Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, December 19, 2021

YEAR C 2021 advent 4

Advent 4, 2021
Micah 5:2-5a
Psalm 80:1-7
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-55

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I have always loved this scene we call “The Visitation.”  And I am in good company here, as there are probably more paintings of this scene than most others from the Bible.  Many people seem to resonate with this story.  But the funny thing is, I don’t know exactly why people are drawn to it.  I don’t even know why I am drawn to it.   Maybe it’s the fact that at the very start of the story of Jesus’ life, two women get center stage, and the only man in the house, Zechariah, has been struck mute because of his lack of faith.  (I have to admit, I find that part hilarious.)

And there’s that marvelous moment in the narrative when Elizabeth asks, “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”   Why, indeed?  Who is Elizabeth that Jesus would come to her?  We might rephrase the question, “Who am I that my Lord comes to me?”  And that is a question we can ask with Elizabeth.  Who am I that our Lord would come to me?  Who are you that our Lord would come to you?  The temptation of course is to say, well, we’re the ones who have been preparing.  We’ve been waiting for him.  Getting ready for a month now.

But what if we made all these preparations and Jesus doesn’t show up?  What if we have been decorating our houses, and buying those presents, and sending out Christmas cards, and on and on since the day after Thanksgiving . . . and what if it was all for nothing:  Jesus doesn’t show up?  And you’re thinking, well that’s just plain silly.  Of course Jesus is going to show up.  And you’re right.  Of course he will.

Whether we prepare or not, whether we are ready or not, Jesus is coming.  Whether we’re ready or not, this baby is coming.  That’s the nature of babies, isn’t it?  When it’s time to be born, the baby is coming:  ready or not.

So, sure, we all agree that Jesus will be here on the morning of December 25th.  But the thing is—and it seems to surprise me every year—the thing is that after December 25th, we’re still going to be waiting for Jesus to come.  When we wake up on December 26th, there will still be wars around the world; there will still be systemic racism and economic inequality; there will still be those who go to bed hungry, and homeless, and forgotten.  Jesus isn’t here yet, but even after he gets here, nothing is going to change . . .

Unless, of course, everything already has changed.  What if this baby is not the one who will change everything but is, instead, the one who already has changed everything?  Hold that thought for a minute.

The second part of today’s gospel is usually called the “magnificat,” because that’s the first word in the Latin version.  As many people have noted, it seems an intentional parallel of the Song of Hanna in the book of First Samuel.  It is interesting that in Hanna’s song, everything is in the present tense or future tense. She sings, the Lord will do this, and the Lord will do that.  The future is on Hanna’s mind as she rejoices in her child.  In Mary’s updated version, the verbs are all past tense:  God has already accomplished the deeds that she proclaims. 

Mary’s song points to the fact that God chooses “what is low and despised in this world,” as Paul says in first Corinthians.  Mary starts by saying her soul magnifies the Lord, for he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.  Mary is not boasting in her humility here, and she is not gloating in being chosen to bring Christ into the world. 

Though some people get uncomfortable with too much praise for Mary, there is a very real sense in which she is the first disciple of Jesus.  She is the first person who actually believes the promises about Jesus, the Word of God, when she hears them from Gabriel.  She trusts God, and the Word comes to her.  (And we have Zechariah as the first one not to believe, and we see that the word is literally withheld from him, since he cannot speak until he sees John the Baptist; the one who prepares the way for the Word.)

As Martin Luther says, we do Mary an injustice when we say that she gloried in her humility or in being chosen by God.  Luther writes, “She gloried in neither one nor the other, but only in the gracious regard of God.  Hence the stress lies not in the ‘low estate’, but on the word ‘regarded’.  For not her humility but God’s regard is rather to be praised.”  In other words, God’s regard is what counts, whether she is lowly or not.  The emphasis is on God, not Mary.  And God consistently seems to choose the opposite of what you and I would choose.  We would pick Zechariah the priest and Herod the governor, rather than Mary and Elizabeth.  We would have Jesus born in a castle far away, not in a stable nearby.  After all, who am I that my Lord would come to me?

In spite of her “lowliness,” God has chosen Mary to bear this child.  And that is the nature of God, right?  Abraham, Moses, and Esther; David, Saul, and Mary; a baby born behind some hotel in Bethlehem--the least of towns as we heard from Micah—a whole host of absolute nobodies, chosen by God to save the people, to save the world.  As Luther also says, God rides the lame horse, and God carves the rotten wood.

Who am I that my Lord would come to me?  Absolutely nobody.  And that’s the beauty of it.  Here in Mary’s song, this magnificat, we get the promises, like lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things, sure.  But we also get what sound like curses:  scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, brought down the powerful from their thrones, sent the rich away empty.  And what do the proud, powerful, and rich have in common?  Their false belief that they are going to stay that way forever.  The self-confidence of being rich, proud, and powerful does not lead to being lowly servants.  (We don’t usually think of Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos as God’s handmaidens.)  Maybe the reason God doesn’t pick the powerful, rich, and proud is because they cannot hear God’s voice.  They are too busy being . . . well . . . powerful, rich, and proud. 

But as Mary’s song proclaims, it is already a given that the proud have been scattered in the imagination of their hearts; it is already a done deal that the powerful have been brought down from their thrones; it has already happened that the rich have been sent empty away.  These things have already happened to them; they just don’t know it yet.  But if that sounds like judgment to you, fear not.  Because you know what they’ll be then?  You know what we call the formerly rich, proud, and powerful? 

We call them lowly, hungry, servants.  Nobodies.  The kind of people who can ask, “Who am I that my Lord should come to me?”  The people who can’t expect God to take notice of them; and those are the people God seems to regard.  

And maybe now you’re thinking, uh, Mr. Priest, what if I am one of the rich and proud and so forth?  Will I be brought low, and sent hungry away?  Well . . . yes.  The judgment is already put into place; remember the “done deal?”  The rich and powerful are brought low.  One day we each will be lowly, penniless, and eventually forgotten.  But that is not bad news.

In fact, that’s actually the good news!  Because remember what God does for the lowly, oppressed and broken hearted?  Remember whom God has regarded?  You will never be in better hands than when you are brought low.  And you can never be brought lower than in death itself.  We worship a God who specializes in resurrection.  No matter our current state, when we give up and are given up, then we will be raised up and lifted up.  We all end our lives where power and riches mean nothing.  God will raise the lowly, and who can possibly be lower than dead?

In the grave, the thoughts of the proud are scattered, the powerful brought down from their thrones, and the rich sent empty away.  And then, THEN God can do what God does best, which is to lift us up and fill us with good things.

And that is why we can live our lives with confidence, whether rich or poor, powerful or weak, Jeff Bezos or some overworked/underpaid worker in his warehouse, God starts with us at the same place of new birth, because of the child whose birth we await.

It is no coincidence that the one who sings the magnificat is the one who is carrying the Christ child, the Word of God.  Mary knows the truth of God’s promises, because she is experiencing these promises firsthand.  God has regarded the lowliness of his servant; she has been filled with good things.  Mary is not just filled with good things, she is filled with the best thing of all: the one who brings all good things and makes all things new.

And today we come to this Altar, trusting in those same promises.  God will lift up the lowly, give us good things to eat, strengthen the weak, and sustain us, as we await the birth of the Christ child.  Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, and the one she carries within her comes to visit us in this place.  And you and I rightly ask, “Who am I that my Lord comes to visit me?”  And even though the correct answer is, “nobody,” here at this Altar, Jesus still comes us, that our souls might magnify the Lord, and our spirits might rejoice in God our savior.  For God has regarded us.


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