Monday, December 31, 2018

Sermon: "An Expectant Time"

Scripture Intro - Luke 1:39-55

This passage from Luke’s Gospel contains the text of one of the earliest Christian hymns to be sung in worship.
It is the Song of Mary – otherwise known as the Magnificat.
These are the words of praise that Mary lifted up when she visited her much older relative, Elizabeth, to tell her that she too was expecting a child.
Elizabeth was pregnant with John, and Mary was pregnant with Jesus.
Both women in their own way were called upon to prepare the way for God to enter into our world.
On this fourth Sunday of Advent, the words of these women capture the impending joy that we feel as we too prepare a way for Jesus to enter into our world.

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
December 23, 2018 – Fourth Sunday of Advent
Luke 1:39-55

“An Expectant Time”

Earlier this week, we had a few windows replaced in the parsonage next door.    It was 22 degrees outside and the wind was gusting at 22 mph.
In other words, a perfect day to replace windows.
As one of the workmen stood in our family room and removed the old window from its frame, he looked out at the church next door and said,
“It’s a beautiful church…and so needed. People need God now more than ever – especially with the way things are in the world today.”

My immediate thought was – “There’s a sermon in there.”
Initially, I was drawn to the first part of what this insightful craftsman said – “People need God now more than ever.”

I admit that I’m biased, but I tend to believe that people always need God, even if they don’t always realize it…but the Christmas season is a wonderful time to remind ourselves of the role that God plays in our lives –
in the good times and the difficult times.
To remind ourselves that Jesus is Emmanuel – God with us – in all times.
But as I sat all week with these words of wisdom uttered by this installer of windows on the world, as he looked out at our church framed against a blustery Advent sky,
I found myself drawn more to the second part of what he said: 
“People need God now more than ever -
“…especially with the way things are in the world today.”

This is something we’ve heard quite a few people say lately.
We may have even said it ourselves.
That somehow THIS TIME that we’re living in seems to be worse than times that have come before.
That the world around us seems to be more turbulent and less safe,
the people around us seem to be less respectful and more antagonistic,
and the outlook for the future seems to be less hopeful and more grim. 

We all know that time is relative.
As is our perception of what is happening in any given time.
Not just in an Einstein – Theory of Relativity kind of way,
but in the way we perceive and experience the world from our varying perspectives and our varying points in time.

If we lived 1,000 years ago, in the midst of the dark ages that followed the fall of the Roman Empire, when the average life expectancy was only 30 years of age; that time may have seemed like the worst of times.

If we lived 500 years ago, in the midst of the bloody religious wars between the Catholics and the Protestants and in the aftermath of the Crusades and the bubonic plague, that time may have seemed like the worst of times.

If we lived 100 years ago, when the first Great War caused food and resources to be rationed, a worldwide flu epidemic claimed 50 million lives, and seeds were being sown for the Great Depression and the rise of Adolph Hitler, that time may have seemed like the worst of times.

And if we lived 50 years ago, when social norms involving sex, drugs, religion, and authority were beginning to break down,
when those protesting against war or for civil rights were shot in the streets or assassinated for their beliefs,
when an energy crisis had people sitting in mile long lines to buy gas,
and the world’s super powers had us locked in the grip of the cold war,
that time may have seemed like the worst of times.

Any time can seem like the worst of times when we’re the ones living in it.
Admittedly, much of our perception about this time being worse than the time before, has less to do with what happened 100 or 1000 years ago and more to do with the perceived changes we’ve seen in our own lifetimes.

And we must also admit, when we place our focus on the things that we feel have gotten worse we tend to overlook the things that have gotten better –
like the advancements in modern medicine, the technology that allows us to house, feed, inform, and care for more people than ever before,
and the widening circle of inclusion that lifts up the voices and grants equivalent status to people of all colors, genders, sexual orientations, abilities, and ages.
In this regard, the world has changed drastically – for the better – from what it was even just ten or twenty years ago.

Making a comparison between the circumstances and events of other times is in no way meant to dismiss or diminish the very real pain and sense of despair that is felt by those in our time.
As we’ve said, every time and experience is relative.

