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Advent 3B – December 13, 2020
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 – The spirit of the Lord God is upon me… he has 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… to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
Psalm 126 – When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter… The Lord has done great things for us… Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Luke 1:46-55 – The Magnificat. Mary’s song. My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… (ELW pp. 314-315, hymns 236, 251, 573, 723, 882, 723)
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 – Respect those who work among you in the Gospel. Be at peace with one another. Admonish the idol. Encourage the fainthearted. Help the weak. Do not repay evil for evil. Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances.
John 1:6-8, 19-28 – John: there was a man, sent from God. He was not the light, but he came to bear witness to the light. I am the voice in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.
Advent B Summary
- Advent 1B Mark 13:24-37: About that day or hour no one knows
- Advent 2B Mark 1:1-8 The Voice: Prepare the way of the Lord
- Advent 3B John 1:6-8, 19-28 John: The voice in the wilderness
- Advent 4B Luke 1:26-38 The Annunciation
Advent often rolls like this: Week one is on the Second Coming. Weeks two and three focus on John the Baptist. Week four focuses on Mary.
The first lesson for Advent 3B is from Isaiah 61, in which there are echoes of Mary’s song.
The spirit of the Lord is upon me. I’ve been anointed to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom to those in prison.
Keep in mind that this text is the one Jesus reads in his hometown synagogue of Nazareth. It is his mission statement, if one takes to heart his comment, “Today this passage has been fulfilled in your midst.”
Although next week we will have the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38), this week an option for the psalm is the Magnificat (Luke 1:47-55). The Magnificat is a psalm option every year in Advent. In Year A it is a psalm option for Advent 3. In Year B (this year) it is an option both Advent 3 and Advent 4. In Year C it is a psalm option Advent 4.
Mary’s song provides a stark contrast to the backdrop of partisan politics, dominance and power these days:
46 And Mary said,
“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.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
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.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
46Καὶ εἶπεν Μαριάμ,
Μεγαλύνει ἡ ψυχή μου τὸν κύριον,
καὶ ἠγαλλίασεν τὸ πνεῦμά μου ἐπὶ τῷ θεῷ τῷ σωτῆρί μου,
ὅτιἐπέβλεψεν ἐπὶ τὴν ταπείνωσιν τῆς δούλης αὐτοῦ.
ἰδοὺ γὰρ ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν μακαριοῦσίν με πᾶσαι αἱ γενεαί:
ὅτι ἐποίησέν μοι μεγάλαὁ δυνατός, <
καὶ ἅγιον τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ,
καὶ τὸ ἔλεος αὐτοῦ
εἰς γενεὰς καὶ γενεὰς τοῖς φοβουμένοις αὐτόν.
Ἐποίησεν κράτος ἐνβραχίονι αὐτοῦ,
διεσκόρπισεν ὑπερηφάνους διανοίᾳ καρδίας αὐτῶν:
καθεῖλεν δυνάστας ἀπὸ θρόνων <
καὶ ὕψωσεν ταπεινούς,
πεινῶντας ἐνέπλησεν ἀγαθῶν
καὶ πλουτοῦντας ἐξαπέστειλεν κενούς.
ἀντελάβετο Ἰσραὴλ παιδὸς αὐτοῦ,
καθὼς ἐλάλησεν πρὸς τοὺς πατέρας ἡμῶν,
τῷ Ἀβραὰμ καὶ τῷ σπέρματι αὐτοῦ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα.
Alice Connors[i] (Fierce, 41) calls Mary’s Song (The Magnificat) a “long, folk-protest song.” Can we hear it as such? Connors reminds us of how little we know of Mary. The angel telling her she was with child of the Holy Spirit, the birth, nudging the adult Jesus to deal with the wine shortage at the wedding in Cana (John’s Gospel), and the crucifixion.
In the Medieval development of Christianity, Mary took on great importance, perhaps due to the male-dominated clergy, Bible characters and image of God. The faith yearned for feminine balance. Marian devotions grew and are still vibrant today in Catholic circles. And why not? If the saints pray with us in the Eucharist, why not Mary? The Lutheran-Catholic dialogs remind us at the very least, Scripture never forbids prayers to the saints, or any of the dead for that matter. Luther’s beef was that the saints had become big business, bilking the poor, a hagiocracy if you will.
Her song reminds us that God brings power from the powerless. We often think of the rich and powerful as the primary actors in history, but often it is the rank and file. Life has joy and purpose even in the unrecorded, full lives of those who are not on center stage. God works through Mary, an unknown peasant woman. God works through Jesus, a defeated and publicly executed preacher/healer. God scatters the proud, and lifts up the humble. “Have this mind among you that was in Christ Jesus,” Paul says in Philippians 2. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled. Those who humble themselves will be exalted. Can we preach this joyfully?
