A Disrupted Advent: A Homily for Advent 4B, 2020

It’s a familiar story. They are words we’ve heard many times year after year. A story depicted in countless paintings; gestures and words mimicked in devotional practices. It has settled into our memory like other stories that have shaped us—stories told in our families that seem to capture something of the essence of who we are and where we came from; stories of our nation, mythic stories that define us. Such stories are often so familiar, so beloved, their meaning so fixed in our memory that we rarely explore them more deeply.

There’s so much we don’t know about this story; so much more we want to know. We don’t know who Mary was, not really. We don’t know how old she was, although it’s likely she was a teenager. In first century Palestinian Judaism, girls were often betrothed at age 12 or so, and married no later than 19 or 20. We don’t know, can’t imagine, what this encounter, this new reality did to her. The gospels are largely silent about what she does later in life, about her response to her son. John tells us that she was present at the crucifixion; Luke says she was among the group of disciples that gathered in Jerusalem after the ascension, and presumably right through to Pentecost. Tradition has filled out the story. Theological reflection and devotional creativity have answered questions raised by Christians for 2000 years.

We have this story. A young woman, her life suddenly disrupted by the appearance of an angel; her world shattered and remade by events out of her control. That we know something about. So many of our certainties, so much of our lives have been disrupted over the last nine months; who could have imagined back in March that we would be here, the pandemic still raging, our lives on hold, fear, and weariness, and anger, still overwhelming us? Exhausted, fearful, the lives we led, the world we lived in nine months ago seem distant memories, faint whisps of dream we once had, with no connection to reality in which now live. Our hopes for the future cling by a slender thread. Oh, yes, we know what disrupted worlds and lives are like.

An angel came to Mary, saying “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Her world upended, first by the very appearance of an angel.. And then came more, that she would bear a child who would be the Savior of the world.  

I’m always fascinated by her response to the angel. First, when he appears to her and greets her, Luke she was perplexed and wondered what sort of greeting this might be—perplexed and wondering, not by the appearance of the angel to her, which would no doubt shock and surprise us, but by his greeting, by him calling her “Favored one.” And then when told the rest, she asks the question, “How can this be?” 

The tradition of devotion and theology, and perhaps going back to Luke himself, has tended to portray Mary as a passive recipient of God’s grace and favor, as someone who accepted her fate quietly, submissively. Often she has served as a role model for passive, submissive femininity, and certainly in Luke’s gospel, she functions as something of the ideal disciple, one who follows meekly and obediently.

But here we see something else. Surprise, wonder, questions. Mary’s faith is not that passive, unquestioning faith. She wants to know more, she wants to understand. And then, in the midst of her disrupted world and disrupted life, something else. We know the scandal of unplanned, unwanted pregnancies, of teenaged mothers left on their own with no resources, forced to struggle to provide for themselves and their little ones. We can imagine how hard it would have been for a teenager in first-century Palestine, with all of the shame and stigma, traces of which remain in the accounts of Joseph’s response to the news of Mary’s pregnancy. We can, I think, imagine the fear, the future she imagined as she heard the angel’s words.

But can we imagine also the hope? In the middle of this disruption to her world and to her life, Mary visits her elderly cousin and during that visit, sings a song that has echoed throughout history down to our day:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior 

He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.

And while it has become a song of pious devotion, it is a profound prophecy of God’s power, justice, and mercy. It is a song of hope in the midst of fear, hope for justice in the midst of oppression, a cry of resistance against the forces of evil and inequality.

Mary is an example for us. In the midst of our disrupted and upended lives and world, nothing seems the same, and our wishes for a return to normalcy, to turn the clock back nine months or a year, or simply an exhausted desire to ignore what’s happening around us and get on with our lives, when we are beaten down, Mary is an example for us.

We can’t know what her life was like, what she thought or felt. But we know her faith, her hope. We know the God in whom she trusted. And the words she sang can become our own as we hope for a new world, a better future, for ourselves, our nation and world. 

Into our disrupted world, into our disrupted lives, Christ is coming. The angel’s greeting comes to us and in that greeting, in Mary’s song, we may find strength and hope for the coming months. The world being brought into being by Christ’s coming, is a world disrupted by God’s justice and mercy, where the mighty have fallen, the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty. 

Mary sings of and shows us the world as God intends it, a just and equitable world, not the old world of wishful thinking and faint memories. Mary points us toward the future, a future full of hope, a future where God reigns. May we raise our voices with Mary, in hope and faith that God is with us now and reigns in justice and mercy.

Returning from Exile: A Homily for Advent 3B

Advent 3       

December 13, 2020

Advent Exile

December 7, 2014

We are now observing the Third Sunday of Advent. It is known as Gaudete Sunday, a Sunday of joy. In many churches, the purple or blue vestments that are used throughout Advent give way to rose or pink vestments. And the dominant themes of the season—repentance in preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas and at the second Coming, give way to rejoicing. We don’t make the change in liturgical colors, but as you can see, our advent wreath includes a rose-colored candle to represent this Third Sunday.

