Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, the last Sunday of Advent. And the story of Advent is the story of the way the world is broken, and the story of Advent is the story of the way the world waits in longing and in expectation for something, for someone, to start to heal that brokenness. In this season of Advent, we try to tell the truth about the world: that the world is not all perfect, that the world is not all good, that the wicked sometimes do prosper, that the good often do suffer. We tell this truth about the world not because we want to revel in pain or wallow in despair; we tell this truth out of hope. We tell this truth about the world in Advent because we believe that the world was never meant to be this way, because we believe that the world does not have to be this way. The expectation and waiting of Advent is a religious hopefulness: not hopefulness for an afterlife, or hopefulness for rewards in heaven, but a hopefulness for a world put right. It is a hopefulness for healing from a brokenness that follows us around and haunts us and shows up everywhere we look. It’s a hopefulness for restoration and reconciliation. The hope of Advent, the hopefulness we proclaim in this season, is that things do not have to be this way, that things were never meant to be this way, and that the world can be made good and whole again. It is, maybe, a foolish hope. But Advent tells us that when we hope foolishly, we hope in good company. We do not hope alone.
When we look around, there are many signs that this world is broken; there are many ways to see that things are not as they are supposed to be. For me the last week or so, I’ve been thinking about a little girl named Jakelin. That’s the seven year old girl who died recently while attempting with her father to leave her native Guatemala and seek asylum in the United States. She died, of dehydration and shock, in an American hospital shortly after reaching this country. And now the news is full of people arguing about why she died. Some say it is the fault of the American government and its—our—strict immigration policies. Others say it’s her father’s fault for bringing her on such a dangerous journey. Some point to economic policies that made her family desperate. Others point to the drug cartels that made the existences of many people so dangerous that they flee for their lives. Some point to destabilizing American political meddling in central and South America that made those drug cartels possible. Or the legacy of colonialism. Or the role of religion. Or environmental destruction. There are lots of opinions about who to blame. But perhaps we can agree, perhaps everyone can agree, that whatever else might be true, that the death of this seven year old girl shows us that the world is broken. We can argue about how and why it is broken, but when Jakelin died in a hospital after a dangerous journey of hundreds of miles, one of thousands of such journeys undertaken every day and millions of journeys taken by refugees and migrants every year, perhaps we can agree that something is broken about our world. Things are not the way they are supposed to be.
This brokenness, this sense that things are not the way they are supposed to be, stands just behind this morning’s reading from the prophet Micah. Just before and just after this passage that we read this morning, the text of Micah talks about the Assyrians, the enemies to the north. The Assyrians have surrounded us, they have besieged us. With a rod, the Assyrians strike the ruler of Israel upon the cheek, our enemies strike at our very king. There is no security to be found, the prophet Micah is saying, the world is not safe and we are refugees from our own homes and in our own land, and because of that, God is raising up a ruler.
You see, we Christians so often skip to that last part of a text like this, we skip to the part where it seems to be talking about Jesus, where God is raising up a ruler, we skip right to the triumph, without noticing how much the words are rooted in the experiences the downtrodden, the oppressed, the besieged, the refugee. Because of the brokenness of the world, because something has gone awry with this place, because the people suffer, because of that, the prophet Micah says, because of that, out of Bethlehem shall come forth one who is to rule Israel. Because we are driven from our homes and because we flee for our lives and our children’s lives, because of that, Micah says, one shall come forth whose origin is from old, from ancient days. You see, we don’t get to claim Jesus in this text without recognizing and acknowledging that the brokenness that makes Micah cry out for a savior is the very same brokenness that sent Jakelin and her father running from home, the same brokenness that makes mothers cry everywhere, the same brokenness that stalks our own world. The hopefulness of Advent is the hopefulness of kids like Jakelin, and it is the hopefulness of their parents, and of anyone else who thinks that things might get better, that there might be some place for them in this world, that God might be on their side. Advent is about peace, but it’s not about an easy peace, and it’s about love, but it’s a difficult love, and it’s about hope, but it’s the kind of hope that sends you running from home and crying out to God for a savior.
That same hopefulness is why Mary breaks into song in the other biblical passage that we read this morning. That passage is from the gospel of Luke, and it’s a famous passage. Usually we call it “the Magnificat,” after the Latin first word of Mary’s song: “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sings, “and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” It makes for some pretty fantastic music, including the hymn we’re about to sing, because of the exuberant hopefulness in Mary’s words and in her spirit. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty….” You see, this is that same hopefulness, although it is really only hopeful for the underside of the world, and not for the rich and the powerful, this is that same irrational hope, because even though Mary speaks in the past tense, as if these hopeful things are already accomplished, these things haven’t really happened yet. The powerful have not yet been brought down from their thrones, and the lowly have not really been lifted up, at least not yet, and the hungry are not yet filled and the rich have not been sent away empty. She was singing about the future as if it had already happened, and Mary was trying to sing that future into being with her song.
But Mary’s song, the song she sang to her cousin Elizabeth about the child she was carrying, Mary’s song looked forward to a day when those things would be true. Mary, like the prophet Micah, and like the child Jakelin, and like so many others, Mary lived on the underside of life. She was probably poor. She was probably young. She was a woman in a world where that did not count for much. She lived in a land that was occupied by foreign invaders, a land that had been occupied for five hundred years already by the time Mary sang her song. And yet Mary sang, because of the child she was carrying. She sang, not out of some idle hope, but because she felt in her body that something new was possible. God “has helped” God’s “servant Israel,” she sang, “in remembrance of” God’s “mercy, according to the promise” God “made to our ancestors, to Abraham and his descendants forever.” Mary felt, Mary knew, that God would make good on that promise. Mary believed that God was faithful, she believed that hope had meaning, she knew that this child she carried would be a sign of God’s promise, of God’s favor, and so Mary’s soul magnified the Lord, at the thought that God was making good on those old, old promises.
Mary’s soul magnified the Lord at the knowledge of the child she was carrying within her; Mary’s soul magnified the Lord because of the hope she felt growing inside her, because of the way she felt God’s promises to her and to her people coming true. Mary sang this song, this Magnificat, because of the hopefulness she found welling up in her. But Mary was not the first one to sing it, and she was not the last. Mary’s song of faithful hopefulness is the same song sung by people in every time and place who cry out to God in longing and expectation; Mary’s song is the same song sung by people everywhere running from home seeking a new life, people working to change and overthrow the systems that oppress them and others, people hoping that a new generation will find the peace that they could never find. Mary’s song is the song of Advent. Jakelin’s mother and father sang a song like Mary’s song before Jakelin was born; they, like Mary, saw hope and possibility in her unborn life. That is what drives someone to take their seven-year-old on a dangerous journey far from home: the hope that her life will be better than theirs, that she will find more opportunity than they did, that she would know peace in her life. They, like Mary and like the prophet Micah, were chasing that old, old promise of God.
Here, as Christmas approaches, we cannot forget the story of Jesus’ birth as told in the gospels of Luke and Matthew—how Joseph and Mary were traveling on the road because of the decrees of some emperor who lived thousands of miles away, how Jesus was born in a stall in a roadside barn because there was nowhere else for it to happen, how no sooner was Jesus born than the whole family became refugees in Egypt because it was not safe to be at home. And still Mary’s soul magnified the Lord, even in the pains of labor in that roadside shack. Still Mary’s soul magnified the Lord, even as she and Joseph packed what they could carry with them and left their home behind, still Mary’s soul magnified the Lord because of the hope she felt welling up inside of her at the thought of her son, because of the promises she had heard from God.
We do Advent every year; for four weeks every year we long with the prophets, we wait with the evangelists, we hope with Mary. We do Advent every year because like Mary, we are singing about the future as if it had already happened, we are trying to sing that future into being with our song. When we sing the songs of Advent, we sing with Jakelin who died at the border, and we sing with her mother, and her father, and with thousands of others like them, with human rights activists hiding in Syria, with future-less teens in Gaza, with the mothers of black men shot down in the street, with the sons of women hurt by their partners, with gay and lesbian people rejected by their families, we sing with soldiers in wars, with farmers who can’t water their fields, with people who have lost everything, with people who have everything but peace. We sing this song of hope in Advent, and we do it every year, because we are still trying to sing that future into being with our song.
Mary watched her son die on a Roman cross; Jakelin died in a border-town hospital, but we hope anyway that that future that Mary sang about might someday come to pass. We hope anyway that the proud would be scattered. We hope anyway, when we are brave enough to hope, that the powerful might be brought down from their thrones, that the lowly might be lifted up, that the hungry might be filled with good things, that the rich might be sent away empty. We hope anyway, despite all the evidence, for the future described in Mary’s song where God’s promises are coming true, where the world really has changed, and where the hopeful ones of old, the hopeful ones like Mary and Micah and Jakelin’s father and mother, we hope for a time when the hopeful ones everywhere will have sung a new world into being. This is the Advent song, this is the Advent hope, that we gather here today to claim as our own. That things would be made right. That the world would be put right. We sing as if it has already happened, but we also wait for it to happen, we wait for the world to turn, and we sing a song of hopefulness for the next Jakelin, for the next one who hopes irrationally, for the next one running from emperors and generals, for the next ones running from home, for next ones trusting in the promises of God. We hope in those promises too, and in this season of Advent, we join in that song, and we sing for a world remade. Amen.