Joy for All

Second Sunday of Advent

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 It is good to be with you this morning as we continue to celebrate Advent and look forward with joy to Christmas. Advent is the season where we prepare ourselves for Christ’s birth, it’s this season where we long for Jesus to be born, and this year we are preparing ourselves by being people of joy, the joy that comes to us as a feeling and the joy that persists within us.

We’ve provided you with a guide to prayer and study with daily readings, thoughts, and prayers that all tie back into our message. Throughout the week I hope you find them useful and encouraging. If you were not with us last week, we had journals, advent activity cards, Christmas Eve invitations, and more, and they are all available this week too, don’t worry if you miss last week because you can get started this week. You can find them in the hallway outside the sanctuary and there are a few by the doors as well.

So, as we get started with the sermon this morning, I have a question for you, when you’re happy and you know it you do what?

Clap your hands.

We have this kind of cultural call and response that we know and it makes sense to us. In our reading this morning, we see a different kind of cultural call and response, because for Mary, like most Jewish people in the ancient near east, when they were happy when they found joy and they knew it, they sang, they wrote poetry.

Throughout the Bible, there are songs and poems all over the place. In the opening chapters of the Gospel of Luke, these songs and poems, the first Christmas carols, point us to the meaning of Jesus’ birth.

As we get started this morning I want to give you a bit of context. Mary lived in Nazareth, which, in the first century was less of a city and more like a trailer park just outside the city limits of Sephorus. Sephorus was a larger city in the area, with a theater, schools, wealth, and prestige while Nazareth was the no stop-light town that wouldn’t show up on a map.

In the Gospel of Luke, about a week before Mary sings our reading this morning, she’s told by the angel Gabriel that she is blessed, full of grace, and will have a child.

All of this is news to Mary because while she’s engaged, she’s not yet married.

When Mary first hears the news, it doesn’t seem like she believes it’s good news. We can infer this because when Mary finds out she’s pregnant, instead of talking to her parents, instead of talking with her fiancé Joseph, Mary travels to see her cousin, Elizabeth. Mary needs some distance from her normal life because things aren’t normal any more.

Mary travels to see Elizabeth because, just like Mary, Elizabeth knows what it feels like to have an unexpected pregnancy. Elizabeth thought that she was too old to have a child, but when Mary arrives Elizabeth is about 6 months pregnant.

Mary isn’t sure there’s anyone else she can talk to and as Mary walks into Elizabeth’s home, Elizabeth says you are blessed and blessed is your child. It’s written in Luke 1:42 that when Mary arrives, Elizabeth, “With a loud voice…blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and [God] has blessed the child you carry.”

All of a sudden, Mary doesn’t feel like she has to be afraid anymore, she doesn’t need to be worried. Mary knows she isn’t alone. With Elizabeth’s trust and support, Mary can trust that not only is God with her but God is for her and joy begins to overflow in Mary’s heart.

That’s its own sermon, isn’t it? How many of us have been afraid, or worried, or anxious, we didn’t think we could make it on our own, because we couldn’t, and when we couldn’t turn anywhere else, the right person was there at the right time to speak hope and grace and joy into your life.

Mary has joy, Mary is happy and she knows it, so she starts to sing. This song that Mary sings is similar to another song in the Bible, the song that Hannah sings when she gives birth to Samuel, one of the great prophets of the Hebrew scriptures.

Hannah’s song is found in 1 Samuel, Chapter 2 and was memorized or at least known by Jewish women in the first century – much like Amazing Grace is for many of us. Even without a hymnal, you can probably sing the first few words. This is how Hannah’s song begins, “My heart rejoices in the Lord. My strength rises up in the Lord! My mouth mocks my enemies because I rejoice in your deliverance. No one is holy like the Lord – no, no one except you! There is no rock like our God.”

Mary has that song in her heart, and it becomes a song of praise that she doesn’t simply know the words of, now she knows that song at a deeper level.

Mary sings:

“With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. [God] has looked with favor on the low status of [God’s] servant. Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is [God’s] name. [God] shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God. [God] has shown strength with [God’s] arm. [God] has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. [God] has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. [God] has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.”

You can hear the similarities between Mary and Hannah, right?

Here’s the thing about this song – we often want to make it sentimental (we can’t quite do that with Hannah’s song because the second line is about mocking those who doubted her). But with Mary’s song, we want to write these words on a Hallmark Card and ask her what color the nursery is going to be and where she’s registered for the baby shower.

But Mary’s song isn’t sentimental, it’s a protest, it’s a pronouncement about who God is and what God is doing.

