In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
Trouble the Waters: Luke 3:1-22
(A note before you begin reading: I am deeply indebted to many journalists and scholars who have written about both the mill in Canton and the lead in Flint. After the sermon, I will link to the articles that proved to be invaluable research. Take a minute and read them. It is worth your time. ~Pastor Chrissy)
I didn't watch the news very much when I was a kid. I mean, I was a kid. I wasn't their key demographic. I spent most of my screen time on cartoons. Even in the midst of the G.I. Joe and My Little Pony episodes that captured my attention, one news story managed to slide it's way into my attention span. Maybe it's because school kids were on the screen or maybe because what I was looking at just seemed so gross. Either way, I have a very clear memory of a bunch of young people standing on the steps of a courthouse holding a jar of water. The jar itself was pretty unremarkable. It looked like the ones the kids helped me bless today. Except, instead of holding clean, clear water, it's water was the color of black coffee or molasses. The people who brought the water to the courthouse kept holding it up and saying, "If you think it's so clean, you drink some of it. Here, drink it." It was pretty obvious to me that nobody wanted to drink that water.
It turns out that the report I was seeing was a news story about the Pigeon River, a river that was once so polluted that, according to one article I read, the state of North Carolina said that it's water was best only to be used for waste disposal. In the early 1980's, a century long issue had finally come to a head. I imagine that this story is familiar to many of you who know Maine's own history of industry and the environment. A paper company in North Carolina had put a lot of pollution into the river. The people downstream in Tennessee told stories of scores of cancer deaths, mutated fish, and horrid smells that ruined their quality of life. The people in the town where the mill is located, a town in the mountains were good work was hard to come by, relied on the mill for jobs. The mill was very clear that to afford to follow more strict health regulations, they would have to cut about half of their workforce, which would be about 1000 jobs.
It became a dirty fight, pitting a lot of middle class and low-income people against each other, each side certain that the only way to protect their own community's livelihood was to force their neighbors to live in conditions that they found intolerable. Eventually, though, the paper mill was forced to follow appropriate health regulations. People were surprised that the river became healthier very quickly, with boating access restored to most of the river by the late 1990's, followed by successful reintroductions of native fish, mussel, and snail species. While there are still lingering issues across the border, all sides seem to agree that the river is in much better shape than 30 years ago. The mill's new owners seem to be working hard to both provide jobs and not make people sick downstream. I probably still wouldn't eat fish from this river, but the river doesn't look like molasses now. This river has certainly been troubled water.
I've been thinking a lot about that brown water from 25 years ago this week as I see the reporting about the drinking water in Flint, Michigan. Nobody wants to drink that brown water in Flint, either. Leaders in Flint, a city that has struggled financially since the car plants began to close in the 1980's and 1990's, decided to change water sources for their residents in hopes that the new system would save the city money. They thought they had three years to prepare their existing, outdated water infrastructure. During that time, they thought they could still use their old water source, water purchased from Detroit, until the new water pipeline was built. But, Detroit cut them off early. As an emergency measure, the city began to pull water from the Flint River while they waited for the pipeline from Lake Huron to be finished. The new source, the Flint River, was dirtier than their old source, the water that had already been treated in Detroit. Flint's system could not effectively treat the river water. Also, the city wasn't using an anti-corrosive treatment in the water even though that is required by federal law. The water began to corrode the city's water pipes, leaching all kinds of particulates into peoples' drinking water and turning the water brown.
People are particularly concerned about lead leached from the pipes. Researchers have found lead levels as high as 13,000 ppb. Water with 5,000 ppb of lead can be classified as toxic waste. That's right. Some people in Flint had water flowing into their homes that could have been classified as toxic waste. After more than a year with the corrosive water supply, Flint has finally changed back to their original water source. But, the damage may have already been done. Lead isn't really safe in drinking water at any level, and, even with the less corrosive water from Detroit, the pipes are still leaching lead. National guard troops are handing out clean drinking water to people. The city has begun distributing water filters, filters that are probably something like many of us have in our own homes because of arsenic in our wells. They are also taking blood samples from children to see have many of the city's most vulnerable people may now have elevated lead levels. People, especially the 40% of the city who are under the poverty level who have less access to clean water, are worried about their families and want the people responsible for such a public health disaster to be held accountable. One mother says that she prays this prayer for her daughter every night: "Lord, keep her safe from the lead, keep her mind strong, keep her body strong.” The water in Flint is troubled water indeed.
