“Blessed is she who believed”

A sermon on Luke 1:26-38,47-55 by Jill Friebel, 18 December 2005

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Sometime after the family had come and removed the body the on duty nurse was passing the empty bed when she noticed some rags on the concrete floor beside the bed. As she picked them up she realized they had left the baby behind. The bundle seemed lifeless just like her mother, but as she held her she became aware that this 10-day-old baby was still alive. Had she been forgotten in the grief of the moment, or did they think she was dead too or did they not want the child of a dead wife…. Jeannie wondered what she was going to do with her? She was only just alive so she decided to take her to the mid department of the hospital and at least see if she could be placed in a humidicrib to die more comfortably. Life and death in this country of Niger were ever present and one could not hide from that reality or stop to bemoan the situation or even ask why. There was always the clamouring of those still alive that needed all ones energy and focus.

The mid staff cared for her and Zouera pulled through and over the next few months grew stronger, and bigger and became much loved by all the staff. At the same time there was a search going on for the family because she couldn’t stay in the hospital By the time she was 3 months old she was a healthy well nourished and delightful baby and finally there had been success in locating her father. He came to collect her and brought a woman along with him who was to be her carer. He had another wife and would probably take another in time but rival wives were seldom keen on taking another wife’s baby, the second wife in Hausa is called “kishya” which means “jealous one” and besides they had enough trouble keeping their own children alive. The woman he had brought had had 8 children with no survivors so there was legitimate concern at handing her over but there was no choice in the matter.

It was 4 weeks before they returned to the hospital and Zouera was so badly malnourished that her skin just stretched over her skull, all her ribs were visible and her limbs had become stiff. It turned out that she had only been given rice water to drink that is– the water that rice had been cooked in and nothing else. Baby girls who were motherless were low in priority for nutrition and care in this culture and this woman didn’t have too many clues given her past experience.

Once again Zouera was admitted into Galmi hospital and word spread around the staff quickly that she was back and once again there was little hope that she would survive, Amazingly enough one of the doctors had been able to get a drip into a tiny vein on her skull. It was at this time that I heard about her. David didn’t come home and tell me about every sad case he saw because the list was long and day even longer. To everyone’s amazement she hung in over the next week and then two more weeks. An English and an Australian midwife began to take a special interest in her but they couldn’t keep it up with the schedules of work they already had. I offered to take her home during the day and they would have her at night time in the hospital to give me a break. Lizanne was six and the other children were across the border in Nigeria at boarding school. It was getting close to the end of the school year and the four children were due home for their long summer break.

I fed her with an eye dropper for weeks, as it was difficult for her to keep anything down. But Zouera had a strong will to live and in time she slowly returned to her beautiful happy self again, and by this time I had fallen in love with her and so had Rachel especially along with the others. How could we possibly hand her back to what would be certain death? I begged David to see if we could adopt her and tried to ignore all the cultural difficulties and mission rules. There were many months of discussions and Dave Knowlton the hospital manager and veteran missionary supported us as much as he could. It finally looked good and the school holidays were over and it was time to send Justin, Ben, Rachel, Tamara and Lizanne this time back to school. The little plane picked them up on the Wednesday – that was always horrible and then the very next day it became obvious the father was not going to sign the adoption papers after all even though he didn’t want her. He came that day to collect her and I was devastated. There was no way of letting the other children know for weeks that Zouera had gone for we had no radio or phone contact with the school.

In our sadness the next morning David read from our devotional book, as was our custom before he left for the hospital.

“Let us lift our hearts and hands to him in heaven. ° Who can be compared with God enthroned on high? Far below him are the heavens and the earth; he stoops to look, and lifts the poor from the dirt, and the hungry from the garbage dump and sets them among princes! ° To you, O Lord, I pray.° I reach out for you. I thirst for you as parched land thirsts for rain. Come quickly, Lord, and answer me, for my depression deepens: don’t turn away from me or I shall die. Let me see your kindness to me in the morning, for I am trusting you.” Lam 3:4, Ps.113:5-8 ,Ps. 25:1, Ps 143:6-8

Was it co-incidence on this very day that this would be our reading? I believed and trusted that God was truly present and encountered me that day. He knew about Zouera and he was asking me to trust him for her. But I didn’t know how that would work out. I know how I wanted it to happen but knowing God was present was enough for he loved her more than I.

