Christmas Peace: They Shall Live Secure

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Lessons: Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:46-55

If you weren’t here last Sunday, you missed an amazing worship service focused on music, featuring Ariel Ramírez’ “Misa Criolla.”  Ramírez wrote “Misa Criolla” after a post-Holocaust visit to Germany.  He said, “I felt that I had to compose something deep and religious that would revere life and involve people beyond their creeds, race, color or origin.”  “Misa Criolla” uses folk instruments and rhythms from the Andes, and parts of it are joyful and lively while other parts are somber and heart-rending.  It was the perfect way to worship on a day when we were reeling from the tragedy of a week ago Friday, when mere words could so easily get in the way.

I’d been thinking since then about the power of song, and then, here we are, this morning, with a passage from Luke’s gospel that is a song.  The angel Gabriel has told Mary that she will bear a child.  Gabriel then announces that Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, is also expecting.  Elizabeth is “getting on in years,”[1] so this, too, is extraordinary news.[2]  “In haste,” Luke says, Mary goes to see her.[3]  When Elizabeth greets Mary, her unborn child recognizes Mary’s unborn child, and turns a joyful somersault.[4]  In Luke’s gospel, Elizabeth’s unborn son will grow up to be John the Baptist.  The theological message we’re to take from this is that even before they were born, John the Baptist heralded the coming of Jesus, the one who was greater than he was.  Elizabeth exclaims that Mary and her unborn child are blessed, and then Mary begins to sing.  We know her song as the “Magnificat,” named after the first word of the song in Latin.  Biblical scholars tell us that these words are not original with Mary.  The song is remarkably similar to Hannah’s song in the Old Testament – Hannah was the mother of he prophet Samuel.[5]

And what a song it is.  My favorite comment about the first chapter of Luke comes from William Willimon.  He tells the story of a college student talking to him about how the virgin birth was just too incredible to believe.  Willimon responded, “You think that’s incredible, come back next week.  Then, we will tell you that ‘God has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.’  We’ll talk about the hungry having enough to eat and the rich being sent away empty.  The virgin birth?  If you think you have trouble with the Christian faith now, just wait.  The virgin birth is just a little miracle; the really incredible stuff is coming next week.”[6]

Several biblical commentaries use the same word to describe the Magnificat: that word is revolutionary.  The Magnificat is about social reversals and transformation.  It is about justice for the poor and powerless – the same theme addressed by the prophet Micah in our Old Testament Scripture.

The best-known verse in Micah sums up his message: “…and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”[7]  Micah rails against the social and moral abuse rampant in Israel and Judah in the 8th century B.C.E.  Those with power have taken land and inheritances from the poor,[8] evicted widows from their homes,[9] fixed the scales and weights to cheat customers,[10] taken bribes,[11] and more.  The verses we read this morning look forward with hope to a ruler from Bethlehem who will make things right, who will bring peace, who will make it so that all the people, including the poor, are safe and secure.  So Christians have long read these verses as having been fulfilled by Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah, born in Bethlehem.

Mary’s song announces that just as God is concerned with justice, so will be the Messiah that God sends.  Mary sings of God’s mercy, promising that God lifts up the lonely, the downtrodden, and the oppressed, not just of her day, but of our own as well.  So I’ve been thinking about the power of song.  Isn’t it interesting that Luke folded these revolutionary promises into a song?

Luke just might be the Stephen Sondheim of the gospel writers.  He uses a number of songs: Zechariah’s, Simeon’s, the heavenly host singing to the shepherds, and Mary’s.  Luke knows what I experienced last week during “Misa Criolla” and what other biblical writers know as well: Songs are powerful.  Songs of lament express our grief and fear, honoring these deep and difficult emotions and at the same time, stripping them of their power to incapacitate us.  Songs of praise and thanksgiving unite us with the One to whom we lift our voices.  And canticles of courage and promise not only name our hopes but also contribute to bringing them into being.[12]

David Lose writes that Luke has Mary sing about God’s justice rather than explain it or lecture on it because when Mary sang, she didn’t just name God’s promises but also entered into them.  Notice, for instance, that the verbs in Mary’s song are all in the past tense.  She doesn’t say, “God will do this;” she says, “God has done it.”  Mary recognizes as she sings that she has already been drawn into relationship with the God of Israel, the one who has been siding with the oppressed at least since the days of Egypt and who has been making and keeping promises since the time of Abraham.  The past tense in this case doesn’t so much mean that everything Mary sings about has happened already, but rather that Mary is now included in God’s history of redemption[13] – in working to bring it about.

Lose continues, “Singing, you see, doesn’t just help us to name things, it draws us into the actual experience and reality we voice. God has promised to change the world, and in singing these promises we enter into that work.”[14]

I suspect many of you have felt this power of song in some context.  Singing “We Shall Overcome” gave people courage during the Civil Rights Movement.  Songs like Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” shaped the peace movement in the 1960’s.  A few years ago on World Communion Sunday, we stood in a circle here in the sanctuary singing Bob Marley’s “One Love” and we knew in that moment that the world really could get together and feel all right and we would help that happen.[15]

