Sunday, December 23, 2012

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Luke 1
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 
47   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
   and holy is his name. 
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
   from generation to generation. 
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly; 
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty. 
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
   in remembrance of his mercy, 
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

It seems that if the world doesn’t end, you still have to preach a sermon.

But not to worry: the world-ending, age-changing, time-shifting theme continues in the season of Advent, and we’re still in it for one more day. Tomorrow, the new age arrives, and we’ll face all that shiny-newness when it comes, but for today, we’re still preparing.

But we’re getting close. So close, that nearby babies are leaping in their mothers’ wombs and the mother of our Lord is singing a new song, but an old song all at once. The leaping baby, of course, is John the Baptist, as Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth. Suddenly, it seems, everyone is making prophetic speeches and everyone is overwhelmed by the Spirit.

Before we listen in detail, however, an observation. To be human is to love stories, and some of the most popular stories are stories that describe hinge-moments, moments on the cusp of change or change that is happening and won’t turn back. Think of Mad Men or Downton Abbey or Gone With the Wind or The Sound of Music and you will see that we are drawn to a story where one world is ending and another world is on the way.

And reaching all the way back to Advent One, it seems obvious that we drawn to hinge-moment stories because hinge-moment stories cast a light on much of our experience. It’s why they are so compelling, because they demonstrate in narrative form the very thing we all know: Life, like a book, has chapters, and the most interesting part of any book is the time when one chapter is ending and another chapter is set to begin.

So, Mary and her cousin are spending time together, and try to describe in some way the hinge-moment that is unfolding around them. They are pregnant. But they are much more than simply pregnant, they are in the realm of dreams and prophecy and angel visitations. It might even be a little disturbing, something Luke mostly hints at, to find yourself ‘overshadowed’ by the Spirit, to learn that this child will be uniquely holy, and will be the Son of the Most High. But she accepts, perhaps knowing she has little choice, but she accepts.

And then she sings. She sings a song that is the echo of another song, from another hinge-moment, a song that also anticipates great change. It’s not a direct parallel, of course, but how could it be an exact match, since Mary can barely fathom the type of change that the birth of her baby will bring. So she echoes Hannah’s Song, found in 1 Samuel 2, in a bid to describe what all of this might mean.

Hannah is the mother of Samuel, and like the matriarch Sarah, she defies the odds and becomes pregnant. But unlike the laughing Sarah, Hannah prays and shares a prophecy, one that will give hope to Mary and will inform the life of little Samuel, but won’t alter the course of the history of Israel, something we’ll look at after we hear a little of Hannah’s Song:

“My heart rejoices in the Lord;
in the Lord my horn[a] is lifted high.

7 The Lord sends poverty and wealth;
he humbles and he exalts.
8 He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes
and has them inherit a throne of honor.

“It is not by strength that one prevails;
10 those who oppose the Lord will be broken.
The Most High will thunder from heaven;
the Lord will judge the ends of the earth.

That last bit is a warning, ‘it is not by strength that one prevails, and those who oppose the Lord will be broken.‘ The setting is a hinge-moment, the end of the period of Judges and the beginning of the period of kings, but we shouldn’t get excited, since it mostly ends badly, in spite of all the warnings.

Samuel is the last judge to rule Israel, and does so with great integrity, having been dedicated to God since birth. But his sons are set to follow, and they are not Samuel, and the people of Israel have been looking at neighbouring nations, and the idea of kingship, and they are filled with envy. ‘We want to be like other nations,’ they say. ‘Before you go, Samuel, give us a king to lead us.’

Samuel tries not to take it personally, and God helps, because God says ‘listen, Samuel, it is not you they reject, but me; they rejected me after I brought them out from Egypt and they reject me now. If it is a king they want, give one to them—but make sure they understand what they ask for.’

What follows is perhaps the most profoundly accurate words of prophecy every uttered, because they describe kings and governments of every age, and it is not a compelling picture:

“This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle[c] and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

And like idiots the people said “No! We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”

Now, this is not a Tea Party sermon, and we like our government, and if not this government, we like Her Majesty’s government that lives above all the foolishness that happens in Ottawa. We are United Church, we celebrate paying taxes and knowing that our taxes pay for all the good stuff we support, like UI and health care and equalization. We’re not opposed to government, we see it as a force for good. But we shouldn’t get too excited, says Samuel, because kings and governments are always about the status quo, and rarely about a world make new.

All governments are concerned with getting and keeping power, that is what they do, and even the most enlightened government will make the compromises necessary to ensure that they keep power. They will pander to the most reliable block of voters or supporters and find a way to square their concerns with the concerns of the government and seldom do what is right simply for the sake of what is right.

An enlightened government doesn’t set the welfare rate at $606 a month and call it adequate to the needs of the most vulnerable. Instead, our government allows wealthier Canadians to hire a nanny and claim a child care deduction to the tune of $600 a month, per child. The same wealthy Canadian can deduct nearly $2,000 a month in RRSP contributions, sheltered from tax, or claim the children’s fitness deduction, or my personal favourite, carrying charges: If you rent a safety deposit box to keep your gold bullion, you can deduct the cost of the box. So who does government serve?

Now, I’m no revolutionary, but Mary was. Listen to her words, while you ponder safety deposit boxes filled with gold:

51 God has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly; 
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.

This is not a ‘personal saviour’ who will save your soul from eternal torment, though he might do that too: This is God’s own program of social reconstruction and subverting the existing order. Israel wanted a king—begged for a king—and with it they got judgment and defeat and a small wealthy elite who didn’t mind Babylon after all. In fact, many stayed when the exile ended, because there was no Holt Renfrew in Jerusalem and in Babylon you could deduct the cost of your nanny.

In many ways, Christmas may be a case of ‘be careful what you wish for.’ God is going to enter our world in a new way, everything may change, and we may decide that the old order wasn’t so bad after all. Welcome the child, but don’t forget that he comes with a program and a purpose: to change everything to reflect God’s desire for the world. Thanks be to God, Amen.


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