READING FROM THE HEBREW BIBLE (Isaiah 61: 1-4; 8-11)
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 broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 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. 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.
For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
READING FROM THE GOSPELS (Luke 1: 39-56)
39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be* a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
46 And Mary* said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 48 for he has looked with favour 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 for ever.’
56 And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.
SERMON “Good News” By Robin Bartlett
Preached on December 14, 2014 at First Church in Sterling, MA
Good News doesn’t always sound like Good News. That’s what I have to say to you this morning.
In our scripture, we meet up with Mary as she goes to visit her friend Elizabeth, She is pregnant with hope and possibility; with the son of God in her womb. Elizabeth can see that the Lord has blessed Mary; can feel her own child leaping in her womb in joy.
But before that trip to Elizabeth’s house, before all the joy of being pregnant with this hope for the world, we know from the passage in Luke right before this one that Mary was given news by the Angel Gabriel, and it came as a pretty big surprise. I always imagine the conversation going like this:
The Angel Gabriel comes to Mary and says, “Mary, greetings, o favored one, the Lord is with you. Which do you want first, the bad news or the good news?”
And Mary says….hmmm, I guess I’ll take the bad news first.
And the Angel Gabriel says: “Well, the bad news is that you’re poor, you’re a teenager, you’re not yet married to your betrothed, Joseph, whom you haven’t had intercourse with yet, and he may be really, really mad at you when he finds out the good news and not want to marry you.”
And Mary says, “Well, what’s the Good News then?”
And Angel Gabriel says: “You’re pregnant! But do not be afraid, the baby is God’s!”
And Luke goes on to say that Mary was “troubled.” Yeah, I don’t blame her. Good News doesn’t always sound like Good News.
Preaching is a conversation, and we have had many conversations this week. I gave a difficult sermon to preach and to hear last week; a sermon that maybe sounded more like bad news than good. And I had a conversation with more than one of you about racism and crucifixion and death and suffering and dehumanizing other people while we are supposed to be preparing for birth, new life, light, the hope of God and the coming of the Kingdom during the Advent season: the season in which we wait for Jesus, the hope of the world. “This is supposed to be a quiet time of hope and optimism; this season. Why so much talk about death and crucifixion when we are supposed to be thinking about birth and resurrection? Why so much talk of dark while we’re supposed to be waiting on the light? It’s not Good Friday, it’s Christmas. And, by the way, “I don’t like it when ‘politics’ gets preached from the pulpit. I want to hear the Gospel.”
One of you said to me, “Robin, you did a great job today, but can you try not to preach a controversial sermon next week? Maybe at least tell a joke, or something.”
Here’s the Truth: the Gospel, which means “good news” can be dark and controversial, and the Gospel can sound a lot like politics. Our text this week has Mary pregnant with a child who will scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, bring down the powerful from their thrones, lift up the lowly; fill the hungry with good things, send the rich away empty. And I’m afraid that we are all considered rich by Biblical writers’ standards.
The Gospel contains hard truths about the world in which it was written in, and the reason why we continue to read it and I continue to preach it, is because the Gospel contains hard truths for the world now, and it isn’t always the Truth we want to hear. It’s definitely not always the Truth that I want to hear. It doesn’t fit neatly into the category of American partisan “politics” in our 21st century understandings of those words, but it surely speaks into the world. It doesn’t fit neatly into the categories of “hope” and “optimism”, “self-help” or “easy answers to all problems” in our 21st century understandings of those concepts, but it surely speaks into the world. And it doesn’t always sound like Good News to those of us who have ears to hear, but it surely speaks into the world.
And like Mary in our scripture reading, our job is to birth hope in the midst of so much death and destruction and darkness. To birth God into the world as it is. To birth God into a world plagued by racism and torture. To birth God into a world plagued by killing and rape. Our task during advent is to be truthful about the destruction, and to be both realistic and audacious about our hope. This is why so many of our advent texts tell us, like the angel Gabriel says to Mary when she finds out she is pregnant: “Do not be afraid!” This is why so many of our advent texts tell us to “Stay awake.”
It’s hard to stay awake. I admit to you that I couldn’t bring myself to watch the video of Eric Garner saying “I can’t breathe” eleven times as he was choked to death. I admit to you that I couldn’t bring myself to read the CIA’s torture report that came out this week. I just want to fall asleep to it all. I’d rather shop and bake Christmas cookies; sing carols and have parties. That’s how I’d rather prepare for the coming of the Prince of Peace.
But we are asked over and over again in our texts to stay awake to the suffering of the world, and not to fear. And God knows that the suffering in the world is REALLY SCARY, and it is easier to fall asleep to the suffering instead. It’s easier to numb ourselves or intellectualize or distance ourselves by saying “not my community, not my problem.” It’s easier to label the suffering of the world “politics”, and separate that somehow from religion. It’s easier to slap platitudes on the mourning people in our communities by saying things like, “everything happens for a reason,” or “God just needed one more angel.”
It’s easier to shine our full solar spirituality on this time of year with forced joy and sentimentalism.
