Grant that what we sing with our lips, we may believe in our hearts and what we believe in our hearts, we may show forth in our lives.
John was barely responsive. He nodded a few times to questions. He managed to take communion. But it was hard to tell if he was really following. Sometimes he seemed to be completely absent. But when we began to sing “Silent night,” he smiled, nodded his head, and as we left, he said in a clear voice, “Merry Christmas.” Those may have been his last words.
Music is powerful. It somehow – in ways that I do not understand –seems to have its own “back-door” into the soul and can express what words alone cannot.
Mary’s song – the scripture you just sang – is like that. It’s actually a pretty radical song. Mary – a poor unwed pregnant teenager – sings of joy and blessing, and dares to proclaim God’s new world order. Who is she to proclaim a new order for the world? And yet, her song proclaims a world in which the hungry, poor and humble are lifted up and the proud, scheming, ruthless and rich are dashed, exposed, cast aside and are sent off unfed. It’s a song for justice – God’s justice.
And Mary’s song wasn’t the first.
Mary’s song mirrors a song that Hannah sings when her prayer was answered. Hannah had been bullied for not having a child – somehow they thought it was her fault. So when God answered her prayers with a child, she sang a song of joy and praise and proclaimed God’s justice. Her child, Samuel, later became a great prophet in Israel. But she wasn’t the first to sing a song of justice. Hannah’s song was inspired by the song of Miriam, the sister of Moses, who sang a song of joy and triumph after crossing the Red Sea and escaping their captors.
Why did God act in the lives of these three women? None of them were powerful in the eyes of the world – in fact as women, and because they were poor, they were some of the least likely candidates in the eyes of the world. Yet, God acted in each of their lives, transforming their personal lives and through them, transforming the world.
And they each responded with a song, a song of justice – and joy. At a text study, I remember a pastor friend saying, “Justice is always Good News to the poor.” But what made it memorable was the question that hung in the air: Yes, justice is good for the poor – but how does it look for us?"
Music has a way of entering through the back-door and with the music comes the message. So, while we are singing “Mary’s song” – it becomes our song too – our witness to God’s plan for justice for the world. And while we may think of ourselves as “ordinary” and not the kind of people who make great changes in the world… certainly not the kind of people that would bring about “justice” – that is precisely the kind of people that God taps to carry out God’s plan for the world.
Indeed, God seems to delight in using ordinary people – like Mary, Hannah, Samuel, Miriam – and you to make a difference, to become a part of God’s salvation story. As theologian Judith Jones explains, “Jesus loves us just as we are but an encounter with Jesus never leaves us just as we are."1 That was true for Mary, Hannah and Miriam. But it’s true not just for them – but also for people on the other end of the spectrum.
Take Zacchaeus for example. You remember the story - probably from the song. Zacchaeus was a wee little man – and a rich tax collector. And NO ONE liked him. But Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus – just like everyone else. So he climbed a tree. It was very unusual, and not very respectable for a grown man to climb a tree. But Zacchaeus wanted to see – and so he literally put himself above everyone else. And Jesus called him down. But Jesus did not shame him. Instead, Jesus called him down out of the tree and then… raised him back up to the same level as the other children of Abraham, children of God.
Jesus loved him as he was, but this encounter transformed Zacchaeus to become and to act like the child of Abraham, child of God that God made him to be. So, in response to this encounter with Jesus, Zacchaeus was transformed. He repaid those he had cheated and he gave to the poor. The children’s song about Zacchaeus reminds us of Jesus’ grace – given freely– and the transforming power of justice.
That’s the kind of transformation that Mary is singing about. The rich and poor don’t exchange places. Instead, encountering Jesus blesses and transforms both the rich and poor. For the poor, as my friend said, “it’s always good news.” And he’s right. God’s new order is good news – but, again, it’s good news not just for the poor. It is good news too for the very rich like Zacchaeus. He was restored to the community. He was allowed to share and, in being restored to community, he helped restore economic justice in his community.
It’s also good news for people in-between, people like you and me. For like Mary, Hannah, Miriam and Zacchaeus, Jesus loves you just as you are – but Jesus does not and will not LEAVE you just as you are. And that is a good thing.
The world cries for justice. As citizens of our community we can agree that we want “justice.” As Christians, we promise when we are baptized or when we affirm our baptism, we will “care for others and the world God made and work for justice and peace.” And yet, how we do that can be a challenging question. We talked in the adult education class a few weeks ago about justice. We didn’t come up with lots of answers. The desire for justice is strong – and yet enacting justice is especially challenging because the road to “justice” often seems elusive for some in our community.
But God has not given up on our world – and neither should we. In seeking justice we need to remember that the biblical word for justice is the same word as the word for “righteousness.” In other words, there is no justice in retribution - in “getting even” or in exclusion or in scapegoating. God’s justice is not a system of “winners and losers.” Justice comes when people are made “right” with God and with one another. This is God’s justice; this is the justice that truly transforms. It doesn’t come through power or status or guns or money. But it just might sneak in through a song.
It might sneak into our hearts and minds through a song, through music – because somehow… music can bypass all of the barriers – intellectually or otherwise constructed. So sing! But don’t sing just any song. There are lots of songs out there with all sorts of messages. They may be catchy but they don’t all bear God’s word. So instead, in these few days of Advent that we have left, I invite you to sing boldly God’s songs of justice, love and grace so that the message of God’s love will saturate your hearts and transform your lives - and others'.
After all, as African American theologian Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman wrote:
The Work of Christmas Begins…
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.2
May the song of Jesus Christ soak deeply into your heart, transform you and bring you love, light, peace and joy. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Pastor Pamela Stalheim Lane
Faith-Lilac Way Lutheran Church
December 20, 2015
1Prof. Judith Jones Working Preacher.com 2015
2Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman (1899-1981)