Zechariah and Elizabeth are quite elderly when the angel Gabriel visits and says they will have a child. Zechariah doesn’t believe it. He becomes mute, unable to speak, for nine months until their son’s birth. About six months later Gabriel appears to a relative of Elizabeth, an unmarried young woman named Mary. Gabriel tells her she will have a son, the Messiah. Joseph, her fiancé, also receives a startling visit from an angel. Elizabeth does give birth to John, and Mary gives birth six months later to Jesus.
We will celebrate Jesus’ birth in six months on December 25th. So today, June 24th, we celebrate John’s birth. John was born to barren Elizabeth and Zechariah, who were old enough to be his great grandparents. Jesus was born to virgin Mary, almost too young to be a mother, and her husband-to-be, Joseph. These are improbable parents, impossible births, and wondrous stories.
These births are also scandalous and shameful, especially for the parents. Elizabeth “endured disgrace” as the subject of rumors and gossip about her barrenness (Luke 1:25). They both endured more in following God’s instructions to name their son John, a name not in their family, opposing tradition and neighbor’s expectations. Mary endured disgrace with an unwed pregnancy such that she and Joseph went to Bethlehem at a time no pregnant woman would be traveling. She gave birth among strangers in another town instead of family because of the cultural shame. Jesus and John were miraculously born into families who before and after endured much disgrace.
Graphic and disgraceful stories sell and spread. We like to read and watch human troubles and foibles because we are so aware of our own need, our own frailty. We make fun of and chew on what hits close to home. The Bible is one big and a series of many graphic tales, full of human folly. The biblical characters cheat, steal, fight, get drunk, conspire, sleep around, murder, and all the other things that thrill and, if we are honest, resonate with our own desires if not actions.
Genesis is very graphic with the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers. So too are the 40 years wandering in the wilderness, judges and kings, including David, a man after God’s own heart who also did a lot of wrong, stumbled and stole, faltered and fell. Yet from David’s family tree came Jesus, with John the Baptist just before him.
Today is six months before Christmas and two weeks after Pentecost, when we celebrated the birth of the Church, another wondrous conception. People of multiple cultures and languages started becoming Christ’s one body for the world, sharing and living and serving together. This is our family. God’s power and presence in the Holy Spirit enables this wondrous birth of a new community. The Holy Spirit also came upon Elizabeth and Mary opening their wombs and empowered Jesus and John in their births and lives of witness. These human miracles are by God’s power and inspiration.
In our lesson from Acts, Paul recounts the grand biblical story, and he says “to us this message of salvation has been sent.” Remember how it has been sent: through frail flesh and families. Impossible things through improbable people, people like us in our congregations, our fractured denominations, our global Church.
As we heard from the prophet Isaiah: “All people are grass; their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades.” So finite, limited, easy to falter, stumble. God has and keeps choosing to come and to work through people, vulnerable, weak, broken, limited, and incomplete, frail flesh and families.
What’s your experience today of being human? You might be confident or consoled in your abilities, the gift of your life, the surprises and delights of this day. You might be in touch with encouragement and love from family or neighbor. You might be struggling with limitation or loss, the challenge of infancy and toddlerhood, of growing up, of aging and dying. You may be tired or stressed by all you must do or what you cannot do no matter how hard you wish or try. How are you today with human frailty?
What’s your experience of family and community? Perhaps you are in touch with being comforted and encouraged, guided and loved. Perhaps you are in pain from hurt and sorrow, fight and conflict, jabs and greed, pride and dishonor. Perhaps that’s from your biological family, your current community, a national or cultural community, your parish family, or the larger Church.
Jesus knows from experience what you feel today, what it’s like to be frail and family.
The good news of the gospel as we see in Jesus and John, in the grand biblical narrative and Pentecost, is God is with us, with you and me in our human frailty and families, especially the very human Church. From the start with Adam and Eve, with Abraham and Sarah, God chose to use human families to care for, bless and heal the world. God became human in Jesus, to live as one of us. “Pleased with us in flesh to dwell Jesus our Emmanuel.” God was pleased to fully immerse in our limited and loving, broken and beautiful, intricate and interconnected human community.
Jesus is here with us and will feed us like a shepherd, gather us up in his arms, gently lead us. We will be fed, held and led much by Jesus in our brothers and sisters, both those we like and those we can’t stand. As with John the Baptist, Jesus and their parents, God comes in familiar human form.
God is here with us now. Love and let yourself be loved. Forgive and let yourself be forgiven. Feed and be fed, hold and be held, and gently lead and be led by your brothers and sisters. Give and receive abundant life here in frail flesh and family.
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