My senior pastor's got some pretty serious sickness in his family, and so last night I decided to write a sermon for today, just in case. It was technically his turn to preach all 3 services, but the situation is so tenuous that we decided I'd better be prepared to preach any or all of the services. He preached the two morning services, and I preached the following in the contemporary service. Be aware this is an unedited rough draft from late Saturday night.
Text: Luke 1:39-55
Title: Rejoice? For What?
You know, sometimes I wonder what Mary’s family must have thought about this pregnancy of hers. Would her father have wanted the wedding to take place right away? Were all her relatives out to get Joseph, thinking he was the father? Were they disappointed in her for failing to honor her betrothal and not staying chaste until her wedding night? How hard was it for them to believe that the Holy Spirit had overshadowed this ordinary young woman, and made her mother to the Messiah?
She was just a girl. Young, perhaps a little silly…or maybe she was the somber type. Who knows? We know very little about who she was, and would have known nothing at all had it not been for an extraordinary intervention in her life. Mary is mostly a mystery to us.
What we know is this: many hundreds of years ago, Mary was forced to go to her fiancé with a confession: she was pregnant. Joseph knew the child wasn’t his, and would have been well within his rights to not only ruin her reputation in town, but also to censure upon her family. Instead, he chose to stay with her, to live out her pregnancy and then begin their lives as a married couple. There must have been something special about Mary that she inspired this extraordinary loyalty and kindness from Joseph. Of course, history has proven him to be extraordinary as well.
The pregnant Mary went to visit with her older cousin Elizabeth, who herself is pregnant, a miracle in itself. Elizabeth and Zechariah have been the only people in the world at the time who could understand what Mary was going through: while their child may have been conceived in the ordinary fashion, it took divine intervention for this couple, long past the age of child-bearing, to get their long-awaited son. An angelic messenger gave them the good news…so perhaps Mary thought that Elizabeth would be able to hear her own story.
Before Elizabeth and Mary could sit down for a good talk over a cup of tea, something strange happened: the child in Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy in recognition of Mary’s unborn child. This is part of last week’s story o f John the Baptizer…but it’s Mary’s story as well.
Whatever else she might have been, Mary turned out to be a remarkable person. An unwed mother. Joseph’s fiancée, wife, and the mother of his children. The Orthodox Church calls her Theotokos: God-bearer. The mother of the Savior. In today’s passage, Mary proved herself to be quite an exceptional individual: a prophet in her own right, one favored by God, a woman unafraid to testify about the goodness of God, one with the words of explain why, in the face of her unorthodox circumstances, she should find the words to rejoice. And what words she finds:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Rejoice should be our word for today. I have a friend who is fond of selecting a word for each sermon, and asking his congregation to respond with “Amen” each time he uses that word. I think that way he can be sure that no one falls asleep. I’m going to give you a pass on that, but I do think it is important for us to think carefully about the meaning of this special work.
To rejoice is to celebrate, to take joy in, to find one’s heart uplifted by that in which we rejoice. We can all find a reason to rejoice in the Christmas season and the promised return of Jesus. The birth of a baby is generally an occasion for rejoicing in the family. Weddings, graduations, promotions, all great occasions for rejoicing. Mary, once her family and Joseph had accepted her pregnancy, had plenty of reason to rejoice in the new life she was carrying, and in the potential this son of God’s and Mary’s had to change the world. Even before she had a chance to share her rejoicing with Elizabeth, John was doing it for the two of them. Happy news: the savior was soon to arrive!
The Bible tells us to rejoice continually, and in all circumstances…in the words of Paul, “again I say, rejoice!” But what, I wonder, are we to make of the days when it’s not so easy to rejoice? When Joseph first heard the news of Mary’s pregnancy, was he able to rejoice? When Mary’s parents heard of her pregnancy and feared for their contract with Joseph, did they rejoice? When the neighbors began to ask questions, seeing Mary’s swelling belly and knowing that the wedding had not yet taken place, was there room for rejoicing? When her father went to the market to work and found a neighbor there, collecting taxes to feed the Roman oppressors, was there rejoicing there? It becomes a very difficult word, something very hard to do, this rejoicing.
Think about your own lives, your own families. Where is it easy to rejoice? Where do you find the rejoicing hard? I’m going home this Christmas to spend time with my father, who is mourning the death of his wife this year. He’s having a hard time thinking of a reason to rejoice this year; in fact, he’s told me a couple of times he wishes he could just skip Christmas this year. Are you dreading travel? Fearing the arrival of the post-Christmas credit card bills? Anxious about having anything to put under the tree? Sleepless over a friend or family member overseas? We find ourselves living our faith in a most practical way when we are able to rejoice, to find joy, celebrate and find our spirits uplifted in the midst of the circumstances that most seem to defy rejoicing.
