Sermon Seeds: Here Am I

Fourth Sunday of Advent Year B color_blue.jpg

Lectionary citations:
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:46-55 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

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

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Luke 1:26-38
Additional reflection on Luke 1:46b-55 (from 2016)
Focus Theme:
Here Am I

by Kathryn Matthews Kate_2017_a.jpeg

Like those before her who have been informed of a most unlikely impending birth (Sarah and Abraham, Hannah and Elkanah, Elizabeth and Zechariah), Mary is astounded by the amazing power of God. Luke the storyteller weaves his way through the announcement of John the Baptist’s conception (and Elizabeth’s recognition of what God has done for her), through the annunciation of a virgin birth, and on to Mary’s interpretation of what is happening to her, in the Magnificat.

There are, of course, significant differences between the two stories. From the settings to the characters to the way the story goes, each account takes its own path to that doorstep, with everyone together, and Mary singing that beautiful song of jubilant faith. Whether in Temple or dusty little village, with elderly parents-to-be surprised by joy or a young maiden facing an unexpected and dangerous pregnancy, the story speaks of trust in God at work in their lives in very surprising ways. (Zechariah the religious leader, ironically, took a little longer to get to that place of trust.)

God at work on the margins

While Luke describes Zechariah and Elizabeth in glowing terms (“righteous…living blamelessly”), Mary is simply “a virgin.” Greeted by an angel of God as “full of grace,” as “favored one,” Mary is nevertheless not described as extraordinarily holy; in fact, she could be an ordinary person like each of us. She’s a small-town girl, with her life moving along the quiet, ordinary path of an arranged marriage.

God, however, works wonders in every place, at the centers of power and in distant corners, “on the margins,” as we might say. Ashley Cook Cleere notes that “the extraordinary” happens everywhere, including “out-of-the-way places” where people live supposedly “unassuming lives” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1). But it’s especially compelling to think of Mary in that little village, far from the Temple, the center of worship and life for her people and their long story with God, and even farther away from Rome, the center of the “known world” of the time, the center of the Empire that kept its cruel heel upon those same people, the people of God.

Spirit and strength in unexpected places

Not that being an “ordinary” girl in a small village makes Mary without spirit or strength. William Brosend sketches a somewhat different picture of the traditional Mary, meek and mild, suggesting “more fearless and less humble” as better words to describe her. When that angel appears before Mary, talking about God being with her and then assuming that she’s afraid, Brosend notes that she has a right to be a bit perplexed (who wouldn’t be?): “Give the girl a chance, Gabriel! Her question is not an expression of doubt but an effort to understand the extraordinary words of the angel” (New Proclamation Year B 2005).

Indeed, who wouldn’t need a few minutes to process such information from an unexpected and even uninvited visitor? We read this account only once every three years in the lectionary, but it’s a familiar and beloved story (especially to artists), even though it perplexes us, too. The dialogue is spare, and we never really know for sure what Mary is thinking or feeling, at least until she sings her song of joy at Elizabeth’s house.

What is a blessing?

Commentators wrestle especially with the question of Mary’s acceptance–or is it surrender? And what is she accepting: an invitation, a request, or simply information about what’s going to happen to her, and is it a good thing that’s about to happen? In her lovely sermon on the text, “Mothers of God,” Barbara Brown Taylor observes, “The angel did not ask her how that sounded to her and whether she would like to try out for the role; he told her” (Gospel Medicine).

Gabriel twice recognizes her as “favored,” but then offers what R. Alan Culpepper calls “a strange blessing.” We thank God for our blessings, although many believe, Culpepper says, that those blessings are “the things we equate with a good life: social standing, wealth, and good health. Yet Mary, God’s favored one, was blessed with having a child out of wedlock who would later be executed as a criminal. Acceptability, prosperity, and comfort have never been the essence of God’s blessing” (Luke, New Interpreter’s Bible).

Many people might be taken aback, even offended, by Culpepper’s words, as we often hear people say, “I’ve been blessed” when they want to express their gratitude to God for these “good things” of life; in any case, his claim directly contradicts prosperity theology, but then, so does Mary’s life, rich in “strange” blessings.

What God is doing

In both of these stories from Luke of conception and promise, however, it’s really all about God and what God is doing. John the Baptist won’t preach his own message but, like all good prophets, will call the people to repentance in order to ready themselves for what God is about to do, and to prepare the way for the One who is to come. And Jesus, Gabriel says, will be not just a great man but the Son of the Most High God.

While many people, when hearing these words, turn to the Old Testament text of “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son” (Isaiah 7), William F. Brosend suggests that we really ought to look instead to the promise to Sarah and Abraham in Genesis 18: “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” (New Proclamation Year B 2005). Indeed, that part of the promise sounds very much like Gabriel’s own parting words, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (v. 37).

