Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Advent, December 23, 2018 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Detail from Albertinelli’s “Visitation” (Uffizi Gallery, Florence)

            If I were going to give this sermon it title, it might just be “Something about Mary.” Mary who consented to bearing the child of God. Mary, a young girl of marriageable age who could hardly have understood what the angel Gabriel was saying to her. This Mary is, in today’s reading of the Magnificat, laying down some prophetic truth to the powers and principalities of the world.

            But Mary is not the only actor in our lesson today. Her elderly relative Elizabeth is the first to recognize the that the child Mary carries within her is no ordinary child. It is an astonishing narrative, that two women would take center stage in this hinge moment in human history when God intervened, breaking through time and space to enter our world as a helpless child. 

            It is extraordinary that this epic moment is captured in the life story of two very ordinary women. While we know little about either of them for sure, there is nothing to suggest that they were anything particularly special, at least in our estimation. But God takes the most ordinary of humans, the most pedestrian of circumstances, and makes them extraordinary. A young girl. An old childless woman. These two become the bearers of the two boys, one of whom prepares the way for his cousin. One, that cousin, the savior of the world.

            We have a clue in the text that Mary is more than just a timid and meek girl that we so often imagine her to be. Luke says that “she went in haste to a Judean town in the hill country” (1:39). It doesn’t say that anyone went with her. It does not say how she travelled. We can assume that she went alone, on foot, through what was then Roman-occupied territory. Mary lived in a dangerous time, when the  might of empire exercised authority over the livelihoods of the people as well as their freedom of movement. And yet Mary went anyway, in haste, in joy, in excitement, in determination.

            When she arrives, John (soon to be known as “the Baptist”) jumped inside of his mother in recognition of the one Mary carried within her. These two women – and I remind you again that women were considered of no account in 1stcentury Palestine – these two women carry the flame of hope within them. Hope that the empire will crumble, the oppressed will go free, the hungry will be fed, and the powerful will fall.

            I am not much into novels and films of dystopian futures, but on one overseas flight one year, I was not terribly happy with the video choices so settled on the 2012 film adaptation of The Hunger Games. In the first installment of what is apparently a three-part series, there is a scene that seems to encapsulate the trilogy’s theme. President Snow, the dictator of a futuristic country called Panem, is strolling in a rose garden with the chief “game maker,”  named Seneca Crane. “Crane is responsible for creating a game that pits young people from the twelve districts of Panem against one another in a highly publicized fight to the death each year. The winner of the Hunger Games is then held up as the icon, the pinnacle, of the spirit of Panem.

“President Snow asks Seneca Crane why the games must have a winner. If those in authority just wanted to demonstrate power and to instill fear and control, he says, why not simply execute people? Why the games? Why a winner?

Crane gets a confused look on his face, like he is trying to decipher some kind of foreign language.

““Hope,” President Snow says simply. “Hope is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.”

A little hope, says Snow, would allow the games to entertain the people and would allow them to have a hero to root for, while also keeping “the Capitol” firmly in control. A lot of hope would topple Snow’s oppressive regime entirely. The books and movies, as you either know or can probably guess, are about that spark not being contained. The second installment of the story is called Catching Fire as hope — a lot of hope — is revived in the country of Panem.

Hope is more than mere optimism. A lot of hope can shake the foundations of everything that weighs us down. A lot of hope can change the course of history.”[1]

It was this kind of hope about which Mary sang. It is not an empty optimism. She is not a rosy-eyed Pollyanna singing about how the sun will come out tomorrow. She is a fierce prophet. By the time she utters the words of her manifesto, she has fully embraced the promise that God is about to do a new thing. God is doing a new thing, and she is partnering with God in doing it. Can you imagine?

Well, if you can’timagine, you should give it a try, because God didn’t just partner with one young girl living in Nazareth. God is continually seeking out those who will partner with God to make known God’s reign on earth. It’s true. There are prophets and warriors all around us that God is seeking out, waiting for them to listen. To hear. To respond. 

When I first had an inkling that I might be called to ordination, my fresponse was absolute disbelief. Not me. Not someone as flawed, as difficult, as impatient, as unholy asme? And it took yearsfor me to respond, to take any steps at all to maybe kind of sort of explore that possibility.

I have no idea how long God had been trying to get through to me. What I do know is that God finally got through when I was at a very low time in my life. My emotions were raw and I felt lost in a wilderness that had no horizon, and that is when I was ready, that I could actually hear God calling through the normal busy-ness and self-assuredness and self-sufficiency with which I went through life. Because at that moment, I did not have any of that. I was open and vulnerable and sensitive to the slightest ripple of hope. And God gave it.

Mary and Elizabeth lived in occupied Palestine. Life was hard. They were vulnerable. And they heard God call and responded. The spark of hope kindled within them burst into a flame that set the world on fire. Although scripture does not label them as such, they were prophets both of them, not in predicting the future which is not what a prophet does, but in naming the present – God’spresent – as not only possible but here.

Madeline L’Engle, one of my favorite authors almost solely because of A Wrinkle in Time, had this to say about prophets:

How do we tell the false prophet from the true prophet? The true prophet seldom predicts the future. The true prophet warns us of our present hardness of heart, our prideful presuming to know God’s mind. And the final test of the true prophet is love. A mark of the true prophet in any age I humility, self-emptying so there is room for God’s Word.[2]

We, too, have to make room, not only so that we can hear God’s invitation but so God can set up shop within us, using us as instruments of reconciliation in a world in desperate need of some reconciling. And when our wills are so knit together with God’s, then we, too, might find ourselves singing:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour” (Luke 1:46-47).      

[1]Parts of the film description are taken in full from Sermons that Workfor December 23, 2018 by the Rev. Anna Tew.

[2]Madeline L’Engle, A Stone for a Pllow(Wheaton, Ill: Shaw Books, 2000).

ASEPSermon for the 4th Sunday of Advent, December 23, 2018 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas