Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sermon: Rejoice

Meherrin Presbyterian Church
December 14, 2014; Advent 3B
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Luke 1:46-55


One of the more fascinating moments in the early history of the church involves the bishop Ambrose of Milan forcing no less than the Roman Emperor to engage in an act of public repentance.  Theodosius, the emperor in question, had reacted violently to a riot in the city of Thessalonika; under the pretense of hosting a chariot race, seven thousand Thessalonikans had been lured into the city stadium only to be massacred by Roman troops.  Upon hearing of this Ambrose had not merely made a statement but physically barred Theodosius from entering the church in Milan, and ordered the emperor to perform public penance before he would be allowed to enter the church ever again.  Amazingly to our modern sensibilities, Theodosius submitted to Ambrose’s rebuke, and made penance before the public, and was eventually allowed to enter the cathedral again.
I dare say such a result would be inconceivable today.  I dare say any modern-day Ambrose who so challenged the leader of any country on this planet would far more likely end up arrested or simply killed, and the church probably destroyed as well.  Yet such challenge to the powerful was the lot in life of most of those Old Testament figures we lump together under the label “prophet.”  Only occasionally were the results of such challenges by those prophets so spectacular; the prophet Nathan’s challenge to King David after David had stolen Bathsheba and had her soldier husband killed stands out as one.  More likely the prophet might be imprisoned or at minimum cast out of the king’s presence (the career of Jeremiah shows a few examples of the sufferings a prophet might suffer in the course of doing his or her job). 
Perhaps the worst fate, though, might simply be to go unheard. 
You preach, you proclaim, you deliver the word God stirred you up to deliver, and … nothing.  The powerful ignore you, the people go on their way without noticing, … nothing changes. 
One wonders if the prophecy recorded in Isaiah 61 left its proclaimer with such feelings.  Couched in gentle language though it may be, this is about as subversive a message as any biblical prophet was ever charged to proclaim.  It starts off typically enough; “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me…” is actually a fairly formulaic way of introducing a prophetic speech.  What follows might be a little unusual, if only because rather general; instead of a specific charge against a specific king or against a particular class of wealthy or powerful people, the message becomes one of good news, promises to the brokenhearted, the captive, the prisoner, those who mourn.  It’s actually kind of poetic; “a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit” becomes rather lovely in the reading, even translated into English.  The poetry turns to striking meaphor in verses 3 and 4 – “oaks of righteousness” as a description of those who had been weak and powerless indeed.
It’s all very lovely and hopeful, and yet the prophet can’t seem to resist one dig, back in verse 2.  Did you catch it?  To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God” (emphasis mine).
It happens again in verse 8: “For I the Lord love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing(again, emphasis mine).  It is a fearful thing to see or hear the Lord use the words “I hate.”  Yet here they are, bold as brass, again enmeshed in a passage of beauty and poetry and hope – “I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them…  The promise to the poor and downtrodden can’t seem to escape being laced with words of … well, wrath, or something like it.
In the midst of words of rejoicing, to hear such jarring interjections is perhaps difficult to handle.  Maybe we get distracted by it, or perhaps we just tune it out and focus on the pretty stuff.  Even many biblical commentaries pass over these interjections lightly, not wanting to lose the train of thought of hope and joy, perhaps? 
It is, though, part of the passage.  And we aren’t called to blow off those scripture passages that bother us.  So, what do we make of it? 
Something similar, albeit milder, also happens in the gospel text taken from Luke today.  Here we are confronted with a rather different sort of prophet; a teenage girl who is pregnant, under what we shall delicately call suspicious circumstances.  Over the millennia the church has built up Mary into a tremendously important (or in some corners, nearly divine) figure, but let us not lose sight of her station in life at this point; an unwed pregnant girl, not only powerless but subject to being cast out of the community or worse, had Joseph chosen to do so.  That “likely story” about being “pregnant by the Holy Spirit” probably didn’t help her cause.
And yet, in the presence of her much older and also pregnant cousin Elizabeth, Mary lets out one of the most dramatic prophetic (and yes, that’s what it is, prophetic) utterances in the New Testament.  As lowly and powerless as she is, God makes of her a prophet in order to return to themes heard before in Isaiah and other prophets.  Even in this prophetic utterance Mary recognizes the incongruity of herself, so lowly a servant, being now called blessed by all generations because of what the Mighty One has done for her.  But before long, the prophecy returns to themes of the lowly being lifted up and mercy being given to those who fear God. 
But listen to what else goes on;
…he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts…
…he has brought down the powerful from their thrones…
…and sent the rich away empty…
Again with the dagger amidst the poetry.
What we are confronted with in both Isaiah and Mary is a God who, unapologetically and unequivocally, takes sides.  And what’s left at least a little vague in Isaiah is made uncomfortably specific in Mary’s Magnificat – “the proud…the powerful…the rich.”  And if we really hear it, if we don’t get blinded with the music and poetry of it, we’re probably a little concerned. 
The title of this sermon is “Rejoice,” and in liturgical circles this third Sunday is sometimes called “Gaudete” Sunday (from the Latin word for “rejoice,”) and these texts do have much to them to provoke rejoicing, particularly for the poor, the hopeless, the oppressed, the captive, and so on. 
But is that how we really see ourselves?
Let’s face it; by comparison to many in the world we are not remotely poor.  We generally don’t know what it is to be oppressed – did anybody try to prevent you from coming to church this morning?  Was anybody here barring the door? 
Perhaps more to the point, the descriptives applied to the “other guys” in Mary’s song are actually … well, kind of appealing if we’re honest with ourselves.  We are kind of proud of what we’ve done, of what we’ve “made” for ourselves, proud that we’ve made it through life and survived and even done pretty well for ourselves sometimes.  We don’t necessarily see ourselves as powerful or rich (unless there’s a county commissioner in here who’s been holding out on me), but if we’re honest, we’d be pretty happy to be either.  I mean, right now, my wife and I are facing the task of finding a new place to live in a new city to us.  It would be very helpful to be rich right about now. 
And yet between Isaiah and Mary we’re left with the inescapable conclusion that the rejoicing that this Sunday promises isn’t necessarily compatible with those promises that some preachers make, that JESUS WANTS YOU TO BE RICH or that you can live YOUR BEST LIFE NOW! Maybe the challenge of this day is to realize that rejoicing, genuine rejoicing, is not found in those earthly measures of success.  Maybe the challenge is to understand once and for all that our hope is built on so much more than bank accounts or social status or political influence or any human thing that might tempt us into pride.  Maybe the challenge is to understand that before God, we are all poor and in need, and that to set ourselves otherwise is to set ourselves to be sent away empty. 
We have hope, we have reason to rejoice, not because of what we’ve made or what we’ve earned or what we’ve accomplished or who we’ve controlled.  We have hope because God.  Because Jesus.  Because we live in “the year of the Lord’s favor,” as lowly as we may be. 
It isn’t that we rejoice in our lowliness, even.  You may have known the type who is perhaps a little too caught up in bragging about their lowliness?  The “po’ but proud” type who is a little too proud of being po’?  We aren’t hopeful because we’re poor or oppressed or captive or anything like that; we are hopeful because God is hope.  We rejoice because God gives the joy. 

