|Sermon by: Guest Preacher: Danielle Shroyer
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
December 23, 2018
FourthSunday of Advent
For as long as I have observed the season of Advent, Advent has been a time to practice waiting. It is patience and quiet and a sort of restrained hope that inches toward the trumpeting joy of Christmas morning.
But this year has been different. This year, starting in September, I’ve been practicing a different virtue every month. And December happens to be the virtue of heroic perseverance.
Heroic perseverance, far from a time of waiting, is a time of get-up-and-go. It’s a rising energy, not a grounding energy. It’s very Rocky-Balboa-taking-to-the-steps-in-Philadelphia. Heroic perseverance is about longevity, but it’s also about starting a hard, long journey toward something good or beautiful. Which, in a way, does sound like Advent.
But at first blush, I felt this was going to be a very awkward and difficult Advent season, filled with clashing intentions and fuzzy outcomes. But what I have found, as often happens when life gives you an opportunity to look at something known as something new, is that Advent is not only a season of waiting.
It has also always been a season of raising up.
If we look back over the scripture readings in the past three weeks, we see signs of raising, of rising, at every turn. Listen to the words of Jeremiah: In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
And the Gospel of Luke: Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.
Baruch writes: Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look toward the east, and see your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them.
And again, from Luke: He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old.
In this time of Advent preparation, God calls us again and again to rise. We are called to rise so that we may see the coming glory of God, and we are called to rise that we may stand together and live as God’s people.
This is most clearly true on this fourth Sunday of Advent, where we finally arrive at the part in the story where Mary learns she is going to bear the son of God into the world. This is the beginning of her hero’s journey, where she is invited to a grand adventure- perhaps the grandest human adventure ever- and she steps into the unknown and the possibility and the long road of it and says yes.
She does not yet know the kind of heroic perseverance she will be called upon to display. She does not yet know that her patience will be tested, that her trip to Bethlehem will be long and her exodus in Egypt even longer. What she knows and feels is that this is the advent of a new beginning, a glorious beginning, the kind that bursts forth and springs up and demands to be shouted and shared.
So she quickly hastens to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, to share the news. Now, in our English translations, we usually read verse 39 as “In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country…” It’s a lovely transition. The literal Greek is a lot bumpier. It reads, “Raised up, Mary, in those days went.”*
Raised up, Mary went. That may be awkward grammatically, but it is gospel truth. Isn’t that absolutely the way the gospel happens to us and within us? We encounter this remarkable space in which we find ourselves caught up and thrown into the story of God, and we are raised up.
In that moment with the angel Gabriel, in the moment she says, “let it be,” Mary gets caught up and caught into the unfolding story of God, and the tide of God’s story begins to rise and carry her along in rapid fashion.
When Mary arrives at Elizabeth’s, Elizabeth rises to greet her and she says “As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy.” That word “leaped” means more specifically to stir with joy. It’s a movement that has been likened to cattle being released from a stall, a stampede of freedom and pure happiness.
You could call it a joyous uprising.
In response to this greeting, Mary sings out her song, the Magnificat, which is a story of God rising up to bring the promised Kingdom to bear on the earth at long last. This God-rising, in the true paradoxical fashion of scripture, requires that some are brought low. When the kingdom of God arrives, the land becomes leveled. When God arises, all things begin to be made right. And it’s the most honest and real thing in the world to say that when things are made right, it stings a little. This is not a Disney movie, where change comes through twinkling lights and fairy dust. Change comes only at a cost, and in this instance, the cost of shuffling around privileges and social standings and societal rankings is going to be a little dicey for some of us.
But the part that makes this ring true in our hearts like only the gospel truth can, is that Mary does not declare this in a spirit of meanness or of retribution. This is no revenge song. It is a song about the kind of world God is creating. It’s a song not penned in human anger but sung forth in God’s righteousness.
A new day of God is rising, and a new chapter in that long-awaited promise of God is beginning to unfold. God is intent on bringing the high low and bringing the low high. Not out of spite, not out of vengefulness, but because the most important thing in the entire world is that we are meant to be together, and in our world we are sadly separated by a laundry list of things that we find important but that pale in comparison to the fact that we are all, in the end, God’s children. Our highest and fullest calling is to live for God and to live for each other.
This is the message from all the prophets- and let us make no mistake, Mary is raised up as a prophet. Prophets are raised up, and they summon us to rise up, to cast our eyes toward a God who is coming in glory, to prepare the way.
Mary tells us God will fill the hungry with good things and lift up the lowly. She declares that God’s mighty arm will scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, send the rich away empty. (To which, many of us this year are saying, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”)
But a prophet’s message is always in two parts, you see. There is the part that is only God’s to do, that only God can achieve. This is salvation. It’s God’s heavy lifting. But the prophets do not only tell us to arise and look to see the coming of God in glory. They also tell us to arise and get to work.
