Third Sunday in Advent
Rev. Ryan Slifka
The great American writer and anthropologist Margaret Mead is well known for a particular saying. It’s popular, so maybe you’ve heard it. “Never doubt,” wrote Mead. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” Usually when someone points out just how gigantic all the world’s problems and struggles are. This is a reminder that individuals, and small groups of individuals can still make a difference. Indeed, they’re the only ones who have ever made a difference.
And the last century has born this truth in so many ways. With the World War II generation came huge advances in the North American standard of living. Decent paying jobs, pensions, medicare, and a whole bunch of other things that really did transform society. And with the 60’s generation came one social change for the other. The bag was mixed of course. But things like women’s rights, the drive for racial equality and reconciliation. Stories of protests and sit-ins, boycott campaigns. All these things were accomplished starting with the blood, sweat and tears of individuals. And they all seemed to work. And change things for the better.
Now, I don’t mean to sound cynical, or pessimistic. I don’t know about you, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve found this idea harder and harder for me to believe. Change for the better just doesn’t seem like the same given that it was for those who went before. People are far less likely to find full time, lasting employment. Rents and housing prices are out of control. Governments seem more interested in maintaining their majorities than improving the lives of the excluded and the down and out. And, of course, there’s the ever-looming and growing threat of climate change. And other ecological disasters.
Regardless of the cause or the circumstances—or the truth or untruth of the sentiment, even—many of us have this deep sense of pessimism at our ability to change things for the better. So where previous generations saw such positive change, for us it’s hard to see how one person can make a difference. No matter how thoughtful, no matter how committed. Because it’s just all seems so beyond our control.
It’s hard to believe that one person’s actions will matter in the grand scheme of things when the world itself doesn’t seem to be getting better. One thing I’ve discovered, though, once I started going to church and eventually (reluctantly) became a Christian, when I first started following in the Way of Jesus, is that we’re not the only ones who’ve felt this way.
See when you’re walking in the Jesus Way, you’re walking through hundreds, even thousands of years of history. And you’re walking alonside with millions of people who’ve been there before. They’ve seen things as good as they get. But more importantly, they’ve seen things as dark as they get, too.
And that’s where our scripture story’s from today. Christmas for us begins with a walk through the mall, past bright neon signs and accompanied by jazzy versions of holiday standards. But when you’re walking alongside Mary, the mother of Jesus, down main street… it’s as dark as it gets.
Walk alongside Mary, and you’ll see a poor peasant girl. Walk with Mary and you’ll see farmers with crushing debts. You’ll see tax collectors squeezing the last coin out of people who already have barely enough to get by. Walk with Mary and you’ll see heavily armed soldiers standing on the street corners. Just one of several generations of occupying armies that have oppressed your people, and desecrated the land and holy places that your Creator has made sacred. Walk with Mary, and you’ll come to know a preteen with no money, no prospects, and who’s somehow ended up pregnant. And the man who she’s engaged to isn’t even the father.
No prospects for yourself, no freedom for your people, no future on the horizon. Walk with Mary and you’ll a human being at her most helpless, and find human life at its most hopeless. With no end in sight.
You think it’s hard to see one person making a difference now… try Mary’s walking a mile in Mary’s shoes.
If anyone has a reason to feel hopeless, it’s Mary. If there’s anyone in the world who has every right to feel insignificant, it’s Mary. Walk with her, and it’s like you’re walking into a dark tunnel towards nothing but a dead end. For herself, her people. The world.
But if you walk with her, you’ll notice something else. Even though the path ahead is hard to see, Mary has a spring in her step. Walk alongside Mary and you’ll see joy. You’ll hear singing. Walk with Mary… and you’ll hear the sweet sound of holy music.
Last week we heard of the angel who came to Mary, announcing she was destined to be the Mother of Jesus. Emmanuel, God with us. And that this child would free his people, and free creation from the powers of Sin and Death. She heard this, and Mary said “yes… let it be according to your Word.”
And now thing week, we have Mary bolting out the door, running as fast as she can to tell her cousin Elizabeth the news. Elizabeth, who’s also pregnant with a child of her own—John the Baptist. Mary busts through the front door, and at the sound of her voice, baby John does a back-flip of excitement in her belly. Elizabeth herself is filled with the Holy Spirit. “Blessed are you among women,” Elizabeth cries. “And blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
The electricity of joy fills the room, and it surges through Mary. And she bursts in to song.
“My soul,” she sings. “My soul magnifies the Lord. My Spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” “For,” she continues. “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.” Her soul, she says, is a magnifying glass, has brought this invisible God into focus. Even though she’s “lowly,” she’s blessed. And if you look at her you can see God at work. If you have eyes to see.
And God is at work doing something big. “He has,” she sings, “he has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered the proud. He has brought down the powerful, lifted the lowly, filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his people, and made good on his ancient promises.
According to Mary, with this child in her belly, God has taken the world the way it is, with its violence, suffering, hopelessness and God has begun to turn the world around. Has, has, has, has, has. Not in the future, she says. But in her, with this birth. God has already begun to accomplish these things. The revolution has begun.
Times are bleak as they can be. And she’s the last person in the world who you’d expect to ever make any kind of a difference to anybody. But walk with Mary and you’ll hear singing. You’ll hear songs of joy and praise because it’s God who has made, is making, and will make a difference in her. In fact, through her, and through this baby growing inside of her, God is going to turn everything upside down. And so she can’t help but sing. Because in her, this one life, God is making everything new. Even though she can quite see it. And even though she can’t do it herself.
One person may not be able to make a difference. One person or a group of people may not be able to change the world. But I’ve learned that this isn’t what being a Christian, a follower of Jesus on his path is all about.
Changing the world is such a huge task. It’s something that is so big and out of reach for us, either alone or even as a larger group. It’s something overwhelming, even anxiety and despair inducing.
But if we walk alongside Mary, we’ll see a different path for our lives. The great Catholic monk Thomas Merton once said that “Christianity is Christ alive in us.” The idea is that God is already at work. And, like Mary, any of us can be vessels for God’s mercy in the world. Any of us can nurture Christ in us, and bring his love, light, and transformation to birth. The revolution has already begun God can use any of us to do it.
Our challenge this season is to actually believe that it’s true. If it’s true, a simple birth, the care for and raising of children is a holy vocation. Every act of kindness, forgiveness, and reconciliation is worthwhile. Every minute we spend listening to and caring for somebody in despair matters, even when we don’t see it. Every dollar we give away instead of keep is an assault on the powers of callousness and greed. And every protest against injustice and oppression will echo through eternity.
We may not change the world. But our job isn’t to change the world anyway. We can be part of God’s kingdom by being faithful right here and now. The outcome… belongs to God.
So walk with Mary and you’ll see. Walk with her and you’ll see that it’s that no matter who we are. No matter how insignificant our lives may seem. We can find ourselves as part of something bigger than just us. It’s not up to us to change the world. But each of us can be part of a bigger movement. God’s movement. God’s work in our world that is bringing hope, redemption, and mercy not through the rich, the powerful, and the famous. But every day like you and me who are willing to trust that with God even our lives can give birth to Christ. Our lives can be something beautiful and holy, and significant. That someone like Mary, and anyone like you and I can be vessels to carry grace into the world. We can be part of it.
This is what Christmas is all about. This is what the incarnation, Emmanuel, God-with-us is all about. Even if we can’t change the world… God can use our lives to change everything for good. Forever.
Walk alongside Mary, and you’ll see.
Walk alongside Mary, and you might even find yourself singing. No matter what the future might hold.
And for this, thanks be to God. AMEN.