The Magnificat is one of my favorite passages to preach on, but I must admit (as a not faithful lectionary preacher) that I reference it just as often outside of the Advent season as I do within the Advent season. The song of Mary is an all-year-around text, to be sure. In my context, I believe we would do this passage a disservice by limiting it to being just a prelude to the Christmas story.
I believe the Magnificat is a powerful example of the prophetic witness of youth in our world, and as a college chaplain, I am eager to herald Mary’s song as a testimony to the young people who know the world is not as it should be.
In this song attributed to Mary, she proclaims that God “has scattered the proud in their conceit…cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly…filled the hungry with good things, and the rich God has sent away empty.”
And yet, we know that Mary would have been a young to middling teenager, and even though age has different symbolic meaning during that time, she is still an example of youthfulness proclaiming the justice of God. And it is not only her age that makes her a remarkable example in this way, but her gender as well. She joins the cloud of women witnesses throughout scripture who testify to the goodness of God.
The prophetic witness of young people is an important motivator of social change in society. Youth provides the conditions in which a distaste for injustice coincides with the imagination for change. This stands in stark contrast of those who have grown accustomed to the status quo—who even if they do not like it, have found ways to complacently exist in static systems. Young people have no such patience or expired optimism, but instead, see the world with fresh eyes and can imagine new ways forward.
I think of John Lewis who was only 25 when he was beaten in Selma.
I think of Emma Gonzalez, who was only 18 when she called “B.S.” on the lack of political will to change the gun laws.
I think of Greta Thunberg who addressed the United Nations, pleading for climate change attention, at only age 16.
I think of those people we all know as public inspirations, yes, but I also think of my students who will not make the news but are making a difference every day. I think of the students who are hosting club meetings at night to talk about intersectionality and how to advocate for each other across identity categories. I think of the students who, when invited to share their experiences with injustice on campus to the board of trustees and the college president, respond boldly and courageously to speak truth to power. I think of teenagers who are blowing apart the gender and sexuality binaries and replacing them with freedom.
What’s so beautiful about the Magnificat is that Mary was also an unknown young woman—who rather than questioning her own strength for the task ahead—took the news of the pregnancy and praised God and testified to the power of God to redeem an unjust world.
Advent is primetime in our churches. What if we use this week to lift up the youth of our society, not to place undue burden on them, but to celebrate who they are in our world now and what they bring to us? Are we listening to what they tell us about the divine power in the world? And when we listen, do we affirm them not only as the future, but as the present?
Our biblical tradition honors Mary as a young woman who stood confidently in the conviction that God had a plan for justice in the world and that she was part of it. Not in the future, but now. May we use this opportunity to honor the young people and their vision for our world.
The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram is Director of Religious Life and College Chaplain of Franklin College. She lives with her spouse in Franklin, Indiana. Her 2020 hobbies include sending mail, spending all social time with only a scarce few people outside, and watching uplifting comedies like Schitt’s Creek and Ted Lasso on repeat.
You’ll likely recognize the beginning of this passage as the scripture Jesus read in the synagogue on his first recorded day of public ministry (Luke 4:18-19). It certainly makes for a dramatic opening, one whose bold, poetic imagery fires our imaginations.
First, a series of reversals (vv. 1-3, also 7) prefiguring Mary’s Magnificat set the scene for a re-ordering of society into a living embodiment of God’s kindom: those who are oppressed, imprisoned, and suffering great loss will be freed and restored.
And this is no small-scale redemption: the largess of God’s mercy is emphasized by the use of the Jubilee phrase “proclaiming liberty,” borrowed from Leviticus 25:10. The reference to Jubilee, a twice-a-century clearing of debts and returning of property, echoes the prophet’s mission to declare “the year of the Lord’s favor” (v. 2). The Jubilee allusion also dovetails with the mention of God’s vengeance (v. 2), a favorite Isaiahian phrase linked to redeeming Israel and punishing their enemies.
Now here comes the poetry: the prophet, on God’s behalf, promises to give to those who mourn a “garland instead of ashes”—the KJV translation of “beauty for ashes” is particularly lovely—and to provide “the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit” (v. 3). These embodied details scale the communal reversals of Zion’s fortunes to a personal level as well. The vision of God’s anointed one refreshing formerly tear-stained faces, wrapping formerly hunched shoulders in new garments, and crowning formerly bowed heads with flowers are a tender reminder of God’s very personal attention to our losses.
Then in v. 3, “Oaks of righteousness” brings us back up to the forest view, so to speak, with a prime example of the agricultural metaphors Isaiah favors. The perspective stays communal as a vision of the rebuilding of the city devastated by conquest and exile (v. 4) cements the people’s role in their recovery.
Verses 5-7 (not included in the lectionary reading) double down on God’s abundant graciousness; the people won’t just be restored to their former land, they’ll be rich enough to hire foreigners to work their fields and enjoy serving God in the special role of priestly people.
Why is God’s anointed one so committed to the restoration, individual and communal, of the exiled people? Verses 8-9 give us God’s own words on the subject: this is a manifestation of God’s commitment to justice as well as a new expression of the covenant made with Israel’s ancestors.
Verses 10-11 read like the concluding portion of a psalm, where God’s praises are sung by an individual on the receiving end of God’s graciousness, not the one on the proclaiming end of it. The repetition of imagery from the first few verses (garlands, clothing, flourishing plant life) celebrates the fulfillment of the promise laid out in the anointed one’s proclamation. God is faithful, the speaker declares, and when you’ve witnessed that faithfulness in your own life, you can’t contain the joy: “my whole being shall exult in my God!” (v. 10)
This last portion of Isaiah is preaching to those who have been exiled in Babylon for 70 years, speaking to them of a homecoming that was decades in the making. Yet the exiles–Jerusalem’s religious, political, and royal elite–return to a city they barely recognize: the Temple is still in shambles, and the common people have filled the vacuum left when Babylon carted off the city’s leadership. As Elna Solvang writes, “The reality of life in Jerusalem was nothing like the expectations for a restored Jerusalem and a righteous community as proclaimed by the prophets and as envisioned by the returnees.”
This gives a whole new read on the promise of comfort for “those who mourn in Zion” (v. 2). Imagine the tension between newly returned exiles expecting to resume their families’ former positions of power and those who remained, creating new patterns of leadership in their absence. As we learn from Ezra and Nehemiah, the return was fraught with power struggles, demonization of the “other,” and questions about what it meant to be Jewish; the rebuilding of the city and the Temple was not exactly harmonious, requiring years of tumult and fits-and-starts effort.
Post-election, the United States faces divisions just as deep, if not deeper. The repair of multiple years’ worth, multiple generations’ worth of devastation is the task before us. Whether we’re talking about the latest salvos in four centuries of systemic racism; the loss of life and damage done to mental health, education, small businesses and more wrought by the pandemic; the calculated weakening of democracy; the stripping away of environmental protections; or the children torn from their parents whose traumatization will ripple through communities and families for years to come, the work of repair it isn’t going to happen overnight or without significant ongoing division.
