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A Sermon by
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
December 15, 2019
Canticle 5 Luke 1:46-55
“Peggy Sue Got Married” is a 1986 movie about an adult woman who finds herself transported back to her senior year in high school in 1960. At one point she tells her high school math teacher: “I know for a fact that I will never use Algebra in my later life.” Of course, she’s already lived her later life so she would know.
I was pretty sure I would never use the three years of high school Latin I took, wishing I had taken Spanish or French instead since these are languages you actually speak. Yet here I am today using Latin in my later life! Latin is back in the news and I find that I can translate!
Quid Pro Quo: “something for something.”
Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc: “after this, therefore, because of this.”
Both of these phrases are relevant today, the first politically, the second Biblically. Today I actually have license to stir things up because it is officially “Stir-up Sunday,” historically the day when Anglicans gathered to stir up the Christmas pudding, which had to sit for several weeks. It also reflects the first two words of today’s collect: “STIR UP, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people…” The “stir up” theme appeals to me because it is so easy to resort to predictable patterns of behavior and thinking in the Advent season, some of which don’t move us forward. But to that I say, “Sucitare eum” – stir up!
Advent is an emotionally-complex time, pregnant with hope, but also a time when everything can seem intensified: expectations, social demands – or the lack of them, sadness, loss, joy. And memories. I suggest that nothing is more important in this season – and in our troubled country today—than commitment to the truth: about Christmas, about our faith, about our national leadership.
In church, the Christmas story is usually presented as a sweet, domesticated tale about a star-lit journey on a cooperative donkey and a pain-free birth in a “stable,” witnessed by nurturing farm animals on a “silent night.” It is a time when questions of faith and doubt recede and churches are uncharacteristically crowded, maybe a reflection of how desperately people need the story, the music, the beauty, the hope.
In today’s lessons, however, two agitators –John the Baptist and Mary of Nazareth – stir things up with doses of reality that are as refreshing as they are honest.
John the Baptist, imprisoned by the Romans for being a renegade and a troublemaker, is shaken, and after devoting a lifetime to “preparing the way” for his cousin, Jesus, seems to be questioning the very core of his faith. From prison, he sends Jesus a desperate question: ”Are you the one or do we wait for another?”
“Are you the one?” How often this question has echoed through our own lives. Is Jesus the Messiah expected in the Hebrew Scriptures? A savior? God? Why am I in a Christian church? Can all the other world’s religions be wrong?
Jesus sends an indirect answer: “Go and tell John what you see and hear: the blind see, the lame walk, the dead are raised, the poor have hope.” Here’s the Latin reference: “Post hoc ergo propter hoc” or “After this, therefore, because of this”? Jesus implies that these things have happened because of him. His answer is frustratingly-indirect and is not the yes or no John seems to want.
This question is explored again and again in this place as we attempt to understand the nature of God and the importance of Jesus. For me, it has come down to what you heard at the beginning: “Jesus is the face of God, turned in our direction.” There may be other faces of God – I expect there are – but this is the story I have been given to work with, my way to understand the larger reality of God.
I like how Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary puts it: “John’s question is what we ask from our own prisons that confine us to a limited imagination about God. It is the question we ask from our penitentiaries that can’t see beyond the concrete walls of divide and difference. It is the question we ask from our jails that justify our advantaged views of God over and against another’s.… Let John’s question be your question, not to answer it, not to solve it, not to tie it all up in a Christmas bow, but to lean in to the waiting, the wanting, and the wonder so as to hear God’s answer.”
Besides John, the other agitator on the scene today is Mary of Nazareth, who when speaking with her cousin Elizabeth (future mother of John the Baptist), sings a song we call “The Magnificat”.
Traditionally, the 3rd Sunday of Advent is “Mary Sunday,” also called Rose Sunday, not only because Mary is associated with roses, but also because the color of the Advent candle lightens from purple to rose. The Magnificat – originally recorded in Luke’s Gospel — is perhaps the earliest Advent hymn, in which Mary “magnifies” what God has done and will do.
The first part of the Magnificat is Mary’s joy and praise of God and God’s action in her life:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord: my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…
Then Mary stirs things up with the second part of the Magnificat that has caused it to be banned in several modern countries:
“He has scattered the proud in their conceit
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones
And has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich he has sent away empty.
During the British rule of India, the government prohibited the Magnificat from being publicly recited in churches. The same thing happened in the 1980’s when Guatemala’s government decided that Mary’s words about God’s preferential love for the poor were dangerous and revolutionary, in fact were stirring up the country’s impoverished masses, inspiring them to believe that change was possible. This all happened again in Mexico and Franco’s Spain, and in Argentina in 1983. Would we have the courage to present the Magnificat today as the basis for public policy?
