Sunday, December 15
Third Sunday of Advent
Song of Joy and Justice
O God of Isaiah and John the Baptist, Elizabeth and Mary, through all such faithful ones you proclaim the unfolding of future joy and renewed life. Strengthen our hearts to believe your advent promise that one day we will walk in the holy way of Christ, where sorrow and sighing will be no more and the journey of God's people will be joy. Amen.
And Mary said, "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. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 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. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
All Readings For This Sunday
Psalm 146:5-10 or Luke 1:47-55
1. What would you sing in a Magnificat of your own?
2. How much do our Christmas carols resemble the Magnificat?
3. How does it make a difference that you listen for God's word in community rather than alone?
4. How do you connect your "smaller" story with the "larger" story of God?
5. Where and when have you seen the promises of God brought to fulfillment?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
Advent is a time for prophets, like Jesus and John the Baptist, who came out of the wilderness speaking of world-shaking events and exhorting us to turn our lives around in preparation for what is to about to unfold. On this Third Sunday of Advent, we listen to another kind of prophet, a simple maiden who comes not from the wilderness but from her own village to visit her older cousin, Elizabeth.
Mary and Elizabeth are women with voices and something to say, or in Mary's case, something to sing. Women: we're definitely not at "the top of the heap" here, especially not when there's an actual priest in the house, Zechariah, a professional, licensed and learned, knows-what-he's-talking about expert in matters of faith. Ironically, though, Zechariah is the very one in this scene without a voice, literally, since he's been struck speechless during his own angelic visit. The stage is set this week, then, for us to have the rare opportunity to hear from the women for a change. And what a change they dream of!
God is great, and God is good
Our text this week is the Magnificat, the song that poured from Mary's heart as she stood on Elizabeth's doorstep; Robert Redman compares it to "an aria in an opera or a duet in a musical"; right in the middle of the story, the characters stop action in order to sing a song of praise for God's "greatness and covenant faithfulness." Yes, "God is great," Mary proclaims, but that's not all, for "God is good," too, Redman writes.
In their beautiful and instructive book, The First Christmas, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan offer a helpful lens through which we might read the familiar and beloved Nativity stories. Matthew and Luke each provide what Borg and Crossan call an "overture" to their Gospel that tells its story "in miniature," something like a "preview" of the longer story. Mary's elegantly exuberant song is that "overture" to Luke's Gospel in which he sounds important themes that will appear again and again in his narrative: the emphasis in his Gospel on women, the marginalized, and the Holy Spirit is first evident in the birth stories, including the one we read from this week.
Echoes of Hannah's own song
Mary, filled with the Holy Spirit, gives voice to those who are lowly, like the shepherds to whom the angels later announce the birth of Jesus. Her spontaneous outburst in song echoes Hannah's praise long ago for God's marvelous deeds in the lives of all who are marginalized or downtrodden (1 Samuel 2). Like Hannah, Mary sings out of her own experience, her own hope, but out of the experience and hope of her people as well.
The Magnificat is indeed a lovely expression of joy at God's promises kept, a celebration of the tables being turned, or overturned: the lowly are lifted up, the proud are brought down, and the hungry are fed. God remembers the people of Israel, and the promises God has made to them. What a powerful text for every heart hungry for good news!
Tending to one another
Advent is a time of waiting and preparation, a time pregnant with hope, and here, at its midpoint, we watch and listen as Mary and Elizabeth, two ordinary, pregnant women in the most extraordinary time and circumstances, and on the brink of greatness, are tending first to their relationship with each other and with God. Motherhood is daunting to every woman, especially the first time around, and these two women have found themselves pregnant under most unusual and unexpected terms: one past the age to conceive, and the other a virgin.
So, like women in every place and time, they spend time together, keeping each other company, learning and praying and perhaps laughing together, as they face first-time childbirth and motherhood. Henri Nouwen sees all this within a larger picture, where neither woman has to wait alone for the ordinary, personal experience of motherhood or the extraordinary, world-changing events to unfold, slowly, as pregnancies do: "Thus, God's most radical intervention into history was listened to and received in community."
