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Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Advent

Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Advent, Year C
December 23, 2018
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Micah 5:2-5a; Psalm 80: 1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-55

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately of books that seek to bring out alternate perspectives on history, race relations, economics, and political theory – and there are a lot of them out there!  And I keep finding parallels with current events.  I was aware that there are different streams of thought on most of the issues we deal with today, but what I am gaining is a sense of how long these streams of thought have been in existence, tracing not just our own history, but tracking around the world, and even into the world of the early Church and into the times described in the Hebrew Scriptures.

These are age-old perspectives about what systems support human function and dysfunction, about how societies form and how societies are re-structured and even torn apart.

Somewhere in the Book of Ecclesiastes it is written: “there is nothing new under the sun.”  The more I read history, the more I realize how true that is.

If we stick just to the scriptures, we can see that the prophets were frequently chastising the rulers to cease from oppressing the poor, and to care widows, orphans, and aliens.  Why, it’s just as if the rulers were, instead, actually oppressing the poor, and simply not caring for widows, orphans and aliens.

In fact, that was the argument made by my seminary professors: the fact that these critiques were made over and over was, quite simply, because the rulers were doing what they ought not to have done – such as oppressing the poor – and not doing what they ought to have done – that is, look out for widows and orphans and aliens.

And let’s face it, these are still things we argue about today, yes?

And doesn’t our form of the confession admit that we are prone to do these things as well, as we ask forgiveness for “things done and left undone”?

Today’s lessons bring this pattern out into the open, as they propose God’s answer:  from the tiny town of Bethlehem, “shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”

God’s actions to save the people begin not in the places and places of power, with mighty armies and the use of force.  No, God’s action to save the people has nothing to do with them; God begins in a small out-of-the-way little village – in Micah’s day, when Assyrians and Babylonians ruled, and in the days of the Roman Empire.

God acts in unexpected ways, in unexpected places, through unexpected people.  Women, for example: barren, old, or virginal, whom no one expected would have children. 

Remember Sarah, the wife of Abraham, who, long after menopause, gave birth to Isaac.  Remember Hannah, another barren woman, accused by the priest of drunkenness, whose child Samuel anointed two kings.  Remember Ruth, a widow from an alien land whose child became the father of the king David.  And of course, remember Elizabeth, the elderly and childless wife of a retired temple priest, and Mary, betrothed but still, so they stories tell us, a virgin.  All these women should not have produced children; yet they all did, and those children changed history, set the people of the covenant on new paths, and revealed God’s love to the world.

Every one of them, unexpected.  Every one of them, changing the course of history.  Every one of them, revealing God’s love for “the least of these.” 

Remarkable as these women were, what is also just as remarkable is that they are remembered.  Women weren’t exactly greatly valued in their patriarchal societies.  Perhaps they were all extremely fortunate that their husbands loved them enough (despite their failures) to stay married – in which case, kudos to the husbands.

Elizabeth and Mary acted as prophets - to one another, first.  Reformed theologian Robert Redman (dean of the College of Theology at South University in Savannah Georgia) has argued that while Mary “did receive confirmation and encouragement from Elizabeth, Luke may have made a different point, namely, that Mary went to offer confirmation and encouragement, rather than to receive them.” [1]

And, as Mary approached, indeed, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy, and Elizabeth was moved by the Spirit to offer a blessing to Mary in turn.[2] 

Redman writes: “Here as elsewhere in Luke and Acts, the Holy Spirit imparts God’s Word and prepared people to hear and receive it.”[3]  The Holy prepares us to receive God’s Word, to receive the grace that is God’s gift, and, as so frequently is the case, in wholly unexpected ways.

Mary’s prophecy echoes Hannah’s before her; it echoes the messages of the prophets to the rulers: do not oppress; protect those without power.  God’s promise is that the world is about to turn upside down.

The Canticle of the Turning, Buddy Greene

My soul cries out with a joyful shout
that the God of my heart is great,
And my spirit sings of the wondrous things
that you bring to the one who waits.
You fixed your sight on the servant's plight,
and my weakness you did not spurn,
So from east to west shall my name be blest.
Could the world be about to turn?

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears,
For the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.

Though I am small, my God, my all,
you work great things in me.
And your mercy will last from the depths of the past
to the end of the age to be.
Your very name puts the proud to shame,
and those who would for you yearn,
You will show your might, put the strong to flight,
for the world is about to turn. (Refrain)

From the halls of power to the fortress tower,
not a stone will be left on stone.
Let the king beware for your justice tears
every tyrant from his throne.
The hungry poor shall weep no more,
for the food they can never earn;
These are tables spread, ev'ry mouth be fed,
for the world is about to turn. (Refrain)

Though the nations rage from age to age,
we remember who holds us fast:
God's mercy must deliver us
from the conqueror's crushing grasp.
This saving word that our forebears heard
is the promise that holds us bound,
'Til the spear and rod be crushed by God,
who is turning the world around. (Refrain)

Paraphrase of Luke 1: 46-58 (Magnificat)

 

 

[1]  Robert Redman, Feasting on the World, Year C, Vol 1.  Kindle Location 3329.

[2] Ibid., 3337.

[3] Ibid., 3342.