Third Sunday of Advent
Let us pray.
God of all hope, peace, joy, and love, let us receive you this day as the world first received you– with great anticipation and excitement. May the light of your Christ make our darkness bright. Amen.
Let me paint you a scene from my childhood home. It is just before the holidays, and my family is waiting on guests who will be arriving soon. Extended family and friends will be joining us. We are filled with excitement. And so the “tidying up” begins. My mother hangs Christmas lights over the mantel. My brother vacuums the living room. I cover the couches with soft blankets and pillows to provide a comfortable place to sit. My sisters bake cookies. We set candles on the table, smiling as the aroma and light fill the room. Soft music is playing– maybe Celtic Christmas music or Peter, Paul, and Mary, my mother’s favorite. It was one of my favorite times of year.
Yet, there’s something a bit odd about waiting for a guest to arrive. When we prepare our homes or ready ourselves to host a meal, we prepare twice: Once for the guest who is coming and has not yet arrived, and once for ourselves, as we get ready for company. As we prepare, we are prepared.
The same thing happens when we prepare to receive the presence of the Lord. Advent is a season of preparation for the coming of our Lord, Jesus. It is the time when we wait for something amazing to happen, for God to come into the world. It is the time when we experience moments of quiet expectation, and it is a time that we consider the tremendous gift of Emmanuel– God who is with us. “Advent is the spiritual preparation for Christmas as Lent is for Easter”. In Advent, we prepare more than our homes. We prepare our hearts.
I love the idea of looking to Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a way of thinking about how we can prepare our hearts to receive Jesus. As Lutherans, we don’t tend to talk all that much about Mary. We may find her in our nativity scenes, but she is certainly not a regular fixture in worship. Many Lutherans simply do not know what to do with Mary. A few years ago, a good friend of mine named Abby gave me this statue. It’s pretty small, so you may not be able to see from where you are, but this is an image of Mary, the mother of Jesus. You see, Abby is Catholic. She and I had amazing ecumenical conversations about faith and justice, friendship and love and loss. One summer, she was traveling abroad and bought this statue of Mary for me as a gift. She told me to keep it and use it to “help me to think about Mary”. Initially I laughed. I didn’t really think very much about Mary. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized there was something to thinking about Mary.
After all, Mary was the first person to prepare for the coming of Christ. She made her own body a temple to the Lord in the most literal sense. She cared for Jesus as a child, bringing him up in the instruction of her faith in the Most High God. She would go on to walk alongside Jesus in his ministry, witnessing his work in the world. She would stand by the cross, grieving the death of her beloved child. She would triumphantly proclaim alongside the apostles the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the witness that is our heritage in the church today.
After Mary heard the news that she would conceive and bear the very Son of God, she began to prepare herself for the amazing thing that was about to happen.
In our psalmody today, we heard the words of Mary’s Magnificat from the first chapter of Luke’s gospel. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior!” When Mary sings these words, she has just arrived in the home of her cousin, Elizabeth. Both women are pregnant; Elizabeth’s son will grow up to be John the Baptist and Mary, of course, is the mother of Jesus. We cannot know for certain precisely why Mary went to stay with her cousin Elizabeth. Perhaps she wanted to share in the preparation of pregnancy with someone who could relate to what she was going through. Maybe she needed to share the good news with someone she could trust to take care of her. Either way, When Mary arrived at Elizabeth’s house, Elizabeth recognized the presence of God in Mary’s womb and rejoiced with her. Luke’s gospel tells us that the baby John lept with joy in the womb. In the presence of the Lord, there is exceptional joy. It seems fitting that we get to retell this story on the third week of Advent, the week dedicated to joy.
Because Mary’s Magnificat is just overflowing with joy in the Lord. A joy that can’t be hidden. A joy that demands a response. And Mary’s response is to sing! Singing praise should be at least somewhat familiar to us– we do it together in worship. When we sing, some say we pray twice. Music can be an occasion of great joy, an opportunity to lift our voices and hearts to God, and to receive God’s presence in joy and humility.
Mary’s Magnificat is similar in form to the psalm type known as a hymn of praise. Perhaps we could also call it a hymn of joy. These hymns begin with words of praise for God, then they give reasons why God should be praised, and finally they offer words of blessing or petitions on behalf of other people.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!” Mary humbles herself before God. She decreases herself so that God may increase. She acknowledges the very power of her words of praise to glorify God, to put God at the center of attention and admiration. Mary announces the coming of the Messiah. Is that not what we are doing as we gather here today? Are we not here to take time out of the busy-ness of the world, to recognize the presence of God? To glory in it? To stand or sit in awe? To bless God’s holy name?
We have been thinking lately about who we are as a congregation here at Saint Bart, thinking about how to tell others about our mission. What better way is there to share the good news of God than to remind ourselves of why we gather here? When we find praise as a starting point, amazing things can take place. Our praise reports stand as a witness to how God is at work in our church family. They form the basis of our identity as the people of God.
With the solid foundation of praise, we can move into the other aspects of the life of faith that Mary proclaims in her Magnificat. We receive mercy in the forgiveness of God. We are filled with good things at the Lord’s Table and fed with the eternal Word. We give over our earthly pride and we offer ourselves to God to be lifted up in humility. God promises justice. When we name this cosmic vision of the world finally being made right, we live into the possibility that this world is coming. We speak this world into truth. We ask God to make us a part of it.
Joy to the world! The Lord is come. Let earth receive her king. Let every heart prepare Him room, and heaven and nature sing. We sing these words every year, celebrating the renewal of our admiration for the coming of Christ. As we prepare our hearts this Advent season, let us remember that “Advent offers the faithful an opportunity for preparation for the coming birth of Christ… the coming of Christ as a [child]; his second advent, when he shall reign over the whole earth; and his continual coming into the hearts that ‘prepare him room’”. How can we prepare for the coming of the Lord into our hearts today? Let us turn to God for guidance as we prepare, lifting up our gratitude to God who came to dwell among us. Let us rejoice in the mystery of a love so great as this. Let us join with Mary in welcoming Jesus into the world, as one who is mighty, holy, and merciful. Let us learn to expect that God will transform us today by the power of His grace. Let us accept that we are profoundly loved and need never be afraid. Amen.