Isaiah 11:1-10
Luke 1:39-56

The season has crept up on me this year. I think I let my guard down, with Thanksgiving so early, the unseasonably warm weather early on. Because the fourth Sunday of Advent, next Sunday, is also Christmas Eve, we backed up the church calendar with the peak of activity being last Sunday with the choir’s extraordinary music then the pageant and pot-luck in the evening. It was a busy and full and wonderful day, thanks to so many of you. Thankfully, none of the day resembled the experience in a video one of you sent me this week of a pageant in east Tennessee. You might have seen it. A dear children’s choir is singing ‘Away in a Manger’, the camera focused on the manger, with Mary and Joseph and 4 other children – an angel (they have something like a halo), and 3 who I think are “sheep.” As the choir sings one of the sheep gets bored, toddles over, and this girl – my guess is she’s 5, picks up old, white doll baby Jesus and sits him on her hip and begins to walk around. Mary is NOT pleased, and snatches Jesus back, sticking him back in the manger with force. The scene repeats, the eager sheep yearning to hold the baby close, Mary trying to wrestle the Christ child back, the video ends with Mary holding the sheep (who is still holding the baby tight) in something like a headlock, a nearby parent finally rushing in.[1] It is difficult sometimes to get ready, the crush and stress of the season pressing upon us. It can be difficult, and complicated, to get ready.

The gospel writers prepare us in unique ways. Luke doesn’t rush, taking time to shape the story. Matthew jumps right in with a genealogy, in the heart it by verse 18. Mark quotes the prophet Isaiah, then we meet John the Baptist fully grown. John has his poetic prologue, then much the same. “It is evident,” Fred Craddock writes, “that Luke wants the reader not to move too swiftly…Hence Luke’s restraint: eighty verses in chapter 1 and the child is not yet born. First there must be visions and angels visitant; mothers-to-be must wonder and talk and sing; history must roll to a particular moment when Caesar Augustus will put Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem.”[2] We meet Zechariah, struck mute in the temple, his wife, Elizabeth, too old to have a baby…already in a long line of women stretching back to Sarai and Rebekah, Rachel and Hannah. But a miracle occurs; Elizabeth conceives. Later the same angel interrupts a young girl in Nazareth named Mary. She, too, will have a son. He’s coming. He will change everything.

Then today’s amazing encounter. The stage has been set and Mary sets out, with haste. We don’t know if anyone goes with her, we just know that the angel has told Mary that that Elizabeth, too, was pregnant. “For nothing will be impossible with God,” the angel says. This meeting is so tender. The women have been drawn together by these similar experiences – both knew they were to have a child, that God was doing something true and yet unclear. It makes me think of when someone who has cancer sits with someone who is also in treatment, someone whose spouse has died befriends another person bearing that grief. These women had a shared experience that helped them understand some things about each other, about God. Elizabeth begins exclaiming, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” As soon as I knew you were here, Elizabeth says, the child leapt in my womb, divine confirmation, this encounter littered with signs of the providence of God. Blessed are you, Mary says, who knew God was at work.

And Mary breaks into song. The only extended speech in all of Luke/Acts attributed to a woman, it casts Mary as a prophet. In the tradition of Hannah and her namesake, Miriam[3], Mary celebrates God’s unfolding salvation of her people, Israel, and God’s compassion for the lowly, represented here by the exemplary but ordinary Mary.[4] My spirit rejoices in the Lord, who has looked with favor on me, she says. From now on generations – even us 2000 years later – will call me blessed. For God has done great things. Holy is God’s name. Her song continues in a line consistent with songs of the prophets who announce a God who is turning things upside down, taking the values of the world and flipping them over. A God that is filled with mercy. A God that scatters the proud. A God who has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and not only has done this, but has LIFTED UP the lowly. This God has filled the hungry with good things, sent the rich away empty. This God, Mary sings, has kept faith with God’s own from the very beginning.

Mary sings of a God that moves us towards the kind of kingdom the prophet Isaiah proclaims – promises of One who will come, who is coming, who has already broken into the world, who will judge the poor with righteousness, deciding with equity for the meek. In the kingdom of this God the wolf and the lamb live together, and a little child shall lead them. All creation will live in harmony, a harmony that feels so elusive, the nursing child playing safely by the snake. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

I was struck this week about how different these values are from much of the world, the contrast more stark as the day gets near. I was convicted. And I want to challenge us to think about the ways we might celebrate Christmas here very soon, and live beyond it in a way consistent with the upside-down values of our Lord. Full of mercy and forgiveness and grace. The holidays tend to bring back conflicts and old patterns. Might we encounter family or friends with whom we have strained relationships with grace. Might we look not to the proud, not the loud and bombastic, not those who demand our attention. In our homes, in our communities, and in our leaders regardless of party. The world points us to the proud. But let us followers of Jesus look to the quiet, the lowly, the poor, those toiling away in the shadows, those who are grieving, unnoticed. Let us look to voices too often dismissed and set aside. Might we seek out the hungry and the lonely. Might we look for righteousness and equity for every single person, in our homes in our communities in the structures of our world – lifting up the meek. These are the values of the One the prophet proclaimed would come, blessing Elizabeth, then Mary, with a holy child.

I don’t know about you – and this isn’t a problem unique to me at Christmas – but I tend to get a little too caught up in who is what and where. Who is in charge. Who is winning. Who has. We are all drawn to these things, aren’t we? But the One whose birth we anticipate this season, in a song sung by a young girl no one was paying attention to otherwise, inaugurated a new age. An age in which we are called to tend to the upside-down values of our God, who comes, bringing Hope. All praise be to God. Amen.

[1] Nativity Scene Sheep Steals Baby Jesus In Adorable Christmas Play, News Channel 5.

[2] Fred Craddock, Interpretation Series: Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), p 23.

[3] Hannah’s story can be found in I Samuel 1-2, and Miriam’s song in Exodus 15:20 and following.

[4] The Discipleship Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version including Apocrypha (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2008), footnote page 1785.