Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:46-55
According to some ancient wisdom,
I wasn’t going to have to write a sermon this week!
And so at some point on Friday, my thought was,
well, I could begin, “Isn’t it good to be here?
You know, with those saying we might not be.
Nothing to take for granted.
What glad tidings of great joy for all people … still here.”
Words of ancient and contemporary wisdom.
But we have more to say than that.
We have that to say, sure,
but we have more than a word of wisdom
indicating the simple and profound joy of being.
So we turn to our Scripture for today.
The Micah text is familiar to us
as one of the so-called messianic texts—
those Old Testament prophetic texts
we interpret as pointing to Jesus.
And be that as it may,
it’s not fair to those texts
to look back to them through the gospels
and think or suggest that’s all they meant.
Because all messianic texts, inasmuch as they pointed to Jesus,
also pointed within their own particular historical context
to a particular historical hope—
so particular, historical hope
within particular, historical circumstance.
There’s an imminent expectation to these texts.
To look at Micah’s prophecy,
is to note a pattern of “alternating words
of judgment and salvation toward Judah”
(James D. Nogalski, The Book of the Twelve:
Micah-Malachi in Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary,
[Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2011] 515).
This same pattern (alternating words of judgment and hope)
can be found in Hosea addressing the Northern Kingdom.
We’ve, in fact, noted it before thinking about
a number of the Old Testament prophets.
But surely we’re talking about more
than a persistent cycling through hope and need of hope—
about more than the pendulum swinging
from one side of a dualistic reality to the other,
But then consider the kings through whose reigns Micah prophesied:
Jotham, 756-741 BCE, a good king
who listened to Isaiah, Hosea, Amos and Micah,
rebuilt the Temple walls and defeated the Ammonites.
2 Chronicles 27:6 reads: “So Jotham became strong
because he ordered his ways before the Lord his God.”
Jotham was followed by Ahaz, 742-725 BCE, a bad king
who ignored Isaiah, Hosea and Micah,
who desecrated the temple, who sacrificed his own son.
According to 2 Chronicles 28:19, he promoted wickedness
and was most unfaithful to God.
Jotham was followed by Hezekiah, 725-696 BCE, a good king
who listened to Isaiah and Micah and instituted religious reform.
2 Kings 18:5 goes so far as to say: “He trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel;
so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah,
nor among them that were before him.”
All three of these kings, by the way,
mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus—
all included: the good, the bad, and, presumably, the ugly.
So did Micah just live long enough
to see the need for alternating words of judgment and hope
through the cycle of politics, good kings and bad kings?
Consider, as well, the fact that early in his career,
Micah would have seen and lived under
the threat the northern kingdom and its allies posed to Judah.
He would have seen and lived with his king
appealing to Assyria for help with that problem.
And Assyria did conquer the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 BCE,
but Micah would have also seen and lived through
the Assyrians then becoming the next threat to Judah
as the anticipated answer to one fear became itself the next fear.
So Micah would have also seen
Assyria, having conquered the northern kingdom of Israel
then attacking the southern kingdom of Judah—
would have seen Hezekiah seeking alliances with Egypt and Babylon,
but ending up alone when Assyria besieged Jerusalem—
having to pay tribute.
And Babylon would be back, wouldn’t they?
Another relationship founded on enmity
that never escaped its foundation.
And yet my ally is the enemy of my enemy
is still accepted thinking.
And our country supported and appreciated Osama bin Laden
(when his violence was directed against the Soviets in Afghanistan).
We don’t much like that part of the story anymore.
Not that we’ve learned that enmity’s never a good basis for relationship.
So did Micah just live long enough
to see the need for alternating words of judgment and hope
through the cycle of events in history, good times and hard times?
And the word of Micah remains, through all the cycles of history,
a word of hope and promise in the face of immense threat—
a word for us, still, today.
Furthermore it remains a word in which hope comes
from outside the norm—from outside the expected.
Unlike his contemporary, Isaiah, Micah did not live in Jerusalem,
but in Moresheth, some 20 miles southwest of Jerusalem,
and he prophesied of Bethlehem some six miles south east of Jerusalem—
words of hope outside all acknowledged channels of power.
In Micah, there’s no denying the tribulations—
the hard things—the griefs, the fears.
there’s no minimizing the threat we face.
That’s all acknowledged.
But without ever compromising a word of hope and promise—
a word of hope and promise that has to do with God
and God’s desires for peace and justice.
I’m mindful always that we read in John’s prologue
that Jesus came to us full of grace and truth.
There’s an integrity to that
that’s definitely more than a word about the simple joy of being.
That’s not it at all—certainly not all of it.
Now don’t get me wrong, that’s a good word,
and one of which we occasionally need reminders.
But it’s not our word.
It is a part of our larger story, part of original blessing,
but it’s not the word that comes into the very midst of being—
that acknowledges the hard
and yet anticipates the good—
in recognition of the interwovenness
of what’s so hard in life and what’s so good.
And then there’s Mary’s song.
Mary, that young girl from Nazareth—
another obscure village—what good can come from Nazareth?
This time not a village in the Judean hills but up in the Galilee.
But Mary goes to see her cousin, Elizabeth
where? In the Judean hill country—
in the region of Moresheth and Bethlehem.
And there, she sings of an alternative to being.
