One of my I can’t believe this is happening in my life experiences is that somehow Grace and I have a child who is old enough to be looking at colleges and wondering where to apply next year. She’s an amazing kid, and she’ll end up somewhere great we know, but it’s kind of a scary process for a teenager to begin to imagine life out in the big world. And it’s kind of a scary process for a parent to be releasing your child into the big world, hoping things go well for them, hoping they are met with kindness and generosity and support, dreaming of mercy for them.
Getting a child ready for college also brings back for me the many years I helped other people’s teenage children prepare to leave secondary school and leave home. They too were dreaming of a good launch into a kind and just world, but it wasn’t always easy. One student I taught for multiple years had strong grades, a great track record of character and resilience and leadership, had a whole team of mentors like me ready to sing their praises, and had overcome almost impossible odds on a variety of fronts for all that to be so. But they had really, really low standardized test scores.
And when it came time for this young person to apply for higher education, college after college sent their rejections. I tried calling a few schools’ admissions officers, and one of those schools this remarkable kid applied to – just one – took my call. They asked me: what are we supposed to make of these test scores? How will this person make it in college? And I explained some things from an educator’s perspective – about time and tests and ability and disability – that I thought made a strong case for this applicant. But in the end, I remember thinking, I might have said this too. Do you want to live in a world where a young person this extraordinary can’t go to college because of a single set of exams? Is that the kind of world you want make today? Or do you want to make a more just and merciful world than that? I remember dreaming, longing for mercy for this young person. I’ll come back to that in a minute.
Last week, we had an extraordinary service together, didn’t we? It was our annual participatory liturgy in this Advent season of Light in the Darkness. Our pastor Ivy and friends created and led an extraordinary time of worship where we could respond to the dreams and the nightmares of the Christmas story, the dreams and the nightmares of our age, even the dreams and the nightmares of our own lives.
Our question of the day on our welcome cards we asked early in the service was What are you longing for? A lot of you wrote something down, more than normal. And as I read through them on Tuesday, and prayed for them, my heart broke with your longings.
Longings for companionship and friendship and acceptance and partnership.
Longings for the people who are closest to you to be kinder or gentler with you.
Longings for the world to be kinder and fairer to the people you care about.
Longings for healing, longings for restored relationship, longings for opportunity.
There was some comic relief here and there. One of you last week about this time was longing to be playing FIFA soccer on a PS4 video game console. I feel that longing.
But a lot of longing for justice and kindness in your worlds. So much dreaming of mercy.
This Advent, this season of Light in the Darkness, we’re looking at the dreams of Christmas. The week before last, I talked about Joseph’s dream of God with us. Next week, we’ll talk about Jesus’ big dream of the Kingdom of God. And today, we’ll look at Mary’s experience in the Christmas story, Mary’s calling to be the teenage mother of God, and Mary’s leading us in dreaming of mercy.
We’ll take her story in two parts. Here’s the first part, from Luke’s account of Jesus’ life, that picks up just after we heard about an unexpected pregnancy elsewhere in Mary’s family, with her older cousin Elizabeth.
Luke 1:26-38 (CEB)
26When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, 27to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” 29She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. 31Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. 33He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”
34Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”
35The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. 36Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. 37Nothing is impossible for God.”
38Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
Wow – what an experience for a teenage girl! Now I know that male people over the centuries have obsessed about one thing in this story — what has or hasn’t to do with sex. You can imagine that in our household with preteen and teenage children, this aspect of the story comes up as well there around Christmas time. Interesting things have been said!
But this is not the only place in a Jesus-centered faith where you’ve got to come to terms with modern science and claims of the miraculous, or the super-natural, beyond natural. And there are different ways to do that, but that’s a whole other sermon, which I’d be happy to give someday. But today, I want to focus on Mary’s experience as a teenager.
Now I know that there really weren’t such things as teenagers two thousand years ago, not the way we think of that phase of life today. But still, Mary would have been somewhere in that age bracket, we think, and after this messenger of some kind says, Rejoice, you’re the favorite, God’s with you, she’s so confused. Like what?!? God’s favorite? I’m a teenager, and kind of a nobody, at that.
But the messenger says – you’re wrong! God’s chosen you for something extraordinary, for this big, big thing!
All of this sounds so scary, but God is not scared. And all of this first section of Mary’s story really emphasizes the power of God.
Greatness, the son of the most high, the throne of David, ruling over Jacob’s house forever, no end to his kingdom – all these words and phrases clustered together speak to the power of God. All this royal language spoken to a teenage girl, born in a small village, to a working class family, living on the outskirts of a tiny nation, ruled with an iron fist by a huge empire – this speaks to power of the God of the impossible.
