It is that moment on Christmas morning. In my house growing up, everyone went down the stairs together. Sometimes the anticipation was so hard to hold while waiting for everyone to wake up. Each and every year, we expected joy and delight as we came down the stairs, and surveyed the stockings in the family room and the dazzling tree in the living room. While we might have written lists and dreamed through the Sears Roebuck catalog, what actually lie beneath the tree was yet to be discovered, yet to be unwrapped.
Over the last three weeks of Advent, we have been expecting and picturing the coming of Christ. In our imaginings, we have joined with artists and scholars, people of faith, who have been expecting the coming of Christ. The first week of Advent, we joined Horace Pippin, in expecting the peace of God’s kingdom to be manifested. The second week, we sat with Jan Richardson in preparing the way and expecting that the preparation would lead us down new ways to live together. Last week, we bristled as we remembered John the Baptist, a surprising addition to the Nativity, who called us to expect to change as the way of God is known around us.
This week, we picture the coming of Christ through the experience of his mother, Mary’s hearing of the news of his birth. We pick up the story just after Mary has heard the news of his upcoming life from an angel. Can you imagine the paradigm shift she experiences so quickly? From quiet preparation for a marriage on the horizon to unexpected, unsure, unclarified expectations and future tumbling out from her mind, she finds herself hurrying to the house of her cousin Elisabeth. With each step, I can imagine that she simultaneously has the words to explain the situation to Elisabeth and wants to fall into a heap and not think about the future for a while.
She could have prepared a long soliloquy for Elisabeth, telling her of the visions and the dreams, the angel and the future. She could have been ready to hear the words of wisdom from her cousin who might have guided her before, perhaps even around the betrothal to Joseph. But when she arrived, it was Elisabeth who spoke before she. After greeting Elisabeth, John leapt in his mother’s womb. Elisabeth, wife of the priest Zechariah, spoke blessings to Mary. Elisabeth, who words of generosity and prophecy, provide the courage and confidence that the mother of our Savior needed.
Mary responded to God in the form that others had responded to God’s grace before and would respond after. This was a familiar meme, if you will. This was the method of response from Hannah, after the birth of Samuel. It was the form from Miriam after the crossing of the Red Sea. It was the song of Jesus, after reading the scroll of Isaiah in the temple, his first public act of ministry. Zechariah will sing after the birth of John. Mary sang of God’s incredible works. Mary told of God’s promises. Mary declared the goodness of God to the lowly and downtrodden. Mary proclaimed the way of God, even though it was counter to what others had expected. Mary sang.
There are songs that we sing to our children. There are lessons that we want to teach them. These are the lessons of which we want and need to remind ourselves. Singing is sometimes a fountain of joy welling up from inside of us. Singing is sometimes an encouragement to continue when the days are difficult. Singing is sometimes an act of resistance when others would quiet us.
The language of resistance for American slaves was song. The spirituals praised God, protested oppression, and provided guidance up the freedom trail. The language of civil rights activists has been song. “We Shall Overcome” resounds with expectant hope and even joy of a future to come! It was the lifeblood of the Velvet Revolution in 1989 as they prayed and hoped for the wall to come down in Berlin. They gathered around by candlelight around St. Nikolai church. Across months, their numbers grew from hundreds to thousands, singing songs of hope and protest and justice. Ultimately, the wall came down.
These were the songs of Mary and Elisabeth. Seemingly ridiculous songs of one woman too old to bear a child and another so young that she was not even yet married, even though, she was called to carry the son of God. Their songs almost went unheard in the hill country of Judea still under the oppression of Roman rule. Their songs filled the imagination of God’s way and the confidence of God’s promises to reverse the unfair circumstances, not just of their lives, but also of all those who lives had been turned upside down. It was an act of not giving in, but rather of inspiring joy and expectation in others.
How different it is when we chose to wait with others. It is the difference between life by the skin of our teeth and life abundant. It is when we ask someone to hold our hand as we hear the results of a biopsy. It is when we allow others to bring a meal when we are remembering a loved one. It is when we let friends distract us as we wait during surgery. It is when we wait for a baby to finally come. Even though, we have expected joy, we chose joy again!
As we picture the coming of Christ, we expect joy, not happiness, but joy and in the most unusual places. Micah’s prophecy reminds us that the Messiah’s birth was in an unexpected place. This rose began to bloom at my home last Sunday as we lit the pink candle for Mary. But it was eight centuries before the birth of Christ that the prophet calls out for birth of one shall feed the people of God, secure the future, and bring peace. The people were weary of war and conflict. The ways they expected to be of God had become corrupted in the Temple, and they did not know where to turn. The prophet Micah brings the word of God that the Messiah will come from the most unexpected place. The lowly clan would bring forth the birth of the Savior. Eight centuries before Christ, we find the birth of David. David, the most unlikely of his siblings to be declared king. The one from whom the Messiah was descended. God surprises the expectation of God’s people. Those who expected military might, found God inspired wisdom.
Jesus was not born from the most notable of families or the most familiar of locales. Jesus was born in Bethlehem as his parents followed the dictates for tax registration. Jesus was a child traveling through a city in order to achieve the wishes of political leaders. We might even refer to him as a political refugee. Child Jesus would later flee violence and tragedy based on intuition and dream, the realm of God speak. God surprises the expectations of those who knew what the Messiah should be like.
