Redemptive Reversals

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent Year A, Dec. 15, 2013 on Isaiah 35:1-10; Luke 1:47-55

Isaiah 35:1-10

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.Screen Shot 2013-12-14 at 12.54.45 PM
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 traveller, 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.
Luke 1:47-55

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
the Mighty One whose name is holy.
God’s mercy is for those who fear God
from generation to generation.

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God has shown great strength;
and has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
God has helped God’s servant Israel,
in remembrance of God’s mercy,
according to the promise made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and Sarah and to their descendants forever.”

Redemptive Reversals

I was just in a business in which they were playing the kind of Christmas music I hate – all about Santa and snow, and it was done in a bouncy saccharine style that doesn’t do anything at all for me, but I suppose you must take the bad with the good.

I’ll never forget the experience I had in our first year in Romania in a shopping mall.  Romania had been a Communist country for  years.  But suddenly the old system was gone and a new day was dawning.  Over the speakers in the mall were Christmas songs – not about Santa and snow, but about Jesus being born to Mary.  The feeling of hope was everywhere, even though the people were really struggling  economically.

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I cannot imagine Advent and Christmas without music.   Probably that’s Luke’s fault.  Luke gives us four poems that we can think of as songs in celebration of the birth of Jesus.  Today we read Mary’s song, her “Magnificat.”  It has been set to music many times.

The way Luke set is up is this: Mary has just been mystically informed by the angel Gabriel that she will become the mother of Jesus.  The Holy Spirit will be the  child’s true source of life, and he is destined to be the Son of the Most High God, and to sit on a king’s throne, in fact, the throne of his ancestor king David.

So before Mary burst into her song, she gives her approval in words that have forever made us think of her as meek and mild.  She famously replied,

 “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” 

It sounds so submissive – almost passive, that we think of Mary as gentle, soft, quiet, and demure.  All of the pairings I’ve ever seen show her this way, along with having a perfect  complexion, dreamy eyes, and dainty features.

I wish I were an artist; I would love to portray her another way – the way her own song shows her.  This is not the song of a push-over.  This is a song of a person with passion.  I would make her eyes look intense, not dreamy.  I would make her mouth look resolute and determined.

Mary believed in things – even dangerous things.  She had a vision that came from solid sources and she was not shy about asserting the hope they inspired.

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We live in times that need some of that hope, don’t we?  We live lives that need hope too.  Some of us have seen a lot of Christmases come and go and we do not feel hopeful anymore.  There is no need to list all the reasons – besides it’s a waste of time.  What we need is to hear again from feisty Mary, why she felt hopeful, and to let her hope inspire us.

Mary begins,

“My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,”

That is the only place you can begin if you want to end with hope.  Our hope does not come from any other source than God.  It does not come from politics, economics, even world-class medical care, and certainly not from money.

Do you think our circumstances are difficult today?  Look at Mary – living in Nazareth, a tiny, poor village in a Roman-occupied country, under an oppressive,  political regime which calls the Emperor a god.  She has no earthly reason to believe any of this will change for the better.

But she boldly asserts the confidence that there is a God who can be magnified in her joyful song because he is “God, my savior.”

Mary has a specific understanding of the God she sings about.  She is a theologian who has thought through her convictions.   She sings,


“for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant.”

Why is this hopeful good news?  Because Mary believes in the God whose characteristic is to look with favor on the lowly, and to enact redemptive reversals.

Now before we consider the reversals Mary sings about, we need a moment’s reflection about whether or not we are able to sing this song with her.  Are we the lowly who can expect reversals from God that end up helping us?

Actually, we as Americans in the 21st century are on the top of the heap, not at the bottom.  Globally, nobody is threatening us.  Economically, times may be difficult, but that’s only relative to what we expected.  We are still affluent, prosperous, people by any measure.  When was the last time you seriously wondered where your next meal was coming from?  Who in this room has suffered a night recently in cold conditions because you could not afford heat?  Who among us even goes without air conditioning when it’s hot and humid?

And yet many of us feel insecure now.  Even people with pensions and investments can find them dramatically eroded, as the collapse of 2008 reminded us, leaving us with uncertainty and anxiety about the future.  And of course there are many people who have it much worse than we do, including tens of thousands of Americans out of work or severely under employed on on fixed incomes that do not make ends meet.  It is most difficult for non-caucasians, as always.

