymen was, but that it should be kept intact until the wedding night, when it would break and bleed.  This same group said the best example of faith for girls was the Virgin Mary, whose hymen was intact even after birthing Jesus, so she was always a Virgin and a Mother, the two very best things a Christian girl could aspire to be, even though we could only be one of those things at the given moment.  (Christians had a problem with sex.)  It was like advent all the time but full of guilt and misinformation.

Margaret A. Farely was writing feminist Christian ethics (including sexual ethics) well before 1995 and continued to write well after that, but her work was unavailable to me as high school student.  It was only recently that I discovered Margaret Farley’s work and other feminist theologian and ethicists.  One of those great writers is Bromleigh McCleneghan who is a young clergy woman (meaning under 40) who had a similar upbringing to mine and felt the need for the church to develop a healthier sexual ethic.  I have more information about their work in my blog article, cleverly titled “Let’s talk about sex” so it’s easy to find if you want to explore the idea more.  Or we can get coffee some time and talk about it.

All this is to say thank you Third Church for providing opportunities for women to have honest conversations about their bodies and their faith.  The Days for Girls Women’s Health Curriculum is medically accurate and does not have a religious undertone.  It presents the information to women and girls without the guilt and shame that many people experience as part of sexual education.  It is a better curriculum than I received and judging by the number of people who have read the curriculum and paged through the accompanying flip chart in our church, I can tell you that its better than what most young people have experienced.  Sharing this curriculum with high school and college students has inspired me to continue to seek out accurate information about women’s bodies and women’s health.  Because the misinformation and shame passed to young women has continued well into recent years, you may remember that rapper, TI was in the news for recently speaking about his Christian faith that included having his daughter’s hymen checked to prove her virginity

I’ve been reading the work of Jen Gunter[2] devotionally this advent season.  Jen is an OB-GYN debunking the many myths about women’s bodies and using education to empower women.  I think she would fit right in with the strong, highly educated women of Third Church.  One of the most powerful myth-busting I have read so far is about the hymen.  The hymen can’t be used as a virginity indicator.  It is one of those body parts like an appendix or wisdom teeth that we have evolved not to need.  And because we have evolved not to need it, there are a lot of variations found in hymens.  Our bodies are amazing, and they generally return to their original state after sex and child birth.  So, it makes perfect sense that Mary’s hymen appeared “normal” whatever that means, after the birth of Jesus. 

And by the way, the whole, checking Mary’s hymen thing did not happen in our biblical text.

And this is precisely why accurate information is important to our health and to our faith. 

Which is why I thought, today we would talk about the three righteous women who are central to our understanding of advent and Christmas.  Elizabeth, Mary and Anna’s embodiment of faith has nothing (and everything) to do with how they use their physical bodies. 

There is a lack of love story (and a love story) to be heard in the stories of these three women.  The lack of love story is in the way that women are judged by their virginity and fertility.  Sometimes we are told that infertile women are being punished (which is absolutely untrue), women who are virgins are more pure or better than other women (again, untrue), and women who are found to be pregnant before wedlock are impure (also untrue) and that women who never have children are somehow less womanly (untrue, again). 

You can insert your favorite feminist rant about women being shamed for sexual activity or lack of it or not being believed when they tell the truth about their sexual activity or rape or their choices on childbearing… there are a lot of tangents to take here… and a serious lack of compassion, support, and love.  The judgement of women based on their sexuality and fertility comes out of the purity culture expressed in the Christian tradition I experienced as a teenager.  And according to Amy-Jill Levine, that is not how we should interpret the lives of women, especially Elizabeth, Mary and Anna. 

Elizabeth and Zachariah are said to be righteous or blameless, but “what blameless does not mean is perfect; it simply means someone who keeps Torah.”[3] And “This blamelessness means that Elizabeth’s inability to conceive a child (vs.7) was not a punishment.”[4] The punishment is for Zachariah, he is rendered mute, when he doesn’t believe the angel Gabriel who tells him about John’s birth.  Zachariah can’t share the good news that is bringing him so much joy.  Joy, not just for a couple who is having a child, but it the good news for the people of Israel.  

Elizabeth hides herself when she finds out she is pregnant until the 6th month of her pregnancy.  It’s her choice, this wasn’t a ritual or a cultural thing, simply the decision of a woman in a situation she hadn’t planned on being in.  I wonder if Elizabeth thought she wouldn’t be believed if she told people immediately that she was pregnant.  I wonder if she worried about losing the pregnancy.  I wonder if it was easier to be alone than to answer unloving questions about her body and her sex life at her advanced age.  Elizabeth’s decisions seem normal and understandable.  Amy-Jill Levine also points out that hiding until the 6th month of her pregnancy also adds interest to the plot in this biblical story, “Mary will be the first person explicitly to recognize her cousin’s pregnancy just as Elizabeth will be the first to remark upon Mary’s own pregnancy.”[5]

I wonder if Mary was facing similar struggles.  When Gabriel announces her pregnancy he also tells her about Elizabeth’s pregnancy, in the first chapter of Luke, saying, “36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”  I wonder if the announcement from Gabriel gave Mary the courage to take on her role as well.  38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  And after that she went to see her cousin.  And I don’t have to tell you, Third Church, that strong women need other strong women. 

