(A sermon for Advent 3B December 14, 2008 Luke 1:26-56)
One Christmas I got a package in the mail from a faraway friend. In it were three refrigerator magnets and a homemade CD of some of her favorite songs. The second cut on the CD was “Joy to the World,” not the carol, but the song by Three Dog Night. It just happens to be true that the first record album I ever bought for myself was purchased at a yard sale for 25 cents, and although it had a torn dust cover, it also had that song. I played it over and over again. It made me happy.
Because we think of joy as a kind of exceptional happiness, don’t we? It is the state of happiness produced by getting what we want. It is rowdy and noisy and celebratory.
My friend printed out a list of the songs on the CD for me, and after “Joy to the World” it says, “Sing along! You know you want to!”
And she is correct. I want to sing along! I want to have that bright, shining feeling of joy that we associate with Christmas. But I also feel constrained by thoughts of the dead in Mumbai and the people recovering from Hurricane Ike who have been all but forgotten by the media and the people serving our military in harm’s way and the people who live with war outside their doors every single day. And I feel constrained by thinking of people closer to home for whom this may not be a Merry or Joyful Christmas because they are grieving or ill or simply worried about what this bad economy will mean not just for Christmas but for every day this winter.
There must be more to a Christian’s joy than happiness about things we have achieved. There must be more to a Christian’s joy than trumpets and drums and partridges in pear trees.
With all my heart, I praise the Lord, and I am glad because of God my Savior.
He cares for me, his humble servant.
From now on, all people will say God has blessed me.
God All-Powerful has done great things for me, and his name is holy.
(Luke 1:46-49, Contemporary English Version)
She was a very young woman, barely more than a girl. Getting pregnant before getting married was the worst thing that could have happened to her. In fact, she didn’t quite know what to do with the news. Probably she worried about telling her mother and father. Certainly she worried about how Joseph, the man she was pledged to marry, would react to the revelation.
And so she left home and went to a safe place. She headed for the hills and her cousin Elizabeth.
Elizabeth was also in the midst of an unexpected pregnancy. She was a little too old, and had never been pregnant, and had long ago given up on becoming a mother. The baby she was carrying would be John the Baptist, the one who would prepare the way for Jesus to bring his message to the people of the world.
But at this moment, the two men who would someday upset the political and religious scene in Jerusalem were not yet born. They were only expected. And although both mothers were joyful, their lives were disturbed by the news that they would bear these special children.
I think it’s likely that every woman who has received the news she will have a baby has been disturbed at least a little. Even the most wanted pregnancy will change the lives of the parents; even the most wanted child breaks forth from the mother in a way that means nothing will ever be quite the same again.
Having a child is a disturbing joy.
We began with the Annunciation, that angel visit to Mary that we act out in pageants; it is a moment portrayed widely in art over the centuries, an angel arriving to make an announcement to a serious girl, often with a book in her hand.
In one painting, the two sit conversationally together, but I cannot imagine such a relaxed posture on either side. Angels have a history of pronouncements, but never one like this! Humans have received emissaries from God, but often they resist before consenting.
Mary, serious, thoughtful, interior, asks the question she must ask — how can I have a baby when I've never slept with a man?" — and then agrees. “Let it be with me according to your word.”
We don’t hear what she told her parents. Yesterday I saw a bumper sticker reading: “Virgin Mary? What if your daughter told that story?” I fear it would be more disturbing than joyful, under the circumstances. We live in a time when getting pregnant is not the end of the world; people have and take a range of choices. For a young woman then, an unmarried young woman, it would have been the end of her standing in her family and her community, the end of her life as she knew it. But Luke takes us away from all that, to a place where someone understood, where the child growing inside Elizabeth jumped for joy at Mary’s arrival.
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb…blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (Luke 1:42a,45, NRSV)
Bless you, Mary, for believing in the unbelievable.
Bless you for saying “yes” to God.
And so Mary responds with words about God’s plan to turn things upside down and inside out, to make the world a markedly different place.
The Lord has used his powerful arm to scatter those who are proud.
He drags strong rulers from their thrones and puts humble people in places of power.
God gives the hungry good things to eat, and sends the rich away with nothing.
(Luke 1:51-53, Contemporary English Version)
When I read such words, I want to say, “Yes, Lord, do that. Joy to the World! All the boys and girls! Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea. Joy to you and me!”
I suspect a lot of us are feeling like that right now. I’m thinking of the people dependent on the auto industry for their livelihood. Would God be on the side of management, or of labor? It’s good to think of God lifting up the needy and giving a little smackdown to those who are on the “up” side of life—as long as we don’t count ourselves among the comfortable.
I wonder if we really want God to shake up the world, and how prepared we are to be scattered. God’s scattering and shaking brings about joy, but it is a joy that disturbs the status quo.
For many people in this country, having Mary’s words come to pass would be devastating. For many people in this country, it may feel those words have come to pass this fall. A slideshow on a news website showed pictures of grown men crying on the trading floors of stock markets all around the world. Every day we hear about another major corporate layoff. How many days did people watch the stock ticker and feel scattered as the “bottom” dropped further and further? How will banks convince us our money is safe and stores convince us to shop? How will we perpetuate the life to which we have grown accustomed?
But perhaps being scattered and disturbed means leaving those assumed comforts behind.
God’s joyful world to come is not about malls and sales or success and victory. God’s joyful world to come will disturb us, as surely as a baby’s cry wakes us in the night and demands our attention.
In a truly changed world, in a transformed world, the people who are comfortable now will wake up and wonder where that baby came from and who is going to tend him.
But we’ve been waiting for this new world Mary sings about for 2000 years, give or take, and we may wonder if it’s ever going to really come to pass. How do we keep up the tension of believing when so much time has gone by and nothing seems to change? We keep the energy alive by observing Advent and celebrating Christmas. We act out the story each year. We participate in the preparations. We remember the young mother-to-be and reflect on her joy in the face of shame and disgrace. We sing songs and hymns of joy that reflect the light we perceive despite the gathering darkness. We invite the joy to vibrate through us and to change us. We pray, with Mary, for God’s change to disturb the entire world with joy, bringing something new to birth.
We read these words most Decembers, but we wait and look for God to work the change alone. We hope for a simple solution, one that requires no action from us. Imagine listening to a 14-year-old prophet, a mere girl, and taking her seriously. (Srsly.) Imagine responding to God as she did, with courage: “Let it be with me according to your word.”
If we don’t feel challenged by her willingness, if we see it as something simple and sweet as a Hallmark Christmas card, we probably need to think again. Most of us, and I include myself, cross our fingers and hope what we’re doing with our lives will be enough to please God, without attracting too much notice from angelic messengers. Most of us would rather maintain a low profile.
Mary allowed God to break into her life in a way most of us would fear to do, and it’s very important to remember that nothing happened until she gave her consent. “Let it be with me according to thy word.” “Let things happen to me as you have told me they might, even though it makes no sense, even though it may mean trouble, even though it will make me different from everyone else. Let it be.”
If we could all respond so willingly to God’s disturbing joy, perhaps we could finally give birth to the world Mary prophesied. And then there might be “Joy to the World! All the boys and girls! Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea. Joy to you and me!” Amen.
Notes on the art, some of which I found linked from Textweek:
Three Dog Night (not from Textweek)
Annunciation by Lorenzetti
Elizabeth and Mary I found on a blog, uncredited.
Ecce Ancilla Domini! by Dante Gabriel Rossetti