This theme of joy comes out especially in the first reading and the psalm today. Both texts speak to our own situation as well, because as you probably know the first doses of a covid vaccine are being shipped today, signifying that our struggle with the pandemic may be coming to an end. At the same time, experts warn that there are dark, difficult times ahead.

Both of those texts, Psalm 126 and Isaiah 61 reflect the experience of God’s people in exile in Babylon. The Psalm speaks of God restoring the fortunes of Zion, of people who left weeping, return in joy. The prophet speaks of God providing for those in Zion, replacing their mourning with a garland. He speaks also of building up the ancient ruins and repairing the ruined cities.

Exile is an image that may resonate powerfully in this season. Forced from our churches, our downtown nearly abandoned, having to give up many of our cherished activities and familiar routines, we are in exile physically, but also spiritually and psychologically. We feel profoundly dislocated from our community, our friends and family, even perhaps, from ourselves. We are disoriented, longing for return. And now, we may be able to see an end to all of this. Our hope is rekindled even as the number of those suffering and dying continues to rise. 

Advent speaks to that longing, of hope in the midst of difficult times. As the year comes to a close, the days shorten and grow cold, the candles we light each week seem to be an act of defiance, a statement of faith that the light coming into the world, shining in the darkness, will overcome the forces of evil. It is a hope expressed in our faith that the one coming into the world, the Word made flesh is at work making all things new, even when chaos and evil seem to be overwhelming everything. 

Our faith this season, our waiting, our hope, is not passive. It must participate in the work that God in Christ is doing here among us. That’s the message of the prophet, who proclaims those powerful, familiar words, echoed by Jesus himself in his first public sermon in the Gospel of Luke:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me

because the Lord has anointed me; 

he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted, 

to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners; 

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,

This is the work that God in Christ is accomplishing, the work that we ourselves are called to. And in this season of struggle, of waiting and hope, it is work that we may want to defer or ignore because of all that is going on around us and in our personal lives. 

We have, I think, been tempted to focus on ourselves, on our fears and on all that we have lost—and we must, as we say that, recognize that many of us have lost a great deal indeed, loved ones, jobs and livelihoods, our hopes for the future, a sense of security. As we have seen in the runup to the election, and now in the weeks since, the anger and fear, the emotions surrounding all of that loss have driven deep in our individual and national psyches, heightened division, led to violence.

But even as we have tended to focus on ourselves, it is important to pay attention to the words of scripture this week, to the prophet’s call for justice, to bind up the broken-hearted, liberty to the captives, to rebuild the city. He was talking about Jerusalem, of course, the desolate city that the returning exiles would encounter. But our city is not so very different, with its deep inequities and injustice, with its boarded up windows and abandoned restaurants and retail establishments. As we return in the coming months, to the downtown and to our church, we must not lose sight of the work we need to do to advocate and struggle for a more just and equitable downtown, where all are welcome and may flourish.

As we think about our return, we would do well to heed the example set by John the Baptist in today’s gospel reading. When asked if he was the Messiah, he repeatedly denied it, and directed attention away from himself toward the one who was coming into the world, Jesus Christ. John was a witness; his proclamation, his testimony was not about himself but about Christ. His repeated denials, his pointing away from himself to another, is a powerful witness to us in our age.

Among everything else we see in our culture today, in our highly individualistic, perhaps even narcissistic culture, is an emphasis on the individual, on the individual’s rights. We are bombarded with images from politics, from culture, from social media of people who go out of their way to bring attention to themselves, make everything about them. What, after all, is a “social influencer” if not someone who is marketing themselves? In our response the pandemic, in the debates and conflicts over masks, or public gatherings, even worship, the rights of the few are often privileged over the needs of the many. 

But John shows us a different way. His popularity, his notoriety, brought him attention, brought the religious elite to him to question him. And when questioned, he bore witness, not to himself, but to Jesus. 

Even when we want to do the work to which God calls us, advocating for justice, feeding the hungry, binding up the broken-hearted, we may often do it for reasons that are as much about ourselves as they are about the needs of others or following the teachings of Jesus. 

But John shows us a different way. It’s not about us. It’s about Jesus. In our work for justice, in our efforts to help our fellow human beings, our priority must always be to point the way to Jesus. As we look ahead to our return to the city, as we look ahead to Christ’s coming, may our longing, our waiting, our searching point us to Christ, and help us point others to him as well.

What shall I preach? A sermon for Advent 2B, 2020

Advent 2       

December 6, 2020

What Shall I preach?

December 7, 2014

Whenever I read the Isaiah text, I find myself reading it in the cadences of Handel’s Messiah, the beautiful Tenor aria that begins that oratorio. I have no idea how many times I have heard that music; it was an annual accompaniment to Christmas throughout my childhood and youth. Although it’s been years since I’ve attended or sung in a performance of it, the music remains in my memory. 

