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Archive for December, 2012

Mary’s Song

December 23, 2012, Advent IV

Luke 1:39-55

Mary’s Song

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This week – at Rob’s work party – one of his colleagues joked that he had to watch his newly pregnant wife at the party, lest she forget her condition and order a glass of wine.  My response:  I don’t think you need to worry.  It isn’t easily forgotten.

Ask mostly newly-pregnant women and I suspect they will tell you the same thing:  they can barely think of anything else.  Those first days and weeks, before the pregnancy is evident to the world around you, you walk through life every mindful that everything is about to change – and wondering how it is possible that the rest of the world goes on with business as usual.

How much more that must have been true for Mary!  The secret she carried was magnified tenfold.  First, there was the way she learned of the pregnancy.  It wasn’t from clothes that began to feel a bit tight, or from two little lines appearing.  Mary received word of her pregnancy from – of all things – an angel.  An angel showing up in her bedroom!  And told her not only that she was pregnant, but that the child would be the long-awaited Messiah, rescuer of God’s people.

What news!  Mary was perplexed, the text says.  That seems an understatement.  Baffled, mystified, astounded, completely overwhelmed seem more accurate.  Certainly, it must have been a memorable moment.

A moment, I suspect, that she relived many times in the days that followed.  She would have no physical proof of her pregnancy yet – but how could she forget the angel’s words?  And then – how could she escape the consequences of those words?

The consequences were far-reaching.  Her pious relatives might turn her in to the religious authorities and have her executed for adultery.  And if they showed mercy, she still risked the wrath of Herrod.  He would not respond kindly to news of a rival.  Death was, again, a possibility.  Mary stands in solidarity with many women in our world who carry new life at the cost of their own life and well-being.  She was overshadowed by a Power that had the capacity to destroy her.

The angel provided a reassurance though:  Elizabeth was pregnant!  Barren Elizabeth, past childbearing age, was pregnant.  If it were true – if God had really done such a thing – then maybe God would keep his word to her, too.  Maybe.

She had to know.  Had to know God would keep his word.  Had to know there was hope in the midst of fear.  So she went to Elizabeth.  I imagine it was a journey filled with longing…with tentative hope…with many misgivings…with wondering.  But who better to share her fear and wonder and longing with than one who had also experienced the power of God?  So Mary went – and with haste.  She could not bear this secret alone for long.

I wonder if she agonized over what to say – when to share the news – how to tell her secret.  Did she turn the words over in her mind with every step, searching for just the right ones?

In the end, it didn’t matter.  Elizabeth knew before Mary said a word!  The child Elizabeth carried – John would be his name – lived out his vocation as prophet even before he was born.  He leaped at the sound of Mary’s voice, and Elizabeth knew this one in Mary’s womb was blessed.  “Blessed are you among women!” she exclaims, “and blessed is the child you carry!”

And then – then I imagine that Mary exhaled, finally, blowing out all the anxiety she had carried for days inside of her.  She breathed, sucking in hope, and strength, and joy.  Tension evaporates, her lungs fill with air and she bursts into song:  “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on his servant…the Mighty One has done great things for me…” (Luke 1:47-49).

Ahh, the sweet joy of a mother-to-be who has finally let go of the worry and the fear that accompanies the early days of pregnancy, who finally believes that this new life really has begun!  Mary’s words ring with that joy, that contentment, that excitement.

Of course, this is not the song of every mother-to-be.  For some, new life is never more than an ache, a longing deep within them.  For others, the new life ends before they have opportunity to celebrate.  Or, it is birthed but then snuffed out in infancy, in childhood, far too early.  Poet Cheryl Lawrie* begs us,

In a season that abounds with fertile miracles,

pray for peace for those for whom

every breathless, wondrous mention of babies born

will bring only unspeakable pain.

For peace does not always come

in the shape of a baby.

That’s the power of Mary’s song.  When we look more closely – it is not just a baby of which Mary sings.  Rather, it is the baby who brings peace for the whole world:  A peace that reaches those who mourn, those in unspeakable pain.  A peace that lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things.  A peace that fills the ache in our hearts and meets the needs of all nations and people.

Mary sings not only because she is having a baby, but more specifically, because her baby will be the One of Peace.  And Mary sings her song not only for herself, but for all who long for new life, who ache for a new beginning.

It interesting that she sings it in the past tense – as if it has already come to pass that God has scattered the proud and brought down the powerful, lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry.  Mary sings as if the rescuer had already been born and salvation had already come!  She sings as if the world was already at peace, was already a safe place for little ones like the babe she carried.

Of course, it was not; not fully, not yet.  Mary was still in danger; King Herrod would still try to snuff out life and the life of her child.  Israel would continue to suffer oppression from other nations; Abraham’s descendants still had reason to wonder if God had forgotten them.  The proud and the powerful would still abuse the weak and the poor.

But.  But!  In that moment, strengthened by Elizabeth’s blessing, Mary finds courage to sing ahead of time** – to sing as if God’s promises to rescue and redeem had already come true.

And by singing ahead – by believing that what God had promised God had already set out to do – Mary is drawn into the hoped-for future.  When she sings, she moves from longing for God’s salvation to participating in it.  Singing draws her – and us – into the reality of a changed world.

To borrow, again, from poet Cheryl Lawrie*:

Maybe in this there is a glimpse of the kingdom

a foretaste

a hint

a promise.

Let it hold you and let it send you

so you will never be at peace

until all are fed

until all know home

until all are free

until justice is done

until peace is the way

until grace is the law

until love is the rule

until God’s realm comes

until God’s realm comes

until God’s realm comes…

So we sing until God’s realm comes.  And while we sing, we set about bringing that realm to life.  We bend down to the lowly; we feed the hungry; we serve the servants; we invite the poor to share in God’s abundant provision.

Our calling as Christian people is to live as if God was already present – because God is!  Our calling is to open our eyes to God’s presence, to call it out, sing about it, and live as if it were true.

The Advent carol “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” celebrates God-with-us in many different ways.  It is written in the tradition of the O Antiphons – prayers that call upon seven names of God found in the Old Testament.  Those names express the ways that human beings have experienced God through the ages – as wisdom, dayspring, deep desire.  They express our longing for God to show up again in our world, that we might know God’s presence anew.

The song also reassures us that God will never leave us or forsake us.  The names of God form an acrostic, the Latin letters spelling out (in reverse), “tomorrow, I will come.”  There is bright hope for tomorrow in these words.

We live with much longing this year.  There are so many reminders of our need for God.  Is God absent?  Some believe so.  We say no.  God is here, with us.  And God will continue to be present…a flickering light growing stronger in the darkness.  When we sing with Mary, we live in that circle of light – and carry it to others – so that it might grow, God’s presence with us.

Let’s sing – with longing, with hope – and with confidence that God will be with us as we live out our calling to live in God’s presence.  O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

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*Cheryl Lawrie’s poetry may be found at holdthisspace.org.au

**The image of Mary “singing ahead of time” is borrowed from Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon by the same name, “Singing Ahead of Time,” in Home By Another Way.

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A sermon preached on Sunday, December 16, 2012 following the news of a violent attack on an elementary school in Connecticut.  Come, Lord Jesus.

Advent 3

Text:  Zephaniah 3:14-20

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Today is the third Sunday of Advent…the “joy” Sunday.  We light a pink candle, reminding us that we wait for the joyous reception of our Lord.  We hear “Rejoice in the Lord!”  We sing the songs of joy.

And then there are the news headlines this week

Joy hardly seems the appropriate response.

This is what we wrestle with in Advent:  the tension between a promise of hope, and peace, and joy – and the reality of what is.  It is the contrast between already – the presence of God already and always with us – and not yet – the presence not yet fully realized, and sometimes even quite hidden by the circumstances of our lives and our world.

Friday was a profoundly “not yet” day in our nation.  A day when hope and peace seem far away – and joy impossible.

Today, we heard the words of the prophet Zephaniah.  We often read the prophets in Advent.  We read them because of their ability to see through the haze of the present day to a hopeful future.  Prophets “hear God when everybody else has concluded God is silent.  They see God where nobody else would guess that God is present” (Deborah A. Block, in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 1, Advent 3 OT PP).

The prophets insist that God is not absent.

We need to hear the prophets today.

We don’t need more words.  We have heard more than enough talking heads this weekend.  We’ve heard (and read) endless sensationalized headlines, and we’ve heard the same words repeated hour after hour after hour.  We don’t need more words.  What we need are new words.  Words that call us back to God.  Words that renew our hope and restore our faith.  Words of the prophets.

That’s why, I think, a single verse in Zephaniah’s 3rd chapter grabbed my attention this week.  In Zephaniah 3:9, the prophet speaks for God:  “At that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord.”

