edited for length (it was too short!)....and for ease of speaking...and for too many references to rich people being sent away empty. LOL.
Prophets and Promises
Isaiah 9.2-7, Luke 1.46-55
Advent 4: 23/24 December 2006
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
I don’t know about you all, but both of these readings make me want to sing. I mean, really—just listen to them! There’s the Messiah, the cantata from two weeks ago, several great hymns, some catchy songs from other places in the world…there’s so much singing going on here. I hear so much beautiful music in my head when I read or hear these poems of Scripture.
But when I start to look at the people and the context behind them…well, that’s a different story. In Isaiah’s case, we find a nation polluted by corruption, a people who have turned away from their God, impending exile, and a prophet bringing words of both judgment and hope. And in Mary’s case, we find a poor young woman, living in a land occupied by a foreign power…a young girl, really, who has just discovered that she is going to have a baby, in spite of the fact that she’s not married, in spite of the fact that her fiancé had nothing to do with it, in spite of the fact that her village could stone her when they find out. Were I in either of those situations, I doubt I’d feel much like singing. And yet, sing they do—both Isaiah and Mary. In the midst of all the troubles, all the corruption, all the oppression, all the poverty, all the danger, they sing.
Have you ever known people like that? People who somehow manage to sing even in the midst of the difficulty, the tragedy, the anxiety? I know some of those people, and I am usually in awe of them. How can they do it? I often don’t understand. I don’t know if it’s that they just have such incredibly strong faith that they can sing of God’s mercy and promises even after an earthquake has left their house flattened, or if they are perhaps a bit…well, slow. I just want to say “can’t you see what’s happened? What’s happening? How can you be standing there talking about God’s great gifts and promises?”
And other times, I am that person. Sometimes I am the person who can sing of God’s grace and God’s promises in the midst of tragedy…but not all the time. I find it’s often a lot easier to look back on the situation and see God instead of trying to do that right in the thick of things. But here we have two people who are right in the middle of some pretty sticky situations, and right then and there they sing and write poetry about God’s promise. It’s pretty incredible.
There’s a word for these people, and it’s not “crazy” or “slow” or even necessarily “super faithful.” These are people who can see the world differently—but the word is not “idealistic” or “unrealistic” or “head in the clouds.” These are people who see the world the way God sees it, not the way we see it. The word for them is “prophet.”
Prophets are not people who gaze into a crystal ball or look at your palm and tell your fortune, not people who tell the future. You may have noticed, actually, that they have a disturbing way of speaking—they often speak in the past tense about things that haven’t even happened. Did you hear what Isaiah said? The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. A son has been born for us. And Mary: God has shown strength, filled the empty, fed the hungry, and sent the rich away empty. This past-tense talk can be really confusing when we start to think about how the world really is. I mean, our world seems pretty dark. The son we assume Isaiah is talking about won’t be born until (tomorrow night) tonight. There are lots and lots of hungry and homeless and empty people waiting to be filled, and lots of people who are so rich we can’t see them around the piles of money and paparazzi. Where is this world that these prophets sing?
That’s the trouble with prophets. They talk as though everyone can see what they see—but we can’t. Prophets see God’s world God’s way. It’s a seeing not done with eyes, but with an open and treasuring heart. It’s a way of seeing that makes them vulnerable to charges of idealism and charges of treason. That’s why prophets have such a rough life in the Bible—people wanting to stone them, imprison them, cut their heads off—any way to silence those people who show us what God sees.
Because the thing is, what God sees is often not what we’d like to see. Sometimes we would prefer to stay in our darkness—it’s comfortable, we know what to expect, we know how to act and how to respond and how to think and feel. Light can be blinding and disorienting and is not comfortable. We like being filled with good things, we like our comfortable lives, and frankly we probably do not want to give them up, we don’t want to hear that all our hard work only gets us sent away empty while the hungry and poor are lifted up and filled. The way God sees the world is pretty different from the way the world actually is—in fact, it’s opposite in many ways. The world order is upside down. That’s what prophets tell us: they tell us that, according to God, things are not right but they will be made right…indeed, in God’s vision, they are already made right. There is a revolution involved here, a turning, a new thing. This Advent message is not all cheer, not all stockings and fuzzy slippers and cookies and presents, not all gentle cattle lowing, strangely clean shepherds singing, and wise men looking adoringly at a sleeping baby that never cries. This baby we will welcome mere hours from now is one who turns the world around, who brings God’s vision for creation to life, who doesn’t just tell us what God sees but IS what God sees. It’s a different kind of cheer, a different kind of good news than what the world usually thinks of as “good.” This is news that God is alive, that God cares about the world and about us, that God is here in the midst of it all with us, and that things don’t have to be this way. This is news that God works great things even in the smallest of servants, that justice is coming, the mercy of God is deeper than we ever thought it could be, that life and love really are stronger than hate and death. This is news that the light, while blinding, is so much better than stumbling around in the dark and hurting ourselves.
And yet….and yet, the world still doesn’t seem right. It still seems pretty dark. The light does not seem to shine very well. The hungry are still hungry, wars still rage, the yoke of oppression still weighs heavily on many. The promises often seem far away…they were, after all, promises made to our ancestors, to Abraham. Perhaps they are so far back in history that they don’t count, that they don’t matter, that too many people have forgotten…even that God has forgotten?
But no…Mary says…no. God does not forget. God remembers. God keeps God’s promises, every time. That’s why the prophets, prophets like Isaiah, yes, even young girl prophets like Mary, can speak of this world they see using the past tense—because it has happened and will happen. Isaiah assures us: the zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this! There can be no doubt—the zealous Lord makes promises and keeps promises. Too bad it’s so hard to see them in our upside down world. Too bad it’s so hard for us to speak this way, without sounding trite and cliché. It’s hard to sound like Mary, like Isaiah—to be so sure, even in the midst of turmoil, war, and fear, or even in the midst of Christmas cheer, family and shopping.
But here, in the deepest moment of Advent—literally the last hours before we celebrate Christmas Eve, the darkest moment of the year, the shortest days, we do it too. We read these words and we proclaim that they are the truth—that light has shined, that a son has been given, that God has turned the world upside down, filled the hungry, showed powerful mercy, and brought rejoicing where there once was fear and grief. We sing of the promises these two unlikely prophets remind us of, and we too, for a moment, have this kind of sight, this kind of vision—God’s promise, God’s future, God’s new thing, is coming and has come and will come. Thanks be to God! Amen.