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Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 23, 2018
I wanted to believe that it is because I have had a good number of sermons to write lately: the first and second Sundays of Advent, last Sunday’s Service of Remembrance, this past Wednesday’s Evensong service, the poem for 5:30 p.m. Christmas Eve, the sermon for the 11:00 p.m. Communion service on Christmas Eve, but today’s sermon may have been the most difficult sermon of 2018 for me to write.
I sat down as I always do on Tuesday morning to write, naively thinking that with enough determination, I could complete both today’s message and the 11:00 p.m. sermon. However, as lunchtime rolled around, I knew I was in trouble. What began as a sermon about worship, worshipping God as Elizabeth and Mary did in this morning’s text turned into a sermon that I tried to force to use the song “Topsy Turvy” from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame as a primary illustration.
Be especially glad you did not get that one.
In desperation, I searched my archives to see if I had ever said anything about today’s reading that was worth repeating, only to find nothing good. It was a strange and unsettling feeling; most weeks, I love writing sermons. The stories, illustrations, and metaphors come rather easily. I love preaching. It is a rare privilege in the era of constant connectivity to be able to speak to a congregation the way I am able to speak with you. Yet here I was, like Zechariah in the verses just before the ones I just read, feeling that rare sense of being completely unable to speak.
I found myself wondering why this was the case, and I finally had to admit to myself that the problem was not with my recent writing load or a dearth of creativity. I was not tired or distracted or rushed. My problem was with the text and the things it was causing me to address. Ordinarily, the art of homiletics causes me to give thanks for new learnings, to praise God for what I am able to know. This morning’s text causes me to finally surrender to what I don’t.
In this morning’s text, a young pregnant woman named Mary visits her much older relative Elizabeth, about eighty miles from home. Mary and Elizabeth have both recently received shocking news from an angel named Gabriel, and that news is that each of them will conceive and bear sons, Elizabeth in her barrenness and old age, and Mary as a virgin. Elizabeth’s son will be named John, who would grow up to be John the Baptist, and Mary’s child, of course, is Jesus.
Mary hears from the angel directly. Elizabeth presumably learns of her impending pregnancy from her husband Zechariah who heard from Gabriel. Of course, Zechariah tells Gabriel that, no it is not possible for his elderly barren wife to conceive a child, and for this mistake, Gabriel takes from Zechariah his ability to speak for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Sometimes in Scripture, God’s plan unfolds over generations. In this particular story, God has nine months, so one can understand why God did not have the time for naysayers.
Also, Luke does not tell us if Elizabeth sees this silence as good or bad or some of both.
As these two women meet, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps, presumably because he can sense that he is in the presence of the Lord in Mary’s womb. In a time and place when a woman’s honor was inextricably linked to her ability to produce children, and especially male children, these two women are filled with the Holy Spirit, openly rejoicing, celebrating, praising God.
Elizabeth and Mary were women on the margins of society. Elizabeth and her husband, the priest Zechariah, were vulnerable in as much as they, without children, had no one to care for them in their old age. Elizabeth’s inability to have children had been a source of great pain for her, something we know because because in verse 25 she says after learning she will bear a son, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”
Mary was much younger, but because she was pregnant and unmarried, there would be whispers about her throughout her pregnancy. In fact, when people would call the adult Jesus “Son of Mary,” it was a way of saying, in essence, “We don’t really know who his father is, now do we?”
I believe that if we are honest with ourselves, we Christians love a good bible story where God chooses the unlikely to do the miraculous. We love the narratives like the younger twin Jacob tricking his older brother Esau, or God sending Moses with his speech impediment to liberate the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, or God calling the young boy Samuel. We love how God calls Gideon, the self-professed “weakest man of the weakest clan” to defeat the Midianites, or the fearful Jonah single-handedly converting the entire enormous city of Nineveh.
We love the shepherd-boy David who becomes a king. We love Jesus’ bumbling disciples, nobodies from nowhere who would get so much wrong, yet who God would use to give birth to the church and transform the world.