This is a powerful, subversive gospel. Who can hear it?
Whenever I consider Mary’s Song, so many settings of the Magnificat come to mind. Of course, as a music major (organ performance), my go-to favorite Lutheran composer, J.S. Bach’s Magnificat (BWV 243, first performed in 1723).[ii] Originally composed in E♭ shortly after Bach became Cantor at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, it was later transposed to D for a reperformance in 1733. Yes, it’s long, but the first movement could be used in online worship during the offering (3 minutes), if you can secure copyright permission.
C.P.E. Bach also has a marvelous Magnificat.[iii] C.P.E. is the son of J.S. and Maria Bach. He grew up hearing his father’s Magnificat in Leipzig. The first movement is faster and quite fun. C.P.E. wrote it in the same key (D). It’s also about three minutes. C.P.E. wrote it in Berlin, where he was harpsichordist for the court of Frederick the Great. Though C.P.E. is considered a classical composer, this Magnificat was written in his father’s baroque style in 1749 shortly before his father’s death in 1750. It is doubtful that his father ever heard it. 1750 is generally considered to be the end of the Baroque and the beginning of the Classical period.
If Bach’s not your thing, I forgive you. Here’s a contemporary Mary’s Song (1992), from Amy Grant. It is not the Magnificat, but a midrash on Mary’s imaginary thoughts. The title links to the YouTube video of the song, not the official video, but one with lyrics. Thirty years later, the song still works. Be sure to get the rights if you use the song or video.
Breath Of Heaven (Mary’s Song) by Amy Grant
I have traveled many moonless nights
Cold and weary with a babe inside
And I wonder what I’ve done
Holy father you have come
And chosen me now to carry your son
I am waiting in a silent prayer
I am frightened by the load I bear
In a world as cold as stone
Must I walk this path alone?
Be with me now
Be with me now
Breath of heaven
Hold me together
Be forever near me
Breath of heaven
Breath of heaven
Lighten my darkness
Pour over me your holiness
For you are holy
Breath of heaven
Do you wonder as you watch my face
If a wiser one should have had my place
But I offer all I am
For the mercy of your plan
Help me be strong
Help me be
Breath of heaven
Hold me together
Be forever near…
1 Thessalonians also touches upon Mary’s song with Paul’s exhortation to rejoice always, give thanks at all times, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, to not return evil for evil.
16Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19Do not quench the Spirit. 20Do not despise the words of prophets, 21but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22abstain from every form of evil.
John’s John is Just John
Although we are in a Markan year, the gospel reading comes from John this Sunday. To save us from an exceedingly long gospel reading, we read John the Evangelist’s introduction of John the Baptist (sic), skip John’s foray into light and then hear about John’s understanding of his call.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. (John 1:6-8)
One sent from God is a prophet. John the Evangelist and the other gospel writers hold John the Baptist in high regard. Brian Stoffregen points out that no one else in John’s gospel is “sent by God.” In John’s gospel, even Jesus is not sent by God. Jesus is God. “The Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning.”
As Karoline Lewis tells us at Working Preacher,[iv] John’s John is different than the synoptic writers’ (Matthew, Mark and Luke’s) John. John’s John is just John. That is, John’s John is never “John the Baptist.” Just John.
Yes, John’s John happens to baptize with water here and there, but this is incidental. John never baptizes Jesus in John’s gospel. Whereas Mark wants us to identify John with Elijah, John’s John quite clearly states he is not Elijah. And unlike in the synoptic gospels, John’s John doesn’t eat bugs or wear itchy camel hair. He never asks anyone to repent of anything. He just points to Jesus. In fact, John never even uses the word “repent.”
In our heads we tend to mash up the stories of the four gospels, but to understand John’s theology, we need to, for a moment anyway, get Mark, Matthew and Luke’s Baptist out of our heads.
John’s John testifies to the coming of light into the world. He is John the Testifier.
Hear the cosmic mystery of the Gospel of John: In the beginning was the Word. The word was light, the light of all humanity. That light shines in the darkness. The darkness has not overcome it. The Word/Light became flesh in the form of Jesus (who has not yet been named in John’s Gospel). John “outs” Jesus. “The Word, the Light, Look! It’s Him!”
Several pieces of the skipped portion are helpful. In verse 14 the Word/Light becomes flesh to dwell among us. And verse 15:
John testified about him and shouted out, “This one was the one about whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is greater than I am, because he existed before me.’”