During the 1980s in Guatemala, it was illegal to read this song out loud. Throughout Nicaragua and El Salvador, peasants protested and carried with them copies of this prayer, this song, because they were lowly and God is in the business of lifting them.

Mary speaks about mercy, and yet, Mary’s song promises that God’s strong arm will lift up the lowly, and Mary’s song warns us about how God will treat the proud.

At first, this can seem like a contradiction, if God is bringing about mercy how could God be pulling some down while lifting others up? But think about it like this. It’s been a few years since the #metoo movement unfolded, and the tragic thing is how long it took for #metoo to be a movement. From reported statistics, we know that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men are sexually assaulted. We know this is an incomplete picture because this is based on what is reported, and, sadly, sexual assault is underreported.

For far too long it was acceptable for boys to be boys, that would become men that acted like boys because the assumption has been that men and boys can’t help themselves, so women and girls have to be controlled by men because men can’t help themselves…makes perfect sense.

I don’t know about you, gentlemen, but being seen as having the impulse control of a toddler filled with testosterone isn’t much of a compliment.

The shame, the imbalance of power between the abuser and abused almost always insured silence, and yet, #metoo persisted in lifting up the lowly and pulling down the powerful from their thrones.

Mercy, as always, but especially in the #metoo era, is not accepting the status quo and giving abusers a free pass because they were just doing what guys do because that’s not what guys should do and we shouldn’t tolerate it. Mercy is never acceptance of injustice. Mercy will lift us, and sometimes that means rebalancing the scales.

Mary has gone from fear and anxiety to fearless and bold. Mary fears nothing because God is her defender and God is a lover of justice and joy, always on the side of the poor, the oppressed, the abused, the ignored, the least and the lost.

Mercy is not a free pass as much as it is mutual accountability, centered in reconciliation and grace. Sometimes it will lift us, but other times mercy has to call us out.

In the first half of the Magnificat, we hear Mary say, “With all my heart I glorify the Lord. In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. [God] has looked with favor on the low status of his servant. Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is [God’s] name. [God] shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors [them] as God.”

The traditional title of Mary’s song comes from the word glorifies, which, in Greek, is Μεγαλύνει(megalynei) which means to magnify or increase or enlarge. Mary’s vision and understanding of God have increased and her soul, her spirit, has as well. The Grinch was onto something when their heart grew three times that day because the hope and promise of Christmas should magnify all our hearts.

When Mary says that she rejoices, the word she uses, in Greek (ἠγαλλίασεν(ēgalliasen)), literally translates into jumping with joy.

You might think that Mary is jumping for joy because she’s found out that she’s pregnant. And if you’re planning to have a child, if you are expecting to have a child, you’re going to call all your friends, you’re going to jump for joy, but remember, when Mary finds out she’s pregnant she doesn’t tell her friends, she doesn’t tell her parents, she tells a relative in the next town over that’s had a surprise pregnancy too.

I don’t think Mary is leaping for joy because she’s pregnant, she may have been excited, but she also hadn’t told her fiancé or her family outside of Elizabeth yet. The depths of Mary’s joy are seen when she proclaims, that God, “has looked with favor on the low status of [God’s] servant.”

Mary lives in a town that isn’t on the map, and as a pregnant, unwed mother to be, and this might be hard to imagine, but back then, Mary was someone people would have looked down on because she wasn’t married and she was pregnant. Thank God things have changed.

There was a word, a title, for children born out of wedlock in the first century, it was Mamzer, literally meaning estranged person. Can you imagine a society where people, just because of who their parents are and how they were conceived, are treated and viewed as illegitimate and insignificant?

Mary jumps for joy, Mary celebrates, because she knows that God has chosen her, that God cares for her, that nothing anyone says or does, no side-eye will ever bring her down, because God has chosen her and God is with her.

When I was in high school I went on a mission trip to Atlanta. One of the days we were there, we partnered with a group that gave out supplies to persons that were experiencing homelessness. In the morning we put care packages together with granola bars, socks, bandaids, and bottles of water, and then in the afternoon we went to a park and handed them out to whoever needed one, and if they needed more than one, that was ok too.

It was my first experience with poverty. It’s one thing to know that poverty exists, it’s another to know their name, shake their hand, and share a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

That day changed me, and the more care packages we gave out, the more something started to bother me. Because we weren’t just giving them out in a park, we were at a street corner with a stoplight. Cars were stopped, right next to us, but they wouldn’t even glance our way. The folks in the cars were ignoring their neighbors, everyone that was experiencing homelessness was used to being overlooked, but that was a new realization for me. All of a sudden it made sense why I had never experienced poverty before, I lived in a way that acted like it didn’t exist.