Before being executed by the Nazis in 1933, the German Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoffer said this: “The song of Mary is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”
During this season, we often wonder how we’re going to get from here to there, physically with what we must get done before Christmas Eve if a blizzard interrupts our plan, or emotionally with the crushing weight of memory, sadness and loss that is intensified in December. The journey can look long and arduous. You’re not alone here. The journey of Mary and Joseph needs stirring up, and some ingredients added to the mix.
The Bible and sources such as Roman historian Josephus tell us what Palestine was actually like when Jesus was born 2000 years ago. Take a look at the map you received and see why.
The two Jewish provinces – Galilee in the north and Judea in the south were separated by another country – Samaria. The Samaritans despised the Jews and vice versa. Jews going from Galilee through Samaria to the temple in Jerusalem for festivals or worship were routinely attacked. The Jews responded in kind, foreshadowing today’s Middle East volleys.
In the south, the province of Judea contained the towns of Bethlehem (the city where King David was born and where Joseph and Mary had to go to register for the census), and bordering it, the mighty Jerusalem with the great temple that was the center of Jewish worship.
Up north, Galilee was Podunk Central, and nowhere more than in the home town of Jesus. Nazareth was a small village of 500 people and a size of 50 or 60 acres, and even though a physically green and beautiful place, was considered Hicksville, boondocks, cheap real estate territory, whose citizens were bumpkins and fodder for ethnic jokes. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” sarcastically asked Nathanial, before he followed Jesus.
Galilee, Samaria and Judea were all under the heavy thumb of the mighty Roman Empire whose domain stretched from Britain and through Europe throughout the Middle East and farther, and endured for over 400 years
Things could not have been more politically tense than when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. His family couldn’t go back home, north, to Nazareth for two years – time spent mainly on the run from Herod, as they went east to Egypt — but Nazareth was where Jesus would grow up and spend most of his life.
The Christmas story tells us that Joseph and Mary traveled from Nazareth in Galilee south to Bethlehem, the city of their ancestor David. But how did they get there?
There were two possible routes: through Samaria with its tremendous dangers or going farther east to avoid Samaria altogether, entering through Jericho, although this route was longer and more mountainous—not that Samaria was flat either.
Doubtlessly, it would have been too dangerous to travel alone, due to the threat of outlaws along the major trade routes, so they probably traveled in a caravan.
In either case, this was not a gentle Christmas card journey with pregnant Mary posed gracefully on a donkey. It was a tedious, dangerous journey on foot of 80 miles – like walking from here to Mankato – but through Afghanistan.
James F. Strange, a Biblical archeologist at the University of South Florida, notes that “writers of the gospels of Matthew and Luke are so laconic about the Nativity event because they assume the reader would know what it was like.” But we don’t.
He notes these things: “At that time, the most we find people traveling is 20 miles a day. And this trip was very much uphill and downhill so Joseph and Mary likely would have traveled only 10 miles a day because of Mary’s impending delivery.” Further, he says that “the trip through the Judean desert would have taken place during the winter, when it’s in the 30s during the day and rains a lot. And at night it would be freezing.” IT WAS A LONG, PUNISHING TRIP.
The pudding has been stirred up: John the Baptist has a crisis of faith; Mary of Nazareth sings of God’s grace and of social justice; the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem is less poetic than perilous, like some of our own journeys this season.
I’m so glad I was brought to Sunday School as a child. The Christmas pageants at St. James Lutheran had the Scriptural basics: the manger, the Star, the shepherds, the baby. This version will appear again to us next week and it will be lovely and hopeful. Unlike Algebra and Latin, that version has served me well in my later life…But this week is about the backstory: the doubt, the courage, the painful realities.
We often forget our own historical realities and Britain’s chief rabbi, Jonathan Sachs, provides this reminder: “There have been many superpowers (besides the Roman Empire): Spain in the fifteenth century, Venice in the sixteenth, Holland in the seventeenth; France in the eighteenth, Britain in the nineteenth, the United States in the twentieth. Yet Judaism has existed in some form for the better part of 4000 years, Christianity for two thousand, and Islam for fourteen centuries. Religions survive: superpowers do not. Spiritual systems have the capacity to defeat the law of decline that overruns the life of nations.” However, whenever Jesus spoke the truth about the poor and the need for justice, the Roman authorities grew more and more threatened and ultimately had him killed. The prophetic writer George Orwell said this: “The more a society drifts from truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.” It hated Jesus. Who are the truthtellers today, and how are they faring?
So today we wait with as much hope as we can muster. We wait grounded in the real world and its struggles; we wait paying attention to what is beyond the obvious; we wait strengthened by our religious and family history; we wait offering kindness in the manner of Jesus and receiving it with grace.
And we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free.
Karoline Lewis, Working Preacher, Advent 2016.
David Lose “Disappointed with God at Christmas Time, December 8, 2013.
John S. Strange in Los Angeles Times, December 23, 1995.