Sermon for Advent III – December 10, 2016 – St Mark’s Episcopal Church – Raleigh, NC
In the Name of God: Our Creator, our Redeemer, and our Comforter. Amen
Today’s sermon is a bit longer than I usually deliver, and I know that at least some of you think I already go on too long when I preach. I’m sorry about that – I promise that I have tried to cut it down, tried to leave some sections out, but they always seem to resist my cutting them. I do remind you that usually when I get to stand in front of a group of folks and talk about what I make of some assigned readings, I get 50 minutes. And if its Tuesday or Thursday, I get an hour and 15 minutes. So be thankful that I’m not going to go on that long – I promise, I’m not.
This sermon will wind up being about the Magnificat, Mary’s song of thanksgiving when she learns that she will be the mother of a special child.
But it will take me a bit of time to get there – I hope its worth your time on the journey.
I want to start with the question of why we come to church on Sundays, and want we make of the readings from the Bible we hear when we come here. I hope to convince you that reading the Bible in our daily lives as a source of comfort, strength, and hope. And of course to do that I have to start with the fact that the Bible is not really a theological treatise, and its really not all that much about God. What it is, mostly, is a collection of stories about people who lived a long time ago, and who tried to make sense of themselves and their world, and what kind of lives they led, and what happened to them, and what they hoped the future held for them, in terms of some basic beliefs they held and ideas they had about the nature of the world and of human life.
Those of you who have heard me preach over the years will know that I believe in stories. I remember reading once that our stories were all we had, and that we needed to find the stories that worked for us, and stick with them. More recently I heard that we tell stories in the first place to illustrate ideas we believe in, but the older we get, we forget those ideas, and all that we remember are our stories.
So, here’s a story. Some years ago my wife and I were taking a train journey across England. As we sat there in the train, watching the countryside go by outside the train, I noticed that every once in a while I would see the steeple of a parish church appear out of the distance, and then pass away into the distance. Then another church steeple would appear, and it too would fade away in the distance. This happened several times, and it occurred to me that each steeple of course marked the location of a church building, and with it, a town.
And I also noticed that each steeple was different, each steeple had a different look to it. And it occurred to me that these were all medieval parish church steeples, at least 400 or 500 years old, built long before the invention of the railroad; in fact, they were built when the primary mode of transportation was either by foot or by horseback.
So that meant, if you were riding across this landscape on a horse, or making your way across it on foot, you would spot these steeples rising up before you and you would know at least something about where you were.
You would know at least where there was a population center you could head for to get food and shelter. In addition, if someone had drawn you a picture of each of these distinctive steeples, you could know very specifically where you were. That spire, the one with the two levels of windows under the tall pointy top of the thing, that’s High Wycombe, and the one with the kind of box-like base, but the really tall tower with the rooster on top, that’s Slough. And so forth.
So the design of these church steeples could have served as a kind of medieval GPS system, giving the passers-by a lot of information about where they’d been and where they were, and what to expect to find next.
In this case, church buildings function to orient people in space. They tell people where they are in the world. And the steeples have bells, which ring the time on the hour, and sometimes on the quarter hour as well, and orient people in time.
We today have GPS systems to locate us in space, and clocks and watches to orient us in time, but churches continue to serve the same functions that medieval churches did, to orient us in time and space.
This is especially true of churches like ours. Ours is a liturgical church. We organize our common life around the liturgies we perform together each time we gather as the people of God. Each time we gather, we do the essential actions of our faith – we read the scriptures, and proclaim our faith, and share the bread and wine of communion, and those actions tell us who we are, and where we are.
We read the lessons according to a calendar that brings the Bible to us week by week in a way that gets us through all of it on a 3-year cycle. We change the colors of vestments and hangings according to the seasons of the church year, and sometimes we do special services, on certain occasions like Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday, and Easter Sunday. And practices like that tell us what time it is, and where we are in the cycle of the seasons, and in the cycle of the readings.
So when we do what we do when we gather together, we remind ourselves who we are, and we orient ourselves in time and in space.
So, for example, we are gathered here on the Third Sunday in the Advent Season. We have lit the candles, three of them. And if you were alert when I read the Collect for the Day, you know this is “Stir Up” Sunday. So if you are making your own plum pudding for Christmas, today’s the day to do it.
The words “stir up” appear in the Collect for a Sunday in Advent in the very first Book of Common Prayer, in 1549, and this has continued to be the case, through generations of Prayer Book revision and changes in the language. So when our ancestors heard these words in this prayer, they knew what time is was, and where they were in the year, and what it was time to do.
And so what we do orients us in time and space, in the immediate sense, in the sense of right now, that we are in this place in this city, on this day, this week, and this month.
What we read and remember and talk about while we are here orients us in relationship to time and space and identity as a community and as individual members of that community on a grander scale.
