Sermon Seeds: Choose to Be Courageous
Third Sunday of Advent Year A
Worship resources for Third Sunday of Advent Year A are at Worship Ways
Sermon on Luke 1:46b-55
Additional reflection on Isaiah 35:1-10
Additional reflection on Isaiah 35:1-10 and Matthew 11:2-11
Choose to Be Courageous
by Kathryn 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 (Feasting on the Word Year C Vol. 1).
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 prayer, the Magnificat, 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 Luke’s 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.
Ancient traditions of women
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” (The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey).
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.
“A preface for Emmanuel”
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 God who is faithful in every generation, every time, every place.
“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.
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'” (Home by Another Way).
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” (“Magnificat” in Mixed Blessings). Is it any surprise, then, that in her relief and joy, Mary begins to sing?
A song from deep within
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” (Luke, Westminster Bible Companion). 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” (“Magnificat,” in Mixed Blessings).
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 (“Singing Ahead of Time,” Home by Another Way). 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.
God loves both rich and poor
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” (Luke, New Interpreter’s Bible).
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.
A book of “dangerous” ideas
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 (The Christian Century, December 2009). What a refreshing exercise of religious imagination!
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.
Imagining a different world
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 (Feasting on the Word Year C Vol. 1), 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 people 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” (Luke, Westminster Bible Companion).
Our “Christmas dreaming” and our fears
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 version of the Magnificat may say that “[t]he starving poor sat down to a banquet; the callous rich were left out in the cold” (The Message), 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” (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1).
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?” (New Proclamation Year C 2000-2001). Talk about starting trouble!
Living in the meanwhile
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” (“Singing Ahead of Time,” in Home by Another Way).
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” (Preaching through the Christian Year C). 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.
Nevertheless, there’s good news: the church’s preachers, 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” (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1).
A time for looking back and forward, too
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?” (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1).
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” (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1). We need community.
Lingering on the song
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.
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 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.”
Sermon on Luke 1:46b-55:
by Kathryn Matthews
The thing that most people pay attention to in today’s story about Mary visiting Elizabeth is the song that Mary sings when Elizabeth welcomes her: “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sings – and many of us remember this song as the Magnificat. In Cleveland, we even have a Catholic high school with that name.
The thing is, when I was growing up in Catholic schools, I somehow got the impression that the stories about Mary meant that she was a very submissive, obedient, even subservient woman – sort of the ultimate “good Catholic schoolgirl,” if you will. If she had grown up in the 1950’s and 60’s, as I did, her uniform skirt would never have been above her knees, and her blouse would have been neatly pressed, and she would have gone downstairs for Mass every morning instead of doing last-minute homework during optional study hall.
The whole thing about being pregnant and unmarried would have been a problem, for sure. But then, she was, for us, “The Blessed Virgin Mary,” or “the BVM,” for short. More than anyone else, we were supposed to strive to be just like her. You know, submissive, obedient, maybe even subservient, too.
Then, I grew up and I went to graduate school and studied feminist theology – in a Catholic university, no less – and I learned things they never told me in grade school, or high school either.
Or maybe they just taught me to look at the very same things differently, to read the same stories and to notice things that were happening around the edges. Things that were happening to the little ones, the people on the margins. The things that somehow get lost when comfortable people, the people in power, read the Bible. One of the reasons I love feminist theology is the way it reads the text not just from a woman’s point of view but from the point of view of those on the edges, the voiceless, those who have been excluded or put down. That’s what you call solidarity, and, as Martha Stewart would say, it’s a good thing.
Of course, we know that Mary’s pregnancy fulfills God’s promise of a Messiah, and that Elizabeth will produce the prophet who will prepare the way for that Messiah, Jesus. But Mary and Elizabeth could also 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 circumstances, one way too old to conceive, and the other a virgin. Are we really surprised then that they would get together to offer each other comfort and support?
Don’t you wonder what these two ordinary women must have felt about the extraordinary things that were happening to them? The wonderful priest-writer, Henri Nouwen, wrote beautifully about this passage from the Gospel of Luke. He focused not on the big, historic things that were happening but on the meeting of these two women on a dusty road, two women coming together to share the ancient, womanly experience of being with child. Nouwen tried to imagine what was going through their heads; he wrote, “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.”
