Sunday, January 13, 2013

Song of Hope

Song of Hope
Lk. 1:46-56[1]
This is the season for singing. One of the things most of us like best about the Christmas season is the music—provided you don’t spend too much time at the Mall!  Even those of us who don’t particularly like to sing get into the mood when it comes to Christmas carols.  We sing because it reminds us of all the good times we’ve had at this time of year.  We sing because it lifts our spirits during what can be a difficult time of year for some of us.  We sing because we relish the joy in the eyes of our children and grandchildren as they anticipate the gifts they will receive.  We sing for all kinds of reasons, but most of us sing at this time of year.
In our Gospel lesson from Luke for today, we hear the song that Mary sang in response to her cousin Elizabeth’s declaration of faith in the birth of her son.  Mary’s song is called the Magnificat because that is the first word in the Latin version.  In her song we hear her joy over God’s work of restoration.  Interestingly, her song of joy about the coming birth of her son sings about what God has already done: the proud humbled, the powerful pulled down from their thrones, those who are stuffed sent away empty-handed, those who are disempowered lifted up and those who are hungry filled with good things (Luke 1:51-53). [2] Mary describes the overturning of the current system of consumption and oppression and violence by the norms of God’s kingdom: mercy, justice, and love.[3]  And she sings for joy as if these things have already happened.
One of the reasons why she can sing this way about the future birth of her child is because it repeats the song of God’s restoration that has been sung throughout the ages.[4]  From the song of Hannah in the days before King David a thousand years before Christ to the song of the Psalmist in Ps. 146, we hear again and again that God’s work in this world consists of setting things right.  And Mary sings her song of joy because she sees the birth of her son as the beginning of the fulfillment of the hope that people like her had been singing about for generations.
While Mary’s song is a song of hope and joy, there’s just no way to avoid the fact that there is a barb in the good news that God is working to restore the human family.  That barb is this—most of us fall into the category of the “full” and the “rich” who will be sent away hungry and empty-handed.[5]  Mary’s song of hope is a joyful one for those who are lowly, humble and humiliated, the least and the last.  And yet, even here there is good news—the future Mary looked forward to is a vision of the restoration of the whole human family.  She saw in the birth of her son the establishment of the justice that makes it possible for all people to thrive, to reach their God-given potential, to experience the joy and the vibrancy that God intends for us all.
What that means for those of us who are “full” and “rich” here and now is that the only way for us to sing Mary’s song with the same kind of joy—the joy of the “lowly” being lifted up—is if we actually engage in God’s work of restoration.[6]  The only way for us to sing Mary’s song with joy and hope is for us to work at lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry, and restoring those who are disenfranchised.[7]  That was what Jesus came to do—to begin God’s work of making all things new, of setting right the wrongs and lifting the burdens we all carry.  That’s why we celebrate Advent and Christmas.  It is a time for us to focus our attention on God’s work in this broken world.  It is a time of looking for the salvation that God has promised, and a time of singing for joy over what God is already doing among us.  It is a time to celebrate the work of restoration God is carrying out in the human family—the whole human family.  And it is a time for us to join that work.
In Advent we sing because we look forward to something better than the violence and suffering and injustice all around us.  We look forward to the kindness and generosity and compassion of our God being fulfilled for all the peoples of the world.  We sing because we look forward to “peace on earth, and mercy mild”; it is the heart and soul of our faith. We sing because of the good news that in Jesus the Christ God has entered this world definitively to set everything right and to make all things new.[8]  And we sing because in and through this marvelous event, “light and life to all he brings.”  This song of hope is what enables us to look past our fears and our hurts and our suspicions and view those around us with God’s compassionate love.[9]  This joyful faith is what gives us energy to sustain our love as we join in God’s work of transforming all creation by making a difference in our corner of the world.[10]

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/23/12.
[2] Cf. Ruth Ann Foster, “Mary’s Hymn of Praise in Luke 1:46-55,” Review and Expositor 100 (2003):451-463.  She says (p. 458), “Mary acknowledges God's mercy and love for the lowly and a radical reversal of normal human values in the coming messianic kingdom.”  Cf. also R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX:55.
[3] Cf. Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge: A Shortened Version of On Being A Christian, 89: in the light of the Kingdom of God, “all existing systems, all ordinances, institutions, structures and indeed all differences between the mighty and the powerless, between rich and poor, appear from the very beginning to be relatively unimportant: the norms of this kingdom must be applied even now.”
[4] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, Luke, 30, where he says that Mary’s song expresses what is “timelessly true.”
[5] Cf. Foster, “Mary’s Hymn,” 458: “even though Mary has been often ‘regarded as the comforter of the disturbed .. . she [or at least her song] is far more accurately the disturber of the comfortable’” (quoting Doris Donnelly).
[6] Cf. Stephen Shoemaker, GodStories, 217-18: “There are only two ways you can enter the kingdom and experience its joy. One is to be among the poor, oppressed, bruised, blind, and brokenhearted; those to whom God comes as healing, comfort, justice, and freedom. The other way is to be among God’s people who are going to the poor, oppressed, bruised, blind, and brokenhearted and bringing God’s healing, comfort, justice, and freedom.”
[7] Cf. Letty M. Russell, “God’s Great Reversal,” The Christian Century (Nov. 20, 1991): 1089.  She says, “God's great reversal may come too close to  home as we hear that Christmas is about lifting up the ‘lowly,’ filling ‘the hungry with good things’ and ‘sending the rich away empty.’ Yet it is by joining in the their desire and work for deliverance that we find out the meaning of the good news of great joy.”
[8] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics, III.2, 460-61
[9] Henri Nouwen, Now and Then, 60-62.
[10] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 338: “Faith can expend itself in the pain of love, ..., because it is upheld by the assurance of hope in the resurrection of the dead.

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