United Church of Christ

Sermon Seeds December 23 2018

Fourth Sunday of Advent Year C

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Lectionary citations:
Micah 5:2-5a
Luke 1:46b-55 or Psalm 80:1-7
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]

Worship resources for the Fourth Sunday of Advent Year C are at Worship Ways


Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]

Focus Theme:
Welcoming the Goodness of God

Reflection:
by Kathryn Matthews

Who can resist, on this Fourth Sunday in Advent, the opportunity to preach on this beautiful text from the Gospel of Luke, the story of Mary's elegantly exuberant prayer, the Magnificat? Her spontaneous outburst in song echoes Hannah's praise 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 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!

Four unlikely prophets

For the past three weeks, the lectionary has brought us preaching from those out-of-the-wilderness prophets, Jesus and John the Baptist, about world-shaking events: part judgment, part exhortation to get our lives turned around in preparation for what is to come.

In this week's unique situation, we have, in a sense, four unlikely prophets gathered not in the wilderness but on the front step of Elizabeth's home, two of them not even born yet, and still John is already able to acknowledge the One who is greater. The other two prophets are women, women with names and stories, women with voices and something to say, or in Mary's case, something to sing.

Hearing from the women for a change

Women and babies: 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-doing 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 and children for a change. And what a change they dream of!

The stories as overtures

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan's book, The First Christmas, offers an excellent lens through which we might read the familiar and beloved Nativity stories. Matthew and Luke each provide what the authors call an "overture" to their Gospel in which important themes in that Gospel are first heard. Borg and Crossan describe each evangelist's "overture as microcosm to his gospel as macrocosm."

In Luke's Gospel, his emphasis on women, the marginalized, and the Holy Spirit is evident in the birth narratives, including the one we read this week. In this short passage, the prophetic words of these two women, filled with the Holy Spirit, give voice to those who are lowly, like the shepherds to whom the angels later announce the birth of Jesus.

Easy to miss but very important

In his book, The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey, Henri Nouwen reflects on the encounter between Elizabeth and Mary. This meditation from a priest is worthy of the best feminist theology, which draws our attention to the easily missed things that are happening to and with the "little ones" in our Scripture texts.

It may be true that the mighty are brought down, and the great promises of old are kept, but in the meantime, on a dusty road, on a well-swept doorstep, two women meet to share the ancient, womanly experience of being with child.

An expectant time

Advent is indeed a time of waiting, a time pregnant with hope. On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, Mary and Elizabeth could be seen as two ordinary, pregnant women in the most extraordinary time and circumstances, on the brink of greatness but first tending 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 conditions, 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.

Focus on new life

The new life promised in Mary's pregnancy, of course, is the focus of Luke's story, as it fulfills promises to all humankind, but one wonders how these two humble women must have felt about what was happening in their own lives. Nouwen says, "Who could ever understand? Who could ever believe it? Who could ever let it happen? But Mary says, 'Let it happen to me', and she immediately realizes that only Elizabeth will be able to affirm her 'yes'. For three months Mary and Elizabeth live together and encourage each other to truly accept the motherhood given to them."

As Nouwen reads this story, neither woman had to wait alone for the extraordinary events to unfold, slowly, as pregnancies do: "They could wait together and thus deepen in each other their faith in God, for whom nothing is impossible. Thus, God's most radical intervention into history was listened to and received in community" (The Road to Daybreak).

Watching the promises unfold, together

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. Here, in community, we hold each other up when one of us needs encouragement or support. We help one another search for meaning, rejoice with one another, walk alongside each other.

Just as Elizabeth must have listened to Mary, and helped her prepare for what was to come (at least, as much as such a marvelous thing might be prepared for), we help one another work things out.

Rejoicing as we wait

Sometimes, we just sit in the dark quiet and wait, together, trusting in the promises of God, listening for a word from the God who speaks to our hearts. "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" (New Proclamation Year C 2009).

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.

A song of generations

There is a generational theme underneath this story, too, as we recall again the interview with the Reverend Otis Moss III, senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, who offers this encounter between women of two generations as a powerful image for the life of the congregation.

He calls the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth "a Pentecostal moment," a moment filled with the Holy Spirit, as an older generation makes space for the younger, as Mary shadows her older cousin in order to learn, as Elizabeth includes Mary in imagining the future they share and welcomes her fresh ideas even as they share the core treasure of faith.

Reverend Moss exhorts congregations to value the creativity of the youth in our churches and count on the older, more experienced generations to shape boundaries for that creativity, for it's through the elders that the narrative of what God has done is perpetuated.

What is happening underneath this story?

Barbara Brown Taylor has written two engaging sermons on this text, using her religious imagination to re-create the scene in ways that are poignantly human and full of insights that we might miss if we rush too quickly through this wonderful little story, if we don't bother to let our imaginations run free.