Waiting in community for the promises to unfold
In this Advent season, we in the church are keenly aware that we wait in community for the promises of God to unfold in our lives, too. A good friend of mine mentioned to me the other day, as she talked about struggling with world events and personal heartaches, that she needed to find a church: "I need community," she said, simply. In community, we hold one another up when one of us needs encouragement or support. We help one another search for meaning, rejoice with one another, walk alongside one another.
And just as Elizabeth must have listened to Mary, and helped her prepare for what was to come (as much as such a marvelous thing might be prepared for), we help one another work things out. Sometimes, we just sit in the dark quiet and wait, together, trusting in the promises of God, listening for a word from the Stillspeaking God. "In a way," Timothy Mulder writes, "here is a preface for Emmanuel. We humans are not meant to go through the tough or the wonderful alone. Both need to be shared." And in the midst of our waiting, as Paul, writing from prison, encouraged the Philippians; as Hannah and Mary sang God's praise; and as Elizabeth welcomed her beloved cousin and companion, we rejoice, our hearts dancing within us. That is the way that we move with Mary's song.
Seeing beauty in one another
Why does Mary sing her song here, to Elizabeth? Would we say today that Elizabeth is a kind of mother-figure to Mary, or a spiritual mentor? Mary seems to need both, and perhaps a protective figure as well. In her sermon on this text, "Singing Ahead of Time," Barbara Brown Taylor evokes Mary's plight, alone and disadvantaged in the system: "What she does not have is a sonogram, or a husband, or an affidavit from the Holy Spirit that says, 'The child really is mine. Now leave the poor girl alone.'" But the young girl doesn't have to explain her situation to Elizabeth, or ask her questions in search of answers, or even to ask for acceptance. When Mary sees her much older cousin, Taylor imagines, she sees a "gorgeous" woman, maybe not "by ordinary standards...but so full of life that it is hard to see much beyond her joy." Is it any surprise, then, that in her relief and joy, Mary begins to sing?
Mary's song is music that comes from deep within her, perhaps, we would say today, from her DNA. On that doorstep, she sings for Elizabeth and both of their babies, and maybe for the bewildered priest in the background, watching the whole scene. According to Sharon Ringe, as Mary sings the Magnificat, she is "the lead singer in a chorus of all those whose dreams and yearnings are given voice in its words." This young girl, inexperienced and sheltered, sings about God's blessings in her life, and of God's vision of a world made right once again.
Getting carried away with the song
Perhaps Mary gets a bit carried away: this teenager, Taylor says, is "no politician, no revolutionary...but all of a sudden she has become an articulate radical, an astonished prophet singing about a world in which the last have become first and the first, last." Mary's song, Taylor writes in another sermon, isn't just for Elizabeth but for every single one of us, reassuring us about God's steadfast love, justice and faithfulness in every age, no matter what. Sometimes the promises do indeed sound too good to be true! And yet we learn, together, to trust in them and to live each day in their light.
We linger for a moment on the meaning of Mary's song about God filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty. Scholars agree that this wasn't just a "My God is stronger than your god" song. It wasn't a call to violent uprising or bloody vengeance, either, then or now, as we remind ourselves each Christmas morning. R. Alan Culpepper notes, "[t]he overthrow of the powerful has not come about through the mounting up of the weak in rebellion but through the coming of God in the weakness of a child."
The story we have been told
Not that the powerful haven't often feared the Magnificat's message, anyway. In a December 2009 issue of The Christian Century, John Ortberg draws on the work of New Testament scholar Scott McKnight, who recalls when "the government of Guatemala banned this song" thirty years ago because, "[u]nlike 'Away in a Manger,' this prayer was apparently considered subversive, politically dangerous" and "might incite the oppressed people to riot."
I remember hearing years ago that in the Latin American base communities, the people got to read the Bible themselves and heard the Good News that God did not want their children to die of hunger and disease, or their husbands and sons to be disappeared, or their daughters brutalized by poverty. Those were Bible studies that transformed the lives of those who had been told a very different story.
