(a sermon for December 2, 2018, the First Sunday of Advent; first in a series, based on Luke 1:39-56)
Of this time of the year, at least one thing can be said for certain: ‘tis the season for singing!
I don’t think I have to tell you that one of the things I like best about the Christmas season is the music. All of it, both the sacred and secular; from Handel’s Messiah to Gene Autry singing “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and just about everything in-between from every musical genre you can name, this quite literally is the soundtrack of my life from about the first of November (that’s right, I admit it!) to New Year’s Eve. Part of it is nostalgia, I suppose; so much of the music of this season has a way of bringing forth fond memories of Christmases past and of the loved ones who shared those times with us. Moreover, not only can these songs lift our spirits in the midst of difficult times, they can also be very cathartic at times in bringing forth some much needed tears! And let me just add here that as far as this pastor is concerned some of the most beautiful, familiar and faith-stirring hymns we have in the Christian tradition are the ones we’re going to be singing over the next few weeks in celebration of Christ’s birth; so get ready, friends, for lots of carol singing!
I know; there are some songs of the season that can become kind of grating upon hearing them over and over and over again all through the month of December (my nomination for that, by the way, would be the ubiquitous “Last Christmas, I gave you my heart, and the very next day you gave it away,” which as I point out to my family on a regular basis actually has nothing to do with Christmas at all, but I digress!); and yes, maybe a few of these songs with all their sentimentality end up reflecting more of how we imagine Christmas should be, as opposed to how it really is in this chaotic and conflicted world in which we live. But I still love the music; for me every “jingle bell,” “fa la la la la” and “peace on earth, goodwill toward men” we sing not only speaks to the best part of our selves as God’s people, but also points directly to how the world ought to be and will be all because of God’s wondrous gift to us of a Savior in Jesus Christ our Lord.
And that alone is ample reason for us to be out there singing Christmas music, and also cause for rejoicing at this most wonderful time of the year!
Actually, when you think about it, so much of this particular season of the church year – that is, the season of Advent, because it’s not Christmas yet – is built upon this very dichotomy of what is and what will be. On the one hand, these Advent weeks of waiting, watching and preparing all lead up to our joyous celebration of an event that has in fact already taken place: the birth of Jesus in the manger of Bethlehem some 2,000 years ago. And yet, as Christians, just as we believe that he died and rose again, we also know that Jesus will come again, bringing with him the fullness of the kingdom of God. And so, for us in the church Advent is also about preparing ourselves for his promised return, by prayer, penitence and self-examination. That’s why over the centuries the church has often referred to the season of Advent as “a little lent,” and why purple, which is the color of penitence, adorns our altar and the neck of your preacher; because preparing our hearts for the fulfillment of our Lord’s promises both present and future does call for some humility on our parts and at least a modicum of spiritual reproach. But that said, Advent is also about acknowledging that while our world – and us in it – does not yet match up to that promised vision of God’s kingdom here on earth, by God’s grace and infinite love made manifest in Jesus our Emmanuel, it will be… soon and very soon, it will be; and that, dear friends, is cause for true rejoicing!
… which brings us to the first of our “First Songs of Christmas” from Luke’s gospel, which is Mary’s Song of Praise; also known as the Magnificat.
As we pick up the story in our text for this morning, we’re actually in that time in between the angel Gabriel’s having given Mary the news of her bearing this child “who will be called the Son of the Most High,” (Luke 1:32) and that silent, holy night months later in Bethlehem when the baby would finally be born; and as anyone who has in any fashion awaited the time for a child to be born will attest, this most certainly was a time of great expectation and all manner of preparation; not to mention time for “pondering” what the reality of having a baby who was the Son of God was going to mean for her and for the world around her. Luke tells us that soon after Gabriel’s announcement, “Mary set out and went with haste” to a town in the hill country of Judea to visit with family in those first months of pregnancy; and there, in the words of Shawnthea Monroe, was “an intimate encounter between two extraordinary women.” I love how Monroe describes that encounter; she says, “There is the elderly, once-barren Elizabeth and her newly expectant young cousin Mary. As Luke tells it,” Monroe continues, “God is at work through the lives of both women and their words express nothing but joy.”
