Hancock Church Sermon
Rev. Paul Shupe
December 23, 2012
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Now Mary, having received the promises of the angels, and having the Good News confirmed by the witness of her cousin Elizabeth, overcomes any doubts or wonderings and bursts into song, praising God, rejoicing in what God is doing in and through her.
And Mary said, ‘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. 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.’
“A Song of Christmas Present”
It is almost finished now; all our Advent watching and waiting nears its fulfillment. In just a few hours more than a day, we’ll gather here in our sanctuary for the first of three worship services on Christmas Eve, each a celebration of the great love story that is the birth of Jesus. Meanwhile in our homes and families, preparations no less feverish have been going on, and all is just about ready. Trees are trimmed, halls are decked, presents are wrapped, cookies baked. Some of us do not have children, but there is something about Christmas that reminds us that we are somebody’s children, and we look forward eagerly to reunion with parents and grandparents. In some of our homes, our little children have finished school now, and in their excitement they are everywhere at once, underfoot and in the way and thank God for that! Those of us with graying temples and wrinkles we can no longer quite hide, also wait for our children, adults themselves now, to make their way to us by planes, trains and automobiles; we gussy up their old rooms and make their favorites and generally get lost in the memories of Christmas past. And some still older, quite content now to let the next generation do the fussing, wait with eagerness for the unmitigated blessing of our grandchildren, whom we can love completely without the responsibilities of parenting them.
It is almost finished now, our Advent watching and waiting. The candles in our wreaths are all glowing now, hope and peace and joy and today, love. The carols surround us, but if you’re like me, the lesser, secular ones fade now, Jingle Bells and Deck the Halls and Rudolph have been joyfully sung, but enough times now, and are no longer what we long to hear just now. We’re hungry for the deeper ones, the holy ones, the ones that point beyond themselves to the stable in the little town of Bethlehem, to the word of hope spoken in the midnight clear, the blessings of that silent, holy night. Our watching, our waiting, is almost over, and the great familiar and beloved traditions pick us up and carry us along.
Unless, that is, we turn on our televisions, to see again the faces from Connecticut. The shock and horror of last week has given way now, to the hard and wrenching work of grief as families say good byes to children and loved ones who will not be at the table this or any other year, except in memory. Shock and horror are entirely out of place in this season, but so also, it seems, are grief and loss; the pictures of tears and memorials on our glowing screens seem to overpower the faint light of the Advent candles. What match are the faint lights of these gifts in a world of overpowering darkness? All it takes is a picture, a face, a thought about another, and suddenly we are lost again, the darkness apparently triumphant.
But listen! For off in the distance, we have heard a woman singing. It is Mary, the mother of Jesus, singing the very first Christmas carol. Her tune is lost to us, though many have dared to write one for her. Her face is hard for us to see as it actually might have been, because so many artists have stylized her, idealized her, haloed her out of her ordinary humanity. But her words? Her words still ring loud and clear. ”My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sang, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. Keenly aware of the new life now within her, and trusting wholly that this means new life for any and for all, she rejoices. “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;” and that’s nothing more than a statement of fact, but even so, her song is not about her. The wonder, she knows, is not that she was so good or so wise or so special that she was able to accomplish great things. No, the wonder is that God, the Mighty One, is still God, and that God’s mercy is poured out fore everyone, in every generation, in hers, and ours. “God 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. The powerful are dethroned? What can she mean? Does she sing of Herod, the hated king of the Jews, slippery with guilt in his lust for wealth and power? His kingdom has a while yet to run. Does she sing of Caesar in Rome, with his ruthless legions and his empire built upon the order of oppression? In time, Caesar will embrace Mary’s child, but until then, blood will flow and death will follow. The powerful dethroned? What can Mary’s carol mean?
Just this, I think: that this present darkness, filled as it is with grief and loss, with confusion and despair, is not final, will not last, cannot end. For God is the source of hope, and hope is a well so deep that the dry desert of despair cannot stop its flow. And God is the creator of peace, a peace so profound that it is quite beyond all human understanding, so powerful that is the home from which we have come, and to which we will return. And God is the fountain of joy, the profound joy that is best discovered in acts of kindness done, and moments of caring extend to another who is in need, and in a lament shared or an injustice denounced. This is why Mary sang, for she had seen these things, these gifts, she knew them intimately: they were literally growing inside her. And so she sang: because into the darkness, God’s light was shining.
Mary’s carol, and all the others, name Christmas past. She declares that God has come, that God has been faithful with all who have gone before, merciful and kind. Mary’s carol, and all the others, name Christmas future, she gives voice to the prophet’s promise that the day is coming when God’s will will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, with violence and despair and even death itself banished, with God wiping every tear from our eyes. But most of all, Mary’s carol, and all the others, speak of Christmas present. She boldly declares, in the courts of Herod and Caesar, in the presence of doubt and despair, in the very face of death that God still reigns, that there is nothing that happens in this world that can separate us from the love of God.
On this last day of our watching and waiting, of our planning and preparing, may we listen in faith to Mary’s great carol, and know that the answer to the awful pain that we have seen and heard is found in the great consolation of love. May the light of this final candle in our wreath become the very assurance of God’s promises. May we find, as we turn our faces to those whom we love, that the face of God is found there. And then, having discerned anew that the face of God is the face of love, may we turn to those in need, those who grieve, those who are in despair, and offer to them our compassion, our presence, our love. Mary’s carol, and all the others, the witness of history and of story, our own experience on Christmas morning all affirm the great truth: God is love, and love never ends. Our watching and waiting is nearing its end. It is time to sing the songs of Christmas present, of God become Immanuel, God with us. Amen.