Happy New Year! It is hard to believe 2016 is upon us! In the midst of the Christmas shuffle, I seem to have slipped in my updates. Therefore, we will have two posts this week to catch us up (or I just have a lot to say!). Below is my sermon from December 20th, titled “Revelation.” Grab a cup of coffee, and enjoy! And as always, comments and conversation are welcome!
This is one of those stories we think we know. Every year when we walk the dark road through Advent, we sing the familiar songs, wrap ourselves in the familiar rituals, and retell the familiar stories: of shepherds watching over their flock, of angels singing songs of good news, of a barren woman well beyond the years of childbearing suddenly expecting her first child, and of course, of the young virgin who receives world shaking news.
Our love of these stories and the love of God they portray are at once comforting and challenging. But it feels like perhaps we have watered down the stories to fit with a more comfortable Christianity.
The story of Mary is a familiar one. A young virgin is visited by the Angel Gabriel. She is called “favored one,” and told of the Divine plan that she has been drafted into, where she will become pregnant and give birth to none other than the Son of God.
Consider how we picture Mary in our mind’s eye, and even how she is depicted in paintings and other media: she is small, demure, modest, humble, and immediately willing to do what she is being called to do. What is troubling about this depiction of Mary is how easy it is to celebrate her willingness to serve, and then simply push her to the background, a lingering presence in the backdrop of the Jesus story, popping up now and again, but with no spoken words, simply praising or mourning. In this understanding of the events of the gospel, Mary is seen as “weak- seeing no other alternatives, and so submitting to the will of the Almighty one… scared- overwhelmed by her pregnancy and working out her fear [and] awe toward the One who impregnated her” (Allen).
On the other hand, “is she strong- willing to commit herself and her child to the pursuit of social and economic justice for Israel? … [I]s she confident- boldly proclaiming her faith and trust in a merciful and steadfast God?” (Allen).
These are questions that require our answer, and “how we answer… has profound impact. Are Mary’s words to be interpreted as ‘social gospel’- calling for immediate action on behalf of the ‘lowly’ and ‘hungry’? Or do Mary’s words reflect a perfection that will only be realized in the Kingdom Come? Moreover, does Mary model strong feminine empowerment in the nascent church? Or is she a victim of [sexual?] violence that requires her to sacrifice her individual self and goals in order to apply herself to this service of the divine?” (Allen).
This story is all about overturning expectations. Mary is a young woman, a child herself really. 13, maybe 14, and here she is told she will become pregnant. She is unmarried; “she might expect social judgment, shame, even ostracism from” friends, even family (Jones).
“In 2006, the most recent year for which information is available, the estimated U.S. teen pregnancy rate was 71.5 pregnancies per 1,000 young women ages 15 to 19” (advocatesforyouth.org). Imagine the conversations these young women have to have with parents, friends, and health care providers; the pain and stress that these girls endure.
Yet Mary faces it all with courage and dignity, and she finds in her cousin Elizabeth a kindred spirit. In fact, “By greeting Mary with honor, Elizabeth overturns social expectations” (Jones). While she might have expected to be shamed by this “older kinswoman… Elizabeth knows from her own experience the cost of being shamed and excluded. In her culture, a woman’s primary purpose in life was to bear children, so as an elderly infertile wife she had endured a lifetime of being treated as a failure” (Jones). The response of the child in her own womb leads Elizabeth to respond “by opening her arms and her home to a relative whom her neighbors would expect her to reject. Instead of shaming Mary, she welcomes, blesses, and celebrates her, treating her as more honorable than herself… She sees beyond the shamefulness of Mary’s situation to the reality of God’s love at work even among those whom society rejects and excludes” (Jones).
When we really think about it, we shouldn’t be surprised that God chose a young, unwed woman to carry his beloved Son. In early Palestinian society, and indeed even in our own, is there anyone more marginalized than a young, poor, unwed, pregnant woman?
Emmanuel- God with us. God comes to the world to preach good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, and to comfort those who mourn. Let’s face it, God could have chosen for Jesus to be born in any number of ways. He could have chosen a royal princess who had just been married, allowing a legitimate birth in the eyes of the world, and giving Jesus the fanfare and celebration he deserved. God could have had Jesus just “appear”! But instead, this young, unwed mother-to-be is God’s choice. Because it fits with the theme of God’s plan for Christ’s life and ministry.
So here we have this pregnant young woman, who is facing her circumstance with courage and dignity. And her response is to sing.
