WAIT, WEIGHT

 “Bless the Lord God of Israel
    because he has come to help and has delivered his people.
 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house,
     just as he said through the mouths of his holy prophets long ago.
 He has brought salvation from our enemies
    and from the power of all those who hate us.

[Luke 1:67-71 Common English Bible]

Has it ever occurred to you that there is a connection between the homonyms wait and weight?

I believe that none of us – not one – is patient by nature. We don’t like waiting. Therefore, to wait becomes a weight on us.

Some of you will see this as convoluted thinking, or maybe the product of a sleepless, even deranged mind. It was, after all, early in the morning when this idea came to me. I was beginning to feel the pressure of trying to post something this week. Regular readers may have noticed that I have been skipping Tuesdays even though I had pledged to myself to post every Tuesday and Friday.

The selection from Luke (see above) was part of my devotional reading this Friday of the week of Advent 4.

This also happens to be Christmas Eve, and I wanted to stay away from the typical “Christ is born for you” themes which practically everyone who is either reflecting or sermonizing will weigh in on today.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I just didn’t want to merely add to the pile.

But, back to my convoluted thought.

Icon of Zechariah Russian Icon Early 18th Century

This prophecy spoken by the priest Zechariah comes after a nine-month silence which was his punishment for not believing the angel Gabriel, who said that his aged and barren wife, Elizabeth, would give birth to a son.

And this was not just any son but, in the words of Gabriel, “many people will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.”  [Luke 1:14-15 CEB]

Zechariah was incredulous.  He asks the question, “How will I know that this is so?  For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”  And so for questioning God, Gabriel gave him a sign.

And did he ever?!  He struck Zechariah mute and leaves him to his holy duties in the temple without the power to speak.

And so what we pick up in the story today comes after the birth and the naming of John.  John was an unexpected gift from God, which is what the name John means – “gift of God.”  

When Zechariah agreed that, indeed, this child’s name was “gift,” he could once again speak and bless God. And after nine months of waiting to speak again, Zechariah had plenty to say.

Birth of John the Baptist (Detail) Jacopo Tintoretto, 1518-1594

The gospel writer, Luke, never tells us what was going on in Zechariah’s mind during these nine months of silence. We are left only to wonder. But given the experience we’ve endured these past twenty-or-so months, we can certainly imagine, and even let our imagination run wild.

We, too, have been through a lot.  Zechariah’s wait was only nine months. We have been through nearly two years!

I’m referring, of course, to the havoc the pandemic has wreaked upon us.

To say the weight of waiting has been difficult is the understatement of the century.

It has been painful to recall all the adjustments we’ve had to make in our individual lives.

The weight has been heavy, coming perilously close to tearing apart the fabric of our society.

As faith communities, we have had to endure inconsistencies: the jumbled experience of either worshipping in person, online, or not at all.

I lurk on social media sites. Sometimes I comment, more often I don’t.

I do, however, do a lot of headshaking.

Unlike Zechariah, we haven’t been silent! Sometimes, however, silence might have been the better option.

As we come to the end of this Advent season, we have hopefully been reminded that the weight of waiting is not in vain.

When we celebrate once again the end of waiting, we welcome Christ into our midst.

It is He who is the one who takes the weight of the world on his shoulders. The one who promises that:

“Because of our God’s deep compassion,
     the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
     to give light to those who are sitting in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
        to guide us on the path of peace.”
                                    [Luke 1:78-79 CEB]

May it ever be so for you and me and all the world this Christmas!

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LIFTING UP THE LOWLY

[God] has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty

[Luke 1:51-53 NRSV]

One of the most impactful essays I’ve ever read on the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) was by Robert McAfee Brown, entitled, “Mary’s Song: Whom Do We Hear?”[1]

I have borrowed liberally from it through the years since I first picked up Brown’s book, Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes, more than two decades ago.

Magnificat (Jesus Mafa – Cameroon, Africa)

Like most people in the pews, there was a time in my life that I heard the Magnificat as nothing more than pretty poetry. This talk about “scattering the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” and “bringing down the powerful from their thrones,” was the stuff of fairy tales, comic books, and action movies. It just doesn’t happen in the real world.

Brown’s essay began the shift in my thought process. Those things do happen. Not all at once, and not everywhere, every time. However, as Brown states, “Political power is never secure, always vulnerable.” (p. 79)

Scripture always takes seriously the human condition and the reality of sin, suffering and death. 

That is where Mary, and more specifically, the Magnificat come into view.

Traditionally, this Sunday’s theme is Love. 

But how do we proclaim the message of God’s love to a world that is caught up in violence, natural disasters, poverty, pandemic, and political polarization?

How do we share the story of Jesus’ birth with a culture that worship and adores…Santa Claus?

And how do we live out this Good News in a society that seems all doom and gloom?

Mary offers an example and an invitation for speaking boldly about God’s activity.

The Visitation – Mary and Elizabeth meet – Luke 1:39-45 (Jesus Mafa – Cameroon, Africa)

The Magnificat is a revolutionary song. So revolutionary that it was banned in several countries in Latin America in the late 20th Century.

