A Light Still Shines: For the Lowly and the Hungry

Scripture: Luke 1:46-55

Given on the third Sunday of Advent, 2017 at FPC of Anniston, AL

Last night, arguably, my favorite artist in the world was, as the crow flies, no more than a mile from my house. Last night, at the most excellent Knox Concert Series, Alabama singer-songwriter Jason Isbell was playing at the Anniston Performing Arts Center. I found out about that this was happening about 5 months ago when I was having lunch with Suzen Robertson and to hear her tell it, I looked like a kid running down the stairs on Christmas morning to find out that once again Santa had come and brought all the presents that I could ever need or want. I came back from that lunch and immediately began trying to secure tickets for this sold out show. I asked our intrepid church secretary, Dee, if I could have her tickets because surely she wouldn’t enjoy this nearly as much as I would. I would need a babysitter because my wife and I were going to paint the town red. I was all ready to go. And last night, Jason Isbell was a mile from my house. And I was in Birmingham… As some of y’all know, Jameson has been dancing since he was 4. It started off with a boys hip hop class where he really caught the bug. It soon expanded to jazz, then tap, and finally landed this year on ballet. And he took so much to ballet that when the Alabama Youth Ballet Company casted for their performance of “The Nutcracker” in Birmingham, he tried out and was cast as Fritz, the brother of the lead role, Clara. In fact, as the performance began last night, it was he and Clara who were on the stage before anyone else. For the first few minutes of the ballet, the spotlight was literally on Jameson. And I have to tell you, that for much of the drive up to Birmingham last night I felt a range of emotions from nervous to see Jameson perform, that seems a reasonable response, to pretty bummed that the calendar dates had worked out this way and this other thing that I really wanted to do also was happening so close to where I live and I was certainly carrying most of that with me when I sat down to watch the performance and then it happened. Watching Jameson up on stage, dancing from one side to the other. Watching as he and Clara pushed each other away from the door as they tried to catch a glimpse of the holiday party that they were waiting to be invited into. Watching as he snatched the Nutcracker from the hands of Clara and stomped on it, breaking it. Watching him just be in his element, on stage, with no perceivable nerves of any kind, just dancing and being alive and being free. I felt, emerge from the deepest part of my soul, what can only be described as joy. Not something fleeting like happiness. Something that arises and burns white hot, like seeing a concert until late in the evening, but then quickly becomes dampened, knowing that tomorrow life returns to normal and you have to get up in the morning and preach. But rather, joy, something that feels foundational—something that makes you feel like you can see the whole of the inner workings of the universe unfolding before you, and all of the God’s mysteries being revealed in a singular moment of watching the baby that was created out of the love shared between his mother and I and the spark of the divine given by God, growing up before my eyes and become a young man, on a stage, in front of hundreds of people. In that moment, in the midst of all of the muck and mire of life, in the midst of temporal sadness, of all that is wrong with the world, of all the work that is yet to be done to bring about greater hope, and peace, and love for all the children of God. In that moment, what I discovered was that at the base of all creation, no matter what is broken and sinful and utterly messed up about the planet, it is, at its base profoundly right. It is a world filled with opportunities to share in love with one another, to share in the love that was birthed at the beginning of time, to share in the love that was birthed in a manger in Bethlehem, to share in a love that birthed in a labor and delivery room in Richmond, VA 10 and a half years ago. To experience joy, real and untouchable joy. And I wept. Like a baby, I wept. And all I could think was, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