What this comparison in time helps us to do is to connect us back to Mary and Elizabeth.
The mother of Jesus and the mother of John the Baptist.
Who lived in a time that to them seemed like the worst of times.
First century Palestine.
When the Roman Empire ruled over the people of Israel.
When there was no such thing as a middle class,
and you were either part of the less than .01% who were very rich,
or part of the 99.9% who were very poor.
When a child conceived in either a peasant family like Mary’s or a more well-off priestly family like Elizabeth’s, was not likely to survive the pregnancy, let alone the birth, or the first few tender years of life.

Yet Elizabeth and Mary seemingly set these very realistic worries aside,
and believed the heavenly host who told them their sons would not only live, they were each destined to play a part in the fulfillment of God’s promise to the world – the promise that everything could and would change for the better.

The angelic visit aside, we may wonder what crystal ball Mary must have been looking into when she sang about God’s great accomplishments in the Magnificat we have preserved in Luke’s Gospel.

You may have noticed that for most of the song Mary sings not in the future tense, but in the past and present tense:
“God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
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.”

This certainly wasn’t the case in Mary’s time.
In her time the powerful were still very much seated on their thrones.
The hungry were anything but filled.
And the rich were rarely if ever sent away empty.

So what was Mary singing about?
Was she describing some future world that was yet to be but that she saw as clear as day as if it already existed?
Biblical prophets had a habit of not seeing time in a linear way.
As author and scholar, Barbara Brown Taylor, points out –
“Prophets almost never get their verb tenses straight, because part of their gift is being able to see the world as God sees it”
– They don’t see the world divided into successive time periods labeled as “things that have already happened” and “things that have not yet happened”,
Instead, they see God’s world “as an eternally unfolding mystery" that is both yet to come and already here.

Now, if your brain is starting to hurt after all this talk about time being relative, or non-linear, with the past, present, and future all happening at the same time, you’re not alone.

Personally, I love stories that involve movement through time –
whether it’s a science fiction story about time travelers who jump ahead into the future or back into the past – like the Dr. Who TV series, or the classic HG Wells novel, the Time Machine,
or a story of a single family that unfolds over multiple-generations and takes us forward and backward, connecting events and people through time – like Alex Haley’s mini-series “Roots,” or the current NBC show, “This is Us.”

There’s something captivating about seeing the events of the past, present, and future come together, as their convergence allows us to find patterns and trace the connecting strands that weave their way through our time.
We might note how a choice made by one person in the past carries through to the life of another in years to come, and how looking ahead in hope to a much-different future, influences choices made here in the present.

Mary and Elizabeth may not be much different from most mothers in our time, as they rest their hands on their bellies and imagine a future for their child that is filled with meaning, purpose, and joy.
Regardless of economic or social circumstances, most expectant mothers can’t help but hope that their yet to be born child will have a better life in the future than the one they are living in the present.
One that has decidedly less pain and hardship,
and more opportunities for joy and fulfillment.

Mary’s song for her child, and Elizabeth’s longing for hers, is the anticipation of the fulfillment of God’s promise to humanity.
It’s not about looking back and saying,
“Things are so much worse now than they were before” –
It’s about looking ahead, and saying, “Things will be so much better –
and already are so much better than they were before,
because of the promise of what is to come.”

Advent is about looking ahead to what has the potential to be.
Advent is about resting in that hope for the future – and using it as a light that illuminates and warms and shapes the present.

In many ways, Advent is a description of faith itself.
Because so much of faith is about anticipation.
Anticipation that leads to response.
Response that changes the present to look like the future we hope to come.

On this fourth Sunday of Advent, on the Eve of Christmas Eve,
May we not be so quick to move past this expectant time,
and into the busyness and activity and fulfillment of Christmas Day.
But instead give ourselves space to be present in this time –

Where Mary and Elizabeth are still mother’s to be, 
And sing as if their children have already walked this earth.
Where Jesus is Emmanuel – God with us –
and is both coming into this world and already here.

Where the hopeful future we imagine for the children yet to come
is both anticipated, and already present,
in our actions
and in our hearts
and in our time.

Thanks be to God, and Amen.

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