Surprised by God, Advent 4 – December 24, 2017

[RCL] 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

 Mary was not expecting visitors, and she certainly was not expecting a visit from the Angel Gabriel. But there he was, with the afterglow of divine light fresh on his robes standing before her. “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you!” Not your typical greeting. Who says stuff like that? Is he trying to impress someone? Mary is a nobody, in a village filled with nobodies, no need to waste grand angelic pronouncements on her.  Gabriel’s presence is more than enough to impress.

“Do not be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God.” Do not be afraid? How can Mary not be afraid? Angels don’t come to Nazareth and they most certainly don’t come to poor peasant girls like Mary. God doesn’t find favor with the likes of her. The angel must be mistaken. Perhaps he is lost. Maybe he is looking for a different Mary. But he keeps talking. Mary is perplexed and afraid.

“And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” Surprise! How can this be? No great ruler has ever come out of Nazareth. And yet here is the angel, speaking of ancestors, and throne and kingdoms. It makes no sense. Why choose a barely engaged teenager to carry God’s son? Why not? If Elizabeth, like Sarah before her, could bear a son in her old age there is nothing impossible with God. “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary’s surprise is our surprise. Thousands of years later God’s call still mystifies us, still has the power to provoke us to wonder and awe. The news from God is frequently too good to be true and messengers are often wholly unexpected and astonishing, but the message remains the same: God will always surprise us.

God is in the business of surprising us over and over and over again. Scripture is filled with God showing up in the most unlooked-for places and the unlikeliest of people.  People have encountered the God of wonder in bushes that burn, donkeys that talk, raging whirlwinds, pillars of fire, and under starry night skies. God has a way of amazing us on the tops of mountains, at wells in the noonday sun, and strangers bearing gifts. No matter how often we look for God in the familiar places, God will somehow be revealed in the unexpected, the unlooked-for, and the unpredicted.

Jesus’ birth to an unwed teenaged mother, in a backwater town a little north of nowhere, was perhaps God’s biggest surprise of all. No great kings or rulers to welcome the Messiah—instead, the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast attended the birth of God made flesh. No fanfare, fireworks or finery for the Prince of Peace, just a manger bed on an average night, punctuated by the message of the angels and the bewilderment of shepherds. God surprised the world in the extraordinarily ordinary birth of Jesus.

As we make our way once more with the shepherds and angels towards Bethlehem, we celebrate God’s favor for the last, the lowest, and the least. At Christmas, we rejoice with Mary that Jesus is God’s biggest surprise. With this tiny helpless child in Mary’s arms, we see God making the common holy, the mundane mighty, and the everyday extraordinary. We are called to revel in God’s continued choice of the unexpected.

This is the good news at Christmas and beyond: that God is found not in a mansion but in a manger, not in a palace but in a poor house. The Good News about Jesus that we, as the Church, here, now, today are called to preach, is that we will be surprised at who God chooses to deliver the message of hope. Yet still we look for God in the halls of power and privilege. But that is not the message of the God of the universe and it is not the message of the angel.

In a world filled with wars and rumors of war, injustices, and violence, we need the message of the angel. For those who are searching and seeking a different way, God finds us in our need and raises us up. Our world is desperate for Good News.

The neglected, forgotten, and the left out are in need of the message of hope found in Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the son of Mary.  For us as a church to be relevant, we need to be bearers of the Good News that God stands with the left out, the lonely, and the lost. Our world is in need of God’s mystery and awe and surprise. But too often, we as the church find comfort in the known, the recognized, and the familiar. We like safe, we like certain, we like stability, but with God, we are never safe, or certain, or stable.

As we turn our gaze towards Christmas, the question we who look for and follow Jesus must ask ourselves is this: Have we heard the stories so often that we fail to see or share the surprise? Have we drained so much of the mystery from the world that we are no longer able to be startled by the workings of God? Have we failed to recognize Jesus in the passing touch of a hand, the fleeting beauty of a smile, the gentleness of a word of encouragement? Our lives, our communities, and our world are filled with God’s surprise if we stop long enough to recognize it.

When we domesticate the divine and muzzle the mysterious we leave little room for God to work in and through us. When the mystery of God is regimented, regulated, and relegated to be contained within four walls on any given Sunday, we have ceased to seek the surprise of God’s in-breaking into our world. And yet, God still finds a way to get our attention and fill us with surprise.

As people of God, as God’s beloved, we are called like Mary to fall into the uncertainty of God. We are called to let our lives, our hearts, and our eyes be open for glimpses of the divine so that we may follow in the way that Jesus has led.

To be amazed by God means that in Christ Jesus there is no work, no ministry, no person beyond our compassionate reach. If we are to be interrupted by God, we like Mary and Joseph must risk stepping out on faith into an uncertain future, knowing that God is out there waiting with just one more surprise.

When we are surprised by God, our hearts are set free, our burdens are lifted and our fear fades. Like Mary, when we encounter the divine mystery, we can only respond in joyful song. As we journey to the manger once more, may we seek once again to be surprised by a God who finds favor in us, who has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things. May we in our lives and our living magnify the Holy One, may we be messengers of God who seek the divine in the midst of the ordinary and may we in joyful song proclaim the greatness of the Lord. Amen.

A priest, a parent, and a (recovering) perfectionist, the Rev. Deon K. Johnson is a native of Barbados who has questioned Michigan winters in his eleven years as rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brighton, Mich. Deon’s passion for inclusion, welcome, and worship geekiness has led him to be trained as a Liturgical Consultant, helping communities of faith re-envision their worship and worship spaces to better reflect the beauty, mystery, and all-around awesomeness of following Jesus. Deon graduated from Case Western Reserve University and the General Theological Seminary. When he isn’t ruing temperatures below fifty degrees, Deon enjoys traveling, biking, hiking, and spending time with his family.

Download the sermon for Advent 4(B).

Do Not Despise the Words of Prophets, Advent 3 – December 17, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Canticle 15; 1 Thessalonians 6:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

 Listen to the words of Isaiah:

The spirit of the Lord God 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.

Listen to the words of Mary of Nazareth:

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.

Listen to John the Baptizer:

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. . .”

Listen and try to remember. Do you know any who are oppressed? Have you met with people who are brokenhearted? Have you ever been a captive or have you visited a prisoner?

Now, change direction and remember the mighty on their thrones. Identify them; call out their names as you pray to God, as Mary did, to cast them down. For they are the ones who cause oppression, who take away liberty and make prisoners of the innocent.

Lift up the lowly, oh Lord, we cry with Mary. Fill the hungry with good things. Send the rich away empty, for they are the ones who have emptied everything the poor ever had.