In the songs of the Advent season, in particular, we are drawn into the story of God’s rescue, and we not only long for but also participate in God’s promise to bring light and cheer and to dispel death and darkness.  You know, it’s easy to lose our voices in the face of darkness – in the face of tragedy.  Matthew Skinner, a Presbyterian New Testament professor, wrote this week, “Sometimes, the worse the tragedy, the more abhorrent the theology it elicits.”[16]  In the past week, we’ve heard from some people who seem to have no trouble speaking up, who have declared the senseless carnage in Connecticut to be a sign of God’s judgment.  I don’t know why it’s these people who get to speak on behalf of the Christian community in times like this.  Seriously – why is someone handing James Dobson a microphone, rather than Desmond Tutu, or Frederick Buechner, or Jim Wallis?  My friends, it is the responsibility of the rest of the church to find our voice, to distinguish ourselves from these words, to repudiate these words, even.  To say, “Bless his heart” – that’s what you say, if you’ve ever lived in Texas, as I have, before you say something negative about someone – “Bless his heart, but Mr. Dobson’s words are disgraceful and exploitative and – as a Christian – I heartily disagree.”

We sing to find our voices.  I don’t know the context, but at some point during his life, Leonard Bernstein said, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”  It’s a lovely thought, but it is only a beginning; it is a means, not an end.  Our songs are to move us toward and include us in changes that the world desperately needs in order for people to live secure, as Micah put it.[17]  And that includes dealing with gun violence.  People point to three sets of causes when talking about events such as happened last week in Connecticut.  Mental illness, the environment of violence in our popular culture and easy access to guns.  Any one of these might explain a single shooting but the number of deaths by firearms in the United States was 32,000 last year including 11,000 homicides.  This is 12 times higher than the average for other developed countries.  If psychology were the main cause, we should have 12 times as many mentally disturbed people.  But we don’t.  And the identical culture of violent video games and movies exists in other wealthy nations.  The Japanese are at the cutting edge of the world of video games, yet their gun homicide rate is close to zero.  Japan has perhaps the tightest regulation of guns in the industrialized world.[18]

The data in social science are rarely this clear.  They strongly suggest that we have so much more gun violence than other countries because we have far more permissive laws regarding the sale and possession of guns. With 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has 50 percent of the guns.[19]

Is this a faith issue?  Our denomination believes it is, having addressed gun control in resolutions and policy statements for decades, including a 2010 report on gun violence.[20]  It is a matter of stewardship of God’s creation and of protecting life, no less than fighting hunger and political injustice or working for peace.  Our Church and Society Committee already is looking at ways our congregation can find our voice on this issue.

So we sing today to find our voices.  Maybe it’s just a hoarse whisper at first.  But as we take up Mary’s song, we call upon God to remember the downtrodden, including families who will struggle not just this holiday but for many to come.[21]  And we beseech God on behalf of all those who mourn, who are lonely, who do not have enough food; those who live in places of strife and war, who struggle with mental illness or who care for them, those who live around gun violence all the time, those who for whatever reason feel that they are not living a life that is secure, and safe, and filled with peace.  We sing because we trust that living securely in freedom is what God wants for all God’s world because God is love, and God’s love is for all, not just for some, not just for conservatives or liberals or children or adults and definitely not just for those who can grab the attention of the media or fund a powerful congressional lobby.

We sing today to remember we are not alone.  We sing to touch the difficult emotions we’ve had all week, and begin to move beyond them.  Until all of sudden, amid our singing, we gather together not just as a collection of individual Christians but as a company, a company of saints that stretches from Hannah to Mary and Elizabeth down through the ages to all of us who are gathered together, once again raising our voices in hope and expectation, waiting once more for the presence and comfort of the Lord.[22]

And when we give our voices over to “The Canticle of the Turning,” the adaptation of Mary’s song that follows the sermon, we sense that, indeed, the world has begun to turn, and that we, ourselves, have been invited into that turning.

May it be so, for you, and for me.  Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2012


[1]  Luke 1:7.

[2]  Luke 1:36-37.

[3]  Luke 1:39.

[4]  Luke 1:41.

[5]  1 Samuel 2:1-10.

[6]  Mary Hinkle Shore, “Magnifying the Lord, December 17, 2003, http://maryhinkle.typepad.com/pilgrim_preaching/2003/12/magnifying_the_.html.

[7]  Micah 6:8.

[8]  Micah 2:1-5.

[9]  Micah 2:9.

[10]  Micah 6:10-11.

[11]  Micah 7:3.

[12]  David Lose, “A Promise that Changes the World,” December 16, 2012, http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=650

[13]  Lose.

[14]  Lose.

[16]  Matthew L. Skinner, “Can We Speak of God’s Activity, in Triumph or Tragedy?” http://www.odysseynetworks.org/news/onscripture-the-bible-luke-1-39-55.

[17]  Micah 5:4.

[18]  Fareed Zakaria, “The Solution to Gun Violence Is Clear,” December 19, 2012, The Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/fareed-zakaria-the-solution-to-gun-violence-is-clear/2012/12/19/110a6f82-4a15-11e2-b6f0-e851e741d196_story.html.

[19]  Zakaria.

[20]  http://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/101/gun-control/; David Gibson, “Is Gun Control a Religious Issue? July 25, 2012, http://www.pcusa.org/news/2012/7/25/gun-control-religious-issue/; Gun Violence, Gospel Values: Mobilizing in Response to God’s Call, a report, approved by the 219th General Assembly (2010), http://www.pcusa.org/resource/gun-violence-gospel-values-mobilizing-response-god/.

[21]  Lose.

[22]  Lose.

 

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