This speaks to the capacity of God to at any time and place, to a new and wonderful work of justice and mercy. To the hope that Jesus is present with us growing a new family, a new way of being with God and with one another on this earth.
Nothing is impossible with God.
When I got off the phone with that admissions officer I told you about, it was with no assurance that they would accept my student. And I was so afraid – what if this was the end of the line for the big dream we had pumped into his head about all that could come with education and hard work.
But a couple of weeks later, he got their acceptance letter. And a month or so later, their really great financial aid package. And off he went to college. And then to honors at that college. And into employment, and graduate school, and then a part time teaching position at that graduate school, along with professional honors, civic influence. The impossible made possible.
My old student talks about this a lot, about all he’s done and all he’s gonna do in the future. And I used to find this annoying. This boasting from a person who I otherwise have so much affection for. But Grace pointed out to me once, this isn’t really bragging, it’s just the joy of overcoming. He’s got the joy of having seen the impossible become possible so many times in his life. Who wouldn’t want to celebrate that?
The Advent season affirms that life is desperately hard, that we are imprisoned by forces within and without, that so much is not as it should be in our lives and in our world, and yet the advent season also asks us to hear the words of God into that experience, to hear God say to us: Do not be afraid. Nothing is impossible for God.
I used to think it was my job to tell people how bad this world can be. I did this some in my teaching. I certainly have done it in my parenting. I think of all the ways when my kids were young that I was like – don’t do this, don’t touch that, watch out for these kind of people and these kind of situations. Be careful, because you never know when this or that awful thing might occur.
And some of that’s OK. Kids need to learn to look before they cross the street, or how to not burn their house down. But now, as we’re in that phase of getting ready to send our kids out into the world without us, more and more I feel God speaking to me that my job is to tell them and to show them that they do not need to be afraid. That I entrust them to God and to this world. That things are going to be OK, and better than OK. That God is with them, and nothing is impossible, so don’t be afraid.
Do you know that God is not scared of our world?
Hard to believe, right, because everyone else is. The right-wingers are destroying our world, and the liberals are ruining it, and Trump’s doing or saying these crazy things again, or the Russians, or big data, or artificial intelligence, or climate change is gonna get us all, and the future is bleak, bleak, but God is not scared of our world.
I’m not saying be naive, or roll over on injustice, or put your fingers in your ears and fall asleep to this age. Be awake, be engaged, do your part. But people have lived through awful things and awful times before, and God is not scared.
In fact, let’s make this more personal. God is not scared of your life. God is not scared of your debt, or your singleness, or your marriage, or your kids, or your barrenness. God is not scared of your illness or your grief. God is not scared of your worst mistakes, and God is not scared of your greatest unknowns.
Because God is a God of love and mercy, and because God retains the capacity to do what we call impossible.
Sometimes we have evidence for this, and sometimes we don’t, but it’s at the heart of an invitation to faith – to trust that God is impossibly good, and that nothing is impossible with God.
Now I’m saying all this, but Mary, what does Mary do with this encounter. She’s like: alright, God, let it be. And then the first thing she does is hightail it to her cousin’s house. She goes to see her older cousin Elizabeth we’ve heard about, the one who’s further along in pregnancy – to help her out, but surely to hide out a bit, and to gain her bearings and get some support from another woman.
You may remember from two weeks ago that her fiancee Joseph does not believe her and plans on dumping her. But when she sees her cousin, Elizabeth doesn’t shame her or take her down but affirms what God is doing in her. Says yes, you have been chosen by God for this extraordinary thing.
And in the confident that her cousin’s trust and affirmation gives her, Mary (like Elizabeth) is filled with Spirit and bursts into poetry. And this is what she says:
Luke 1:46-55 (CEB)
46 Mary said,
“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
47 In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
48 He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
49 because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
50 He shows mercy to everyone,
from one generation to the next,
who honors him as God.
51 He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
52 He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed.
54 He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
remembering his mercy,
55 just as he promised to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”
Now this poetry has likely been cleaned up over the years. Other than in musicals, people don’t usually burst into verse at big moments of their lives. But I like to think this is a more poetic version of what Mary thought when she was freed from her fear.
Once again, this is not what we’d expect. Christmas is about presents and trees and candles and nostalgia, but the biggest themes of the original Christmas stories are responses to longings for justice and mercy. There’s so much about our longing for good governance, to have human rule and order be done right.
And there is so much about the reversal of the way things are in our world, so much about God turning around the unjust, unmerciful ways we have with one another and this earth, and God doing mercy.
