Sunday, December 23, 2012

Song of Mary, Song of Hope Fulfilled

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Since the end of the world prophecy of the Mayan apocalypse didn’t happen like the media had been talking about for weeks now, I guess I’m stuck with “Plan B” and will have to preach this morning. But hey, maybe this will be more exciting than the end of the world would have been anyway!

Studying Scripture takes different forms and different techniques, all of them with different fruits. Some of you may be familiar with Lectio Divina, a Benedictine technique where you read a small passage of Scripture over and over again and let God speak to you directly.

Another technique of Scripture study is to sit with the Bible and just start reading, trying to understand what was going on. Knowledge of history helps; the Bible doesn't tell you directly what had just happened sometimes. Scripture very rarely gives the context for the letter or the prophecy, and that context is a big help in understanding what Scripture is saying.
Why is Micah giving this prophecy? What's happened in Israel to make for all these prophecies of a Messiah? This way of studying Scripture is a big part of seminary life.

When we come together in Morning Prayer or Eucharist, we listen to the Scripture being read and, if you're a very visual person, try to imagine the scene or imagine what situation Paul is having to write to yet another congregation about. Imagination as study? Oh, yes, imagination is important. When you know some of the context of the passage and you've read it a few times, you can imagine yourself in Scripture and imagine what it would feel like to hear these words for the first time.

Imagine being the congregation assembled to hear Micah's words, to sing this Psalm, to hear the recounting of Mary's song for the first time. Something powerful must have been revealed for these words to have been passed down to us by our ancestors in the faith. Imagine that!

Our Scripture readings today, though, make that imagining a little harder. The people who wrote our Scripture readings were living under oppressive conditions that are a bit harder for us Americans to understand. What is it like having people from a foreign country show up with powerful armies and conquer your country, leaving your people and your family in poverty? What is it like seeing people betray their own nation in seeking power? What is it like seeing powerful people parading around while murdering and imprisoning people who dare challenge their tyranny?

Even though we in modern America can hardly imagine what it was like to be a first century Jew under the tyranny and occupation of yet another empire, we do share with them a prayer for God to come and set us all free.

While we might fret about the tyranny of money and the threats of overworking ourselves in the pursuit of so-called success or fame or becoming callous in the face of human need, Israel faced a different situation. Israel had lived under the occupation of – let’s count them – Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, all in quick succession. Save for a few years of self-rule and for a few years of being ruled by minor dictators, Israel had not been free politically or economically for a long, long time.

No wonder that they were eagerly hoping for someone, someone to set them free. Maybe God would send a new king to kick those rotten Romans out! Maybe God would send a priest or prophet to bring the people back to God! Or maybe God would just bring this sad human story to an end and close the book in a magnificent display of judgment.

As it was, though, the whole world seemed stuck. Those people in authority flaunted their power and hungered for more and more, the people on the bottom had to scrape out a living with less and less, and nothing seemed to change. You can only hear tales of apocalypse or upheaval so long before you dismiss them. You don’t find the world changing and you find yourself stuck.

So what did Mary and Elizabeth find in our Gospel reading today? They could feel something was different. Some wheels had finally started turning. Things weren’t stuck.

Slowly, haltingly, moving as quickly as a baby growing in the womb, something was happening. Why shouldn’t Elizabeth greet this cousin, this herald of a new world waiting to be born? And why shouldn’t Mary sing out praise to God for this promise kept to all Israel?

Mary’s song has long been a treasured part of Christianity. In fact, it’s so beloved you can find it printed in one form or another in five different places in our prayer book. Open the prayer book to page 441 or to any of the morning or evening prayer services.

What does that say? Mary's song is the song all our hearts sing. We want to see God set the world right. But notice the verb. Mary is singing that God has already set the world right. The hungry are filled, the powerful cast down from their thrones. Mary’s song makes it sound like God’s already set everything right. Everything's done.
Did you read the news today? Are there still hungry people in Idaho Falls, Asia and Africa? Are there still politicians in power to satisfy their own desires and not to serve the people? Are people still murdered for being who they are or for speaking words of truth? The world still aches and yearns for it all to be different.

So what is Mary saying? She isn’t even cradling this baby in her arms yet and she already knows that the world is different and that God has set the wheels in motion to free all people from slavery to sin, selfishness, death, destruction, tyranny, injustice.

In short, it’s all done. Game over, as my liturgy professor would say. How can any person of power and privilege, whether it be president or priest, celebrity or scholar, businessman or businesswoman, not tremble a little knowing that God is king and high priest, source of all wisdom and might, and creator of much more wealth than any could dream of? And God had all of that done long before even our earliest ancestors were born.

Any position of privilege and power we have is overshadowed by God’s might and wisdom. Any power I have comes from the one who sends me, and God is the one who sends all of us out into a world to take the lowest place, to be servants in a world waiting to be transformed.

What a message of hope! It seems a little excessive, a little too much, really. Can we hope that the future will be different? That we will stop hurting others, that we who have will share with those who have little, that we will recognize that the world belongs to God and not to us? Yes, we can hope that.

We can hope because we can see glimpses of it. Mister Rogers once said, "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world."

What did he mean by that? Look for the humble people, the salt of the earth people, the people grounded in God, and see glimpses of the Kingdom of God breaking into this world. That's Jesus at work.

It can be hard to stay hopeful in the face of the suffering going on around us and inside us. Injustice still persists, sin still acts to keep us away from God, death and destruction still assault God’s creation. But a little infant born in Bethlehem is our priest, our prophet, our king, our eternally beloved Lord.

We are already seeing the end of the world. The mightiest king has walked among the poor people of Galilee. The greatest prophet has taught in the Temple at the age of twelve. The high priest of all creation has offered himself as the supreme sacrifice to restore earth and heaven to God. And you have been made free to love and serve God and to love and serve your neighbor as yourselves. Our hope is being fulfilled!

Stay faithful, keep watch, and remain courageous. Our King is returning soon! Amen. 

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