December 11, 2022
Rev. Scott Landis
My heart sings out in joyful praise to God who raises me,
Who came to me when I was low and changed my destiny.
The Holy One, the Living God, is always full of grace
To those who seek their Maker’s will in every time and place.
Those beautiful words we sang just moments ago express a feeling of deep JOY as experienced by Mary – who would become the mother of Jesus in just a few months. You may wonder and rightfully question – how could she be so joyful? Here was a young girl, recently visited by an angel, informed that she would become Theotokos “The Mother of God,” and not yet married – nor betrothed at this point.
Common sense would suggest that she would be running not to her cousin Elizabeth to celebrate – but into the hills – far from anyone who might discover she was pregnant out of wedlock – a sin punishable by death – or certainly complete ostracism.
My guess is that the writer of Luke’s gospel is not giving us the full picture – but an important perspective, nonetheless. Surely Mary had gotten caught up in all the excitement she had experienced in the last several days and weeks. She had embraced the fact that she was chosen for this special mission. Reassured “to fear not,” she began to realize that “Emmanuel” God WAS with her – and IN her. AND that God had given her more than the “fruit of her womb” to share – God had also given her a voice – a pulpit (as it were) to speak a message of big changes that were about to occur. Imagine – a woman preaching in that day.
Do you know, there are STILL churches who hold on to that restriction – not allowing women to preach – based on their interpretation of a few bible verses?
Even though I was reared in the United Church of Christ, my childhood congregation was quite conservative and took those verses very literally. Not only could women not be preachers – neither could they serve on Church Council (we called it the “Consistory) or hold any office in the church. Oh, they could be Sunday school teachers, and youth leaders, and missionaries, but preach – NO WAY!
I took that understanding with me to seminary where much to my surprise at least a third of my classmates were women. I had more to learn than theology.
I will never forget my first homiletics (preaching) class. We were taught the basics of biblical interpretation, oral interpretation, and how NOT to include everything we knew into our initial sermons. And then we had to “practice preach” in the chapel, with only our classmates and professor sitting there licking their chops eager to critique our efforts. Just a tad intimidating.
One of my UCC colleagues, Sue Bertolette, rose to the pulpit. I was nervous for her. She stood about 5’2, had a soft, feminine voice, a pleasant smile to be sure – but what was she doing behind the pulpit I wondered skeptically. Their gonna crucify her, I thought. Then she spoke.
I have no recollection what Sue said that day - what Bible passage she chose - or what topic she spoke about. I only know that shortly after she began to preach – I wept. Holy, grounded, confident, humble, and with a HUGE pastoral heart – Sue broke open the Word of God to me that day in ways I had never experienced before. She spoke to my heart, and I realized how wrong my childhood church was – and how unfounded my understanding was about who God might call to preach.
Like I said, I had much more to learn in seminary than theology. I had to learn what it meant to be authentic – and to speak from my heart, my “true self.” I had to learn that it is not enough to speak about God, or to speak FOR God. I had to learn just how vital it was to speak FROM God because I KNEW God – the Emmanuel – the God who was with me and within me. A reality that was not determined by gender.
It’s why I refer to the Magnificat of Mary as her SERMON. She preached from that place. She KNEW the God who had given her life. The God who guided her path. The God who promised to walk with her on this strange yet joyful journey. The God who would come to live in her as she gave hope, peace, love, JOY to the world.
But I have a hunch when Mary preached, she also had the foreboding sense that “JOY” is not the same as “happiness.” That “joy” is much deeper and encompasses much more than our circumstances. [Pause]
You may remember the subsequent story shortly after the birth of Jesus. Mary and Joseph take him to the temple to be blessed by the priest. Simeon greeted them and held the baby in his arms and offered his blessing of sheer delight – but it came with a sobering dose of reality. A prophecy of sorts. His words:
“Master, let now your servant depart in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, Which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.
A lovely blessing, right? But there’s more. Simeon continued with news, I believe, that did not surprise Mary one bit.
“This child,” he said, “is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, And to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.
(And then speaking directly to Mary)
“And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
When the angel Gabriel came to Mary and announced the “good news of great joy” and later when Mary “pondered all these things in her heart.” Well, I think, you get the picture. Joy can be multi-faceted and quite complicated. [Pause]
The third Sunday of Advent – the Sunday of Hau’oli or Joy – for many is a mixed bag and I want to acknowledge that this morning.
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” the song reminds us. And if you are singing that song in your head right now – good for you. But for more than a few it can be one of the most painful and difficult seasons to get through.
The parties, the lights, the Music, the Christmas specials, even all the happy people in church can be very hard to take if your heart is deeply saddened by some difficult reality that you are carrying. Acknowledging that burden does not make you any less a person of faith. In fact, naming it and leaning into it with hope that God will rescue you, I think, is exactly what Mary did and may be YOUR destiny. [Pause]
The Magnificat was not a “happy-clappy,” “get all excited, go tell everybody that Jesus Christ is King” kind of song. Read it again. Mary spoke from her heart which was in union with the heart of God. She spoke words of a radical change – a change that was already happening. God was offering a whole new way of life – a way of life that would be incarnate in God’s son. A new path where the “proud would be scattered, the powerful brought down, the lowly would be lifted up, the hungry would be filled, while the rich were sent away empty.”
But the world would not embrace that way of life. And the privileged would do everything in their power to maintain the status quo. Just like Simeon predicted. They would – in time – kill both the message and the messenger – but that didn’t stop Mary. She had a message to preach. One that could not be silenced. She had JOY in her whole being – a JOY that no one could take away. But her joy also embraced the grief that would eventually change her whole understanding of life. [Pause]
We each come to this season differently. Some with great anticipation, excitement, joy. While others carry heavy burdens as they hold in tension all aspects of joy. [Pause]
The preacher I told you about earlier. My friend Sue. She died just a couple of months ago after a long bout with cancer. Sue served St. John’s United Church of Christ in Lansdale, PA for just over 40 years. Best preacher in our class. Today I honor and remember her with – joy.
Perhaps the last verse of today’s hymn says it best:
The promise made in ages past at last has come to be,
For God has come in power to save, to set all people free.
Remembering those who wait to see - salvation’s dawning day,
Our Savior comes to all who weep to wipe our tears away.
May your heart be filled today with deep and abiding joy. Amen.