Advent: God With Us

Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11 

The 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 broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to 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.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.

For 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.
Their 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.
I 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.
For 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.

Luke 1:46b-55 

And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
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.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

When Jesus’ mother, Mary, learned that he would be born, the first thing she did was to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who blessed her and called her “the mother of my Lord.”  Mary replied in a song we call the Magnificat, with lyrics drawn from Isaiah 61.  She interpreted her child’s birth not just as a personal blessed event or as a family blessing, but as a historic and political event that would turn the social order inside out and change the world “for ever.”   

The songs that we sing to our babies matter.  The stories we tell them about who they are, about the people we came from, about those we mourn, about what we hope for, help them to form who they understand themselves to be.  The faith that we practice and model for them anoints their own souls, as surely as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up.   

The native plants in Mary’s metaphorical garden were compassion, justice, righteousness and praise.  Her native language was exultation and good tidings.  Her expressions were pitched by Biblical prophecy and metered by hopeful faith.  “From generation to generation,” Mary sang, harmonizing the past with the future.  Mercy remembered is also mercy received.  Blessings are for sharing.   

When Jesus preached his first sermon in the synagogue of Nazareth (Luke 4), he took the text of Isaiah 61 and interpreted it:  “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  He announced:  Good news to the poor!  Release to the captives!  Sight to the blind!  Liberty for the oppressed!  Jubilee!  He proclaimed the faith that he learned from his mother, as surely as from his Abba.   

Mary rejoiced that she was free and strong and blessed, no matter what the rest of the world saw or expected from her.  She audaciously claimed to magnify the Lord.  She identified with the prophetic role.  She vocalized mercy.  Her son Jesus knew in his bones, from his mother’s milk and lullabies, that he was born to set people free.  He defied the expectations of his neighbors, and fulfilled the promises his mother proclaimed.  Jesus kept preaching:  Promises anticipate fulfillment.  Those who mourn shall be comforted.  Those who hunger will be filled with good things.  The bridegroom is coming.  Over and over again Mary’s words were echoed in Jesus’ preaching and teaching.   

“It’s funny, isn’t it?” Bishop Gene Robinson has mused.  “That you can preach a judgmental and vengeful and angry God and nobody will mind.  But you start preaching a God that is too accepting, too loving, too forgiving, to merciful, too kind . . . and you are in trouble.”  Perhaps Jesus first learned that in his hometown synagogue.  Or perhaps he learned it from his mother, whose song was so bold and whose soul was also pierced (Luke 2:35).    

Advent is a season for good trouble, as John Lewis called it.  “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, say something, do something, get in good trouble.”  Isaiah called it “the Spirit of the Lord.”  Mary called it being blessed.  Jesus called it anointing.  Some people around you may call it too much or too risky – that would be nothing new.  But don’t let that silence your song.  Generations are listening.  

Valerie Lowder

The Rev. Valerie Coe Lowder is a D.Min. student.  She serves as an Intentional Interim Minister in the Southeast Conference of the United Church of Christ and facilitates courses in Pathways Theological Education, Inc.  She is a mother, a grandmother and a gardener.