December 23, 2018
Deacon Intern Alexandra Benson
Grace, peace, and mercy are yours through the God of impossible hope. Amen.
Here at Heart River, it has been a week filled with song. Some of us, YCC students, staff, and church people, gathered on Monday afternoon to sing at the governor’s summit here in the gym at YCC. After one final practice, we anxiously gathered in the hallway (where we waited for what seemed like forever) before lining up in front of 200 legislators and other state leaders. It was pretty intimidating, and personally, I had no idea what to expect or how it would go. Our small hodgepodge choir, who had been practicing in bits and pieces here and there but never fully as one group, performing in front of all the important people? It seemed ridiculous. And, by the time we got there, the conference attendees were more than ready for lunch; they had been sitting and listening to people speak for four hours already. They were antsy and eager to get on their way. But, and maybe those of you who were there noticed this too, something happened when we started to sing. By the time we finished the first verse, the energy in the room had shifted. All eyes were on us. Everyone was still and silent. People were listening – really listening. We had joked about it before the performance, but some literally had tears in their eyes. Others sported wide smiles. People’s days had been unexpectedly interrupted, changed somehow, by our song. I’d go as far as to say something holy was happening in that space. Something sacred and life-giving beyond what any of us could have anticipated. And I think something happened to those of us in the choir too. Maybe it was your first time performing in front of people. Maybe, for the first time, you felt seen and loved and worthy and capable of doing big things, even when they are scary. Maybe you discovered some hidden strength inside yourself that you didn’t know was there. Sometimes it takes a song to remind us of the Holy Spirit’s work within us and of the life God stirs up when we least expect it.
Again, on Friday evening, some others gathered at a retirement home to sing a few Christmas carols for the residents. If you had a chance to look up from the sheet music, you might have noticed the looks on the faces of our audience. Many had their eyes closed in appreciation as they listened intently, getting swept away in the melodies. Others sang along, as their eyes lit up with the familiarity of the lyrics. Many were clearly moved, as they were ushered into a beautiful, familiar place that the music opened up for them. Again, I think the Spirit of God was at work, using the seemingly small gifts of our individual voices, drawing them together, and creating a sense of new life for everyone in that room.
Music is powerful. I think it’s no coincidence then that Scripture is filled with song.
The gospel text today features a long monologue from Mary. The beautiful piece of poetry she recites was likely actually a song that she sang. Sometimes this portion of Luke is referred to as “Mary’s song” or the Magnificat. And Mary’s song has always captivated me. Maybe it’s because the women in Scripture rarely get leading roles, and here Mary gets to raise her voice for all to hear. Instead of focusing on the emperor or the tyrant kings of the day or the important religious people, a lowly, unimportant, young girl from a small backwater town nobody really cares about is the one God chooses to carry forward God’s song in the world. And from this young woman, seemingly powerless and insignificant, bursts forth one of the greatest songs of all time – a song that challenges everything we think we know to be true.
In Mary’s song, we hear of a world in which those who suffer are comforted. Those who are hungry are filled with good things. Those who hoard the world’s resources are sent away empty. The evil forces that seem to govern our lives (whether that be actual power hungry rulers, or forces like depression and anxiety and addiction, greed, competition, or fear) are stripped of all power and influence. Mary sings of a world in which God’s love is the center and source of all things. A world in which everyone has enough. The invisible are seen. Those who have been silenced are given a voice. Those who don’t matter take the center stage.
Mary sings because she and Elizabeth are witnesses to this radical, upside down love of God. They carried this impossible hope in their very bodies. And, as faithful companions, these two women point to the work of God in each other. Mary knows just where to go after the angel tells her she is to bear God’s son: she goes with haste to visit Elizabeth, who also has been chosen by God to be the mother of John, who, as we have heard in our Scripture readings the past few weeks, will point the way to Jesus. And Elizabeth instantly knows what God is doing in and through Mary. “Blessed are you among women!” she exclaims. Perhaps it is Elizabeth’s blessing that gives Mary the courage to sing out her song. It’s powerful when we celebrate and notice the work of God in each other. For Mary and Elizabeth knew that God’s promises weren’t some far-off abstract dream for the future or a glorified remembering of the way things used to be, but a concrete, bodily, at times really messy gift of new life – here and now, right in front of them and in their very beings. A gift of new life that is born even as the anger and hurt and greed and sadness of the world continue to rage. A new life that persists anyway, transforming those who come in contact with it. Like a song sung by a ragtag choir in a gymnasium at a correctional center. Or the cries of a newborn baby with feedbox crib in Bethlehem.