And especially this time of year, we love the stories of an old preacher’s wife and a poor young virgin who become the mothers of a prophet and the savior, respectively. Because it is inherently so musical, we love Mary’s song, the Magnificat, the proclamation of praise she makes after meeting her relative Elizabeth and having Elizabeth’s baby jump in the womb, as they praise God together.
I consider all of this, but then I pay attention to what Mary actually says to us this morning in this song of praise, the longest speech by any woman in the New Testament. What begins with “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” quickly transitions into “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.”
And I look at this beautiful church, filled with such beautiful people, in many ways a who’s who of Richmond, and I wonder, what does this text say about us? Is it a warning? Does it say nothing at all? Is this a text where Luke is writing solely to someone else, or is there something else going on here? How can we at Reveille find hope in a text that describes a new, turned-upside-down world order, one where God promises to upset our customary way of living and seeing the world? How should we hear this text, this battle cry? With joy or fear, excitement or trepidation?
To put it another way, how do the rich hear good news for the poor?
This text very much forces me to check my privilege and to try to come to terms with just how much of today’s reading I will never understand. Thanks to hardworking parents, I have never had to want for anything. I have eaten my share of Ramen, but I have never been poor. I have never been a woman, and I have never struggled with fertility issues. No one has ever sexually harassed me, touched me inappropriately, or tried to look down my shirt. The only comment I ever receive on my clothing is from my wife, and that comment is typically, “Oh, so you’re wearing that.”
No church I have served has ever said “Please bishop, whatever you do, don’t send us a white male pastor,” Yet were I a woman, there are still churches who would as the bishop for anyone but me. No one has ever waved a Bible in my face in an attempt to dismiss my calling. No one has ever justified paying me less because of my gender. I am far less likely to develop an eating disorder to conform to the culture’s Photoshopped expectations, and I am even more unlikely to ever huddle with my children in a shelter next to a donated cell phone because I no longer feel safe in my house.
So here, I am; so here we are, faced with a rare reading from our gospels where all of the characters are women, and the one man who could, had he wanted to, been a part of this story is unable to speak because he doubted an angel and displeased God.
In last Sunday’s scripture from Luke’s gospel, a grown-up John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling people to repentance, only to hear them ask “What are we to do?” It seems to me that this question still stands before us today, as the Magnificat echoes in our minds. In this morning’s text, Mary is pregnant with the one who would grow up and speak of injustice and especially economic justice throughout his ministry, speaking of a new order of things where the “first will be last and the last will be first,” until they killed him for it. Jesus, the one who would speak of selling all of our possessions, the rich entering heaven being like a camel passing though a needle’s eye, and salvation being rooted in our treatment of “the least of these.” For all of the talk in the modern church about things like heaven, hell, or even human sexuality, Jesus speaks about money more frequently than all three combined.
In many ways, Mary’s song should prepare the way for the coming of Christ as much or more than the ministry of John the Baptist.
This song, the Magnificat, whose name comes from the Latin for “magnify,” is a rebellious text. There can be no honest treatment of this scripture that ignores this fact. Throughout much of history, it has challenged the powerful and given hope to the meek. In a peacemaking blog called “Enemy Love,” Jason Porterfield writes, “During the British rule of India, the Magnificat was prohibited from being sung in church. In the 1980s, Guatemala’s government discovered Mary’s words about God’s preferential love for the poor to be too dangerous and revolutionary. The song had been creating quite the stirring amongst Guatemala’s impoverished masses. Mary’s words were inspiring the Guatemalan poor to believe that change was indeed possible. Thus their government banned any public recitation of Mary’s words. Similarly, after the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo—whose children all disappeared during the Dirty War—placed the Magnificat’s words on posters throughout the capital plaza, the military junta of Argentina outlawed any public display of Mary’s song.”(1)
In an article in the Washington Post this week, D.L. Mayfield writes of a survey she took of 1,100 evangelicals and discovered that “28 percent said they had never heard the title ‘Magnificat,’ another 43 percent said their churches never read or discussed it; 21 percent said they had encountered it just a few times; and 8 percent said they read it every year.” She goes on to quote the theologian Warren Carter, who writes that “in the time of Jesus, 2 to 3 percent of the population was rich, while the majority lived a subsistence-level existence…Mary articulates an end to economic structures that are exploitative and unjust. She speaks of a time when all will enjoy the good things given by God.” (2)
We come to church today, as the fourth Advent candle is lit, expecting the typically serene and silent Saint Mary, great with child, an introvert who speaks when spoken to and largely keeps to herself, seen but not heard. We wonder what is going on in her heart, in her thoughts. Yet when she launches into song in our worship spaces here in the first world, we are all too likely to shift in our seats, clear our throats, close our eyes and telepathically attempt to make her stop. The kingdom of God, with all of its topsy-turvyness does not wait until a thirty-year old Jesus starts preaching in Galilee to ring in our ears. It is on display, here, now in earth-shaking words from a young woman who too often we have been taught to believe that her role in the gospel story was to simply be faithful, trusting, and compliant.