Hmmm….Let it happen to me….truly accept….okay, she’s starting to sound a lot like a good schoolgirl, Catholic or otherwise. But maybe not. It’s one thing for Mary to have accepted her call to be the mother of Jesus, but it’s a whole other thing to see her as submissive. I mean, when you really read this song closely, she’s talkin’ revolution, as folks used to say in the 60’s.
The people in power, the comfortable, are going to be laid low, and the poor and the pressed down will be lifted up and filled with good things. Mary didn’t make that up, she learned it in school, you might say, when she learned the song of her ancestress, Hannah, whose song she echoes. This was the ancient story of her people and her faith, those promises of a God who loves and cares for every single one of God’s children and doesn’t take well to selfishness, greed, and oppression. The tables are going to be turned, or maybe overturned is a better way of putting it. God remembers the people, and the promises God has made.
So this Magnificat, this canticle, this song of Mary sings of resistance, of an energetic faith like the one that sustained her grandmothers through the ages, an energetic and persistent faith that insisted that God would be true to God’s promises and what do you know, here they are right now being fulfilled right before our eyes!
Justice, healing, compassion – these are important matters to Mary, the good Jewish girl, and so we shouldn’t be surprised when they are just as important to the boy she raises. You might say that Jesus is a lot like his mother. Both Mary and Elizabeth are strong, gutsy women who raised their extraordinary sons to be leaders, teachers, and trouble-makers, too, in the eyes of the powerful – the comfortable, well-fed, powerful who will be brought down by songs like the one Mary sings.
Both Mary and Elizabeth know the story and the hope that have kept their families alive and together for thousands of years, and they know the song of their people, the music of hope that someday the world will be put right, and they know that this moment is the moment of promise that all these things are about to begin, that the promises are beginning to unfold right before their eyes. They continue to unfold, day by day, right before our eyes, too.
I was driving around in my car this week, listening to NPR and thinking about this sermon, when I heard a most extraordinary interview of three women who had written a book together. One of the women is Jewish, one is Muslim, and one is Christian. After September 11, the Muslim woman, Ranya, was struggling with questions about her faith and her identity as a Palestinian American. She reached out to these two other women and began a difficult but ultimately rewarding interfaith conversation and friendship.
Together they wrote a book called The Faith Club. Like Mary and Elizabeth, in challenging circumstances, they reached out to each other and found a way, together.
The more I listened, the more interesting the conversation grew. Then, I was struck by one thing the Muslim woman said about the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which had been one of the most painful issues for the women. Ranya said, so simply and eloquently, “I just want an acknowledgement of the suffering of the Palestinian people; I want our suffering and loss acknowledged and honored; I believe that is the beginning of healing, reconciliation, and peace.”
It wasn’t a song, really, but it was one more woman’s voice, speaking up for the suffering of her people and insisting, like Mary, that their voice be heard. The path of justice leads through compassion, through listening and honoring the experience and suffering of another.
My heart aches, as I know yours do, too, for the suffering of people right now in places far away and close at hand, in places like Palestine and Israel and Lebanon and Iraq and the Sudan, and here in this city and in all our cities and neighborhoods and in many, many of our own homes. There are children and elderly people and so many other vulnerable people whose experience needs to be honored, whose stories need to be heard.
I know we feel overwhelmed at times by the suffering and sorrow of the world. And yet, we have been shown a way and offered a promise: if those of us who are well fed and comfortable, those of us who have power, those of us who have a voice, get out of our comfort zones regularly and listen to the stories and experiences of others who are not so well fed, who live on the edge, who feel pressed down…well, honoring that experience and that pain, as Ranya said, is the beginning of reconciliation, healing, and peace. And aren’t those the things that we really long for, deep down, in this Christmas season?
At another point in the interview, the Jewish woman, Priscilla, spoke of her change of heart and mind about the whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She said that she moved from thinking of the Palestinians as an impersonal concept to thinking of her friend, Ranya, and that made everything different. What might happen, we wonder, if more and more people did take things personally – that is, if we thought of a person we know and love and if we honored their suffering, and the suffering of their people before we form an opinion or make a decision that affects them?
That takes the meaning of friendship to a whole new level, doesn’t it? It means that relationship, that community is the way that we keep our hearts open to one another. It means that relationship, that community is the place where we grow our faith in God and help one another listen for how God is still speaking in our lives; it’s the place where we wait together for the promises of God to unfold in our lives.
It means that relationship, that community is the way that we honor one another’s experience, affirm one another’s gifts, watch over one another, and hold each other up when we need it. It means that relationship, that community is the path we take to righting the wrongs of the world, to repairing the damage that’s been done, to dreaming of a better way for all of God’s children to live.
We are such a little community here at New Vision United Church of Christ. I like to say that we are a mustard seed church, so tiny but so full of promise. Here in this Advent season, then, pregnant with hope, we know that in the days ahead, we are going to watch the promises of God unfold in our lives and in the life we share in community. We are going to help one another search for meaning; we’re going to share our stories and walk alongside one another.
Sometimes, we’ll just sit in the dark quiet and wait, together, trusting in the promises of God, listening for a word from the Stillspeaking God. And in the midst of our waiting, as Paul, writing from prison, encouraged the Philippians in last week’s reading; as Hannah and Mary sang God’s praise; and as Elizabeth welcomed her beloved cousin and companion, we will rejoice, our hearts dancing within us. God’s promises are true. As Christmas approaches, we can feel it, can’t we? We are on the brink of great things. Amen.
Homecoming. Restoration. Healing. Joy. Some words reside more properly in our hearts than in our minds, because in every age they express our deepest longings, and therefore might “make more sense” to our stubborn hearts than to our minds.
For example, during their exile and wandering, the people of ancient Israel, our ancestors in faith, had a deep longing for home that included vindication over the enemies that had destroyed their beautiful city and kept them under the cruel heel of oppression and captivity.
When things were at their worst, it must have taken a considerable measure of courage to hope for such wonderful things as homecoming, restoration, healing, and joy. In fact, “Choose to Be Courageous” is a very appropriate theme for this reading as well as the Luke text, for it takes courage at times to be hopeful, or to choose joy.
This Third Sunday in Advent, in fact, is called Gaudete Sunday, a day to be joyful even in the midst of long waiting, uncertainty and even suffering.
What we need to hear
Isn’t it true that prophets have a way of saying exactly what the people need to hear, whether the people hear it that way or not? When God’s people in exile are steeped in despair, the prophet has good news: “The news is climate change,” Mary Hinkle Shore writes, “and it means to give hope to people with a stretch of hostile environment between them and their home” (New Proclamation Year A 2007-8).
This is very different from the climate change that dominates our news, and, unlike today, it’s much more a word of hope than of challenge.
Hard to trust good news
And yet, it is a challenge for the people of Israel to trust that the news for them could actually be good. (Hinkle Shore remembers a colleague observing that it was hard for the prophets to get the people to believe God’s promises, good news or bad.)
This really good news is all-encompassing, for everyone and everything; like today, humanity and nature are both in need of redemption, Walter Brueggemann writes, and “both desperately yearn for rescue” (Texts for Preaching Year A).
All of nature transformed
Remember last week’s reading from Isaiah, in which animals would witness to the new age of peace by living together in gentleness, instead of predators preying on the weak? This week’s reading enlarges that picture to include the parched earth itself and the entire wilderness in the transformation of what we think of as “natural.”
Water will flow in the desert, and a road, wide and smooth, safe and inviting, will be cut through the formerly tangled, hostile wilderness, so all of God’s children, now made holy, can make their way to Zion, and “everlasting joy will be upon their heads” (v. 10). What a phrase that is!
This week, not just the animals and the earth itself are transformed, but all of humanity is made whole and healthy, just like its renewed relationship with God. After all, if “salvation” is about healing, and “God comes to save,” won’t healing be the obvious sign of God at work?
And then there’s that matter of “vengeance” that the oppressed also hunger for, but Walter Brueggemann expands the idea of God’s “vengeance” into something “positive”–that is, “that God will come to right wrong, to order chaos, to heal sickness, to restore life to its rightful order”–or what Brueggemann calls “transformative compassion” (Isaiah 1-19, Westminster Bible Companion).
This compassion can be expected, then, to transform the lives of those Brueggemann calls “overwhelmed” and incapable of “living effectively and joyously.”
So then the lame will not just walk but will leap (and perhaps dance with joy?) and the speechless will not just find words but music, too, a song of joy. And how else could they respond? “People are given back their lives,” Brueggemann notes. “Humanity is restored to full function” (Texts for Preaching Year A).
A glorious hope
What words can the prophet find for such a glorious hope? Isaiah draws on images familiar to his own people, like “the glory of Lebanon” and “the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.” Andrew Bartelt explains the power of these images: “the glory (kabod) of Lebanon” in all its “natural beauty, is surpassed by the ‘glory’ of Yahweh” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).
We can imagine: “See those magnificent cedars? God’s glory is so, so much greater.”
In the midst of our waiting
We read this text in the midst of our Advent waiting. Of course, the world around us has already charged ahead full-steam into the Christmas season and will have tired of it by December 26, but in the church we are still in a season of waiting and anticipation, and preparation, too.
With one foot in the world of a waiting church and the other foot in the celebrating (and shopping) world, we’re challenged to hear these promises without going into overload. Yes, even good news can be too much to take in when we’re too busy to hear it.
And yet, and yet…
And yet, Bartelt says, the good news of healing and restoration is for us, too, “God’s special creatures whose hands are feeble and knees unsteady, and whose hearts are ‘hurried’ (a more literal rendering of the Hebrew)” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts). Wouldn’t this word accurately describe the hearts of many of us in these December weeks–hurried?
However, we Christians hear the promises not only mindful of our longing for healing and restoration but also mindful of what God is already doing in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That’s why we’re celebrating the birth of the baby in the first place, of course.
Just as the lame would dance and the blind see and the speechless sing in the promised day of joy that Isaiah describes, so the lame walked and the blind saw and the speechless praised God when Jesus walked the earth and healed them as a sign of God’s promises coming to fulfillment.
Busy and hungry
So we are busy in this Advent season, but we’re hungry, too, for the restoration, healing, and joy (and perhaps rest?) it promises. Do we dare hope for such wonders, or are we afraid, like our ancient ancestors of faith, to believe in “news too good to be true,” afraid of being disappointed?
Mary Hinkle Shore notes that Isaiah’s response to such fear is, we might say, fearless itself, for he “does not speak gently to them of incremental improvements or baby steps toward home.” No, Isaiah dreams and writes “big”: the highway is a superhighway, smooth and easy to travel, the healing and joy is for everyone and everything, all of God’s creation (New Proclamation Year A 2007-8).
We have God’s joy
When most of us are struggling to find our way, it’s good to be reminded by Brueggemann that “God does what the world thinks is not possible. Advent is getting ready for that impossibility which will permit us to dance and sing and march and thank and drink–and live!” (Texts for Preaching Year A).
As beautifully as Brueggemann describes it, he reaches for the words of another, Frederick Buechner, from his work, The Longing for Home, to bring us “back home” to “Gaudete Sunday”: “Joy is home…God created us in joy and for joy, and in the long run not all the darkness there is in the world and in ourselves can separate us finally from that joy…We have God’s joy in our blood” (Isaiah 1-39, Westminster Bible Companion).
For further reflection:
Henry David Thoreau, 19th century:
“Life in us is like the water in a river.”
Jane Austen, Emma, 19th century:
“Where the waters do agree, it is quite wonderful the relief they give.”
Francis of Assisi, Canticle of the Sun, 13th century:
“Praised be my Lord, for our sister water.”
Pablo Neruda, 20th century:
“You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming.”