Sure, we might say, Mary’s song is lovely. But it’s an impossible reality. This kind of world will never actually exist. But, I think Mary and Elizabeth invite us to look beyond our skepticism. These were faithful Jewish women, who not only experienced the power of God in their bodies, but also carried with them the stories of their ancestors: stories of a God who is faithful to God’s people again and again and again. These women knew the songs and prayers and promises that had sustained their people in the midst of other impossible circumstances: in times when the people of God had felt lost and alone, when they had been at the mercy of unfair and power-hungry rulers, when their own bad choices had led them to a place of isolation and fear and broken relationships and misplaced trust. And yet, the people of God proclaim God’s love and faithfulness again and again – in stories, in songs, in poetry, in prayer. Mary and Elizabeth had the faith of the people who had gone before them to rely on – in a way, they had the songs of others to carry them. In fact, the song Mary sings, is actually a version of another, older, song in the Bible: the song of a faithful woman named Hannah. Hannah sang this similar song after she also had given birth to a baby boy, after she too had encountered new life when all seemed impossible. She sang this song when she dedicated her son, Samuel, to a life of service to God. Mary clearly knew Hannah’s song. She knew that God had been faithful then, and trusted that God would again be faithful to her now. She sang out this song in hope and wonder, carrying the stories of all the people who went before her in faith, inviting those coming after her to join in the same hopeful singing.
By the grace of the Holy Spirit, we too are given the gift of Mary’s song, and the song of all God’s people. It’s a song of life in impossible circumstances, of defiant hope in the face of suffering, fear, even death. A song that interrupts the noise and clamor of the powerful forces of this world. A song that began as God’s spirit danced over the waters of creation, and stirred in the lives of the people of Israel, and rang out from Mary and the angels and the baby boy in the manger, and continues on a cosmic scale even now.
And as we too enter it, as we courageously raise our voices, we find ourselves in the company of Mary, the girl chosen to carry life and hope and mercy for the whole world. We find ourselves in the company of Elizabeth, who brings forth new life of her own, despite her old age, and who shows us what it means to be a witness to what God is up to in our world and in our neighbors. “Blessed are you!” we might proclaim as we invite each other to sing out.
We find ourselves singing along with Hannah, who cries out to God in longing and then rejoices in God’s faithfulness. In our song we proclaim impossible hope with other faithful people of God, like Sarah and Rachel and Rebecca and Ruth and Mary Magdelene and the woman at the well who’s name we do not even know but whose faith continues to inspire us today. Our song joins the songs of the psalmists, who cry out in despair and hope and thanksgiving and wonder. Our song joins in the song of the angels that fateful night in Bethlehem and becomes an unending hymn bringing hope and life and new creation even when everything seems hopeless. Our song joins with the ordinary saints and sinners who have gone before us, who have turned to God when all else seems lost.
Because even as the Christmas songs ring out and the festivities surround us and our bellies are full of Christmas cookies, we know that this world is hard. Life is unfair. The sting of death is real. Maybe you’re locked up this Christmas. Maybe you feel the weight of anxiety or depression or are filled with rage at the state of our world. Even in our Christmas joy, we know that life is complicated and messy and sometimes it simply hurts. And when this is the case, it can be hard to join in the song. But that’s why we have each other.
So, today, we follow Mary’s lead. Our singing might be off-key, but that’s the gift of singing in community. When I lose the note, you can help me get back on track. When we feel confident, we can harmonize, and celebrate each others’ unique beauty and contribution to the song. Other times, we can sing out for each other when one of us forgets the words or needs to pause to catch our breath. Together, with the help of those who have gone before us and filled with hope for those will come after us, we can sing about a God whose faithfulness never wavers. A God who is turning the world upside down, who promises to lift up the lowly, to fill the hungry with good things, to bring about new life and new beginnings when it seems like all odds are against us.
So, sing out, blessed ones. As we wait for our world to be made new with peace and justice for all people, as we open our eyes to witness God’s impossible love breaking in around us, as we dare each other to believe that grace really does get last word, as we await the coming of the Christ child, may we join with Mary and all of God’s people. We may be a ragtag choir, but God’s Spirit is stirring among us. And, with the mighty power of the Spirit, may we continue to sing with faithful anticipation—trusting that with God, nothing is impossible.