Is any of us courageous enough to cry out with Mary? Yet, this is what the prophets have seen and have proclaimed throughout the centuries. And the people laugh at them while the prophetic voices echo, like that of John’s, in the wilderness.

“There was a man sent from God whose name was John.” This was a real man; he had a mother and a father—Zechariah and Elizabeth. Yet, he was sent from God. He was a prophet. “Who are you?” the people asked, taunting him. Who gave you the right to call us to repentance, to baptize your followers, to remind us of our sins? Who are you?

“I am a voice crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.”

They are familiar with the words of the great prophets of their tradition. But what they don’t know is what he tells them next. “I came as a witness to the light,” he announces, and then he personifies the light— “so that all might believe through him.” He is talking about light not as a phenomenon or an effect, but as a person. “I myself am not this light,” John the humble, the profound, tells them, “but I have come to give witness to this light.” And his courageous, prophetic voice continues with the surprising statement: “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

Untying the thongs of sandals was a slave’s job. A slave would have to bend down to untie the sandals of feet that had walked on dusty and dirty unpaved roads. Yet John, wildly popular at that time, claiming crowds of followers, has the humility to say that he is lower than a slave compared to the one he is about to introduce to them as the Light.

Truth, humility, and self-awareness: these are marks of the prophet. There are other marks made visible in the life of Jesus.

A modern-day prophet, the peacemaker Father John Dear, has identified six marks of the prophet in his book on the Beatitudes. One of them is that “the prophet stands in solidarity with the poor, the powerless, and the marginalized. . . . A prophet becomes a voice for the voiceless. Indeed, a prophet is the voice of a voiceless God.” At a time when the poor are despised and neglected, at a time when the very rich rule our world, we need to listen to the prophets who consistently remind us to pay attention. Advent is the right time for paying attention. Remember the oppressed, the voiceless, the widows, the orphans, the poor, we are reminded by the prophets.

Another mark of the prophets is that they are always concerned with justice and peace.

Justice and peace are at the heart of God, John Dear reminds us. Not in some future afterlife, but here, on this earth, “as it is in heaven.” We cannot have peace without justice.

Fearlessness and courage are the most evident marks of the prophet. We see those in John; we hear them in his cry, and we know that they brought him to the attention of one of those who sit on their thrones. John’s courage led to his gruesome death.

Jesus of Nazareth took the words of Isaiah and made them his own. He was filled with spirit of the Lord; he was the Lord’s anointed, the Christ. He too proclaimed good news to the poor as he bound the brokenhearted. He was the Light, the evangelist tells us, and the Light cannot be put out; it flickers, but it is not extinguished.

John the Baptizer was a witness to this light. We too are asked to be witnesses to the Light. We cannot have courage to proclaim the good news in a culture filled with the idols of wealth, weapons, and war unless we are filled and guided by God’s light.

Do not despise the words of the prophets, St. Paul reminds us. This Advent, as always, may we be filled with their passion for justice and peace and with their courage and fearlessness as we too seek to witness to the Light. Amen.

Katerina Whitley is an author, a retreat leader, and a social justice advocate. She has worked as an Episcopal communicator on the diocesan and national church level for four decades. The author of seven books, she lives in Boone and teaches at Appalachian State University. She lectures on St Paul and the First Century as the author of A New Love which is centered on the ministry of the great apostle. She invites you to visit her website, www.katerinawhitley.net.

Download the sermon for Advent 3 (B).

The Rule of God, for Us, Advent 2 – December 10, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

Comfort, O comfort. There is so much need for comfort in this world of heartbreak where we find ourselves. Every day, we hear new stories of how we have failed each other, how we have used our talents, gifts, power, and position to maneuver our way to “success” at the expense of so many others. We have so completely fallen for this version of the world that we expect losers and winners at every turn. If you are not a winner, you are a loser. If not a loser, a winner, and the winners get to be in charge. They get to use their power to remind everyone else who is on top. In this way, living in this kind of world, we can relate to the exiled community of Israelites. The Babylonians were clearly the winners of this power struggle; they used their power to take over and kick out the losers. They used their power to enact laws that undermined the foundations of the Jewish people, their culture, and their faith. They used their power to proclaim again and again that they were the winners. Despite all of this, feeling forgotten and alone, strangers in a strange land, God was with God’s people. God did not abandon them.

Comfort, O Comfort. The prophet has given many commands in this passage, but the first was to comfort. To be human is to be vulnerable. This vulnerability leaves us with many reasons to need comfort. We are hurt – physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. The community to which Isaiah was called was an especially vulnerable community, suffering the effects of years in exile. Though most of us may never understand that form of vulnerability, we can all acknowledge our need for comfort in the midst of our variety of vulnerabilities. Yet, what is especially interesting to notice is that God does not call for comfort alone. Specifically, we are not meant to get comfortable, but to be comforted so we can then be moved into action. The way of the Lord is prepared in the midst of our mutual suffering. In our compassion for one another, the way of the Lord is made clear. The Good News breaks through with the promise of new life and a new way of being together.

Lift up your voice. From comfort, God’s people are called into action. Not just any action, but an action of proclamation and gathering together, centered on the unwavering promises of God. This call to action is for the whole body, not just a few specially gifted wordsmiths. What would it mean for us to take this call to lift our voices seriously? What keeps us as a community from unabashedly proclaiming the Good News of God for us? Too often, we allow our individualism and busyness to distract us from the call of God to a life of community. Our individual calendars and task lists put the proclamation of Good News low on the priority list. How often is proclamation honestly discussed together in congregational meetings or when organizing the yearly budget? This is a challenge that brings us to a variety of excuses, often using other words from scripture that allude to spiritual gifts or priestly duties. Yet again, we use our individuality to shield us from the very real call to gather and proclaim. Perhaps this is why following closely after the call to lift up our voices (with strength!) the prophet adds, “Do not fear.”

Say and see; the Lord God comes. God’s word, God’s promises, will stand forever. Here, as we rise to the call to action, we are given a vision of God arriving to fulfill God’s promises. These promises come by way of God’s might, but God’s might is not what we would think. God’s might is not wielded in the same manner of the winners of this world. Although a glorious promise, herein lies another challenge. Will we recognize and accept this kind of power, this new world to come? The truth is, we like being winners. While we may not always find ourselves in the winner’s circle, we enjoy the idea of being there someday. The rules are easier to understand in a world where there are winners and losers. In this world, we also retain our control, or at least our idea of control. If we are honest, we also like this version of the world because we can believe that we do not have to rely on anyone but ourselves. Yet, in today’s word from Isaiah, we hear clearly that God promises a world reliant on God. It is God who will gather us, care for us, and lead us home.