It seems, then, that reading the Bible can put all sorts of "dangerous" ideas in people's heads. Maybe the governmental authorities of Guatemala were paying more attention than most of us do as we sing our hymns. What, for example, does it mean when we sing this Christmas that the baby born this day "rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of God's righteousness and wonders of God's love"? Do we simply wait for God to return to "rule the world," or are we expected to hear a call in those words as we sing them, to do all we can to order all things in justice, and righteousness, and peace for all of God's children, now?
Singing about God's righteousness in an unrighteous world
Let's compare, for example, "God's righteousness" with the way things were in Mary's time. We can better understand the deep, desperate hope of this young girl if we look more closely at her setting, in the time of Herod the Great. Again, John Ortberg is helpful, as he describes the burdensome taxes of Herod's reign, taxes that built the temple and supported Herod's lifestyle but also cost the poor their land, concentrating wealth at the very top and leaving the masses impoverished (can we imagine such a thing?).
Herod was so brutal and unpopular--and knew it, Ortberg writes--that one tradition says that he had "70 elite Jewish citizens imprisoned with orders that they be executed on the day of his death so that there would be tears in Israel." Ortberg goes on to wonder whether Jesus himself learned "his material"--about the poor and the hungry and the meek being blessed, and injustice and greed being unacceptable--from his mother, Mary, the illiterate young girl from a small and humble little village.
Feeling powerless but being empowered
It's true that things aren't as they should be in our age, either, even without a Herod the so-called Great. People are suffering: poor people and the middle class, too, the unemployed, the under-employed and the despairing. Addiction and incarceration rates are high, and we feel lost and powerless about how to address these problems. Many well-intentioned people wonder if we have somehow missed something important, perhaps a deeper awareness of the struggles of the people we live and work alongside every day. Has our sense of community become too constricted, or, ironically, too self-centered? What does it mean if we supposedly "live in a bubble"? It's tempting in every age to feel overwhelmed by the world's suffering, and then to become immobilized, thinking that we can't fix it, so we need not do anything at all.
Charles Campbell hears hope, however, in Mary's "song for the ages...that invites us beyond our realistic expectations and our numb imagination." Can we imagine a radically different and dramatically better world, or do "realistic expectations" limit our imagination? Even though there are many more people with enough (and far more than enough) to live comfortably than there were in Mary's time, the church is still called to proclaim "God's challenge to good order," Charles Campbell writes, wherever that "good" order requires or results in the suffering of the poor.
Scarcity or generosity?
As long as millions of children go to bed hungry or homeless or afraid each night, as long as the poorest of the poor suffer the most from climate change and environmental racism, as long as some bear the cost, generations later, of our rash and selfish decisions...as long as these things happen, there are tables to be turned, that is, if we're going to mean what we sing in this year's Christmas carols. Sharon Ringe describes the righting of all things, when all of God's children will have what they need, when the rich and the hungry, the lowly and the powerful, according to Mary, will "move toward a common middle ground." Ringe's claim for Mary's time is our dream, too, when "an economy marked by scarcity and competition is replaced by an economy of generosity in which all have enough."
It would be extraordinary if our Christmas dreaming led us to begin the new year with a new vision for our economy, re-shaping it into one of generosity and abundance for all. Why is that such a terrifying idea for those who have far, far more than enough? (A more reasonable fear would be that the richest and most powerful will find ways to make even more wealth gravitate upward, rather than downward, toward those most in need.)
Getting things right again
Eugene Peterson's translation (in The Message) of the Magnificat may say that "[t]he starving poor sat down to a banquet; the callous rich were left out in the cold," but Stephen Cooper suggests that Mary's song doesn't call for "violent resistance or to drive the wealthy and powerful to despair." Instead, he says, the wealthy will hear the vision, too, of "a positive relation" between rich and poor, so that all will enjoy "the same promised salvation." However, even this kind of conversion would take considerable courage. Richard Ascough asks the most provocative question of all: "I wonder whether we would dare to sing the Magnificat today. What would it mean?"
