Worship, Sunday School, and Confirmation class are cancelled for Sunday, January 20. The likelihood of icy roads will make driving too dangerous. Stay home, stay safe, and may God bless you!
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Luke 1:46-47
My friend Ginger is the mother of four children, including ten-year-old twins. Yesterday she noted that an objectively factual statement can produce very different feelings – a statement like “There are only ten days until Christmas!” As she observed, “In a ten year old’s voice, this is a statement of great joy and anticipation. In my voice, not so much.” Maybe you feel that difference this morning as we’re down to nine days until Christmas. For some there is eager anticipation, but for others there is mild panic.
There’s another statement that can prompt many different feelings, depending on the circumstances. It’s the statement “I’m pregnant.” The two women in today’s gospel can tell you that. Each of them knows that those two words spoken aloud will bring consequences for which they may not be prepared.
When Elizabeth tells people that she is pregnant, she does so as someone who had given up expecting a child. She is old, she has been barren for decades, and she had long ago decided that her dream of being a mother would not come true. Elizabeth doesn’t even get the news of her miraculous pregnancy directly. An angel messenger tells her husband Zechariah first. But we hear earlier in this first chapter of Luke that Elizabeth remained in seclusion for five months after she became pregnant. I can well imagine that she wanted to avoid the whispers and stares of her neighbors, although it seems they have already been gossiping about her for years. Elizabeth says about her pregnancy, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” No one wants to feel disgrace from others. It eats away at confidence and contentment.
For Mary to say the words “I’m pregnant” raises a different set of fears. She is, unlike Elizabeth, quite young. Engaged to be married, preparing for a life with Joseph. When we encounter her today, she has just heard the shocking news of her pregnancy from the angel Gabriel. “How can this be?” she has wondered out loud. For her the consequences are potentially more grim. Mary has every reason to believe that she will be cast out in shame, at best left to fend for herself in a world that has no place for a single mother and at worst put to death for what will be seen as a betrayal of Joseph.
Faced with her perplexing situation, Mary sets off to a town in the hill country. She seeks out Elizabeth. Isn’t that our deepest longing when we are trying to make sense of something that has knocked the wind out of us? We want someone who will listen to us without judgment.
When Mary and Elizabeth find each other, notice that they don’t even have to say the words out loud. Neither one has to say to the other, “You are never going to believe this…” They just know. And they express joy for one another. The neighbors may whisper about them behind their backs, but this is not a time for whispering. This is a time for singing.
Elizabeth sings of promises kept, God’s promise of a messiah who will at long last be born. She sings of the role that Mary now has in God’s plan, a role whose fulfillment will make her forever blessed. Even before Elizabeth sings, the child within her jumps with joy. Remember that Elizabeth’s child will grow up to be John the Baptizer, the one who will point people to Jesus and prepare the way of the Lord. It’s clear that he learned to do that in part from his own mother’s faith.
Mary in turn sings of her part in God’s unfolding plan of mercy and justice. She cries out in confidence that God will turn the world upside down. Mary sings of a God who is not interested in giving the rich more of what they already have. God is much more concerned with lifting up the lowly and feeding the hungry. God’s mercy will not be contained; it demands a fulfillment that has been a long time coming. Mary makes a bold proclamation for a young unwed mother who is preparing to face the worst shame of her life, but what a song it is. A song for the ages.
It’s impossible to understand exactly what Mary and Elizabeth are experiencing in this moment. But we do understand what it feels like to fear the judgments of others. We do it all the time. We look around and imagine that everyone else’s family, everyone else’s job, everyone else’s mental health is somehow better than our own, and all of the people around us would look at us with pity if they only knew the truth. So we keep everything close, hiding those parts of our story of which we feel ashamed and letting them eat away at us.
Instead of hiding, what would it be like to sing? What if we could sing in the midst of our fear that others are judging us? I don’t mean that we literally have to sing, although that would be fine. But what if we could speak with courage of a trust in God’s purposes for us and for the world? A trust that God loves us all the more fervently when we are overwhelmed. A God who invites us to take part in the feeding of the hungry and the lifting up of the lowly.
Maybe it’s hard to find our own words to sing. Then try singing Mary’s. Speak her words of promise out loud each day, and you might find yourself – slowly, over time – believing them for your own life: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor 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.”
Today the choir is singing one of my favorite anthems: “Mary, Did You Know?” Among the verses we hear:
Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you.
I’ve often wondered how much Mary knew at the beginning. Given her song, we know that she trusted in God’s power to overturn every injustice in the world. She knew that the baby she was carrying was part of a story that had been unfolding since the creation of the universe. I bet she did know that this baby would be the source of her own deliverance – and everyone else’s – and perhaps she even knew that the path to that salvation would be a painful one.
The question for us, for those of us who live on the other side of the manger and the cross and the empty tomb, is: Do we know? Do we know that Jesus has come to save us and the whole world?
Are we able to sing with Mary a song of joy and justice, a song of hope for what has been and what has yet to be?