This verse falls just at the turning point of the tiny book of Zephaniah.  The turning point between destruction and despair and a joyous hope for a peaceful future.

The first two and a half of Zephaniah’s three chapters are filled with judgment.  Zephaniah lived – as we do – in a time of violence.  The Assyrian King Manasseh ruled over Israel then, and Manasseh was a cruel and vengeful king.  He practiced child sacrifice and murdered his own family.  2 Kings tells us that “Manasseh spilled so much innocent blood that he filled up every corner of Jerusalem with it” (2 Kings 21:16).

Zephaniah describes the times he lived in as “a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of alarm” (Zephaniah 1:15).  That was his context, his world.

That world feels heartbreakingly similar to our world.  For some of us, “distress and anguish” came with the week’s news headlines.  For others, it came when the doctor spoke the word “cancer” or the divorce papers arrived or the calendar reminded us of a painful anniversary.  The “most wonderful time of the year” can be easily overshadowed by days of “darkness and gloom.”

Zephaniah knew that.  And he didn’t try to fill the darkness with sparkling tree lights or drown out the anguish with holiday carols.  He didn’t start with joy.

He started by railing against the tragedy, by giving voice to the despair and the horror.  He names anger, and pain, and grief.  And not just our anger and pain and grief – Zephaniah names God’s anger and suffering, too.  At least ¾ of the prophet’s brief words are devoted to calling out the suffering and telling us that God shares it.  They are “not yet” words.

He speaks them, and then he sits with them.  Our news headlines today repeat hopeless words over, and over, and over again.  The prophets don’t.  They speak of despair, and then they sit with it as long as they must.  So Zephaniah 3:8 calls us to “Wait for the Lord.  Wait for the day when the Lord will rise up…”

I imagine, here, a long pause between verse 8:  “wait for the Lord” and verse 9:  “I that time I will change the speech…they will call on my name.”  How long did the prophet have to sit with the despair before finding the courage to pick up the pen and begin writing again, this time of a different future?  How long was the wait?

The pause between those verses – that’s Advent.  The waiting for a new word, for speech to be changed into praise.   That’s where we live.

But it is not where we stay.  The prophets knew that judgment was coming.  But they also believed it was not the last word.

The last word, Zephaniah says, is a word of joy.

“Rejoice, Daughter Zion! Shout, Israel!  Rejoice and exult with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem.” For “the Lord your God is in your midst; he will create calm with his love; he will rejoice over you with singing” (3:14, 17).

I love these prophetic words – have loved them since I was a college student and first heard them.  I love them even more having studied more deeply their context.  They are written in the tradition of women’s songs – within the stream of Miriam and Deborah, Mary and Elizabeth – women who lift their voices to praise God and sing for joy even in the midst of some of the most difficult of life’s circumstances.  These are the words of women who live with fear and despair, and choose joy anyway.

Their joy isn’t naïve or irresponsible.  They don’t turn away from suffering or ignore the pain.  They don’t have the luxury of turning away from grief or fear.  But they do refuse to give it the last word.  They insist that God will yet deliver the lame, gather the outcast, remove our judgment and restore our wellbeing.  And that is reason for joy even in the midst of sorrow.

I really struggled to find words to say this morning.  It seemed there were already too many words said, and most of them not the right words.  But in the end I realized I don’t have to find words, because the prophets have already spoken them for us.  “Wait for the Lord.”  “Rejoice.”  “Do not be afraid.”

So we speak – and sing – words of joy today.  We may not feel ready for joy just yet.  We don’t have to feel it or receive it, just yet.  We can wait as long as we need, trusting that joy will come.  And we can, at the same time, believe with fierce insistence that the prophets and the angels speak truth when they say:

“Rejoice, daughter Zion, rejoice and exult with all your heart. I am in your midst, and I will calm you with my love.”

“Fear not, for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.”

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December 2, 2012 Sermon

1 Kings 12:1-20

The Story, Ch. 14

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Well, here we are!  Advent has arrived, with all the hustle and bustle of getting ready.  And today will be our last day with The Story for awhile.  (We’ll pick up again with chapter 15 on January 6.  This is a great chance to catch up if you’ve gotten behind on the reading!)

You might remember at the beginning that I summarized the Bible in 30 seconds:  God creates a good world, in which God walks and talks with human beings.  But then human sin divides them, puts a barrier between human beings and God, between Adam and Eve themselves, and between them and creation (the land).  Separation and division now become the norm.

All that only gets us through chapter 3.  And then the whole rest of the Bible is God doing whatever it takes to be with God’s people again.

