Sermons represent copyrighted material and are not to be reproduced, transcribed, or used in any form without the permission of Rev. Chris Moore or the speaker for that day.
Isaiah 35:1-10 & Luke 1:39-56
Every year, at Advent, this passage from Luke comes up, often next to a passage from Isaiah also dreaming of an age to come where things are very different. It’s one of the few passages that gets exposure every single year in the lectionary, almost as if the organizers of the collection of scriptures that guide many worship services across the world wanted to be sure that it was heard. There are countless commentaries on Mary’s words here from Luke’s gospel, and they almost all use one word to describe these 17 lines — revolutionary.
Now I’m not sure if you’re feeling revolutionary right now. Maybe you are. There’s plenty of reason to feel that way – a trip to the mall this time of year, for instance, brings up feelings of armed insurrection for many of us. And then there’s also the state of our nation, our state, our city – the world, even. But what I mean is this season in the church, this pre-Christmas Advent. Does Advent seem revolutionary to you? Does this time of year scream economic justice to you, or turning the world upside down, or revolution? Or does this lead-up to Christmas feel like more like a time to settle into traditions, go with the flow and get the list checked-off so that the events can happen…just like last year and the year before that, etc.? It’s hard to overemphasize how oddly this passage rings in our ears, a passage decrying the presence of economic injustice while we are assaulted with messages of consumption driven by an economy that we know doesn’t work for everyone at all, with decisions being made by the 1% for the 1%, in the midst of an election cycle in which the influence of money is no longer even being hidden at all – the more money you have, the better chance you’ve got. You have to have enough of it to qualify for a debate!
The suffering is all around us, and the numbers really don’t look all that good, unless you’re privileged enough to have a 401K. The signs of hate and division, conflict and war…they’re all over the place. The same things that Mary decries in this passage from 2000 years ago reside with us still. It doesn’t seem like revolution is impending, or that the presence of God is anywhere near.
Yet the whole theme of Advent is the intrusion of God into our world, the development of patience in an impatient world, the reality of God-with-us as an enfleshed reality…something that is real and tangible, not just a hoped for dream. Yet it comes to us in a baby…born in a manger somewhere where there are no cameras, where there’s not even cell coverage…born in the quiet of the back corners. This is a very hard story to tell in a church that is more often focused on triumphalism and the celebration, rather than incarnation or revolution.
The Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr tells us that the wisdom of the church is taking huge, cosmic, infinite mysteries like the second coming of Christ and distilling it into finite, calendered periods of time, like Advent…which announces again the coming of Jesus…the second coming which hasn’t yet happened and is always happening. It asks us every year to consider what our own blockages are to that arrival, what our resistance is to the revolution that Mary announces…a Mary who herself has to wrestle with her own commitment to this whole Jesus thing, an angel announcing to her that God’s work is to be done through her. She says yes to this…what do we say, for the angel has the same announcement for each of us, in that infinite sense…God is born, God is enfleshed in each of us all of the time. Are we willing to look for that?
Which begs another question – is God really ignoring what’s happening in the world, or are we just looking in the wrong places for God’s action?
Mary’s words have been formed over the centuries into a song, a canticle, one of the most ancient of Christian hymns – what we call the “Magnificat.” It is not a fanciful dream of lions and lambs, but a poignant and direct response to the times in which Mary lives. Mary takes the metaphorical language of Isaiah and makes it concrete, speaking of the powerful brought down from their thrones and the lowly lifted up, the hungry filled with good things and the rich sent away empty – it is a reversal of the reality in which she lives. This is Mary taking the blessing given directly to her by the angel and spreading it out, switching from “the Lord has done great things for me” to broader language about God’s saving power released upon the whole community – a shift from her suffering to compassion for others. She takes her blessing and shares it in a vision of God’s saving power poured out on the world, wrapped in the language of Joy.
There’s a perhaps legendary account that claims the military junta in 1980s Guatemala banned the public recitation of Mary’s words. I’m not sure there’s evidence to back this up, but if it did happen, it would have indicated that the political bosses understood what she was saying, perhaps more than many of us who hear or sing these words each year, for the implications of this kind of radical joy, this revolution of compassion are immense and perhaps even frightening.