The Lord God comes with might. We rely on God’s might, under the rule of God’s arm. This rule is powerful but does not warp power in the same ways we are used to. Instead, the rule and power of God are about restoration. The rule of God’s arm brings recompense. Dictionary.com defines recompense in two ways: “To pay or give compensation for; make restitution or requital for (damage, injury, or the like),” and, “To make compensation for something; repay someone.” One can imagine that this is an especially powerful word for a community in exile. In what ways do you need the promise of recompense? In what ways does our world need the promise of God’s rule? Though challenging to our current way of life, we hear the cry for recompense echoing on city streets, barren farmlands, school classrooms, concert venues, and country churches. One thing is certain: our world needs a God of comfort and justice. That is Good News for which we are to hope. That is Good News to proclaim.

God’s rule for us. God’s rule is a promise. This is a promise to a scattered community, crying out in loss and pain. This is a promise that is not dependent on winners and losers, but dependent on the very being – the essence – of our God. The reward is our reliance on a trustworthy God who never leaves God’s people, no matter how bad things may get. In fact, our God enters into even the worst places of our world to gather and lead the beloved community into new life together, time and time again. This truth is where we find our comfort and hope. This truth is what we are called to proclaim to all because it is a truth for all. God’s might and reward are not for winners or losers, but for all. Our scripture today closes with the beautiful image of the new way of life under God’s rule, where we are gathered, held close, fed, and led gently. As a song goes, “Home is wherever I’m with you.” May we, along with the exiled peoples of the past and present, hold fast to the promise of our God, who comes to gather us home. It is this promise of home that we await in this Advent season, preparing for the Savior to come, born a loser in this world, to hang out with losers of this world, named Emmanuel, God with us, so that we may find home in God, with us, for us.

Casey Cross is the Young Disciples Director at Hope Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Eagle, ID. You can read more of her sermons, devotions, thoughts, and youth ministry ideas at caseykcross.wordpress.com.

Download the sermon for Advent 2 (B).

Keep Awake!, Advent 1 – December 3, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

“Keep awake!”

Have you ever stayed up all night?

Christ calls to his disciples and the whole Church to “keep awake,” to keep alert. This idea of keeping awake is at the heart of Advent, a time of waiting and watching, but it also calls to mind a very human thing: to stay awake when you would normally be sleeping.

New parents certainly know what it means to keep awake — to be up in the middle of the night caring for a child. Youth leaders everywhere have endured the crucible of the “lock-in” — when the church is overrun by teenagers for an entire night, who stay up playing games and making mischief while everyone else sleeps.

There are also many professions that require keeping awake through the night: paramedics, firefighters, police, and other first responders, military personnel, and hospital night staff must keep awake during the wee hours of the night. Some cleaning, restaurant, retail, and factory staff must keep vigil, working through the night to complete their work.

At some point, every person has cause to be awake through the night, whether for work, for play, for a child or ailing loved one, for an emergency, or for a long night out. Depending on the circumstances, it can be either exhausting or exhilarating, or some combination of both.

Many people keep awake to accomplish something. There’s a documentary called The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young. It’s a 100+ mile endurance race in the Tennessee mountains. It includes five loops of 20 miles, though the participants will tell you that the loop is actually closer to a marathon, or 26 miles. The race is 1/3 on trails and 2/3 off trails, and runners often get lost. The loop goes over mountains and through huge briars, and over the course of the race, runners gain and lose 60,000 feet of elevation, for a total of 120,000 feet of elevation change.

Completing the race takes five loops, and almost no one finishes. Runners run day and night, and they have only sixty hours to complete the race. If they sleep at all, it’s only for an hour or two over the course of that sixty hours.

Talk about keeping awake.

The start of the race is variable. Runners are told to show up at a particular day and time, but the race start time varies according to the race directors’ whims. A conch shell is blown sometime within a 12-hour window, signaling that the race starts in one hour. This could be anytime between midnight and noon. Some years the race begins in the dark; some years it doesn’t.

Keep awake. Keep alert.

Lazarus, co-creator of the Barkley Marathons, says, “People who have trouble with [any of the various last minute or informal race details] are not going to do well on the course, because [no matter what,] it’s not going to happen the way you planned it.”

This, essentially, captures both the spirit of Advent and the theme of our Gospel reading today.

Keep awake. Be alert, and remember: this is going to be difficult. It’s not going to happen the way you planned it.

At the beginning of this chapter of Mark, Jesus is walking out of the temple in Jerusalem with his disciples when they point up and exclaim, “What large stones, and what large buildings!” (Mark 13:1). Most of the disciples are rural guys, after all — like many people who go to a major city for the first time, the huge structures that they see can be impressive.

Jesus cryptically tells them, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

If you imagine someone saying this in Times Square today, you’re approximating the effect Jesus had by saying this. He’s telling them that disaster is coming, and it has a chilling effect on the disciples. They’re intrigued, naturally, and want to know more about all of this, namely, when it will happen.

Jesus tells them, in so many words: keep awake. And he doesn’t give them specifics, I imagine because, like Lazarus from the Barkley Marathons says, “It’s not going to happen the way you planned it.” They want the specifics so that they can make a plan, when the best thing to do is simply keep alert.

As Christmas approaches, many of us begin (or continue) our fervent preparations to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Clergy and musicians and choirs prepare for services, as many of us prepare for travel or the arrival of loved ones or family dinners or community parties or frantically wondering what we will do or where we will go this year.

The coming of Christmas creates, in most of us, a sense of both longing and urgency. We call ourselves to keep alert, keep awake, to work hard to get ready for this holiday that’s coming whether we like it or not.

And many years, it doesn’t happen the way we plan it. We have to adapt and adjust and keep awake — we have to stay on our toes.

As we stress over the coming holiday, Advent calls us to prepare for something much bigger than the yearly arrival of Christmas. Advent calls us to pay attention to the world around us, even as it is wracked with suffering, violence, and hunger. The first Sunday of Advent begins a story of cosmic proportions, with the sun being darkened and the stars falling from heaven.

Advent, in all the readings today, reminds us that our ancestors once called out for a Savior, and that we in the Church wait for the return of one. We wait, and we hope, knowing nothing other than to keep working, keep watching, and keep awake.

In our world torn by pain and division, we look at the pain all around us and we wonder, “how long?” How long will people in our own country and around the world have to live in fear in their communities, in their schools, and in their own homes? How long will we live at odds with our neighbors and endure division in our families? How long will people have to endure violence and hunger and pain, right up to our own doorstep?

In our lowest points, we are tempted to wonder if things will be this way forever.

