We’ve heard about the darkness of Advent. The waiting. The isolation and loneliness of a long winter. The feeling of being alone in silent, snow-covered woods full of naked trees. In this sermon series we heard Erika talk about being alert and recognizing signs of a new thing happening here. Like the presence of a fig tree in the wood, if we look closely we can recognize signs of promise. We heard from Will about the voice in the wilderness – the courage it takes to be that first voice to call out with an unpopular message. How that one lone voice in the wilderness can inspire courage in others – courage to join in solidarity, courage to hope. Sarah lifted up how we are called to transform – even if our transformation is temporary or imperfect. Our transformation is key to the transformation of God’s kingdom, and can happen over and over again if we are open to it.
Today’s gospel, in a word, is about certainty. The certainty of faith without doubt, the certainty of hope without evidence.
In the Old Testament, the prophet Micah dares to do an amazing thing. Micah’s people are a people under abuse from the Assyrians. We know from Micah’s speeches that those in power have taken ancestral land from the poor; they’ve evicted widows from their homes, and manipulated the money system to cheat. After our study series on Israel and Palestine, Micah’s tribe reminds me of the plight of the Palestinians. Like modern day Palestinians, the people to whom Micah speaks had no chance of match the firepower or warring intentions of their neighbors. Micah not only rails against the powerful, but also indicts the religious and cultural authorities who feign to call for ‘peace’ “but declare war against those who have nothing to put in their mouths”. The prophet calls out the abuse of power and the hypocrisy of priests who supposedly serve a God of justice, kindness and mercy but only raise their voices against those with no power. This reminds me of the Palestinians who are denied the right to dig wells by the Israeli occupying forces who claim water wells could be a violent plot against their well-armed and well-watered community. Micah does not let this abuse of power go unnoticed.
In the midst of such overpowering force and inescapable despair, Micah dares to proclaim with certainty a different future. Making such a declaration, in the face of your oppressor, is audacious in itself. But Micah lifts up ‘Bethlehem, one of the little clans of Judah’, remarkable only in the fact that in no one’s imagination would Bethlehem produce a power strong enough to overcome a warring empire such as the Assyrians. Suffice to say, the ‘little clans of Judah’ are definitely not known for their dominance over others. They are known to be faithful to a God that is filled with justice, mercy, and care for the least among people. Micah says, the one who comes will be one of peace, one who feeds his flock from the strength of the Lord. Micah, essentially, calls Bethlehem ‘blessed’. He proclaimed Bethlehem blessed, and it was.
In Nazareth, a woman named Mary goes ‘with haste’ to visit the elder Elizabeth, whom the Angel Gabriel had said would be pregnant with child – just as Mary herself will soon be. Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist, amazingly so, since she is well past childbearing age. This pregnancy lays the foundation of miraculous birth, to be followed promptly by Mary’s immaculate conception. Elizabeth, when feeling her own sacred miracle child ‘leap’ in her womb, prophesies that Mary is blessed. Then Mary turns and proclaims her triumphant poetry: ‘my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. Surely, from now on, all generations will call me blessed.”
Mary’s Magnificat, as it is known, closely resembles the song sung by Hannah in the OT book of 1st Samuel. Hannah is the mother of the prophet Samuel. Her song is hidden in Mary’s Magnificat – in which she exults God’s greatness, and that his mercy and justice will be for all of Israel, just as Mary proclaims. Some theologians think that Mary sung the Magnificat, just as Hannah sung “my heart exults the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God”. Like the Magnificat, Hannah sings of a God who would “raise up the poor from the dust; lift the needy from the ash heap; guard his faithful ones, for not by might does one prevail.”
In scripture, Mary seems so certain. After all, Elizabeth says ‘blessed is she who believed that there would be fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Some theologians ask if Mary went to see Elizabeth out of doubt or because she needed confirmation of the Angel Gabriel’s message. Perhaps the proclamation from Gabriel was so unexpected, so astonishing, that her ‘haste’ shows insecurity, or fear. The Angel said, do not be afraid, but really, who wouldn’t be afraid? Maybe she needed confirmation, or affirmation, or just the solidarity of a knowing hug. How many of us, when we get unbelievably good news, immediately go find a trusted person to share it? Sometimes, good news is hard to believe until it’s shared. But once Elizabeth proclaims her ‘blessed’, Mary declares that ‘the mighty one has done great things for me’! God has scattered the proud, brought down the powerful, filled the hungry, favored the lowly, and most of all, kept his promise to his faithful people in Israel.