Like Mary and Elizabeth, we, too, have the choice to expect the joy of God’s possibilities. Gracia Grindal, modern hymn writer, “started one of her Advent hymns with a line that captures this sentiment well: “We light the Advent candles against the winter light,” she penned. Not “because of,” or “during,” but “against,” reminding us that the light of Advent, like the light of Christ, is a veritable protest to and resistance of the darkness that gathers all around us. Hope, you see, implies circumstances that are dark or difficult enough to require us to look beyond ourselves for rescue and relief so that we might hear again and anew God’s promise to hold onto us through all that might come and bring us victorious to the other side.”1 It is the hope of our hymns and carols, songs of hope and resistance that capture the realism of a hard world to live in and expecting joy in what is to come.
Even when we prepare for joy, it still catches us by surprise. It is indeed the moment of a new child. It is also the kindling of a true friendship. It is you and I standing on the stairs waiting for all the world to wake up on Christmas morning and walk into our preferred future with God and God’s way. It is listening with hope and joy to the world turned right side up that Mary sang of two thousand years ago and believing that we might be on the precipice of the Kingdom of God.
This is the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, thanks be to God, Amen.
Old Testament Lesson: Micah 5:1-5
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.
If the Assyrians come into our land
and tread upon our soil, we will raise against them seven shepherds
and eight installed as rulers.
Gospel Lesson: Luke 1:39-45, 46-55
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
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.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He 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.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
For Your Week
Sunday, December 20 ~ Saturday, December 26
Sunday: Scripture: “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” Luke 1:41
Devotion: There have always been people who know and live joy so deeply that they even bring it out in us. Elizabeth’s physical response to Mary was to be filled with joy and the Holy Spirit. During this time of preparing for the coming of Christ, find people who bring out joy in you. Spend time with them and allow the Holy Spirit to move among you.
Prayer: God of joy, you have gifted us with the presence of others. We do not walk this journey alone. May our lives together more fully reflect the joy of your coming Kingdom, Amen.
Monday: Scripture: “And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” Luke 1:46-47.
Devotion: The stark contrast of light and dark might be the first thing to invite you into this picture. During the season of Advent, we often feel as though we shine our light in a dark world. We live a world filled with darkness and pain, brokenness and sorrow. And yet, the joy of Christ shines through us as a light in the darkness, giving us enough light for our path.
Prayer: Emmanuel, God with us, shine brightly within us that we might magnify your name and rejoice in you, our Savior, Amen.
Tuesday: Scripture: “And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.” Luke 1:56
Devotion: Mary and Elizabeth remained together in preparing for the ways that their lives were changing. We have sometimes imagined that we need to handle it ourselves and shoulder the burden of life’s changes personally. As we prepare for the coming of Christ, imagine the possibility of joy that might come from sharing and shouldering life together. Picture the change in life when God might connect us with those whom we need and love most.
Prayer: Gracious God, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of preparing for Christmas, slow our hearts and minds to see before us the possibility that we are not just preparing for a day of gift giving, but a lifetime of joy in loving and knowing you. In the name of Jesus, we pray, Amen.
Wednesday: Scripture: “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord “ Luke 1:45
Devotion: God is always speaking to God’s people. Are we hearing and listening? In the checker at the grocery, in the neighbor walking the dog, where is God calling us to relationship and compassion? May your heart hear and believe.
Prayer: Draw near to us, Coming God. Quiet our hearts to hear you. Strengthen our souls to believe you. Still the doubts and worries that take root within us. In the name of the coming hope, we pray, Amen.
Thursday: Scripture: “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. “ Luke 2:6
Devotion: Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds gather in amazement. The gift of the Christ child is right before their eyes. As ordinary as new born baby as extraordinary as new life given, they marvel in amazement. Light and hope are given not only on that night, so long ago, but to each of us who draws near to the manger in amazement.
Prayer: Christ Child, we draw near to you and give thanks. May your light and life bring us hope, peace, love, and joy. Amen.
Friday: Scripture: “So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.” Luke 2:16
Devotion: The shepherds treasured the shocking announcement from angels who told them to search for a newborn child. They did not pause to prepare or even find others to watch the sheep. They went with haste to worship and adore, to see for themselves and then tell all they met about the newborn King. Who have you told?
Prayer: On this Christmas morning, we pause to praise you God for the gift of your son Jesus Christ. May our hearts overflow with the hope of the newborn King who will change our worlds. In the name of Jesus, we pray, Amen.
Saturday: Scripture: And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. Luke 2:7
Devotion: This Nativity depicts Mary after the birth of Jesus, not as poised and radiant, but as tired. Joseph is watchful and the baby Jesus is the light shining in the dark places. I wonder how you feel on this day after Christmas. Lord, hear our prayers for those of us who are tired, those who are watchful, and those who shine God’s light.
Prayer: Glory to God in the highest! Holy God, be near us when we praise you exuberantly and when praises whisper through our watchfulness, exhaustion, and quiet reflection. Amen.