4th Sunday of Advent
Luke 1:39-55 (Psalmody and Gospel Text)
Sunday, December 20, 2009
Day after 17" snowfall in DC area – 7th largest recorded storm of all time
Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, and who was, and who is to come. Amen.
John the Baptist gets all the credit for being the pre-Jesus weirdo –
the wild honey and bug-eating, camel's hair-wearing, repentance-preaching
prophet who stood in the wilderness, at the margins of civilized society,
simultaneously causing and announcing a ruckus.
He called out the Pharisees and Sadducees,
questioning the legitimacy of their religious claims,
and he called out Herod,
the client of Roman occupation who ruled over the Galilee and part of the Jordan River Valley,
as immoral and unfit.
In the film adaptation of Godspell, he is the prophet singing in a Central Park Fountain,
dressed in an odd Sargent Pepper's costume,
joyously baptizing people with water in anticipation of the savior to come.
In the Spark Story Bible, which many of our families here at Resurrection use,
John the Baptist is pictured as a big, hairy man wearing rough clothing
with a wide-open mouth, about to devour a terrified looking bug.
This is our image of John. The weirdo. The luny.
The one who wakes a sleeping world,
shouting "get up and get ready … repent … he's coming!"
Well, he certainly gets our attention. He knows how to cause a ruckus.
But he also announces a ruckus, too.
This Lord whom he announces is one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire,
one who will bear a winnowing fork separate wheat and chaff,
wheat for the granary, chaff for the unquenchable fire.
Borrowing some words from the prophet Isaiah,
he talks of valleys being fills and mountains laid low
in preparation for the coming of the Lord.
John certainly caused a ruckus, and he announced a ruckus,
and in both his causing and his announcing he irritated religious and civil leaders alike,
drawing a crowd from cities and towns to the wilderness,
the faithful and the curious and everyone in between came to him …
and he essentially tells them, "You think this is impressive? Well, you ain't seen nothing yet."
Mary, on the other hand,
is portrayed is a very different light.
The Gospel writers don't comment on her clothing
or on any interactions she may have had with religious or civil authorities.
Instead, most of what we do know about Mary
comes from her cousin, Elizabeth, the angel Gabriel, or from Mary herself.
The angel Gabriel calls her a "favored one" who has "found favor with God."
Elizabeth greets her, saying,
"Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb."
Elizabeth continues to praise Mary for her faith,
initiating a trend that would continue to this day.
Mary herself, in today's psalmody from Luke 1, speaks of her lowliness,
and says that all generations will call her blessed.
I haven't seen all the films about the life of Jesus –
wouldn't that make for an interesting Lenten or summer fellowship group,
watching all the big films about the life of Jesus? –
but what I have seen in film and painting and, especially,
in popular statuary in churches and on the lawns of my childhood catholic neighbors,
is a figure quite modest and attentive to God's call,
as if a quiet and humble doer of God's will.
Truly, for good reason Mary has become a model of one who answers God's call,
an example of the Godly life.
But this almost nun-like, calm and serene image of Mary
belies the quite radical and tumultuous words she offers in her song of praise.
She may not have caused a ruckus like John the Baptist, but she certainly announced one.
For we expect words like "brood of vipers" to come from John's mouth –
he eats bugs and wears odd clothes, after all –
but do we expect words of regime change and income redistribution
from the meek and mild Mary?
Well, that's what we get, and more, in the very familiar words of the Magnificat.
She begins by remarking that God has looked with favor on her,
a lowly woman.
Commonly interpreted as referring to her personal and spiritual humility,
her "lowliness" can also be read to refer to her lower social stature,
a lowliness that contrasts with the "great things"that the Mighty One has done for her.
And this paradox of the great intervening with the low plays out throughout this song,
as she sings of God scattering the proud, bringing down the powerful,
and sending away the rich empty …
all people once in positions of power, strength or might
being sent to the other end of the spectrum.
On the flip side, the Mighty One, as Mary calls God,
lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things …
and in so doing radically reorders society according to God's mercy,
first revealed in the promises made to Abraham and his descendents.
Sweet little Mary, we never knew you had it in you.
The funny thing is that if people from another religion gathered for worship on a Sunday morning
or a Friday afternoon or a Friday evening, for example,
and read such things,
our society would probably brand them as radicals and get worried about extremism,
send people to investigate, interview experts on cable television shows, and so forth.
But it's Mary, it's the Magnificat,
it's the quaint little nativity scene we have on our mantle,
on Christmas cards, or buried underneath two feet of snow.
Sigh. Nothing is harmless about the Gospel.
A professor once told a roomful of new seminarians – myself included –
that if we all really followed Jesus we would end up where he did – dead on a cross.
Provocative, perhaps, but there's some truth to the statement.
You see, most of us don't end up on a cross
precisely because our culture has managed to domesticate the Gospel,
to smooth over its rough edges,
to turn the Gospel into harmless cliches and literary images
rather than the story of death and life that it really is.
And I think that is sad.
Because in the real word most people are dealing with death, in one form or another.
Death of hopes and dreams in a failing economy.
Death of love and security when relationships crumble.
Death of flesh and blood family and friends in everyday life.
Death of opportunity in the suffering of racism, poverty, malnutrition.
The death of dignity as old age becomes longer, lonelier, and costlier.
We deal with death every day … yet all too often we fail to face this death honestly,
either in the world or here in the church.
And that is just sad,
because in the church we have this wonderful story of death and life called the Gospel,
a story that we're beginning to unfold at the start of our new church year,
a story that kicks off with a weirdo preacher and an unwed young mother,
an unlikely duo letting the world know that things are going to change,
that God is causing a ruckus,
the kind of ruckus wherein mercy and grace reign and sin is trampled under foot,
a ruckus that turns things upside down,
a world-changing ruckus wherein death is not the end of the story but the beginning,
divisions, inequalities, despair is no more.
It's the ruckus that is caused when the junk of our daily lives meets the love of God on the cross,
dies with that God,
and raises to a glorious new life,
renewed, remade, together with a new creation,
a kingdom to come, a life everlasting.
This is what we're about, dear friends, this is what God is about – a holy ruckus.
This is the good news of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,
hope for a world that knows death and needs life,
a ruckus for a world that needs a little shaking up.