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Based on the Scripture readings:
Luke 1:39-55

2009 December 20
Fourth Sunday of Advent
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor


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 do we 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. Back to top 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 Back to top 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 new life.

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.
In you, in me, in all humankind.

Back to topAmen.

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.

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