In our scripture for this morning, we are given a glimpse into the world of Mary as she visits her cousin Elizabeth who is also with child. We are told that Mary, soon after discovering that she would be bringing the child of God into the world went “with haste” to the house of her cousin. And you have to wonder if this really fit into the calendar that she had set for her life. She was in the process of planning a wedding celebration, a huge affair even in the poorer classes of Hebrew society. She was in the process of considering what a life with her betrothed would look like. She was on the precipice of adulthood when this curious angel with an even more curious message came to her and rocked her little world, her perfect world, as if the angel had seen the house of cards that she was building for herself and swooped in to knock it over, saying only, it’s time to pick them up and start again. We can only imagine what an earthquake this must have been to her, what a tsunami of chaos it is to go from being just a singular person to discovering that there is another soul, another spirit, another body growing inside of you. Anyone who is a parent knows of the Rubicon that is crossed when you first hear the word that you are going to be going from a non-parent to a parent. When we found out that we were having Jameson we were two doctoral students with only graduate assistant positions between us to support our families. We had no idea how we were going to take care of all the needs of a baby. Babies are joyous events, that call for glad tidings of great joy and yet they are also life-altering in a way that is permanent. And for Mary, this news must have come with its own set of complications in her life. We are told that she is confused because she knows how babies are made just as much as she knows that she has never experienced the physical intimacy that comes with being in love. Would this news cancel all the plans that she had made? As he belly extended well past its normal bounds, would she be seen in town as the disgraced harlot who brought shame to her parents? Would she be cast out to live with her child on the streets, left only to beg for other people’s kindness to feed her little one? Do you imagine all this is swirling in her head as she decides to get out of town and her for her cousin Elizabeth’s house. If, maybe, this was her respite from the storm, if this was the one place that she wouldn’t have to answer questions about her ever growing belly, where there wouldn’t be the constant whispers that would follow her everywhere. “That’s Mary, did you hear about her?” “I did, such a pity. I wonder what her mother must think of her.” You have to wonder if this was where she could be herself, where she could take a load off. We can understand that, can’t we? We can understand needing somewhere to go to where we can be ourselves, where no one will judge us, no one will expect us to be perfect, expect us to be anything but present. Where we are wrapped in the love of family. And so Mary gets there as quickly as she can.  And upon getting there, she is welcomed as only family can welcome you after you have been gone for a long time. We are told that upon seeing her, Elizabeth becomes filled with the Holy Spirit, til she cannot contain herself any longer. “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Ah, relief. Acceptance. Finally. You have to know that Mary needed to hear that. That Mary needed to be where someone else got what she was going through, where someone understood. Because, let’s be honest. If someone were to come to you today and tell you that they became pregnant by the Holy Spirit, you would either think they were trying to hide something or that they weren’t completely stable, or both. But here, Mary didn’t have to worry about that. Here Mary knew that she was safe and understood. And Mary can’t contain her joy, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” Joy, pure joy. joy that almost can’t be contained in words. Joy that extends beyond the confines of the house of Zechariah. Joy that extends beyond the confines of the broken world in which she finds herself. Joy that gives her eyes to see and ears to hear and a mind to know the will of God. At that moment, she sees, maybe for the first time, the whole picture. She sees, maybe for the first time, the movement of God throughout all history. Offering mercy from generation to generation, scattering the proud, and taking the powerful out of their thrones, and lifting up the lowly. Feeding those who hunger and sending the rich away with nothing. From the beginning to the end, God is in control and we have nothing to fear. We have nothing to fear. Nothing in this life can thwart the path that the Spirit chooses to take and in that she has joy, we have joy, the whole world may have joy. She sees it and she can hardly contain it.

Over the last week it has seemed as if the biggest struggles that humanity has with itself certainly that we have in our own country, have been put on full display once again. As the drumbeats of war in Southeast Asia grow louder and more incessant. As we are reminded that 5 years ago, in a school in Connecticut any innocence we had left as a nation was shattered. As we are aware that outside the enclave that we so often create for ourselves, we know that there are those who are hungry, naked, addicted, homeless, alone. Because even if our own little world is perfect, even if we have made plans to gather with all our loved ones in one place, we know that for many, this holiday season will not be “the most wonderful time of the year.” For many, the holidays are a time of what has already happened and those who are not gathered around the tree and it would be wrong to simply presume that everyone is happy. And so, when the state of our times begins to wear too much on me and I begin to feel incapable of the joy and elation that Mary experience, I, like her, turn to my family. To the wonder and spark that dances in the eyes of my children and I am transfixed by the way in which Seamus is transfixed by the Christmas lights around the tree and the star shower light show that covers the front of the manse. I am emboldened in my own joy by watching the way in which Jameson bounds out of his room each morning to ask what day it is and how many days are left until Christmas. I am excited to think about how I am going to balance both ever growing boys on my lap as we have the traditional reading of ’Twas The Night Before Christmas before sending them off to be for visions of sugar plums and the sounds of prancing and pawing of each little hoof. Because for them, for most children, Christmas is still a magical time of year with presents and tensile and egg nog, and I wish I loved anything as much as my boys love egg nog, and carols and cookies and Santa and Rudolph and it still has the power to transport them to other realms and land with sugarplum fairies and all the hot chocolate you can drink. And maybe we should let the kids take us there with them. Because in a world of violence and hatred, a world of hunger and struggle, a world of skepticism and doubt, there is a magical nature to the way in which we conceive of the holidays too. The Bible tells us of light shining in darkness, of the year of God’s favor, of a baby, in a manger, the vessel of God, slipping in to creation, in a town considered the lowliest of towns, in a trough for horses and pigs, to a poor, single, Jewish mother, who, when touched by the holy spirit could not contain her joy, could not contain her hope, could not contain her faith.

The troubles of today are enough for today. Doubt and skepticism are for those weathered by the strain of time and awareness of all the brokenness of the world, but for this one time of year, for this one infinitesimal moment in our overall life, children dancing, Mary, a baby in a manger, call us to experience joy and experience it in abundance. May we take our place with the multitude of the heavenly hosts as they declared with one voice, Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, Amen.

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