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Worship this Week
This Sunday’s worship will focus on another story of Jesus calling his disciples to follow him. What might Jesus mean when he says “the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news”? How are we called to share that good news now? Join us to find out. You can find this week’s service here at 10:00: https://youtu.be/cULgrnQuSKU
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I finally got around to putting out my Nativity set this year. As I place each of the characters in the arrangement, I try to think about their role and how they got there . Because, of course, no one in this story knew what they were getting into at first. Each person was given a message about what God asking them to do. Joseph’s comes in a dream. The shepherds get a sky full of angels singing. The wise men (who come later) follow a star.
And then there’s Mary. Today we focus on her story. Her story – or at least the part we hear in the Bible – begins when the angel Gabriel shows up on her doorstep with some startling news. “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus…”
That news was surprising enough. She wasn’t yet married. To be pregnant without being married could get her killed. It would almost certainly make her an object of scorn. If Joseph abandons her, she will be without the protection and provision that marriage offered in the ancient world.
And this baby wouldn’t be just any baby. This baby is the Son of God, the Son of the Most High, the one who will inherit the throne of David.
Usually in the Bible when God asks people to do incredible things, the first thing we hear are a bunch of excuses. Moses says, “Who’s going to believe that I’m a leader? Besides, I don’t do public speaking very well. You’d better pick somebody else.” The prophet Jeremiah says, “I’m just a kid. I’m too young for this.” Jonah is so opposed to going to Nineveh, where God is sending him, that he tries to run away from God by hopping on a boat. And that lands him in the belly of a fish.
Mary simply asks a question: How can this be? A completely valid question, given the circumstances. And upon hearing that nothing is impossible with God, she answers: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Here am I. I’ll do it. Whatever the consequences, I’ll do it.
Mary says yes to this extraordinary plan, which is one of many reasons I get so frustrated when the stereotypes of Mary across the centuries have depicted her as meek and mild, subservient to the point of having no identity of her own. That’s not what I see here. I see a young woman saying yes to the call of God with a courage beyond what most of us possess.
The biblical Mary is not meek or mild. It doesn’t take long for her to find her voice as a prophet. Mary travels to be with her relative Elizabeth, for whom God was also doing some impossible things, and Elizabeth acknowledges Mary’s courage when she says: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Mary responds with the speech that has come to be known as the Magnificat. It’s the longest speech that we hear from any woman in the New Testament. In it Mary speaks of the ways that God has given mercy to God’s people generation after generation. She proclaims how God turns the world upside down, bringing down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. Filling the hungry with good things. Sending the rich away empty.
This speech by Mary has in certain times and places been considered so dangerous that powerful people have forbidden it.[i] When the British ruled India, the Magnificat was prohibited from being sung in churches. During the “Dirty War” in Argentina, when the mothers of disappeared children used the words of the Magnificat on posters throughout the capital, the military banned public displays of the song. The powerful people didn’t want folks to hear that God is always on the side of the oppressed.
Long before Jesus will flip the script in the Beatitudes by saying: Blessed are the poor…Blessed are the hungry…Mary says it first: “God has brought the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.”
One of our choir’s favorite anthems at this time of year is “Mary, Did You Know?” It’s a beautiful piece, but like clockwork, each December there emerges in theological circles a controversy about the lyrics to “Mary, Did You Know?” As you may recall, the song asks Mary questions about whether she knew all that Jesus would grow up to do and to be, as in this opening verse:
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 delivered, will soon deliver you
On one side of the debate people say, “Well, of course she knew. And it’s insulting and condescending to ask Mary these questions as if she had no idea what she was getting into or who Jesus would become. The angel tells her who her child will be. How could she not know?”
And then others will argue that while Mary agrees to be the mother of Jesus, she couldn’t possibly have known all that she would witness in the life of her son – the ways he would walk on water and heal a blind man and die for the sake of the world. Does any mother know at the beginning everything her child will do? No. So the questions in the song seem authentic.
The truth is we don’t know for sure what Mary knew. The biblical account only tells us what she said. She said yes. She said yes, not only to being the mother of Jesus, but also to being a participant in God’s cosmic plan for justice.
God invites us to participate in that story as well. I pray that we, like Mary, will say yes. Yes to the gift of Jesus. Yes to the unexpected places to which God summons us. Yes to lifting up the lowly and feeding the hungry.
I pray that we will not just say yes, but that we will sing it. Trusting that nothing will be impossible with God. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
I’ve been casually following the story of Sarah Fuller for a few weeks now. When COVID sidelined some guys on the special teams roster for the Vanderbilt football team, Sarah was recruited from the school’s women’s soccer team, where as goalie she had led them to a conference championship. Sarah suited up in a football uniform (American football, that is) for the first time back on November 28. She got to kick off for Vanderbilt that day, but they never scored, so she didn’t have chance to put any points on the board.