But this season that we begin today — Advent — has a presence that calls us to look deeper. It whispers to us, urgently, in the dead of winter: “Keep awake!” It is a call of urgency and longing, but also a call of promise: there is hope. Things will not always be as they are. Something is coming that is even bigger than Christmas.

The world still waits for justice. The world still waits for peace.

The world still waits for God.

Like the Barkley Marathoners, and like the disciples, we wait in darkness, knowing that we cannot know the specifics. We can only stay ready for what we know is coming — opportunity. Victory. Hope.

Peace on earth.

Advent whispers to us: the night is long and difficult, but the dawn is coming.

“And what I say to you I say to all — keep awake!” (Mark 13:37)

 

The Rev. Anna Tew is a Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A product of several places, she was born in rural Alabama, considers Atlanta home, and lives in and adores New England. She has worked in a variety of ministry settings, urban and rural, both in the parish and in hospital chaplaincy. In her spare time, Anna enjoys climbing the nearby mountains, traveling, exploring cities and nightlife, and keeping up with politics.

Download the sermon for Advent 1 (B).

Greetings, Favored Ones!, 4 Advent (B) – 2014

December 21, 2014

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16;  Canticle 15; Romans 16:25-27Luke 1:26-38

We always celebrate some aspect of the Annunciation on this Fourth Sunday of Advent. Each year, we hear a different part of the great story involving the Angel Gabriel, Joseph, Mary and her cousin Elizabeth. And all of this foretells the imminent birth of the Savior.

In today’s story, the angel says to Mary, “Greetings, O favored one! Our God is with you.”

Luke tells us that Mary was much perplexed – greatly troubled – by these words, and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. And no wonder: She was a peasant girl, at the dawn of what we now call the first century, in Nazareth. You remember Nazareth: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” It was perhaps the equivalent of the worst slums of our age, a place from which no one expected much of anything.

And Mary has just become accustomed to the idea of her engagement to a carpenter. Steady income and honest work, carpentry. And her marriage to Joseph probably represented a great improvement in her social location.

Then along comes Gabriel, who greets her with these astonishing words: “Greetings, O favored one! Our God is with you.”

Not just appearing as a man, with whom she is forbidden to speak. Women were not ordinarily allowed to have casual conversations with strangers, you see. And not just any old low-ranking angel, but the Archangel Gabriel.

And this angel guy doesn’t demand a drink from the well, or the washing of his feet, or even directions to the nearest inn. He really came to speak with her. And he greets her not as a slave, or a woman, or even as an equal – but as the favored one of God.

What must it have been like for her to confront the messenger of the Lord God of power and might in this way? It makes sense that she must have been quite startled – “much perplexed” as scripture tells us. We cannot help but leap to the conclusion that these words sound as strange to us as they did to Mary.

We may find these words strange. We may not like them. We may ponder in our hearts what sort of greeting this might be. But we hear these words, and perhaps come to rejoice in them.

Greetings, favored one! There is good news here for everyone.

Those who lean toward the more Catholic can revel in the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Those who prefer the Protestant end can take comfort in Gabriel’s word of grace. Feminists note that the willing assent of a women was necessary for the whole plan of salvation. Those who are more fond of patriarchy insist that the angel – who appeared as a male, after all – set the whole thing in notion. Humanists delight that a human vessel could contain God. Believers claim authority for the divinity of Christ. Skeptics repeat the words, “How can this be?” Optimists find hope in the phrase “Nothing will be impossible with God.” And all of us are invited to accept our call to vocation, proclaiming, “Here am I, the servant of God.”

In this, Christian people everywhere imagine themselves ready to let go and take the plunge, like Mary – responding to God’s messenger with the only words we can utter that help carry out the plan of salvation: “Let it be.”

This very text reminds us that God loves us, all of us. God has a message for each one of us. We are – all of us – the favored ones of God.

And God has a plan for us – each and every one of us: to help bring down the powerful from their thrones, and lift up the lowly; to fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty.

Those are the words from the Song of Mary, the Magnificat. And that is what follows immediately after today’s story in Luke’s gospel.

It may seem rather odd to you that much of the time we hear the Magnificat it is sung by a very civilized and expensive-to-run choir in, say, a very historic cathedral in a perfectly staged liturgy by clergy of the upper-middle class. Have you ever been to one of the great English cathedrals for Evensong? Or perhaps one on these shores? The liturgy is so beautiful, so lovely, and so very odd.

Evensong can be gorgeous, but the message of the angel and Mary’s glad song in response are seditious, politically charged and highly volatile – even today.

God will bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, send the rich away empty, and scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

Now, there are some of us who don’t much care for delving into things political in sermons. And don’t worry: There won’t be any specifics mentioned today. But how can we hear these texts from the gospel we hold so dear and not engage with the political realm?

Because poverty is a religious issue. Oppression, too. And hunger, injustice and untruth. Not to mention war.

And God is enlisting us in the cosmic struggle for good over evil, to help make the world a better place for all his children.

Because the God we worship is not a far-off, distant judge. Not someone who punishes bad behavior from a lofty paradise by sending down thunderbolts. And not the sort of deity who must simply imagine what it is to be human.

No, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In Jesus, God has become fully a human being, with flesh and bones – one who hurts and cries and laughs and sings. No longer are we separated from God, pleading for mercy from an omnipotent judge.

Our God is among us, “with us,” Emmanuel – and God knows what it is like for us.

What it is like to feel the power of the attraction to light in the darkness.

What it is like to be drawn by glittering images.

And what it is like to struggle to resist temptation, or even to recognize the difference between divine light and the alluring glow that grows out of wickedness.

This is the message of the angels, really: God understands us, God forgives us, God loves us.

And perhaps our inability to accept the message fully, to believe we really are the favored ones of God – perhaps this accounts for our unwillingness to cooperate sometimes with God’s plan for us.

It is far easier for us to store up treasure for ourselves than it is to ensure that all human beings have their rightful share in the earth’s bounty.

It is far easier to command armies to annihilate those whom we believe to be evil than it is to weed out the roots of injustice.

It is far easier to engage in a bit of “retail therapy” than it is to confront the painful possibility that we may be the rich who God will send away empty.

And so, our God has given us a sign. A young woman is with child, and shall bear a son, and shall name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David.

And he shall be Emmanuel – “God with us.” For nothing will be impossible with God.

And this great Good News begins anew this season by putting our faith in mere words. This Christmas, may we hear the words of the angel and know in our hearts that they are intended for each and every one of us: “Greetings, O favored one! Our God is with you.”

 

— The Rev. Barrie Bates currently serves as interim pastor of Zion Lutheran Church on Staten Island, New York.