So, for example, today, the lessons we read locate us in a present in which we are looking forward to a future still to come, when the world we know as a barren and sterile place will experience a dramatic recreation:
In the Old Testament Lesson, the Prophet Isaiah proclaims a future in which
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
This promised recreation of the land extends to us humans as well, for
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water.
In Isaiah’s vision, this future is far in the future, but as we work through the lessons the distance between us and the future keeps getting shorter.
In the Epistle of James, we are asked to “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” That sounds like that coming of the Lord may be in some indeterminate future, but James then quickly assures us, we don’t need to be very patient, because “the coming of the Lord is near.”
In the Gospel, John the Baptist sends “word by his disciples to ask Jesus “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
The inference, here, of course, is that Jesus is saying, yes, he, Jesus, is the one who is expected, the future has arrived, the kingdom is come.
But the proof Jesus gives is that what is happening is what Isaiah said would happen — The eyes of the blind are being opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped, and the lame are leaping like a deer, and the speechless are singing for joy.
So as we read through the lessons, our sense of where we are in time and space is changing, the expectation of dramatic changes in some remote future is transforming itself into an affirmation that the day that Isaiah expected is coming near, and finally is here, now, and the claims about the here and now are revealed to us in the language of Isaiah’s expectation.
We read, in church, from the Bible, from a collection of stories written down hundreds and thousands of years ago, a set of stories we call collectively the Bible, but in fact the Bible is a big container for a whole set of writings, each one of which has integrity as a statement about the writer of that document, and about how the world appeared according to a set of ideas about the world, at that time and place.
But every one of these writings went through some kind of review process that resulted in its becoming part of the larger project, the collection we call the Bible. And because these sacred texts were in fact written over centuries of time, there develops a language, a style, of biblical writing that contributes to the sense that a particular writing we find in the Bible belongs there.
We’ve just seen this working in the lessons for the day – Isaiah sets up expectations about a remote future in which the land will be renewed, and the people, too, for the blind will see and the lame walk and the leper healed. And when Matthew wants us to understand that Jesus is the one, that his presence is the sign that the kingdom is come, Matthew has Jesus use the language of Isaiah’s expectation to make that claim. Isaiah promised that in the Day of the Lord’s acting in human history once again, these things would happen, and so Jesus says, see, these are the things that are happening, so we can recognize that the kingdom of God is at hand, now, in Jesus’ presence.
All this is a long way around to getting to the Song of Mary, better known by the first word of this song in Latin, Magnificat. The Song of Mary, the Magnificat, is an alternative reading for today, an alternative to a portion of Psalm 146. When I saw this, I asked that we use the alternative Magnificat, but in case you have been missing Psalm 146, I’ll read it. As I do, please listen out for familiar language.
Because the Psalmist is drawing on the same language that Isaiah draws on to proclaim the future with God:
Here’s the Psalm:
Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! *
whose hope is in the Lord their God;
6 Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, *
and food to those who hunger.
7 The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind; *
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
8 The Lord loves the righteous;
the Lord cares for the stranger; *
he sustains the orphan and widow,
but frustrates the way of the wicked.
The Psalm, like the reading from Isaiah, reminds us of God’s commitments to ordinary people, even to those ordinary people who are outcasts from the world of the special people, the 1% people – God’s concern is with the stranger and orphan and widow, the blind, the bent and oppressed.
But that’s what Mary says too:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.
So what we used for the Psalm today is the very Psalm-like Song of Mary.
The Magnificat is from Luke’s Gospel, and it is of course the Song that Mary sings when – after hearing from the angel that she is to give birth to a very special young man – Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with the child who will grow up to be John the Baptist.
At this point, I think it is worth saying that one of the lesser known vows that clergy in the Episcopal Church take before they get ordained is that sometime in their careers as ordained people, they will have a cat named, of course Maggie, short for Magnificat.
Tennessee Williams might have known that, it now occurs to me, and might have been having fun with it when he wrote his famous play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and named the central character of that play Maggie.
But let that pass. That’s a silly way of noticing that we in this part of Luke’s Gospel are at the origin point for truly significant moments in the corporate life of the Church and in the personal lives of Christians.
Notice – when the angel comes to tell Mary what her future now looks like, the angel says to Mary, “Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you.” And then, when Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, Elizabeth says to her, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is fruit of your womb.”
And so the angel and Elizabeth have just composed the “Hail, Mary” prayer, composed, to put it in Latin the Ave Maria, which through its use in the form of private devotion known as the rosary, has become an absolutely central piece of spiritual practice most especially in the Roman Catholic tradition.
The Hail Mary reads, of course, “Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is fruit of your womb, Jesus. And then it goes on, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death.”
We in the Anglican tradition know that the Church of England during the reformation tried to get away from prayers to Mary, but Thomas Cranmer and his colleagues could not get away from Mary herself.
Cranmer made Mary’s Magnificat a central text in the service of Evensong, or Evening Prayer, in addition to Luke’s other great poem, the song of Simeon which he recites when he sees Jesus in the Temple when Jesus is brought there for the first time by Mary and Joseph.
