Something is about to happen. That’s the word this week. And it starts with Hannah. An ancient Israelite, Hannah was married, but according to the scriptures, was unable to have children. The text tells us that her husband loved her, and was especially devoted to her. And yet while her future was secure, her heart was broken. She could not bear a child, and she was tormented, belittled and broken. In the story, she calls out to God, pours out her heart and desire for a child. God hears her. She becomes pregnant. And Hannah sings:
My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. There is no Holy One like the LORD…there is no Rock like our God…the bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil…The LORD…raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.
Hannah takes what God is doing in her and sees the deepest of truths: if God has rescued me from barrenness, then anything is possible. Might and power will no longer count for everything. The rich will be brought low. The hungry will eat their fill. Something is about to happen.
Fast-forward six centuries or so. Hannah’s story calls to mind another woman, whose body was also impossibly pregnant, whose ankles were also surprisingly swollen, whose life was also graciously chosen, whose voice also sang a similar song:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name…He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1.46-53, selections)
We don’t know if Mary ever sang this song again, but sometimes I like to imagine it as a lullaby. Cradling her son, watching him twitch in his sleep, whispering to herself as much as to him, “Something is about to happen.”
Fast-forward thirty years or so. That baby is now a man, gathered with his fellow travelers, days before his death. But his mother had taught him well. He remembered her song. So he speaks in our gospel text, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” Something is about to happen.
We don’t just hear this message in the scriptures though. Something is about to happen. The troubling truth is, hate-speakers and mass-shooters are trying to twist this message and make it their own: from the slings and arrows of political vitriol shot from both sides of the aisle, to fear-mongering falsehoods describing the migrant caravan. And in just three weeks: 2 killed in Kentucky, 11 killed in Pittsburgh, 3 killed in Tallahassee, and 12 killed in Thousand Oaks. All these lives lost, tens more injured, hundreds more scared and scarred. All of it so a hateful few can implant in the hearts of the many the foreboding echo that “something terrible is about to happen.”
As subjects of the Prince of Peace, we must make our response: which is to cry, rail, pray, march, vote, vent, repent, and insist in a very different way that something IS about to happen. We need to reclaim these words—to take them back—because before they belonged to any extremist, they belonged to two pregnant women, and a backwater itinerant preacher and indiscriminate lover of the world named Jesus.
And when Jesus speaks of nations rising against nations, kingdoms rising against kingdoms, and wars and rumors of wars—he’s not prophesying doom, but speaking reality. In stark contrast to our national narrative, Jesus is not sowing fear, but hope. His honest words are ultimately what make our gospel lesson today good news. This is not pie-in-the-sky, warm-and-fuzzy, Hallmark-greeting-card religion. This is mud and muck and flesh and bone religion. Jesus tells it like it is, but doesn’t leave it there. He tells the truth about all the worst of life, but then he tells the even greater truth that the bullets and the violence and the destruction are not the final word. For very quietly, at the end of all the gloom he says, “This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”
In other words, the world that is, is not all there is. God will get God’s way. This is the truth of Hannah’s song, and Mary’s song, and Jesus’ sermon. This is the truth that makes our faith not an antiquated or naïve response to our world’s suffering, but a defiant, and powerful, and possible response. Yes, the world is being shaken apart…but those birth pangs also tell us that help is on the way. And a little like Pogo in his comic strip, we have met the help on the way—and the help on the way is us.
Fast-forward 2,000 years or so. A group of believers gather for worship one Sunday in November. Your congregations and mine. Imagine all the small ways our communities are engaged: gathering for daily prayer, or learning Spanish to be better neighbors, or serving meals, or welcoming strangers, or studying scriptures, or singing songs, or playing chimes, or speaking for justice, or baking casseroles, or visiting prisoners, or daring forgiveness, or just putting up with each other despite our differences. In all this we whisper to the world: something is about to happen.
It was no coincidence that both Mary and Hannah were pregnant when they believed enough to sing their songs. They remind us that being “the help that is on the way” is like the work of a woman laboring to bring new life into the world. It will exhaust us. It will scare us. We may say we want it to stop. It will hurt like hell. It will make us sweat and cry. It will require more of ourselves than we have ever given. It will feel impossible. But oh, the beauty on the other side…
So may we look around our sanctuaries on Sunday the same way Hannah looked at her growing belly. May we look around and see a roomful of just as much hope, just as much possibility, just as much new life, and believe…that even here when it feels impossible, even now when it seems improbable, in our barren world, and our imperfect lives, by God’s relentless grace, something is about to happen.