Luke 1: 39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
Why me? I wondered, when an audit notice came in the mail from the IRS. Why me? I wondered, when, on my first date with Becky, walking together to the ice cream shop, some stranger driving by tossed an egg from his car that hit me in the shoulder and left a big gooey smear. Of course, Becky also wondered, Why him? And what should I know about this guy that might provoke such a thing? We never found out why or who. It must have been random.
Those are minor Why me’s. To some of my common moany-groany complaints and pet peeves, our daughters often say, “Dad; That’s such a First World problem; just be grateful you can even have such problems.” And usually they’re right.
But then there are some Why me’s that deserve a hearing, and respect, like when someone has just received a terrible medical diagnosis from the doctor, or has been the victim of a criminal assault, or bullying, or a public shaming, or has received a pink slip at work. Why me? is a common question in such circumstances, and worse. I have no answer for those Why me?s other than to be the answer, simply by presence, by prayer, by support, by listening and other shows of love.
Conventional human wisdom would say that Elizabeth should be asking, “Why me? in that painful, negative sense. Mary, too. Both mothers might have wondered: Why was I chosen to bear Jesus or John the Baptist when all around us are monsters waiting to devour us and our children? Monsters like Herod the Great and Augustus Caesar, Rome’s self-proclaimed son of the gods? They’re not going to take kindly to a newborn King of the Jews and his forerunner. As long as there are such babies in their wombs, there are targets on their backs. Should their henchmen come to call, of course they’d wonder: Why me?
But the prayer of our mother Elizabeth in today’s Gospel passage is a very different kind of Why me? It pops out of Elizabeth’s mouth in the presence of Mary, and of Jesus, in her cousin Mary’s womb, when, Luke says, she is “filled with the Holy Spirit.”
“Why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” she asks. Hers is a Why me? of wonder, joy and gratitude, that grab your belly, double over, stamp your feet, cry out loud while tears stream down your face kind of joy. It’s that shout, squeal, pump your arms up and down and dance around the room like no one is looking kind of joy. It’s not just her own joy that Elizabeth is feeling, but that of the God-ordained life within her, the baby in her womb, John the Baptist, also leaping for joy in the presence of Jesus.
Where does such joy come from? Especially in such dark and dangerous circumstances as theirs? If you take the Trinity seriously, then is not the source of John’s joy, and that of his mother, the overflow of the love and the communion within the Trinity? The ecstatic, creative, life-and-love generating, overflowing harmony of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit? Or, at least, a reflection of God’s delight in God, and of God’s delight also in his Creation, the ongoing echoes of God’s first blessing in Genesis 1: “And God saw that it was very good?”
I better stop right there before I get totally lost in the theological weeds. Except to add that there is something of God deep down within that part of ourselves where body, soul and spirit connect together, and where we connect with God and with others, that wants to rise up and flow out of us in a mighty stream of righteousness, peace and joy.
I’m not talking just about fun, nor about entertainment, not even just happiness, like when your favorite sports team wins a game. Those have their place. I’m not talking just about pleasure either, like the satisfaction of a good meal, of beautiful art or music, or the endorphin release of exercise or touch. Those are gifts of God, too. But they point beyond themselves to something else, something timeless and eternal, not passing and momentary, like the pleasures and satisfactions of this life. They point beyond themselves to God’s everlasting delight in God, to God’s delight in his creation, of God’s delight in you. When Mary and Elizabeth and their two babies connected, it was as though an electrical current of divine love and life, straight from heaven, ran through them, such is the joy they experienced and expressed together. That’s also the joy which Christ has come to offer us, and to include us in on, as his joint heirs.
Over the years, my different spiritual directors have asked me where and when I have seen God at work in my life. Not just now; not just lately. Do you also see any time in your past where and when God was at work in your life, reaching out to you, influencing you, interesting you, drawing you, enticing you, doing something for you, when you were not yet even aware at the time that it was God who was at work, calling you homeward?
Maybe it was the teacher of your first grade Sunday School class who got down on bended knee to meet you at eye level, who, with one soft hand on your shoulder, used the other to wipe the tears from your cheek with a handkerchief. And looking into her eyes, you saw not only your own reflection, but something of the divine mercy, as well? For me, one moment was way back in 10th grade, when I heard the high school choir sang the African-American spiritual, “Every time I feel the Spirit, moving in my soul, I will pray….” That song stuck in my head and followed me around until, half a year later, I started to learn why, and what it meant, personally.
