Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Indiana Beats Kentucky, the Magnificat &Turning the Corner

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, 12/11/11
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Canticle 15 (the Magnificat),
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28

Today we are wearing rose colored vestments because it is “Gaudate” Sunday, the traditional name for the third Sunday in Advent. Gaudate is Latin for “rejoice!” [put on Indiana University cap] And there was much rejoicing in the Gunter household last night as the unranked and unheralded Indiana University basketball team upset the # 1 ranked University of Kentucky. There was much cheering and shouting and dancing in front of our television.

You need to know a little bit of the context to understand why this is such a big deal and how I think it can help us understand what is going on in the Magnificat we hear readd moments ago. First of all you need to know that in the state of Indiana basketball is the closest thing to religion outside of church. And even that distinction gets blurred.

More particularly, you need to know that my Alma mater, Indiana University which has a proud basketball heritage has fallen on hard times. A few years ago we had a coach who broke some recruiting rules and was fired. The result was the disintegration of the program. The program seemed lost and hopeless. A new coach was hired, but the last three years have been hard. We have won a total of 28 games in those three years when you might hope to win about that many in one year. You also need to know that Kentucky is one of our archest of arch rivals. And we have only won two of the last fourteen games against them and haven’t won at all for eight years. You also need to know that Leslie’s brother-in-law attended Kentucky – so every year for a long time I have had to endure the inevitable post-game phone call in which he rubbed it in again and again.

So, when Indiana got the ball back with five seconds to go and trailing by two points, it looked like things might continue as usual. Instead, an Indiana player dribbled the ball down the court, drove toward the basket, stopped and tossed the ball back to another player. Then, as time was about to expire, that player shot the ball from beyond the three-point line. The buzzer sounded. And the ball swished through the basket for the win! Incredible! There was indeed much rejoicing throughout Hoosierland.

This one victory doesn’t mean my team will win the championship this year. There are losses and disappointments ahead. But there is new hope that a championship is in our future. Defeating Kentucky was a sign that we have turned the corner.

And I think that gets at something like the exuberant joy in Mary’s song. Mary lived in a time when it seemed Israel was lost and hopeless. Ruled by a corrupt and ruthless king who in turn was a servant and toady of the Roman Empire, Israel was on a long losing streak. And there was a sense that the people were not only oppressed politically and economically but confounded spiritually as well. But, now, Mary knows that the baby she carries in her womb is the evidence that God has remembered his promise of mercy. Israel will be delivered. Things will not continue as usual. The corner has been turned. And she rejoices. My joy at Indiana's improbable three-pointer-at-the-buzzer victory is but a slight hint at the overwhelming joy that evoked Mary's song.

Mary's song, the Magnificat, is overflowing with gratitude and expectation. It is also steeped in the spirit of the Old Testament. In the Magnificat we see that before she was the grace-full Mother of God, Mary was a faithful daughter of Israel. She sings in harmony with other prophetic women of Israel – Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Judith.

And it's the same tune as the other Hebrew prophets and sages. It is in continuity with the passage from Isaiah 61 which we read this morning in which the prophet promises good news to the oppressed, the binding up of the brokenhearted, liberty and release, the proclamation of the year of the LORD's favor, and comfort to all who mourn.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.”

“He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel,
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,”

God has remembered his promise of mercy. Repudiated are the proud, the mighty, and the rich who have hoarded power and wealth at the expense of others’ access to the goods of life. Exalted are the lowly and the hungry, the poor, and the powerless.

This is the song Mary sang to her cousin Elizabeth. And I expect she sang and taught variations of this song to her children. Is it any wonder that her son (stepson?), James, urged that “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”? (James 1:27)

And Jesus, while the Son of God, was also the son of Mary. And his preaching and teaching echoes with the same themes that inspired his mother. His inaugural sermon in Nazareth is on Isaiah 61. Jesus read the passage, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4:18-21).

Jesus says it is the poor in spirit and the meek – the lowly – who will be blessed. Another time he says that it is the poor, the hungry, and those who mourn who are blessed. And he warns the proud and powerful of woe coming their way. Our most fundamental problem is spiritual. And Jesus came to address that. But our spiritual problem gets played out in political, social, and economic realities. Jesus, like Mary, addresses those as well.

Jesus challenges us to receive him in our hearts as Mary received him in her womb. Jesus challenges us to choose whether or not we will become, like Mary, lowly in spirit. Jesus challenges us to decide whether or not we will side with those who are lowly and with those who hunger.

The baby Mary bears will fulfill God’s promise of mercy and scatter all that is contrary to that mercy. And so she rejoices and sings. It will get more complicated. She will experience confusion, disappointment, and heartache as her son grows up and is eventually tortured and killed by the mighty. But she knows that with his coming the corner has been turned for Israel and salvation has begun. Since his coming the world has experienced much confusion, disappointment, and heartache. But we know that with his coming the corner has been turned for the world and salvation has begun. And, personally, each of us will, from time to time, experience confusion, disappointment, and heartache. But we know that with his coming the corner has been turned for us and salvation has begun. We know that God's program for us and for the world is not lost or hopless. It is pregnant with promise. And so, with Mary, we can sing,
"My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant."

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