Sermon for 4th Advent C, Dec. 23, 2012, on Luke 1:39-56
39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of
Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
The Expecting Women of Advent
There is an enigmatic phrase from the prophet Jeremiah, as he describes the unusual new thing that God will do in the future; he says that “a woman surrounds a man.” (Jer. 31:22). What could that possibly mean? Well it could very well be a poetic way of picturing pregnancy. If so, we have just read a story from Luke’s gospel about two expecting women, Mary and Elizabeth, who are surrounding men-children in their wombs. Elizabeth will give birth to John the baptist, Mary will give birth to Jesus.
The full phrase from Jeremiah is this:
“For the LORD has created a new thing on the earth: a woman surrounds a man.”
The Birth of a New Thing God is Doing
Isn’t it fascinating how many times the bible tells stories of God doing “a new thing,” and starting with a birth? Often the birth involves some kind of divine intervention, as was the case for both Mary and Elizabeth.
And often too, the “new thing” that God is doing ends a long period of barrenness, like Elizabeth’s. That was true for formerly barren Sarah, and for Rachel, and for Hannah, the mother of Samuel, and for the mother of Sampson. It might be interesting to reflect on how frequent the experience of barrenness is, for God’s people. It’s nearly a defining feature. But when barrenness is replaced by fruitfulness, it is a cause of great joy. This text is full of joy.
My guess is that some of us are ready to enter this text this morning from a place of joy and fruitfulness. But others of us may come to this Advent reading from a place of personal barrenness. On top of our personal issues, we are, as a nation, still in grief over the tragedy in Newton, Connecticut. Our thoughts and prayers are with those parents and families every day as we see them bury their children and hear some of them describe the precious lives that were snuffed out.
Can an Advent text about pregnancy and joy speak to people who feel barren? I believe it can, and does, and that we need its message now more than ever. So let us look at the text together.
It Starts with Joy
The joy in this story must be the place to start, whether or not we can feel it yet. Even the pace of the story is joyful; Mary “went with haste” and doesn’t even have time to say “shalom” before her Aunt Elizabeth starts talking. And when she speaks, there is no time for pleasantries or chit-chat. Elizabeth begins with the response in her own womb as her baby leaps for joy at Mary’s arrival. Elizabeth immediately pours out her Spirit-inspired, joyous blessing on Mary.
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
Likewise, Mary dispenses with a greeting, but launches right into her beautiful poem, filled with rejoicing. We call this the Magnificat – a name taken from its first word “Magnify” in the Latin version. Mary “magnifies” the Lord for all the good things God has done. Mary sings:
“49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm;”
But, at this moment in the story, none of this has actually happened yet. Mary sings about what God has done as if it’s already been done; but it has
not been done yet. Herod is still King of the Jews – and he is going to have John killed before it’s over. Pilate is still in power; he will give the order to have Jesus killed. Caesar is still on his throne and still has his Roman soldiers crawling all over the country side, intimidating and extorting the peasantry. The future may be bright but the present is a mess.
And here is the first powerful word to everybody going through a time of personal barrenness, or grieving over national tragedies, or anxious about the future: people of faith do not take the current condition as the last word. The story of God’s work in the world is still unfolding. Our personal life stories are unfolding in God’s story. We refuse the language of hopelessness and despair. Leave that to those who have no god, or whose god has no heart, or no ability to bring about a “new thing” in the world. We are people of hope. This is not the final chapter.
This is not the end (sorry, Mayan calendar). Our joy is not contingent on today’s stock market, the people in power in the world today, nor especially upon the content of today’s news reports. Even in times of tragedy, grief, hardship and brokenness, we choose to live lives of trust; confident that God’s good purposes will be fulfilled.
So, we are, like Mary, in a time of waiting for the final fulfillment. The kingdom of God has already come, but has not yet fully come. Though Jesus taught us that the kingdom of God was “among” us, and “at hand,” nevertheless he also taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come.”
