It was hard to know just what to write for this morning from my
point of view yesterday afternoon. It was hard to know whether to write
for a sanctuary populated by families and children, seniors and
visitors, who came for the fourth and final week of preparation, who
came to see fifty poinsettias and twenty-five candles, who came to sing
Glory to God like angels once upon a time and to hear the promises of
Jesus birth, or whether to prepare for a minyan in the parlor for
those who could walk and those who must walk.* For those who love a
snowstorm and those who love a story. For the noble and the intrepid
and the ornery who will not let a mere ten inches of crystallized water
stand in their way.
So I thought about two different types of sermons, and I thought
about two different types of delivery, and I thought about two different
possibilities and practices.
The reason that I thought about two things is because of one
tendency: I am always cautious about forecasts. I am cautious because
so many of them have been wrong in my experience, so many mistaken, so
many leading to misunderstanding. And let me repeat what I just said
about myself: I am suspicious of forecasts. I hesitate to plan on
anything but a sure thing. I hate to depend on something that might not
be dependable. I don't want a rumor or hyperbole or mis-analyzed
misinterpretation to guide my life.
So where does that leave me on the fourth Sunday of Advent? Right up
against the scriptures.
My planning yesterday afternoon reflected one of the central
challenges of Christianity this morning. When do we trust? When
change our lives based on the forecast? Do we wait until we are twelve
inches under, or six feet under, or even overwhelmed before we take
this God, this Jesus, this Virgin, this birth not
literally but seriously? And then literally live anew?
This morning, this last Sunday before Jesus' traditional birthday,
is still not time for all carols and candy canes. There is still an
enormous amount of anticipatory story to behold. So much that I can
highlight only two points. They are both unique to Luke, although next
year we'll tell the story from Matthew. But here in Luke, the Gospel
makes several unique points that have something to do with a forecast. Not in a superstitious or spooky way. In a divine-promise way. And they
are worth attention.
First, Luke's whole Gospel has three emphases that are unique and
show up in his birth stories, where he lays out his gospel in
miniature. The three emphases are upon the role of women, the role of
the Holy Spirit, and the role of the marginalized or the needy. It
would take a book chapter or more to enumerate all that, but notice
just these few points: in Matthew the words of divine birth are to the
fathers of John and Jesus. In Luke they are to the mothers. Luke goes
on to have prophets like Anna, patronesses like Joanna and Susanna, and
much more so this season as you read Luke notice how he treats the
women. And notice how each time the story changes, each major event in
the story is not just something immediate, as in Mark, but something
touched by the Holy Spirit. Watch for how often that happens. And then
even when Mary sings for joy, every time anything happens, Luke cares
for the marginalized, the poor, the hungry, those of low degree. Watch
for these three emphases, and you come to understand Luke. And God.
Second, Luke is unique in his offering of music. You can call it
psalmody if you like, or as one author does, a series of arias, but
notice how the birth story goes from song to song, poem to poem, from
the Benedictus to the Magnificat to the Nunc Dimiitis to the Chorus of
Angles singing "Glory to God in the highest." Luke's Gospel sings.
And today we hear one song: "My soul magnifies the Lordů" And in
that song, forecast, trust, promise, Holy Spirit, and God's nature all
come together like a sermon upon a sermon that you can read at home; indeed
you may already have much of it memorized.
Mary sings her trust for God's forecast. And she does something very
tricky for such a popular song. She combines social justice with
worship with praise with personal experience with love with hope.
You know all the bits about scattering the proud, and you know about
the reversal of fortunes where the rich and the mighty lose power, and
the poor and shy and exiled finally find peace and fullness and joy.
But notice, too, that in this song Mary gives voice to two amazing
assertions: Mary puts all the forecasts of justice, all the
enumerations of God's promises in the past tense. God has done this,
she sings. She is so sure of what is coming that she asserts it as
though it has already happened. And, second, notice how she says God is
doing a new thing. All the old promises have come to be, and God is
doing a new thing. That second bit can be subtler to see, but here is
why it is so certain to Luke:
Luke copied the song of Hannah from First Samuel for Mary to sing.
And he copied the Biblical story of unlikely mothers giving birth to
divinely chosen sons. With one huge, huge twist. Luke writes a story
like the story of Sarah and Rebekah and the mother of Samson. He writes
about older women, barren women giving birth to reveal the power of
God's promise of divine presence. But Luke does that bit when he writes
the story of Elizabeth, the old woman who still has pleasure. The he
smashes the biblical model, he reverses the biblical model with Mary.
This is not another story like the others of the miracle of God's power for the
unlikely. Mary is the opposite of old. She is, as
translated, a young woman, a virgin, and no: all scholars do not think
this is clearly an invocation of Isaiah and his prophecy. It is not
about Mary being a virgin. It is about her being young, the opposite of
old, so the forecast goes: with Elizabeth giving birth to John we see
the climax of all the ancient promises. With Elizabeth we see that God
can still do what has been done of old. With Mary, with Jesus, with
these women and the Holy Spirit and all the arias God is absolutely,
positively, completely, unmistakably doing a new thing. If we don't get
it, we don't get it, but it is right there in front of us.
But I have trouble trusting forecasts. I don't want to change my
life until I am certain. I don't want to bank on a mistake. So I wasn't
sure what to do yesterday afternoon. But I chose to trust the forecasts
and to assume that it would be a minyan. I chose to believe. I chose to
believe that God is doing a new thing so trustworthy that if we want,
we can sing about it in the past tense, too. So trustworthy we can
change our lives. So vulnerable that Herod will almost certainly try to
kill it. So mysterious that our best efforts will almost inevitably
under-understand it. So important that a world in need will absolutely
yearn for it. So close that we can
almost see it, like crystallized water and the Holy Spirit, bringing us
This is a song, a poem, from Howard Thurman, offering a forecast.
Christmas is Waiting to Be Born
By Howard Thurman
Where the refugees seek deliverance that never comes,
And the heart consumes itself, if it would live,
Where little children age before their time,
And life wears down the edges of the mind,
Where the old man sits with mind grown cold,
While bones and sinew, blood and cell, go slowly down to death,
Where fear companions each day's life,
And Perfect Love seems long delayed.
CHRISTMAS IS WAITING TO BE BORN:
In you, in me, in all humankind.
Ideas for a portion of this sermon are based on work by Marcus Bog and
Dom Crossan in The First Christmas, What the Gospels really Teach
about Jesus' Birth.
*Web note: as this sermon was being written on Saturday, there was a
snowstorm arriving to start at midnight. The storm ended up delivering about 12 inches of snow in Newton
Highlands, and the worship service was held in the parlor with less
than half normal attendance.
Copyright © 2009 Kenneth F. Baily. Used by permission.