Scholar C. Michael Hawn reminds us that water is an important symbol throughout scripture. Water is often a symbol of God's power, like when Amos and Isaiah describe God's justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. It may also appear as force of nature against which God helps you struggle, like in today's reading from Isaiah where God will protect God's people from the most powerful forces nature can muster, including the current of a mighty river. In all the ways that water can show up in scripture, the appearance of the Jordan River in particular is especially important. It is often understood as vital, holy boundary line. After 40 years in the wilderness, the Israelites would cross over the Jordan into the promised land. Tradition holds that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, though the Gospel of Luke doesn't actually name where Jesus was baptized. It makes sense that other Gospels would report that Jesus was baptized there. In the Bible, the Jordan River was both a culmination of a trial with God and a beginning point for a new journey into the promised land. The Jordan River was water troubled by God, disturbed by Holy Spirit, filled with holy potential.
The description of Jesus' baptism in Luke is minimal. Many scholars note that Luke seems to think the things around the baptism are more important than the baptism itself. That's fair. The other occurrences are pretty impressive. First, we have John the Baptist describing the working of the soon-coming Messiah. Then, after the baptism, heaven opened up and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in bodily form like a dove. And, Jesus heard this voice say, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." Like his ancestors before him who saw entering the water as a turning point in their story, Jesus' baptism was a turning point in his. We already know that he was blessed from the earlier stories of his infancy and childhood. Now, as an adult, we see the event that empowered him to follow his calling to love God and love people. He stepped into the river to be baptized, and stepped out as one specially anointed by God. Something changed in the water. God troubled the waters.
Just a few months before the March on Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke a few miles from Flint, in the city of Detroit. During that speech/sermon, Dr. King first uttered what has become a very familiar phrase in American history, "I have a dream this afternoon." He spoke of God's justice rolling down like a mighty, unstoppable river. When he was asked what people could do to support justice efforts in the South, he told people that to support justice in the South, they needed to work on getting rid of injustice in Detroit. He said that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. I can't help but think the troubled waters of Cocke County, Tennessee and Flint, Michigan are signs of injustice. I can't help but be appalled the injustice of neighbors, constrained by economic uncertainty, feeling like they have to work against one another's best interest and of citizens who trusted their leaders to make safe decisions for them, but instead got stuck with people more concerned about money than making sure the decisions they made were healthy and safe.
These waters are troubled... troubled by greed, fear, and lack of concern for the poor. It seems like what we need some of God's waters of justice and righteousness to clean up this mess. We who follow Christ know that the water can change you. So do the people of Flint. It changed Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. She went from simply being a pediatrician in the city to being one of the most outspoken advocates for the children of Flint. She knew what was right and did it. She went public with her findings that the water in the city was unsafe. She continued to advocate for her patients even with the state denounced her work. I don't think she imagined that she would have to fight the city government to help the people of the city. But, the water changed her. She wasn't willing to ignore what her research showed in order to appease the people in power. Her bravery and commitment has helped countless people. I pray that all of us, when we see such troubled water, will be willing to be changed by it as Christ was and as Mona was. God's rivers of justice are flowing. I pray that we find the courage to help them roll along
Pastor Chrissy consulted these sources while writing this sermon:
About the Bible passage: Fred Craddock, John Hayes, Carl Holladay, and Gene Tucker, Preaching the New Common Lectionary: Year C, Advent, Christmas, Epiphany (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1985).
C. Michael Hawn's article about the meaning of the hymn, "Wade in the Water":
The text of Dr. King's 1963 speech in Detroit:
About the Pigeon River:
A 1989 LA Times article about the conflict over the Pigeon River:
A very thorough history of the issues from this Nashville Scene article from 1996: http://www.nashvillescene.com/nashville/dark-waters/Content?oid=1180764
A History of the Pigeon river from North Carolina Wildlife:
An article about the more recent article conflict from 2012:
Good information about how toxic Flint's water really is:
Some background on the drinking water disaster, including the prayer that one mom's prays each night:
More background on how this problem started:
An article that talks about the work of Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha:
Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it.Assuming that he was in the group of travellers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour.
