A wider vision (or, what Mary knew that changed the world)

The build up to Christmas offers us almost equal shares of delight and despair.  There are beautiful things – lights and songs and an altered mood in many people that means doors are held and attention is paid to the niceties; there are more smiles – more “please” and “Thank you” and “have a nice day”…add in the occasional “Merry Christmas” or “Happy holidays” (to which I have no objection, by the way) and the atmosphere can be downright pleasant.  There is the other side, of course.  the parking lot pandemonium, the angry jostling for the last item on the shelf; the defensive way some walk through the mall, or down the street – eyes downcast, shoulders hunched – the look of someone on the way to an uncomfortable appointment.  These moods are equally infectious.  I have seen an ugly mood turned on its head by the simplest of kind actions.  Unfortunately, the presence of a first class Christmas Crank can spoil the day for everyone just as easily.  In both cases, it is because we find it very difficult – especially at this time of year – to see beyond ourselves.  Our approach to this season – one we sometimes claim is all about giving and reaching out in love – is, in truth, not nearly so selfless.  It is all about us; our experience, our traditions, our plans and dreams.

I confess myself guilty – guilty of being that guy in the mall, intent on my list – wanting only to get in; get gift; get out – as fast as possible.  When the pressure’s on, I lose sight of the joy that is near me – determined to arrive at Christmas day in such a way that “all will call me blessed.”

That’s my problem, though – I have been playing a double game these last ten years or so.  My Christmas preparations leave me with a foot in both camps; there’s the husband/father/son/brother who wants to get things just right according to the list in my head and the plans for dinner (with time winding down and no chance of an extension…), and the minister/preacher/pastor who encounters dozens of different expectations and anxieties, all while considering seasonal Scriptures that draw different conclusions about the destination for this advent journey.

As this played itself out these last few weeks, I became drawn to the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth that comes to us from Luke’s gospel this morning.  Two women caught in struggles of their own – the struggle between family expectations and the call of God.  Not to take anything away from Elizabeth – the matriarch here; the woman to whom Mary goes for advice and comfort – not to diminish her importance, but I think she gets is wrong.  Sure, she recognizes that Mary has been blessed in a special way, but she can’t see any further than that.  She isn’t able to recognize the full extent of this gift.

Torn between personal/ family blessings and the wider will of God, Elizabeth sees only the former.  Her young cousin will open her eyes to the truth here.

Karoline Lewis, a professor of preaching from Luther Seminary in Minnesota, writes about a relationship between Mary’s “song” (Luke 1: 46-55) and Jesus’ first sermon (Luke 4: 18-19 – Jesus’ quoting Isaiah) – Lewis says:

“Maybe it’s true that you can learn something from your mother. Jesus’ understanding of his purpose for his ministry restates his mother’s understanding of God’s working in her life. Jesus senses the essence of his ministry because he learned it from Mary. Jesus isn’t just making stuff up. He’s giving voice to how he grew up. He’s articulating what he’s been taught. He’s known this from the beginning. It’s what his mother preached. It’s what his mother lived. It’s what his mother taught him to be. It’s how his mother interpreted Scripture. It’s what his mother shared about who she knew God to be. It’s what his life of faith embodied. Jesus can witness to the God he knows because he heard his mother give witness to the God she knew.”

(https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4225)

And what Mary knew was that while family and personal dreams and goals are important, this God of ours has much bigger plans than simply our personal salvation, or our individual happiness.

Mary’s song begins with an acknowledgment of the blessing God has given her (all generations will call me blessed) but she quickly moves on to the wider vision of God – mercy from generation to generation; toppling the powerful, lifting up the lowly – keeping promises across time, to the countless descendants of Abraham.

Mary can open our eyes to the truth – this season celebrates the act and art of giving, that’s for sure – but it is a gift of unbelievable scope; far beyond our tiny plans, or our selfish certainty that “one perfect gift / one perfect event” can salvage a year (or a lifetime) of disappointment.  This gift of God is nothing less than the liberation of all creation!  Power and wealth and justice and mercy – all things that we have defined for our benefit – will be revealed and reconfigured according to God’s definitions, and so the last will be first, and the weak shall be strong, and all people will see the salvation of our God.

Not quite how you imagined Christmas, is it?  Never fear – gifts will continue to be exchanged, and turkeys carved.  smiles and good cheer will abound, because we are celebrating in good faith – trying to do justice to the gift of God that meets us in Jesus.

The day is fast approaching – and soon we will, for a brief season, see our plans come to life.  Joy will abound, and if we are paying attention, we will see something of the fulness of God’s plan in our celebrations.  May that be our prayer – and our delight – as the Christmas season begins.

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