John is the announcer. The testifier. The witness. The Voice in the Wilderness, as we shall soon see. The statement “he existed before me” is a portentous theological statement about Jesus preexisting as the Word/Logos. Even though John is older than Jesus, Jesus “existed before” him, John professes. This is not just a chronological statement. It is a theological statement.
And verse 17: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” This, now, is the first time Jesus is named in John’s gospel. It provides a picture of The Gospel of John’s understanding of the gospel. Moses = The Law. Jesus = The Gospel. We must not read this equation into the synoptic gospels, but it is clearly here in the Gospel of John. Jesus is the physical incarnation of the preexisting Logos. John is the transition between Law and Gospel, between Moses and Jesus.
If John makes it clear he is not the light, then who then is he?
John tells us in vv. 19-28:
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
He IS NOT the light. He IS NOT the Messiah. He IS NOT Elijah. He IS NOT the Prophet.
He IS sent by God. He IS a witness to the light. He IS the Voice crying in the wilderness make straight the way of the Lord.
John is clear: I am not the Messiah in Isaiah’s drama. I am the Voice. Karoline Lewis points out that Jesus says “I AM,” many times in John’s gospel. I am the way, the truth, the light, the door, and so on. John says “I AM NOT.” Not the Messiah. Not Elijah. Not the Light.
More importantly, John sees his identity in relationship to Jesus. “Can we say the same?” Lewis asks. Are we also witnesses to the light? What does that mean? Being the Voice? Could we also take our cues from Isaiah: Binding up the broken-hearted? Comforting the weak? Announcing God’s love to prisoners?
What’s your voice?
Have you found your voice?
Max DePree, in his book Leadership Jazz,[v] says that your voice is who you say you are and what you believe: your character. Your voice is reflected in your touch (your behaviors). A leader’s actions flow from her character. One of the first things a leader needs to do is find her voice. In my experience, this takes a while, but it is critical.
How do we, as leaders, articulate our values, the things that really matter in life? Can we step back from the angry crisis of the moment, and speak of higher values, what truly matters, and then reframe the current situation in light of those values? Are we willing to present timeless truths, even when those around us seem reluctant to hear them? Have we aligned our voice and our touch? Our witness to the truth is both voice and touch.
I am reminded that the Greek word for “witness” is μάρτυρ, “martyr.” There are many right now who might feel this way. If you feel that witnessing to the truth puts you under persecution, you are not alone. Blessed are you. They did the same to the prophets and to Jesus. Speak the truth, but do so in love. If people know you love them, they are more willing to hear your witness, what you have to say.
Brian Stoffregen helpfully points that out the verb for “witness“ occurs once in Matthew, once in Luke, never in Mark, but 31 times in John (five times in chapter 1: vv. 7, 8, 15, 32, 34). Similar statistics exist for the noun, which occurs three times in Mark, once in Luke, never in Matthew, and 14 times in John (twice in chapter 1: vv. 7, 19).”
When we witness, we put our lives on the line. It is our martyrdom.
What is your witness?
The good news is a Christian’s witness is simply to point to Christ. It may be difficult, but it is not very complicated. We have Jesus’ proclamation in the gospels. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve simply pointed to Christ, quoted his teachings, and received tremendous push back from those who claimed to be Christians. Time and time again I am astounded how often Christ is trampled under the feet of American militaristic capitalism. Preach Christ, and let the cards fall where they may. This is our martyria, our witness. Have you shed blood yet?
The preacher might invite people to consider their witness. What do you believe about Jesus? What does his crucifixion mean to you? His resurrection? How does this find its way into your voice?
Then we might consider how our voice finds its way into our touch? How does our faith in Christ become flesh in our daily words and actions? How might it this week? John prepares the way of the Lord. Let us go and do likewise.
[i] Connor, Alice. 2017. Fierce : Women of the Bible and Their Stories of Violence, Mercy, Bravery, Wisdom, Sex, and Salvation. Minneapolis, Mn: Fortress Press.
[ii] Monteverdichor Würzburg. 2014. “J.S. Bach: MAGNIFICAT [Complete Version].” YouTube Video. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQAWqqaUTHE.
[iii] “C.P.E. Bach: MAGNIFICAT [Complete Version].” n.d. Accessed October 29, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MlKelsO0G80.
[iv] ““Commentary on John 1:6-8, 19-28 by Karoline Lewis.” n.d. http://Www.Workingpreacher.Org. Accessed October 29, 2020. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1147.
[v] Max De Pree. 2008. Leadership Jazz : The Essential Elements of a Great Leader. New York: Crown Business.