We are less keen on this second part, generally speaking. If there is any lesson that we may be learning as a country in the past couple of years, it may be the practice of showing up when the world gets dark. Persevering when the crises seem endless, and the work unfruitful and hard.
[I think especially of the women who have raised up their voices for justice in recent years: mothers who have lost their children to senseless gun violence, women who have been victims of abuse at the hands of powerful men, advocates who have fought to reunite families at the border, local teachers and volunteers who work with homeless teens thrown out on the street by their families. I think of the women who have galvanized a nation around BlackLivesMatter and MeToo.
When I think of these women, I can feel the tide of God’s justice rising in my own soul, beckoning me to join them. I can feel the energy of God’s coming kingdom call to me, asking me to arise. ]
Mary’s Magnificat has often been the rallying call for us to move to action. Far from being meek and mild, these words invoke the kind of change that threatens the status quo in favor of the kingdom of God. In our own country’s history, her words were banned by slave owners who didn’t want their slaves to get any ideas.
In the last hundred years, no less than three governments have banned the Magnificat from public recitation. For example, in the late 70’s, Argentina was under military dictatorship. The result was the Dirty War, where any dissenting voice of opposition was abducted and killed. This state-led terrorism lasted for nearly a decade, and it’s estimated that over 30,000 people disappeared.
One of the first groups to organize against the regime was a group of women who became known as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. After losing their children, they rose up to protest and speak out. They held weekly marches, stood defiantly in front of the capitol, distributed newspapers with lists of the names of the missing. They also placed posters all throughout the capital plaza, emblazoned with the words of Mary’s Magnificat.
Many of the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo were arrested and executed for their brave defiance. But their collective power lives on to this day, as other Argentinian mothers have continued to speak out for justice under their banner.
Mary’s faithfulness was fierce, you see, as is true with all the prophets. We are humbled when we remember that often when we come across a prophet, we call her not blessed but a troublemaker. That is usually an indication that she has done her job well. When that Spirit of God arises within her, she points out the injustice of the unlevel playing fields that surround her and demands a leveling.
[We are meant to live in togetherness and unity, and yet we are surrounded by a world in which we live as people who have fallen away and fallen apart. Mary knew this as much as anyone- knew it in the depths of her bones and in the yearning of her heart and in the fruit of her womb. She fought for it, as the one whose body will bear the Christ child, and as the prophet who speaks a song of deliverance and justice during a time of an egotistical ruler and unjust laws.
The child she will bear shares his mother’s commitment to justice, her zeal for the ways of God, her passion and faith and trust. He will be the one who brings us back together, unites us into God in a new and forever way, bonds us with him and with our Creator with such a deep love as will never be broken. He is our revolution, and he is our peace.]
This great leveling begins when the angel Gabriel announces to a young teenage girl that it is time for her to arise, that she of all people is to be the one to bring the son of the most high God into the world, that she is the one who is to feed him and care for him and ensure that he grows in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and humans. The kind of world God is creating begins when one human girl rises up.
Perhaps the gravest danger for us this Advent season is to believe we are not worthy of such lofty revolutions. The danger is thinking that the story of brave souls doing brave things is for people other than us. I’m reminded of a prayer written by the theologian Elizabeth Moltmann-Wendell, calling us to repentance for the ways we reject the power of our own humanity:
God, our Father and Creator
Jesus, our Brother and Redeemer,
Spirit, our Mother and Comforter,
Forgive my self-contempt
Raise me up.
This is what Mary, and her Magnificat, can so beautifully teach us. Here is a girl who has said yes to a calling that will ask so much of her; and here is a prophet who also knows what is only God’s to do.
Mary is a woman of heroic perseverance, as well as a woman of faith. She embodies the truth that hides in plain sight for us across all the pages of scripture, and particularly in this season of Advent: faith is about waiting, and faith is about rising up. And we are incomplete without them both.
Raised up, Mary went. Raised up, baby John kicks. Raised up, Jesus comes to us as a newborn child. May we trust in God this season to raise up not only a child for us, but a resurrected savior come Easter morning. May our faith be full and our hearts be joyful.
This Advent, we wait upon God to do a mighty work. The proud cannot be scattered and the mighty cannot be torn down without God’s help. The world cannot be healed of its sad divisions and unnecessary walls without the Spirit’s power and guidance.
But this Advent, may we also rise up to do the work God has for us to do. May we commit, in this season of new beginnings, to renew our faith, renew our strength, and renew our sense of purpose and perseverance to call the mighty powers of injustice in this world to account, and work toward a world that is level with the righteousness of God.
May the Christ child be our peace, and may he be our revolution. Amen.