Inflection is everything, 3 Advent (B) – 2014

December 14, 2014

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126 or Canticle 3 or Canticle 15; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Inflection is everything.

What do Americans call the game of table tennis? Do we say, “ping pong”? No. We call it “ping pong.”

In English, men’s names such as David, Matthew, Isaac, Daniel, are emphasized on the first syllable. We tend to inflect with emphasis. In other languages inflection is handled differently. In Turkish, for example, even a four-syllable man’s name such as Selahattin [“Se-la-ha-teen”] has equal emphasis on each syllable.

Inflection can make all the difference.

Imagine a husband and wife: One says something, tells a story, perhaps makes a request, and the other says, “Yes, dear.”

Now, is that “Yes, dear, I fly to do thy bidding, I fall at your feet, I adore the ground you walk on”? Or is that “Yes, dear, grumble, grumble, darn you, drat this day anyway”?

Inflection. Such a simple thing.

It would be good to know the inflection the questioners put on their words when they came to question John.

We have yet another John the Baptist lesson this Third Sunday of Advent. John’s gospel tells the story of priests and Levites from Jerusalem, sent by Jews to ask John, “Who are you?”

There are many ways to ask that question. To snivel and snarl: “Who are you?” To be downright rude and dismissive: “Who are you?” Or like the caterpillar blowing smoke rings in “Alice in Wonderland,” rather haughty and arrogant and curious: “Whooooo. Are. You?”

Inflection is everything, and clearly, it’s an important question they are asking John. The identity of John the Baptist is explored, questioned, established in all four gospels. He is asked this question in today’s reading in the context of “testimony,” according to John’s gospel.

It’s a question that Jesus much later puts to his disciples, challenging them to answer: “Who do you, my disciples, say I am?”

The story of John the Baptizer is in all the gospels. That level of agreement between evangelists is unusual, so this must be something significant.

“Who are you?” they ask John.

And what is his answer?

John says he is not the Christ, not the Messiah – not Elijah or any other hero. He says he is not the prophet. John says, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

This quotes a lovely passage from the prophet Isaiah, but what does it mean?

Mark’s gospel makes things a little clearer by invoking a passage from the prophet Malachi: “I am sending my messenger before you to prepare your way.”

And in the Gospel of Luke we hear a fuller text from Isaiah:

“Prepare the way of the Lord.
Make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled –
Every mountain and hill shall be made low.
And the crooked shall be made straight –
And the rough ways made smooth.”

The religious authorities had sent folks to question John, and John quoted scripture to them. Their own scripture! Their own prophet. Every one of them would have been familiar with this text, would have recognized it. They knew it, studied it, memorized it.

Even in our own day, when most of us know very little of the Bible, we will recognize this passage from Isaiah because we listen to Handel’s “Messiah” at this time of year. Do any of you, in hearing the words of this passage, hear Handel’s music in the background? Handel’s “Messiah” plays on PA systems in department stores, and in many communities it is a center point of holiday celebration. This is a well-known biblical passage in our day.

In John’s day, it was the focus of their hope for a Messiah, a great leader and liberator sent from God. They knew these words.

The people came to John and asked, “Who are you?”

And John answered: “I am a voice – a voice crying in the wilderness. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make paths straight. Fill in low places. Level the high places. Make the crooked bits straight. Make the rough places smooth.”

It sounds a lot like instructions for highway engineers, doesn’t it?

There are roads in this country – perhaps you have driven one? – that are mostly straight, perhaps even mostly flat, with just one interesting curve. Just one single, solitary, interesting curve. And the road engineers and safety folks decide that one interesting curve has to go.

The idea, we are told, is that accidents often happen at such places, and straightening the curve and flattening the land makes it a safer road. That is essentially the idea with Isaiah’s prescription that John quotes.

And John said, “Prepare!”

The season of Advent, which runs from late November or early December until Christmas Eve, is all about preparation. We know we’re preparing for the birth of a baby, and some of us may even know that we’re expecting the Messiah to come – but there’s more to it than that.

John says to the people, “Prepare!” Not “I am preparing,” but “You prepare.” Prepare the way of the Lord. Prepare the world: Lift up, bring down, straighten, smooth. Level the field on which my people stand, John might say, so that all of my people can bask in the glory of God.

If this lesson is to be instructive at all, then we must hear and heed John the Baptist’s proclamation of God’s Word. If this lesson is to be instructive for us, then this is also our proclamation, rooted in baptism. We are baptized in the manner of John’s baptizing – with water, but in the knowledge of Jesus and strengthened by the promised Holy Spirit of God.

That lays on us some obligations, some responsibilities, which are part of our baptism by definition. Not luxuries. Not conditional. Not optional. Promises made. Vows taken. The proclamation of the Lord’s coming put in our mouths.

It’s not just John who carries the news.

This is part of the story of Jesus, included in all the gospels and read in Christian communities for nearly 2,000 years to remind us, to embolden us, to open our mouths. Prepare the way of the Lord – even as we are lifting up and filling in and smoothing.

So not only are we to do the work of making that field level, we are to proclaim the work to others in the building up of community.

The men who were sent to question John asked him why he was baptizing if he wasn’t the Messiah. In other words, “You’re not one of the important ones. Why bother?”

Listen for the inflection.

John, in essence, said: “I do this because I can do no other. I have heard the news, and my mouth is opened, and my heart must love.” When John is later asked about Jesus, he says, “This joy of mine is now full.”

Old Testament scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann reminds us:

“Advent is anticipation of the new community in the world, wrought by the power of Jesus, mandated by the way of Jesus, and living toward the hope of Jesus. … The person of Jesus presses us to think about the people of Jesus.”

In Paul’s words, from today’s epistle:

“Admonish the idle. Encourage the fainthearted. Help the weak. Be patient with all of them. Do not repay evil for evil. Pray constantly. Give thanks in all things. Hold fast to what is good. Rejoice always!”

We have the joyful duty of this proclamation laid upon us, placed in our hearts for our lives together – and in our mouths for the world to know about the goodness of God.

There is more to Advent than an early “Merry Christmas!”

How will you proclaim what you know? Remember: inflection is everything!

 

— The Rev. Machrina Blasdell currently teaches religious studies for Park University, Parkville, Mo., following 12 years as executive director of an interfaith council in the San Francisco area. She enjoys her family life, growing roses and making anything chocolate.

Finding comfort vs. being comfortable, 2 Advent (B) – 2014

December 7, 2014

Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

“Comfort ye! … Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain made low.”

What heart-lifting words we hear from our God shouted across the millennia into our very own day. Isaiah offers us images in just 11 verses that have become the focus of artists and musicians who have turned the words into pictures and music that channel our thoughts deep into the heart of God. We lay grasped by God’s arms and held tightly – our fears and concerns known by this immanent God who wants us to share those worries, and trust they are as important to God as they are to us.

