Sunday, December 15, 2019

Paula Stoltzfus: Surprised by joy

Advent 3: Rejoicing as we wait
Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10; Luke 1:46-55

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I have a question for each of you that I’m curious about.  With a raise of hands (and don’t think about this too much), how many of you like surprises?  How many of you don’t like surprises?

Now you might say, it depends on the occasion. I would venture to say that we tend one way or the other.

I generally don’t mind surprises as long as I know the people involved.  The real risk for me is in knowing the people who are doing the surprising. If I feel that the person or people have my good will at heart, I’m okay with “come what may.” 

If I would be in a high risk situation then I believe I would feel vulnerable and afraid of what a surprise may bring.

Mary’s response to an angel’s surprise visit telling her that she has been chosen to bear God’s son, has been written to music, plays, prayers, a hymn of praise in response to what God was to do for her.  Mary seemed to receive this news graciously considering her reality in life. 

Mary was very young among our standards, 12-14, yet old enough in her culture that she was engaged to be married.  Keep in mind this is the age of our sixth through eighth graders.  She lived in a peasant family, low class, perhaps termed as poverty in our standards.  She was a woman in a highly patriarchal society and religion that predominantly disregarded a woman’s voice unless through her husband or other male figure.

On the one hand, Mary didn’t have much to lose in receiving God’s promise for her.  She didn’t have the risk of losing wealth or a huge change in social status.  She was young and innocent, you may say. She was in an early stage of faith development experiencing this concrete call with openness to be faithful trusting fully in God’s power and promise.

On the other hand, Mary had much to lose.  What status she did have would be jeopardized by her pregnancy.  The man she was engaged to, considered breaking off the marriage because of her assumed sexual unfaithfulness.  Mary risked being seen in her religious community as an outcast, an untouchable, and unavailable to be married, casting her into a category of people who were the poorest of the poor.

In many ways, Mary was the perfect person to carry out God’s plan.  She was old enough to be shaped in her faith to have trust in God to say yes.  And yet not old enough to have to consider all the ramifications of her openness. 

Mary became an example of God righting the world in the salvation story.  The lowly is lifted up.

Isaiah 35 is also a picture of the redeemed, the promise of salvation, where wrongs are made right and transformation happens.  Here salvation begins in creation, where the dry and desolate will be transformed into paradise. Much like a desert comes to colorful life at the smallest amount of rain.

Then in verse 3 the voice seems to move from creation to people, confronting fear with a promise of God’s vengeance and terrible recompense as translated in the NRSV. These are powerful words.

In doing a little digging I came to find out that the Hebrew meaning for vengeance is “retribution that brings liberation to the oppressed...freedom from a situation of need and the restoration of justice” (Anatheia Porter-Young).  In other words, God’s vengeance could be translated into our understanding of restorative justice.

The Hebrew for “God’s terrible recompense” means “God’s response or God’s dealing” (Anatheia Porter-Young). 

This picture of salvation says to people, be strong even in your feeling of weakness, for God is present, working for a just restoration. God is on the move.  Expect God’s response.

From there salvation opens to the world to heal, restore, and transform the brokenness.  Making a way where sorrow and sighing will flee, joy and gladness will spring up.

Mary seems to embody this oracle in the midst of great longing and brokenness.  The sorrow and sighing are not evident in her prayer.  Joy and gladness bubble up instead.

How did Mary do it?  This passage in Isaiah seems unrealistic in our world where those fleeing their country of origin, environmental disasters, and economic disparities are all on the rise.  How could sorrow flee and joy and gladness spring up?

It needs to be pointed out that this passage is not saying there will be no more sorrow or sighing, but simply that it will flee.

I liken it to a tightrope walker. A seemingly impossible task is possible.  I saw a picture recently of a man walking between two boulders where it was clear that if he fell in his walk he would have met his death.  This sport has a strategy. While walking on the rope one cannot look down at the feet.  The focus must be out in front, trusting the feel of the rope on the feet, the equipment and skill to reach the other side.  Distractions are overcome through focus, confidence in self, and trust.

The picture of the highway in the Isaiah passage is a bit of a tight rope walk.  The same kind of faith, trust, and focus on God is required.  If one receives God’s love, commits to follow in God’s wisdom, trusts in God in the midst of uncertainty, and focuses on the goal of loving God with one’s whole being, then the sorrows lose their weight, leaving a lighter, freer spirit. 

Mary seemed to be able to do this.  She was able to keep her eyes on God’s promise instead of the distractions of the world around her.