“Whatever it takes” has taken a number of forms so far in the story.  There is the ark and the rainbow with Noah – and God’s promise never again to destroy the earth and all that lives on it.  There is the Exodus, freeing the people from slavery and inviting – calling – them to covenant relationship with God.  There is the Tabernacle, where God’s presence rests.  There are judges and kings and prophets who speak to the people on God’s behalf, and to God on the people’s behalf.  And there is, now, a temple where God’s presence can dwell, a house for God within a nation of God’s people.

Yet still there is separation and division.  God’s presence may be with the people, but it is guarded, separated by a thick curtain and layers upon layers of ritualized religion.  And the nation may be united under a king now – no longer a loose confederation of tribes as under the judges – but they are still fighting with one another, family member still betraying family member (remember David & Absalom).  Their loyalties to God are still divided too – as we saw last week when Solomon bowed to other gods, even as he was completing the Temple as a house for Yahweh God.

So despite steps toward God being with God’s people, separation and division still rule the day.  Families are still divided, hearts are still divided.  And with today’s Scripture reading, the nation of God’s people will be divided.

Last week was a story of celebration; Israel was at peace with her neighbors, and Solomon had completed the Temple and consecrated it with a lavish dedication ceremony.  But in the midst of that unity – a nation coming together, and God’s presence coming to dwell among them in the house that Solomon built for God – Solomon’s heart was still divided.  His lust after foreign women caused him to divide his heart among many, many wives.  And that, in turn, led to the division of his family.

Now, in 1 Kings 12, two men – Rehoboam and Jeroboam – will fight against one another for Solomon’s throne, and will in the end divide the nation.  Judah will follow Rehoboam, while the tribes of Israel give their allegiance to Jeroboam.  The kingdom is divided.

It seems that unity is just too hard, too difficult to sustain.  It requires too much humility, too much cooperation, too much commitment – and despite our best intentions, human beings just can’t seem to sustain the kind of intimacy, the kind of “being with” God and each other that we long for.

So today, as we begin Advent, we see God’s people as a nation longing for unity and a family longing for wholeness.  Israel waits for wholeness and unity to return to their country.  They wait for God’s next saving act.

The waiting for Israel is just beginning.  As we will see when we continue the Story in January, the waiting will go on…and on.  And it becomes harder and harder the longer it goes.

Waiting is like that.  It seems to get harder, not easier, as time goes on.  And it is often hardest right at the end, when you’ve been waiting the longest and the waiting is almost over.

  • The days just before a baby is born…
  • The days just before a loved one comes home from deployment…

Advent is a time of waiting for us in the church too – and not just waiting for Christmas.  In Advent, we remember Israel waiting on God.  But we also wait for God to show up anew in our lives and our world.  And often, the waiting gets harder the longer we’ve waited, in those areas of our lives when the brokenness is most evident and the need for wholeness most intense.

So we wait with Israel.  We remember the ups and downs of their story and reflect on the ups and downs of our own life story.  We see the broken places, the places where division and separation are most evident.  And we wait for something – or someone – who will bring it all together again.  Someone who will bring our families back together, unite our country, put all the pieces of our lives back together.

That’s the longing of Advent:  a longing for wholeness, and for healthy relationship, with God and one another.

And that’s the promise of God’s salvation:  being made whole.  Relationships healed, families made whole.  People made whole, divided loyalties and torn apart lives put back together again.  Salvation.  God with God’s people again.

The hope of Advent is that God will make us whole.  That God will show up and make us wholly God’s people again – brought back into relationship with God through Jesus – Emmanuel, God with Us, the Word made flesh.  And that when God is with us, God will make our families whole, our neighborhoods whole, and our country whole, too.

In fact, the entire Christmas story can be read as story of bringing back together, of reuniting all that has been divided by human sin.  Jesus unites God and human beings, allows God to be with God’s people.  And the reuniting extends out like ripples on the water:  Israelites and foreigners united in the genealogy of Jesus.  Young and old, generations united by shared longing and quite literally by Mary and Elizabeth’s shared pregnancies.  The rich and the poor brought together as magi and shepherds meet at the manger.  The Christmas story is a story of making human beings and human communities whole again.

What are you longing for this Advent?  What do you need God to make whole?  A relationship…a memory…your family…yourself?

Bring your longing to the Table today.  Share the waiting with God’s people here in this place.  And prepare your heart for God to show up and make you whole.

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