I’m fascinated by the different ways in which we encounter and interpret scripture. Take Messiah, for example. If you’re familiar with it, it’s very hard not to hear it when you read, or listen to, the scriptures that Handel set to music. There’s a sense in which the music has shaped our experience and interpretation of the texts. 

That makes our experience of Advent this year especially difficult. The familiar hymns are heard only in recording, we try to remember what it was like to join our voices with hundreds of others, or the sheer joy of attending holiday performances of favorite works. Our celebrations are muted, or transformed as we focus our efforts more intimately at home, with family and friends.

Music interprets texts; texts interpret texts. In the gospel reading, Mark draws on the language from Isaiah 40 to make it relevant for his own day. The words from Isaiah helped him to understand John the Baptist, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” and Jesus, especially Jesus. The reading from Isaiah includes the verses: 

Get you up to a high mountain, 

O Zion, herald of good tidings; 

lift up your voice with strength, 

O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, 

lift it up, do not fear; 

say to the cities of Judah, 

“Here is your God!” 

It’s imagery Mark picks up and uses for his own purposes, although our translations don’t make that clear. Mark tells us “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ” Good news, good tidings, Gk euangelion, also translated as “gospel.” Mark is identifying himself, and John the Baptist, with the one who climbs the high mountain and proclaims the good news, “Here is your God!” Mark is looking back to Isaiah and to other biblical stories as he attempts to convey to his readers the urgency and significance of the good news. 

Mark’s John is not only a voice crying in the wilderness, drawing on themes from Isaiah. In his depiction of John, Mark reaches even further back, to the legendary figure of Elijah, depicting John in the very same terms that the prophet Elijah was depicted, wearing camel skins and with a belt around his waist. By the first century, Elijah had become much more than a figure from Israel’s ancient history. There were fervent hopes that he would return, and when he did, he would usher in the messianic age. In the gospel of Mark, both John and Jesus are mistaken for Elijah.

Mark uses all of this imagery from the Hebrew bible to impress upon his readers that the long period of waiting and anticipation is nearing its end. Israel’s hopes for God’s inbreaking into history are coming true. Mark is a herald of Good Tidings, a proclaimer of the good news. And the good news is “Here is your God!”

But there are other ways, other contexts, in which we interpret and read scripture. Primary among those other contexts is the situation in which we find ourselves. Covid case numbers are skyrocketing and the number of deaths reaching unimaginable totals, almost 3000 reported on Friday. At the same time, our mental and emotional exhaustion with the social distancing requirements meaning many of us are giving up, what words of comfort and consolation, what message of hope can be offered?

When I read those words from Isaiah, “A voice said, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’” The prophet’s words become my own. Like so many, I struggle to make sense of what we’ve learned about our nation in these past weeks and months. I struggle too, to find words that can express honestly and faithfully my own heartbreak and what I think the good news of Jesus Christ might be in this moment.

For Isaiah, the question, “What shall I cry?” is part of a standard call narrative. That is to say, here, as elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, when God calls someone, there is often resistance. Remember Moses, called by God at the burning bush, responded that he wasn’t an eloquent speaker. Other prophets resisted God’s call. Jonah, for example, traveled in the opposite direction in order to avoid the responsibility God gave him. Here, the prophet’s question is followed by his observation that prophetic utterances don’t matter—human beings are weak and fickle; they come and they go like grass that flowers and then turns brown.

We know the futility about which the prophet speaks. We know the disappointment of dreams and justice deferred. We know a world in which the hopes of an earlier age have faded in the face of what seem to be insurmountable problems. In our own lives, we know the routine grind of daily life, our hopes for a brighter future crushed by economic realities, social change, illness, or personal failure. We know the grief we should be feeling, the extraordinary we should be taking, the exhaustion and despair that have set in.

We do know hope. Mark proclaims, “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. Isaiah is told, “Get up to a high mountain … say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God’!” Our hope is that God is here among us; that we are God’s agents, helping to bring God’s reign into being in our world. 

We also know comfort and consolation. In the midst of the disappointments and pain in our personal lives, in the midst of a world where injustice and violence seem to have free reign, the prophet’s words come to us, reminding us that in the midst of all our struggle and pain, God is present as well, that God’s love and grace sustain and surround us. The prophet’s image of God as shepherd, feeding and protecting the flock assures us of God’s protection and care in the midst of everything.

Advent is a time of waiting as we eagerly anticipate the coming of the Christ child. Advent is a season of discernment as we look for signs of God’s grace in the midst of a dark world. Advent is a season of hope as we look forward to Christ’s coming among us and as we prepare ourselves to receive him in our hearts and in our world. Advent calls us to kindle our faith as its candles are lit. Advent urges us to get up on a high mountain and shout aloud, “Here is your God!” May we respond to that call and offer words of comfort and consolation to our hurting world.