The reason we sing

The Reason We Sing
Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church
4th Week of Advent, 12/20/09

Luke 1:39-55
 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
 And Mary said,

‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour 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 for ever.’

I took Maisy to see Santa at the mall yesterday.  And it is a strange thing to be the adult in this scenario.  To uphold a weird lie, that all the other adults around you are pretending is true as well, to watch your kid struggle with questions and doubts but keep
shushing them with explanations for why we’re not at Santa’s house and we’re in between Herbergers and Games by James instead, and where the reindeer and sleigh might be, and answer things like why we can’t bring Santa pumpkin bread like we did for our teachers and friends, and witness the mixture of built up excitement and strange disappointment as she tries to wrap her little mind around what is not quite right about this Santa, why it doesn’t feel like she thought it would to come and talk to him.
I watched a parade of dressed up kids and stressed out parents, the lady in front of me saying her husband had been out of work for a year and a half, but choosing to shell out the $17 for the 3x5 picture of her 9 year old with Santa anyway, because it might likely be the last year he believes it is real and she wants to hold onto the magic.  So we lined up behind velvet ropes and shelled out money and made up fake answers to their real questions to make things seem special.  And I wondered what she would say to her son if he asked Santa for a job for his dad.

How is Christmas – any story of Christmas-  not just this scenario?  Pretending, upholding the narrative, denying our real experience to maintain the integrity of the story, so we can all feel good and smile and make things feel special for a while?  How is the “magic” of Christmas not just some horrible illusion we create for people, whether the illusion is Santa Claus bring presents down our chimney while we sleep or Jesus Christ, God incarnate, being born in a manger two thousand years ago to save us all?  
What difference does it make which story we’re peddling if it’s just a story, if we’re just frantically pretending to believe in it so that it can mean something for our children, or if we have made it into something generic and broad – like good will towards all people and trying to remember those less fortunate than ourselves when the ghost of Christmas past or future gives us a temporary holiday jolt out of our selfishness.  And we say that if you’ve been good you will get what you ask for, but we mean as long is it isn’t something real, like a job or a spouse or your health.

“Have you been a good boy this year?”  I told my son Santa would ask that. And he answered, “No. I have been mean to my sister, I sometimes hit her or say mean things.”  And I could not convince him to answer “yes.”  And in the end, for many reasons, he decided not to go see Santa, this boy who, though he desperately wanted to play the game, couldn’t. Though part of him believes enough to send the message of what he wants for Christmas with his sister to pass on to Santa, he is ultimately too honest and self-aware to do his part, to insist he has been a good boy and tell this pretend magic man that he deserves to be rewarded.  And so the fantasy we played out with our visit was simply not for him.

Who is the fantasy for?  Us? Are we, the ones sitting here the Sunday before Christmas, the ones who are willing to play the game, keep the tradition alive, tell the story, feel good, even if it means being a little dishonest, or artificial? Are we here to sing the songs and spread the cheer and gaze at the sweet baby Jesus in the virgin’s arms, and domesticate the fiery words of Mary’s magnficat, so that we don’t really have to feel the disconnect from real life?

How do we deal with such a story? What makes Christmas anything worth singing about? What makes it real, powerful, and not just soft glow nostalgia surrounded by frenzied shopping? When we sing these Advent and Christmas hymns, what makes us able to sing, with conviction, these words of hope? Of wrongs being made right, justice prevailing and peace reigning? What makes us able to do that without being delusional or hypocritical or in complete denial of our real experience and the world around us?  What makes us able to speak out about a reality we don’t yet often see and not be completely ridiculous, or false and cheery, or out of touch?

Someone told me this week that they never liked the Magnificat, because they couldn’t believe that was really Mary’s response.  When she is a pregnant and unmarried girl that God has done this to, would she really sing of how blessed she was, and how God tears down the mighty and lifts up the weak? What makes her song anything but insincere and contrived?

Today’s scripture shows the point in the story where two narratives intersect and merge.  It picks up with Elizabeth, the barren and elderly wife of Zechariah, a priest, living in the hill country of Judea.  The two of them are far closer to the grave than a cradle, but God puts a child in her womb after all these years, and tells them this child, John, will prepare the way for the One who is to come and redeem all people. Her husband is struck mute for the entire duration of the pregnancy because he did not believe the angel who told him this would happen, and the woman, though she celebrates and declares that the Lord has taken away her shame, has not shown herself to anyone for five months, as her body changes and the baby grows, she stays hidden, holding this secret inside herself.

When she is in her sixth month, the story shifts to Nazareth, a week’s journey away, to a young woman of no consequence, a virgin engaged to this guy named Joseph, a girl names Mary, who happens to be related to Elizabeth.  God sends an angel to her one day out of the blue, who tells her that she will be pregnant and bear the Savior of all.  How? she asks. How can this be? Since I am a virgin, I am not even married, barely an adult, my story hasn’t even begun, how can this possibly be?
And the angel says, “Your cousin, Elizabeth, even now she is six months pregnant. Nothing is impossible with God.”  And Mary answers, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be according to me as you have said.’’

And then what do you do? After you agree to such a thing? After the moment passes and the angel leaves and the nausea sets in?  What does a young girl do alone and pregnant with the strangest story, a crazy story, and a blasphemous story? What do you do when everything has changed, but nothing is different? 

She gets up, packs up and flees to one who knows, one who can share her story,
Mary runs to Elizabeth.  The fear, the unknown hovering around her, thoughts racing, legs racing faster, just get there, just get there and explain what happened to you and see if something has happened to her.  Just go.
She flies into the house and calls out to Elizabeth.
And she doesn’t have to say another word.  Elizabeth just knows. She hears Mary’s voice and the baby leaps inside her and by the power of God’s Spirit she knows, and she rushes to Mary and grabs her in her arms, calls her blessed, affirms her faith, and confirms her experience, while mute Zechariah looks on in amazement.

What a moment – when Elizabeth embraces, announces, corroborates and blesses Mary, suddenly Mary is filled with such joy, this thing is no longer quite so terrifying and is even more real, and she sings. And what comes out is a powerful, threatening, booming pronouncement, a prophesy, begun in gratitude and spinning out from herself to encompass the whole earth, the vindication of the people of Israel, the lowly will be raised and the mighty brought down! 
This song doesn’t come from the angel’s pronouncement or Mary’s great personal faith or strength. It comes from sharing the mystery with someone else, from witnessing it to be real in another and having them see it in her.

These two women are the church before there was a church.
The life of Christ, the promise of God’s salvation lives in them, and between them they carry this incredible secret that the whole world is being saved and nothing will ever be the same.

Before Mary came, Elizabeth hadn’t set foot out of the house. She believed God’s promise, had seen and felt the changes in her own body as this child grew. She had every reason to go and proclaim it to anyone who would listen. But she couldn’t bring herself to leave the front door.  But now, here comes the other, who knows and shares the secret, who also is vulnerable and chosen, who is also participating with God. 

When Mary comes Elizabeth is no longer a pity or an oddity, no longer a hidden secret-bearer, she becomes a prophet as well.  The Holy Spirit speaks through her and she declares outloud with words what Mary has been told and is almost afraid to believe. And coming from Elizabeth it sounds like better news, it sounds powerful and hopeful, exciting and REAL, it sounds real. When Elizabeth says it, it
And then Mary can believe it and let herself know it and feel it and share it.

In one another, God provided sanctuary, the space for the promise to grow.  For the three months that followed, until Elizabeth was ready to give birth, they lived side by side, sharing this promise, this mystery, bearing this secret inside their very bodies. They were not alone.  With one another they found the strength to keep going. Strength not only to bear the children, face the questions, imagine the future, but strength they would need to parent these chosen children, these unusual offspring who were destined for a particular role.  With one another they could be reminded of the bigger picture, could literally see in each other what God was doing for the future of the world.

One writer says, “without Mary, Elizabeth would just be an urban legend, and without Elizabeth, Mary would just be a lying hussy.[1]”  But their lives together, side by side, tell a bigger and fearfully compelling message that God is up to something undeniable.

God is up to something undeniable.  And we are participants.  Christmas is our story. It is our song.  It is the promise that we hold within us and keep between us that Christ is alive, that God has come, is with us now and will return. 
And without one another, without witnessing to the reality of God’s activity in each other’s lives and in the world, without looking back recognizing and interpreting God’s faithfulness in the past
 and looking forward expecting God’s involvement in the future, Christmas is just a sappy legend. 

And without our real lives being aloud, and EXPECTED to ask questions, to share doubts and fear, to struggle, and wonder, and refuse to play pretend, we risk letting Christmas become just a fantasy we are peddling to keep our children happy and make the world a little bit more cheerful for a while.

But like Elizabeth and Mary, together we are bearing within ourselves The Story, we are seeing it unfold in each other, and we are sharing it with the world.  Like Elizabeth and Mary, we are chosen to participate with God.
When we can say to each other, “I have not been good, I have been mean.”,
and when we can say, please God, my dad needs a job, or my wife is sick, or I am having trouble remembering things like I used to, or I feel afraid, and when we can have faith for each other when we cannot believe for ourselves and things feel dark and overwhelming,
and when we can help each other to step out bravely into the difficult and wonderful things God is calling us to
Then the life of Christ, the promise of God’s salvation lives in us, and between us we carry this incredible secret that the whole world is being saved and nothing will ever be the same. 


[1] Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming, St. Mark United Methodist Church, sermon Advent 4, 2008

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