A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho.
December 15, 2013
A few weeks ago, NBC aired a ‘recorded live’ presentation of the Sound of Music. And despite what the critics said, I thought it was worth it just to hear Audra MacDonald sing Climb Every Mountain.
But when you’re watching a musical, it makes perfect sense that seemingly normal people will burst into song while the other cast members spontaneously dance in perfect choreography behind them.
I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t happen in the Glass house. When lightning strikes, I don’t start singing
raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens,
bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens….
The Glass family has never worn curtains and sung harmony as we escaped from the Nazis.
Maybe there are families where people just burst into song in the middle of dinner, but I’ve never lived in one of them.
I picture our gospel lesson as a musical though.
Mary, has recently received some rather startling news from the angel. The Holy Spirit is going to come upon her and she will be pregnant with God’s own child.
We can picture that scene from the musical too, as the light from the angel disappears and Mary is left alone on stage, pondering it all in her heart.
What will become of her?
How will her fiance Joseph respond?
And his mother?
Why would God choose her, a teenaged girl from nowhereville?
What does it mean for God to be born to a vulnerable girl, as a vulnerable child?
The stage darkens.
In the next scene Mary, with haste, heads out of town, stage left.
She goes to visit her relative Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. And it seems that even in the womb, John was preparing the way for Jesus. Because when pregnant Mary walks in to the living room, he leaps in Elizabeth’s womb and she breaks into a song of her own, a blessing that mirrors what Mary had already heard from the angel.
“And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
I suspect Elizabeth’s musical number must have been very reassuring to Mary. Even if you say “sure” to the angel, I’m sure there’s still a piece of you that’s wondering if you’ve lost your mind.
And it matters to know that you are not alone on the stage—that someone else is standing there behind you. That while faith is a personal experience—remember that nobody else saw that angel—it isn’t a private experience. We find support for our personal faith journeys in community with others—even when they may have heard from a different angel.
And then Mary breaks out in her own song.
“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.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
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.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
This song is often referred to as the “magnificat”, which is the first word Mary says if you are reading the passage in Latin. And when I hear it, I realize how much Mary has surprised me again.
Her song is not a half-hearted praise of “my soul thanks the Lord and I trust that he’ll get me through this mess and things will turn out okay.”
Her song is much bigger. It shows that she, correctly, connects the details of her life to God’s bigger plan for the world. Like the psalmist before her, she sings a song that speaks a truth we can’t always see.
Mary’s song becomes not a prophecy nor prediction, but a description of reality. She doesn’t even bother to use future tense.
It doesn’t say “God will…” She says “God has…”
By realizing that her story is a part of God’s story, Mary’s song is also full of joy.
But 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.
On stage, as she’s singing, you see images on the screen that counter her words:
Powerful people still seem to be on their thrones.
The lowly still seem to be low.
Children are still dying.
The hungry are still going to the food banks.
The rich are getting richer.
The screen fades to black.
But as she continues her song, a candle is lit, dispelling the darkness, reminding us that the world we see is not all there is.
A light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not over come it.
As Christians, we sing 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, for people who face diagnosis and disease.
And we remember joy. Not blithe happiness, as if nothing were wrong in the world around us—but the 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.”
Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT. And Friday there was another school shooting, this time in Denver.
I think about Mary’s song of joy in the midst of the pain and loss in the world and while I sing along as best I can, it still feels discordant somehow.
But then I heard this story on NPR.
“As much as Dec. 14 will forever be a day of unfathomable grief for Nelba Márquez-Greene, Dec. 13 will be one of unending gratitude.
“I will never forget that day,” she says.
On that day, Márquez-Greene stopped the usual frantic drill: rushing to activities and errands, worrying about the dishes and laundry, even cleaning up the mess on the floor.
That morning, her 6-year-old daughter, Ana Grace, had knocked down the entire nativity set off the piano. Baby Jesus was still in little pieces on the floor when she came home from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Márquez-Greene can’t explain it, but something compelled her that evening to just ignore it all and instead corral Ana, her son Isaiah and her husband Jimmy into the car.
“And off we went to the Cheesecake Factory,” she says, “where we had our final time as a family of four.”
It was, she says, the greatest gift.
“We were sitting there taking goofy pictures, Ana was making faces,” she says. “We had second dessert. We had, like, three pasta dishes. I’m so grateful we had that.”
After the shooting the next morning, where Ana and 25 others were killed, her parents wondered how they’d ever feel whole again.
Most days still bring unbearable pain. But as Márquez-Greene puts it, she’s “made it her business” to stay focused on the good days with Ana.
“It is what brings me great comfort and great joy,” she says. “And that is what gives us strength.”
And this mother’s magnificat, her claim that joy can be present in the midst of loss, echoes Mary’s song of praise too. She picks up the chorus where Mary left off, adding her song of testimony to the ones that have come before.
At the end of the service, we’ll sing one of my favorite hymns, and the reason the new hymnals were worth it all.
“My soul cries out with a joyful shout
that the God of my heart is great.
And my spirit sings of the wondrous things
that you bring to the ones who wait.
You fixed your sight on your servant’s plight,
and my weakness you did not spurn,
so from east to west shall my name be blest,
could the world be about to turn.”
So remember that as we sing Mary’s song of joy, hope, and justice, we join in with those who have sung this song through the ages and who are still singing it today.
Because we, as God’s children, have the gift and responsibility of making JOY, complete with its longing, incarnate to the world around us. We are called on stage to join the cast.
So let us go sing a song of joy. The song needs your voice.