Preparing for Christ

Luke 1. 46-55

It is Advent, the Christ child is coming and we are preparing. We prepare by decorating our homes, by buying gifts for loved ones, by making donations to charity, by listening to Christmas music, baking and eating. We prepare our hearts and minds by reading Scripture and doing a daily devotion, by praying and by being fully present in each precious moment of the season. All of these preparations are great – they are meaningful – and they help make Advent and Christmas joyful.

Last week our Scripture was from the first lines in the Gospel of Mark. There, John the Baptist was introduced as someone chosen by God to prepare the way for the coming Messiah. The words of Isaiah 40 were lifted up to describe John’s preparation work. John the Baptist came to make the paths to Christ straight. Isaiah 40 says the valleys will be raised and the mountains and hills will be made level. John the Baptist called all the people – the country people and the city people – to look forward to a new era, a new way, a new leader. But as he prepared the way for Immanuel – God with us, he also reminded the people that God has been working – has been active – through the prophets and Moses. John pointed forward while he also reminded people of the past.

Mary also had a critical role in preparing the way for the son of God. She prepared the way through her song, by raising Jesus to adulthood faithfully, by supporting him in ministry and following him to his cross. And tradition says that she continued to be an important leader in the church after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

And as a female follower of Christ Jesus, for whom there are  few female role models in the Bible, I adore Mary. And while I am not suggesting that we worship her, I would be okay with giving her a higher percentage of our study and reflection time. She was the mother of our Lord – theotokos – in Greek.

—As Mary left her home after receiving the news from the angel that she was pregnant; with the weight of the world on her shoulders, she ran into the loving arms of her relative, Elizabeth. In Elizabeth and Zechariah’s Godly home, she was steeped in the faith. She heard words of comfort rooted deeply in the Jewish tradition. She would have felt God’s love and compassion in their home and the support of God’s call to her through Elizabeth’s reception and hospitality.

As she traveled to Elizabeth’s house, she must have thought about all that had just taken place. She must have remembered the words of the angel – you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High…, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ She must have contemplated her response to the angel– ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Her exchange with the angel must have circled around and around in her head as she walked.

And then Elizabeth’s greeting and subsequent blessing gave Mary a new understanding of what was happening to her and a determination to do the work given to her by God. She seems to have received a new power and becomes less of an object of resolve. Mary was the recipient of an empowering spirit to be a participant in the work of that very spirit. Her life became part of the larger drama in which she both lost and found herself, loosing and finding her life in God’s plan of salvation for the world.

For those of us who have grown up in Protestant churches or in no church at all, our only exposure to Mary has probably been the Nativity story at Christmas time. Mary is most prominent in the Gospel of Luke but even here is only mentioned twelve times. She is found five times in Matthew, 4 of those are part of the Christmas narrative.  Mark included her – once by name and once by reference, and John mentions her twice but never by name. Our picture of Mary has come almost exclusively from the Christmas story, portrayed silently in the Nativity Scene —looking down on the babe in her arms bathed in soft, warm light while the choir sings “Silent Night.” Most paintings of her are equally nostalgic.

But Mary was no softy and she was not silent. She was a pregnant teenager in a rural town who was only about 12 when went to live with Joseph. Mary had to be tough. She knew what it was like to get dirty – to have dirt under her nails – she gave birth in a barn for heaven’s sake, literally for heaven’s sake.

Mary’s song, The Magnificat, is actually a remake of the original hit called Hannah’s song which is found in 1 Samuel, chapter 2. Hannah sings her song right after she presented her young son, Samuel, to the priest Eli so that Samuel would be raised in the house of the Lord to train to be a priest. Listen now to

Hannah’s song…

‘My heart exults in the Lord;  my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.
‘There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.
The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honour.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.
‘He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail.      The Lord!

His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king,
and exalt the power of his anointed.’

 

Mary knew Hannah’s song. She carried Hannah’s words in her heart. We do the same, don’t we? If we grow up in the church, we learn songs and hymns that become part of the foundation for our faith. We carry hymns in our hearts and when we need them, the words come to us, support us and give us strength.

Sometimes when people are nearing the end of their life, in a very real sense, there are no words left to say. In these moments singing a hymn often brings peace that no spoken words can bring. Hymns teach us faith, carry us when times are hard and give us comfort at the end of our lives.

Four women in the Bible have songs: Hannah and Mary, and Miriam and Deborah. Miriam and Deborah’s songs are long praises to God through their own stories of triumph. Each of the songs of these 4 women appear in the Bible in key points in our faith history – they are all songs of triumph and transition – they are songs about God being active in the world – they are songs about God’s greater story of salvation.

Mary’s song sets the tone for the life and ministry of her son. She sets the parameters for all who will follow Christ. Through Christ Jesus, God would turn the normal world structures upside down. With Jesus, God would bring salvation to ALL by leveling the playing field. The lowly are brought up, the mighty are brought down – this is what justicelooks like. All God’s people are equal, the ones who have been hungry have enough, the ones who have had too much feel what it is like to be hungry. The proud are brought down and the lowly raised up. This is what justice looks like.

But just like Mary’s world of Roman occupation, we live in a world where justice is not for all. We live in a world where we are the privileged, we lives of advantage and opportunity. We are Christians, followers of Christ and that brings with it much responsibility. “To whom much has been given, much will be demanded.”

The news these last few weeks have brought to light that the same system that provides us protection is the same system that people of color fear. How this situation came to be, is complicated and multilayered. In trying to better understand the situation, I have read articles. This week I met with a group of black and white ministers to talk about how we can help heal the problems, how we can work together, how we can help prepare our communities for Christ’s coming.

Even though I have read on this issue and have listened to my black brothers and sisters and have prayed – I do not fully understand the problems and I definitely do not have the answers. And I know that any answers that would come from me, would be incomplete – because I have never been a police officer or prosecuting attorney or judge and I have never been black. This week Jim Wallis, a Christian pastor and writer, published and article addressed to white people. His message was clear, he asked us to ask questions and listen.

And so after listening to some of the stories of my clergy friends of color, I asked them how they would like us, their white brothers and sisters to support them. And they said something very similar to Jim Wallis. They asked us to reach out, to ask questions and to listen. They asked us to share a meal with our black brothers and sisters, to get to know our brothers and sisters of color and learn about their experiences. They asked us to love our neighbors – our black neighbors.

If you have people of color, in your family or in your network of friends – connect with them in some way. If you work or go to school with people who are brown or black, ask them about their experiences with racism. And if you have NO people of color in your life – ask yourself why and how that might contribute to the problem.

We are privileged people and followers of Christ Jesus and so great things are expected of us. Isaiah 40 says that “every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill made low; the uneven ground shall become level” and Mary said, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”

Salvation has come to the world through an infant named Jesus, born to a rural teenager with dirty fingernails. Salvation has come through Jesus the Christ who came to turn the structures of society upside down. John the Baptist and Mary, the mother of Jesus invites each of us to join in the preparation work. They invite us, as people of privilege, as followers of Jesus, as those who already have salvation, who already know the love and peace of Christ – to step out and get a little dirty this Advent season.

As we prepare once again to accept the infant Christ into the world and into our lives, Mary reminds us what that will require. And as your preacher, I urge you to reach across the lines of color and have a conversation this week. Invite a friend to lunch or dinner. Pick up the phone and give someone a call. Let them know that you care, that their lives matter to you and then just listen. Together we can lift up the lowly in love.