Yesterday with 1:50 left in the first quarter, she got her chance. Vanderbilt scored a touchdown, and Sarah lined up to kick the extra point. She did it, tying the game at 7-7. Sarah Fuller became the first woman to score in a Power 5 conference football game.
I’m not even kidding when I tell you I teared up with joy as I watched the video of that kick, as I watched the ball sail through the uprights, as I watched her family embrace each other up there in the stands, as I watched Sarah’s teammates celebrate with her. The cynics among you will be quick to remind me that Vanderbilt ended up losing that game to Tennessee 42 to 17. But I don’t care. It brought me joy to see someone do this thing that hadn’t been done before at that level. Maybe 2020 has set the bar for joy really low, but I don’t think that’s it. To watch someone live into her purpose, to embrace her gifts and use those gifts to help a community to which she belongs. That’s joyful.
It’s the third Sunday in Advent, what we sometimes call Joy Sunday. On some Advent wreaths you’ll see that this Sunday’s candle is pink instead of the usual blue or purple. I don’t know why pink is any more joyful than blue or purple, but traditions are weird – and church traditions are often weirder than most.
Today’s second reading opens with two words that this week stopped me in my tracks. Do you remember what they were?
Rejoice always. [Laughter.] Rejoice always.
This reading is from the closing paragraphs of a letter written by the apostle Paul to the church in a place called Thessalonica, a port city on the northern shore of the Aegean Sea. Paul had started the church there with the help of a couple of colleagues, Timothy and Silvanus (Sil–VAY-nus). Timothy had stayed behind to supervise things while Paul and Silvanus traveled onward, and while things were generally going well, people were anxious for Paul to return. Paul writes to encourage them in their faith, especially as they wait for Jesus to return, who by this time had ascended to heaven.
Rejoice always, Paul says. And in December of 2020, it’s that “always” that makes his mandate sound impossible. It’s hard to imagine rejoicing always as we see death tolls rising and white nationalists marching through the streets and lines at food banks growing by the week.
The thing about joy is that we can turn it into a self-help program. Choose joy, we are sometimes told, as if it’s something that can be forced with a positive attitude or the right exercise program. Choose joy, cultivate joy, spark joy. I don’t think it’s that simple. Joy is not something that can be manufactured like a gingerbread house in a Hallmark movie.
Back in the opening of his letter, Paul tells the Thessalonians this: “You became imitators of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.” In spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit. Paul reminds them that joy comes in the midst of difficulty. It is received more than produced. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit.
John the Baptist is back this week, and it’s worth remembering that when John is doing his thing out there in the wilderness, things weren’t easy then either. The Roman government was making life miserable for people, especially those who were the most poor and the most powerless. That’s why we heard John last week call for repentance.
But John the Baptist knows who he is not. He is not a prophet. He is not Elijah. He is not the messiah. He cannot save himself, and he knows the rest of us can’t either.
John is quite clear on who he is. He is a witness. John comes to bear witness to the light, to testify to the light. As I told the kids, John is the one who points to Jesus each and every time. John’s not looking to create a public persona that’s all about himself. He’s not trying to amass Instagram followers. John wants people to get ready for Jesus. To be on the lookout for Jesus. To see Jesus when Jesus shows up. To follow Jesus.
John knows that whatever power he has, whatever voice he can use, whatever light he carries – John knows that those are not a product of his own power. He is a messenger, and he depends on the light that Jesus is bringing into the world. It’s the light of Jesus that breaks through the despair. It’s the light of Jesus that ultimately defeats death.
Just before his death Jesus gives his disciples some final words, and he tells them this:
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love…I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. (John 15:9-11)
Jesus tells us to keep his commandments, the most important of which are to love God and love our neighbor. In that way we abide in him; we remain grounded in his love for us and for all people. And in that abiding love our joy will be complete.
So do the things that bring you joy. Bake those cookies. (Maybe share a few.) Decorate. Talk to a friend. Watch your favorite Christmas movie, whether it’s Love Actually or Diehard.
And as you do, keep praying for others. Keep giving generously to those in need. Keep showing up for those who need you. Keep wearing that mask and taking all the precautions that will protect others.
Hear again what Paul says as he closes that letter to the Thessalonians and know that it is a word for you too: May the God of peace sanctify you entirely [make you holy]; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept soundand blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.The one who calls you is faithful and will do this. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