A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho on Dec 16, 2012.
I thought I knew where this sermon was going to go. And then came the news Friday about another shooting. This time children in Connecticut. Kindergarteners gunned down at their school.
And I thought, “how in the world am I supposed to preach about Advent JOY?”
Because right now I refuse to be consoled. I am weeping for children I don’t even know. I am weeping for parents. I am weeping for gifts that were already wrapped and under the tree that will never be opened. I am weeping for troubled people who think violence is a solution.
And I’m feeling like I have been weeping for too many children lately. For Isaac, the 6 yr old for whom we have been praying, as hospice has been called in for him this week. For the children gunned down every day on the streets of Chicago. For the people in the mall in Portland last week. For the people at the movie in Aurora this summer. So much senseless death for which we weep.
And this is the week of Advent when we focus on joy.
My first reaction was clearly not joy. Deep sadness. Anger. Bewildering dismay. Sorrow too deep for words. Yes. All of those. But not joy.
And it is right to feel all of those things. Because these feelings are a part of our humanity.
But we can’t stay there.
Because despair is just a stop on the journey, a place where you pull over, look back at what has been lost, and then prepare to journey again, into this new world that will be different than the one we knew before.
And it is moments like these when I am especially thankful that I am not on the journey alone. Thankful for this chance to come together and pray, and sing, and hug and welcome each other.
Mary didn’t want to be alone either. Mary, in all likelihood, was still a teenager. Girls married very young at a time when the life expectancy was 40.
Unplanned, unwed teenage pregnancies, as difficult as they are today, would have been more than devastating for Mary in her culture.
And, quite frankly, it doesn’t matter that the pregnancy is God’s—because while the angel told her that she was blessed and that she shouldn’t be afraid, the angel did not take out an ad in the Jerusalem Times to make sure that everyone else knew that.
“How can this be?”, she asks the angel.
How can this be, indeed.
I can only imagine what was going through her head when the angel showed up. “Greetings, favored one!”
“Who? Me? Favored by whom?”
Can’t you just see Mary looking around, trying to figure out to whom the angel would be speaking in this dusty town of Nazareth.
Favored one? I don’t know how many years it has been since you were a teenage girl or might have known many teenage girls, but I suspect that “favored one” is not how they often see themselves.
What are the implications for us if God chose an unwed teenage girl to bear the son of God? One that occurs to me is that here is our proof that God is willing to be vulnerable. Because Mary was vulnerable. There was a more than decent chance that this pregnancy could have resulted in Mary being stoned to death. God does not just have a preference for the poor and the weak. God became poor and weak.
God came to earth and joined a family, entering into the struggles, the fears, the anxieties, the joys, the dangers, the celebrations, and the gifts that go along with being family.
And things will not go smoothly for the Holy Family either. I hate to give away the story, but according to Matthew’s gospel, King Herod finds out a child is born who is to be the King of the Jews. And Herod decides another king running around town would be destabilizing to his political dynasty. So he seeks to kill the baby Jesus.
But the family flees to Egypt, and they were gone when Herod comes looking. Herod, in a rage, killed every male child under the age of 2 he could find.
The Holy family knew all about the violence of the world.
If you’re wondering where God is in the midst of these tragedies that are sadly too common in our world, remember God chose to become a child, who would be at risk to the dangers of this world.
God is not removed from such tragedy, but is in the midst of the dangers of life. So when pundits and tv preachers try to say that these things happen because we supposedly kicked God out of our public schools, or other such nonsense, remember the incarnation.
Remember that God chose to become one of us. I’ve said it before, but until these people on TV who claim to speak for Jesus start listening to me, it appears I have to say it again.
The God who chose to become flesh and dwell among us has never, and will never abandon us or cause the murder of innocents just to prove us wrong.
Okay. End of rant.
But Mary doesn’t quite know where this journey will take her. All she knows is life will not be the same after this news from the angel.
And so Mary pauses for a moment on the journey, we imagine, to look back and realize her childhood is gone, the world of Seventeen Magazine and dances at the high school is behind her now. And she makes haste for her cousin Elizabeth’s. Because the journey is too difficult to make alone.
Mary doesn’t go to her best friends from school. She doesn’t post the news on facebook, asking people to pray for her.
The pregnant teenager seeks the presence of a formerly barren, pregnant old woman– someone who knows life is complicated.
As soon as Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice she proclaims, “blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
I can imagine, at that point, hearing a real, live person give validation to the words of the Angel must have caused Mary to collapse in a heap of relief. “I’m not crazy. I didn’t make it up. Elizabeth knows it too.”
And then we get the Magnificat, which is Latin for “magnify”, as in the beginning of her song. “My soul magnifies the Lord…”
This song of Mary reminds us of other songs by other women in scripture. Hannah at the temple after the birth of Samuel. Miriam after the defeat of the Egyptians at the Red Sea. The song begins with praise for blessings received. Even in the midst of an unplanned pregnancy, Mary searches for her blessings.
But then she goes on to make claims about God. And the claims she makes suggests she realizes there are implications for more than just her when God comes to earth as the child of a teenage girl from Nazareth. “God 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 as far as we can tell, in either the text or in our world, Mary is speaking of things that haven’t quite happened yet. Powerful people still seem to be on their thrones. The lowly still seem to be low. The hungry are still going to the food banks and, despite the worsening economy, the rich are not quite empty. Children are still dying.
As Christians, we are a people of hope. Hope that the promises God made to Israel have been fulfilled in Christ’s birth and will be fulfilled in Christ’s return. So, we live in hope that our work together as God’s people will make Mary’s song true for the people in our community, for the families who mourn the loss of their children.
And we remember joy. Not blithe happiness, as if nothing were wrong in the world around us.
But that joy that wells up in our souls when we remember that the pain and sorrow in this world do not have the final say. The joy that welled up in Mary, in the midst of the uncertainties of her journey, allowing her to sing a magnificent song.
One of my friends shared this quote with me.
Joy is not the absence of suffering. It is the presence of God.
This is joy Sunday, the day of Advent we remind each other of this truth. God is present with us. God is being born for us again, a babe in a manger.
There is joy in the world because of this. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
CS Lewis describes joy this way. “Joy is distinct… from pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.”
We, as God’s children, have the gift and responsibility of making JOY, complete with its longing, incarnate to the world around us. And while there are many responses to the tragedies of our world, I’d like to share 3 quotes that suggest what we could be about as Christians responding to the world around us, so we may bring light to the dark corners of our world.
The first is from The Hobbit.
One of the elves asks Gandalf the wizard why he brought a Hobbit on the journey. Here is his response. ‘I do not know, Saruman believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that it is not what I’ve found. I’ve found it is the small things, every act of normal folk that keeps the darkness at bay — simple acts of kindness and love.’
The second quote is from the conductor Leonard Bernstein.
And the final is from Mr Rogers:
So this week, I invite you to tend to the small things, the helper things, the beautiful things, and to welcome the joy in the midst of the darkness of the world. Amen.