This sermon, offered by The Rev. Andy Jones at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin on December 23, 2018, is built around the readings for the Fourth Sunday in Advent in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.
You can find those readings here.
Here is an audio recording of the sermon
Here is the text:
I almost made it. I’ve done a lot of my shopping on line. I’ve stayed out of the mall all season. I thought I had escaped. But on Thursday this past week I took the day to run some final errands.
I walked into the SERV store on State Street and it got me, an instrumental, made for the elevator in a doctor’s office version of…. The Little Drummer Boy!
I don’t know why I dislike that song so much. It might have something to do with that awful, Claymation, made for TV Christmas Special and the way it scared my kids when they were growing up… More likely it has to do with repetitive melody, and the lyrics… pa rum pum pum pum? Come on.
I hope that I’m not offending any of you, but I was greatly cheered this year when I saw a cartoon on Facebook with the Baby Jesus sitting up in the manger, looking at the Little Drummer Boy, and saying, “That has got to be the stupidest song I have ever heard…” I felt very vindicated…
But this week I’ve had a change of mind. All week long, as I worked with today’s lessons another song kept insinuating itself upon my consciousness. I didn’t think that it was possible, but this song has supplanted The Little Drummer Boy at the top of my Christmas no play list.
It’s not the melody. The melody is beautiful. It’s not the performance. The song is sung a’ Capella and is really well done. It’s the lyrics… well not exactly the lyrics, it’s the theology behind the lyrics, it’s what they teach us… or to put it more precisely what they rob us of…
In order to explain this, I need to back up a little… not that far really… only about 13 verses…
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you’” (Luke 1:26-28).
Now the Lectionary doesn’t have us read this part of the story, The Annunciation, this year, but it’s key to understanding why this song has me so worked up…
The Angel Gabriel comes to Mary to tell her that God has favored her and that she will give birth to Jesus, the Son of God. At the end of this portion of the story Mary says,
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
The Angel leaves and in the very next verse Mary is on the road to the hill country of Judea to see her Cousin Elizabeth. Now it’s important to note that the angel Gabriel told Mary that Elizabeth, who was way past her child bearing years, was six months pregnant. It would have been about a three week journey for Mary to reach Elizabeth, and today’s reading tells us that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months. The lines immediately following Mary’s departure from Elizabeth tell the story of the birth of Elizabeth’s son, John… So, do the math…
Elizabeth was already six months when Mary got the news, add to that three weeks of travel and the three months that Mary stayed with Elizabeth before she gave birth. That tells us that Mary didn’t waste any time getting on the road to go see Elizabeth. She must have saddled up her donkey and left the next morning!
What was going on in her head? Nobody knew about this but her. Why the rush? She wouldn’t have felt anything different in her body, no signs that new life was stirring within her…
Maybe she rushed into the country side to see Elizabeth because she needed some confirmation, to hear that something, anything, that the angel had said was true. If Elizabeth was indeed expecting a child, then maybe the angel had been right about what would happen to her!
She was in a hurry but she had plenty of time to think. Three weeks on the road, to ponder what it meant for her, an unwed woman, engaged but not yet married, to be found pregnant. What would Joseph say? What would her family say? What would the people of village say when they found out?
Talk about your strange mix of emotions… You have to wonder how all of those fears play in her mind alongside the words of the angel Gabriel…
“And now, 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 the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1: 31-33).
“…the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (Luke 1:35b).
Three weeks to ponder, to wonder, to think about how she might be received if she returned home pregnant; and what it might mean if God did indeed come into the world through her, an unmarried peasant girl from a small insignificant village in the Galilee.
So, can you imagine how she felt as she drew near Elizabeth’s house? I am sure that the closer she got, the more excited she became, the more her heart raced. I can just see her running from the yard to the door, calling out to her cousin… Elizabeth?!? Elizabeth?!?
”When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt 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 leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (Luke 1:41-45).
It’s incredible, almost beyond belief! Elizabeth is pregnant! Her unborn child recognizes the presence of the child that Mary is carrying! And Elizabeth knows without Mary even telling her, that Mary is pregnant!
“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’” (Luke 1:46-49).
I know it must feel like it was a long time ago, but remember when I was going on about a Christmas song that has been on my nerves all week? Here’s where it wants to play.
A music video opens, the a Capella group Pentatonix, with candles in their hands, gathered in a cave probably very much like the one where Jesus was born on the hillside in Bethlehem, starts to sing and they ask… Mary did you know?1
“Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water, Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?”
On and on the song goes, asking Mary if she had known all the things that Jesus would do, and finally, the song asks
“Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect lamb?
That sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am. Mary did you know?”
It’s a beautiful song, and I can certainly understand why people find its presentation attractive, but it robs us of an essential part of Mary’s story. A part of her story that we really need to hear, now, today!
Listen to more of what Mary says in this moment:
“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” (Luke 1:51-53).
Mary knew! Mary knew that God was coming into the world, not in the palaces of the wealthy, not in the company of the proud, not among the powerful seated on their thrones… And Mary understood that God coming into the world in this way would turn things upside down. Feed the hungry and lift up the lowly? Mary knew! And here, in the first chapter of Luke, Mary and Elizabeth are together, celebrating, laughing, singing at their wonder and joy that, at long last God,
“…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 for ever” (Luke 1:54-55).
Mary did you know? Yes!
This isn’t Mother Mary meek and mild. This isn’t a Mary who doesn’t understand the implications of what she is doing, who doesn’t understand what her participation in this moment means. In fact, as author D. L. Mayfield wrote this week in the Washington Post,
“Here, Mary comes across less like a scared and obedient 15-year-old and more like a rebel intent on reorienting unjust systems.” 2
It’s important that we recognize, and not diminish or romanticize Mary’s part. Here, in the Magnificat, in Mary’s song of exultation and joy, we hear her full-throated, rebellious, proclamation that God is doing a new thing and setting about to change the world on our behalf!
Yes, Mary knew! And that’s a part of the story that we can’t afford to lose.
It’s important for us, here on the fourth Sunday of Advent, after weeks of longing and waiting, to be sure we understand what we are asking for. And Mary is here, singing her own song, in her own voice, to help us see the truth of the choice that lies before us in these coming days.
It’s the fourth Sunday of Advent. Christmas is two days away. Elizabeth has delivered her child John the Baptist, and his father Zecchariah has sung:
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,” (Luke 1:76)
Emperor Augustus has decreed that all the world should be registered. The whole world is on the move crossing borders, looking for home.
Mary and Joseph are almost to Bethlehem where they will be looking for a place to give birth to the child… to bring the Light of God into the world.
Tired, hungry, road weary, having traveled a great distance, they will come knocking on our door, asking us if we have room to let God in.
What will we do? Will we decide that we have too much to lose? Will our wealth, our abundance, our pride, our need to preserve our own power, lead us to tell these travelers that they need to move along. Find another place. There is no room here for what you bring.
Or will we, like this powerful young woman, have the faith to say, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word…’ throw open the gates, and let them in?
1 “Mary, Did You Know?” lyrics by Mark Lowry and music by Buddy Greene, 1991
2Mary’s ‘Magnificat’ in the Bible is revolutionary. Some evangelicals silence her. By D. L. Mayfield, The Washington Post, December 20, 2018