Mary is going to sing about the rich and the poor – and yet we do not fit the economic categories of her day.   The political elite of Mary’s world were not building schools with their tax dollars, they were building lavish palaces for themselves.  They were world-class extortionists without concern for the harm they caused. Mary as one of their victims.  When she included herself in the “lowly” people she was not exaggerating.

There are “lowly” people in the world in that same sense today; plenty of them.  But we are not among them.  We can be enormously thankful for that, this Advent.  Regardless of how difficult and uncertain our financial condition is, we are aeons away from destitute.  And yet, this song is going to have a special message for us.

Mary, for all her lowliness, refused to live as a hopeless victim.  She asserted her faith in a God who was still looking with favor on people like her.

This is where we begin.  No situation is hopeless for people of faith.  We cannot join the cynics and the hand-wringers in despair.  That is not our song.  Our song is one that magnifies the Lord because God is still active and still faithful.  We will be as feisty as Mary in asserting that there is a reason for hope.

Mary then proceeded to outline the shape of that hope.  It moves in two directions, first downwards then upwards.  God takes down the mighty, the powerful, the proud, and God lifts up the hungry lowly ones.

Mary’s God has an agenda.  He takes sides.  Mary’s God is not neutral when people are suffering.  Mary’s God is an activist.  God’s intention is to reverse current harmful conditions and to redeem those who are suffering under them.

Mary got this vision of an activist God from her tradition.  We read from the ancient prophet Isaiah who detailed a dramatic reversal that God was conducting – a return of exiled people back home.

“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 God who reversed the exile and brought the people home again across the burning desert is still at work on the side of the lowly.

Why?  It all goes back to God’s promise.  Mary asserts her faith that God who bound himself by covenant to Abraham and Sarah is still faithful.  She sings:

“God has helped God’s servant Israel,
in remembrance of God’s mercy,
according to the promise made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and Sarah and to their descendants forever.”

Mary’s feisty faith in the activist God of that ancient promise has something to teach us today.

First, for Mary, hope included taking the long view.  She understood that God’s work had transpired “from generation to generation.”  Two other people who make appearances in Luke’s Christmas story are quite elderly – Simeon and Anna.  They are able to take hope from the birth of Jesus even though they do not expect to live long enough to see the conclusion.

For those of us who are closer to Simeon and Anna’s age than to Mary’s, let us take hope from the confidence that God’s work is generation to generation.  God has not forgotten the promise made to Abraham and Sarah anymore today than God did in Mary’s day.  Do not join the ranks of the people in despair.  That is not our song!

The second lesson we learn from Mary is that God has an agenda which favors the lowly.  If we are not the proud rich who are going to be pulled down from thrones and we are not the destitute lowly being oppressed by them, then were do we fit in to this song?

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We are called to be advocates for the lowly.  We are called to take up their cause on their behalf just as our activist God does.  We are called to join God who wills that all conditions of harm and suffering are redeemed by being reversed.

I am particularly concerned for one group “the lowly” people in serious need of advocates: people with mental illness or with brain injuries.

On this third Sunday of Advent we find ourselves at the first anniversary of Sandy Hook elementary school shootings, praying for healing for the

families of the victims, both the children and the adults.

Clearly, the shooter, Adam Lanza, had mental health issues.  I have read about it, as you have, and it is not certain that better mental health care could have prevented that tragedy.  But let him stand as an icon for the thousands and thousands of people with mental health issues that are not being cared for.

Some of you know the recent history we have had in our own small congregation.  We have tried and tried to find adequate solutions for people who are suffering, through no cause of their own, from mental health issues.  I have spoken to numerous mental health care professionals as recently as Friday, who care deeply and want to help, but who simply do not have the resources they need.

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We are not feeling rich these days, and yet we have the capacity, in this country, to police the entire globe, on land, on sea, from space, and to every place the internet goes.

Maybe there are some policy reversals that we could imagine that would free up some resources to address real conditions of human suffering.

Perhaps there are some proud budgets that need to be pulled down a bit so that some of the lowly can be lifted up.

We people of faith can be their advocates, joining Mary in feisty assertion that God’s mercy from generation to generation includes our generation.

This is part of our purpose for being here in our generation.  Let us Magnify the Lord with Mary. Screen Shot 2013-12-14 at 1.00.04 PM Let us celebrate God who is our salvation.  Let us do what Mary taught her son Jesus to do: to not look past the lowly, but to look with eyes of hope in the God of mercy who is actively accomplishing redemptive reversals still today.

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