Where Did That Kid Go? Luke 2:41-52
"Has anyone seen Jesus? I've seen all the other kids. Where is Jesus? I can't find him anywhere. Honey, is he with you? Elizabeth, have you seen Jesus? John, have you and Jesus been out playing. Where is that boy? It can be so hard to keep track of him with all the little ones under foot. He's twelve now. I expect him to be more responsible and to keep up. He thinks he's so grown up. He's still a kid though. He should be where we can find him. We are easily more than a day away from Jerusalem now. What do you mean he's not anywhere in the caravan? Have you checked with everyone? Oh, no. We must have left him back in the city. Oh, no. He could be anywhere by now. We have to go back to get him."
I imagine a conversation something like this happening right at the moment when Jesus' parents realized that he wasn't with them on the caravan back to Nazareth. I bet that they were terrified. Even though their parenting style was probably more free-range than your average American family, and even though kids were not quite as protected a class as they are in our culture, they were still beloved. And, it would have been awful to realize that you had left your child in a large, busy city that was more than a day and a half walk away. There are no cell-phones to call to ahead so that people can be looking for him, and no cars or trains that will help you move faster. It is only you and your husband and if you're lucky, a borrowed camel or donkey to help. You walk as fast as you can and pray as much as you can that you will find him before anything happens.
By the time you and your spouse get to Jerusalem, it has been three days since you have seen your child. You have shifted back and forth from terror to rage to hope. You are scared that something has happened. There are so many people in the city right now, with more than you average number of thieves and imperial soldiers around because of the festival. Your son would not be safe in either of their hands. Then, you are angry at him for running off. You have said more than once that, if he's not dead yet, you might have to kill him yourself. And, then, you hope... you hope that he has eaten... that he has found somewhere safe to sleep... that some kind stranger saw their own child in his brown eyes that they took him in and are watching over him. It is the Passover. People feel more generous at the holidays. Hopefully, someone is watching out for him.
You try to remember where you saw him last. You look at your spouse and you both say, "The temple." The whole devout family had traveled there to make the necessary sacrifices. You remember that he was fascinated. So, you run in that direction. You scramble up the steps and there he is. This is how poet Stephanie Crumpton described the scene:
"Determined not to be moved
Not from the moment, nor the matter at hand
He sits cross-legged
Beneath the old wrinkled toes of the “Old Men”
The Priests, Sadducees, and Big Brothers
The Pharisees, Uncles, and Fathers
His 12 years to their eons
Unaffected by the dissonance and distortions of age
His young voice (new, but full)
Wise (knowing, but seeking)
Moved with compassion, he asks the keepers of the Torah…
“Where has the love gone?”
With no answer to offer his suckling young mind
The sound of their own silence is asphyxiating
They, too, have missed it
They know that law only lives where love abides…
Their greying eyes fill with tears
Jesus (12 years old)
Moved by their tenderness
Empowered by their trust
In the House of the Fathers
At this, they sit astounded
The silence is interrupted
Panicky footsteps (Mary & Joseph) trample sacred ground
There is danger in being young
"Thank God, Jesus here you are! Boy, where have you been? Can't you just do what you're told and stay with the rest of the family? Don't you know that we have been worried sick? We haven't seen you for three days! Three days! You could have been lying somewhere dead in a ditch. We might never had been able to have found you. Why on earth didn't you stay with us when we left the city? Why have you treated us like this?"
Oh, this boy, you think, thank God he is safe... this boy just looks up at you with the kind of wisdom and confidence that only a 12 year-old can muster, and he says to you, "Why were you all looking so hard? Where else would I be? Obviously I'm going to be in God's house." You, his parents, at that moment, have no idea what he is talking about. There is nothing obvious about this. What kind of normal kid hides out at the temple and talks about the Torah with the scholars there. No. Obvious would have been you playing with your cousin John as we walked back home. Come on, now. We are three days behind. Let's get home. You know how lucky you were that the adults who saw him in the temple protected him, even as he misbehaved. You go home. You don't forget that first act of rebellion, though. You wonder if it won't be his last.