We long for a time when suffering will end and everyone will have enough, when nations and families will live in peace, and the earth will be restored and healed of the damage that has been done. This is a vision for the future, but we live in the present, counting on the promises of God. Interesting: Mary had the nerve and the imagination to claim such a future for herself and her people, but Barbara Brown Taylor says that "she was singing about it ahead of time--not in the future tense but in the past, as if the promise had already come true. Prophets almost never get their verb tenses straight, because part of their gift is being able to see the world as God sees it...as an eternally unfolding mystery that surprises everyone." Are we capable of mixing up our tenses, too, of seeing in the past what is unfolding in our lives and what is still yet to come?
Expectant and hope-filled
As the world goes on ahead of us and celebrates Christmas, we are still in Advent, learning from Mary, Fred Craddock says, to "stand expectantly at hope's window." We're already saturated with Christmas music, calls to shop and spend, and expectations that we cannot meet. Michael S. Bennett observes that lovely, heartwarming Christmas observances have been replaced by "the big, flashy events [that] are largely focused around the twin idols of celebrity and consumerism."
Maybe we feel that the often-loud message of the surrounding culture, however sentimental and sweet, has pushed the church and its witness to the edge of irrelevance. However, there's good news: the church, Bennett writes, "can welcome the faithful into this marginality, because marginal people, like expectant mothers in the ancient Near East, have time to listen and wait."
Some of us look back longingly on Christmases past, hoping to re-create better, more secure, less troubled times. If many folks are personally or communally grieving, depressed or lonely during the holiday season, then the church's call is to tell the story once again, to comfort and inspire and often just be with those who need help in looking forward in hope. This won't happen overnight, Bennett writes, and the church's elders need to tell that old, old story again: "How many Marys and Elizabeths (or Zechariahs and Josephs) might there be sitting in the pews, awaiting an opportunity to connect more deeply with the people around them? How many long to connect their small story with the larger stories of God?"
What is your greatest hope?
How is God at work in the life of your congregation during this Advent season? In what ways does it make a difference that you listen for God's word in community rather than alone? How have you, together, deepened your faith in ways you might not have experienced in isolation? What is your greatest hope in this season of hope? How does your "small story" connect with "the larger stories of God"? According to Michael Bennett, "This very human-sized story prepares us for the grand, history-changing birth that is yet to come. The congregations that linger here will be strengthened, prepared, and deepened for their Christmas celebration." We need community, indeed.
During Advent, we may be eager to start singing our beloved Christmas carols, songs of joy and peace, music that's imprinted on our hearts and souls, just as Mary's own song was part of who she was. First, though, we might linger for a while on Mary's song of tables turned upside down, and feasts for the poor and hungry. John Michael Talbot's composition of the Magnificat, "Holy Is His Name," is a beautiful way to hear Mary's song.
And so, we stand by that window with Mary, listening, expectant with hope and filled to the brim with joy because our tenses have been jumbled, too, and we have experienced in every "already" moment of tender love and forgiveness the promise of what is yet to come. We sing with Mary, then, and we move with her song, listening for God's own heartbeat, a heartbeat of justice, compassion, and transformational love.
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the retired dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection
Simone Weil, 20th century
"Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity."
Meister Eckart, 14th century
"We are all meant to be mothers of God."
Eleanor Roosevelt, 20th century
"The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams."
Mother Teresa, 20th century
"One filled with joy preaches without preaching."
"A people is never defeated until the hearts of the women are on the ground."
Albert Camus, 20th century
"In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there's something stronger...something better, pushing right back."
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
"In a gentle way, you can shake the world."
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers, 20th century
"The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater."
James Whitehead, 20th century
"Faith is the enduring ability to imagine life in a certain way."
Stephen Sondheim, 21st century
"If I cannot fly, let me sing."
Zora Neale Hurston, 20th century
"Love, I find, is like singing."
Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, 21st century
"...music is about as physical as it gets: your essential rhythm is your heartbeat; your essential sound, the breath. We're walking temples of noise, and when you add tender hearts to this mix, it somehow lets us meet in places we couldn't get to any other way."
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Song of Joy and Justice
Sunday, December 15