So where do Isaiah’s words leave us, particularly as Advent people?
First of all, there is no ignoring the good news God’s anointed one is bringing to all those who have been wounded, forgotten, oppressed, or maltreated. Those Magnificat-esque reversals are central to the text, and the freedom and new life they portend are a central function of the Messiah coming anew into our lives and our communities. God-made-flesh brings hope, liberation, healing, and vindication to all those who desperately need it, within our congregations and without.
Second, the “repair [of] the ruined cities” and of “the devastations of many generations” (v. 4) is not accomplished by the magic wand-waving of the speaker, but rather by the work of “those who mourn in Zion” (v. 3), the ones who lament what has been lost, stolen, and corrupted in a land they so dearly love. In other words, it is our work – the work of we who mourn the devastations of the last four years, and the last four hundred.
Though it is our work, we certainly are not left alone in it – the God of justice, the covenant-maker, will be with us (v. 8) and will bless our descendants (v. 9), those who will benefit from the social and communal reordering we undertake now.
Isaiah’s words—and Jesus’s quoting of them—are both an immediate, personal balm and a long-term, communal assurance that large-scale wrongdoing will be made right. As we draw ever nearer to the birth of God-with-us, let us echo Mary’s “Yes” as we respond to these invitations to heal and to work for the rebuilding of our nation into a kindom of justice that will indeed bless those who come after us. Then we, too, will surely join the author of Isaiah in exulting in our Savior with our “whole being” (v. 10). Amen.
 Roberts, J.J.M., “Isaiah,” The HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books (eds. Wayne A. Meeks et al.; New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 1101.
Every year during Advent, the church has an apocalypse. Some people like to think of Advent as the church’s “new year,” but on hearing the lectionary readings for the second Sunday most of us come away in a decidedly more sober mood: “The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.”
“Apocalypse” is a word that’s been thrown around a lot lately, and with good reason. Not only are we still in the grip of a plague that has killed over a million people and has shut down schools, churches, restaurants, workplaces, concerts, sporting events, and pretty much everything else that once constituted life as we know it, but this summer we also saw a stark rise in authoritarianism as peaceful protestors demonstrating against systemic racism and police brutality were violently attacked by their own government, while those in power tried to frame “anti-fascism” and “anti-racism” as forms of domestic “terrorism.” Widespread deception and lies from political leaders contributed to a surge in conspiratorial thinking, and there was a significant rise in various forms of denial, as more and more people fell prey to their own psychological defense mechanisms in an unconscious attempt to cope with the mounting uncertainty and chaos. Widespread belief that the coronavirus is a hoax, insane theories about Hillary Clinton running a child sex-trafficking ring out of a pizza shop, and the conviction that the expansion of the Israeli state would bring about the end of the world were all considered as viable topics of adult conversation.
Well, technically yes, I do believe that we are experiencing an apocalypse. But please note that I am using the term here in a technical sense. “Apocalypse” is perhaps one of the most misunderstood words in the entire Biblical lexicon despite persistent efforts of Biblical scholars, clergy, and theologians to correct course on the matter. Popular conceptions of “the apocalypse” are still largely shaped by the secular film industry and the religious propaganda of fanatical evangelical sects, which bombard us with vivid imagery of planetary destruction. Thus, the end of “the world” is nearly interpreted as the end of the natural, material, created world. This “Gnostic” interpretation of the apocalyptic writings of the New Testament is, from an orthodox perspective, heresy. The whole thing can be dispensed of rather easily by simply consulting the Book of Revelation, which even when taken at its most literal level describes heaven as coming to be made manifest on Earth. In other words, even in a strict eschatological sense, the apocalypse is not about some future demise of the planet.
The Greek word apokalypsis means “revelation” or “unveiling.” Apocalypse is about vision and about perception. The apocalypse is marked by a transformed and spiritually-informed way of seeing that pierces through the veil of deception, egocentrism, fear, and confirmation bias that pervades our everyday life in “the world” and prevents us from confronting the truth about ourselves, one another, and God. The day of reckoning that the New Testament writers wrote about was a day of ultimate truth-telling, a day when “the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.” This is a day when all people everywhere will finally have eyes to see and ears to hear, and will be given the chance to turn from their narrow ways of thinking to walk in the way of Christ, which is the way of humility, and love, and justice, and peace. This new reality that the early Christians longed for was conceived of as “a new heaven and a new earth,” characterized in the second letter of Peter as a place “where righteousness is at home.” This is the ultimate paradigm shift that would fundamentally transform the way that human beings operate on this planet.
The ancients understood that such an “unveiling” would necessarily entail a dissolving of our current ways of seeing and being – our false pretenses of power, our illusions of security, and the ways in which we idolize earthly leaders and celebrities as gods. A “revelation” on this scale would also require a dissolution of the social, political, economic, and religious powers that conspire and collude to deceive the masses and maintain those delusions. It would expose the “strongmen” of this world for what they truly are: poseurs of Divine power who are in fact cowards and slaves unto death. On this day, God alone is revealed as the Creator and Source of all life, having a power that stretches far beyond whatever earthly powers any one individual might grasp for themselves within their short lifetime. Those with the will to witness to the truth, even at the cost of their own suffering, are the ones who are revealed on that day as truly strong.
But apocalyptic literature also reminds us that there are larger social and systemic processes at play in our world, which “invisibly” and insidiously conspire to deceive people in order to justify and maintain the conditions of marginalization, oppression, and injustice. Through political institutions, media, religious cultures, economic systems, maladaptive psychological defense mechanisms, and everyday group dynamics, these larger “forces” have a power that stretches far beyond the scope of single individuals to foster widespread confusion, suffering, and pain in ways that are difficult if not impossible to root out. The writers of the New Testament used a particular kind of language to identify these destructive forces, calling them “demonic,” and referring to them as “powers and principalities” or “Satan.” Such outdated terms may sound a bit too mystical or magical for us today, but for the Biblical writers they pointed very pragmatically to real phenomena that are very much still a part of the world. The early Christians believed that these forces literally existed in the air, hovering just under the clouds, and so they naturally assumed that the final battle between these powers and God would take place in the sky, which is why Paul speaks in Thessalonians about being “caught up” (harpazo) to the clouds on the day of the Lord’s coming. The various levels of heaven into which Paul and others were “caught up” at various times to receive their visions and revelations (see 2 Corinthians 12) offered a foretaste of the day when all would be brought into a complete understanding of the truth.
Admittedly, texts like today’s pericope from 2 Peter have a long and problematic history of interpretation, and have themselves been made to serve those deceptive forces that oppose the kingdom of God. This situation has led many progressive Christians to either ignore them in embarrassment, or reject them outright as dangerous. Even Eusebius, writing in the fourth century, commented on the widespread controversies surrounding John’s Book of Revelation, which was very nearly excluded from the Christian canon altogether. Several church leaders argued that it was, at the very least, not much of a “revelation,” since its vivid symbolism and allegorical imagery was far too obscure and difficult to decipher. To be sure, engaging with these texts in a preaching context requires careful study, deep discernment, and thorough clarification. The apocalyptic literature cannot be fully appreciated without a thorough understanding of the Hebrew prophetic tradition, nor can it be properly understood from within a context of privilege (which is perhaps why it was so perplexing to the patristics). It is only in the context of suffering and oppression that the full meaning of these texts can really begin to land.
However, now more than ever, I believe we need the message of the apocalyptic. Because when properly unpacked and contextualized, this strain of the Christian tradition provides us with a powerful resource for emboldening our faith and staying grounded in truth during times of great social upheaval. The apocalyptic tradition understood itself to be a continuation of the Hebrew prophetic tradition, and like the prophets it offers a paradoxical balance between comfort and critique, offering hope and justice for the downtrodden while confronting and critiquing the complacency of the privileged, and challenging everyone to beware of the moral and spiritual dangers of colluding with those whom “this world” has deemed powerful for the sake of one’s own gain. As Gregory Stevenson writes,
“…on the one side are those who have encountered such hardship and suffering in the world that they are in danger of losing or distorting their faith. On the other side are those who have become so comfortable with the deception that ‘the kingdom of the world’ creates, that they are unaware of the danger it poses to their faith. The power of apocalyptic language lies in its ability to address both groups, because both groups share the same fundamental problem – a distorted view of the world… Both groups need an apocalypse, because both groups require a new vision of the world.”
In the midst of this 2020 apocalypse, as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic unmasks the real values of so many public leaders and social groups, and as the veil continues to be lifted for so many white people who are becoming “woke” to the reality of systemic racism, and as the earth cries out with “the blood of Abel” in signs that speak to the unsustainable consumption practices of human culture (which are what caused those rivers to turn blood red, in both cases), we need both the challenge and the comfort of the apocalyptic, which promises us a day when the truth about the world will be revealed. Seeing things as they are can be painful, and that suffering tempts us with longing to retreat into the psychological safety of our delusions. Those who suffer to bear witness to the truth can begin to lose hope, believing that the forces of “this world” are too powerful to overcome. But the second epistle of Peter reminds us that when that day of vindication seems long delayed, we still must never give up our hope or our resolve. We must courageously continue in the work of the Lord, participating in God’s dream for humanity through acts of humility, solidarity, mercy, honesty, and love. Because the more we participate in the embodiment of that dream, the more people we will bring into that vision, and the closer we will get to manifesting the kingdom of God here on earth.
These days, it looks like all of us are searching for something to live our lives by, to wrap our whole identity in. People of all stripes try to do it with all kinds of things, some productive, some less so, and some downright violent. Some of us do it with something as trivial as sports or something as serious as politics or fundamentalist religion or even whiteness. Hate is being lived out on message boards in the form of things like white supremacy and religious fundamentalism.
We talk a lot these days about both white supremacy and fundamentalist religion and their effects on young men in particular. Why, we wonder, would promising young men become Nazis, or violent religious fundamentalists either at home or abroad?
It seems pretty easy to me.
Both white supremacy and radical religion situate these young men into a story that gives them an identity. A purpose. A connection to something older and bigger than them. The truth is, it’s not just the young and the male. We all need to be part of something bigger, and we’ve gotten it from religion or national pride for centuries. But with the beginning of the internet, things have gone from local to cosmic.
The good news is that today, so has Advent.
The first Sunday of Advent isn’t about a baby in a manger. It’s cosmic. Stars fall and the universe moves. Jesus reaches through history to hand us a narrative that we can situate our lives in that will actually make the world better instead of making it bleed. And Jesus calls to us: keep awake! Keep your eyes open!
Various extremist groups have adopted the idea of the “red pill” from another cultural story, the early 2000s movie The Matrix. In The Matrix, the main character is offered a red pill and a blue pill by a character who has just revealed that humanity is actually enslaved by technology and that everything he has ever seen his whole life is a lie — an illusion of this complex computer system. If he takes the blue pill, he will wake up and everything will go back to normal and he can pretend that he doesn’t know. If he takes the red pill, everything will change, and he will begin to fight the technology that has enslaved humanity.
These days, extremists with various pet causes have used “taking the red pill” or “red pilling” to describe “waking up” to a vast conspiracy to deceive them their whole lives by some target: the news media, the larger culture, whatever. Those who “take the red pill” feel liberated to spew their unfiltered anger all over the internet and even into the streets in violence. Frankly, I believe it to be quite childlike. It’s inventing a story, or imagining yourself in someone else’s invented story, in order to make yourself the hero.
I’m here today to advocate for the Blue pill. The Advent Blue pill, specifically. Advent calls us to a different kind of waking up. It places us in a different kind of story. Contrary to what you might think, this Blue pill is quite different from the one in The Matrix because we are, in reality, probably not enslaved by evil robots or a vast conspiracy to deceive and control us. We just imagine these scenarios because they make us feel powerful and in control. We desperately want to be the brave heroes who fight the bad guys.
The truth is that we’re more enslaved to our own brokenness, anger, and prejudices than anything. Deep down, most of us are scared, hurting, angry, insecure people without a unifying story to attach ourselves to and give us purpose and identity. And so, in order to give ourselves that sense of purpose, we wrap ourselves in an identity and imagine a perceived conflict with some other group, be it a political one, a religious one, or an entire race or gender. As George Orwell concluded in his book Nineteen Eighty Four, there must always be an enemy.
The reality is that we’re not fighting each other nearly as hard as we’re fighting ourselves, and waking up to that reality is a lot harder than “taking the red pill” with all of its delicious delusions of conflict and triumph.
So this Advent, take the Advent blue pill. Contrary to popular belief, the blue pill, at least in the context of Advent, is less about staying inoculated to reality and more about waking up to it. The refrain “keep awake” echoes several times in our Gospel lesson as Jesus begins the Advent season as he always does: by describing a cosmic end and beginning of everything where there is a reckoning. Where the violent are dealt with and peace reigns eternal in ways that humans with our fallibilities are absolutely incapable of bringing about. Advent blue is the color of the coming dawn, a story where we are not the heroes, but the rescued.
Let me tell you about when I first understood Advent.
I worked in a homeless shelter just outside of Atlanta my first year of seminary. While I worked there, I saw beautiful and horrible things, but mostly, I was just constantly overwhelmed at the pain I saw, and the joy, the complex people, the complex situations. No matter how much work we did, things never really got better. In fact, this was in 2008, when the financial crisis was just beginning to hit. It didn’t get better. It got worse. There were more failures than successes, more pain than joy.
As a classmate of mine pointed out to me, my eyes had been torn open and I was unable to close them. The world felt out of control. And it made me angry: angry at elected officials, at rich people, at almost everyone. I sat in our seminary’s Advent 1 service as the choir sang a haunting version of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” to a still and darkened chapel with a single Advent candle burning and the altar bare.
Slowly, the lights came up as two of my classmates ceremoniously carried in the paraments, then the altar cloth, then the elements, as out of nowhere, greens were hung around the chapel and the space was transformed into a place of hope, strung with pine greenery and Advent blue paraments.
And I realized that I too had a choice. I could choose to be angry and to blame the pain that I felt and the pain that I saw on people whom I could then hate and fight. I could wrap myself in short-lived stories of political warfare. I could blame the homeless people that I was serving and be angry at them, or I could rage tirelessly against the political parties and entities that refused to serve the poor. I could be angry at those who had too much while others starved. I could, before it was even cool,take the red pill, waking up to a story where I was the angry social justice hero, out to save the world — and fail, which would only make me angrier.
But as O Come O Come Emmanuel echoed off the rafters of the chapel that day, I realized that the only way that I was ever really going to be able to make it through this life with open eyes was not through anger, but through letting go of trying to control the future. This would allow me to simply do the most good that I could, trusting that peace is coming and God is coming and that no one can stop it any more than they can stop the sun from rising.
Advent blue, after all, is the story of the coming dawn. We are not the heroes. We are all the rescued. This was actually keeping awake: by wrapping myself and my life in a story and in Jesus, whose words will never pass away, even if heaven and earth do.
So I invite you, therefore, to take the Advent blue pill. Because Advent is blue because it reflects the sky just before dawn. The Advent blue pill, as opposed to the one in The Matrix, doesn’t call us to stay ignorant. To the contrary: it calls us, urgently, to keep awake.
Rather than framing the entire story around us, however, Advent tells us of a future where it’s something — someone — much bigger than us that tears open the heavens and changes the world. Advent has a deep and abiding presence with the weight of the air just before dawn and calls us to look deeper. It whispers to us, urgently, in the dead of winter: “Keep awake!” Because we know, deep in our bones: will not be winter forever.
Advent’s is a call of urgency and longing, but also a call of promise: there is hope. Things will not always be as they are. Something is coming to us that’s bigger than any group we can affiliate ourselves with. Like our ancestors before us, we wait in the night, knowing that we cannot know the specifics. We can only stay ready for what we know is coming — opportunity. Victory. Hope.
Peace on earth.
Advent whispers to us: the night is long and difficult, but the dawn is coming.
“And what I say to you I say to all — keep awake!” (Mark 13:37)
By the time the Fourth Sunday in Advent rolls around, if you have been able to resist the pressure to focus on baby Jesus lying in his manger, you’re a better pastor than me. Thankfully for those committed to the lectionary, by the fourth Sunday, we finally arrive at what everyone’s been waiting for in Matthew’s short description of how God entered the world as the Human One:
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus (Matt. 1:24-25).
You can hear it now. Pastor, will you finally let us sing Christmas songs? The traditional emphasis on Advent as a penitential season of watching and waiting, anticipating the return of Christ Jesus’ coming, typically caves to the overwhelming attention paid to the Incarnation.
Many a local church pastor or priest must wrestle with this tension between tradition and culture; between an encouragement to deeper discipleship for more mature followers and an invitation to “come and see” for those unfamiliar with the Way. This balance is appropriate for the season of Advent since it is all about tension. This pressure has been known to invite creativity to worship planning such as moving Advent to the four Sundays in November as historian of Christian worship Lester Ruth once suggested.
But this essay is not intended to argue for a lectionary revision or even unpack the Matthew’s Good News. Rather, it seeks to explore how the oft overlooked psalm lection might enhance a preacher’s approach to the gospel. The 80th Psalm makes an appearance in every Advent season, no matter the liturgical year. The psalm follows the traditional lament form on behalf of the entire community, encompassing persistent and ongoing persecution and pain. This could be hard for some in the congregation to hear on a morning when most eyes are set on the Christmas tree and on children who can hardly sit still with anticipation about the forthcoming visit by St. Nick.
And yet, even among the sentimentality and romanticism, there is a place for someone to name the in-between time. Many members of your community will need to hear that it is okay to wonder, “is this really all that there is?” Part of the role of the Church is to teach the counter-cultural lesson that expectation is not simply wishing. When you are young, you often just don’t know the difference. The psalmist here is the master teacher. The psalms, along with the other lections in Advent, are meant to point the hearer toward the promise of God coming into the world to save. Psalm 80, paired with the Matthew text, offers a way to share the overarching narrative of God’s story intersecting with ours – one that bridges expectation with hope and promise.
Biblical scholar Gail O’Day once reminded a room of my classmates of what most expectant parents quickly come to realize, “you cannot prepare for what is coming in Advent.” Neither can a local church pastor prepare for the coming brokenness found in the missional field in which they find themselves. The experienced pastor will season the Sundays of Advent with wisdom about the gray edges, the what ifs, doubts, regrets, and the sometimes anguish of the faith journey. Psalm 80 can help do the heavy lifting even if the congregation doesn’t realize they need to hear it.
Psalm 80 is a prayer for a hurting community. Consider your neighborhood over the course of the past year. Has the unemployment rate spiked once again because the local manufacturing plant has laid off hundreds just in time for Christmas? How many deaths due to opioid addiction have occurred in your county? Have you experienced a rash of suicides among young people and middle-age men? How many homeless people do you pass on your way to the office? How many mornings do you wake up to the headline of yet another young person’s death at the hands of gun violence?
Many communities have discovered that spiritual melancholia has come home to roost. While culture has been touting Christmas since the Halloween candy went on sale, many in your flock are wondering if they can get by without putting any decorations up. Tucked in between festive potlucks and caroling, pastors often find ample work in holding the hand of someone wondering if God is even listening. How long, O Lord, will you be angry with your people’s prayers (Ps. 80.4)? Psalm 80 offers a suggestion on how we might pray during lingering conflict, heartache and hopelessness.
If you serve a community that has been in crisis for some time, offering introductory words linking their hurt to the Psalmist’s context may help in peeling back the façade that everything is all right. Opening immediately with petitions, some in your congregation may sit a little straighter in their pews if the poetry is read with conviction. The Psalmist, on behalf of the people, expresses frustration with a God who has been deaf to their cries, “Wake up, Yahweh, and do something already” (v. 3)!
The people, feeling God is angry with them, have subsisted on a diet of tears. Eugene Petersen paraphrases the Hebrew poetry for contemporary ears:
You put us on a diet of tears,
bucket after bucket of salty tears to drink.
You make us look ridiculous to our friends;
our enemies poke fun day after day (vv. 6-7).
Who, in the face of great grief, hasn’t wondered the same thing? For those of us watching with clinched hands and gritted teeth at the world on fire, we ask, “How long, O Lord? Pay attention to us!” To motivate God into action, the petitioner focuses on different aspects of the divine-human relationship: caring for the sheep (vv. 1-2), tending the vine (vv. 14-15) and the obligations of a sovereign toward a sworn allegiance (v. 17).
There is no mention of repentance in this psalm. As Nancy R. Bowen says in Psalms for Preaching and Worship, “it is a bold promise of obedience, but one that is conditional on survival.” The Psalmist may qualify his prayers but there is unreserved expectation that God can save God’s people. Like the shepherd that protects and the military leader who has the unlimited force, it is only through God’s power that the people will survive.
This saving action is why the psalm makes its appearance in the season of Advent. As God is born in the person of Jesus, Emmanuel (“God is with us”), the people, even a hurting and despondent people, need space within communal worship to remember this promise of salvation.
 Gail O’Day, “Advent Lectionary” Lecture, Candler School of Theology, Atlanta, GA, 13 November 2009.
The Rev. Kim Jenne serves as Director of Connectional Ministries for the Missouri Conference of The United Methodist Church. The Office of Connectional Ministries is responsible for Boundaries, Communications, Conferencing, Discipleship Ministries and Safe Sanctuaries. Before her current appointment, Kim served as pastor of Webster Hills UMC in St. Louis. She is a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan, loves NASA and is sorely disappointed we aren’t already living on Mars. She considers herself an inconsistent but persistent disciple of Jesus. She is slowly learning to keep company with God on a more regular basis.
One of my favorite allegories for ministry comes from the scene in Disney/Pixar’s original Toy Story, where toy space ranger hero, Buzz Lightyear, “proves” to Andy’s other toys that he can fly. He climbs up the post of the footrest on Andy’s bed, takes a deep breath, and confidently proclaims his trademark phrase: “to infinity and beyond!” With a leap off the bed, he soars toward the ground but at the last second lands on a bouncy ball, which catapults him head over heels onto a Hot Wheels car sitting at the top of its track. As he rides the car down the shoot and loops around the track, Buzz catches air once again and shoots up to grab the ceiling airplane. His momentum jolts the plane to circle faster and faster until it launches him into a graceful arc to land on his feet in front of the awed and astonished waiting toys. “It’s true!” they exclaim in awe and wonder. He “flies!” (Except Woody, who declares later that Buzz is simply “falling with style.”) Such is often the case with ministry as, despite our all too human quirks and foibles, the Holy Spirit brings grace and transformation out of our fumbling attempts to do God’s work and will.
How many of us have had the humble moment of dissonance and disconnect when we, like Buzz later in the movie when he discovers he can’t actually do all the things he thinks he can do, discover that our hard work in ministry doesn’t always pay off? That often, instead of the awe and glory and miraculous transformation, what we think is our ability or gift doesn’t seem to make much difference, might not actually accomplish the big change we thought was in the making, hasn’t done much to usher in God’s kingdom in the here and now. How many of us wonder if the miniscule return is worth the effort? That if the few moments we get it right make the many moments we don’t worth the discouragement and disillusionment? I know I have.
This is why I find Mary so intriguing. Mary: a teenager pregnant out of wedlock, who faced sure and certain social, religious, and familial condemnation. Mary: sent away from her home, into “seclusion” if you will, to live with her cousin Elizabeth for at least nine months or perhaps until the scandal died down. Mary: facing the possibility of a broken engagement with Joseph, assured gossip and ridicule, and a lifelong precarious social position.
Despite these very real and prodigious challenges, Mary somehow sings with gladness and exultation. How does she do it? How does she find, as Isaiah describes, “waters breaking forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand becoming a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water?” How does she, like the farmer in James’ epistle, wait with patience for the precious work of God to come into fruition before it has even begun? How does she act with confidence, proclaim salvation already at hand without the doubt of John in Luke’s Gospel, questioning “is this really it, God, or should I keep waiting for you to make it more clear?” And most intriguing: how does she do it all with quiet peace and without grumbling, moving forward in confidence though there is no indication whatsoever that everything is going to work out okay?
It’s a question that has haunted me for over a year. A question that began burning as I trekked my way along the Camino de Santiago, that weighed on my shoulders as I traversed the landmines of an unintentional interim ministry, and eventually experienced “the worst”—finding myself unexpectedly unemployed with no immediate prospects on the horizon. I found myself in the place so many people do so very often in life: liminal space. It’s a word I first heard while in seminary, a word thrown around as our young heads nodded wisely without truly knowing. The Latin word is limen. Limen. Threshold. It’s the word that best describes Advent, the actual living in the already-but-not-yet promise of anticipatory hope. Coach and poet Christine McDougall, in her poem Liminal, defines that anticipatory hope differently than Mary. She writes:
The space between
A Dawning, a Dusking …
The immanent threshold
Crossing … to what?
The moment is calling you
to pay … exquisite … attention
Advent is truly a liminal season, a betwixt and a between; rife with hope, temerity, grief, cold dark, warm glowing light. It is a season ripe and potent as we look forward to the incarnation of God with us, of the Christ Child. Advent is an immanent threshold that calls us to slow down and pay exquisite attention to all that roots and coils within us, to watch and wait for God’s infinite plan for our salvation, personal and corporate, to unfold. Advent is a time during which we turn toward the promise of what-is-to-come, an act which requires us to let go and mourn that which must die in us to allow that promise or desire to unfold. Advent, liminal space, betwixt and between, not yet is not a comfortable space. Perhaps that is why the season is only four weeks – it is difficult, even dangerous to make our home in the unknown and the amorphous for too long. Far more comfortable to move from what has been to what will be, than to live in the in-between of not yet that is now. And yet, this is what we all do at any given time in our lives, live on the threshold of the next thing, for nothing in life is constant. Advent is the poster-child of the old adage that “the only constant is change.” Perhaps this is why the glow of candles on Christmas Eve warms us so. The waiting and watching, the not knowing, is finally done. Now we know all is well, and we can breathe a sigh of relief.
And yet, we know, too, that Advent will come again and again and again. I have always thought of the spiritual journey as circling a mountain. We slowly spiral our way around, sometimes climbing, sometimes descending in order to climb again, seeing the same view over and over again but often from a different vantage point depending on our spiritual growth or palsy. Gary Snyder’s short poem, On Climbing the Sierra Matterhorn Again After Thirty-One Years, captures, for me, the goal of the spiritual life:
Range after range of mountains
Year after year after year.
I am still in love.
How do we shift from discomfort to become friends with the uncertain and unknown? How do we wait with patience for the crop to come to fruition, how do we experience joy in all circumstances, how do we find peace in the midst of the varied changes and chances of life?
The answer is simple. Trust God. Trust God with the faith of Mary, the faith of Isaiah, the faith of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Trust God so completely that you have no fear of fallout, no fear of survival, no fear for what may befall. Easy, right?