When we ran out of care packages we went on with our trip, but I couldn’t get that experience out of my head. I was angry at myself and the world, for knowing the extremes that people are pushed too, but not caring about it enough to look people in the eyes and treat them like, you know, people.

That night we went to a church that was attended almost exclusively by people experiencing homelessness. The church had a service at night, and then a meal afterward. At that church, you could have a meal, but you had to sit through the service first – and I was furious. I couldn’t think of a time in the Gospels where Jesus said, “I was hungry and you fed me, but only after you forced me to be bored in the sanctuary.”

I got pouty and sat by myself in the back corner of the church.

Slowly the church filled up with hungry worshipers, and a woman with a 4, or maybe 5, year-old daughter. I had my arms crossed across my chest, I was looking at the floor, I was done with people. And that’s when the girl noticed a watch that I was wearing.

Some would say that I was unique in high school, I’ll just admit that I was weird. I was weird because the watch that I was wearing was from a Burger King kids meal. It was a Rugrats watch and my watch had Chuckie on it. If you have no idea what any of that means, just know that my watch was bright orange and yellow with an excited cartoon character on it, the kind of thing that might perk the interest of a small child sitting next to you.

The little girl sitting next to me grabbed my arm and pulled it towards her to get a better look at my watch, and as angry as I had been, at that moment all I could do was smile. The church service had started but I wasn’t paying any attention to the pastor, I was getting to know my new friend. What the little girl didn’t know, and what the pastor didn’t appreciate, was that the watch talked. The watch talking, and then the girls squeal of joy, was not appreciated by the pastor, but we didn’t care because we were having church in the back row.

For the rest of the service we played tic-tac-toe, we told each other knock-knock jokes, and we continued to make my watch interrupt the service because it made us both smile and laugh.

As the service ended, our group was told that we wouldn’t be able to eat at the church that night because they only had enough food for their guests, so the little girl and I started to go our separate ways.

That’s when I took off my watch and put it on her wrist.

I will never forget the smile on her face or the tears in her mother’s eyes.

That girl, just like Mary jumped joy, she celebrated and her heart magnified the Lord, because she was lifted in a moment that brought me down to her level, made us equals, made us friends and children of God together.

Mercy comes up several times in Mary’s song the Christmas story. There are moments where mercy is shared and moments where mercy is needed. This story, this song, it asks us, over and over again, do you trust in mercy, will you be mercy full?

Mary’s song suggests we may never be more like God, we may never be more in line with God’s dream for our lives than we are when we are living joy by being people of mercy.

Remember, mercy isn’t mere acceptance, mercy does not turn us into doormats where anyone can walk over us, mercy is mutual accountability centered in reconciliation and grace. Sometimes mercy will lift us, but other times mercy will call us out.

I was shopping not too long ago and there were people on both sides of the aisle that dared to stop their carts so they could grab something from the shelf. Can you imagine such a thing? Their carts were blocking my path just a little bit, so I decided to treat their carts like bumper cars.

I felt really good about myself. I told myself that the people behind me must be thankful because I cleared a path for them too. But just as I cleared those carts out of my, from the middle of the aisle, I saw something I wanted, stopped, and made everyone behind me wait as I blocked their path more than the carts that I bumped out of my way.

It’s amazing, isn’t it, that even when we don’t give mercy, we expect to receive it.

In Mary’s song, it’s not enough to want mercy, it’s not even enough to trust in mercy, we have to become people of mercy.

Mary says that God, “has shown strength with [God’s] arm. [God] has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. [God] has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. [God] has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.”

According to Mary, God is actively working for those that are pushed down and God is working against those that aren’t merciful.

I believe, with everything that I am, that there is mercy and grace for all people. That God’s primary orientation to us is love, but love doesn’t mean anything goes, love means accountability and responsibility. Sometimes accountability and responsibility mean stepping down from your throne.

It’s one thing to say that God is on our side, it’s another to ask if we’re on God’s side.

As a newlywed, I am continually learning what this means. Do you know the weird thing about being married? I’m no longer single, I can’t just make decisions for and by myself anymore. This covenant of love means accountability and responsibility, and the same is true of the endless love that God has for us.

Mary says that God, “has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. [God] has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.”

Here’s how I think about pride – pride is assuming everything will go my way because I am the center of the universe and everyone will eventually agree with me on that.

Pride is that arrogance, that complete lack of humility, that says I don’t earn anything because I deserve everything.

