Dec 23 Micah 5:2-5a * Psalm 80:1-7 * Hebrews 10:5-10 * Luke 1:39-55
My afternoons during the work week usually start with picking up a little boy and taking him home from school. He rides the big bus to school but leaves earlier than most of the kids, often in a surly mood as he comes to my bus. He is one of the only kids I know who gets very mad when it is time to go: he would rather stay at school. Several days this week, his Mom had to come get him because he wouldn’t get on the bus. But on Thursday, after his teacher warned me that they were having trouble with him, he came out in a good mood, and sang “Jingle Bells” most of the way home. I am often blessed by the singing of my little ones on the bus, regardless of their ability, for as they get older, they (we) sing less and less. But this same little boy who often curses and threatens his teachers sang sweetly as we headed for home. Maybe if we all could sing a little more, our world would be a better place, and our hearts would be in a better place.
It seems like music is more important to us than ever during the holidays, as it both prepares us for what is to come and takes us back to our own childhood, mingling with our moods. This of course is something advertisers take full advantage of, putting all sorts of stupid messages to music, or using music as the background to touch our emotions while they try to sell their products. As Hans Christian Andersen once said, “Where words fail, music speaks.” He probably had something else in mind than what we must endure at the mall and other stores.
But music also brings good memories and fun experiences. This is the season for concerts and other events that feature music. Recently, we went to a concert at our kids’ high school, which is much more enjoyable than when they were in middle school. Not only are the performances much better, but so is the auditorium. Kristen as usual wanted to then go to the Christmas Chorale at the college we went to, which I generally dread. The concert at the high school was relaxed, short, and the music was just as good. At my alma mater, it was long, uptight, and with a much longer trip to get there. The choir was good, the strings were painful, and the handbells were of course the best part, they usually are. It took place in a church that looks the same as it did when we were there almost 30 years ago, with the same decorations, and the people were also the same: old and stuffy. Many come to show off how well-to-do they are and get their names in the program as benefactors, but that’s just my curmudgeonly opinion. Reality is probably different. They all dress in their best and are on their best behavior, but you quickly realize that they are just like everybody else, and that you sat near someone you wish you hadn’t. There is always the one who made an unfortunate choice for dinner, and is now digesting it, with results their neighbors don’t appreciate. There is the person who made a terrible choice of costume, and doesn’t realize how funny the look, and always one person whose attire is immaculate but apparently forgot to comb their hair. I always get stuck by the crazy cat lady who makes annoying knitting noises all the way through.
Most of the music we heard at the concerts was unfamiliar, some old, some very new, none of which stuck in my head as we left. When writing worship services, I like to end with a song that everyone will take with them for inspiration for the week. We here so much bad stuff out there, we need something good. This doesn’t always work though, for different piano players will interpret the music differently, sometimes not only with a different tempo, but providing a different emotional experience. After listening to Christmas music in recent weeks, I’d like to think that what stays in my head would give some indication of where my heart is this season, but we all know how earworms work. Sometimes the songs you hate are the ones that stay with you, but usually at church it is the song you like the most that stays with you, so I try to choose one that I know everyone will like.
But still, I wonder if you had Elvis singing “Blue Christmas” in your head, perhaps that is a sign that you are not having the best of holiday seasons. Those singing “Joy to the World” or something like it hopefully are having a good holiday season. What songs have you all had in your heads lately? Do they reflect on where your heart is? Do they reflect your sense of hope? Peace? Joy? I’m not sure what to think about this, considering the song that I have had in my head recently. Perhaps it means I need to lighten up, or perhaps it means the already slim grip on reality that I have is slipping even further. The song that I can’t get out of my head goes:
I want a hippopotamus for Christmas
Only a hippopotamus will do
No crocodiles, or rhinosauruseses
I only like hippopotamuses
And hippopotamuses like me, too
Perhaps I should keep such things to myself! However, our Gospel readings are songs that I take pride in being able to sing from memory, or at least was able to when I was younger. The Gospel of Luke remains one of my favorite books due to his inclusion of these songs about the time of Jesus’ birth. There are versions of them in our hymnal, although I don’t remember ever singing those. The ones that are sung even to this day are heard in the Catholic Church, especially in monasteries, where every day the song of Mary is sung, also known as the Magnificat, at the service of Evening Prayer or Vespers, generally right before dinner. If we had read a little further than today’s Gospel Lesson, we would have heard the song of Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, which is sung towards the end of the day, at the service of Night Prayer or Compline. This song starts with: “Now Master let your servant go in peace, for your word has been fulfilled.” If we still lived in a civilized world that provided a Classical education, where all children wisely learned Greek and Latin, you might know this song as the “Nunc Dimittis.” This song continues:
My own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people, a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.
This is also the message we proclaim this season, as we prepare the way of the Lord. Our theme for this fourth Sunday of Advent is “Peace”, and we seek to not only proclaim the coming of the Prince of Peace, but we also seek to welcome him into our hearts again as we prepare the way for him to enter the hearts of those who don’t know him yet. Although we know that we live in a world very different from what it will be like when Jesus returns in glory, we do our part to welcome in a foretaste of what the new creation will be like, as we seek to provide a welcoming church here, and share the love and peace of Jesus with our neighbors. The background music for these stories from Luke is sung by the angels themselves, proclaiming something new, something glorious.
When we think of peace, we usually think of the end of war and conflict. The Biblical view is a little different. It is not just an end to violence, it is a time filled with mercy and compassion, but also justice. As Mary sings: the arrogant and powerful are to be brought down, the poor and lowly lifted up. The most vulnerable are to be taken care of properly. The hungry are to be fed, the lonely will have a place of belonging; acts of mercy that we also seek to perform in Jesus’ name now. God has already begun to fulfill his promises, and one day people will stand in awe as God fulfills all of his promises, the greatest one being sending Jesus to us again. As Zechariah says:
Bless the Lord God of Israel because he has come to help and has delivered his people. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David's house, just as he said through the mouths of his holy prophets long ago...He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors and remembered his holy covenant (Luk 1:68-72 CEB).
This morning we welcome these promises into our hearts once again, and with the angels we sing praises to God and to the mighty savior he will soon raise up again. Perhaps we marvel at Mary’s willingness to be the instrument of God here. Do we have hearts that welcome God’s instructions? Are we willing to welcome those into our hearts that may make us uncomfortable: the poor, the homeless, those who are somehow different from us? When we work towards peace, are we merciful? Are we really ready to welcome Jesus when he returns again?
Let us pray: Lord, fill our hearts with your Spirit, fill us with your peace and joy. As we leave today, may the songs in our hearts inspire us to share your message of love and forgiveness in Jesus. Give us the courage to share the Good News of Jesus’ coming into our world with others, and to perform acts of mercy that will not only help those in physical need but help those in emotional and spiritual need also. May we too prepare the way for Jesus, and may he come soon! Amen.