No one knows with certainty, of course, why Mary sets out immediately on a long and undoubtedly dangerous trip to see her relative, Elizabeth. I grew up hearing that Mary had parents, Joachim and Anna (another woman, we are told, who conceived in old age), but they never appear in the stories in the Bible. We're left to wonder, and to imagine, with Taylor, that perhaps a frightened Mary looks for reassurance from Elizabeth, an older and trustworthy person in her life ("Magnificat," Mixed Blessings).

Mary needs a mother figure

Would we say today that Elizabeth is a kind of mother-figure to Mary, or a spiritual mentor? In any case, Mary seems to need both, and perhaps a protective figure as well. 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'" ("Singing Ahead of Time," Home by Another Way).

However, 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, "so full of life that it is hard to see much beyond her joy" ("Magnificat," Mixed Blessings). Is it any surprise, then, that in her relief and joy, Mary begins to sing?

Trouble and beauty all in one song

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. This young girl, inexperienced and sheltered, sings about God's blessings in her life, and about God's vision of a world made right.

Perhaps she gets carried away: "She is no longer singing the song; the song is singing her," Taylor writes, and this teenager is transformed into "an articulate radical, an astonished prophet singing about a world in which the last have become first and the first, last" ("Magnificat," Mixed Blessings).

In another sermon, Taylor says that Mary sings not just for Elizabeth and Zechariah but "for every son and daughter who thought God has forgotten the promise to be with them forever, to love them forever, to give them fresh and endless life" ("Singing Ahead of Time," Home by Another Way).

What kind of God does Mary sing of?

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, even though it was seen as "subversive" – and banned – by the authorities in Guatemala in the 1980's (John Ortberg, "Living by the Word," The Christian Century, December 15, 2009, drawing on the work of Scott McKnight).

I remember hearing years ago that in the Latin American base communities, the people read the Bible and heard in 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 lost in poverty. All sorts of trouble can start when the people get their hands on the Bible, it seems.

Maybe the governmental authorities in Guatemala were just paying more attention than most of us do, as we sing our hymns. What, for example, do our Christmas carols really mean, when they sing about Jesus and the coming rule of God's righteousness?

A deep, desperate hope

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. Ortberg's reflection 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.

Herod was so brutal and so unpopular that "[h]e knew people would party when he died, so he supposedly 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 with a religious imagination of his own whether Jesus himself learned "his material" – about the poor and the hungry and the meek being blessed – from his mother, who must have taught him that God dreamed of a very different world, one of justice and healing and peace, that was surely coming to be ("Living by the Word," The Christian Century 12-15-09).

Tables that need to be turned

It's true that things aren't as they should be in our age, either, even without a Herod "the Great" (we might wonder what that word "great" means anymore). Even though there are proportionately many more people with enough (and 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," as Charles Campbell reminds us (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1), wherever that "order" requires or results in the suffering of the poor. (Again, like last week, we have to wonder why "good order" requires tear gas on children and toddlers at our border.)

As long as millions of children go to bed hungry or homeless or afraid each night, 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 things, when all of God's children will have what they need: The rich and the hungry, the lowly and the powerful "represent economic and political opposites, and as a result of God's action, they are said to 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" (Luke, Westminster Bible Companion).

Daring to sing the Magnificat

Wouldn't it be something - a miracle, in fact - if our Christmas dreaming led us to begin the new year with a new vision for our economy, one of generosity and abundance? After all, Mary's song is "not intended to raise violent resistance or to drive the wealthy and powerful to despair," Stephen Cooper writes. Instead, "the well-off are exhorted to deal with their wealth in a way that brings them into a positive relation with the poor in order to partake in the same promised salvation" (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1).

Still, even this kind of conversion would take considerable courage. Richard Ascough asks, "I wonder whether we would dare to sing the Magnificat today. What would it mean?" (New Proclamation Year C 2000-2001).

A contemporary Mary, a song of defiance?

The destruction of our environment is perhaps the most pressing problem of our moment in time, as much an existential threat to life as the existence of nuclear warheads. Young people (the "Mary" generation) understandably feel frustration over the inaction (and even refusal to act) of the "Elizabeth" generation, although it's more accurately the "Zechariah" generation, as men continue to dominate the leadership of the world.

Recently, I saw a short article about Greta Thunberg, a young woman who leads a youth movement in Sweden about climate change. Sitting right next to UN Secretary General António Guterres, she gave a startling but very Mary-like speech to the powers-that-be at the UN climate talks (COP24) being held in Poland, bluntly telling them that she and her generation aren't asking for permission or help - or even demanding that the inert leaders do anything about the problem. She simply informed them that, whether they like it or not, change is coming: "Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago" she said.

As the grandmother of a 17-year-old girl (and six other grandchildren; I worry about all their futures), my first thought was, "Good for you." But I was also reminded of that young girl on a doorstep thousands of years ago, not so meek and mild, daring to dream and sing of tables overturned and the powerful brought low, not out of vengeance but for the sake of what is good and just and right for all: speaking truth to power.

Longing for an end to suffering

We all 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, though: 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 – not divided into things that are already over and things that have not happened yet, but as an eternally unfolding mystery that surprises everyone" ("Singing Ahead of Time," Home by Another Way). Might we be able to mix up our tenses, too?

Marys and Elizabeths and Zechariahs and Josephs in our pews

We are now in the last week of Advent, on the verge of another Christmas celebration, learning from Mary, Fred Craddock says, to "stand expectantly at hope's window" (Preaching through the Christian Year C). Some of us look back longingly on Christmases past, hoping to re-create better, more secure, less troubled times. Many folks are grieving or depressed or lonely during the holiday season, and the church's call is to tell the story once again, to comfort and inspire and just be with those who need help in looking forward in hope.

Michael S. Bennett encourages us to be patient: "The development of hope within community takes time. 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?" (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1).

What is your greatest hope?

How is God at work in the life of your congregation? 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 as another Advent season comes to an end?

In the season of Advent, our waiting is accompanied by beautiful and treasured music. The Reverend Dr. Jo Hudson, Co-Pastor of the New Church-Chiesa Nuova, United Church of Christ in Dallas, has written evocatively of the power of Christmas carols to "speak to the deep places of my wandering from God and my wondering about God." Perhaps that's why this music is so beloved, so imprinted on our hearts and souls as Mary's own song was part of who she was.

In a world that longs for a gentle peace, a generous sharing of the goods of the earth, a time of quiet joy and healing, we stand by that window with Mary, expectant with hope and filled to the brim with joy because our tenses have been jumbled, too, and we have seen in every moment of tender love and forgiveness the promise of what is yet to come. We sing with Mary, welcoming the goodness of God into that world, and into our lives as well.  

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The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Simone Weil, 20th century
"Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity."

Meister Eckhart, 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."

Cheyenne saying
"A people is never defeated until the hearts of the women are on the ground."

Swedish Proverb
"Those who wish to sing always find a song."

Ann Patchett, 21st century
"Because of her singing they all went away feeling moved, feeling comforted, feeling, perhaps, the slightest tremors of faith."

Gangai Victor, 21st century
"It's easy to sing the song, but to pray the lyrics from deep within… that's worship!"

Alfred Delp, Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings, 1941-1944, 20th century
"Advent is the time of promise; it is not yet the time of fulfillment. We are still in the midst of everything and in the logical inexorability and relentlessness of destiny. Space is still filled with the noise of destruction and annihilation, the shouts of self-assurance and arrogance, the weeping of despair and helplessness. But round about the horizon the eternal realities stand silent in their age-old longing. There shines on them already the first mild light of the radiant fulfillment to come. From afar sound the first notes as of pipes and voices, not yet discernable as a song or melody. It is all far off still, and only just announced and foretold. But it is happening, today."


Lectionary texts

Micah 5:2-5a

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
   who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
   one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
   from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
   when she who is in labor has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
   to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
   in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
   to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.

Luke 1:46b-55

[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."

Psalm 80:1-7

Give ear,
   O Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned
   upon the cherubim,
shine forth before Ephraim
   and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
   and come to save us!

Restore us,
   O God;
let your face shine,
   that we may be saved.

O Sovereign God of hosts,
   how long will you be angry
with your people's prayers?
You have fed them
   with the bread of tears,
and given them tears to drink
   in full measure.

You make us the scorn
   of our neighbors;
our enemies laugh
   among themselves.

Restore us,
   O God of hosts;
let your face shine,
   that we may be saved.

Hebrews 10:5-10

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
"Sacrifices and offerings
  you have not desired,
but a body you have prepared
   for me;
in burnt offerings
   and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
Then I said,
'See, God, I have come to do your will,
   O God'
(in the scroll of the book
it is written of me)."

When he said above, "You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings" (these are offered according to the law), then he added, "See, I have come to do your will." He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God's will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."

[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."]


Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:blains@ucc.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.

Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday" — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."

Notes on Advent and Christmas

There are different approaches to the colors associated with Advent; both have historical precedent.

Violet--once a very expensive color to produce (remember Lydia in Acts?)--was associated with royalty, and so with some traditions of Christ the King. It was also adopted in many churches for use in Lent, and so acquired penitential associations. The Rose color used on Advent 3 — Gaudete (Joy) Sunday, when readings traditionally employed imagery of rejoicing, offered a break from the penitential themes by pointing to the joy, or the dawn, drawing close at Christmas. Some advent wreaths include three Purple and one Rose candle. (Remember that "Gaudete" comes into English as "Gaudy," and choose a deep, rather than a pale, shade of Rose or Pink!)

Another Advent tradition employs deep Blue, suggesting the long nights in the Northern Hemisphere at this time of year. We wait in expectation and hope in these long nights, not only for the birth of Christ, but also for Christ's return at the end of history. Candle lighting rituals may take on a particular poignancy in such a context. In this setting, using the Rose candle on the third Sunday of Advent--Gaudete (Joy)--points to the dawn that is coming.

White, or its variant, Gold, first appears on Christmas Eve and may be continued through the Sunday after Christmas, Epiphany, and the Sunday after Epiphany (celebrated by many as the Baptism of Christ) to show that all of these events are festivals related to the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

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