Sermons That Work

Waiting for the Joy to Come, Advent 4 (C) – 2000

December 24, 2000


On this Sunday we continue in the spirit of Advent, the spirit of expectation; we are waiting for something significant to happen. We Christian people are by now tired of hearing and seeing all around us evidence of the total misunderstanding of the season. We are in danger of disliking beloved Christmas carols because of overuse and misuse. It is almost sickening to hear something that has been sacred since our childhood turned into a jingle for buying things–and more things. We are so surrounded by noises and distorted sounds and images that we actually begin to think of “Christmas” as something removed from our faith.

And then we come to church on these Sundays in Advent, to our beautiful Episcopal churches, to hear not Christmas songs, not yet, but only Advent songs of longing: “Oh, come, oh come Emmanuel ….”

On this morning we also hear these beloved segments of the lectionary and our hearts thrill within us. Like Elizabeth, when she saw her cousin Mary, our hearts dance within us. When we hear the words of Micah, it is almost impossible for most of us not to hear them to the tune of Handel’s Messiah, the sweet notes of “He shall feed His flock like a shepherd.” We are blessed to belong to a church that honors this Advent season, that keeps the awe associated with it, the remembrance of darkness before the coming of the Light.

There is darkness around us. It is obvious in the idolatrous commercialism of the season. And darkness confronts us in the great sorrow of the people of the Middle East, who are torn apart by current and age-old hatreds. This same darkness clouds our joy with stress as we try to do more than is required of us – buying gifts for people who need no additional material goods in their lives or for children who have all the toys they can possibly play with. There is the darkness of office parties which are held, supposedly, because of the season; instead of being filled with the good news and with singing of hymns and expressions of love, these gatherings become excuses for behaving in a manner that doesn’t become the children of God. In this darkness, it is a physical relief to enter the church and to feel again anticipation, one of the most cherished human experiences. It is a relief to be able to consciously wait for the light to come, like people who are suffering from insomnia who long for the night to end so that they can see the light of day and stop feeling the anxiety of their sleeplessness.

We welcome the hymns and the scripture readings on this last Sunday in Advent. Micah tells us of the care and tenderness of the good shepherd. The writer of Hebrews assures us that the old order has passed, that God is not satisfied with burnt or sin offerings, but only with hearts that are obedient to God’s will. The Hebrews passage emphasizes that what God did for us happened in the person of the human and crucified Jesus and that his sacrifice continues to sanctify us (cleanse us) throughout the ages in the person of the Son.

But the most tender and courageous images come from Luke’s Gospel. Two women meet on a hill. They are women without importance in the eyes of the world. Elizabeth, the older one, is the wife of a priest, but she has been barren until now, a shameful condition in that place and time. When we meet Elizabeth, she is with child, but at her age, this is embarrassing. The younger one, Mary, is a poor girl from Nazareth, pregnant but not yet married to her betrothed. She needs time to think, to get away from the tongues of those who know her, maybe even from Joseph, her betrothed. They are both a far cry from most of the privileged women of our churches and communities.

When they meet and Elizabeth recognizes in Mary something beyond the ordinary, something revealed to her through the Holy Spirit, she calls Mary “the mother of my Lord.” She blesses Mary for believing in God’s promises, in the fulfillment of “what was spoken to her by the Lord.” It is a time of ecstasy for both of them.

After Elizabeth’s inspired greeting, Mary breaks forth into a song. Remember that these women have no idea that they will become unforgettable icons to millions upon millions of people who will come after them. Mary has no idea that she will reach near deification in major segments of the Christian church. (Had she even suspected that, her Jewish upbringing would have found it blasphemous.) Elizabeth would have laughed at the thought that the church would, one day, call her a saint.

They are two related women who are filled with the Holy Spirit and are delighted at the reality of the children in their wombs. In her hymn of praise to God, Mary focuses on what matters to her, a poor young woman who is obedient to God and who recognizes her humble origins. She senses that in her, in the promise of her child, in the words of God’s messenger, something good is happening–not only to her but to other human beings.

  • It is the humble who are being raised.
  • It is those who feel awe before God their maker that are shown mercy.
  • The powerful are brought down.
  • The lowly are lifted up.
  • And the hungry are fed.

So now we who hear these words 2000 years later discover that they make good sense to us also. They remind us of what matters to God, what God requires of us.

The prophet Micah reminds us of God’s loving care.

The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, in a more intellectually challenging manner, makes the connection between the God of the old covenant with the Christ of the new.

The writer of the Gospel bring before us a cherished story of the early Christian community that remembers two remarkable women who knew that strength and mercy and compassion for the poor sprang from God the Creator, a God of good promises.

Let us then fill this season with compassion. Let us remember that God is not looking for external sacrifices from us but for obedience. And let us remember the lowly and the poor and the oppressed as Mary’s hymn reminds us to do. Amen.

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