Mary’s song of praise in today’s lesson is called the “Magnificat,” after the first line: My soul magnifies the Lord. She speaks of what God has done for her in choosing her to be Jesus’ mother. She proclaims herself to be his “lowly servant,” and certainly we know of nothing special about her before the angel’s visit. She rejoices in God’s favor, and declares that “all generations shall call [her] blessed,” not a very modest thought, to be sure, but she has very little reason to be modest at this point. She has plenty of reason for rejoicing, for not only has an angel delivered to her the good news that she would bear God’s own Son, but she knows that God’s Son, the Messiah, will come and change the world.
Mary goes on in this praise hymn to prophesy about what God will do in this Savior that is coming, and we have to have a little grammar lesson before we go forward. The Greek verbs used here are translated using the past tense, but have instead the sense that these are things God has done, is doing, and will continue to do in Jesus: turn the world upside down, giving privilege to the deprived and depriving the privileged, care for those in need, and continue to show God’s favor to Israel, as God has promised.
This praise of Mary’s, this rejoicing, flies in the face of the circumstances around her. One wonders if her neighbors talked, because everyone knew there had not yet been any wedding festivities. They might have been muttering about town about that flighty young girl, and the way she and Joseph have gotten a little ahead of themselves. Life was not easy, and perhaps she worried about the Romans and the crucifixions she had heard about. Maybe her family had problems with money, or another child in trouble. There could have been sickness in the family. There certainly was a degree of political unrest and a sense of a fragile peace, bought mostly by the Jews as victims of Rome.
Mary’s rejoicing defies logic. To quote that venerable old gentleman, Ebenezer Scrooge, John’s stirring in Elizabeth’s womb might have been nothing more than indigestion: a crumb of cheese, a spot of mustard, a bit of underdone potato. Elizabeth herself might well have wondered how a child would change her life, and Zechariah’s, coming so long after they’d given up hope. Zechariah’s service at the Temple contradicted the Roman emperor’s desire to be worshiped as a god…their position in the community might be considered tenuous.
But our rejoicing is at its best when it defies logic, when, like our faith, it states a conviction in that which we can’t see, can’t prove, but know to be true. And so Mary rejoices: the Lord has always looked after his people, still does, and always will. Despite Exodus and Exile, enslavement and poverty, flood and famine, despotic rulers and human greed, God has always loved God’s people, and always sought their good.
Even today, with back to back to back storms of snow and ice, God has, does, and will love his people and seek their good. Despite wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite unrest in Pakistan and Palestine, God has, does, and will love his people and seek their good. Despite sickness and death, despite debt and fear, despite school and work and Christmas shopping and all the other events that cause our stress levels and blood pressure to rise, God has, does, and will love his people and seek their good. Are you sensing a trend yet?
This is our reason to rejoice, to celebrate, to lift up our hearts: because our God always has loved us and sought our good. God always does love us and seek our good. God always will love us and seek our good. It’s that simple. In Advent, as we celebrate the light of Christ that breaks into the world’s darkness, we light candles to remind us of Jesus, the Light of the World. The first candle was for peace, the second for hope, and today’s candle is something special: the pink candle, for joy. And why should we not feel joy? In the midst of our darkness, be it the dark of 4 am when we really should be sleeping, the never-quite-dark-enough of a hospital room as we keep vigil, or the dark storm clouds overhead, God loves us…forever. And so even in the midst of our darkness, even in the strangest and most painful and least comprehensible moments of our lives, God is there, loving us.
This is what Mary knew: her world was no place to be an unwed mother. It was no place to be a pregnant teenager. It was no place to be a follower of any God besides the Roman Emperor. It was no place to do anything but keep your head down and try to be as inoffensive as possible. It was certainly no place to stand out. But Mary had no choice: into the darkness of an occupied Israel, into the darkness brought about by centuries of oppression by one nation after another, into the darkness of human lives that couldn’t find a way to reach God, God found a way to reach us.
In the form of an angel, God sent good news. In the pregnancy of an unwed teenager, God sent good news. In the form of an infant named Jesus, God sent good news. And the news is this: Rejoice. Rejoice continually, and in all things because God always has, always does, and always will love his people. In the darkness, there is God’s love. In our aloneness, Christ is always with us. In our pain and suffering, in our doubt and confusion, in our mourning and loss, God is always reaching out to us—there is always room for rejoicing.
Many hundreds of years ago, God spoke hope into the world. God broadened the boundaries of his people and welcomed everyone in. God sent God’s Son, Jesus Christ, to be the good news that would help us to rejoice always, and to share with us the holy mystery of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection. He’s come once, and he is coming again. So let us truly rejoice!