Was God telling me he would stoop and lift her from the dirt, this hungry baby from the garbage dump and set her among princes? What did this mean for her and what did it mean for me? It didn’t cure the pain but it gave me hope.

I didn’t know at the time that this Psalm was quoting Hannah’s song of thanksgiving at the dedication of Samuel, and neither did I know that Mary’s Song of Praise to God was also structured on Hannah’s Song.

Today is the 4th week of advent and we have lit the candle of love and heard the story of Mary being visited by Gabriel telling her she is to bear a Son. Any baby comes with love but she was to carry and nurture the Prince of Peace and Love. Hers was a life given to love.

Mary’s Song commonly known as the Magnificat was also one of our readings tonight but it isn’t so obvious in Nathan’s paraphrase. It has been suggested that the words of both Elizabeth and Mary’s poetic responses in Luke were drawn from early Jewish-Christian liturgical compositions and that the Magnificat clearly owes much of its inspiration to the song of Hannah, so you would expect a liturgical scholar to paraphrase them as such. It speaks of times when fortunes will change and the oppressed will be liberated and the hungry filled with good things. But for my purposes tonight I want to draw attention to one verse that gets lost in this paraphrase. It is the beginning when Mary says, “For he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely from now on all generations will call me “blessed.”

This word blessed in the Greek does not mean happy but it means “indwelt by God and fully satisfied.” Mary’s life was blessed, but it was filled with both joy and tragedy always hand in hand. It wasn’t the circumstances of her life that brought her happiness but the indwelling of God in the midst of the circumstances. The joy and happiness of having this baby went with the rejection and ridicule it would have brought upon her. On her first visit to the temple with Jesus, Simeon the priest prophesied while holding the baby and said to Mary

“This child marks both the failure and the recovery of many in Israel, A figure misunderstood and contradicted- the pain of a sword-thrust through you-…”

In her blessedness she was to be wounded over and over but never did she lose her faith and trust and complete obedience. Love and joy and peace and hope prevailed against the looming darkness that threatened their very lives and would have tested her severely. She is the first disciple and a beautiful example of what it means to be indwelt by Christ. She called herself the servant or slave of God.

“Mary stands on the frontier between promise and fulfillment, between earth and heaven, between the 2 testaments. She speaks to us about the hope for the world’s transfiguration through Jesus, how she stands for the making strange of what is familiar and the homliness of what is strange. After all it is she who literally makes a home for the Creator of all things, the strangest reality we can conceive, in her own body and in her own house, she whom we meet again and again in the gospels struggling with the strangeness of her Son, from the finding in the temple to the station of the cross.”1

We by nature of being human also experience this strangeness mixed with our ordinariness. We are not just human we are gloriously human. In the midst of our everyday interactions and experience of life we are inbetween earth and heaven. So much of life seems empty of the sacred, but if we have eyes to see and ears to hear and a heart to listen we can begin to find him ever present in all of life even the difficult and mundane. We are quick to ask to be blessed, but do we know what we are really asking when we do? Asking God to bless us is not inviting him to approve our plans but to be truly blessed is asking him to indwell us and interfere with our lives and make the ordinary sacred. Like Mary it will mean trust, faith and obedience.

The day Zouera was carried away was one of those darkest moments for me but in the midst I experienced the indwelling of God. I didn’t know how he would fulfil these words given to Hannah and then to Mary and the whole Christian community and specifically to me that day. When would she be fed and lifted up from the dirt and set among princes. Zouera didn’t make it to her 5th birthday but I have no doubt that she will feast at a table set for her and one day she will sit among princes. Thank God that Mary was blessed, indwelt by God and let God interfere in her life.

Rowen Williams “Ponder these things” John Garrett Publishing:Mulgrave;2002

1 Rowen Williams “Ponder these things” John Garrett Publishing:Mulgrave;2002