A tenor opens Handel’s “Messiah” with a delicate, yet brilliant “Comfort ye!” When you listen to it, does your hear not soar with the beauty? This is our God calling out to us in our world – this world torn by evil, war and debilitating poverty.

Can there be any comfort for us? Maybe, for those of us who live in a relatively safe country, for those of us who have more than we need – a roof over our heads, food, clothing, safety. We can become comfortable, which is different from finding comfort. And we can feel that being comfortable is enough, perhaps until life takes a disastrous turn.

We can take God’s presence in our hearts for granted. But this isn’t the comfort Isaiah is talking about. His comfort is an overwhelming truth that surpasses the feeling of having “enough,” his comfort is the comfort of our God, who lives deep in our lives, even when we don’t think about it, even if we may not believe it, even if our fear blinds us to that presence.

The prophet goes on to explain what the truth of God will do for us. Valleys will be raised up, mountains will be laid low! No, Isaiah is not talking about a disastrous environmental exercise, he’s, of course, using an image to explain how the coming of the Lord will level the way for all people to see God’s glory and share in God’s goodness.

What a wonderful image! Instead of struggling over the rocky wilderness paths up into the mountains and down across arid deserts, the people will have a safe highway, broad and smooth. Even in life’s most difficult moments, God leads the soul along that safe, broad highway.

“But,” we may want to argue, “look at our world. See the things happening to people that would make a rocky path and an arid desert walk look like a picnic in the park. This image doesn’t work.”

And that’s true. Life does seem to throw ever more obstacles into our paths. Where is this highway?

And so, we continue reading the prophet’s words and find that, yes, we are all grass, and grass withers and fades; we are mortal, and life is often difficult. So, to make this highway image work at all in our world, we are told we must work together. We must want this world to change, we must also see beyond this mortal life and trust in God’s promise of eternal life.

“All people shall see it together,” says Isaiah. One way to think about this image is that we won’t see it if we harbor exclusion in our hearts. When we choose to separate ourselves from any of our neighbors, we begin to see only ourselves. We may not be aware of it, but doing that makes us stumble along the rocky path of injustice and sadness – a path that causes us to circle only inward, blindly into the darkness of self.

Another way to think about it is to look at what happens when groups join forces out of hatred for others, or ignorance or fear. The Israelites sometimes found themselves carried off to foreign lands because of their unfaithfulness. Some then took on the practices and idolatry of the pagan nations, to their downfall. They lost everything. We see the same thing happening today. Children get caught up in bullying, out of fear or a need to be accepted. Young people join gangs. People are drawn into terrorist organizations, to the horror of their families and friends. Sadly, we can be lured off the highway of our God by temptation and the false, bright promises of evil.

But all is certainly not lost. If we keep reading, we come to the final image of our passage and can’t help but hear again Handel’s “Messiah,” when the soprano’s beautiful voice sings, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd and he shall gather the lambs with his arm … with his arm.”

On our worst days, the Shepherd is with us. We need only to turn back and allow him to offer comfort and forgiveness. The sheep of his flock are a community – a community like us. Together, a community can offer healing and love to those who have been excluded. A community can begin dealing with their issues of poverty and helplessness.

We don’t have to build that level highway; God does that for us if we open our eyes and hearts to the gifts God has placed in our midst. We can begin demolishing the lure of evil, the temptation of ill-gotten power and greed if we work together with our children, being unafraid to teach about the power and graciousness of our God – if we ourselves are unafraid to trust that God is our shepherd, that God is our comfort.

In just a few weeks, the Incarnation of our God will descend over us like a blanket of stars, and we will be filled with the song of angels, the gentle amazement of shepherds, and the humility of the kings. If the image and the songs of Bethlehem can fill us that day, we might pray during these last few weeks of waiting that our hearts will be filled with the comfort of God and strengthened to bring that Good News to all.

 

– The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is vicar of Petrockstowe in the Torridge Team, Diocese of Exeter, North Devon, England, and is the publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal focused on lectionary-based preaching and ministry.

Reading the signs on our journey, 1 Advent (B) – 2014

November 30, 2014

Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

Imagine traveling in a foreign city where English is not the official language. All the street signs, menus, billboards, bus schedules, everything needed to navigate the streets are in a different language. You stop people on the street for assistance, but it seems no one speaks English.

For novice travelers, this could be a scary and intimidating situation, whereas more seasoned and experienced travelers seem to relish such a challenge. Fortunately, today there are electronic devices that can translate foreign text into English. All a person has to do is point the device at the written text you want translated, and – voila! – it gives the English translation.

Sometimes Christians may feel as if their spiritual journeys have taken them to an unknown place where all the signs are in a strange language, and they just can’t seem to figure out where they are or where they are supposed to go. As much as they attempt to discern the signs in their lives, they find themselves feeling more and more confused while trying to navigate in a strange land.

For new Christians sitting in the pews, reading the signs and navigating their new surroundings can become tricky and very confusing. This is especially true with all the conflicting religious messages coming at them from every direction. But whether a new convert or a lifelong Christian, the spiritual journey is wrought with signs along the way requiring translation.

Making things even more troublesome are the modern-day, self-proclaimed prophets who incessantly talk about the End Times. They use scripture to weave fanciful tales of horrific proportions, which, if accepted as truth without a discerning heart, can derail people in their journeys.

To a similar degree, Jesus’ disciples were confused by the signs of their times. Israel was under Roman rule, contemporary prophets were routinely spouting apocalyptic predictions, and the Jews were desperate for a Messiah who would reinstate the Davidic line and establish Israel to its former glory as an independent kingdom. In the midst of all the confusing signs and false prophets, Jesus warned his disciples – and his believers today – to stay awake.

This implies being alert and cognizant of what is happening in our surroundings, living in a constant state of readiness and anticipation. It does not, however, suggest believers should be pouring over scripture in a vain attempt to find a prophetic interpretation for every single event in history or in the news. Much time and energy has been wasted on End Time books, movies and prophecies. Now is the time to focus on proclaiming the Good News in Christ by being his hands reaching out to those in need.

As the church enters into this Advent season, the world is in a race to read the signs of the time in an attempt to make sense of all that is going on. The news media is rife with reports of increased terrorism, nations rising against nations, and rising religious extremism and intolerance. Political and religious leaders are under continual scrutiny as reports of indiscretion and malfeasance surface, and crime seems to be taking over the streets. Diseases such as Ebola indiscriminately kill, and people are being pitted against each other in a continual competition for limited resources while those who are vulnerable in society suffer the most.

