Jumping For Joy
December 23, 2018
First Presbyterian Church Norman
Rev. Jessica Dixon
This sermon was given on the fourth Sunday of Advent, which was also my last Sunday at First Presbyterian Church of Norman, which is reflected in the sermon.
Before beginning the sermon, and after reading Luke 1:39-46, I recited Rev. Layton E. Williams’ poem An Almost-Mother’s Song: A Christmas Poem About Mary
Those words, beautifully written, and first performed by Rev. Layton Williams at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago on December 20, 2015 say an awful lot of what Mary means to me. Rev. William’s life experience is different than mine, I did not grow up fearing impurity as a sin worth nightmares, and that I would be judged for. I do not have blood nephews, but those life details being different only serve to reinforce the point. If we are all almost-mothers as Mary once was, bearing love into the world, than the details of our experiences are vital to us, but insignificant to the point.
Today we hear a story of Mary’s journey toward being Jesus’ mother.
We see her visit her relative Elizabeth. We heard the beginning of Elizabeth’s miraculous journey with God at the Longest Night service on Thursday as her husband Zechariah is visited in the temple by an angel and made unable to speak after he questions what is to happen, for he and his wife are old, past child bearing days, and the angel tells him he will have a son, Elizabeth will give birth to their son John. At the conclusion of that story Elizabeth chooses to stay home for five months, we assume because it is so strange that she is having a child and while her husband, a respected priest, has been made unable to speak by God.
These would not have been easy days, a husband who cannot communicate, her body changing in ways she assumed it never would, bringing life to the world when it seemed far too late.
And then Mary arrives. Mary, who was too young, who was probably getting away from her own town gossip, possibly family strife, and a fiancee who has to be convinced by an angel that she is telling the truth, goes from Nazareth into the mountains to visit her cousin/aunt. Two women, one too old and the other too young, chosen by God to bear two baby boys, and the hope of the world, meet. And in their meeting, as Mary greets Elizabeth, John, en utero and five months along, jumps for joy at her arrival and greeting. I imagine the scene taking place in the doorway of Elizabeth’s home, just as Mary is entering, and the women reacting like the art on the cover of the bulletin (Jump for Joy by Corby Eisbacher). If you do an image search on google for Mary and Elizabeth, or The Visitation, or the Magnificat- sooo much of the art that comes up has the two women seemingly standing feet apart and looking a bit more serene than I could ever imagine from the way this bit is told.
Now I know a lot of it has to do with Catholic and historical theology around the holiness of Mary and her being depicted as never being touched by other people….because apparently sin rubs off…. But if you were pregnant because God said so, at an age after you thought that was possible, and your niece showed up on your doorstep and before she could tell you anything about the strange and miraculous time she has had of late your baby jumps for joy, I cannot imagine that being a calm thing, or that these women, who already knew one another intimately and now share this huge God-reality, not touching one another at all. Many of us would reach out for assurance, for comfort, for joy, or just in greeting. So I think it’s probably a bit more like today’s cover and the joy, bewilderment, and love displayed by these two would have been palpable.
Elizabeth says to Mary “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” which have become central words to Catholic faith and familiar words of the Hail Mary and Rosary prayers. These words, and their intent are so formative as to be ingrained in the faith of our Catholic siblings in Christ. And here lies perhaps why we do not know them as well- as a part of the split, the schism between our two faith communities, broadly the Protestant tradition we are a part of and, the Catholic faith, Mary is one center of the controversy.
What does her holiness mean,
was she herself without sin or is that only Jesus,
what role should she play in our understanding of Jesus?
what would it mean to pray to her?
These are questions and disagreements that go all the way back to Martin Luther, and we still have them today, and so our Protestant tradition has not focused on Mary so much.
Another layer of these words is to think about what it means for a woman to be blessed in scripture. For instance the woman in the Hebrew scriptures described as ‘the most blessed among women’ is Jael- you know her right? She’s the one who, during a battle with the Canaanites when the commander of the Canaanite army runs away, she invites him in to her home, tucks him under a blanket, gives him a glass of milk and once he is asleep… drives a tent stake through his head, thus ensuring an end to the war. And the judge Deborah sings a song about her….So this whole being the ‘most blessed’ thing is not for the faint of heart who are not willing to go the extra mile for their faith, whether it is murdering a general, or carrying God’s self in your body and then parenting him…its a big deal.