Not easy. Not remotely easy. There is a cost to discipleship, to following God with this level of commitment. The cost might be high. The cost will likely require abject humility, an unflinching examination of self, courage to embrace and heal the parts and pieces of your self that are messy, and broken, and maybe even unlovable. It is not easy to hold on to the absolute and unflinching trust, that you are enough, that God created you to be who you are in all your imperfect, messy, learning, be-ing and that God has prepared a place and a purpose for YOU – especially when it seems that everyone around you has an opinion otherwise.
That is the trust with which Mary lived. That is the trust that she taught Jesus to live. That trust is what gave them, and countless others, absolute, unshakable confidence and peace. The lack of fear terrified the people around them, terrified them because we humans are accustomed to being bound by the limits people around us impose. But Mary, and Jesus, Isaiah, and countless others lived beyond the limits. They lived, in their here and now, in the realm of the Infinite, the creative, the realm of boundless possibility rather than the finite world the rest of us inhabit. They lived as if God’s promise was already a reality, even if there was no sign in the moment that God’s promise was even a possibility.
Soren Kierkegaard once wrote that “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Liminal space is a constant in our lives, but so is God’s promise. So when we find ourselves in those tenuous moments of not knowing, when we can’t understand why it is that we are going through what we are going through, can we trust? Not blindly, expecting God to magically work everything out into a smooth, even path. But with trust – like Isaiah, James, Mary, Jesus and all the other saints who have gone before us, choosing to live confidently in the God’s promise to do what God has said God will do as if it is already a reality, as if God is already at work. It is not an accident that the very first words of the gospel, the good news, are “Do not be afraid.” To be free from fear and angst… what kind of peace would that freedom give us?
In his writing on liminality, poet and storyteller Padraig O’Tuama tells the story of the work he does at Corymeela, a place and people that seeks to make peace between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. “A practice of peace,” he writes, much like dwelling in an advent liminal space, “is messy. It is not easy. It is fragile and thin and breakable. It is a verb, not an achievement. It needs to be conjugated regularly. It is the experience of having been torn. And, having been torn, staying with that new shape and finding dignity in language, in protest, in lamentation, in justice, in re-ordering, in catharsis. It’s not a landscape; it’s staying alive… Liminality, if it means anything, must be as truthful as forgiving, as confessing, as breathing, as surviving.”
Mary does all of these things in her Canticle of praise, as do Isaiah, and James, and many others. In her song she names the tearing of her personal and corporate life, finds dignity in language, in protest, in lamentation, in justice, in re-ordering, in catharsis. Mary stays alive and survives, but also thrives in God’s promise of mercy and remembrance. At the heart of trust is remembering how God has fulfilled God’s promises before, being sure that God will provide again, and knowing in one’s very being that God is already at work on what is next. If we can bring advent joy, hope, love and peace into every day then perhaps we, with the gladness and exultation of Mary, might also proclaim with confidence “the Almighty has done great things for me and holy is God’s name” wherever this journey of faith takes us –to new and unknown places, to new spiritual depths, to Christmas … to infinity and beyond!
The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is an Episcopal priest with over two decades of leadership experience that includes public advocacy, social justice, teaching for transformative change, and interfaith collaboration. In January 2020, she will begin a new call as the Associate Rector at St. Christopher’s in Carmel, Indiana. Her great joy in ministry is helping people of faith ask the hard questions of life and God, to discover that “it is in the shelter of each other that the people live” (old Irish proverb). Or, as Jesus said it, we truly show our love for God when we show care and concern for every person we encounter, like us or not. In her spare time, Chana can be found fulfilling her bucket list items before she turns 65 (so far 23/75!), playing D&D, dancing Lindy Hop, or exploring local activities and events with her husband, TJ, and their dog-children, Molly and Momo.
Advent is a strange time for Christians – even before the intense commercialization of Christmas that has arisen in the last century. Over the four weeks of the season, the lectionary emphasizes the harshness of divine judgement, preparation for Christ’s second coming, prophetic visions of the promised new creation, and memories of Jesus’ first coming that inspire hope. Advent can feel like a roller coaster to me. On the one hand, the threat of uncompromising judgement makes me feel like I better get my act together. Then, in short order, I feel joy at the promise of a restored Creation only God’s intervention could affect. I have trouble holding the two themes together, imagining the promise of judgement, but I suspect that is the paradox we are called to sit with in this reflective season.
I know many will preach on John’s prophetic ministry in the wilderness of Judea, but for those who want an alternative, the First Lesson from Isaiah 11:1 – 10 offers powerful images to help us find good news in the paradox of the judgement’s promise.
The image of Jesse’s stump bookends this passage from Isaiah. At the beginning a tender shoot emerges into a branch. We are reminded that the root survived the attempted annihilation, whether by the Assyrian army that overtook Israel in 721 BCE (likely the context for the text’s author First Isaiah), or by the God’s people’s faithlessness that led to destructive military alliances, or today’s threats of secularization, commercialization, and the abundant material comforts that lure us away from vibrant faith. One preaching path for this Advent text is to help the congregation name what threatens to annihilate it, to “cut it down,” both internal issues like fear or gossip but also external issues like the seduction of material comfort that can dull our awareness of God’s presence. The image Jesse’s stump ties in with the image from John the Baptist’s preaching of the axe lying at the root of the trees. The Good News that emerges with this playful inter-textuality is that even if the tree is cut down, through God’s grace a shoot will emerge. A new start is given. The “Giver of Life” works underground, in the darkness, in the roots pushing life up from the messy soil where we thought there was only darkness and decay.
Near the intersection of Brown Avenue and Richland Street in my hometown lies a felled oak tree. Melissa, an elderly parishioner, calls it the Resurrection Tree because a remnant of tree’s veins remained intact allowing it to sprout new branches and be “born again.” The Resurrection “Tree” (it looks more like a shrub) is gnarly looking: the decaying trunk dominates the view and the live shoots emerge at unusual angles. There is unconventional beauty in this Resurrection Tree, but to see it you have to accept that the death is part of picture.
The unusual prey-predator animal pairings referred to collectively as the “peaceable kingdom” dominate the second half of the text. Many of us have an image of this text based on the paintings titled ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ by Quaker Edward Hicks. Hicks created over 60 artworks of the same title depicting the same basic scene inspired by vv. 6 – 8. Some critics suggest that Hicks’ ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ scenes become less and less peaceful over time reflecting his involvement in a painful schism within 19th century American Quakerism. What happened with Hicks’ paintings, this movement toward the partisan, often occur when we uphold images of peace… moments of peace and equality quickly degrade into tools for our own agendas and are tarnished by our preference for being right, rather than prioritizing relationship. Hicks’ ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ paintings point both toward the promise of Advent—the peaceable kingdom of God—and humanity’s need for purifying judgement, directing us away from our self-righteous tendencies toward the Divine who alone can transform and save us from ourselves.
