Sermon for Advent 4, 2020
Blessings and joy and exultation. Such celebratory emotions have felt mostly absent this December with the possible exception of the approval of the two coronavirus vaccines.
The Gospel speaks of the time that Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Both women were pregnant, and we’re told that when Elizabeth heard the sound of Mary’s voice she said, “The child in my womb leaped for joy.” And shortly after that Mary broke out in song, singing the Magnificat:
“My soul doth magnify the Lord, And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.”
The news of the day, whatever it might have been, would probably have not been encouraging about a hopeful and joyful world. But here we discover joy and rejoicing nonetheless, despite the darkness of the world around.
A key to understanding Elizabeth and Mary’s joy is embedded in the Magnificat in the line, “He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.” The more contemporary translation is, “He has scattered the proud in their conceit.” And while that may be true, the problem as stated in the older version is with our imaginations. As we look around at the darkness and the anxieties with which we live, can we imagine a different world, a better way—more meaningful and compassionate? So Mary sings her heart out, imagining all sorts of reversals of power and wealth and help for the hungry and lowly when God reigns.
Some years ago a professor told me, When it comes to preaching at Christmas time, don’t try too hard to explain it. Tell the story. Sing the carols. Let the poetry of the season carry the message.
Writer and researcher Diana Butler Bass tells the story of her friend, theologian Phyllis Tickle, who was lecturing in the Episcopal Cathedral in Atlanta. During a question-and-answer period, a person asked, “Do you believe in the Virgin Birth?” Immediately, another person jumped up and proclaimed, “Of course, the Virgin Birth is true! If it’s not, then how can we believe any of the rest of the Gospels?” And then a shouting match broke out with people loudly arguing various positions.
Later on, after calm was restored and the session was over, Tickle was approached by a teenager who’d witnessed the whole spectacle. He asked, “What was that about, all those adults arguing about the Virgin Birth?” Before she tried to explain, Phyllis Tickle asked the young man what he thought. And he replied, “The Virgin Birth has to be true, because it’s so beautiful — whether it ever happened or not.”
“Sing Out My Soul” – based on Magnificat by Janet Morley
Sing out my soul,
sing of the holiness of God:
who has delighted in a woman,
lifted up the poor,
satisfied the hungry,
given voice to the silent,
grounded the oppressor,
blessed the full-bellied with emptiness,
and with the gift of tears
those who have never wept;
who has desired the darkness of the womb,
and inhabited our flesh.
Sing of the longing of God,
sing out, my soul.
One of my favorite philosophers is Arlo Guthrie who said, “You can’t have a light without a dark to put it in.”
Diwali in November – Hindu Festival of Lights
Just concluded Hanuhukkah – the Jewish Festival of Lights
Skandinavia – Dec. 13, Santa Lucia, Teenage girls wear crowns of candles in their Hair
Chinese New Year will be observed with lots of fireworks.
We’ve been lighting our Advent Candles—adding an additional candle weekly—increasing the light.
Here in the shortest days (at least in the Northern Hemisphere), the darkest days of the year we Christians celebrate the birth of one who is the Light of the World. We decorate our homes and trees and communities with lights. And then after twelve days we observe the Feast of Epiphany with the wisemen following the bright light of a star.
The author of the Fourth Gospel does not have a birth story as such. But here’s how St. John spoke about Christmas.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Joy to the World! Sing of the longing of God, sing out, my soul.