The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
56 And Mary remained with Elizabeth about three months and then returned to her home.
When we chose this picture of Mary for the bulletin, none of us knew that on Thursday night, not far from here, a 12 year-old girl would be shot and killed. We didn’t know that there would be a mother in our neighborhood, whose cradled arms, like Mary’s in this picture, would be empty. For Mary, her arms empty at the beginning of the story because she is waiting to cradle her newborn son. And empty at the end of the story because her son has been killed. Mary has had to let Jesus go, like the mother who had to let go of her daughter four days ago.
And when we chose to include in the bulletin this poem, in which the poet remembers how as a little girl she always chose to be Mary in the Christmas pageant, and draped herself in a blue bedsheet, and ran down the aisle when the minister read the Christmas story and called her name, and how even as a child, she knew that Mary was afraid, yet bravely sang—when we chose this poem, we didn’t know that a young girl, who might have been Mary in one of our recent annual Living Nativities—we didn’t know her life would end so tragically the same week we are doing a COVID version of the Nativity.
And when we chose to have Reagan sing a modern version of Mary’s song in which Mary rejoices because God has raised her up and then asks in wonder: “Could the world be about to turn?,” we didn’t know that for this nearby family the world was about to turn.
And I really wanted, in this season of bitter cold, and anxious waiting, and cancelled Christmas celebrations, and long darkness, I really wanted to preach a cheerful sermon. I really wanted to have some good laughs with you this morning. But the reality is that there are times when we can’t quite raise our glasses and sing “Jolly Old St. Nicholas,” and our “fa la las…” Our collective world has been turned upside down in so many ways, and our personal worlds too, in these last many months. For many of us our energies are being zapped by a steady low-level anxiety, or by having to improvise so often on so many levels. If we were in an experimental theatre troupe, this might be fun. But in real life, not so much. I have had to start taking one of those natural memory enhancing supplements because my mind is either skittering like a hundred scared cats, or is in the kind of fog that Carl Sandburg describes in one of his most famous poems. We are off kilter. Discombobulated. And, at least some of us, are sick of it.
It is fair to say that the world is always “about to turn.” Things change, in big and little ways. Sometimes suddenly. Sometimes gradually. Parents age. We age. Loved ones die. Babies are born. Children grow up. We are equipped for incremental changes that give us time to adapt and find our way. Some of us are better at this than others. But, then there are surprise turns—good ones and hard ones. Coronavirus. A job lost. A terminal diagnosis. An eviction notice on the door. You fall in love. There’s a scholarship for college. Somewhere a war ends and peace comes. Somewhere a dictator falls.
The cycle of change and turning seems endless. Human history appears to move in circles. Patterns repeat themselves. Dictators rise again. And wars begin again. And love comes and goes. And the economically poor are still with us. And the rich still get richer. And even in our own lives, we get stuck in certain patterns, certain default thought loops, certain ways of responding that go round and round and are hard to break out of.
This morning Mary sings because she perceives that the world might be turning and changing in an upward spiral. There is no doubt that Mary’s little world is changing. There is a human-Holy Spirit baby growing in her womb whose life will bring her joy and sorrow. But today Mary sings because she perceives that what is happening to her is changing the whole world for good. It is as though Mary has been lifted up from the earth and given a 360 degree view of things past, present, and future. And what she sees is the absolute faithfulness of God. Mary remembers and rejoices because God has already toppled tyrants from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly, and filled the hungry with good things, and sent the proud packing.
And knowing that this is who God is and how God moves in human history, Mary trusts that even now, like the baby hidden in her womb, God moves in secret to bring peace and justice, to pour out the power of love, to bring light to the darkness, to put an end to cycles of oppression and suffering, grief and loss, poverty and privilege. Mary’s first question: “Could the world be about to turn?” becomes a confident “God is turning the world round right.”
Mary’s human-Holy Spirit Son will grow up to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to embody God’s grace and favor for the whole wide world, to comfort the mourners, and to repair the devastations caused by human choice. Mary doesn’t know all that is yet to come. But she knows that God is faithful. Mary knows that the world is moving toward the future that God intends where life and love and beauty and goodness will be all in all.
Clearly, we are not yet there. Not far from here, a mother with her family grieves. Not far from here our neighbors search for food and shelter. Not far from here, exhausted healthcare workers tend the sick and the dying. And right in here, in our own hearts, we feel the ache and the longing for ourselves, our loved ones, our neighbors. We wait for the full turning to good that God promises.
But with Mary, we have already been taken up into God’s big turning. And yesterday at the Old Dutch Church I felt it with such immense certainty. The Church bells were ringing out “Joy to the World” and “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas;” and there were four fat sheep in the church yard and children were trying to climb through the fence to get near and touch them (and parents were trying to stop them); and the path to the Bethlehem stable was lighted and shoveled clear of snow; and people were gathered in the cemetery to remember and lay wreaths on the graves of those who died in war and to pray for peace; and inside Bethany Hall there were tables filled with tender microgreens and plump turnips; knitted hats and handmade bowls; jeweled earrings and Russel’s homemade sourdough bread; and in the Hall is the crib where we gathered so many gifts for undocumented children in our community; and in the Church office there are mounds of hats and gloves and socks and snacks and toothbrushes gathered for the lowly ones who live at Chiz’s Heartstreet.
Yesterday there were people everywhere, inside and outside the Church, talking, laughing, crying, praying. There were all of these beautiful little turnings happening here; there was the birthing of goodness and hope, of communion and love, in the gathering of friends and neighbors and strangers. And this morning we are here, to hear Mary sing her brave song and to sing with her in confident hope because God is turning the world round right, and we have been taken up into God’s magnificent hidden and revealed movement. Holy Spirit is kicking and moving within us. Surrounding our ache and renewing our hope. Let our spirits rejoice! Let our lives sing and live out God’s good news!