We have distractions. Be it financial, health, or relational fears.  We have concerns about job security, the weight of grief, the fear driven news culture, racial disparities, inequalities,and environmental degradation.  These are all realities.  But no amount of worrying about them will offer salvation.

Lest we think we are to focus intently heavenward for God’s salvation that would take us from this world, James brings us down to earth. 

James is worried about the divisions between the rich and poor. Our reading this morning comes after James condemns those with economic wealth who have mistreated their neighbor for their own gain.  Be patient, James says. It is spoken here as an alternative to a life focused on immediate gratification and exploitation of others for one’s gain.

I suppose humanity has been always at work at finding ways we can live life more efficiently, faster.  Unfortunately we haven’t learned to do it with the other’s best interest at heart. 

We live in a time where immediate self gratification is seen as a right and not a privilege.  Our grocery stores are full of as many fruits and vegetables as possible year round, irregardless of whether it is locally in season.  We rely more on electronic communication rather than traditional mail, which is now known as “snail mail.” We need cars in order to get from one place to the next as fast as possible.  We are gluttons for oil and coal which transport us, our food, and electricity. 

Technological advances can be celebrated but we also need to view the costs to our bodies, to the environment, to our societies, to our communities, where there are inequalities in the distribution of the worlds goods.

James’ word on patience includes the capacity to make different decisions based on how our neighbors will be affected rather than simply measuring our own convenience or comfort.  This is a different way to think. 

How does seeking the cheapest price for our goods affect our local businesses that attempt to offer the same goods at a fair wage?

How does buying strawberries in winter drive a food economy which encourages food inequalities?

How do our clothing choices affect those who make them?

Thinking in this way, considers not only our well being, but the well being of our neighbors, be it  local or around the world.  James’ patience is a “matter of justice for those less fortunate” (Dirk D. Lange). He speaks to a community, expecting that the work is not just done individually but communally.  Strengthening of hearts “comes as the community lives and witnesses together” (Lange).  Keeping one another honest.  Sharing with one another in patience and hope  grounded in faith in God.

Once Mary received her promise from God, she did not stay put, but rather went to her aunt Elizabeth to live.

The patience James talks about calls for an active waiting.  Not a waiting in which one sits idly by.

Sojourner Truth is an example of this active waiting as she was an activist for racial justice.  She was of lowly estate, such as Mary.  Sojourner was a black, illiterate, low income, woman speaking to a white, rich, and educated to bring about change. 

At an anti-slavery rally in Ohio, a white man walked up to her after she spoke and said, “Old woman, do you think that your talk about slavery does any good?  Do you suppose people care what you say?  Why, I don’t care any more for your talk than I do for the bite of a flea.”  Sojourner, in her wisdom, responded, “Perhaps not, but, the Lord willing, I’ll keep you scratching.”

Sojourner spoke from an inner freedom, grounded in faith, that allowed her to be freed from the racial prejudice and inequalities that she faced.  She spoke from a joy that was not apparent in the world she lived.

Mary spoke from the inner freedom she found grounded in faith freed from the social and religious expectations, leaving her open to receiving God’s call for her.

I heard a song at the coffeehouse this weekend written by Christopher and Maria Clymer Kurtz that is going to be in the new hymnal, entitled Solemn Stillness. It seems to capture all of our passages today. Joy can reach the quiet, dry, fearful places of our lives. Hear the lyrics.

Solemn stillness weary streets strain to grasp the sound.
In the quiet breathes an anthem over dark and thorny ground.
Rocks and plains repeat the echo; splendor floods the starlit morn.
We are wonders, blessed wonders, singing joy to the world.

We are shepherds in the fields, watching in the night.
We are mortals, we are bearers, searching for a perfect light.
Hurry, hurry! Sing the glory! Bring the gold and bitter myrrh of our carols:
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Singing joy to the world.

Crushing fears are met with joy; sorrow’s curse is torn.
Hear the music, fling your load down, and unbend your tired form.
These bright hours circle round us, let the gentle wings unfurl.
Swift and sweetly down the roadside, singing joy to the world.

Where are life’s crushing fears reaching you?
What load needs to be flung down?
How can we unbend our tired forms to allow our wings the freedom to unfurl? 

Mary is a bless-ed reminder of this freedom.  Giving our lives in surrender to God’s love and grace, gives us meaning, gives us focus, and in fact surprises us with a joy that this world cannot give.

Let us not rush this season.  Let us wait with patience for the in-breaking of God’s presence with us.  For it is in showing up in community, in crying out to God, watching and waiting, we express our deepest longings, ready at any moment to be surprised by God’s joy.

O God, we come, we cry, we watch, we wait, we look, we long for you.

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