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One Whom You Do Not Know

  • December 17, 2017
  • 08:00 AM

 Sermon for December 17, 2017 (Advent 3, Year B)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             1 Thessalonians 5:12-28; Canticle 15; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Title:               One Whom You Do Not Know

John answered and said, “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal” (John 1:26-27).

My dear friends: we Advent watchers are invited to understand a mystery, a profound insight into the shape and direction of human history.

“Among you stands one whom you do not know.”

What do you know about the future? About what is to come?

This third Sunday of Advent is traditionally known as Gaudete Sunday. It’s the Sunday, and the week, that we light the pink candle. It is the candle of joy. And on this Third Sunday of Advent we hear the joy of Mary the God-bearer as she sings her famous song of praise.

The Magnificat. Named for the first word of the text in Latin, although that is a language which Mary never knew.

It is a song of praise to God for the amazing things taking place in her and around her. But it is also a song of protest and revolution which has inspired millions.

Here’s a trivia question for all of you: what do the three lands of India, Guatemala and Argentina all have in common?

Any guesses? Would you be surprised to learn that the governments of all three lands at one point in the 20th century outlawed the public reading or singing of Mary’s Magnificat?

It’s true! But why is that, you are now wondering?

Because this song of Mary was seen as encouraging revolution, as subversive material. In the case of India, it was in fact the British colonial government that forbade the Magnificat from being part of worship. Consider the irony of that historical scenario! The Crown is the head of the Church of England, and yet it was the Crown’s government which forbade Mary’s song from being sung, lest the poor people of India get the wrong idea about what God is up to!

Oh, by the way: if anyone here this morning actually knew the answer to that trivia question, I want to know! Make sure to tell me and I’ll find a special Christmas present just for you!

So let’s be clear about this song of Mary. This Magnificat is a radical statement of faith in a God who does not support the status quo. A God who is at work drastically changing the shape and direction of human history.

But let’s go back and ask a fundamental question: where did this song come from?

It is almost certain that Mary was an illiterate young woman. There is no reason to think that she would have known how to read or write. Why would she?

No, Mary did not write these words. And the text explains to us that there was only one witness, which was her cousin Elizabeth, who the Gospel text describes as “very old” when Mary went to visit her.

Yet Luke’s Gospel was not written until perhaps 75 to 85 years later! Elizabeth was long dead and gone before Luke had ever even heard of Jesus.

So where did this song actually come from?

Since we believe in the divine inspiration of the text, some will say that the Holy Spirit revealed this directly and independently to the Gospel writer by speaking these words into his heart or mind.

Others suggest that the Holy Spirit spoke by means of carefully remembered traditions that were passed along to Luke in the course of his research.

If that is the case, then this Magnificat may have come from a group called the anawim. These were the poor ones in Judea and Galilee, the simple people of faith who were vulnerable and who depended entirely on God because they had no other recourse.

This is where Mary comes from. So let’s also be clear about this woman, this mother, Miriam, who we know as Mary.

Can you picture her now? This brown young woman with brown hair and brown eyes, with her strong arms and her calloused hands? Can you imagine this young woman who was used to hard labor and a hard life, living in a far off and remote land?

This young woman is a prophet. In Advent, we go back and listen once again to the words of the prophets. To the words of Isaiah and Micah. To the words of John the Baptizer. AND to the words of Mary.

She stands in the line of the prophets and speaks prophetic words to all the world in this Magnificat. “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.”

To be sure, Mary is not the light. She stands as a witness to the light. And she stands in the gap between what is and what ought to be.

That’s what a prophet does! To stand in THAT gap. To see the gap. To feel the gap. And to communicate the reality of this gap to others. Whether through speech, through art, through music, through the quality of one’s life.

This is not an easy place to stand – between what is and what ought to be. Between the grasping greed of those in positions of power – and the full-flourishing of this garden earth which once was and is to be again.

Mary could see that gap, quite literally.

After one more week of waiting, we will begin our annual celebrations of the Messiah’s birth in the little town of Bethlehem.

But do you know what Mary and Joseph saw when they looked out at the night sky over Bethlehem?

Yes, they saw the shining stars. But they also saw Herodium, the enormous palace of Herod the Great which towered over the surrounding desert landscape, only three miles from Bethlehem.

This Herod the Great was the one upon which the Roman Senate had bestowed the title of “King of the Jews.” And he loved that title. Oh, he loved it. And Herod got great joy out of lording it over his people. He was King!

And yet, as she prepared to give birth to another one called King of the Jews, Mary sang this song of praise and rejected Herod’s claim.

“He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”

There is no way to read these words and not be amazed by the radical re-structuring of society that it envisions! Clearly, God is no fan of the status quo.

Mary’s song is revolutionary. But her prophetic work did not stop there! Is it not also revolutionary to give birth to a child? Think about this.

Remember the birth of Moses in the land of Egypt under Pharaoh’s rule? It was revolutionary to give birth to children like Moses. His very life was a threat to those in power. So they tried to kill him.

In the same way – in the very same way! – it was revolutionary for Mary to give birth to a child like Jesus. His very life was a threat to those in power. So they tried to kill him. And eventually, they did.

But God is at work, casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly! Filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty!

And doing all of this through One who stood among them as someone they did not know, and as One who changed the direction of human history!

I’ve asked the ushers to come forward now and pass two baskets that have diaper pins in them. By the way, do you know that diaper pins are really hard to find nowadays? I did not realize that until I went looking to buy some yesterday! So unfortunately, I only have enough for one per household.

Go ahead and take a diaper pin and look at it. And let me ask you.

What do you know about the future? About what is to come? The future is what these pins represent. The future which lies in the hands of God alone.

It has often been said that planting a garden is an act of hope. If that is the case, then giving birth to a child is an even more radical act of hope. Not simple optimism, but hope that God is still changing the tide of history.

We Advent watchers are invited to be part of God’s revolution.  The Light came into the world at the turn of the age.

Christ is the transition between the old and the new. The new age, the one that has been given birth through this mother Mary, the one which this Holy Child has inaugurated, is still in the process of being born.

So will you accept the invitation? Will you join Mary and our Lord Jesus in turning the tide of human history?

After all, THAT’s what Christmas is all about. Amen.


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