Professionally, I’ve never had much of a bucket list. When I started working in a church I didn’t think about things that would give me pride, I started to realize everything that they didn’t teach me in school. The only goal that I have for myself as a pastor is to not embarrass myself too much from the pulpit, and you know that I don’t always succeed at that. But there is one thing that I always wanted, one job perk that I dreamed about, one thing that I thought would bring me pride – having a personal bathroom.

I don’t know why I thought that would be the mark of success in my career, but for the last 10 years I told myself that once I had my bathroom, that would be when I made it.

Some of you may know that my office here had a bathroom. I say had a bathroom because, and I would appreciate a moment of silence for this, I don’t have a bathroom anymore.

As part of our renovations, and as we put in the new, accessible bathrooms by our activity center, I lost my bathroom. A county requirement mandated that we install a grease separator for our kitchen. Our kitchen happens to be below my office, and a bathroom waste plumbing can’t be the same as a food waste plumbing for what should be obvious reasons.

When Mary says that God has pulled the powerful down from their thrones, I know exactly what that means.

Mary says God, “has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. [God] has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.”

In the first century, this was a dangerous thing to say. A few miles away from Mary there was a king, a very rich king named Herod, and he called himself Herod the Great. Can you imagine the kind of ego that you need to not only talk about yourself in third person but to call yourself ‘the Great’?

Mary says that people like Herod, not even like Herod, Mary says that Herod is going to be pulled down from his throne. Mary says that Herod doesn’t get the last word, God does.

Let’s think about how dangerous and radical this was, because Herod killed his wife when he started to be suspicious, or you could say paranoid because he didn’t have any proof, he simply thought that his wife was plotting against him, so he killed her. After that, Herod killed a few of his sons because he thought they were out to get him. Because that wasn’t enough, Herod thought that one of his soldiers was going to lead a rebellion so Herod had that soldier’s son killed and made the soldier watch.

Mary says God, “has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. [God] has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.”

No merciless regime lasts forever, no evil, no injustice gets the final say.

Mary says that God will fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty. But let’s not talk about how rich we are. Let’s overlook the fact that if you live on more than a dollar a day you are wealthier than billions of people around the world. Income inequality is real, and it’s not sustainable, which should make us think about our wealth and excess. Maybe you’re thinking to yourself that the sermon has gone from slightly interesting to meddling, but this isn’t my sermon, it’s Mary’s. Can you imagine how many churches would say to Mary, “Calm down, comrade” if she preached like this today?

As the election season ramps us, because it’s Iowa and the caucuses are coming, there’s a lot of debate and discussion about taxes and wealth. Should taxes go up, should they go down, what industries will the government subsidies, who should be given a break and who should pull themselves up by their bootstraps?

I am all for debate and discussion, but as a people that are following Jesus, as people that have listened to Mary and are accountable to mercy, we need to ask ourselves how much of this economic debate sounds like Mary, and how much sounds like greed?

We can debate economic theory, we can debate tax codes, but here’s what’s not up for debate – we cannot debate whether or not God cares about people going hungry, we can’t debate whether or not God cares about people being trapped in poverty, we can’t debate whether or not God cares about people having to choose between paying their rent or paying for the medication and meals.

God cares about the least of these, that’s made clear over and over again in the Bible, and if we’re the people that are blessed than we have the holy responsibility to be a blessing to others.

When Mary says that God, “has filled the hungry with good things” and if you want to know how the hungry are filled with good things, look around, look to one another, because you’re doing it. More often than not, even in the Bible, God doesn’t send angels, God sends us.

God sends us through our free clinic and meal every Tuesday. God sends us through the shelter meal that we host once a month, and if you don’t have any plans for January 1st, let me know because we can put you to work. God sends us through the angel tree that we have at the church, God sends us through the donations you help us give Bidwell Riverside. God sends us because God has empowered us to be the answer to someone’s prayer. Folks may come to us hungry, but they go away filled with good things.

When we open ourselves to God’s call, to the responsibility that God has placed in our lives, when we say, here I am Lord, send me, when we are people of mercy, we, like Mary, celebrate the joy and the promise of Christ’s birth.

As Mother Teresa once said, “Do small things with great love.”

Will your mercy, this week, inspire others, like Mary, to jump with joy, to magnify their understanding of God’s goodness and grace?

That’s what God’s hoping for, and that’s what God needs. So may we all jump with joy as we magnify the goodness and grace of God that is with us all. Amen.

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December 9 – 14, 2019

Click on the day to expand the guide.