We, like Mary, are waiting, expectantly, in hope and trust. Nevertheless, in this present moment, we can know the deep joy of being at peace. There is a danger involved in believing that the future will be better. We could easily fall prey to the temptation of not living in the moment.
We are waiting for the fulfillment of Gods’ purposes, but we are not waiting to start living; in this moment, we are living our lives. If we cannot be at peace in the present, we cannot be at peace at all, because the present is all we are ever given to live in. This is why mindfulness is so important. [If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please consider coming to my course this January.]
The mindfulness of contemplative prayer teaches us to be present in the moments that we live; to accept what is, as what is; to say “yes” as Mary did, to what God is doing in our lives at the moment; to have the joy of peace, even in times of barrenness, while we wait. Mary is able to have joy in the present moment, believing that God’s future will come to pass.
So what is Mary expecting? What is the future that she believes will justify all this present joy? What are the “great things” that the “Mighty One” has “done” for her – or that she trusts the Mighty One will do? God is going to accomplish great reversals. Mary describes them this way:
“he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
While it is true that God loves everybody, he has a real soft spot in his heart for the underdog. He cares for everyone, but especially for the powerless, the lowly and the hungry, the possessed, the mentally ill.
The flip side of the coin is true as well; though God hates all evils and its harmful effects. He especially hates it when people are evil to each other. He is going to “scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts” because God hates it when prideful people despise others, whom he made equally in his image. He is going to “bring down the powerful from their thrones” because God grieves when people use their power to oppress the powerless. God will “send the rich away empty” because He is offended when the riches that some enjoy are not used to feed the hungry, but are hoarded selfishly.
Mary’s (Isaiah’s) Banquet Image
When Mary sings, “he has filled the hungry with good things” she is picturing a lavish meal, like the banquet in the vision of Isaiah the prophet. Listen to these excerpts: I hope you will hear how Mary’s song echoes them:
1. “O LORD, you are my God;
I will exalt you, I will praise your name;
for you have done wonderful things,
plans formed of old, faithful and sure.
4. For you have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress,
6. On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
9. It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the LORD for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
10. For the hand of the LORD will rest on this mountain.” (Isa 25)
This is the vision we share with Isaiah and Mary, of the kingdom of God, pictured as a great feast, a banquet of “rich food” and “well-aged wines.” It is the banquet that Jesus taught us to go out into the highways and byways and invite everybody to come and enjoy.
So, why then are the proud scattered instead of being gathered in? Why is Mary’s song so hard on the people who sit on thrones and on the rich? It’s not that they are not invited to the feast: it’s that they refuse to come. They don’t want to have to sit with “tax collectors and sinners” at the same table. They don’t want to stop using their power to oppress and their riches on themselves.
Well, God’s “new thing” that Mary is carrying in her womb, the source of her joy and hope, is one day going to accomplish the great reversal of all time. The kingdom will come in its fullness one day.
Our Role in the Great Reversal
In the mean time, we live in hope and joy, confident that God’s purposes will be fulfilled. The future God has for us is not an apocalyptic race war of
everyone for themselves, barricaded in bunkers, fingers on the triggers. That vision is not from God. We who know the salvation that Mary sings about through the new birth that Jesus has accomplished in us, live with kingdom-hope, kingdom values, kingdom goals and kingdom ways of thinking.
God’s future for us is a banquet. So we look around and ask ourselves, “Who is not at the table yet? Who is being marginalized? Who is shut out of the conversation? What are the power-interests involved in keeping the status quo going? What are the Herod’s, the Pilate’s, the Caesar’s of this world up to?
It is our joy and great privilege to be part of God’s great reversal. We rejoice in opportunities to both feed the hungry and to address policy questions that get to the heart of poverty.
We love conversations about who has been left out of the conversation, and we especially love it when people who have previously felt left out are
welcomed among us. We cannot imagine anyone being excluded.
There is room for everyone at our table, our feast, because it is the Lord’s table, his feast. We have a “the more the merrier” policy. Pass the rich food! Re-fill the well aged wines! Magnify the Lord with us, for the Mighty One has done great things! Holy is His name!
Rejoice in hope!