As I reflect on the peaceable kingdom as an Advent image, I notice that for this vision to be realized, a characteristic central to these animals’ instincts will have to die. The predatory instinct of the wolf, the leopard, the lion, and the bear will have be tamed. And the lamb, the kid, the calf, the fatling, and the cow will have let their fear die. Similarly, children seem to have an innate fear of snakes, and parents certainly have a knee-jerk mechanism that would prevent playing near adders’ nests. The hope of Advent, the promise of judgement, is that God’s Spirit is powerful enough to transform our most innate and death-dealing instincts—to be right, to always want more, and to have power over others—into trust and harmony in the order of Creation.
Advent calls us to keep one eye focused on the ultimate promise that of New Creation where the wolf lies with the lamb, the poor are judged as worthy as the rich, and the meek as valuable as the royalty. But our other eye can stay focused on the here and now. As we await that final transformation into the New Creation, hope for the present time comes from God’s judgement which frees us from bondage to the parts of ourselves and social structures that bear bad fruit and trains our instincts to “love God commands…so that we may obtain God’s promises,” to paraphrase the Book of Common Prayer’s Collect for Proper 25.
Our Advent gaze invites us find unconventional beauty in a decaying tree that somehow sprouts a branch.
Our Advent gaze invites us to trust the uncomfortable promise of judgement, the paradox of hope that in the darkness and decay, roots of justice and righteousness are being nourished and that one day Christ’s Spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel and might will rule the earth from the holy mountain down to the waters that cover the sea.
The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer serves as Rector of Grace Church in the Mountains in Waynesville, North Carolina. When she isn’t at “church meetings” as her 4 year-old daughter says, she can be spotted raising children, reading, and occasionally piddling in the yard.
The start of Advent begins the new liturgical year for the Christian calendar. However, many churches find themselves pushing toward the end of the year and Christmas day. Our culture certainly does not help us enter into the Christian timeline. Usually by the start of Advent we have already received our Christmas catalogues, celebrated our hanging of the greens, and have begun making our wish lists. Many preachers may find themselves in this very struggle between where the congregation wants to be (preparing for Christmas) and where the Gospel text leads us (the apocalyptic judgment of God).
While some Christians would argue that the apocalyptic end is near with the divisive and chaotic news viewed when the TV is turned on, the passage from Isaiah for the start of our new year paints a very different picture of the apocalyptic judgment of God. Many readers of the Isaiah passage get lost in the dream of peace: swords beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. War will be no more. The vivid imagery of swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks has tricked many a scripture reader into missing the bigger picture. Even the notion of ultimate peace can keep us from seeing the bigger picture.
Each of these texts runs the risk of being subverted for our own intentions. The reality of Christian history is that the church has too often used the final apocalyptic judgment of God to get whatever it is we believe the church (or, more accurately, ourselves) may want. Too often, the Advent season is like this. The challenge for the reader and/or preacher is to be true to the expectant waiting and preparation of the Advent season. I do not mean to suggest here that we need to put Christ back in Christmas. Instead we must find a way to allow the anticipatory nature of Advent to be what it truly is: a sitting/waiting in darkness for the light of Christ past, present, and future.
Isaiah’s vision, or dream, is a beautiful hope for the world. Who among us hasn’t wished and hoped deeply for peace in the midst of conflict, fighting, and war? However, the challenge of the future is that it is a dream – not unlike the Christmas wish lists made up from children whose families celebrate gift-giving. Too often peace seems to be a dreamy and idyllic hope. In fact, history if filled with individuals who have had such a dream who are meet with the violence of a world that cannot envision the dream with them.
Isaiah’s dream of peace does not just appear at the end of time. This apocalyptic peace comes with arbitration. The Holy One “shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples” (verse 4). God not only speaks to the nations, but listens to grievances, disputes, and concerns. God listens and adjudicates. These two words— “judge” and “arbitrate”—are the only active verbs assigned by the text to God. There can be no true and lasting peace without justice.
My own faith formation and theology reads scripture metaphorically more than literally. I do not read of the apocalyptic end times and God’s final judgement in a literal sense. However, this means I also do not read Isaiah’s dream of peace between the nations literally. The chaos, sorrow, pain, and violent conflicts do not merely disappear when Christ is born on Christmas day. To be true to the season of Advent means to acknowledge the struggles and doubts. The preparations made throughout Advent proposes risk and potential failure to live into the ideal of the dream.
It is here that Matthew’s Gospel reading enters. While the Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent is focused on the unknown future day of judgement, the setting is actually the present. The present day in which the thinking of the apocalypse is set is characterized by a lack of knowledge: uncertainty (possibly even doubt). This lack of knowledge extends beyond humankind to even the angels and the Son. Instead of preparing for Christmas, or even the future apocalyptic judgement of God, these texts have a word for us today.
Most people realize that too often they are like the disciples who follow Jesus around, yet almost always get caught up in the wrong things or miss the point altogether. We are so very often aware of our lack of understanding. However, most of us also want to be better. We hope and we dream about a future that is better. Many of us long for the peace of Isaiah’s dream. Humankind is excellent at dreaming. We struggle with the steps between here and there. Matthew’s Gospel text for the start of the new church year reminds us that there are some things we simply do not know.
The other thing humankind is excellent at is guilt and shame. The struggle in these two texts relates to the push and pull between peace and judgement. These poles suggest that there are two ways to miss the point of our scriptures: one would have us focused too much on the peace and miss God’s judgement. I personally see more people lean the other way: too focused on judgement and miss the peace. Our faith certainly requires action of us. We should be working toward God’s justice for God’s world. However, Matthew’s Gospel text points us toward the work of wakefulness and watchfulness.
We are called to peace. We hope for peace. We, as the church, work for peace. However, the highest mountain tops of Isaiah’s dream come – not from our work, but from somewhere outside and beyond it. We are called to watch for it. We are called to witness it. We are called to preach it to the world. As we enter a new year of the church may we prepare for the rapture. May a rapture of relief come over us when we realize we do not have to know everything. May a rapture of relief overwhelm us when we realize we need not do everything. May a rapture of hope, peace, joy, and love fill us this Advent when we realize that our work—while important—has nothing to do with our own or anyone else’s salvation.
 Noted by Paul Simpson Duke in the “Homiletical Perspective” of Isaiah 2:1-5 FEASTING ON THE WORD: Year A, Volume 1. Westminster John Knox Press. 2010.
The Rev. David Clifford is the Transitional Minister of First Christian Church in Henderson, Kentucky. David is graduate of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). David lives in Henderson with his wife and three children where he enjoys bicycle riding and reading. He also coaches a local elementary archery team.
Luke presents the story of Jesus as a combination of history and biography. He sets out to give an “orderly account,” committed to telling the story of Jesus in such a way that makes all things clear. Luke’s attempt at capturing the story of Jesus in fullness walks the line other ancient historiography does, “marked by the paradox of two or more less competing interests – veracity (the attempt to depict events that actually happened) and narrative (the attempt to set events within a coherent, meaningful series, the presentation of which accords privilege to causation and teleology).”[i] It is an opportunity for us to say, “We don’t know if this is exactly how it happened, but we know that this story is true.”
