An Early (and Longer Advent)

Rev. Amanda L. Highben

First, I have a confession to make. I looked at the Bible texts that our lectionary assigned for this Sunday and I just could not preach on them. Except for the Psalm, the passages were all kinds of dark and foreboding. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus teaches a parable that features “the outer darkness, [with] weeping and gnashing of teeth.” In the Old Testament lesson the prophet Zephaniah warns of the day when the blood of sinners “shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung.” Delightful, yes?! Then there’s Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians urging people to be prepared for the “day of the Lord” for it will “come like a thief in the night.” “When they say, ‘There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape.” So, I just didn’t have it in me to preach on these texts, not now, not on this dark November night in 2020, when we already feel like there’s been no escape and more than enough weeping and gnashing of teeth. Don’t get me wrong; there is certainly a time and place for preaching on difficult texts that make us uncomfortable, that compel us to examine ourselves and the ways we are complicit in the world’s death-dealing systems. Greed, selfishness, violence, indifference—God judges all of these and calls all us to confession and repentance. 

But tonight, instead, after a very long and strange semester and now on the threshold of finals, I thought we could use a little hope and promise. I thought we could use a little wonder and awe, a little glimpse of starlight and angels and Mary hastening through the hill country to visit her cousin Elizabeth, babies growing within their round bellies. In short, I thought we could use a little Advent. Which really isn’t thatpremature…believe it or not, the first Sunday of Advent is just two weeks away on November 29. And there’s actually a movement within the church to extend Advent to seven weeks instead of the usual four, the reason being that it invites Christians into a fuller, longer time of anticipation, before things start to feel frenzied in December. In its ancient origins Advent was nearly seven weeks long and the Orthodox Church begins Advent today, with a forty-day fast preceding their celebration of Christmas on January 7. So we’re in good company tonight, as we listen to Mary’s song of praise, the one that Bonhoeffer calls “the oldest Advent hymn.” 

And not just the oldest, but the most radical as well. In a sermon he once preached in 1933 on the Third Sunday in Advent, Bonhoeffer said this of Mary and the song she sings here in Luke’s gospel:

It is the most passionate, most vehement, one might almost say, most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. It is not the gentle, sweet, dreamy Mary that we so often see portrayed in pictures, the passionate, powerful, proud, enthusiastic Mary, who speaks here. None of the sweet, sugary, or childish tones that we find so often in our Christmas hymns, but a hard, strong, uncompromising song of bringing down rulers from their thrones and humbling the lords of this world, of God’s power and of the powerlessness of men. These are the tones of the prophetic women of the Old Testament: Deborah, Judith, Miriam, coming alive in the mouth of Mary.”

How’s that for inspiration and hope?! How’s that for feeling empowered in the face of a year that has too often made us feel weary and defeated? And though Mary sang her song more than 2,000 years ago, praising the God who brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly, I’m reminded of another woman, dressed in suffragette white, who took to a stage last Saturday night and said this:

When [my mother] came here from India at the age of 19, maybe she didn’t quite imagine this moment…I’m thinking about her and about the generations of women — Black Women. Asian, White, Latina, and Native American women throughout our nation’s history who have paved the way for this moment tonight. Women who fought and sacrificed so much for equality, liberty, and justice for all, including the Black women, who are too often overlooked, but so often prove that they are the backbone of our democracy. 

These are the women Mary lifts up in her revolutionary Advent hymn, and all the hungry, for the matter, who long to be filled with good things, everyone who hungers and thirsts for peace, for rest, for an end to this pandemic, to racism, to sexism, to bigotry, for all who long for Jesus to stir-up his power and come. 

As a teacher of mine once wrote:

Advent is not [so much] about Mary’s pregnancy but about the church’s continual prayer that God will come to us [which is the root meaning of Advent, to come]. [The church prays that God will come], bringing life to a dying world. Advent in the northern hemisphere is a time to meditate on the darkness in the universe, the social order, the lives of many people, and our own hearts, and to pray for God’s salvation and wholeness for all.

Advent, therefore, is about longing for the salvation, wholeness, and mercy of God to come to all people. “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,” Mary sings, “according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” And because we are descendants of Abraham by faith, the promises of God are for us too, just as they were for Israel, for Mary and Elizabeth, for the hungry, lowly, and poor. 

Though sometimes it’s difficult to believe that God’s promises are indeed for us, especially after long months of unrelenting bad news. When fear and grief plague us, it can be hard to believe that God is with and for us in love. In one of his own Christmas sermons Martin Luther once preached:

This is the word of the prophet [Isaiah]: Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. This is for us the hardest point, not so much to believe that He is the son of the Virgin and God himself, as to believe that this Son of God is ours…Truly it is marvelous in our eyes that God should place a little child in the lap of a virgin and that all blessedness should lie in him. And this Child belong to all [humankind].

Why is sometimes so hard for us to believe that “this Son of God is ours”? I suppose on some level it’s simply because we’re human, and fear and doubt are natural to the human condition. I mean, even Mary, the “passionate, powerful, proud, enthusiastic” woman in Bonhoeffer’s sermon, no doubt struggled to believe every now and then. Remember that when the angel Gabriel announces Jesus’ birth, Luke writes Mary “was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Perplexed?! More like stunned speechless. Why else would Gabriel tell her to fear not? Madeleine L’Engle, the author of the beloved children’s book A Wrinkle in Time, writes about Mary’s particular fears in her poem, Young Mary:

I know not all of that which I contain.
I’m small; I’m young; I fear the pain.
All is surprise: I am to be a mother.
That Holy Thing within me and no other
Is Heaven’s King whose lovely Love will reign.
My pain, his gaining my eternal gain
My fragile body holds Creation’s light;
Its smallness shelters God’s unbounded might.
The angel came and gave, did not explain.
I know not all of that which I contain.

Like Mary, we too can fear the pain, and in our fear we start to believe we’re alone, left to our devices and without hope of rescue. Nevertheless, into all of this—our grief, our confusion, our very human fears—we proclaim on the doorstep of Advent that God comes with “unbounded might.” God comes to say fear not. Do not be afraid, Duke Lutherans, for God’s promises are trustworthy and sure, so sure we are too are called to join Mary in the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” And why do we confess that the babe born in Bethlehem is also the Savior of the world? Because sorrow, fear, and even death itself were taken into the very heart of God in the manger as well as the cross. And there, in the heart of a merciful God, we are transformed, forgiven, and made new. In the words of one writer, “For it is [Christ] lowering himself, first to the realm of humanity, and ultimately to the grace, that salvation is accomplished. And it is in his resurrection that all people are raised to a place where fear cannot afflict.”

Amen. Come Lord Jesus.

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