Walking by the Lord’s Light: Joy

December 11, 2022 — Rev. Brent Gundlah

I’m a terrible cook. There are many reasons for why this is true, but perhaps the biggest reason is that I’ve always been a little impatient. When I had to take cooking class in middle school, I figured that if a recipe called for something to be in the oven for a half hour at 250 degrees, I could do it in fifteen minutes if I just turned the oven up to 500 instead. It seemed like a good idea to thirteen year-old me at the time.

Well, I discovered pretty quickly that things don’t necessarily work that way.  And I learned some other important stuff that day too: how smoke detectors work, that you need a jackhammer to separate cookies and cookie sheets when they’ve been fused together at temperatures typically encountered inside a volcano, and how angry Ms. Haynes could get when you inadvertently torch her classroom. Perhaps the greatest single lesson I learned that day, though, was this — sometimes you just have to wait.

It sounds simple enough in theory, but we all know that patience isn’t an easy virtue to practice. Our lives can very busy; we often have too many things to do and not enough hours in the day in which to do them. And is there any time of year in which this is more true than this one?

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, we shop and bake and clean and write Christmas cards and deal with challenging relatives and shop again. Oh, and then those of us who have family that live out of town get to stand in line at the post office, which is awesome. Oh, don’t forget to be happy and to smile through it all; tis the season, isn’t it? This is what we’re supposed to do. This is what we’re expected to do. Or is it?

As we try to answer that question let’s consider the song that Mary sings in the first chapter of Luke — a song that is known as the Magnificat. We’re a mere thirty nine verses into the Third Gospel but a lot has happened already. We’ve met Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary and, of course, Gabriel who’s been one busy angel. Gabriel gives the elderly Zechariah and Elizabeth the improbable news that they will soon be parents (of John the Baptist, no less); and Gabriel takes away Zechariah’s voice (only temporarily) for his apparent lack of faith. 

Gabriel then tells Mary about what God has in store for her. To Elizabeth and to Mary, these two unlikely moms — one far too old, one far too young, and both far too poor to matter in this society — will be born children who will change the world forever.

After hearing what Gabriel has to say, the unmarried and pregnant Mary then sets out on her own “with haste” through the dangerous hill country in order to see her cousin Elizabeth, (though we don’t really ever know exactly why she chooses to do this)

And then — just like that — all of the action stops.

Luke puts us in a holding pattern for about fifteen verses in which absolutely nothing happens to move the story along. Mary’s heard the basics of God’s plan for her, for her unborn child, and for Israel, and now she simply must wait for it all to unfold.

Inside this humble house outside of Jerusalem, beyond the center of imperial power, two expectant mothers talk, John the Baptist (in his first prophetic act) kicks inside Elizabeth’s womb upon hearing Mary’s voice. And then Mary sings

The general situation here is similar to a pair of others we see in the Hebrew Bible — the story of Sarah in the book of Genesis and that of Hannah in the book of Samuel. In all of these instances God promises the gift of special children who will change history to improbable mothers who exist on society’s margins; in all of these instances God elevates the seemingly lowly and does the unthinkable through them, recruiting them to be part of God’s master plan. 

Luke’s obvious references to these other stories are meant to remind us that God has done this kind of thing before and, importantly for us two thousand later, that God continues to do so “from generation to generation.” God has always chosen to act in the world through ordinary people. In celebration of this fact Hannah once paused to sing, and Mary does so now.

We shouldn’t underestimate the power of song.  I mean there is a reason that music is an integral part of our worship every Sunday morning: it’s because music conveys things in ways the written or spoken word do not. Remember, the Psalms in your pew Bible are actually songs that have been around for thousands of years; imagine just how differently we might experience them if we were to sing them rather than simply read them. And when the Bible actually sings to us, we probably ought to stop, listen, and try to figure out what meaning such an ancient song holds for us in our place and time.

Elizabeth’s beatitude (or blessing) in the verse directly preceding Mary’s song is essential to understanding the meaning of that song. 

Elizabeth says, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”  Elizabeth blesses Mary for believing that all she has been told will eventually happen. But, Mary’s spontaneous musical outburst begins with thanks and praise for what God has already given her — she sings, “he has looked with favor upon the lowliness of his servant,” and “has done great things for me.” As Mary awaits all that God has promised her, she acts as if it were sure thing. In other words, Mary responds to God’s promises with faith.

And as she continues to proclaim her faith in song, Mary does something remarkable — she moves from praising God for all God has given her to considering what those gifts mean for others; she changes her focus from herself toall of creation. 

Mary sings with joy for a world that will be filled with mercy for the downtrodden, one in which God will scatter the proud and bring down the powerful from their thrones, while lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things — as God has done before.

In this shack in the hills of Judah these two poor pregnant women are envisioning with glee a world completely turned upside down; they are looking forward to the evolution of a revolution. But, for now, they must wait.

And so too must we.  A couple thousand years after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the powerful are often still perched on their thrones and the poor are, to all our shame, often still hungry.  Yet here we are on another Sunday morning, gathered together singing God’s praises for all we have been given and for all that is to come. And why do we continue to do this? The only answer that I can come up with is faith.

And so it seems only fitting that the time in which we consider this pregnant pause in Luke’s Gospel coincides with the season of Advent. It is, after all, that time between times in which we stop to reflect upon the year just passed and look forward with hope to the one about to begin.  It is a holding space in which we come together, like Elizabeth and Mary, to contemplate and celebrate all the splendor of what has been, what is and what is to be; of all that God has done, is doing and will do. Every year at Advent, we pause to reflect upon what all this means to us now, to do as the Psalmist says and “sing to the Lord a new song, for the Lord has done marvelous things.”  So, how will our song go?  How will we respond to God’s call?

Maybe a good place to start would be taking some time out of our overloaded holiday schedules to reflect — even if just for a moment — upon all that God gives us and to say “thanks,” to think like Mary did about how all the gifts that God gives us might be used for to serve of others

In a Spirit of gratitude for God’s ongoing presence among us, may we celebrate and sing, because, even at Christmas, it’s hard to imagine a gift any better than that.