Friends, this morning I want to talk with some seriousness about our lives in the world. A lot is going on in our world, and many so-called leaders are stirring up fear around all that. On this 4th Sunday of Advent we sing of Bethlehem and of Jesus, that the “hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.” This is a moment when we all need to take stock of our lives. How are you dealing with what is going on in our world. Some of your lives may be so full of hurt and pain that the fears you face are close to home, and you’ve blocked out what’s going on in the world. Perhaps your life is so busy that you simply have too much to pay attention to right on your path so you hardly listen to the news. Or maybe the availability of entertainment on television, iTunes, and hanging out with friends has numbed you to the seriousness of what is going on. Others of you might just be tired.
But maybe you’re really paying attention to what’s going on in the world. If you have children, the shutdown of the public schools in LA last week probably affected you emotionally. I sent out a text to all the parents in the congregation when I learned of the shut down, asking how they were doing with the news. One parent replied, “I’m here worried. The hatred of extremist people is going too far and now is attacking our children.” The bomb threat turned out to be a hoax. But the superintendent closed the school because with so much violence, the email might be true and it was better to be safe than sorry.
Mary had a lot going on in her life too. Her whole life had just been turned upside down by an angelic visitation that no one outside the room would believe. “Pregnant by the Holy Spirit, huh? Yeah, right.” She had plenty to be afraid of as a young, pregnant-out-of-wedlock teenager. But she was also a Jew living in the Roman Empire, so she also lived with the fears of inhabiting in an occupied land; those external threats piled on to an already overwhelming load.
Yet, after the Angel told her she would give birth to God’s Son, who would assume the long-vacant throne of Israel’s celebrated King David, Mary went to visit her relative Elizabeth in a secluded space far away from all that. She needed to get away from a community that would have rushed to judgment and find someone who would support her in the midst of her fear. Luke tells us that in that place she made a revolutionary declaration we know as the Magnificat.
Her declaration sings about revolution. Its imagery remembers, celebrates, and anticipates events that are revolutionary in the purest sense of the word. Kings are removed from their thrones. The lowly are elevated and dignified. The hungry eat. The rich lose their purchasing power.
Mary isn’t really an agitator. She’s not supernaturally brave. Her words indicate she’s just fed up with the way things are, both in her teenage life in Nazareth and in her jewish life in the Roman Empire. So she holds God to account, singing about revolution. What sets her vision apart is that it describes a world that God has not forgotten.
In Mary’s time, most people thought history was guided by divine beings or other invisible forces. Many Jews thought God had abandoned them. They didn’t live in a time or a country like ours where calling people to march in the streets or writing letters to officials could influence history or change the course of nations. Mary believed that only God did that. So God must be on the verge of doing something. Her pregnancy and hope provided all the evidence she needed: no way would God’s Messiah leave the current state of affairs as they are, where the powerful humiliate and coerce the powerless. If Jesus is indeed coming, something’s gotta give. In her world, she’s a bit player in a Jewish and Roman political drama starring gods, emperors, elites, and generals. But why should her vision matter to anyone? Isn’t she just another idealistic teenager dreaming of a future that sounds entirely out of touch with the real world? No, because Mary doesn’t just imagine a changed reality; she demands it.
Most voices in the Bible, including Mary’s, lack a perspective that lets them articulate how God’s power might be exercised in ways that differ from the coercive techniques of human hands, policies, and weaponry. That’s why there is so much violence in so many parts of the Bible. Even Mary’s revolution imagines God will make losers and winners trade places, even though we now know that will only perpetuates problems in the end. But at least Mary’s view of God won’t let her resign to the current state of affairs. She refuses to accept a situation where some people suffer endlessly. She doesn’t view the proliferation of victims as collateral damage, or the sacrifices a society must offer to the guardians of the status quo in exchange for security. And that is exactly where her power lies.
Mary’s restlessness beautifully characterizes Advent — not a season of slowing down or shopping, but a time when Christians should survey the world and shout to God, “Enough already!” The poet, Thomas John Carlisle, described Mary’s poem as: An offense against our apathy this pathetic refugee mother. Mary proposes a revolution that puts the human flourishing that God desires as top priority.
Mary still sings her song today. How about us? What tune are we singing with our lives? We might ask during this election season where are the faith-based voters who talk about the light that shines in the darkness; about the spirit of hope that overcomes fear? Voters who claim to base their lives on the Christian narrative need to do a gut check regarding what is driving the polling numbers. Are we voting our hope or our fear? Look around. Find strength in the small signs around us. Flickering Advent candles echo Mary’s stubborn confidence by refusing to let the night win. Defiant hope, spoken by Black Lives Matter protesters huddled against the cold as they march in the streets seeking racial justice, refuses to let fear win. Silent makeshift vigils along roadsides and outside buildings where people used their guns to mow down coworkers or relatives visually mourn the dead and thereby refuse to let us forget.
You know the old legend that every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings? Do you know what those wingless angels really want? A better human story. Every time someone rings the bell to include the excluded, or engages diplomacy rather than weapons of war; or shows compassion and mercy instead of hard-heartedness; every time someone says “Stop it, you’re scaring the children” when a speaker is engaging in fear-mongering; every time some voice in the wilderness cries out for less fear and more love, for fewer walls and more bridges… that is when somewhere, an angel gets his/her wings and a light comes on in a stable.
How is all this affecting you? The long and lengthening war against terrorism. The daily fears you face in your own life. How will you use the power you have to declare and enact the future God promises, now in this time?