We want to get it right, I know that.  We’re not always good at recognizing who the oppressed or poor or downtrodden are, though.  Even bishop Ambrose, the emperor-defying hero from the beginning of the sermon, got it wrong on occasion.  On a different occasion he used his influence to prevent Theodosius – yes, the same emperor – from providing compensation to a community that had lost its place of worship when it was burned by rioters.  You see, the place of worship was a synagogue, and the rioters were Christians.  We still get blinded by our own fears.  We can’t see through our own struggle to hold on to what little power we think we have to see that we sometimes turn into the oppressor.
As Advent winds towards Christmas, our hope, our joy is found not in Herod’s palace, nor in the headquarters of the Roman Empire.  It turns up in a piddling little out-of-the-way town out in the sticks.  It comes in the form of the baby born to that unwed pregnant teenager, that baby who ended up being laid to sleep in a feed trough, with no decent accommodation available.  That hope was witnessed by shepherds, among the most lowly-regarded of all Israel, and eventually by a few foreign star-watchers.  Not even in the relatively lowly province of Israel – a minor corner of the Roman Empire at best – could this setting have been called “powerful” or “rich” or “proud.” 
We rejoice in a God who takes sides so profoundly that even in crashing into history, that God did so in about the most powerless way possible.
For the God who takes sides and gives us hope to rejoice, Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): O Lord, How Shall I Meet You? (11), Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming (48), It Came Upon a Midnight Clear (39)

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