In all honesty, preaching on this scripture has been difficult for me. I confess that certainty is not my strongest trait. I invite God into my life; I try to embrace kindness, generosity and justice at every turn; and I rejoice at the sacred moments of grace and try to recognize when the spirit is moving among us. But certainty of hope is a lot to ask for. Hope requires trust – trust in something far outside myself. And for me, I’m always more comfortable with what is in my power. Just like my activist nature, I’m more at home relying on my own two hands, my own intellect, and my own ability to make change in the world. God asks us to believe in his promise, a promise of peace, justice and mercy for his people. I find Mary’s certainty very intimidating and very distant from how I feel, especially right now. Rather than certainty, I feel like we’re grasping at straws. How do we have certainty of God’s promise when we’ve gone 300 days without snow? How do we find certainty of salvation when we’ve spent the last few weeks learning about an oppressive occupation in Palestine that is oddly similar to the circumstances of the Prophet Micah, but in reverse? How do we find hope when we as a nation are grieving and grasping at straws for 26 families in Newtown, CT? What to do? How do we have certainty in the midst of such crisis? …
And then Pastor Erik suggested that perhaps Mary needed to sing. Perhaps, when faced with confirmation of this incredible, unexpected role… Perhaps she was so astonished, so humbled to be bearing this blessing to the world, that she needed to steady herself with song.
Because singing quite literally gives one courage. Singing is a physical act that empowers people. The act of singing has the power to transform the singer. According to Bernice Johnson Reagon, “When we sing, we announce our existence.” Reagon ranges from musician and composer to historian and teacher, is a member of the Sweet Honey in the Rock music group. And she calls herself a songtalker. She talks about the physical change that happens when sound runs through your body – she says, if you sing, ‘you won’t feel the way you decided to feel to go through the day; you get stirred up’. She proclaims that ‘you cannot sing a song and not change your condition’.
And how true is that? Just like Will talked about the courage required to be a voice in the wilderness, it requires courage to raise your voice in song. We’ve all heard it here in church – the first verse of the hymn, we are timid, matching notes on the page to notes in our ears. By the second verse we add a little confidence to the notes, by the third verse, we’re golden and we’re singing out and resonating with the joy that comes through song.
Bernice Johnson Reagon also explains how song sustained African Americans during their history in this country. Song allowed the slaves to communicate in code; it allowed them to speak truth to the power of the slavemaster; and it allowed their miserable lament, yet provided strength enough to endure through times of no hope.
Imagine how it feels to join together in song. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten chills from hearing a song begin with one lone voice, a single melody ringing out into the wilderness. Then another voice joins in an answer to that isolation. Then three more.
Doesn’t that give you chills? There’s power in music. With that power, song and solidarity comes steely determination – and we’ve seen that in our history. In 1961, when the buses of Freedom Riders protesting segregation were ambushed, set afire, and the riders beaten and arrested, their voices rose out of the jail cells, singing “Ain’t Gonna let Nobody Turn Me Round.” Song very truly holds the power of the spirit. It helps us, as Micah said, to stand in the strength of the Lord.
Singing gives you energy. David, our non-stop volunteer at Elijah’s Food Pantry, often sings while he unloads the trucks, moves the boxes and restocks the shelves. Song can even keep hope alive when everything seems lost. In Apartheid in South Africa, song was the one thing the government could not take from the blacks – and the power of song participated in every part of the transformation of that country – in subverting the power structure, in strengthening the protest, and in the reconciliation. In 1991, Estonia won its freedom from the Soviet Union with only song. According to a documentary called the Singing Revolution, “Singing together was our power. If 20,000 people start to sing one song, then you cannot shut them up. What role can singing play when a nation is faced with annihilation by its neighbors?” Mary knew this. Coming from a long tradition of singing lament and triumph songs – what we all know as the book the Psalms – Mary knew the power of song.
So perhaps Mary had to sing; perhaps she had to sing not just to praise the God that declared she would be blessed among women – but also to steady her nerves! Perhaps she had to sing to confirm her blessed existence first to herself – and then to the Lord and her community.
The music we make when we lift our voices is sacred. Those of us who were able to go Christmas Caroling with St. Luke’s experienced this a few weeks ago. At the last house we visited, a woman asked us to wait for her elderly aunt to come to the door and listen to our carol. After a few minutes, the frail woman appeared, trying to balance with her walker, to ask for Silent Night. Then, something happened that none of us were expecting. As we began to sing, the woman began to weep. There in the quiet street, our 12-voice choir sang into the dark our Christmas blessing, and this woman’s gratitude washed over us. You could feel the power between the woman and our huddle as our song became emboldened with the courage to sing louder, so that we could wrap her tighter in this gift. There was not one singer that night that didn’t leave her door astonished by the power of the blessing we carried for her, and heartened to carry our blessings to more people this Christmas season.
So I’d like to believe Mary knew that sometimes, we need to sing to accept the blessings bestowed on us, and gain that certainty of hope. If each of us took the blessing we feel inside, that little hope, and sang a song to steady ourselves – then we could lean into the certainty of God’s promises. We could lean into that hope, and find out how to feed from the strength of the Lord, knowing that we are blessed. I will call you blessed – and you will be a blessing to me. And you can call me blessed – and I will be a blessing to you. And then we will truly know that a new thing is happening here.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.
Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.