It is not lost on me that this week, when I choose to preach about this one fortunate twelve year old boy and his family, another 12 year old boy's family has been weeping. Tamir Rice's family was not as lucky as Jesus' was. From the dispatcher who did not pass on all of the necessary information to the responding officers to the police officer who chose to shoot only two seconds after arriving on the scene and then did not administer any first aid for at least four minutes after shooting him, Tamir Rice, was, at the very least, a victim of significant negligence and misconduct. Unlike Jesus, He had no kind adult who assumed he needed help and took a minute to ask. Instead, he is being blamed for being a kid with a toy gun who didn't do what the grownups told him to. His legacy is becoming a reputation as a boy who didn't do what he was told and died for it.
I once read this in a preaching book: if you come upon a terrible story that seems to have no good news, one way to talk about it is to imagine what would make the story better. How could Tamir's story have been better, more like Jesus'? The only reason that Jesus was able to go home safely with his parents was because adults around him, strangers who did not know him, took care of him. They saw him as a child to be protected. We have a responsibility to do that for the kids around us, too. Did you know that in Androscoggin County, youth of color are 3x more likely than white kids to be arrested. In York County, they are 2.5x more likely. In Kennebec County, youth of color are 2.5x more likely than white kids to be detained in a secure facility when arrested, as opposed to be sent home on their own recognizance. And, in Aroostock and Androscoggin Counties, white kids are twice as likely as youth of color to be allowed to resolve legal matters informally if they are arrested. Across Maine, youth of color are being arrested and detained more often than their white counterparts. Some might ask if black and brown kids are simply committing that many more crimes or worse crimes. When you actually look at the crime statistics, there is not so much of a difference in kinds of crimes committed so as to explain the vast discrepancy in arrest and detention rates. It simply looks like youth of color are being arrested more and treated more harshly. It sounds to me like these kids needs some Pharisees to watch over them just like that trouble-maker Jesus used to have.
That's right. In this one case, I think we're supposed to act like the Pharisees. They are the heroes of this story. So, what does being a Pharisee mean for us right now? How can we take care of the lost kids in our midst? Here's some things that the Muskie School of Public Policy recommends: Invite law enforcement, social science researchers, and people who have been arrested and their families to develop a racial equity program to be implemented across the Maine justice system; hire justice system employees from diverse backgrounds; train more people to recognize systemic and implicit bias; examine how the school system and justice system work together; and regularly evaluate our justice system to make sure that all people are being treated justly. It doesn't sound as much fun as hanging out with a kid at the temple talking about the Bible, but, I bet these our neighbors would be just as appreciative as Jesus' were. Let's do right by all the kids we meet. After all, we never know what they will grow up to teach us if we give them the chance.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Ron Allen: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2708
Jim Kast-Keat: http://www.odysseynetworks.org/on-scripture-the-bible/looking-for-jesus-luke-241-52/
Fred B. Craddock, Luke: Interpretation- A Bible Commentary for teaching and preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990).
Fred Craddock, John Hayes, Carl Holladay, and Gene Tucker, Preaching the New Common Lectionary: Year C, Advent, Christmas, Epiphany (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1985).
Stephanie M. Crumpton's spoken word piece Love and Rebellion : uccfiles.com/rtf/wwYouth122715.rtf
For data about youth of color and the justice system in Maine, please see the report, Disproportionate Contact: Youth of Color In Maine's Juvenile Justice System:
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.
One More Song to Sing: Luke 2:22-40
I've been trying to remember when I first heard Christmas songs come on the radio this year. One of the radio stations that I listen to switched over way back in November, just a few days before Thanksgiving. While many of the stores seemed to have Christmas decorations out sometime in October, I don't actually remember hearing "Jingle Bells" while I was buying juice or having lunch until sometime in December. Now, that Christmas Day has passed, and stores no longer need to remind us of the impending need to buy things to amuse our families, I imagine that I will hear far fewer secular Christmas songs as I go about my business. Apparently, businesses are less concerned about our ongoing religious Christmas season, a season that lasts through January 6th, than they are about making sure they sell plenty of Christmas presents for us right up until Christmas Day. Once the profit motive is gone, the need to pretend to be festive is gone, too. But, here, in our religious community, profit is not our primary concern. Praise is. So we get to keep singing Christmas songs for at least a couple more weeks.