That’s how Elizabeth’s prayer, “Why me?” is comforting, inspiring and reassuring. It celebrates the gracious, unearned initiative of God in our lives, reaching out toward us before we knew or wanted to reach out toward God. As John the Beloved put it: “We love because God first loved us.” Or, as the words of the hymn put it:
“I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew,
he moved my soul to seek him seeking me;
t’was not so much that I on thee took hold,
as thou took hold of me….
I find I walk, I love, but oh, the whole
of love is but my answer, Lord, to thee.
Always thou wert beforehand with my soul,
always thou lovedst me.”
This week I have tried on Mama Elizabeth’s prayer as my own: Why me? Why am I so favored….that I should enjoy some assurance of God’s faithful and unshakable covenant love toward me and everyone else? Why am I so favored that, whatever happens, even whenever I do wrong and have to confess it and undo it, the confidence returns that “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus,” and that “God works in all things for the good of those who love him?” Why am I so favored that God would use me, “the chief of sinners,” for all I know, to share the gospel and to be there to see God at work in people’s lives? Why am I so favored that I should be in loving covenant relationships with you all, with my wife, Becky, with family, that I should have a roof over my head, food in the refrigerator, and more? Why am I so favored as to live on such a beautiful, fruitful planet? Why am I so favored that I should even exist? And be aware of it, unlike the rocks and the clouds, as far as I can tell? No matter how far we wander, no matter how dull, dry and dead our relationship with God feels, even when we resist and rebel and fight or ignore God, we are never beyond the scope of God’s desire and God’s power to reach out and call us back homeward. So, why does God persist in loving and restoring his wayward children? Why me?
It can’t be because I am good enough or smart enough to have earned such acts of God on my behalf. I know I have some responsibilities in these matters, but they are only abilities to respond, also given by God. God and God’s gracious initiative are the reason for all such awestruck, wonder-filled Why me’s of gratitude and tender, holy fear.
But praying Mama Elizabeth’s prayer, “Why me?” did not only give me gratitude, comfort and assurance, It also challenged, even disturbed me. Praying it throws a spotlight on that part of human nature that is always comparing and calculating how we rate in relation to others. It provokes a defensive reaction from that voice that cries out, “Hey! What about my own accomplishments and achievements, my own virtues and values, my own smarts and talents, and all the trophies, toys and trinkets I have accumulated all my life through my own efforts, from playing by the rules?” It’s the constant calculation of how what I get compares with what others get, whether it’s things or feelings or approval or pleasure or power.
Those preoccupations and calculations of fairness and of just desserts are fair and good when it comes to getting grades in school, promotions or pay raises at work, just wages, equal pay for equal work, and equal opportunities to succeed, whatever your race or sex. But they only get in the way of our most intimate and eternal relationships, like with God, our families, the church, the earth and all Creation. It becomes a trying and terrible burden always having to earn from God what God is always freely giving, trying to live and love from our own merits, rather than from God’s mercies. That’s a fool’s errand, of course, because whenever we ask, “How do I rate?” that’s all we get: irate. An overactive sense of entitlement always leads to resentment. But Elizabeth’s kind of Why me? busts and breaks that stubborn and subtle sense of entitlement that would make all of life’s joys and blessings rewards to earn, burdens to bear, things to hoard and protect, rather than gifts to receive and to share.
According to John’s Revelation, the song of the universe, the music of the spheres, has words: “Worthy Is The Lamb That Was Slain.” It’s also a song of joy, of completely carefree abandon, that makes our constant comparisons and calculations, of entitlement and resentment pointless and impossible. Pray “Why me?” with Elizabeth, and in the way she prayed it, and we can then sing “Worthy is the Lamb” along with the universe, in wonder, worship, gratitude and joy.
In that way, we can all be pregnant with the coming wonder, joy, praise and gratitude to be fully revealed and released in us when “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is,” and when “we shall know as we are known.” The Christian spiritual life is like a pregnancy, for men as well as women, in which our coming life of celebration is already growing within us like the babies in Mary’s and Elizabeth’s womb. Elizabeth’s prayer of Why me? is an equal opportunity prayer for all of us, guys, sons, brothers and dads, as well as for women, sisters, girls and mothers.
Consider all the gracious and unmerited initiative that God has taken on our behalf, and add to that the little we can conceive of what God has in store for all who accept his gifts and return his love, and the question, Why me? becomes, Why not me? Why not you?