Sermon: Witnesses to a Revolutionary Hope

Sunday, December 19, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fourth Sunday of Advent
watch this service online (readings start around 21:26; sermon starts around 26:45)

This coming year, we’ll be getting to spend a lot of time in the Gospel of Luke.  Each of the three lectionary years focuses on a different gospel: Year A is Matthew, Year B is Mark, and Year C is Luke, with John kind of sprinkled in here and there for fun throughout all three years.  We do it this way because each gospel witness is unique and offers different perspectives on the life and teachings of Jesus.  So this year, we get to know Luke a little bit better.  And during Advent especially, we get to see one of the most fun things that sets this gospel apart: and that is that Luke’s gospel is a musical!

Especially in the first couple chapters of Luke, we get some really fantastic songs.  A couple of weeks ago, you might remember we read the Canticle of Zechariah: this is the song that Zechariah sings at the birth of his and Elizabeth’s son, John the Baptist.  In Luke 2, we have a whole angelic chorus announcing Jesus’ birth – and when Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the temple a few verses later, they encounter a man named Simeon who had been waiting his whole life to see the Messiah – and when he lays eyes on Jesus, he also bursts into song!

And of course, today, we have this extraordinary song that Mary sings.  (We’ll actually get to sing one of my favorite settings of it as our hymn of the day!)  Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is a joyous song of praise for all that God has done for God’s people, and for Mary herself in particular.  It’s a song rooted in Mary’s deep faith that God has been and will be faithful to God’s promises.  

The Magnificat is also a profoundly revolutionary song: God scatters the proud and casts down the powerful, God lifts up the lowly and the hungry and sends the rich away empty-handed.  God sees this world’s many inequities and injustices and comes to turn the world upside down, to make things right for the outcast and the unloved.  As Mary sings this song, we see that she is much more than just a meek, obedient servant of God.  Mary is a prophet!  She’s a prophet announcing the wonders that God is working to the world, a prophet whose heart is bursting at the seams with divine hope.

But as I was reading our gospel reading this week, I noticed something interesting that I’d never really paid attention to before.  I’d never really noticed when or where Mary sings this song.  And that’s interesting, because the thing that prompts Mary to sing isn’t being visited by an angel, or the news that she’s going to miraculously give birth to the savior of the world – which I think is what I’d always sort of assumed.  Nope!  It’s Elizabeth!  It’s Elizabeth who inspires Mary to sing.  

When Mary arrives, Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit at the sound of her greeting and she cries out: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”  And for the first time ever, Mary is addressed as “the mother of my Lord.”  Elizabeth’s words to Mary confirm everything that Mary has seen and heard.  It tells her that the angel’s visit wasn’t a dream or a vision – it was real.  All of it, all that God is doing through her: it’s all real.

And beyond this, I think Mary sees in Elizabeth a foretaste of what God’s work will mean for the world.  The angel had mentioned to Mary that Elizabeth was pregnant, but now Mary is seeing it with her own two eyes.  Elizabeth’s pregnancy is also miraculous, but it’s worth noting that this miracle has a slightly different flavor from Mary’s.  

Mary was young; she was preparing to get married.  And although “virgin birth” probably wasn’t what she had in mind for her first child, she was still expecting to be expecting. Children and family were all still in front of her.  Elizabeth, on the other hand, is not young.  We don’t know quite how old she is, but she’s old enough that her childbearing years are all behind her.  Elizabeth had no more hope of family or children of her own.  And in her community, this made her an outcast.  

When Elizabeth hears the news of what God is doing for her, she exclaims that God has “taken away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”  God sees Elizabeth’s rejection by the community and her  longing for a child and chooses to respond with deep mercy and compassion.  Elizabeth is transformed from a childless woman into the mother of a great prophet.  She prepares the way of the one who prepares the way of the Lord!

This is the hope that Mary sees when she looks at Elizabeth.  God has the power to turn the world upside down, to lift up the lowly.  God has the power to bring new life where it was once thought impossible for there to be life.  God can do incredible things.  And God listens to the prayers of God’s people.  God hears the desperate prayers of the outcast and the hopeless – and God responds with life-changing love.

Both of these women, Elizabeth and Mary, bear powerful witness to this hope – the hope that we inherit.  God sees and knows our struggles.  God sees and knows the terrible brokenness of this world: our deep polarization, the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, the millions of preventable deaths around the globe that we lack the political will and empathy to address.  God sees the hopelessness we sometimes feel, wondering what kind of difference we few could possibly make in the face of so much death and disease and division.

But what we see in this story is that, with God, nothing is impossible.  No matter the circumstances, we are never past hope.  God has the power to change our stories, whatever they may be.  And not only does God have the power, God has the love and compassion to do so.  God is endlessly merciful and just, ready to turn this world upside down in a revolution of love.  And that’s some gospel good news that’s worth singing about.

In that vein, I invite you to join in singing our hymn of the day – “The Canticle of the Turning” – and really pay attention to the words.  Let Mary’s song sink into your soul and stick with you.

Canticle of the Turning
Evangelical Lutheran Worship #723

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 ones who wait.
You fixed your sight on your 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 to those who would for you yearn,
you will show your might, put the strong to flight,
for the world is 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.

From the halls of pow’r to the fortress tow’r,
not a stone will be left on stone.
Let the king beware for your justice tears 
ev’ry tyrant from his throne.
The hungry poor shall weep no more,
for the food they can never earn;
there are tables spread, ev’ry mouth be fed,
for the world is 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 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 which holds us bound,
till the spear and rod can be crushed by God,
who is turning the world around.
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.

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