And so the Magnificat comes to be a central text in the services that in our tradition shape our day, and there must be thousands of settings of the Magnificat for choirs that are used “in places where they sing,” in cathedrals and in large parishes where the tradition of daily Morning and Evening Prayer is continued.
But remember what I said about the development of a language of biblical narration? Mary is in that tradition, because Mary is drawing on that tradition in her performance of her Magnificat.
You may remember from last week’s sermon that in the stories in the Old Testament God often gets involved in human conception. Abraham and Sarah are old, beyond the customary years of childbearing, but God promises them a son, and so they have a son, Isaac. And the birth of an unexpected child becomes a motif in the Old Testament.
So one way the story-tellers of the Old Testament use to signal that someone who appears in the story for the first time is a REALLY IMPORTANT PERSON is to make a kind of miraculous birth a part of the story. And so, after a number of these, we get to a woman named Hannah, who wants a child, and so she promises God that if she has a child she will offer her son to the service of God.
So, when Hannah becomes pregnant, and has a son, she names him Samuel, and she sings a song of thanksgiving. Hannah says,
‘My heart exults in the Lord;
my strength is exalted in my God.[a]
2 for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.
4 The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
7 The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
8 He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honour.[c]
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and on them he has set the world.’
So now we have two plot elements coming together – a woman is barren and God gets involved – that’s the first plot element – and the second plot element is that the new mother sings a song of thanksgiving in which she celebrates what God has done for her, and she describes God as a God who breaks the power of the mighty and strengthens the weak, who raises up the poor, and who exalts them above princes.
This language of God’s involvement in human conception continues into the New Testament, where in Luke’s Gospel, especially, there is a woman who is old and who wants a child, and so God gets involved in her conception. So this aspect of the narrative signals to us that the child born to this older, childless woman is really important.
Except that this is not the woman you expect it to be – not Mary, but Elizabeth, and her son is of course John the Baptist.
When we do get to Mary, Luke has already used the motif of God’s getting involved in human conception in the way he did with Abraham and Sarah, in his account of Elizabeth and her son John. So what is he going to do? He has to up the ante, has to find a way to signal that Mary’s son Jesus is REALLY IMPORTANT in spite of the fact that he has already used with Elizabeth the traditional version of this story.
So one way of thinking about Luke’s claims, and the early church’s claims, that Jesus was born to a woman without benefit of a father is to recognize that Luke has used the old motif of God’s involvement in human conception once again, but now has arrived at a new level of involvement, an involvement even more direct and intimate than in the older version of this story.
But Mary has been reading the Book of Samuel, so when all this happens in Luke’s story, Mary is ready with her own version of Hannah’s song – both Hannah’s song and Mary’s Magnificat praise God, both give thanks for God’s involvement in their sex lives, both praise God as one who has special regard for the poor and the outcast, both celebrate God’s exaltation of the lowly.
So Luke has described Mary’s conception of Jesus, and Mary’s song of celebration, by using the language of biblical tradition, but finds a way to make it stand out from that tradition.
And what an event it is! Those of you who attend to the calendar of the Church know that the angel’s announcement to Mary is celebrated on March the 25th, exactly 9 months before Christmas, on the Feast of the Annunciation. Those of you who hang out in museums know that the moment in which the Angel tells Mary that she will bear a son is a frequent subject of paintings, and that the images of the Annunciation show the Angel on the left side of the painting, and Mary on the right side, and so the two figures – the human woman and the angelic being – face each other at the moment of the angel’s announcement.
We who view these images see before us the coming together of the divine and the human, the reunification of our divided natures, the integration of our bodies, our minds, and our spirits – the worlds of material being, of mental imagining, and the experience of human feeling, which in our experience can be at odds with each other, out of harmony, indeed in opposition to each other – now brought into balance.
This is the claim of the Incarnation, and so in this time of waiting, of expectation, of preparation, we look forward to the future Isaiah promises, that James anticipates, that Jesus proclaims as happening now, when God acts to overcome everything that separates us from God, when heaven and earth are joined, and we are reconciled to God, and to ourselves, and to each other.
For the claim we make about Jesus’ incarnation is that in what we do together here, week by week, what we do is to learn who we are, as the people of God, and discover that as the people of God we are Jesus’ earthly body, that God works through us to further God’s reconciling work in the world.
And so what we do orients us in time and space, in the immediate sense, in the sense of right now, that we are in this place in this city, on this day, this week, and this month. But it also orients us to our place and our part in the larger narrative of God’s relationship to us, and our role in the working out of that relationship. And that narrative reaches from the very beginning of all things, and gathers us into it as we do together what God calls us to do in the breaking of break and the sharing of the cup, and through this narrative the future opens before us in unexpected and glorious ways.
That is why we are here, that is who we are, that is what we are called to do, in our journey together this day, this year, and into all possible futures, as God’s people.