(A sermon for Advent 3A December 12, 2010 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. On the printed title list, she added this note beside number two: “Sing along! You know you want to!”
And I did.
“Jeremiah was a bullfrog/was a good friend of mine./I never understood a single word he said”—
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’s rowdy and noisy and celebratory. It made me happy.
I sang along then, and I would do it again now. I wanted to have that bright, shining feeling of joy that we associate with Christmas.
I want it right now, too.
But there are things that hold me back, global things like people without health insurance, and people still looking for work and worried about what will happen if their unemployment insurance comes to an end before a job can be found. I worry for the people who live with war outside their doors every day, ordinary people threatened by the way the world works, with no power to change things. I stop myself when I remember people far away and people very close to home who feel their joy limited by illness and uncertainty.
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.
Our gospel lesson began with the Annunciation, the shocking visit of an angel to a very young woman, hardly more than a girl. “Do not be afraid,” he says. Fear not! Fear not? Who wouldn’t be afraid of this shining figure? We might think we want to see an angel, but are we ready for the circumstances the angel’s presence indicates?
This angel describes a seemingly impossible scenario. Mary, portrayed by Luke as serious and thoughtful, prone to pondering things inside herself, asks a very practical question – “How can that happen when I have never slept with a man?” Then she agrees to do as the angel tells her. “Let it be with me according to your word.”
There’s a bumper sticker that says: “Virgin Mary? What if your daughter told that story?” Now, we live in a time when getting pregnant is not the end of the world; people have and take a range of choices. They may even end up on “Dancing With the Stars!” But 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 and the end of all future possibilities. Her best chance was being hidden away somewhere, quietly.
Mary risked everything by saying yes to God’s disturbing joy.
Luke’s story takes us away from how other people might have responded, to a place where someone understood, to the place 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.”
Bless you, Mary, for believing in the unbelievable. Bless you for saying “yes” to God.
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!”
God’s scattering and shaking brings about joy, but it is a joy that disturbs the status quo. I wonder if we really want God to shake up the world, and how prepared we are to be scattered.
It feels 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.
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.
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 to his demands.
We read Mary’s words most Decembers, but most of us simply wait 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. Imagine responding to God as she did, with courage: “Let it be with me according to your word.”
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.
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.
I wonder if God might not be waiting for us, too.
Do we dare say what Mary said?
“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 really be — sing along, you know you want to — “Joy to the World! All the boys and girls! Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea. Joy to you and me!” Amen.
(P.S. This is admittedly an update of a sermon preached in Freeport two years ago, chosen because I found so many people did not know much about Mary's visit to Elizabeth. And because I hoped I could get the people to sing along. Which they did!!!)