We don’t have any details about how Mary traveled or if she had a donkey to carry her or if she had to walk and only take what she herself could carry to get to Elizabeth… maybe she simply left the weight of disbelief and took only courage and the child she carried in her own body.

I imagine that her journey brought her to a safe place and like any gathering of Presbyterian Women, she and Elizabeth found support, love, and strength in sharing their stories with each other.  Maybe they even shared some of the lesser acknowledged pregnant body functions, like cravings, swollen ankles, and hemorrhoids.”[6]  Both women, with unbelievable news, find belief in each other and in their God.[7]

And now, I’m going to skip a lot of really important parts of the story that we have already covered in Advent and Christmas Eve, so I can tell you about Anna. 

Mary and Joseph (and baby Jesus) meet Simeon and Anna at the temple.  According to Levine and Worthington’s commentary, Luke records Simeon’s words for his readers, but he records more details about Anna’s life.  Anna is the daughter of Phanuel, his name means “face of God” which could signal the readers to understand that Anna is seeing the face of God in those around her, specifically Jesus.  She is from the tribe of Asher, Asher means, “happy” or “rejoice”.  Anna is identified as a prophet, she “stands in the line of Miriam, Deborah, Hulda, the daughters of Job, and Judith as speaking and doing the will of God.”[8]  She has chosen to live out her years as a widow praying in the temple and serving God.  Anna functions “like the shepherds, as an evangelist”[9] as she shares the good news with everyone around her.  “Like Simeon, Anna foreshadows the early followers of Jesus, gathered in Jerusalem, where they pray and fast (Acts 2:42, 46); her prophetic activity anticipates the pouring out of the prophetic Spirit in Acts 2.”[10] 

God chose to come into our world through the lives of three righteous women.  An older woman, who finally became pregnant, a virgin who hadn’t planned on being pregnant yet, and a woman who chose not to have children.  Their righteousness does not come from how well preserved their hymens are, but by the way they live out their faith.  Elizabeth, Mary and Anna’s embodiment of faith has nothing (and everything) to do with how they use their physical bodies. 

Like these strong women, we do not wait for the coming of the Messiah by quietly preserving our hymens.  Like Elizabeth, we support other women, blessing them and believing in them, creating a system of loving relationships.  Like Mary, we sing of the work God is doing in the world, that the powerful system of sin will be brought down and those who have been sinned against will be exalted.  Right relationships will be restored in the kin-dom (not kingdom) of God and we will treat one another as kin, as sisters and brothers.  Like Anna, we will be filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaim that the good news of the gospel is not just for a select few but will be for all people. 

Like all of the faithful women and men that came before us, we continue to wait for the return of the Messiah by actively working to do God’s will to bring about a world where justice and peace reign.  And that work is what will make us worth the wait.

[1] It’s now called “Unaltered”

[2] “The Vagina Bible”

[3] The Gospel of Luke: Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington III page 26

[4] The Gospel of Luke: Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington III page 27

[5] The Gospel of Luke: Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington III page 32

[6] Advent, pregnancy and the spirituality of bodily functionsDecember 21, 2018by Abbi Heimach-Snipes: An article in The Presbyterian Outlook,  Abbi Heimach-Snipes shares some of the details about what she is experiencing in her body during her first pregnancy that just happens to fall during advent.  She says, “Of course Mary’s pregnancy was a bit different than mine — carrying the Christ child, looking for a safe place to give birth and recover postpartum as she and Joseph fled their land. I hold this tension as I turn to her for comfort this season, knowing that she encountered some challenges with which I can relate and some I can’t.  So this Advent, with Mary on my mind, I’m yearning for the healing and love of bodies experiencing both pain and shame. I’m waiting for this labor to come any day now, even with a giant hemorrhoid. I’m trusting that, no matter what, God will be there, especially when others won’t tolerate the truth of our bodies doing what they do.  Hope will come. The Christ child will be born. And the postpartum recovery and faithful parenting journey begins next.”

[7] In Luke, Mary says that she’s a virgin. Do I believe her? by Celeste Kennel-Shank November 27, 2019 : An article published by The Christian Century states “Preachers often highlight Mary’s marginalized social position: God chooses to become flesh through an unwed teenager. God chooses to become flesh through a girl whose people are living under occupation, through someone who is not a citizen of the empire.  God also chooses to become flesh—to be Immanuel, God with us—through a woman whose testimony was not believed.

[8] The Gospel of Luke: Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington III page 68

[9] The Gospel of Luke: Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington III page 69

[10] The Gospel of Luke: Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington III page 68

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