It really is quite the reunion, with Elizabeth “[singing] out exuberantly, ‘You’re so blessed among women, and the babe in your womb, also blessed!” [The Message] and the child in Elizabeth’s womb quite literally leaping for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice (More about that next week)! It was, in fact, a sign for both women that everything that was happening was in fulfillment of the Lord’s plan. And to this, Mary responds with a song; those familiar words of praise and nearly inexpressible joy that have been set to countless pieces of music over the centuries: “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 shall call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”
Beautiful, powerful, and utterly surprising words; yet not as surprising as you might think. It’s interesting to note here that in Mary’s song we hear echoes of other faithful women through the ages, most especially in the “Song of Hannah” from 1 Samuel, which was sung nearly 1,000 years beforehand and which in fact began in a very similar fashion as Mary’s song: “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.” (2:1) What this tells us is that at least in some fashion Mary understood that there was more to this than simply the fact of a baby being born, however unprecedented and miraculous this was to be; no, Mary was finding herself in the midst of long tradition of God’s work of restoration and redemption that was now was coming to full fruition in this child in her womb who would be named Jesus, and so, of course, her spirit would rejoice!
And this is what makes what Mary sings next even more amazing and joyous. She goes on to tell of all the great and glorious things that God has done: “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.” Incredible; this is no less than a proclamation of the whole world and its idea of power being turned upside and inside out! But did you notice something there? Mary’s actually singing in the present tense! She’s not praising God for what God will do, but proclaiming what God has done; which is kind of odd, given that this child who is supposed to bring about all of this change hasn’t even been born yet!
Moreover, even a casual survey of Israel’s current situation (not to mention Mary’s!) would reveal that this vision of a just and peaceful world had no basis in reality. I mean, here’s this young, impoverished, insignificant girl – probably 13 or 14 years old at best – hailing from some backwater village in the hills of Galilee, and unmarried and with child; moreover, her people are oppressed and living under the thumb of the Roman Empire. One thing is for certain: at that moment in time the proud were not scattered, the hungry were not fed, and the powerful were very comfortably ensconced on their thrones! Mary’s words didn’t even sound like a word of prophecy in the sense of what God was about to do in the world; and yet, given all that she’s still singing as though it’s already happened!
I looked it up, friends; and in English grammar there’s a word for that: it’s called present perfect. Technically speaking, present perfect is used to describe an action that has already begun, may not be finished yet but will continue; and so it is as if it’s already done. In other words, for Mary to sing this song in present perfect is the ultimate expression of HOPE; more than simply proclaiming the Lord’s promises of a just and peaceful world she’s claiming those promises as a present reality. To quote David Lose here, “When Mary sang, she didn’t just name those promises but she entered into them.” Mary knew that because of this tiny child just beginning to grow inside of her, she’d already been drawn into this sacred rel ationship with the God of Israel, the same God “who had been siding with the oppressed since the days of Egypt and keeping promises since the time of Abraham.” It’s not, you see, that everything that Mary sings about has been accomplished but that that those promises are so sure and so certain that it is as if it were already a reality in the world. For Mary – and for us, beloved – “the world has begun to turn and [we] feel ourselves invited into the turning.”
And that is, as I said before, most certainly cause for rejoicing!
You know, as I said before, I love all the songs of this season; but I think the songs I love the most (truly, in these days the songs I need the most) are the carols and hymns that boldly proclaim those sure and certain promises of God coming to pass in the birth of the Christ Child. And the reason I love them so much is because I know that they’re true. Not that it’s a present reality in the world as we know it; but by God’s grace and infinite love it will be and for now, as we watch and wait for signs of Christ’s coming, that is enough. Alan Brehm writes that “In Advent we sing because we look forward to something better than the violence and suffering and injustice all around us. We look forward to the kindness and generosity and compassion of our God being fulfilled for all the peoples of the world. We sing because we look forward to ‘peace on earth, and mercy mild.’ This is the heart and soul of our faith, friends; the HOPE that is ours in Jesus the Christ who comes into this world and into our hearts definitively to set everything right and to make all things new.”
The good news, beloved, is that despite all the uncertainties that continually seem to surround us, God is at work in the world, and his advent is nigh. So as our advent waiting begins for another year for the coming of the Christ Child and his return in glory, let us truly watch for signs of his coming; and even here and now let our spirits rejoice in God our Savior.
Thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry