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First Reading = Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
61The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed 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; 2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
4They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. 8For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. 9Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
10I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
This is the third week of Advent, and we are still attending to the presence of Jesus. Last week we attended to the presence of Jesus in people – from our past, from our bubble, from those who annoy us. Next week is our Lessons and Carols Sunday. We sent out an Advent mailer a few weeks ago, and we included a bulletin you can use to follow along and sing along next week.
We heard in our first text from Isaiah, “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.” This good news, which we know was fulfilled in the birth of Jesus, was sent out to the brokenhearted, the captives, and the prisoners.
And when Jesus was starting his ministry, what kind of person did he choose for his disciples? Fishermen. Uneducated commoners. And just for fun, he also through in a religious zealot who wanted to kill tax collectors and one of the tax collectors who that zealot wanted to kill.
The good news of Jesus Christ has a particular focus on those who would normally be beneath the notice of society – or those who society would notice negatively. So our focus this week is how we can attend to the presence of Jesus in those who would normally be beneath notice or even outcasts. As Isaiah points out, those are the exact people targeted and uplifted by some of the prophecies about Jesus.
And to get there, we’re going to focus on Mary and Joseph. Our text is from the Magnificat – Mary’s sung response to the angel telling her that she would deliver God’s son. Listen to these words, but try to picture Mary as the simple, poor girl she was, not the sainted mother of Christ.
Main Reading = Luke 1:46b-55
46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Many years ago, I was privileged to go to the Holy Land, and I remember a conversation I had with our guide. We were talking about the significance of Nazareth in Biblical times – well, we were talking about the insignificance of Nazareth in Biblical times. He told me about a Roman survey of settlements in the area from around the time of Jesus. It was kind of like a census, but not quite as formal.
I don’t remember the exact number, but I think he said it contained notes on more than 100 settlements in the area which included Nazareth. Some were major cities. Some were small towns. And out of those more than 100 settlements surveyed by the Romans, guess where Nazareth ranked? Any guess?
It was so small and insignificant, it didn’t even make the list! The most significant thing about Nazareth prior to being Jesus’ home was how insignificant it was!
While I grew up in Austin, I went to middle and high school in Clifton, TX. At the time, I believe it had the one and only traffic light in the county. Most cities would look down on Clifton’s tiny size. But Clifton could look down on Meridian. And Meridian could look down on Valley Mills. And Valley Mills could look down on Cranfills Gap. When I graduated from high school, Cranfills Gap hit its high water mark for population: 342. Now it’s down to 274. It was often just called the Gap, which was a metaphor about the town being nothing – a hole – a gap. If one of the 274 natives of Cranfills Gap is listening, just know that I’m referring to other people from Clifton looking down on you, not me! I promise!
Nazareth was like Cranfills Gap. It’s main significance was how insignificant it was. It was notable for how unnoticeable it was.
And yet God chose this unremarkable woman about to be married to an unremarkable man from an unremarkable town. The Sadducees thought all the action was taking place in the Temple, and they tried to control it. The Pharisees thought all the action was taking place in their personal righteousness, and they tried to make sure everyone noticed them for it. The Romans thought all the action was taking place in their economy and their army and their expanding territory.
But they were wrong. The most important event in the history of humanity was being announced in Nazareth, a town they probably hadn’t heard of. The most important event in the history of humanity was being announced to a woman who was about to marry one of the local handymen in this unremarkable village. If I told you that the real news right now was from some high school girl named Mary from Cranfills Gap who was engaged to a local handyman, you’d think I had gone even crazier than you already thought I was!
But that’s what happened two thousand years ago. The birth of Jesus, which literally divided how we count time into before and after his birth, that news started in a place as unremarkable and beneath notice as Cranfills Gap.
As Isaiah prophesied, as the angel proclaimed, as Mary sang and celebrated, God has a habit of shaking the earth through people and places that would normally be beneath notice.
So who would normally be beneath our notice? And how can we attend to the presence of Jesus in them?
When I was fourteen, I started training to become a pilot. I got in 25 hours of flight experience before I ran out of money and interest. And when I was training, GPS navigation was just starting to gain a foothold. The four-seat Cessna 172 I used didn’t have GPS. We had to rely on maps and charts and landmarks.
But here’s the thing. When you’re a couple thousand feet up, things look a bit different. That’s why broadcast towers need blinking lights – it’s possible to run into them because you don’t even see them from the air! The tops of buildings look mostly the same. Details fade. Things look different up there.
When I was in college, I went the other direction: I got my SCUBA license. My final training dive was in Aquarena Springs – home of Ralph the Swimming Pig and the famous submarine theater!
So let’s imagine that 14-year-old Cody was up in a Cessna 172 above Aquarena Springs. And let’s imagine that 20-year-old Cody was thirty feet underwater at Aquarena Springs at the same time. Would my airborne self have any clue about the underwater currents below? No! I wouldn’t have a clue! I wouldn’t even notice that there were SCUBA divers down there! In fact, I might not even notice that it was Aquarena Springs below me without GPS to tell me!
We tend to focus on what’s going on up at the top – in the halls of power, in the major institutions, in the global scenes and the key leaders. But God tends to do a lot of his work down below the surface in the people swimming around beneath notice. Someone swimming at the bottom may be crying out, “I’m drowning!” But everyone up in the plane is saying, “You can’t be drowning! There isn’t any water up here!”
Where am I going with this? Those who are typically beneath notice have a drastically different perspective on the world. Many of us may not even understand what they’re talking about, because it’s so far removed from our own experience. But God tends to be very present in those places and people who are typically beneath notice.
Mary sang praises to God, saying, “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.” Ain’t no ruler gonna sing that song! Ain’t no billionaire gonna sing that song. Ain’t no famous personality gonna sing that song! But Mary sings that song! Mary, that high school girl from Cranfills Gap, engaged to a local handyman, beneath notice, she sings that song! We should listen to her. We should listen to her perspective.
Jesus might be doing more amazing things in the life of the person bringing groceries to your car than in the halls of power that so consume our attention. Jesus might be more present in the life of the person waiting for the bus to go to work on a snowy day than in the people dominating the news cycle. How can you hear their perspective?
A couple of years ago, I was regularly meeting with Brian. Many of you knew Brian. He used to hang out around our church during the day before finding a place to sleep elsewhere at night. I used to meet with Brian twice a week. We would talk for about an hour. I would make sure he had what he needed to make peanut butter sandwiches his way. And heaven help you if you tried to make it your way instead of letting him make it his way!
And I would frequently hear one of his tirades against Christians. He would tell me how Christians were hypocrites. He would tell me how Christians only cared about themselves or how they looked to others, they didn’t really care about people like him.
There was a certain irony to this, of course. Here he was, in a church, sitting with Christian pastor, talking about the fallacies of Christians. And where was he before he met with me? Often he was with another Christian. Where was he going that night? To a church that had a Bible study and free meal. When he had to leave our city, where did he find a landing spot? At a church that helped him.
So, yes, I’ll admit it. It annoyed me to hear Christians bashed when I knew Christians were responsible for the majority of the help he received. I’m not gonna lie to you and say it didn’t bother me. It did bother me!
But I didn’t try to convince him he was wrong. We should still hear his perspective. He was telling us that many Christians can come across as hypocritical, judgmental, self-absorbed, or focused on appearances rather than being truly motivated by Jesus. That’s how he experienced the majority of his interactions with Christians. We should hear that even if it annoys us. We should use that as a gut check even if we think he’s being ungrateful.
But it’s hard to hear hard things that might apply to us. It feels bad to be wrong. It feels good to be right. Clinical psychologist Renee Carr remarked that the brain gets a hit of dopamine when we think we’re proven right. That’s basically a happy chemical. And she also remarked that the brain, “can become addicted to any activity or substance that consistently produces dopamine.” In other words, we can become literally addicted to being proven right!
This is what social media and your phone’s automatic news feeds are using when they notice what you interact with and give you more of it. They’re noting what you want to hear. Maybe it’s a news article you agree with. Maybe it’s a news article you hate but you feel so right in condemning how wrong it was.
It’s hard to listen to someone like Brian telling us we’re wrong when our phones and computers and favorite websites and preferred sources will give us a constant stream of how right we are.
But, you know, in the lead-up to Jesus’ birth the Pharisees hung out with each other and felt so good about how religiously right they were. And the Sadducees hung out with each other and felt so good about how right they were running the Temple. And Herod, with his cronies around him, felt so good about being the right ruler for this corner of the Roman Empire.
What did they have in common? They all felt so right. They all thought everyone else was so wrong. And they all missed Jesus.
I fear that we will miss Jesus this year, too. So much of our attention is way up in the air. But Jesus is usually more at work down beneath the surface of the water. So much of our attention is on feeling right! But Jesus came because we need a savior, not because he wanted to tell us how right we are. It’s going to take effort, it’s going to take work, it’s going to take probably unpleasant attention to where we might be wrong if we’re going to notice Jesus this year. What would someone like Brian have to say to us? What would someone who is usually beneath notice have to say to us – even if it stings? That might be where Jesus is this year.
Using Mary’s song as a template, I can see two major approaches for us this Advent. Two ways to put this into practice.
First, if you’re feeling so right and others are so wrong, I encourage you to pray for the Holy Spirit to reveal where you are wrong. Jesus came to save you, not to congratulate you for being right. I’ve actually made this a regular spiritual practice for years – praying for the Holy Spirit to reveal where I’m wrong – and that’s been a pretty quick path to an answered prayer for me.
If you’re feeling very right, if you’re feeling righteous in a sea of sinners, pray for the Holy Spirit to reveal where you need the Savior. We all need saving. We all need the Savior. That’s why Jesus came in the first place. It’s not gonna give you a hit of dopamine this Advent season to pray like that, but I don’t want us to miss Jesus.
The second option is for those who are feeling wrong or defeated or hopeless. Mary’s prayer started from that place. And she lifted up her voice and said, “he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” If you’re feeling low, pray for hope. Pray for hope. If Jesus can be present to Mary, the high school girl from Cranfills Gap who’s engaged to a local handyman, Jesus can be present in your life, too. Pray for the ability to hope, to trust that God’s promises are true no matter what today or tomorrow look like.
So which one makes the most sense for you this week? Would it be better for your soul to ask the Holy Spirit to point out why you need Jesus to save you? Or would it be better for your soul to ask the Holy Spirit to strengthen your hope, your ability to trust that God’s promises are true no matter what today or tomorrow look like?
Doing what’s good for your soul doesn’t always give you the same hit of dopamine that your smartphone will dish up for you, but if we had everything figured out we wouldn’t need Jesus to save us. I assure you, we do. We do need Jesus to save us. Amen.