When looked at as a whole, we can easily begin to wonder what all this means. It’s no wonder that some begin to interpret all these events as signs of the End Times. Misguided religious zeal and emotional nihilism are ripe and dnagerous in times such as these. People begin to lose hope and an insidious spiritual and intellectual apathy sets in.

In the midst of suffering and despair, the world longs for some cosmic event that will wipe away all that is wrong in a single stroke. In the midst of doomsday predictions are those who warn that Christ’s return is just around the corner. Despite the confidence of some who say Christ’s Second Advent is imminent, Jesus clearly states that no one knows the time of his appearance, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

Apocalyptic predictions in social media and from pulpits are indicative of the fear and anxiety filling people’s hearts in light of life’s uncertainties; however, the church’s emphasis on scripture, tradition and reason is the lens through which these signs can be put into focus and better understood. Part of remaining alert in these times is a commitment to continual study of scripture in light of historic teachings of the church, developing critical-thinking skills, and seeking a discerning spirit.

The church is firm in her belief in the return of Christ Jesus, but exactly how and when this culminating cosmic event will take place remains a mystery. Scripture doesn’t give a clear explanation; however, it does provide signs to help navigate life’s journey with the help of the Holy Spirit until the Lord’s Second Advent. Until Christ’s return, the church is reminded to remain awake as she diligently carries on the ministry of the Lord. She learns from the past while maintaining a confident faith in the future, all the time tending to the work of the Kingdom of God today. Now is not the time to be caught sleeping while the master is away, but to be busy about managing his affairs. The people of the world may be driven by fear and anxiety, but believers can be confident that God will strengthen them to the end, so that they may be blameless on the day of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In light of all that troubles the world today, this Advent presents a unique opportunity for the church to stand in the gap and proclaim the Good News of Christ Jesus through word and deed. Now is the time to be diligent in proclaiming the Kingdom of God in word and deed. If believers are to interpret any message from the signs of the time, it is that God’s grace is sufficient to sustain his people even in the worst of circumstances.

History teaches us that the Church Militant is victorious even under the most extreme conditions. The early church faced systematic persecution under Roman domination, but their hope in Christ’s Second Coming gave them the courage to boldly proclaim their faith in Christ. Eventually, the church settled into the knowledge that the Second Coming was an event that would take place sometime in the distant future, and they began to systematically spread the Good News that is found in Jesus Christ.

With every generation that passes since Christ’s ascension, the danger of complacency threatens the church’s overall mission to proclaim the Good News. Some in the church are happy living with the status quo, while others adopt a “religious country club” mentality. Even worse and more detrimental to the mission of the church is when believers become embroiled in debates that result in division. Self-proclaimed prophets have misread the so-called signs and made false eschatological predictions of apocalyptic proportions, only to push people away from the church rather than draw them into the Kingdom. They fail to listen to Christ’s words spoken to his disciples in our gospel reading today. The church proclaims that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again in the Eucharist.

In the meantime, the church has a job to do until the master returns.

Whether Christ returns today, tomorrow or in a hundred years, today is the day of salvation. If one looks closely at the signs of the times, they point to the One who holds all the answers to all that ails the world. Christ’s mission to the church remains as clear today as when he first sent his disciples into the world.

May she be faithful to proclaiming God’s love for all creation, and labor tirelessly in proclaiming God’s justice and righteousness until the master returns.

 

— The Rev. Timothy G. Warren is a vocational deacon at Trinity Episcopal Church, Redlands, Calif. He is a 26-year retired Air Force veteran, and he has more than 15 years’ experience as an educator in the private and public sector. Deacon Warren is the founder of Trinity Victorville Outreach, an emergent ministry that reaches out to at-risk young adults and families in the High Desert Region of California.

Thanksgiving Day (A) – 2014

No ‘other’ in God’s Kingdom

November 27, 2014

Deuteronomy 8:7-18; Psalm 65; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15; Luke 17:11-19

Thanksgiving Day can be a loaded cultural icon, an indicator of our place in American culture. The turkey, the football games, the parades, the pumpkin pies. An idyllic image of whole families coming together to feast over the bounty of the harvest year. Of boats and pilgrims and Native Americans all gathered together in peace and harmony. And isn’t this all very lovely? Except it masks darker truths, truths not talked about or hidden away.

What if the harvest that is hoped for doesn’t come? What if you are a parent who says Thanksgiving is at the shelter this year or there will be no Thanksgiving dinner? Does this mean that parent is reaping what he or she has sown, that this family is getting what they deserve?

Paul seems to imply this in verse 6 of today’s reading from Second Corinthians: “The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who reaps bountifully will also reap bountifully.” But even so, Paul must be setting the stage to lead us in another direction, toward another way of understanding God’s abundance, especially in times of need.

Instead, could this passage be about us – the “us” who should and are able to give plentifully? A reminder to love God? And out of this love for God comes our love for our neighbors, a rendering of great generosity. As Paul says in today’s reading, “For the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.”

Paul is taking his listeners on a journey of questioning: Where do we believe our bread, our seeds of life come from? What is the cost and consequence of not giving? And how does what we offer to others matter to God?

Let us begin to explore and reflect on what we have to give and why we give what we give. If this giving is coming from our hearts, if it is given to glorify our Lord, then the natural outcome of this will be genuine love for others. The emotions we will experience will feel right and good. And it is this sense of righteousness and goodness that will lead us and multiply our efforts; it will be a rendering that sustains us through each harvest year with thankful hearts.

Our gospel passage today has Jesus on a journey toward Jerusalem while passing through a region between Samaria and Galilee. And along the way, Jesus encounters 10 lepers. Lepers are social outcasts, cursed, unclean; they had to live in colonies outside of towns and could not approach people except from a distance.

So knowing they can’t approach Jesus, they start to shout at him, “Have mercy on us.” Somehow these 10 lepers had heard about this master who can miraculously heal people. And if this Jesus can heal others, then just maybe he can heal them.

Jesus pauses, looks at the 10 lepers, asks them no questions – doesn’t berate them for who they are or how their lives suddenly fell apart when they became ill with leprosy. Jesus simply tells them to go show themselves to the priest – because for the lepers, only priests can deem them clean and able to return to society.

The lepers don’t question Jesus, or maybe they looked at each other in awe, hope and fear, but they do as he says. They head toward the priests who can change their social status, provide them with entry back into the lives they once knew.

One, though, stops in his tracks because he has just looked down at his hands and his feet, and he realizes that his whole body has been healed. That’s when he turns around and shouts praises to God as loudly as he can; he is stunned and grateful. This leper makes his way back as quickly as he can to Jesus, and he falls at Jesus’ feet and he says, “Thank you!”

