A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, California
December 13, 2020
The story of Jesus didn’t begin in the halls of power, or among the rich and famous.
This story began when an angel of the Lord went to an unwed teenaged girl in the backwater town of Nazareth and announced good news of great joy for all people. “Mary, you have found favor with God!”
That’s worth remembering. God shows the divine preference for the underdog by being born to an underdog, someone who didn’t have power and privilege. 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 celebrations, and the gifts that go along with being family.
This story reminds us to change our focus when we look for God’s in-breaking into the world. It reminds us that in all the stresses, challenges, and worries we face, God has lived that journey too. We are not alone.
I’m fairly confident that nobody in Israel 2,000 years ago was looking for the Messiah to come from a teenaged girl in Nazareth. Many were looking for the Messiah to come in glory on the clouds with the heavenly host. Others were expecting a new King to be raised up from the people, leading a restored Israel to military might.
So, if they were looking in the temple, looking at the White House, or looking at West Point, they missed their Messiah.
Where are we looking for God to be born in our world today?
It’s a lot for us to ponder in our hearts.
And, after Mary sat with this news for a minute, she said “let it be with me, according to your will.” Which is quite remarkable.
Is that what you would have said to the angel when he told you that news?
Reason 134 God didn’t make me the mother of our Lord and Savior.
I suspect I would have bargained. “Okay, Mr Shiny Angel Pants, are you going to tell my fiance? Better yet, are you going to tell his mother? Will you guarantee my safety?”
Mary wasn’t like me. She didn’t ask the angel what was in it for her. She didn’t ask if she would get the TV rights to her story. She didn’t sell the pictures of the birth to People Magazine for $10 million dollars.
Instead, Mary went with haste to the Hill Country to stay with her cousin Elizabeth. Because the best place for a pregnant teenager to make sense of her situation is with a formerly barren cousin. Elizabeth was pregnant late in life, with a child who would become John the Baptist, who Victor preached about last week.
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 Elizabeth proclaims 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 message 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. Elizabeth’s proclamation must have been comforting, because it helps to know you are not alone—that someone else is standing there behind you. That while faith is a personal experience—remember that nobody else saw that angel—it is not 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 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.
This song is often referred to as the “magnificat”, which is the first word Mary says for those of you reading the bible in Latin. And when I hear it, I realize the power of these words sung by a teenaged girl.
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.
If God can use Mary in God’s plan for salvation for the world, then perhaps we need to reconsider everything we think we know. Mary’s magnificat takes on powerful significance.
If God can use a teenaged girl from a backwater town, then surely God will fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away hungry. Surely God will bring down the mighty and lift up the lowly. 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…” It says “God has…”
And perhaps you recognized Mary’s Magnificat in the 126th Psalm from which our Advent theme has been taken. When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
Mary connects her experience to the larger work of God in the world by hearkening back to the Psalms. And as I pondered this story this week, I was thankful for this Psalm. The drumbeat of Joy that works through this psalm called me to look for joy in the world at a time when loneliness and despair seems easier to find.
Mary’s song, like the psalm, is also full of joy. But not fa la la la la, easy joy that denies the messy reality of her situation. Yes, she’s found favor with God. But she’s still a pregnant teenager, one potentially at risk.
I’m thankful that Mary went to see her cousin, Elizabeth. Not only did Elizabeth validate her experience with the angel, but I suspect she also helped her see the joy. Elizabeth had been barren for many years. In a culture where childbirth was the only way women had to succeed in the first century world, Elizabeth had been a failure. She had known heartache, loss, and that “yearning for” that everyone who faces infertility or other loss knows.
The text only tells us that Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah were “getting on in years”, which means she’d lived with this loss for a long time. Here was Elizabeth’s comment about her pregnancy. “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.”
Isn’t that a heartbreaking thing for a woman to say?
Yes, Elizabeth knew joy, but it was through the experience of her suffering that she recognized it.
How is it with your soul right now? I’m weary of this year. I’m heartbroken that we can’t have even a modified Christmas Eve worship service in person. I’m feeling isolated and alone because of coronavirus, even as I’m willing to shelter in place to keep my community safe. We’re approaching three hundred thousand deaths in our country from Covid. That weighs on my soul.
And so I’m remembering Elizabeth, and I’m glad Mary had an Elizabeth. For a little perspective. To see that joy doesn’t spring up from the easy, unexamined life. Joy springs up through our brokenness and pain.
Are we looking for it? Are we reflecting on this year that has been? It’s easy to call it a dumpster fire and turn toward 2021 with better hopes. But there was joy in this year too for me.
I’m grateful for the bonus time I got in the spring semester with my college student who had been sent home. There was joy as we cooked dinner together each night, our slower schedules giving us a gift of time we had taken for granted in our formerly busy lives of soccer practice and church meetings.
I find joy in my new call here with you, even through the sorrow of not being able to meet all of you yet, or worship together in our building. God’s faithfulness through the change I’ve experienced this year brings me joy, and great hope for our future together once we’re through this time.
A friend of mine from college is an excellent high school teacher and he shared the final exam he offered to his classes this year. I’ll offer it to you as well.
That’s your homework assignment this week.
How is God breaking into our world today, bringing joy into our brokenness and pain?
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
So, on this 3rd Sunday in Advent, in a most unusual year, remember that joy is not a forced happiness that denies the pain of the world. Joy springs up, inexplicably, out of our tears.
Joy doesn’t erase the challenges or the risks we face. Joy is a companion through them. I hope you’ll come by the church this afternoon, or next Sunday afternoon, from 2-3. We’ll have a drive up opportunity for you to pick up Christmas Eve Candles, see some of the staff. I hope to meet many of you as we distribute Christmas supplies. Will it be the Christmas we dreamed of? Maybe not. Can we yet find joy? Absolutely.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.
Let us go into the world, seeking and bearing that kind of joy.