Monday

Read – Luke 1:5-20

Notice – The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible notes that, “Because there were [an estimated 18,000] priests, special duties had to be assigned by lot….This occasion was likely Zechariah’s only opportunity to perform this service during his lifetime.” It seems likely that when Zechariah awoke on this morning, he already thought this would be a day he’d remember for the rest of his life. We find this reaction several times in the Advent story: “When Zechariah saw the angel, he was startled and overcome with fear” (verse 12). Zechariah’s fear obscured the joy in the angel’s “good news” (verse 19). Yet the angel’s first words were, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah” (verse 13). “Don’t be afraid” is the most common command God and God’s messengers give in the Bible. This Advent, in what part(s) of life do you most need to take in the message, “Do not be afraid”?

Pray – God, you know how often doubt and fear tug at my heart. Send your message of promise and joy across my path, reminding me to trust and not to fear. Amen.

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Tuesday

ReadLuke 1:21-25

Notice – Scholar N. T. Wright wrote, “Luke is careful not to dress up the story by making Zechariah a great hero of faith…. God regularly works through ordinary people, doing what they normally do, who with a mixture of half-faith and devotion are holding themselves ready for whatever God has in mind.” What helps you to hold yourself ready for whatever God has in mind? Has God ever surprised you and brought you joy by doing something through you bigger than you thought you were capable of?

Pray – God, you worked out your plan through ordinary people like Zechariah and Elizabeth. That gives me hope. I hold myself ready for whatever you have in mind for me. Amen.

Wednesday

ReadLuke 1:26-38

Notice – The angel’s greeting (“Rejoice, favored one!”) confused Mary, who lived in Nazareth, a village so minor it does not appear on any map of Palestine that has been found from that time. Does your life experience of love and trust in close relationships help or hinder you from taking in the good news about God’s incredible love for you? What helps you trust that God is with you and for you through all the ups and downs of life?

Pray – God, from darkness to light, from illness (physical or spiritual) to health, from death to life—you are always the God for whom nothing is impossible. I praise you for the joy and hope you offer me. Amen.

Thursday

Read Luke 1:39-45

Notice – Even before Jesus’ birth, Elizabeth was the first person to call him “Lord”: “Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (verse 43) (The gospels also recorded that women were the first witnesses and proclaimers of Jesus’ resurrection.) In what ways has Jesus’ lordship changed your life, and brought a different kind of joy into it? Like Mary, we all need an Elizabeth to reach out to for advice, wisdom, and encouragement. We’re also called to be an Elizabeth for someone else—to invest in that person and pass on what we’ve learned. As you reflect on this story of support and sharing, remember (and remember to thank) those who have blessed you with love and understanding when you really needed it. And ask, “Who could my caring support help this Advent?

Pray – God, keep reminding me that you kept your promises to Elizabeth and Mary—and that you still do that today. Give me opportunities to give to others as Elizabeth and Mary gave to one another. Amen.

Friday

 Read Luke 1:46-55

Notice – We often call Luke 1:46-56 “The Magnificat” because magnificat is the first word of Mary’s song in the Latin Bible. The first part of Mary’s song was full of hope, excitement, anticipation and joy. It was Mary’s praise-filled response to the realization that she would bear the Redeemer Israel had long waited for. But she also rejoiced that her child would fulfill God’s promise to bring justice to an unjust world, and to care for the lowly, hungry and oppressed. This song of Mary goes on to recognize that the eternal king God was sending would turn upsidedown many human values that had always tended to rule the world. How willing are you to use your God-given ability to lift the burdens borne by people who have fewer of life’s good things than you have? When have you found joy in lifting up “the lowly,” in filling “the hungry with good things”?

Pray – Lord Jesus Christ, I choose you to be king in my life. I gladly take up the freedom and challenge of living by your values. Amen.

Saturday

ReadLuke 1:57-75

Notice – When Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son grew up, people called him John the Baptizer (or Baptist). His life ended when Herod had him beheaded, as a result of Herod’s inner weakness and his wife’s malicious plotting (see Matthew 14:1-12). Did John live up to God’s purposes for him—was he “great in the Lord’s eyes,” as the angel said in Luke 1:15? For that matter, did Jesus bring Israel “salvation from our enemies and from the power of all those who hate us” in the way Zechariah seemed to expect? How closely do your personal definitions of “power” and “greatness” match God’s?

Pray – Jesus, you came quietly, humbly, softly. You lived with joy and freedom. You baffled most of the powerful who heard you. Not only the whole world, but MY world, began to change when you were born. Thank you for offering me your better, more joyous life. Amen.

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