The narrative element of Luke’s writing invites readers to engage the story with imagination rooted in the text. This can be a delightful task when the text includes angels, which happens quite a bit in the opening chapters of Luke. As we read the lectionary pericope this Sunday, we just miss the appearance of one. We enter the narrative while the wonderful glow from the angel who announced Mary’s pregnancy to her is still fading.
If we are reading from Mary’s perspective, it may not have been so wonderful. An unwed pregnant woman was not a good thing to be in her time. Joseph, her fiancé, had a couple of choices. He could have her stoned or he could walk away leaving her with a newborn and no income. Neither option would have been good for Mary.
And then there is the actual pregnancy to consider. Any pregnancy can be difficult, but teenage pregnancy is particularly hard. Beyond what scholars can tell us about the social and historical context of the text, we know this because we know the obstacles and risks teen mothers face today. The preacher might take time to look at teen pregnancy and birth rates in their state and/or community along with available resources to localize the situation for the congregation. We cannot help but wonder how things would have worked out for Mary if she had been an unwed teenage mother in our time – would she still have been shunned, uninsured, and with less access to maternal healthcare?
After the announcement of Mary’s pregnancy, we usually just skip to the Magnificat. The angel leaves and then Mary starts singing, right? But Luke says there is more to the story. Perhaps the most overlooked element of the Magnificat is when it appears in the story. Mary does not burst into song when Gabriel shows up. She does not start humming the tune when the angel tells her The Plan. She does not shout from the rooftop as Gabriel exits. She barely clears her throat.
When the angel disappears, Mary has a panic attack. This is not in the text, but read between the lines. It happens in the little empty space between verses 38 and 39 where we’ve added the title Mary Visits Elizabeth. Immediately after the angel flits away, Mary packs her bags and leaves town. “In those days, Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country.” She is scared. She doesn’t know what to do. She is in trouble. She’s a pregnant teenager without any support. So she runs, hoping that her cousin Elizabeth will keep her from getting stoned or shamed to death.
The moment that Mary crosses the threshold of Elizabeth’s house, everything changes. The first thing Elizabeth does when Mary shows up at her door is to bless her with holy words of welcome: “Welcome, dear one. Welcome. Come and stay for while.” She called Mary blessed. Blessed. And then, then it is that Mary sings about being lifted up, about mercy.
When does Mary sing the Magnificat? When does she find her voice? When is she convinced that everything is going to be okay? After she gets help, when she finds refuge, in the wake of being welcomed and embraced. Mary’s Magnificat, which follows in verses 46-55, is made possible because Elizabeth’s welcome helped Mary find her footing. And we cannot separate Jesus’ life and ministry from the woman who raised him with the words, “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” on her lips.
This pericope is the linchpin of the story. The Good News is Elizabeth’s response to a scared, pregnant teenager who doesn’t have the resources to take care of herself. This is when everything turns, where the story of Jesus pivots in the right direction. The key ingredient is holy words of welcome.
And now it is our work to continue the story. What welcome is the church speaking today?
[i] Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke (p. 15). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition.
The Rev. Lori Walke, J.D., is associate minister of Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ and a graduate of Oklahoma City University School of Law, Phillips Theological Seminary, and Oklahoma State University.
I’ve recently entered a fun part of my vocational journey. It seemed as if my 20s were spent in endless preparation—an advent that felt like it would never end. I was learning and teaching and practicing, but all of it was done in a liminal space due to the educational programs in which I was enrolled. I was a full-time student and only part-time everything else. And now, in my thirties, I have entered into a new space—one with a full-time job that is in line with my vocational call and professional goals, and so my time is spent less thinking about “someday,” and more spent honing in on who I am and what I have to offer. In short, my eternal relationship with advent has come to an end.
Or has it?
You see, in my role as a college chaplain at a small liberal art college that does not presume religious faith of any kind, I have been forced to articulate a vision for my role’s existence. In 2018, if a college is not specifically faith-based, why have a minister at all? It’s a question I myself wrestle with, but when I read this account of John the Baptist, I find a kindred spirit in vocational call.
As I have been articulating just what this vocational call is, recently my message of a misplaced pastor in a secular setting has been this: The way things are now is not how they have to be. It seems to me that this is John’s message as well.
In the first several verses, John calls the gathered group to repentance. In the right context, such requests for accountability and changed living can be a message of hope. When we are caught in patterns of sin, particularly when they are causing us pain, offering a way out suggests that the way things are now is not how they have to be. We can be different. We do not have to bear bad fruit. We can do something to heal the world.
John responds to the “how” question with practical tips. He says that whoever has two coats should share with someone who has none, which suggests that we are all responsible for generosity. The willingness to share what we have is not only demanded of the rich, but of anyone who has what someone else does not.
Following this, John addresses two professions that at the time held the potential to be abused by exploiting others. John’s admonishments here are not as much about the professions themselves as they are about the condemnation of exploitation. Combined with the verses immediately before, we see that John is advocating for the social and economic care of each person in the community. There is not indictment of the poor themselves, but instead, the conviction and responsibility is placed on those who take and keep from those who do not have. Again, the way things are now (exploitation and inequality) is not how they have to be.
In the final verses, John points to someone who is coming whose presence is a purifying fire that burns away the sins of the world—injustice, exploitation, inequality, hoarding resources, abuse. The way things are now is not how they have to be. And perhaps this is my call as a chaplain who works with religious and non-religious students alike: not only to remind people over and over that the way things are is not how they have to be, but also to work with them to figure out ways that they can participate in the social transformation. And perhaps my call, like John, is not to do this for my own sake, but to point the way to one who comes who is much greater than that which we do accomplish in the meantime. We pare down our closets and share our food now, knowing that we are preparing the way for more and more. We are changing the world. And more is coming.
“So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” Amen.
 It should be noted here that in Matthew’s version of the story, John specifically calls out religious leaders. In that passage and in this one, I encourage my fellow Christian ministers to take care not to perpetuate the idea that religious people of the time, specifically Jews, were any more of a problem than religious people of this time, including Christians. Even with the best of intentions, this interpretation has bolstered anti-Semitism by instilling in Christian congregants the idea that early and current Jews are less than Christians in practice or belief. Obviously Christian doctrine about other religious traditions vary widely across denomination, but anti-Semitism itself has violent consequences, and particularly after the Tree of Life shooting October 27, 2018, Christian preachers should exercise discernment about the impact of their words.
The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram serves as the Director of Religious Life and Chaplain of Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana. She grew up in non-denominational evangelical land and is now an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She earned a BA from Anderson University, a Master of Theological Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, and a PhD in Religion and Psychological Studies from the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology. Her areas of interest include education, practical theology, and escaping overthinking by baking, crafting, and watching TV.