Announcing Good News

angel_close_up.jpgAnd that brings us to how God is doing such wonderful and seemingly impossible things here in this story about Mary and an angel’s astonishing announcement. We note that it isn’t called “The Request,” or “The Invitation,” but “The Annunciation.” And we suppose that God could have chosen to save the world, to fulfill God’s promises of old all on God’s own; after all, nothing is impossible with God.

However, this humble but earth-shaking conversation tells us that God wants humanity to be part of the effort, even if it makes things much more complicated and even difficult (which it does): As Brian K. Peterson writes, “God apparently is not willing to do this behind our backs or without our own participation” (New Proclamation Year B 2008). And this is what, in some mysterious way, makes Mary’s story our own, or at least it makes her story something we can understand much better.

God’s mysterious ways

In this quietly marvelous story, Ashley Cook Cleere finds intersection between Mary’s life and our own, for in each person’s life, “God takes part in the unfolding of human existence from before the moment of conception.” This is a staggering thought, that we were in God’s thoughts before we ever came to be (still, there is the beauty of Psalm 139 to remind us). Cleere observes that we are not always so keenly aware–or perhaps accepting–of God’s hand at work in our lives; I wonder if that has something to do with feelings of vulnerability (or invulnerability), with the experience of more or less agency and/or powerlessness in our lives.

In any case, Cleere notes, pastoral care is enriched by the insight, that, like Mary, we need “time to adjust to astonishing news, to question whether or not trials and tragedies, or God’s magnificent promises, are for real, and to contemplate potential repercussions. The query ‘How can this be?’ is a reverberating refrain that shapes our faith by reminding us…how much is hidden from us. The exclamation of these four words may well signify the nearness of God” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1).

In hospital waiting rooms, at the bedside of the dying, or in hearing a good report from the doctor, in a hundred different settings of human life where we are especially aware of “the nearness of God,” these words express our conviction that God is involved in our lives in ways that are mysterious indeed, just as God’s ways were mysterious to Mary that day and every day that followed.

Saying yes to possibilities

Barbara Brown Taylor, not surprisingly, addresses with great insight the question of Mary’s “choice,” her freedom to respond in this most unusual situation, and our freedom as well. Yes, Taylor has said that the angel announced the impending birth and didn’t ask Mary for her assent, but there is a choice for Mary, “whether to take hold of the unknown life the angel held out to her or whether to defend herself against it however she could.”

We have a similar choice between possibilities in our own lives, Taylor says, to say “yes or no: yes, I will live this life that is being held out to me or no, I will not….” You can say no to your life, Taylor says, “but you can rest assured that no angels will trouble you ever again.” And then she takes a bold turn that calls for courage on our part, if we say yes to our lives: “You can take part in a thrilling and dangerous scheme with no script and no guarantees. You can agree to smuggle God into the world inside your own body” (“Mothers of God” in Gospel Medicine). How are you bearing God in this world?

Too wonderful even for our imaginations

As Advent comes to an end and Christmas approaches, we look at our lives and the life of the church and ask, What is God doing today, here in our midst, that is too wonderful for our imaginations or our words? What is the hope of your congregation on this last Sunday in Advent? What extraordinary and grace-filled things have happened in your life, and what extraordinary and grace-filled things may yet happen? What is our role in the midst of what God is doing, and are we willing to say “yes” to that role?

Trusting that all things are possible with God requires a leap of faith, not only for Mary but for us today. And, like Mary, we will still have questions. William Brosend, for example, wonders, “If nothing will be impossible with God, why does so much in the lives of the parishioners seem such a mess?” He responds, “That nothing is impossible with God does not mean that God will do anything and everything. On this Sunday it means that God will do this thing. Which makes everything else possible” (New Proclamation Year B 2005).

Nothing impossible for God

So for us in the church, we understand Mary’s words, “For nothing will be impossible for God” as “the creed behind all other creeds. The church should recite it often,” Fred Craddock writes, “not only at the manger, not only at the empty tomb, but on any occasion for reflecting on its own life, joy, and hope” (Preaching through the Christian Year B). Really, this little story contains two recurring biblical messages: “Don’t be afraid,” and “Nothing is impossible with God.”

Joy and hope and trust: the virtues of Advent, it seems. In this Advent season in particular, we’re caught, suspended between fear and hope, on the edge of a new day but facing formidable challenges: war and terrorism, violence on our streets and in our homes, poverty and injustice, persistent economic crises and poisonous political divisions, sexism, racism, and perhaps irreparable harm to the earth…so many problems, many of them mirrored in our own personal lives in broken relationships, ill health, money worries, troubled consciences.