What gets Mary excited isn’t the inner peace Jesus will give the world or the ways God will work through Jesus to help us all fulfill our potential. No, this teenager who is counted a nobody by the world, in a family and town and nation and people that are treated as nobodied, is excited about how God will work through Jesus to turn the tables. To give the low status and the hungry a winning hand for a change, to make somebodies out of nobodies.
What brings Mary joy is that God hasn’t forgotten her and her kind. God isn’t scared of her life, God isn’t scared of her world, but God has remembered God’s long promised mercy.
I’ve shared that I’m trying to tell my kids that they’re not stepping into a world they need to be afraid of. But I do know they’re entering an unmerciful one.
I can think of that in terms of economics. How the class divide in our country is growing, how social mobility is shrinking, how my kids are likely to have lower incomes and larger debts at my age than I do. All that may be true.
I can think of that in terms of the world’s injustices. How people with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations often are not scattered but get to stick together. How so often the rich get good things, and the hungry go away empty-handed.
I can even think of my kids’ experiences and my own experiences in education. I mean schools haven’t always done right by my kids. The student I told you about, one of the best I taught, was rejected by all but one college he applied to. When I look back on my career as a school administrator, I see in some of my own disciplinary choices, a lack of mercy to students who had screwed up in some way, but needed a wider net of grace, and more second and third chances than we gave them.
But Mary tells us as we wait for Christmas, that God is pushing forward an age of mercy. That God is interested in right-sizing human ambitions. That a sign that Jesus will be at work, and not just the powers of our age, will be when the over-full are emptied and the over-empty are filled.
This is a weird Christmas thing to name where we live, I’m aware of that. I don’t entirely know what to make of God’s mercy or how to teach the expression of mercy Mary proclaims in a privileged, wealth, powerful region of what still may be the most privileged, wealthy, and powerful nation in the history of the world.
Now I know life’s circumstances are complicated, and we are a diverse congregation. So there is hunger and need and suffering and experience of injustice and an unmerciful world in this congregation too, and in some ways, in all our lives.
Yet on the whole, in Cambridge, and Greater Boston, and yes, even in Reservoir, we are rich, and we are full. So frankly, I wouldn’t bring this up if it wasn’t in Mary’s prayer, because it’s challenging, and it’s awkward, but it’s here, so I’m saying it.
Joining Mary in dreaming of mercy doesn’t necessarily mean dreaming of a bigger footprint for ourselves. It doesn’t necessarily mean dreaming of better and more from God for me and mine. I don’t have a God’s-eye view of government or economics or the big arc of human history, so I’m the last one who can stand here an micro-analyze what dreaming of God’s mercy for all of us does mean, but I’ve got a few guesses I’ll leave you with.
I think it means getting outside of ourselves. Whatever I might want this time of year for me, or my family and friends, whatever my Christmas list might look like if I had one, Mary presses me to want as much or more for the people who made all the stuff that I want. God’s got a big and just embrace of us all that doesn’t feed my ego or selfishness, but does feed my bigger and deeper desires for justice and mercy.
I also think dream of mercy means that we don’t ever try to privatize the good news of Jesus. We don’t ever say that Jesus is just about my personal connection to God. We don’t ever say that faith has nothing to do with politics. There are bad ways of doing politics, sure, we can all get a little head in the sand about the public issues of the world, or we can get a little pig-headed partisan and stubborn about our view of how to solve those problems. But when Mary dreams of mercy, she’s got very public, in that sense very political, dreams in mind. Mercy isn’t a push for the disempowered to forgive and excuse the bad behavior of the powerful. Mercy is a push that the more powerful you are, the more responsibility you have to live mercifully and generously and kindly. And mercy pushes systems and groups and institutions to think about how we will or won’t align with these dreams of mercy.
And lastly, I think it dreaming of mercy means that as just or fair as God is, God is even more merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment, the scripture says. God’s mercy is wider and deeper than I could possibly imagine. None of us are defined by God by our worst act or our worst quality, or what we think we do or don’t deserve. We all have our being, we all are who we are through God’s love-lensed eyes of mercy.
Let me put this ever so so simply. When God looks at you, God smiles. The deep impulse of God for you isn’t pity, it isn’t disapproval or disappointment. It’s kindness. We dream of mercy, because God is mercy.
And God’s calling us to see ourselves, and see our world, and see one another with God’s eyes of mercy as well.
Can I wrap us up with our two usual invitations?
An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing
Pray Mary’s prayer each morning for an emptying for the over-full and a filling for the over-empty. If you are prompted to welcome mercy or to extend mercy in some way, please try.
Spiritual Practice of the Week
One night, go out in silence and look at the night sky. Seeing – or not seeing – the stars above and the city lights below – imagine God telling you that God is not scared, but remembering and showing mercy from generation to generation.