This is where Luke introduces Jesus’ own stunned reaction – a Samaritan and a foreigner has recognized Jesus as the point of entry into God’s Kingdom. Luke is reminding us that Jesus came to bring salvation to everyone, Jew and gentile, known and foreigner – there is no “other” in God’s Kingdom.

How often is it a stranger or guest who points out what we have stopped seeing? How often is it a stranger who helps us remember why we participate in our ministries, or a newcomer who hears with new ears, sees with new eyes, and heartily says, “Thank you”?

How often is it a stranger who reminds us of what it is we have to be thankful for?

And isn’t that the crux of why we come together once a year, on this day of Thanksgiving? To remember and be reminded of God’s grace and bounty in our lives?

It is easy to become like the other nine lepers. They go and do as Jesus says, and they are healed, too. But do we, like them, follow Jesus’ instructions solely from a sense of duty or compulsion? Or is it because we are able to look down at our hands and feet and see something miraculous? See that we are and have always been the Body of Christ? And can we, too, fall on our knees before Christ and praise God for the bounty we receive and are about to receive at Christ’s table?

 

— The Rev. Jimmie Sue Deppe is currently the curate associate at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., in the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan.

Mary sings the Good News, 4 Advent (B) – 2011

December 18, 2011

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Canticle 3 or Canticle 15 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

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

Mary sings the Good News of the Incarnation to break into our Advent anticipation with a description of the coming Reign of God. In the angel Gabriel’s visit to lowly Mary, and then in Mary’s beautiful hymn of praise, the Magnificat, we begin to hear what Kingdom of God is like; it is a world turned upside down.

Mary prophetically sings of God’s kingdom as if it is an accomplished fact, rather than a coming reality breaking into the here and now. The song uses an amazing number of past-tense verbs. Everything is already accomplished for Mary. At first, this not so surprising. God has already looked with favor on his lowly servant Mary. The almighty already has done great things for her.

But as Mary continues to praise God for what God is doing in becoming human, she moves beyond what God has done for her, broadening to include the whole world. Even then, she sings of things to come as if they were accomplished facts. Mary, taking a page from her unborn son’s ministry, proclaims that the Kingdom of God is at hand.

Listen to these words of Mary’s song and ask yourself if the changes in the way the world works have even yet occurred more 2,000 years later:

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.

There are few kings in the world today, but the seats of power still belong to the mighty. The lowly rarely, if ever, get lifted up. The hungry often continue to go hungry, while those who have seem to get more. Yet, Mary speaks of lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things in the past tense.

It is impossible to see Mary’s song as merely naïve. No Jew living in Roman-occupied Israel could think the lowly were being lifted up. Instead, Mary has come to see that what God is doing through her is a sign that all of God’s promises are as good as fulfilled. God is faithful, and the old way of doing things is as good as gone now that God is becoming human through her child Jesus. God’s kingdom is breaking into our world in a new and marvelous way that makes it clear that the lowly are as good as lifted up and the hungry are as good as filled with good things.

Mary’s way of looking at the world in her song shows a Biblical view of how this age – the time we live in – relates to the afterlife, the age to come. First, we have this age, our present time, which includes all time, from creation until this day. Alongside that, we can place the age to come. Until Jesus comes in power and glory to usher in the end of the age, the only way to pass from this age to the age to come is death.

All time is working its way toward the end of this age and the ushering-in of the age to come. There is a forward trajectory pushing us toward eternity, but the two ages seem separate. In the Magnificat, Mary points to the reality that there may be a way in which these two ages intersect. The age to come may break into our present age. The age to come is not present in our own time in its fullness, but as a foreshadowing of what is coming.

Mary knows that the birth of the Messiah to her, a lowly Jewish peasant, is an important sign of what God’s kingdom looks like. It is in the Incarnation that we get our clearest picture of the age to come. God became flesh, not in the person of Julius Caesar or a great Egyptian Pharaoh. God became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the son of peasant woman in an occupied land. Without the mighty getting wind of it, they were as good as cast down from their thrones. If the newlywed wife of a carpenter is to give birth to God’s son, then the hungry are as good as having their bellies filled, for God is not only ready and willing to bring about the age to come; God is in fact already breaking the age to come into our world in acting counter to the ways of this present age.

Mary goes on to sing that this is not some new thing God is doing, but it is in fulfillment of all that God has promised Israel. The God of Israel is now acting in human history in such a way that it will not just break the kingdom of God into this age for the Jews, but for all humanity.

As he begins his ministry, Jesus will affirm the very things his mother now sings. Jesus continually reminded his disciples in different ways that the last would be first, and the first would be last. He preached that those who exalt themselves will be humbled. Jesus said blessed are the poor, the hungry, and those who weep, for God will give them the kingdom, fill them with food, and exchange their tears for laughter. Jesus told his followers that he came to serve, and those who follow him must also be servants. Jesus’ whole ministry lived out the words his mother sang, showing how God’s kingdom is radically different from our present age.

In Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, we see in hymn form that the kingdom of God has broken into our present age. Yes, it is still a fallen and flawed world. The powerful still crush the lowly. More times than not, the rich get richer at the expense of the poor. Those with food have more than enough, while others go hungry.

Yet, because of the ways God has broken into human history, we have had glimpses of a different world. Through the life of Jesus, and rarely through his followers, great saints through the ages, we have seen how wonderful the upside-down world of the gospel really can be. No one is too lowly, too weak, or too undesirable for God. There are no outcasts in God’s kingdom. God does not look to the outward signs of status and success, but rather God looks at the content of your heart.

Use this last week of Advent to make more room in your life for God. The more we allow God into our hearts and lives, the more we will find ourselves loving those whom God loves. Every time we reach out to others to share God’s love, we bring the age to come to life into the here and now.

As Mary responded, “Here am I,” to the angel Gabriel, we too are to respond to the gospel and say, “Yes,” to living into our faith, with changed hearts and lives. This is not as a theory to which we give assent, but a life lived in response to the gospel.

When we live into our faith, reaching out to the lost and left out, and proclaim the Good News in both word and deed, then little by little we help turn the world upside down. When we side against the oppressor and speak up for the voiceless, we make the Kingdom proclaimed by Mary real to ourselves.

It is not that we can change whole world, but by living into the concern that Jesus taught us for the poor and the needy, we make the coming kingdom, the reign of God, real in our hearts. Then we have Mary’s eyes to see that the mighty are as good as cast down, the lowly as good as lifted up, and the hungry are as good as filled, for the Kingdom of God has come near.

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary for the Diocese of Georgia.