Apparently this ability to shake the world on its foundation runs in the family.
And just like that, we are back in the wilderness, like the crowd listening to the fiery preaching of John the Baptist asking “Then what are we to do?”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu was once speaking in a packed cathedral in apartheid-era Cape Town, South Africa while policemen were standing, lining the walls, eager to arrest and beat those who were in attendance, just waiting for him to say something controversial or subversive. Tutu regarded the agents of division and violence, and pointing his finger at the police who were recording his words, Tutu said, “You may be powerful, indeed ve ry powerful, but you are not God! And the God whom we serve cannot be mocked! You have already lost!” (3)
Then he smiled and said. “We are inviting you to come and join the winning side!”
We read those fiery Old Testament prophets and their sometimes harsh words of warning: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God,” as the prophet Micah wrote, or “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” as the prophet Amos proclaimed. We hear them, and today we hear Mary sing “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.”
We hear them, and we realize, do we not, how seldom our God conforms to our tidy expectations of a parochial, containable, transactional God who is there when needed and then largely stays out of the way. The Magnificat shakes us out of our dancing sugar-plumb slumber and prepares us for just how far our God is willing to go to remake this world in and through the person and work of a son born to a virgin and a carpenter in a tiny, backwater town far from home.
And it is hope for the world, and it is hope for us here today.
It is hope for the African woman who will walk miles today to fill a heavy jug with clean water to carry all the way back home. It is hope for the communities where children die from preventable diseases due to a lack of education and medication. It is hope for the desperate father in Yemen, foraging for food for his family. It is hope in the rural villages where it is common to believe it that is always preferable to educate a boy instead of a girl. It is hope for the forced migrants, seeking asylum from violence and warfare. It is hope in urban housing projects where the sound of your name can determine your chances of finding work, and the color of your skin can determine the odds of your surviving a traffic stop. It is hope for those who will make the choice today between medicine and food. It is hope for the Appalachian miner waiting for assistance as he dies of black lung, and it is hope for the all the freezing women and men standing on the medians, holding their signs, waiting.
And it is hope for us.
The Bible, and especially the prophetic writings of the Old Testament and the narrative witness of the four gospels reveal a radical God of justice, righteousness, and compassion, and these ancient writings, who by the Sprit’s power come to life anew for each generation of God’s people reveal to us what is truly important to God and how this God will redeem, renew, and restore this world in the fullness of time.
Therefore, the song of Mary is good news to us because it enables us to know where to align ourselves, our time, our talents, and our resources. It is good news for us because we do not have to rectify all that is broken in this world alone, as if God were not with us. It is good news for us because it demonstrates reasons for hope in the midst of seemingly hopeless situations. It is good news for us because God has provided us with ways in which we can partner with God, in God’s church, in God’s overthrow of all that is wrong.
Because of how God is, our God has turned the plaintive wail of a poor woman into song of victory that is hope for the world and good news to all people, and in this song, God has said to you, to me, and to us “I have told you, have I not, who will win this race now before us. You know who the victor will be. So now, cast your bets. Come and join the winning side.”
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.