And yet…

And yet, Kimberly Bracken Long assures us that even “the state of our warring world or the state of our broken lives,” no matter how hopeless things may appear, can be healed. In fact, “it has already happened. Because of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ, the holy continues to break into our lives, to bring us closer to the completion of creation and the already-and-not-yet reign of God” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1). Where is the holy breaking into the life of your church, into the life of your community, into the life of the world? Where is the holy breaking into your own life?

In the midst of war, longing for peace as we do each Christmas, we might reflect on how we define or describe true peace. Does it appear that peace is impossible, whether between nations, spouses, friends, families, or next-door neighbors? Can you “cry peace” this Advent season? Is that our Advent message in the church?

The closing edge of Advent

Of all the commentaries, Dianne Bergant’s reflection brings us most elegantly to the closing edge of Advent, longing toward Christmas (tomorrow!) and its own promises: “According to ancient Christian writers, God waits for Mary’s yes; creation waits; Adam and Eve wait, the dead in the underworld wait; the angels wait; and so do we.” Because Mary agreed to her role in God’s plan, everything is different for all people, not just for her, but for all of God’s children.

We believe that the future belongs to God, and this story, as it affirms and illustrates the faith of one young girl long ago, also affirms and illuminates the faith of countless others–her ancestors and heirs–who trust in God’s goodness and the salvation we have been promised: “With David we await it, with the nations we long for it, and with Mary we behold it” (Preaching the New Lectionary Year B). And so, let it be with us, according to God’s will.

The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired last year 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:

Meister Eckhart, 14th century, quoted by Barbara Brown Taylor in Gospel Medicine
“We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? Then, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten in us.”

Anne Lamott, 21st century
“Joy is the best makeup.”

Jerry Van Amerongen, 21st century
“I feel like a tiny bird with a big song!”

Taylor Caldwell, 20th century
“I am not alone at all, I thought. I was never alone at all. And that, of course, is the message of Christmas. We are never alone. Not when the night is darkest, the wind coldest, the world seemingly most indifferent. For this is still the time God chooses.”

Rumi, 13th century
“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”

Helen Keller, The Story of My Life, 20th century
“One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar.”

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 20th century
“Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.”

Alfred Delp, Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings, 1941-1944
“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.”

Additional reflection on Luke 1:46b-55 (from 2016):

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 Fourth 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 close, 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” (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.

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” (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).

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?

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).  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” (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.

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. Opioid addiction, gun violence, 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,” 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 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” (Luke, Westminster Bible Companion).

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: how would this passage from the Bible sound as an opening prayer to every discussion of “tax reform” in Washington?

A vision for the future

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.

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 Advent_stole_Dawn_cropped.jpg

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. However, 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).

Our deep longing

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.

Holy is God’s name

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.

With much gratitude to the Rev. Tricia Gilbert for her photo of the Advent stole, “Dawn.”

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.”
Cheyenne saying:
“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.”

Lectionary texts

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.

Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.

Luke 1:46-55

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 for ever.”

Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26

I will sing of your steadfast love,
  O God, forever;
with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness
  to all generations.

I declare that your steadfast love
  is established forever;
your faithfulness is as firm
  as the heavens.

You said, “I have made a covenant
  with my chosen one,
I have sworn to my servant David:

‘I will establish your descendants
and build your throne
  for all generations.'”
Then you spoke in a vision
  to your faithful one, and said:
“I have set the crown on one
  who is mighty,
I have exalted one chosen
  from the people.

I have found my servant David;
  with my holy oil
I have anointed him;

my hand shall always remain
  with him;
my arm also shall strengthen him.

The enemy shall not outwit him,
  the wicked shall not humble him.

I will crush his foes
  before him
and strike down those
  who hate him.

My faithfulness and steadfast love
  shall be with him;
and in my name his horn
  shall be exalted.

I will set his hand
  on the sea
and his right hand
  on the rivers.

He shall cry to me,
  ‘You are my Father and Mother,
my God, and the Rock
  of my salvation!'”

Romans 16:25-27

Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory for ever! Amen.

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (
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.”

So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the “received” tradition!

Additional note on Advent and Christmas:

The Violet color for Advent is traditionally connected with royalty and penitence. Blue is symbolic of expectation and hope, not only for the birth of Christ, but also for Christ’s return at the end of history. Rose on the third Sunday of Advent, which was Gaudete (Joy), provided a little relief from the somberness of Advent in earlier times. Some Advent wreath sets include a rose candle. White 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 related in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. White is also used for Easter and Sundays following. (Some traditions use Gold or both for Christmas and Easter.)