The Light of the World - Week Four: "The Light & The Arrival"
As a pastor, I often find the scheduling of the Fourth Sunday of Advent to be a bit off---especially this year. The fact that the final Sunday in this season of expectation is literally the day before Christmas Eve offers a temptation of sorts. I'll call this temptation The Temptation of Tomorrow.
Tomorrow is fairly tempting in its own right, especially when Today is not shaping up to be that spectacular, if you know what I mean.
But when Tomorrow is Christmas Eve... that's a whole other level of temptation, my friend, especially since we find ourselves at the end of a very long, and difficult Advent.
Let me ask you something. Are you limping to the finish line this year? Are you ready for all of this to be over and for December 25th to finally arrive? Are you feeling a bit battered by the gauntlet of shopping traffic and other assorted obstacles that you have had to face each and every blessed Advent day?
I feel you.
And so I give you a story that may lessen your pain a tad--a story entitled, "The Annual Cursing of the Lights" or "Roof Shingles Are Like Sandpaper."
It seems that even though the Christmas decorating of the inside of my house was completed last week, what was sorely needed in order to make the rest of the family happy was the decorating of the outside of the house. Decorating the inside of the house is a team sport. This year it included everyone on the team: Mom, Dad, Biggest Boy, Middlest Boy, Biggest Boy's Girlfriend and even Littlest Boy, who obliged the rest of us by not breaking anything.
But when it comes to the outside of the house---now that's a sport sort of like golf. When you play golf, people might ride around with you on the golf cart, but when you step up to the tee box, it's all on you.
My wife is partial to lights all over the outside of the house including high above on the roof line. Lights all over the house make my wife happy, and I have learned after 21 years of marriage that a happy wife is a pretty darned good thing. So needless to say, when I halfheartedly suggested that we just stick with lights that were closer to terra firma, my wife said that would be "Okay," but I could tell that she had started to slide from happy to not so happy, and I heard myself vowing to handle the rooftop lights if that's what she wanted.
The roof of my house is a precarious place with a variety of pitches and some scary footing on top of shingles that have the consistency of shark skin and make you feel as sure-footed as a spider on roller skates.
I don't know exactly if a spider on roller skates would not be sure footed, but it sounded funny in my head, so I wrote it down.
At any rate after a couple of hours on top of the roof in the 80-plus degree Florida winter sun, I was parched and sunburnt. I was in shorts so my legs were skinned in a number of places from moments when I'd had to cling to the roof like a burr to keep from sliding off of it. I also had small chunks missing from several fingers where I had banged them on the shark-skinned shingles while trying to hang unruly strands of lights.
But I got them up. And then I put up about twenty strands of lights on or near the ground. And then I replaced a bunch of fuses, about fifty bulbs and had to untangle one strand that was wound worse than the Gordian Knot.
I was proud of myself because I am pretty sure I didn't cuss once.
Well maybe once.
So yeah, I feel you. I'm tired, too. I'm ready for Baby Jesus to be born, man.
We're not really good at waiting anyway, are we? When I say "we" I mean the collective "we," the average "us." But before we get to Tomorrow--even if it is Christmas Eve--we need sit for a while here in Today.
The passage of Scripture that captures our attention for this sermon is from Luke 1:39-55. It's the passage of Scripture commonly referred to in church-y places as The Magnificat: Mary's Song.
Let's do this in two parts. First, read this:
39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
The meeting between Mary and Elizabeth is a poignant and beautiful story. It's about the confirmation of hope and the fulfillment of a promise. Some people might wonder whether Mary needed any confirmation after hearing the declaration of the angel Gabriel---a declaration that she was going to be the mother of the Messiah.
Well, I don't know about you, but if I had a vision that nobody else saw, I would want to have some confirmation just to be sure I wasn't seeing things. Mary travelled almost 80 miles from Nazareth to where Elizabeth lived---we don't know how long it took her, we don't know who went with her, but we can presume that it took a while, and that she had company, since a young girl wouldn't have made that long journey on her own.
When she sees Elizabeth and sees that her aged cousin is indeed pregnant she is filled with joy and the baby inside Elizabeth's womb is also famously filled with joy, too, because he leaps and boogies at the sound of Mary's voice.
Then the singing starts again.
