[Based on a sermon preached for First Presbyterian Church, Avonmore, PA: “Welcome Joy” on 12/13/20]
Palestine in the first century CE was a difficult place to live if you were not wealthy. Poverty was rampant, tax laws cost people their land, and the country was occupied by the Romans where any sign of dissent was brutally repressed. So when the angel Gabriel approached Mary with the greeting, “Hail Mary, the Lord is with you” and followed that up with an invitation for her to become the mother of God, that was not an easy request.
Mary was not married, so being pregnant without a husband would be shameful. She was risking her life not only because she was illegally pregnant, for which she could have been put to death, but because the maternal mortality rate was 33% – 1/3 women died in childbirth. Mary was brave. She said, “yes”.
And not only did say, “yes,” she rejoiced. But she did not rejoice in being chosen, or in being special, or that finally now the dreaded Romans would be banished, instead she rejoiced in God, her savior. She brought to mind and celebrated in her song, all that God has done in the past and the way that God will turn the world upside down in order to make everything right: taking care of the vulnerable, and leveling the playing field. She rejoiced in God her savior!
This is not an easy time for us now. Covid is threatening to rob us of joy. Covid has already robbed us of so many, and so much: face-to-face family celebrations, worship in the sanctuary, concerts, plays, and recitals. 300,000 people have died, and we are now saying “good-bye” to 3,000 people per day, and that rate is expected to continue through early February, which means half-a-million people will die, so Covid has robbed us of their lives. And overwhelming our hospitals, exhausting health care workers. It is not an easy time, but I don’t want Covid to take what is crucial to Christmas: our joy.
Like Mary, we are not living in ideal times. Like Mary, we can rejoice in God who will not allow anything evil to occur without finally bending it to the good.
One of the most accessible stories that focuses our attention on joy in Christmas is Dr.Seuss’, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. When everything else is stolen by the Grinch: the food, the presents, the trees with their ornaments, the decorations, there is still a joyful celebration because Christmas still comes even without the usual trappings.
While Covid has not physically stolen decorations, and the pandemic will not allow us to hold hands and sing songs like the Whoville folks could, the miracle is still something to celebrate, because God is still our savior, a very present help in trouble.
Covid and conflict over election results are having a powerful effect on our nation, not unlike Roman occupation and poverty affected first century Palestine. So to have joy this season, or any season, we can join Mary and rejoice in God our savior, because God’s help comes in unexpected ways during ridiculously difficult times.
During Christmas Eve services we light candles as we sing Silent Night. For safety reasons the lit candle stays in place and the unlit candle leans into the lit one to receive its light. In order to welcome joy this holiday which will be celebrated in ways unlike any other I’ve known, lean into the light, lean into God’s Light. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean not into your own understanding; lean into the Light. Lean into God’s love for you, lean into the reality of miracles, lean into the truth that God keeps promises. Lean into the Light.
You don’t have to lean into God’s Light: people have warmed themselves up by stamping their feet, rubbing their hands together, and dressing as warm as possible. But it’s such a comfort, such a help to be able to lean into a campfire or warm yourself by a fire in the fireplace, lean into a source of hope and warmth is outside of yourself.
Lean into God’s love, and don’t let Covid take your joy. Instead, welcome joy, and let the real hope of Christmas be born in your life.
Today’s Prayer Poem: the Magnificat, Mary’s song from Luke 1: 46 – 55
And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
Grace, peace, and joy to you!