Mary imagines a reversal, some justice that kind of looks like payback for those who have exploited others for so long, and Jesus, her son who surely heard these same revelations from his mother’s mouth, takes them a step further. He delivers not just an inversion of the pyramid, where the ones on the bottom get to be on the top, for we all know what happens when that is the extent of justice – the downtrodden become the downtrodders, the exploited exploit. No, Jesus delivers a kin-dom founded on mercy, on justice delivered through love, of accountability and responsibility shaped through the lens of grace. Jesus asks us to not simply seek revenge, as tempting as that can be, but to look into our hearts so that we’re not simply replicating the very thing that we work against…he delivers to us a revolution in our own hearts, and then into the world…he hands to us a re-visioning tool, a reframing, revolutionary approach, and he calls this – Joy.
Jesus is not handing out happiness. He is not offering us “feel good”, nor is he offering us some new packaging for our current ideals. Joy is counter-cultural, it is revolutionary in and of itself, particularly for us here in our context. Sister Simone, of the famous traveling, havoc-wreaking, trouble-making Nuns on a Bus, says that Joy is one of the virtues that we must recover in our time and place, as a revolutionary act, because joy is a communal virtue. You can’t go off by yourself, wallowing in your individualism, and create joy. Joy comes from connection, which is precisely what community craves, what democracy craves, and what the Kin-dom is all about. Joy is the antidote for the fear and aggression that is produced by individualism – the idea that we’re all ultimately on our own, with only ourselves and, typically, our trusty six-shooter to save us. That’s the ideology that pushes us behind locked gates, that builds walls, that punishes instead of rehabilitating, that divides and hoards and hates and stacks-the-decks so that the illusion of control is maintained at all costs. We’re seeing it lived out to what feels like the fullest extent right now. And what stands in contrast to that is Joy.
That’s not always a ready commodity at the so-called “most wonderful time of the year.” We have a “Blue Christmas” service this coming Wednesday night because I know that many would say they’re not feeling any joy at all. This is why during this time of the church calendar we lift up the birth of Jesus, a time that doesn’t necessarily correspond to the actual birth of Jesus, mind you – we don’t really know when that was. But this is the time that we remind ourselves of this story of hope and joy – in the deep, darkness of winter, in the cold and the gloom, in what used to be (before the invention of electricity) an even more difficult time to navigate. Now is when we emphasize the community, the connection, the Kin-dom, the linkages that make for Joy. Now is when we make these outlandish claims about the great reversal of injustices, the Kin-dom come to fruition, the Christ – the power of God incarnate — born to us in a tiny, fragile, helpless baby.
Joy comes to us as a great mystery. Like laughing at a funeral or crying your way through the happiest moment of your life, Joy doesn’t make sense. It comes when it’s not supposed to and lingers when you think that something else should be occupying the space. Why, one might ask this year, with all of the crud going on around us, should we feel joyful? Well, I don’t know if we should, I just know that we can, for the gift of Christmas is choice. God doesn’t operate on coercion or force, despite what some might have you think. God works on consent – we , like Mary, must choose to participate in the Kin-dom come, so the pronouncement of the now 300 year-old song is true – Joy to the World, the Lord is come – but only if you choose it. For joy does not just happen, we have to choose it, to look for it, to reframe the world around us so that we can connect to it.
Mary chooses to see the angel’s vision, to accept the words meant for her, which I assure you was quite in conflict with the other voices around her. She chooses to frame her situation, her life, her world, through the pronouncement of Christmas Joy. In one way of looking at it, the Christmas story is just the rather problematic story of a child born out of wedlock, against all the social rules, to what is likely now an ostracized couple in abject poverty in the backwoods of the Roman Empire as the imperially supported King in Jerusalem places an order for all male children to be slaughtered. It’s not a happy tale. So, why are we celebrating? Because we have reframed this story. We have reimagined it in light of the Easter story that we know is coming. We have imagined it as the beginning of God’s direct intervention in the world, God-made-flesh, living with us and for us and in us. We choose the re-frame it each and every year, which is why we tell this story and sing these carols, and light these candles. Because reframing is the work of Joy. It is the essence of Joy, the imagination of Joy, the power of Joy…joy as the infallible sign of God’s presence among us, the echo of God’s life within us, joy that lets us sing, as an act of holy reframing –
My heart shall sing of the day you bring, let the fires of your justice burn…
wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.
Joy to the world. The Lord is come.