Luke, the author of the Gospel According to Luke, loved singing. He was like the Andrew Lloyd Webber of the first century. If you go back to the beginning of chapter one and start counting, you'll see that this is the second time that someone bursts into song, and there's another one to follow a little later when Jesus is brought to the Temple as a baby. I like this addition of singing in his narrative. It sets a worshipful tone for the birth narrative, and there's just so much power in the poetry of the words of these songs.
Here is what Mary sang:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
This song is known as The Magnificat, a Latin word that corresponds with the line of the song that talks about the "Mighty One" who has done "great things." First of all, the voice singing the Magnificat is not a powerful and a privileged voice. It's the voice of a peasant girl from a backwater Galilean town--a town whose only claim to fame was the fact that it was three miles from Sepphoris, which had been destroyed by the Romans because of an uprising. Mary's is a tired voice, a voice that is already world-weary even at a tender age. But it's also a voice that is filled with hope.
The world described in Mary's song is one that is topsy turvy. What was powerful is brought low, what was low is made powerful. The hungry are given food, while the rich are sent away empty. Then finally, Israel, which had endured centuries of subjugation to more powerful nations, will at last see the fulfillment of the promise God made to Abraham that through his descendants the whole world would be blessed.
So what's this all about? What can we take away from this?
I see two things embedded in this story that need to be lifted up.
First, God is good. Second, God keeps his promises.
This is the essence of Mary's song, the hope behind her words, the strength in her tired, small and powerless voice.
God is good and God keeps his promises.
Here are some questions that I would like you to ponder.
If you find your way into church this Fourth Sunday of Advent, why are you there? If you didn't, then why are you bothering to read this?
What are you expecting... really? Do you feel inside like maybe that your expectations have run out? Maybe what you are feeling is just fatigue---in your body, your mind and your spirit. You've been watching television and seeing countless stories about the tragedy in Newtown CT. The faces of those little angels--those children who are forever frozen in time now because of the horrific act that claimed their life---are burned in your mind. The news around the world doesn't seem to be great either.
And so we sort of find ourselves in this weird place where we are throwing ourselves into Christmas, trying to piece together something that has meaning---on our own of course, just like we always do.
Politicians are vowing to pass laws, change things, do something to fix all of our societal ills. As if they can change the ills that live in the depths of the broken human heart.
And here's something else... Stress levels are too high. We can't balance the demands between the needs of our families and our careers, and as a result families are suffering, splitting up, going through hardship. We're losing the plot. We say that we wish things were simpler, and we look back to Christmas Past with a sense of longing as we hope to recreate what is long gone here in the present.
People are looking backward instead of Godward, aren't they?
Mary's song reminds us that God's story, God's economy and God's plan are not of this world.
As I have said before, the song is not sung with a privileged and powerful voice. It comes from a place of brokenness, a place of waiting. And it speaks to us of a future that will be so much brighter than we could ever imagine even as it looks back to a past where the God of History has been at work.
The prophet Micah wrote this:
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.”
All of history points to the moment of Jesus' birth. And the God who intervened in history speaks to us from the future where Jesus has already prepared a place for us. We are at the crossroads of history, you and I. We have a front row seat to the dawning of the Light of Jesus Christ, who is eternally Savior---yesterday, today and forever.
And so what are we to do on this Fourth Sunday of Advent, teetering as we are on the edge of Tomorrow?
We string some lights, that's what. Because it's better to string some lights than to curse the darkness. It's time to put aside mourning and celebrate. The Light of Christ is about to dawn, and to shine on our faces like pure unadulterated joy.
The night I finished with the lights on my house, I couldn't wait for my family to come home so I could plug the whole thing in and watch their faces when they saw the finished product in all of it's glory. It was everything I imagined it would be. The Littlest Boy ran around like a squirrel saying, "Lights! Lights! Lights!" over and over again. My Middlest Boy smiled that snaggle-toothed eight year-old grin that he musters for really awesome things. My wife glowed, and not just because there were so many Christmas lights it was almost an affront to God, but because she was so happy.
It was a good moment.
As we walked into the house, my Biggest Boy, who is almost 18 years-old said to me, "Good job, Dad." I put my hand on his shoulder and I said to him, "Listen, Boy. These are the things that you have to do when you are a dad. They are important. Do you know what I mean?" He looked at me very seriously, with a misty sort of look in his eyes that made be believe that this was one of those important and holy moments you want to remember.
"I'll be doing this sooner than you think," he said to me.
"Wait awhile," I said. "Wait a while."