Did you know that Christmas songs were once not all that common in Christian churches, or at least English speaking ones? I read an article this week by a journalist named Nathan Heller. He reported that, though there were birth of Christ hymns sung as early as the second century CE, it wasn't until the fourth century, when December 25th was officially identified as a religious feast day, that Christians actually began writing Christmas songs in earnest. The trouble was that these first songs don't sound like they were particularly festive. Most were in Latin, a language that many Christians did not speak, and, according to Heller, some were basically theology arguments set to music. There is at least some evidence that these songs, while approved by the church, were not enjoyed by the people.
Heller argues that it took the great and strange St. Francis of Assisi to make Christmas songs and services into rich, enjoyable worship traditions. In the 13th Century, St. Francis staged nativity pageants with real barn things, like animals and hay. During these nativity pageants, the people were also treated to wonderful music. This music helped tell the story of Jesus' birth, something that was important since most people couldn't read. Importantly, this music was in the native language of the people who attended the services. Even though the songs were new, the tunes might have been familiar to the people because Francis and his followers took common drinking songs and changed the lyrics to tell Bible stories. Traveling musicians would then carry the new songs from town to town, spreading what could finally be called Christmas cheer.
Apparently, for at least a couple hundred years, many Christians had culturally-appropriate, theologically rich Christmas music to sing. Then, the Reformations happened. Even though Martin Luther liked the people's hymns, according to Heller, not all of his followers did. And, in England and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, our own religious forbearers, the Puritans, were quite sure that Christmas music and Christmas revelry had no place is a Christian home. In 1647, when the Puritans in England found themselves having some political clout under the rule of Oliver Cromwell, the Parliament made celebrating Christmas illegal. Heller notes that even here in North America, for at least a period of time, people found celebrating Christmas in the Massachusetts Bay Colony could be fined. That means that Christian people here in Maine could have been fined by their Christian government for celebrating the Christian holiday of Christmas. Now, that's what I call a war on Christmas.
It wasn't until the mid-1800's that English-speaking nations recaptured some public celebrations of Christmas. Heller credits the publication of two Christmas songbooks in 1822 and 1833 with reintroducing English Christians to Christmas hymns, including "The First Nowell" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." Then, the British Queen married a German prince, who brought with him a rich Christmas celebratory tradition. According to Heller, Charles Dickens even got in on the act, writing A Christmas Carol in order to counter some of the cultural grimness around the Christmas season. Much of our own American Christmas tradition is an outgrowth of the traditions reinvigorated during the Victorian era. Thank goodness for Prince Albert and a couple of music historians. They helped give us back our music.
We are fortunate to have recovered this part of Christian tradition. St. Francis and Prince Albert seemed to know that singing of Christ's birth helps connect us to the story in a way that simply reading it and preaching it don't. There is something joyful and powerful in singing. It reminds that we are not alone. It connects us to our emotions as well as to the ancient traditions that have brought us to this place. Even the author of Luke knew that. I think that why he put four different songs in the story of Jesus' birth. We've already heard about three of them. We have heard Zechariah's joyous response to God's promise of a son. We have sung along with Mary, singing of a radical God who will bring justice to the poor and downtrodden. We have sung with angels, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those God favors," showing the shepherds that they have nothing to fear, and only a Messiah to gain if they travel to Bethlehem.
Today, we have the fourth song in Luke's cantata, the song of Simeon, the wise and aged man who only had to look into the eyes of young Jesus to know that he had seen the Messiah. Mary and Joseph had not expected such a reception at the temple. They were simply following religious custom. Each family was to bring their first born son to the temple to be dedicated to the Lord in a special way. Mary and Joseph had been promised that their son would be particularly special, but they did not assume that others would know this yet. But, Simeon, promised by God that he would not die before he saw the Messiah, felt led to go the temple the very same day that Mary and Joseph took Jesus. He held that baby boy and he sang these words: "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."
Can you imagine seeing a tiny baby and knowing that, now, all people, not just the people with whom you share a religion, would have a hopeful future? That is what Simeon felt when he saw Jesus. He knew it in his bones that this child would change the world. He could not help but sing. He also knew that all of this change would not be easy. He warned Mary and Joseph that their own souls would be pierced by the calling that their child would live out. Just as he finished, a second wise voice would ring out. A prophet named Anna must have seen the little family and Simeon. She, too, knew that this child would save God's people. She, too, began to praise God and tell everyone she saw that God had done what God had promised, and would redeem Israel. Singing is one important way that they spoke of God.
Singing seems second nature to these figures in the Bible, so much so that they would have likely found a song-less religious celebration to be unthinkable. Had they known us during the times when we didn't sing, I can imagine that they would have shaken their heads, knowing that we were certainly losing something of Christ's story because we were not able to sing about it. Sure, we can speak of mercy and justice and salvation. But, I think they would argue, do we really know what those things are if we do not sing them? In honor of Anna, Simeon, Mary, Zechariah, and the very angels of Heaven, we should sing loudly the songs of Christ, praying that these melodies teach us something new about God's reign of love and justice. When you came in to worship, you received a paper. Write down what songs make you think of Christ's work in this world. Place them in the offering plate. We will sing these songs throughout Christmastide. They will bring us joy and help us be brave. They will remind of Jesus and the work we do with him. This season, let us be like Francis and Albert and Mary and Simeon. Let us not be afraid to sing. It helps us learn more about our God.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Stephen Hultgren: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2258
Holly Hearon: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=207
Audrey West: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=460
Nathan Heller, "Christmas Carols: Why Do We Keep Singing them?"
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
Magnifying God's Goodness: Luke 1:46-55
I remember being 14 and bitter. Much like today, my church was decked out in Christmas finery: a large fir tree stood at our right, covered in years worth of ornaments made by the children in the church. Small angels shifted and scratched in their itchy tinsel halos. The shepherds’ head-scarves were all a little crooked, unable to resist the kinetic energy of 8-year-olds trying oh-so-hard to stand still and not wack something with their hooked staffs. I was standing behind all of these angels, shepherds, and tiny townspeople, decked out in blue polyester, glasses sliding down my nose... the lone teenager in the annual children’s play, and the one entrusted with Mary’s Song.
Being Mary was a great responsibility... a responsibility that I didn't want at all. By this point, I had been confirmed for almost a year. This right of passage not only assured me full participation in communion and the ritual life of the church, and also served as a pardon from service in the Christmas play. You see, Confirmation gave you your Saturdays in December back. It meant you were more like a grown-up than like the kids who reenacted the nativity each year. I had gone through two whole years of catechism instruction and did not want one month more of an obligation that I connected with being a child in the church. And, yet, our Sunday School teachers had a different idea. They came up and asked if I could please, one more time, be in the play. You see, there was a big age gap between me and the next oldest bunch of girls. None of them were old enough to remember the whole part. And, it was an important part.
Perhaps I could have said no. I could have said that I didn’t want to be in the Christmas play again. But, I felt responsible, even obliged to say yes because it was my church and a respected elder, Martha, had asked for the help. My sense of duty won the argument with my teenage need to separate myself from the younger kids, though responsibility only won that argument begrudgingly. At home, I grumbled about being asked, about being too old, about having to memorize such a long piece of scripture. My mom tried to point out that perhaps it was actually kind of nice that they asked. She said that it probably said something good about my character that the teachers thought they could entrust me with such a role. Maybe, she suggested, it meant not that they thought of me a little kid but as someone they could count on when they needed help. But, I couldn't really take my mom's response seriously. I still didn’t want to be in the play. But, I felt like I had to. So, I was bitter.
Duty-bound, I trudged into the sanctuary with all the little kids. I sang about a little town in a place very far away and about the angels on high. Then, at the appropriate time, I slipped back up the stairs and out of the side door in the sanctuary. I walked soundlessly by the closet where my old acolyte robe hung and through the small kitchen where the communion elements were stored, and into the hallway that circled the inside perimeter of the church. I hurried down the hallway, slipping on my headscarf, trying to transform my own 14 year-old self into that other 14 year-old girl who had also felt the weight of responsibility, though her's was a weight that I still can't imagine. I made my way to the door at the back of the sanctuary to listen. I heard my cue, and pushed open the double doors of the sanctuary. I nervously walked up the middle aisle, turned around, pushed up my glasses, and began: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior...” Well, I eventually began. It took me a minute. But, I remembered and recited the whole thing. Then, I went back to my place and finished the rest of the play.
I also remember being 26, and much less bitter. Once again, I had been asked to read Mary's Song at church. Once again, I stood in front of the church... though it was a different church than the first time... a UCC church that was supporting me through the ordination process. Again, I felt the weight of responsibility, though this time it was a responsibility gladly undertaken. This time I was not bitter. I did not resent being asked and didn’t feel compelled participate in the service only out of a sense of obligation. This time, I read the Magnificat as one with a call to ministry, as one wrestling with understanding my vocation to serve and be present especially with those considered to be the lowly in our society. This second time that I read these ancient words, I read her song as one who had also said, “How can this be?" As I read Mary’s song, the song of her vocation, I considered the weight of my own vocation, the great cost and great joy of learning to live my calling. What felt like a burden at 14, this second time, felt like joy. The difference was that in Mary's powerful song of liberation, I now heard some of my own story. I gladly read it aloud in my new church home.
Mary sings her song with the power of a prophet and the confidence of one who has survived the unthinkable. When we hear Mary say these words, "God has shown strength with God's arm; God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts," we are also hearing the words of Moses and Miriam who sang out with joy and praise when God delivered the people from slavery: "[The Lord] has trumped gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed; you guided them by your strength to your holy abode." When we hear Mary say these words, "God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty," we are also hearing Hannah's words from Hebrew Scripture, "The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The Lord makes poor and makes rich, he brings low, he also exalts." Where a Psalmist once said, "the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers; upholds the orphan and the widow," Mary said, "God has helped God's servant Israel, in remembrance of God's mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham, and to his descendants forever." Mary, a teenager living in poverty in the midst of a cruel Empire, remembered how God had worked in her people's history, and sang out, assured that though her people were not yet free, the child that she would help bring into the world would once again set God's people on the road towards liberation. So she joyously sang for the world to come, even as she lived in the not quite yet.
The moment Mary accepted the mission to which she was called by God, she said yes to a future that looked more free, more hopeful, and more just than the present that she was living in. This teenager could have looked at her life, "lowly," as she called it, and said that there was no way that God could use someone like her to change the world. But, she didn't. Even though she knew that saying yes could bring heartache and pain, she said yes anyway. Christian tradition has called her Theotokos, which means, God-bearer, the one who helped to bring the Divine into this world in a way that seemed impossible. God saw great promise in her, and she was willing to believe in that promise. She said yes, and it changed the course of history.
While we may not be being asked by God to carry a child, I do believe that we all have a calling from to be God-bearers. We can look to Mary as an example of how to say yes, even when saying no may seem safer. God, who cared for the lowly and oppressed, asks us to do the same. Hundreds of thousands of people are running away from war. Hundreds of thousands of people are living in places set to be swallowed up by the ocean or dried out by drought due to global climate change. It is easy to say no to helping them because of our own fear or unwillingness to change our lifestyles. And, yet, the angels says to us, "Do not be afraid. You have a calling, too." We can say yes. It will be hard. It will come at a cost. But, Mary knew that God wants peace and justice for us. And, she knew that any simple person can be a part of bringing God into this broken world. So, say yes. Let your soul magnify the Lord. Let your hands magnify God's goodness. We live in the not yet, too, but Mary is showing us that, with the Holy Spirit, we can step towards God's future. We just have to say yes.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted to write this sermon:
Rolf Jacobson's commentary-
The Sermon Brainwave Podcast-
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.