Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Luke 1: 46b-55: Mary’s Song of PraiseAnd 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.’
Songs are all over the Bible. It can be easy to miss because they aren’t written with musical notation and occasionally aren’t even described as songs when you read them. But they are there. And, they are often there to mark a celebration. When the people were saved from Pharaoh’s army in Exodus, Moses and Miriam led their people in song. When Hannah wanted to celebrate her much hoped-for pregnancy, she prayed her thanksgiving in Song. When David wanted to welcome the ark of the covenant, the very resting place of God, into Jerusalem, he danced as the people sang. It should not surprise us that when God invited Mary to carry the Messiah, God’s incarnation, into the world, she would respond in song. Mary is a child of her people, after all. She learned that sometimes, when you come close to God, the best response is to sing.
This song, which is often called the Magnificat in Christian tradition, is not simply a lullaby for her baby, though, as I have said before, I relish the idea of her whispering the hopes and promises contained in this song into her son’s ear. This song is beautiful, but it is a song created on a grander scale than just one family’s joy. Mary sang a song of salvation for her entire nation. In fact, Jesus’ birth will matter for the whole world, and Mary knew that from the very beginning. There is a popular song where Kenny Rogers and Wynonna Judd ask “Mary did you know?” The answer is yes. It is always yes.
Mary sings her song with the power of a prophet and the confidence of one who has survived the unthinkable. It is probably because she had. You may have read Rev. Nicolette Peñaranda’s artist statement about her piece “Embroidered Borders” in our Advent devotional for this week. She noted that that one of the worst public executions of the Roman empire took place very close to where Mary grew up, just two years before Jesus was born. There was a rebellion, a failed rebellion. When Herod the Great died, Judeans attempted to regain control of their land from Rome. It did not go well. They were decimated by the Romans legions stationed in what is now Syria. These same legions burned the city of Sepphoris, a city that was only about four miles from Nazareth. The legions brutalized the people of the region, enslaving, assaulting, and killing people. According to Rev. Niveen Sarras, a Palestinian Lutheran pastor and scholar who was raised in Bethlehem, the people from Sepphoris who survived lost everything but their lives. Zechariah, Elizabeth, Joseph, and Mary, all the people we know from Jesus’ early family, would have seen this massacre.
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," I can’t help but wonder if Mary was remembering the legions of Rome. 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," was she remembering the straggling survivors of Sepphoris? When Mary said, "God has helped God's servant Israel, in remembrance of God's mercy, according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham, and to his descendants forever," was she asserting her faith that, though Rome controlled the throne at the moment, Rome could not break God’s relationship with the people? She said, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God, my savior,” was it because she knew that another life was possible, not just for her family, but for the world? Dr. Sarras argues that Mary sang for the world to come, where God promises to save the people.
I learned several years ago that in 1985, the apartheid government of Cape Town South Africa banned Christmas carols. They were called “too emotional,” and the authorities said that they were inciting too much unrest against the unjust government. They banned caroling in the townships where the people of mixed racial background lived and the ones where the indigenous Black people lived. If a church wanted to have a candlelight service for Christmas, like the one we will have later tonight, they had to get a special permit, the same kind of permit that they would have had to get to have a political rally. This reminds me of how in our own country, after Rev. John Sullivan Dwight translated “O Holy Night” from the original French in 1855, slavers were scandalized by the third verse. Imagine owning humans and then being asked to sing this verse, a verse that espoused a theology not far off from the Magnificat:
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His Gospel is Peace.
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother
And in His name, all oppression shall cease.
It appears that the pro-apartheid authorities and slavers knew what Mary knew. Songs can shape our feelings and become foundational to our actions. If we sing songs of love and justice, we can be inspired to live out love and justice. Several years ago, I went to a retreat where we talked about what it means to cultivate a vibrant, engaged Christian faith. The presenter, the Rev. Aisha Brooks-Lytle called upon the story of Mary and the tradition of calling her Theotokos- Greek for “God-bearer.” She helped God to come into this world in a brand-new way and trusted that God would use this incarnation to redeem the lost and heal the broken. She said that, while Mary might have been a particular God-bearer, we, as ones who carry the Holy Spirit and our own divine spark of creation, are called to be God-bearers, too. Meister Eckhart, German theologian and mystic, put it this way, “We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.”
If you are listening to Mary’s songs and the hymns inspired by it, you can hear the possibility of the Incarnation changing the world. You can feel the pulse of love justice within the beat of the song. You can know and believe in your soul that love and justice are real when you hear of this God who, inspired by love, came into the world in a body as fragile and beautiful as our own. In fact, this God will lift up the lowly by joining with the lowly, being born, breathing, growing, playing and singing among those who dwelled in the deadly shadow of Rome. If you listen to this song, and really hear it, you will know that humanity was not created to be trampled under tyrants’ feet, wallowing in hunger and pain. When we sing Mary’s words, as we did in our first hymn today, we just might begin to believe the love we hear in them, and we might begin to want to act with God to help make that love come alive.
The author James Baldwin once said, “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving.” Any notion of God that does not inspire in us love and generosity is a notion of God that is different from the God Mary’s introduces us, and her son, to in the Magnificat. And, any actions of destruction that claim to be divinely inspired but lack the love for the lowly described by Mary fail to live up to the idea of God that she has shown us.
God is coming alive in this world, all the time, reaching from under the rubble of destroyed homes, walking through the muck of flooded streets, hanging out in warming shelters, and laying in hospital beds. Because we know God has lifted us up, we are called to help lift one another up, moved by the faith that Mary once sang about. And, we’ll sing her words, too, adding new verses, because the world that she was confident God began in her child has not completely come to fruition. There is still much for Christ to do through the world and through us. We are still hopefully waiting and working, filled to the brim with God’s love, sharing that love with the world. May we be inspired by Mary’s moral clarity and the beautiful vision of God that she shared with the world. God’s might is clearest in God’s love. And, God’s love is clearly in Jesus. May we live in and pass along the love that was first shared with us.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Nicolette Peñaranda's artist statement about her piece called "Embroidered Borders, " in How Does A Weary World Rejoice? An Advent Devotional (A Sanctified Art LLC 2023)
Story about lack of festivities in Bethlehem this year: https://www.npr.org/2023/12/16/1219245873/bethlehem-christmas-gaza-israel
An article about the history "O Holy Night": https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2023/11/26/o-holy-night-history-slavery-246556
The story of Christmas carols being banned in South Africa: http://articles.latimes.com/1985-12-25/news/mn-21091_1_black-christmas
Mark 1:1-8 The Proclamation of John the Baptist
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” ’,
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
Can someone remind me what the name of the church season that starts today? Advent! That’s right. So, I have another question (the manger is on the communion table). What is this? A manger! And what are these? (I hold up animals, Holy Family, minus Jesus, shepherds, Magi, and angel). Now, remember the scripture that we just heard? Did you hear anything about animals? Angels? Shepherds? Joseph? Mary? Even Baby Jesus? No. That’s right. You didn’t. Who did you hear about? John the Baptist! And, can you remember what job John the Baptist would have? He’s going tell people to repent and offer them a ritual of baptism as a sign of their repentance. He’s going wear itchy clothes and eat bugs and argue with bad kings. And, he’s going to say, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” He will be the one who tells other people that the Messiah is coming and will tell them that it is Jesus.
Just a few minutes ago, I said that the word Advent comes from a Latin phrase that means “until the coming.” The season that we are starting today, Advent, is all about doing what John did: prepare for Jesus to come into this world. We prepare our churches and ourselves in a couple different ways. What are some things that are different in the sanctuary from the last time you were here? (Wait for people to list the things they notice: paraments are a different color, Christmas tree with Chrismons, Advent wreath and candles, Advent banner, manger) When we change how things look in a space, it can remind us that something special is getting ready to happen. The purple paraments, the special ornaments and candles, and the manger scene are all signs that the season has changed, and we are now making preparations to welcome the one John was talking about into the world.
While Matthew and Luke start off by telling us about Jesus’ birth and his parents, Mark starts off with John, an adult whose birth we learn of in Luke, doing the thing he is called to do: call people to repentance and prophecy of the one who is to come. If you come expecting to hear about Mary or Joseph or even Zechariah and Elizabeth and a baby, it might be a surprise to start off the season with grown up John and no sweet baby in sight. There’s a pastor and professor named Timothy L. Adkins-Jones who said it is “like a splash of cold water on the face.” Does anyone here remember their baptism or remembering seeing a baptism where the water surprises people? Babies notoriously don’t love getting wet heads out of nowhere. And, I certainly remember baptisms I’ve done in a cooler than expected Maranacook Lake. The cold water can wake you up... make you pay attention. And, John wants us to pay attention.
In his commentary on this text, Dr. Adkins-Jones says that “Advent is a time of new beginnings for our contexts, for a reminder of the foundations of our faith, a recommitment to what defines us, and an opportunity for us to wake up and make pathways straight for Jesus to come into our communities anew.” I don’t plan on wearing scratchy shirts or eating locusts while I prepare the way for Jesus this Advent. I generally prefer cookies to bugs. But, there are some things I will do. I’ll be lighting an Advent wreath here and at home. I’ll be reading the “How Does a Weary World Rejoice” devotional. Tasha and I have been looking out for ways to help people who need financial assistance because we know that Jesus called for those who have a lot to share with those who don’t have enough. I’ll probably also be writing legislators about ceasefires and gun control, because I know that the coming Christ calls for peace and justice.
There are often many pressures in what is called the Christmas season- the pressure to buy the perfect gift, to buy any gifts if you don’t have money, the pressure to craft a picture-perfect family, the pressure to feel cheery even if you are missing someone who is no longer here. I hope that Advent can give you some space for feeling other things than the cheer that a big box store requires while you are out shopping. If you need some cheer, I hope you take it. It’s been and continues to be a hard season. But, if you need some space for more complicated feelings or for stillness or for deeper meaning, Advent is here for that. Dr. Adkins-Jones says that we can take this time for “return, repentance, and rededication.” What are the traditions and communities that we can return to in order to help us to make a path clear for Jesus into our hearts and our world? What are the behaviors that we need to give over to God that separate us from God and each other? What are the practices of love and justice that we can commit to, once again or maybe for the first time, because they give us strength for journeying alongside Christ in the world?
Today, we talked some about what has been giving us hope lately. Maybe that’s one way Advent can be of use for you as you prepare for Christ once again. What would it mean for you to intentionally name places of hope for you not just here in worship, but each day this week? I don’t want this to feel like homework in an already busy time. But, I do think 5 minutes of thinking about hope while you brush your teeth or feed the cats might be helpful right now. Maybe you decide that you don’t have the brain space to add one more thing to your plate. That’s ok. We don’t make the baby come by working ourselves into the ground. Jesus will come whether we do much of anything at all really. But the arrival will be sweeter if we have prepared for it. May you find your way through this wilderness, led by John and all who call us to turn towards the God we seek. And, may this Advent help return a little bit of hope your way.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Carolyn Brown: https://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/10/planning-for-advent-and-christmas-year.html
Timothy Adkins-Jones: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-mark-11-8-6
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.