Some have suggested that we not light the Candle of Joy today; that to light such a candle flies in the face of all the grief and suffering and rage in our nation and world–
How can we light a candle of joy when there is so little joy in far too many lives –writes our Associate Conference Minister, The Rev. Pam Lucas in an alternative candlelighting liturgy–
So little joy even in our Christmas story –
as Jesus’ life will be threatened by the world’s power –
as babies under the age of two will be slaughtered in the attempt to eliminate the child Jesus –
as Jesus and his family will be forced to flee as undocumented immigrants to Egypt –
As Jesus would grow up and be nailed to a cross as a political prisoner.
… when hope and [peace] are denied to any one of God’s children –
how dare we light a candle of JOY when there are still lives considered to be expendable – of lesser or of no value.
And so on this 3rd Sunday of Advent
(we will not light the candle of joy because) OR
(we light this candle of Joy even as we remember that…)
there is no joy in injustice –
there is no joy when there is no hope –
and there is no joy where there is hatred –
and there is no joy when we continue to weep for young lives ending too soon –
Yet we also remember God did not leave us on our own. Jesus is Emmanuel – God with us – now and always.
Obviously, we did light the Candle of Joy this morning, even as we lit the Candles of Hope and Peace, but the context in which we light them is essential to remember. Just as it is important to remember the context in which our readings from Isaiah and Luke were set.
Isaiah–now the third writer in this book using the name Isaiah –this Isaiah was addressing the exiles returned to their homeland, along with those who had been left behind in Babylon’s deportation of the elite of Judah.
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,” this Isaiah cries, “for the Lord has anointed me and sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; …They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities; the devastations of many generations.”
Ruins were the context of this Isaiah. Depression. Mourning. Power struggles.
Devastation. When the Babylonian armies had left with their captives, the fires and smoldering ruins of the cities and countryside of Judah had been left behind, along with the “non-elites.” Solomon’s gloriousTemple was a pile of rubble. Not much had changed when the exiles returned, 2 generations later, and the people who had been left behind were just as tired and discouraged as the exiles. They weren’t overly thrilled to have these unknown exiles and family members back and assuming they would resume their leadership roles. “Joy” was not exactly abounding. “Good news” was hard to come by.
Yet here is Isaiah, singing a song of love and energy–
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, he sings, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
Depression and hopelessness are good news for those in power, for they keep things the way they are. Energy and hope, on the other hand, are good news for those who do not benefit from the status quo, for only then are things likely to change. Demonstrations in cities across the country, the “die-ins” by black Congressional staffers on the steps of Capitol Hill, professional sports players raising their hands in solidarity, …I believe these are all signs of the Spirit of the God of justice at work, stirring things up. God is at work in the ruins. God is calling us to be partners in this work of rebuilding, just as God called the people of Judah through the prophet Isaiah to be about planting new gardens, building bridges, restoring hope.
Just so Mary’s song, called Magnificat from its first word in Latin, sings of old, entrenched ways being turned upside down.
My soul magnifies the Lord, Mary sings, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…He 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…
If you’re familiar with Bach’s Magnificat, you know the energy and excitement Mary’s song embodies. Something is definitely afoot. “Somethin’s coming, something good,” as Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story song says. But that “something good” wasn’t patently obvious to Mary. Here she was young and unmarried, “with child” in a most extraordinary way. The more usual outcome would be stoning as an adulteress or abandonment by Joseph and the life of an outcast.
“Your vocation,” your calling, writes Frederick Buechner, “is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (Wishful Thinking) Your deep gladness. I think that is how we need to think of “joy” on this Third Sunday in Advent. Not entertainment, not cheap thrills or substance-induced giddiness, not a surface phenomenon but deep gladness. What makes you feel glad to be alive? What music is the deepest, truest song of your heart? Have you ever stopped to listen for it?
If that song or that gladness is deep enough, of course, it won’t be just your song or your gladness. It will be fed from that even deeper Source that runs through all life. And so it will be directed to the world’s deep hunger, as Buechner says, from the spring that lies deep in your heart.
“Mary was able to magnify God,” writes Carl Gregg, “because she was humbly open to the unexpected new life God was birthing within her, inviting us to echo her prayer, Let it be, Let it be. Let it be.” [patheos, 12/1/11] “Whisper words of wisdom,” the Beatles said, “let it be.” May it be so, Mary said. Can we be still enough, quiet enough, open enough, to let the unexpected new life God is birthing within us emerge and join with others to bring about a new creation?
Nobel Prize winner Leymah Gbowee writes of a dream she had in the midst of the war that ravaged her homeland of Liberia from 1989-2003. “Gather the women to pray for peace!” the vision said. She told her dream to her Lutheran women’s prayer group, and the leader of the group prayed, “Thank you for supplying us with this vision. Give us your blessing, Lord, and offer us your protection and guidance in helping us to understand what it means.” It was the start of the Liberian women’s peace movement.
The women shared their stories. All of them had seen and suffered horrors, of husbands and sons hacked before their eyes, of cocaine-crazed child soldiers roaming the countryside. About 20 Lutheran women met every Tuesday at noon to pray. One meeting a Muslim woman introduced herself and said she wanted to join them. “Praise the Lord!” the Christian women cried and an alliance was formed. Training sessions and workshops followed. The women passed out brochures and marched to city hall. Three days a week for 6 months they visited mosques, the markets, and the churches of Monrovia. “Liberian Women,” they cried. “Awake for peace!”
The women finally forced Charles Taylor into peace talks. They barricaded the reluctant, do-nothing men inside the talks until they reached an agreement. Disarmament followed. Voters were registered, and Liberians elected Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as the first woman President of an African nation. “Who were these women?” ‘I will say,’ says Gbowee, ‘they are ordinary mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters. They sowed bitter tears. They went out weeping. And they acted on their dreams of peace, joy, and laughter for their beloved country.” (Cited by Dan Clendenin, Journey with Jesus, 12/5/11)
Ordinary people, humbly open to God, to their dreams and their deepest longings, fully aware of the deep hunger of the world. “The truth is,” wrote M. Scott Peck, “that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.” [cited by Kate Huey in Sermon Seeds, 12/14/14]
“This Advent, how is God calling you to sing new lyrics to Mary’s song?” another writer asks. [Carl Gregg, op cit.] How is the Spirit moving within you such that in the new year your soul may ever more fully magnify God?” All of us–prophets and those terrified of speaking in public, young women and men, children who see the world through innocent eyes and elders who see with new eyes, a second naivete, even, ordinary people, like shepherds on a hillside–all of us, are called to bear witness to the mighty love of God, which even now, in the midst of ruins, is dismantling injustice, lifting up the lowly, planting new gardens. That mighty Love is calling us to be partners in this new creation, using our gifts, our talents, our skills, our unique songs. So may our joy, our deep gladness, increase and burst into bloom, and along with Hope, Peace, and Love, be born anew in our world. May it be so.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark