Sermon: “My Soul Rejoices”

December 11, 2016: Third Sunday of Advent

Luke 1:46-55

I may have mentioned a couple weeks ago that I’m not always ready for Christmas. I may have mentioned it. Another way to say it would be that the fact I’m not always ready for Christmas was the central point of my sermon. Or, as I say, I may have mentioned it.

Today, on the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, which is Latin for Joy, I’ll confess that I often find grasping the joy of Christmas to be a strain. I can be something of an Ebenezer Scrooge – not in selfishness or meanness, I hope, but in a loss of faith in the outward forms of the season. The presents and trees and stockings and snow – or fake snow – don’t always make the holiday into a holy day for me, at least not without effort.

Part of that effort, incidentally, means watching two or three different film versions of “A Christmas Carol” each year, plus the Grinch. I can’t watch the Grinch without a tear in my eye.

I also find comfort each year in the Gospels. Yes, the Bible can be good for you (you heard it here first, folks). I take comfort in their accounts of Jesus’ birth and its diluted joys. The angels’ song, however glorious, is heard only by a small group of shepherds. The wondrous gift is given in a stable, not in human habitation. The magi’s visit rouses the paranoia of King Herod, and the riches of gold, frankincense, and myrrh disappear as they fund the Holy Family’s flight to safety in Egypt.

Yes, the Holy Family were refugees, running from war and violence.

Even here, in this song of abundant joy we call the Magnificat, and which I love so much that we’ve now heard it twice in this service and we’ve sung it together once, there’s no direct mention of the child Mary is carrying. She made her song as a variation on an ancient theme of the people of Israel: praising God for righteousness, mercy, strength, justice, faithfulness, and grace. These are all things that God has done in the past. The song doesn’t show awareness of what God will do in Jesus (fair enough, since he hadn’t been born yet), and it doesn’t even mention that a child is coming. It echoes similar songs of joy in the Old Testament, which celebrate particular good news with a more general description of God’s mercy.

I note as well the occasion which prompts Mary’s song of joy. It isn’t her encounter with the angel. When Gabriel tells her that she will be the mother of the Messiah, of the Son of God, her response is, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” That’s a very positive answer, but it isn’t a song of joy. It’s not this Magnificat.

Mary, who may have found her home life somewhat stressful after announcing her pregnancy, has gone to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is also expecting despite years of being barren. Elizabeth greets Mary with words of love and affirmation, celebrating Mary’s pregnancy as much as her own. Judith Jones puts it this way:

“Elizabeth continues the pattern of social reversal by opening her arms and her home to a relative whom her neighbors would expect her to reject. Instead of shaming Mary, she welcomes, blesses, and celebrates her, treating her as more honorable than herself. Thus the pregnancy that might have brought Mary shame brings joy and honor instead.”

Mary had received a great thing: the visit of an angel, the promise of a savior. That great thing, however, remained a seed of joy within her until someone she loved nourished that seed with gracious words. Suddenly it sprouted and blossomed into this song of joy: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

Elizabeth nourished the seeds of Mary’s joy.

That’s something we can all do. We can all nourish the seeds of another’s joy.

Despite my Scrooge or Grinch-like cynicism, we can nourish the seeds of another’s joy through the customs of the season. Through the Christmas carols we’ll sing this afternoon. Through holiday baking and candy-making, and sharing their delicious results. Through the decorating and the tree-trimming. Through playing with the children and the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren and the nephews and the nieces and all – educating them in joy.

As Quinn Caldwell writes, “They that put themselves through the work of such rituals do it for one reason: delight. They do it so that the children, or so that they themselves, will experience a taste, just a taste, of the delight that Christmas promises and portends. They do it so that they, or their children, will get good at recognizing joy when it arrives, so that they have some practice under their belts at recognizing the good and the beautiful when it shows up in their lives. We do it to call that goodness into being.”

We also do it because the world needs reversing. As Isaiah last week, so Mary this week: both prophets testify to a God who overturns the evil and the greed of the world we know. Let it be overturned!

In the ten days after the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks the activities of hate groups in America, recorded 867 incidents in the United States, ranging from shouts of “Build a wall” hurled at Hispanic students in a school lunchroom to outright threats of violence. The incidents did decline in frequency over those ten days, and I’m pleased to say that not a single one was reported from Hawai’i. I’m afraid, however, that they have not ended, and as well as visible expressions of outright bigotry we face increased attachment to less conscious forms of privilege based on race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, and wealth.

Karoline Lewis writes: “There are many ways that we might respond to religious rejection, prejudice, fanaticism, narrowness, and bigotry. There are many principles, many mantras, many bible verses that would suffice to articulate God’s ways when the ways of the world seem to have taken over. But this week… What difference would it make if our starting point were mercy? If we sang Mary’s song?”

If we extended the mercy of God to each other – if we lit for one another the candles of delight – if we smothered the fires of hatred when we encounter them – if we affirmed the worth of the most despised people when others cast them down – if we proclaimed the justice of God against the powerful and the mercy of God for those shorn of power…

Well. What a difference that could make.

We can water the seeds of joy. We can nourish them. We can see them bloom in others and ourselves. We can breathe out together the words of Mary: “My soul rejoices.”

I’ll give the last word to Mister Dickens:

“Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms.  His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

“He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.  May that be truly said of us, and all of us!  And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , , , | Posted on December 11, 2016

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