“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…”
On the blog Political Theology Today, Amy Allen writes, “The world is full of massive injustice- of powerful people subjecting the majority to their whims, or hungry children dying every day. There are people who question how anyone can believe in a God who would allow, or worse, cause injustice like this. There are people who question how anyone can ever do anything meaningful to combat such injustice when it is ingrained in the very structures in which we live. But then there is Mary- a self-described ‘lowly’ servant, carrying a tiny as yet imperceptible to the naked eye baby, who is to be born in the little no-name town of Bethlehem. Mary- who praises God and chooses to do God’s will” (Allen).
If we look through the first few chapters of Luke, we find that the gospel writer uses song as a narrative device quite a few times: “Mary sings when she is greeted by her cousin Elizabeth (today’s reading). Zechariah sings when his son John is born and his tongue is finally loosened. The angels sing of peace and goodwill when they share their ‘good news of great joy’ with the shepherds. And Simeon sings his song of farewell once he has seen God’s promises to Israel kept in the Christ child” (Lose). Why so much singing? Well, obviously singing is an act of joy, of celebration, and of kinship. But “singing is [also] an act of resistance” (Lose).
David Lose notes a few times in history that singing has been used as an act of resistance, though of course, there are many, many other examples. He writes, “The slaves knew [singing as an act of resistance]. When they sang their spirituals they were both praising God and protesting the masters who locked them out of worship but couldn’t keep them out of the promise of deliverance of the Bible. And the civil rights leaders knew this, too, singing songs like ‘We Shall Overcome,’ when so many in the society didn’t give them a chance to advance their cause of justice, let alone triumph.
“The protesters in Leipzig in 1989 knew this as well. While that element sometimes gets overlooked in the histories of the ‘velvet revolution,’ it’s striking to note that for several months preceding the fall of the Berlin wall, the citizens of Leipzig gathered on Monday evenings by candlelight around St. Nikolai church- the church where Bach composed so many of his cantatas- to sing, and over two months their numbers grew from a little more than a thousand people to more than three hundred thousand, over half the citizens of the city, singing songs of hope and protest and justice, until their song shook the powers of their nation and changed the world” (Lose).
This is something Mary and Elizabeth also knew- the power of singing, “that they knew just how ridiculous their situation was- two women, one too old to bear a child, one so young she was not yet married, yet called to bear children of promise through whom God would change the world… They sang of their confidence in the Lord’s promise to upend the powers that be, reverse the fortunes of an unjust world, and lift up all those who had been oppressed. When your back is to the wall, you see, and all looks grim, one of the most unexpected and powerful things you can do is sing” (Lose).
We lift our voices this morning, and every morning, in solidarity with Mary’s Magnificat. There are a lot of times this world seems to have problems that are too big to solve. There are times when the rhetoric of fear and hate coming from those who would lead us is stronger than our ability to reason. There are times when the madness of this world seems to be simply too overwhelming. “But the message of the Magnificat is that we don’t have to. We need only to follow our merciful and Mighty God who comes among us in the tiniest, most imperceptible of ways, favoring the small, the weak, the lowly, and promising faithfulness from generation to generation. We need only serve this Mighty One in whatever small and imperceptible ways that we can, and trust that Justice, as only our merciful God can conceive of it, is being worked out one baby, one generation, one moment at a time” (Allen).
I was reminded this week of why we light the Advent candles. We do not light them for Advent or during Advent, but “we light the Advent candles against the winter light… ‘against,’ reminding us that the light of Advent, like the light of Christ, is a veritable protest to and resistance of the darkness that gathers all around us” (Lose).
This morning, as we prepare to take our final steps towards the manger, let us lift our voices in song, that the injustice in this world would be put on notice, that our God will not stand for it, and neither will we.
Allen, Amy. “The Politics of Luke 1:39-45.” Political Theology Today. Political Theology, 17 Dec. 2012. Web. 19 Dec. 2015 <http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/politics-luke-139-45/>.
Bridges, Emily. “Unintended Pregnancy Among Young People in the United States.” Advocates for Youth. N.p., Oct. 2011. Web. 19 Dec. 2015 <http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/publications/1909-unintended-pregnancy-among-young-people-in-the-united-states>.
Jones, Judith. “Commentary on Luke 1:39-45.” Luke 1:39-45, (46-55). Luther Seminary, 17 Dec. 2015. Web. 19 Dec. 2015 <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2723>.
Lose, David J. “Advent 4 C: Singing as an Act of Resistance.” In the Meantime… N.p., 14 Dec. 2015. Web. 19 Dec. 2015. <http://www.davidlose.net/2015/12/advent-4-c-singing-as-an-act-of- resistance/>.