I pray that we can. It is, in the end, what Christmas is all about. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“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.” Luke 3:5-6
It’s that time of year. Time for all of the “best of the year” lists and rankings. Some of them generate more controversy than others. For example, there’s a lot of debate about whether the best four teams are in the college football playoffs. My family is not going to argue with Clemson being there, but I know a lot of Georgia fans who could make a case that their team got unfairly left out.
Then there’s People magazine’s “Most Intriguing People of 2018” list. You could say that “intriguing” has many meanings, but the editors still picked 25 people who fit their idea of it, from Meghan Markle to Chadwick Boseman to the teenagers from Parkland, Florida.
I enjoy comparing the year-end top ten lists for different forms of entertainment – the best movies, the best TV shows, the best books. I do a lot of reading, and yet I find at the end of the year that I have barely made a dent in those lists.
All of these lists depend on one assumption: Some things are better than others. Some teams. Some movies. Some people. There’s always a way to compare and rank.
It’s mostly in good fun, but I wonder how much it creeps into our way of seeing the world. There are already plenty of terrible powers at work to make us believe that some people are better than others. We don’t really need much help to reinforce that view.
Today’s gospel opens with a very specific naming of the people who hold positions of power when John the Baptist bursts onto the scene. You get Emperor Tiberius. Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea. King Herod. His brother Philip. Lysanias ruler of Abilene. And the list isn’t limited to political rulers tangled up with the Roman Empire. There are religious leaders here too – the high priests Annas and Caiphas.
These are not just random names. Several of them will show up later in the story. You may remember that Pontius Pilate, Annas, and Caiaphas will play a role in Jesus’ crucifixion. Their names are here to provide historical context near the beginning of Luke’s gospel, but they’re also here to remind us that the power differences in the world have consequences. People end up dead when power goes unchecked.
Against that backdrop of political and religious leaders, many of them corrupt, John the Baptist appears with words of prophetic power. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he cries, quoting from the prophet Isaiah. John and Jesus are both adults at this point, and John’s job is to get people ready for Jesus’ ministry, so it may seem strange that each year we hear from him as we are preparing for the arrival of the baby Jesus. But I appreciate that John shows up in the middle of Advent to keep us from being complacent about what God is up to.
John comes to remind us not to sentimentalize this Savior for whom we wait. It’s easy to do as we sing our Christmas carols and put up decorations. We look at the little baby in our nativity scenes, and it makes us smile because it all looks so sweet. And don’t get me wrong. It’s fine to soak up the spirit of the season. Sing your heart out. Enjoy your Christmas tree. Have some hot chocolate. These are all good things.
And as you do, remember that Jesus is coming to shake things up. The baby will grow up, and he will change everything. The imagery that John gives us today is geological: “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.” But John is talking about more than mountains and valleys. John is telling us that Jesus is coming to level things out. There will no longer be power differences, with some people looking down on others. God’s salvation is for all flesh. All. No one left out.
When John shows up, he also talks about repentance as a crucial part of forgiveness. He calls us to name our sin explicitly, and what sin is more insidious than that which causes us to see some people as less valuable, less important, less worthy than others? I’ve come to believe that this sin is at the root of so many others. When we look down on people from a mountain of our own making, it becomes easier to ignore their suffering – or to be part of what causes that suffering in the first place.
On Tuesday evening – the third night of Hanukkah – I attended a Community Menorah Lighting at Temple Sinai in Summit.[i] This event took on an added significance after swastikas appeared at two local schools. Embracing the theme “No Room for Hate,” community leaders came together to condemn these acts and to call us to stand firm against the prejudice behind them.
My friend and colleague Pastor Gladys Moore from St. John’s Lutheran spoke at the event, and she said: “Tonight, we light this menorah together, because together we stand against hate and all of its evil symbols. We light this candle together, because together we must learn a new way of being the human family, a family that practices justice, loving-kindness and peace — to all people, in all places, for all time. And this requires learning.”
I appreciated Pastor Gladys’ reminder that standing firm against hatred and prejudice requires learning. Perhaps that’s one way to prepare the way in this season of Advent and long after Advent is behind us. We seek to learn about people whose backgrounds are different than our own – learn their stories, learn their histories. We can do this by reading books or by watching movies and TED talks, but we also do it by listening to people who are willing to share their experiences with us. Listening not from a mountain looking down, but from level ground, sitting beside those from whom we are learning.
Let’s not fool ourselves. God does not need the way cleared in order to break into the world. God can arrive anywhere and anytime that God wants to. It won’t be our preparation that somehow permits Jesus to be born or to return. But the preparation is good for us. It helps us focus on the good news that the valleys will be filled and the mountains made low and the rough places made smooth. No more of some people wielding power over others. No more hierarchies that keep some people trampled and others triumphant. In God’s vision of the world all the teams make the championship. All the people are the most intriguing. Everyone makes the “best of” list.
All flesh will see God’s salvation. All flesh.
To prepare the way means we live now as if that were already true – because it is. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