First, turn to your neighbor and take a minute or two to answer this question: what are the things you need to feel like you’re celebrating Christmas?
For me, it seems like food plays a big role. I was in Ames yesterday looking for potato sausage. Didn’t find any, where I went, but my friend Heidi said Dahl’s sometimes has it, and Linda Fevold said there’s a shop in Gowrie that might have some also. I don’t know if there’s enough time to get some for this year, but it certainly bears remembering for next year.
Today is the Fourth Sunday in Advent, so naturally our minds and hearts are moving ahead already to the celebration soon to come. I know that some of you have already welcomed family home for the holidays – and I know that many more are on their way. Some of you already have meals cooking for a Christmas Eve feast. You’ve been shopping for those things that make Christmas special, the traditions that have come to mean so much to you and your family. This week of the Feast of the Nativity is a week loaded with meaning and tradition and celebration, and it is a time that the church and the world considers blessed deeply with God’s presence.
But no matter how much we might try to hold on to those special traditions, we know that nothing lasts forever, don’t we? My Grandma Janke died in February, the last of my grandparents, so an entire generation in my family has now gone to rest in God’s embrace. And, of course, none of us can gather this morning without thinking of those families in Newtown who will gather around tables with empty chairs.
However, not all change is painful. This year my parents and my brother celebrated Christmas in new houses - my parents moved into a new house in town, and my brother and his family moved out to the family farm. My youngest brother and his wife are celebrating with a new addition this year - their daughter Grace was born in September. Our family of course, is celebrating our first Christmas in Story City, and it’s the first time we’ve been able to have all of the family on Kristin’s side at our house. It’s been chaotic and loud and wonderful - a Christmas we’ll long remember.
We tie all kinds of traditions and special remembrances on to the arrival of Christmas, traditions we’d like to get set in stone if we could. But that’s not what happens with the coming of the Christ child. The coming of our Lord Jesus means change is afoot. The advent of God’s Son into flesh and bone and blood was a titanic upheaval in the order of things, and nowhere in scripture do we see this more clearly than in the Magnificat, Mary’s song praising God for the change that is soon to come into the world. In the eyes of the world around her, there was nothing remarkable about Mary. She was a child of a devout Jewish family, a daughter born to be married and be the mother of a family in Nazareth. Her betrothal to Joseph must have been the occasion for great celebration for her family; in her marriage to Joseph, she was making bonds under which she would live for the rest of her life, sheltered and protected from a world where women without husbands or children had to rely on begging to survive. She was not the daughter of a noble house, or the daughter of a poor family; what we can tell from scripture suggests that in today’s world she and Joseph were solidly middle-class citizens, content but not rich, average in every sense of the word.
That was before her pregnancy, however – and that pregnancy would have changed everything. In the eyes of the world, Mary would have been greatly shamed by her pregnancy, and it could have ruined her betrothal to Joseph. Joseph had the right to have her stoned to death for breaking the covenant of their engagement. In some ways, the mercy of Joseph the carpenter prepared the world for the mercy of Jesus. As this baby Jesus was saved from a death by stoning, so would the man Jesus save others from stoning. Joseph’s willingness to believe God’s promises and Mary’s faith in what God was doing through her pregnancy brought great change into the world; the first change was the out-of-wedlock, commonplace birth of the king of kings.
Mary’s song praising God for what was about to happen reveals change upon change upon change, for Mary, for her cousin Elizabeth and for the world in which they live. Mary begins by praising God for this shameful, dangerous pregnancy that has put her in a very delicate situation with her family and her husband-to-be: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” We read this knowing that in centuries to come, Mary was indeed called Blessed, but in her time and in her world that certainly wouldn’t have been the case. Mary believed God’s promises more than she believed the world around her. Mary believed that the world would change before God’s promises would change, and her song continued to declare to the world how that change would come about: “God has scattered the proud…God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly…God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty…” Mary is singing of changes that are yet to be – and in many ways God is still bringing those changes into the world. She believed with all her heart that the God who was carrying her through her pregnancy would bring about the changes of which she was now singing.
There is a sense of deep awe and majestic wonder in Mary’s Magnificat. Deep awe because God chose her, a common, unremarkable young woman, to bear God’s only Son; majestic wonder because if God could do this, what could be impossible for this child in her womb? The mystery of what was happening was made stronger and deeper by the reaction of Elizabeth’s unborn child to the presence of Mary and her own unborn child. As the world would one day leap for joy at the coming of the Christ Child, so John leapt for joy at the advent of his cousin and his Savior. Elizabeth herself was filled with awe and wonder when she realized what was happening: “Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” It was revealed to Elizabeth that a great and mighty change was coming, and that nothing would ever be the same again. In those moments, Elizabeth became a prophet because she saw clearly what was happening, and she gave voice to what God was doing through herself and Mary.
Today, two millennia after the birth of Jesus, it can sometimes be difficult to think about how the birth of Christ changes everything. After all, the poor are still the poor, the hungry are still the hungry, and the rich and powerful are still the rich and powerful. As we’ve learned to our horror this week, violence, fear and anxiety continue to hold us in chains and will not easily let us go. If Mary’s song is to come true, we are in for a change, but we might not think that change is so good. But the far greater change we should consider is how the presence of Christ is transforming our lives. Advent is not a time to think only of the coming of Christ two thousand years ago – Advent is a time to prepare for Christ coming into our lives in the present, and the change that presence will work in us. Christ is alive, brothers and sisters, and through the Holy Spirit Christ will change your life forever. No dead traditions here – no empty observances without meaning or substance – Advent is a time to pray for Christ to bring the deep awe and majestic wonder of Mary and Elizabeth into our lives, today, here and now.
When I told you that I need food to feel like it’s Christmas, I was only telling you part of the truth. I need the Magnificat to know that Christmas is drawing near. I need Mary’s song of wonder and joy because I hear in her words the promises and changes I want God to make in my own life, and I pray with Mary for the fulfillment of all of it. Christmas means that God’s kingdom is breaking into this world. God’s kingdom is coming, friends, and God’s kingdom means change. The coming of God’s kingdom means a day will come when we will no longer be measured by our riches or our poverty, but we will be loved for the fearful and wonderful creations God has made us to be. God’s kingdom means a day will come when we will no longer struggle with hunger or obesity, but all will be fed from the rich table of God’s love, where no one wants for anything and all are truly welcome. God’s kingdom means a day will come when we will no longer fear the violence that surrounds us. God’s kingdom means a day will come when children will not suffer for our sins and our failings. God’s kingdom means a day will come when peace will reign, when justice will roll down like a waterfall, when God’s children will live in joy and harmony.
Did you notice last week the third verse of our hymn of the day? Let me read it for you again to refresh your memory:
In darkest night his coming shall be, when all the world is despairing,The world shall change, my friends. It is not yet fully here, but Mary’s song is a prophecy for those of us who long for the peace that is to be. Hold tight to the promise of God’s kingdom. The Advent of God’s kingdom is continuing in our time. In the midst of change, in the midst of great joy and great sorrow, know that God’s kingdom is coming, and the world shall be changed forever by the love, grace and mercy of the One who was born in Bethlehem. May our souls, like Mary, magnify him and sing his praises, now and forever. Amen.
as morning light so quiet and free, so warm and gentle and caring.
Then shall the mute break forth in song, the lame shall leap in wonder,
the weak be raised above the strong, and weapons be broken asunder.