This is the week of Advent joy, and a traditional reading, which we will hear in just a moment, is known as Mary’s Magnificat. It is the song that Mary sings when she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth.
You all know Mary’s story. A poor girl (maybe even as young as 14), engaged to be married to a poor guy. A girl in the backwoods of the armpit of the Roman empire. A girl who has never known what it is to live in freedom because her country has been occupied for years. This young girl, this nobody, is visited by an angel who tells her that she is going to have a son who will be the Son of the Most High.
Mary’s baby is not going to be created in the usual way. She will have a miraculous pregnancy. Mary receives this news and instead of freaking out or refusing to believe what she’s hearing or asking to have this privilege and responsibility deposited on someone else instead, she says, “Yes. Here I am, the servant of the Lord. I accept.”
Then she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, a woman the other end of life, also experiencing a miraculous pregnancy. Elizabeth confirms what is happening to Mary, and then Mary sings this song of joy. This is Luke chapter 1 verses 46 through 55.
“My soul magnifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
The song begins “My soul magnifies the Lord” which is why it is called the Magnificat, and continues “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” which is why we read it on the joy Sunday in Advent. I love this text, and if I’m honest with you all, I’m struggling with it this year. This song is written in the past tense, as though these things have already happened, but as I look around there’s a lot of proud people who have not been scattered like I think they should be, and a lot of hungry people who have not been filled with good things like I think they should be. And this year, it’s really bothering me.
Now, I know it’s Advent and I’ve been telling you for weeks, that much of what we long for during Advent is a world that is still coming. I know that. But this week I have been particularly stuck on HOW is it coming? From where we are now, how does this better world possible come to pass? Because I can’t see the path from here to there. What am I supposed to do, what are we supposed to do — do we have anything to do with bringing about this new world, or is it all on God? I mean, I could see it either way. In the Bible, it is usually individual people who meet the needs of other people: person to person care. And it is God who makes the big changes happen. But on the other hand, we as humans have accomplished some good things through our advocacy and activism, not just sitting back and waiting for God to do something. But if I had a third hand, even those big good things were ultimately accomplished by the actions of individual people who were moved to change based on something other than brute force. So which is it?
As you may have already guessed, I don’t have a clear answer. Because I don’t think it’s an either/or situation. We want things to be all one way or all another way because our brains are biased toward simplicity. But the world is not simple. Most of our problems are not simple. The bigger the problem, the more complex it is. We as individuals and as a global community are facing some seriously big and complex problems. So what do we do?
Friends, I think that this week, Mary is the model we need. She is the right balance of what we can do and what God can do. Mary is open to what God does in and through her. Mary doesn’t make it happen, but also it sure doesn’t happen without her. She is a full and willing participant in the world-changing activity that is initiated by God. I think that’s what we are called to do.
The question is how. Because when we start talking about changing the world and fixing complex problems, we are talking about taking actions. Which very quickly leads me to feel like I’m not doing enough. Give more, do more, serve more is what I start to say to myself. And beloved ones if that’s where your mind goes too, let me invite you to join me in reining it in. Because as my wise husband continues to remind me, the voice that says I’m not enough is not the voice of God. The voice of God woos us to be part of God’s way of life; the voice of God warns us when we are way off track. But it is never God standing behind us cracking the whip and demanding more when we are already honestly doing our best.
This reminds me of a passage from Isaiah that many Christians read as foreshadowing of Jesus. It’s Isaiah 42:2-4 and it says, “He will not shout or cry out or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged until he establishes justice on the earth.” A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. If you feel like a twig or a blade of grass that is bent, you are not useless and God is not coming to snap you in half. If you feel like a tiny flame that is burning but not very bright, God is not coming to put out your light. God uses bruised reeds and smoldering wicks. God is will not falter or be discouraged; God is establishing justice and God won’t stop until everything and everyone everywhere is flourishing as God intends.
And yet, that still leaves the question of what do we do? Frankly, it’s not my job to tell you specifically what you should do. If you are honestly and earnestly seeking to follow God, the Holy Spirit will lead you. Here’s what I will say for all of us, here are the questions Sam and I ask ourselves.
How are we living for something more than ourselves, even beyond our own family? If there are real needs in our families, we should not neglect those. But we must also remember that we are part of God’s larger family and that includes many people. We don’t need to try to give our kids everything to make their lives easy and comfortable. We need to help them learn to live for something more than themselves.
How are we challenging the status quo? How are we opting out of the way the world does things? How are we voluntarily relinquishing some of our own comfort and safety and power? I can’t answer those questions for you and your family. But I can tell you that the gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to live differently in the world.
If we only spend time with friends and family, if we only see suffering on the news, if we are physically capable of giving our time and energy but only ever give our money, then it is possible we might be missing out on something God wants to do through us, because we have been blessed to be a blessing. Even though it’s hard to engage with the needs of the world, there’s a deep sense of purpose and joy that comes when we are living for something beyond our own comfort and safety and power.
My favorite explanation of joy is that joy is grace recognized. Joy is our response to recognizing grace. Grace is gift, loving-kindness, favor, blessing. And joy is what we feel when we recognize or experience God’s blessing, favor, loving-kindness or gifts. That’s why we can feel joy in the midst of hard situations. Because God’s grace is present in the midst of hard situations. God shows up especially in the midst of suffering. We do not have to be happy about the situation, but we can still experience a deep sense of joy when we recognize that God’s grace is present in the suffering. The most beautiful thing is that God’s grace is present through us in suffering. When others are suffering and even when we are suffering, we can be bearers of God’s grace. And that is a cause for deep joy, deep humbling joy.
Like young Mary, it is our joy to be bearers of God’s grace to a world that is hurting. So this Advent season, this week, where is God using you to bring forth grace? What is it that needs to happen in your world, not by your own power but by God’s power through you? Where do you need to opt out and relinquish in order to make room for the gospel in you life? True joy does not come from avoiding the suffering of the world. True joy comes from following God wherever God leads and trusting that God won’t stop until everything and everyone everywhere is flourishing as God intends.