My favorite Lutheran preacher Nadia Bolz Weber puts it plainly: “I wonder if we’ve lost the plot if we use religion as the place where we escape from the difficult realities of our lives instead of as the place where those difficult realities are given meaning. Of course, there are many ways of pretending (stuff) ain’t broke in ourselves and in the world, but escapist religion is a classic option since at church we have endless opportunities to pretend everything is fine.
But when we find ourselves in a world where we see up-to-the-minute images of human suffering, we simply cannot afford any more…sentimentality in Christianity. Not one more soft-focus photo of a dove flying in front of a waterfall with an inspirational verse on a coffee cup, not one more over-produced recording of earnest praise music, not one more Thomas Kincaide painting. I don’t think Jesus would abide this ignoring of reality in favor of emotional idealism and I know for sure we cannot afford it. Not when we live in a world where suffering is as real as it was when Jesus was born and people are longing for something to help make sense of their suffering. Sentimental images of Santa kneeling at a manger are not helping us make sense of the world as it actually exists.”
My people, we need to make sense of the world as it actually exists if we want our news to be good.
If we are going to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; WE HAVE TO BE REAL about the fact that there is oppression and broken hearts and captives and prisoners. We have to birth new life in the face of real suffering. We can’t go about shopping on Amazon and pretending this suffering doesn’t exist.
If we are going to be able to comfort all who mourn; to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praises instead of a faint spirit, WE NEED TO BE REAL about the fact that people are mourning deaths of people and deaths of relationships. We have to birth new life in the face of real suffering. We can’t go about baking Christmas cookies and pretending this suffering doesn’t exist.
If we are going to build up the ancient ruins, raise up the former devastations; if we are to repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. WE NEED TO BE REAL ABOUT WHAT WE HAVE RUINED. We have to birth new life in the face of real suffering. We can’t go about tying pretty bows on every branch of our Christmas tree pretending this suffering doesn’t exist.
So back to Mary, who knows a little bit about this; about giving birth to God during the terror of the Roman empire and the reign of King Herod, a Jewish king of Judea who is famous for his support of Rome and his vengeful and raging temper. When he finds out that it is predicted that Mary will give birth to the “king of the Jews” he flies off the handle and orders all first born sons in Judea to be killed. This is what Mary has to contend with when she finds out she is pregnant. That her son was about to be born into a world of infanticide and empire, and she was a powerless unwed teenager. She was probably terrified. What kind of world am I to give birth to this son into? My son will die. And who am I to give birth to the hope of the world? And tell me again, Angel Gabriel, HOW is this Good News?
I have many friends who are childless by choice. My friend told me once that she can’t imagine how she could have a baby knowing about the environmental degradation we humans are bringing about on this aching planet earth we call home. I have another friend who thinks I’m crazy to have three children, knowing that the more I have, the better the odds that one of them could be hurt or harmed or kidnapped every time they leave the house. And they are absolutely right. There have been studies saying that parents of children are far less happy than their childless peers, and that makes sense to me. Parenting is grieving one loss after another, and the anxiety of your heart walking around outside of your body is more than we can even bare much of the time.
This is exactly the dilemma in every age: what a ridiculously hopeful and insane act it is to bring babies into this world. It has to be a combination of biology overriding our brains, and God insisting on entering into a world whether the world is ready for God or not.
There is really not so much difference between hope and insanity.
I knew this “oh god, what have I done?” feeling as soon as I gave birth to my first baby girl. I had never had such a close connection with death as I did in those first weeks after bringing her into the world: How closely birth and death are linked! Looking back on it, I would call what I experienced the clinical name: “Post Partum Depression”, which to me doesn’t actually seem like a disorder, but like a stroke of sanity—a failure of our usual coping skills of numbing and denial. The crazyness, I thought, was the choice to bring her here to begin with—not the depression that followed.
Here was this perfect baby girl that I just birthed. She will feel broken more than I can bare; she will be hurt many times over her life. And then she will die. And like all parents, I’m sure Mary knew this truth intimately.
And yet, no matter how much of a fool’s errand this parenting gig is, birthing hope into destruction is God stuff; it’s where God resides. Meister Eckhart reminds us that “we are all meant to be mothers of God, because God is always needing to be born.”
This is precisely what the Good News is. The Good News is that God is being born again and again in the form of precious, holy infants, love’s pure light, into the world as it is.
God isn’t just being born in babies. God is being born again and again in the form of new relationships after the death of divorce, in the form of getting sober after the destruction of addiction, in the form of healing from long illness after the destruction of our bodies, in the form of spring after the destruction of the long winter, in the form of political unrest after the destruction of two thousand years of wrong, in the form of art that makes sense of the destruction of our suffering.
Nadia Bolz-Weber says that “the Epiphany story of Herod and infanticide reveals a God who has entered our world as it actually exists, and not as the world we often wish it would be. Because God’s love is too pure to enter into a world that does not exist.”
The hope for the world, is a recognition of the world as it is, and the faith that God will upend the destruction and despair with God’s oil of gladness; a love too pure to enter into a world that does not exist. This is the Good News, this crazy hope for a Love that makes no earthly sense; a Love that dissolves all mourning.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org