But, whatever our traditions and theological acrobatics have told us in the two thousand years since the story was acted out, as far as we know in the story we hear today, Elizabeth is speaking with the authority of the Holy Spirit, and exclaims her joy and love for her blessed family member. It really doesn’t need to be more complicated than that, does it? Elizabeth has an all too rare moment of knowing for sure, right now, the joy of God’s truth and goodness. And so she literally shouts about it. While her husband can’t talk, she yells loudly about God’s blessings to her kins-woman.
Isn’t that great! How often are you so convicted that something is true and wonderful enough that you shout about it, right where you are- in the grocery store, in your living room, with your family gathered, here at church? How often does the spirit move you so much you just have to yell about it? For myself, I would have to say literally never.
So can we celebrate for a second that these two women, so long ago, amidst such strange, captivating circumstances, had a moment of such importance that the unborn jumped for joy and a woman felt the need to shout about it? And not worry about all the rest. God’s goodness is worth shouting about. The love we feel for one another is worth shouting about. And even in (or perhaps especially in) our staid, overly analytical tradition, we should do more shouting about our faith- and not the kind of shouting that is really fighting.
So John jumps… Elizabeth yells… and then Mary sings.
And I love her song dearly.
This is one of my favorite poems in scripture. I read it for comfort, and to challenge myself with its truth, and sometimes it helps me to not feel alone.
Mary’s beautiful words here are words of faith, of gratitude, and that describe the way that God turns the world upside down for those who love Her. They are just beautiful.
These words are also threatening-
God has “scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations”
God has “pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly”
God has “filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.
God has remembered mercy and fulfilled promises…
While I believe that it is possible to understand her words as meaning that she is grateful for the ways she, as an oppressed person- a woman, and of a faith community under occupation, and an unwed mother, has been treated by God far better than the world would treat her- it is a cop-out to think that these examples are only that. Mary means what she says, she knows God has done these things, and she is seeing the same in her life. So what does it mean for us, who are mostly citizens of a rich nation, ourselves mostly well educated and financially secure, and in most other ways secure to affirm Mary’s song?
It means we need to listen to her, to remember that the God she sings about has indeed done these things, and will do them again. And that it is our responsibility as followers of Mary’s son to ensure-
that we humble our own arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations,
and that we help lift up the lowly,
and even help topple the powerful from their thrones when need be,
that we feed the hungry with good things
and not give more to the rich who do not need more…
...not comfortable words for our context or our days.
But, despite the discomfort of those parallels, we also must remember to do these things not out of fear of being the powerful to be toppled, or the “rich to be sent away empty-handed” no, we should do these things for the reason Mary sings about-
because like to her, God shows us mercy,
because along with her, we rejoice at God’s role in our lives,
And because just like for her, God fulfills the promises God has made to us,
And because, as Rev. Williams reminds us,
“We are all almost-mothers
like Mary once was
conceiving within us
the promise of love”
Love that goes to extremes, that turns the world over, that is both all powerful and as vulnerable as a newborn child, that gives us all hope and joy and the strength to jump….to shout….and to sing because it is ours.
Love worth singing about, love that brought me here. That makes me love this congregation, that brought me from far away to live in a strange place. Love that means that even though we journeyed through some hard times and hurt feelings, I will remember you with fondness and hope. It is also love that asks me to go now. It is time. It may not feel like time to you, I have had moments too where it felt like I Should be here with you, but I knew even in those moments that that was my fear of an unknown future and my sadness at saying goodbye, and not what is right for you or for me. We became a community together over these last two years, and we became that for a purpose and for a time. And that time has come, and so I will move on to a new role, and you all will move into a new future, a future I know will be bright, that will be strengthened by your love of one another and of God, I love you all dearly, and will keep tabs from afar. I will be sure to send updates when I know where I will serve next. And I will pray for you. I will pray that Mary’s song and yours are one- that the mercy and grace of God are palpable for you, that you know that justice and making things right is God’s work, and that, like Mary you can know joy even in the midst of confusing or difficult times.
As advent ends and new seasons begin today, May we enter them with joy and love that make you jump...and shout...and sing for their love. Amen.