Not the alternative of not being,
but the alternative of another way—
again, unexpected words from outside the norms—
outside the expected channels of power and faith—
words of great inversion
that require a birth—a laboring.
God doesn’t just invert the world—turn it upside down.
God calls people to give birth to this alternative being
that turns the world upside down
And always has.
This is nothing new. Considering Mary’s magnificent song,
“[i]n every line there are echoes of the Scriptures of Israel”
(R. Alan Culpepper, The Book of Luke: Introduction,
Commentary, and Reflections in the New Interpreter’s Bible:
A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume IX
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1995] 55).
This has always been the work of the people of God.
So we’ve noted before the past tense verbs used in Mary’s song.
God has scattered the proud, has brought down the powerful,
has lifted up the lowly, has filled the hungry,
and has sent the rich away.
Mary’s not singing about what God will do,
but about what God has done—
about what God always does
in and through the work of the people of God.
And so it’s what Mary did.
It’s who Mary was—
Mary as the mother of the child of God,
herself a child of God
turning the world upside down through her labor.
And these are not words of ancient wisdom.
Oh there’s plenty of ancient wisdom in our sacred texts,
but what we have is ancient revelation—
a very different thing.
Wisdom points to the simple joy of being.
Good thing that.
Revelation, though, points to more—
something about the integrity
of maintaining the juxtaposition of different realities in being:
grace and truth, judgment and hope.
I’m sure it comes as no new word—no new insight,
to note at the time of each Christmas season,
the juxtaposition of the light that comes into the darkness—
the celebration of light at the darkest time of the year,
or the seasonal expectation of the contrast
between its being cold outside and warm inside
and the disappointment when it’s not cold enough outside—
when that contrast isn’t as strong.
A few weeks ago, Susie was preparing for a chapel service at St. Paul’s
and commented how these contrasts inherent to the season
(at least where we live—that it’s both cold and dark
and that we thus need both heat and light)—
these contrasts inherent to the season are also integral to the season—
integral to our story of the season.
And so we find juxtapositions in the songs we sing:
“watching long in hope and fear” from “Angels, from the Realms of Glory,”
“the hopes and fears of all the years” from “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
Pretty much all the lyrics of “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.”
And, of course, in the Scriptures we read:
of “the tidings of comfort and joy” in Luke (Luke 2:10),
and of “the people who walked in darkness
who have seen a great light” in Isaiah (Isaiah 9:2).
Now that’s significant.
It’s our calling.
Having less to do, I believe,
with going into the darkness with the light—
classic missionary commissioning image that it is,
as it does with never dismissing the truth and significance
of both the darkness and the light—
acknowledging fully the reality of both—
like an alternating word—
somehow simultaneous now.
All of which brings me to one practical word now—
take note—a practical word—from me!
But because tomorrow is Christmas Eve—
and because the day after tomorrow is Christmas—
let me suggest, that considering
these juxtapositions of light in darkness and the warmth and the cold
of comfort and joy, hopes and fears, judgment and hope,
the hard world and the good word,
and considering also the tradition of giving gifts—exchanging gifts,
should we not give more thought
to not giving more of what people already have?
Should we not give more thought
to giving into lack—into what people do not have?
To maintain that tension—that contrast—that juxtaposition
so integral to the season?
And that is Operation Joy, right?
That is our gifts to ACTC.
That is our giving to Gerald
and through Metro Baptist to help the victims of Sandy.
That is our Advent/Christmas mission offering
for the work of the Alliance of Baptists.
That is making gifts through Heifer and kiva
(which, remember, we will match—doubling your gift).
That’s the gift of Jesus for us, of course.
We remember every time we celebrate communion
with the invitation: come not because you are fulfilled,
but because in your emptiness, you stand in need.
Jesus came (and comes) to fill our emptiness—
not to add to wisdom we already have—
not to add to religious traditions we already have.
Jesus is God’s fullness overflowing into our emptiness.
And what the people you gift this season
most need from you—
it also happens to be what the world most needs
and it’s not more stuff (sorry kids! as fun as stuff can be …
though in the selfish interest of my own Christmas,
I should probably say not just stuff
and then you can decide how much of a compromise that is!).
But, in all seriousness, the people you gift—the people you love—
to whom you want to manifest that love—and the world, as well,
need, more than anything else,
for you to live into what it means
to be a child of God—
need you to live into the truth of Mary’s song—
that ours is not a word about becoming the proud
the powerful, the rich—
that that’s not how you win, but all too often how you lose.
Now within the truth of history,
you can’t expect a culture to get it right.
But shouldn’t we expect people who claim to follow God
to find the grace amidst the truth?
And yet so many have apparently given up on the story
to which they evidently pay but lip service.
For we do not just point back to Jesus,
and nor do we just point to an imminent hope for our particular
No, we also sing with Mary,
as the children of God,
not just in gratitude that we are,
but also in commitment to being as God.
Because we have a word about more than the joy of being.
We have a word about how we choose to be.
And if we give that up in order just to be,
we have lost something that cannot be quantified.
And so for times such as these
for a culture of such peace shattering violence,
with visions of power and wealth proudly
dancing in our heads,
short-sighted prioritizing immediate gratification,
self-centered and selfish (they’re not always the same!),
committed to a better future prioritizing delayed gratification
with visions of justice, righteousness and humility
dancing in our heads,
incarnating God’s word of peace for all—
even for a time such as this.