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Advent Three “Joy in the Midst of Sorrow”
Sunday December 13, 2020
The Rev. Carla Wilks at Mount Seymour United Church
This morning’s reading comes as three distinct parts. In the first part, Mary is visited by the Angel Gabriel and told that she will bear a son.
In the second part, Mary visits Elizabeth, who was pregnant. The third part is known as the Magnificat, the song of Mary.
In the first part, this visit from the angel follows the typical form of a call narrative in the Hebrew Scriptures. The call narratives of Moses and Isaiah typically contained the same seven parts as we find in this visit from Gabriel: a greeting, a startled reaction, an exhortation to not be afraid, a divine commission, and objection, a reassurance and then the offer of a confirming sign.
All her young life, Mary had heard the stories of how her people had been saved time and time again through imperfect and regular people. She would have heard stories of times when God brought down the mighty and lifted up the lowly and made the impossible imaginable. And she also would have known that God was not finished yet. God’s anointed one would be coming soon. They spent their lives longing for and looking for God’s Chosen One. But never would she imagine that God’s Chosen one would come through her. She was just a poor teenaged girl, not married, from a somewhat marginalized small rural village in the Middle East, soon to be a refugee escaping the wrath of a cruel politician. And God chose her. She was not living in ideal conditions, and this baby would not be born into an ideal situation. And her response? We don’t read about the fear, or much about the shock and surprise, but I have to believe that those feelings must have entered her mind. But all we hear is her accepting (and awfully calm) response: Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.
Then off she goes to visit Elizabeth, where the child in her womb leaped for joy when Mary greeted Elizabeth. Elizabeth and the baby in her womb recognized Mary as blessed. Mary might have expected social judgment or shame or even ostracism by Elizabeth. But Elizabeth knows from her own experience the cost of being shamed and excluded. In her culture, a woman’s primary purpose in life was to bear children, so as an elderly infertile wife, she had endured a lifetime of being treated as a failure. With her miraculous pregnancy, God has reversed her social status. So when she greets Mary, unmarried and pregnant, she continues this pattern of social reversal by opening her arms and home to a relative whom others would have expected her to reject. Thus the pregnancy that might have brought Mary shame brings joy and honor instead. When Elizabeth welcomes Mary, she practices the same kind of inclusive love that Jesus will show to those on the margins and those who are outcasts. She sees beyond the shamefulness of Mary’s situation to the reality of God’s love at work even among those whom society rejects and excludes.
In this part of the reading, the focus is on Mary and Elizabeth, two seemingly ordinary women, who normally would have been rejected by society, and here it is through these two women that God chooses to begin the transformation of the world. Women were so often overlooked or ignored, both in society at large and in biblical narratives, yet in this one, they are the central focus. They have the only speaking roles.
The reading concludes with Mary’s song, often called the Magnificat, because of the Latin word Magnificat being the first word in the Latin translation.
“‘My soul magnifies the Lord,’ Mary sings right there in Elizabeth’s living room, ‘and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.’
The great preacher Barbara Brown Taylor has said the following of today’s passage: Elizabeth and Zechariah are the first to hear Mary’s song, but it is not just for them. It is also for her, Mary, and for the Mighty One who has done great things for her. It is for Gabriel, who first gave her the good news, and for all who will benefit from it—for the proud and powerful who will be relieved of their swelled heads, for the hungry who will be filled with good things, for the rich who will be sent away empty so that they have room in them for more than money can buy. Her song is for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—for Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel—for every son and daughter of Israel who thought God had forgotten the promise to be with them forever, to love them forever, to give them fresh and endless life. It was all happening inside of Mary, and she was so sure of it that she was singing about it ahead of time—not in the future tense but in the past, as if the promise had already come true. Prophets almost never get their verb tenses straight, because part of their gift is being able to see the world as God sees it—not divided into things that are already over and things that have not happened yet, but as eternally unfolding mystery that surprises everyone—maybe even God.”
In these less than ideal, probably scary times for Mary, she is struck in wonder and awe, with the assurance that God is with her. SHE IS the place where God has chosen to dwell. And through this humble and unlikely dwelling place, we can also see our own lives reflected. God has chosen each and every one of us to dwell within. We can be messengers each and every day of the transformational love that God brings into our world through a baby that first Christmas.
This transformational love that causes Mary to sing and Elizabeth’s baby to leap for joy, is also working in and through us.
This year, and particularly these days, the COVID case numbers are seeing their highest numbers, not only locally but globally, and here in BC we are unable to socialize with anyone outside of our household, which makes Christmas look very different this year, and then on top of that all the usual difficulties of life and of this season are still present, loved ones are still getting sick, people are still unemployed, racism and injustice is still very prevalent in our society, but somehow these things seem amplified this year, because many of the ways that we find comfort and joy in this season have also been impacted. How can we be celebrating joy in the midst of so much sorrow?
When I was reflecting on this story and the advent Sunday of Joy, I was reminded of a quote by the author and theologian, Henri Nouwen, who when talking about happiness, said that while happiness depends on circumstances, Joy runs deeper. “Joy” he says “is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war or even death – can take that love away.” Joy and sorrow coexist – and joy can be found in the midst of sorrowful circumstances. By the looks of things, Mary’s situation was difficult and vulnerable, but the song of joy she sang was from a deeper place of knowing this unconditional love, knowing that God was with her.
Even in times of sorrow and despair we can see glimpses of joy as reminders of that deep love. I remember at a significantly difficult time in my own life when my daughters were very young, it was often through them that I experienced this joy. Every day, their antics would give me hope for brighter days ahead. Sometimes when we are so overwhelmed with sorrow, we cannot imagine experiencing joy. And sometimes God surprises us with such moments.
Last week at the church we received some devastating news that a beloved member of our congregation has gone into hospice. It was a particularly hard day, and we were feeling heartbroken and full of grief. I was sitting in my office when I heard little voices down the hall. I stepped into the hall and found some of our young preschool children, carrying a basket that was almost the size of them, over to our Giving Tree. They were so excited to put the items that they had collected onto the tree. Their teacher Mag had described their collections for First United and for the North Shore Youth Safe House as being for ‘the friends that they had never met” With joy, they put their collections of toothpaste and toques and gloves onto the tree. And with that, even in the sorrow of the day, I was reminded of that joy.
After what has been a challenging year, in the midst of a global pandemic – this week, on the day that we saw one of the highest death tolls in BC for one day, we got a glimpse of joy in the news of a vaccine, which we hope will provide essential protection for the most vulnerable among us.
So as we prepare for a much different Christmas than we may have ever experienced before, we may be assured that God is with us, and that through the transformative love that we know to be God, we also experience deep joy.
As a young girl named Mary was impacted by the social realities of her day, we too are challenged and tested by the realities of our lives, and like Mary, God chooses us to bring love into the world.
In our difficulties and through our pain, God is with us, helping us to see and feel those moments of joy, helping us, like Mary, to sing a song of love to the world. Thanks be to God.