And perhaps some of us can understand why. Mary’s words sound outrageous.  Mary’s declaration appears defiant.  Mary’s claim doesn’t seem grounded in reality.

And, truth be told, it isn’t. As Matt Skinner of Luther Seminary puts it, “Mary’s song presents a radical, earth-shattering vision of the world made different. Mary insists that this powerful, merciful God isn’t merely an abstraction. This God is active in her current circumstances.”

No wonder tyrannical regimes would go to great lengths to suppress the song and prevent peasants and workers from singing such subversive words.

Mary interprets her present moment in light of who she understands God to be, in terms of God’s past history, God’s intentions, and God’s promises for the future.

In this way, she shows us how to speak about God in the here and now. She recalls established convictions about God’s character. And she imagines the possibility of God bringing a new future into being – not in a distant time, but beginning now, all around her, in her experience,

We are in a liturgical season of waiting – Advent. We are waiting for rescue.  We are waiting for light in darkness.  We are awaiting Christmas.  We are waiting for Christ.  But we do not lose hope. To the contrary, once again we raise our voices in hope and expectation, waiting once more for the presence and comfort of the Lord.

I recently came across an address by Pope John XXIII, given at the opening of the Second Vatican Council. As I read the speech, I was struck by the hopefulness of the following words:

“We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand. In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men’s own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfilment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs.”

Pope John XXIII

The Pontiff echoes the words we hear this coming Sunday in the Magnificat. And in both Mary’s song and the Pope’s words, there is a message for us, both as individuals and as faith communities.

When we magnify the Lord, we embrace the vision of the whole world remade in the image of God.

When our spirit rejoices in God, the world and everything we hold dear is turned upside down and shaken and reshaped to fit a world of justice where people shall live secure, where peace and hope and joy and love will be the models which we follow.

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[1] Brown, Robert McAfee: Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984)

REJOICE

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:4-7 NRSV

I don’t think I’m unique in that when I begin sermon preparation, I go back and review previous sermons I’ve preached on the assigned scripture readings for a particular Sunday. I don’t recycle or reuse them, but glean from them some textual points that may be worth repeating.

Though I don’t preach on a weekly basis anymore, I continue that practice. However, I now use some of that material as idea starters for blog posts such as this one. It saves me precious time.

As I was browsing through my sermons for the Third Sunday of Advent, imagine my surprise when I read from 2012 and saw that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting took place on December 14 of that year.

In that mass shooting, 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed twenty first graders and six school employees before turning the gun on himself. Earlier that day, he had killed his mother at their home.

A prayer vigil at a local church after the Oxford High School school shooting, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, in Oxford, Mich. Jake May/AP

I couldn’t help but draw parallels between that horrific tragedy and the deadly events of last week in Oxford, Michigan, in which a 15-year-old boy killed three students and injured eight others

Granted, the situations are vastly different in many aspects. However, both occurred in December, a month in which we look forward to some relief from the worries of the world.

Even more disturbing is the relative indifference that I perceive in the reactions of the greater society.  I don’t sense the extraordinary level of public outrage that normally accompanies such hideousness.

This Third Sunday of Advent churches light the third candle on the Advent wreath. On some wreaths, it is pink to signify joy. The Latin word for rejoice is Gaudete, which this Sunday has come to be known.

But the reality is that we have had little reason for rejoicing, not just this month, but for nearly the past two years. Our world is in a state of seemingly constant anxiety.  At every corner there is some new fear to haunt our dreams and burden our days.

Yet our standard response appears to be resignation. We have become numb to the violence and all that goes with it to the point that we merely accept, or tolerate it.

The effect is that we worry, we get stressed out, and we get frustrated to the point of quitting.  But none of that is going to solve anything. 

There is a better way.

The Apostle Paul, writing to the Christians at Philippi, tells them – and us – that we have a choice. He encourages us to rejoice.

At the time Paul wrote this letter, he was in prison, and he had a choice to make. He could have chosen to be bitter, focusing on the negative, all that was wrong with his life, all he had lost, but instead he chose to focus on the positive, on all that was right, on all he still had. I imagine his letter to the Philippians is written as much to himself as it was to them.

Being in prison, he had every reason to be depressed, but instead he wrote: “Rejoice in the Lord Always.”

He had every reason to complain and plead with God about his dire circumstances, but instead he wrote: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” 

He had every reason to look on the dark side of his circumstances, but instead he wrote: Let your gentleness be known to everyone.

He had every reason to give up, but instead he wrote: “ And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Paul’s joyful spirit provides a path for those of us who easily fall into panic, depression, anxiety, or impatience, when we face inconveniences, small and large, and by our ongoing struggles with COVID-19, or other illnesses of body, mind, or spirit.

Paul invites us to lift our eyes from the violence, the illness, the pain, the anxiety, and the sadness we have to live with, and to celebrate the fact that these troubles are only fleeting.

Paul’s letter reminds us that when we rejoice always, our moments of deepest anguish are also moments of rejoicing. And that joy can be transforming, not just to us, but the world around us.

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