John Guare, Landscape of the Body, 20th century:
“It’s amazing how a little tomorrow can make up for a whole lot of yesterday.”
Each year, it seems to get worse. The build-up to Christmas becomes more frenetic, more stressful, and more expensive with each passing season, and the observance of “Advent”–even the word itself–seems to get lost in our secularized holiday outburst of consumerism.
And yet, each year, the hope is the same. Each year, underneath the fast-paced, media-driven, frantic preparations for “the big day”– the shopping, the family gatherings, the arrival of Santa and the opening of gifts (followed shortly by the arrival of bills)–each year, so many people express a yearning for something else, something more.
Peace and healing right here
Perhaps that is the greatest hope of Advent, that we are not looking back at a little baby in a manger so much as remembering that baby in a manger as we hope for what we look forward to: the coming of God’s healing Reign in all its fullness. Like John the Baptist in our Gospel reading, we ask who this person is, this Jesus, and shall we continue to wait, or has hope arrived?
As Christians and disciples of Jesus, we believe that hope has indeed arrived in the person of Jesus Christ. We believe that, as the Body of Christ today, we continue to embody hope even as we look longingly to a time when there is the fullness of justice and peace and healing in this world, not just a pie-in-the-sky, faraway heaven, after death, but real peace and healing right here, in this time and place.
An ancient hope
We are not the first to long for this peace, justice and healing. The prophet looked forward to the signs of healing in creation itself, when the parched earth would be transformed by streams breaking forth in the desert and the burning sands of the desert would become pools of refreshing water.
Zion, the peaceable kingdom of last week’s reading, becomes the center to which all the people of God will come–again, flowing like streams in the wilderness–and no one will be held back by weakness of body or spirit, for God, whose power makes all things possible, will hold them up and carry them through.
More than a lovely holiday
So, then, what are the things that make us fearful in this, our time of waiting? What are the dry, parched places in our life together? In what wilderness do we wander? Can we look at our anticipation more closely, and dig deeper into our hopes?
On December 26, where will we be, besides dreading the mail that brings monthly statements of our credit cards, or let down once again by holiday celebrations that didn’t quite measure up, or just exhausted from the effort of it all? Even if the holidays are lovely, is there not more to our hope and our expectation than just a lovely holiday?
“A deep sea of blessing”
John the Baptist had “great expectations.” He was looking for, and had given his life to, the arrival of the Messiah, the great hope of his people. But he was perplexed, there in prison, by the nature of Jesus’ work and identity.
Could he have been mistaken about who Jesus was? Was it time to turn his attention to another, more “powerful” one? One who would bring fire and judgment instead of eyesight, healing, and forgiveness?
What kind of faith do we hold?
How is God still speaking to us today, in the church, about our expectations? Do we want church to be nice, and peaceful, and free of controversy? Do we want an easy faith, a “safe” one?
Douglas Long affirms the struggle of those who understand that faithfulness to the gospel can be costly: “even when the world is scandalized or offended by acts of mercy and peace, those who swim past the waves of shock slapping them in the face will find themselves in a deep sea of blessing” (Matthew, Westminster John Knox Commentary).
How can we rejoice?
What “waves of shock” are slapping your church in the face? What potential waves are out there, waiting for you? How and when has your church faced down these fears and moved through them?
When have you been surprised, or uncertain, like John, about how God was at work in your life, and in the life of your community? In what ways do we long for streams to break forth in our own wilderness? And as we wait, how can we rejoice?
For further reflection:
Rob Bell, 21st century:
“Jesus is God’s way of refusing to give up his dream for the world.”
Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams, 20th century:
“The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 20th century:
“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
Maxine Hong Kingston, 20th century:
“In a time of destruction, create something.”
Aristotle, 4th century B.C.E.:
“Hope is a waking dream.”
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Happy are those whose help
is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Sovereign
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice
for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
God sets the prisoners free;
God opens the eyes
of the blind.
God lifts up those
who are bowed down;
God loves the righteous.
God watches over the strangers
and upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked
God brings to ruin.
God will reign forever,
your God, O Zion,
for all generations.
“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.”
Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.
Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.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.”