Sermon: "The Upward Longing," December 16, 2018

Third Sunday in Advent
The Rev. Ryan Slifka

This is the third sermon in our four week series “There’s Something About Mary” on Mary, the mother of Jesus.

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
— Luke 1:39-45 (New Revised Standard Version)

I was listening to a podcast this past week that featured one of my favorite preachers, Fleming Rutledge. Rutledge is an American Anglican priest, who’s written a lot of books, and her most recent is a collection of sermons and essays on the season of Advent. In the interview, she was at great pains to remind listeners that Advent is not just the lead up to Christmas, or the birth of Christ. Which it is. But it is also meant to point us towards what’s known as the Second Coming of Christ. In the Bible, there is the idea that the God who came in the stable in Bethlehem, will also come again at the end of history, in full glory. Not to simply come and scare us all, but to complete the work begun in the first coming. The work of healing, justice, reconciliation. Where all things are set right.

Which means that it’s very important, Rutledge argues, to keep Advent distinct from Christmas. Advent is a season not just about waiting for Christmas. It’s a season of deep longing. The world is not as it should be. And so Advent is a season of waiting, anticipation, and longing. Longing for healing, justice, reconciliation. Longing for a world set free, set right, made new by the sheer grace and love of the Creator. Advent is the season where we set out hearts in hopeful expectation. Longing for God’s kingdom to come. And God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven. Advent is primarily about longing.

The beautiful thing about Advent, though, is that it’s not a longing that we have to create, or invent.

I was recently reading a book called Our Soul’s Upward Yearning by a contemporary Catholic writer, a Jesuit named Robert Spitzer. Spitzer writes a lot about the religious experience, but often in dialogue with contemporary science and reason.

I can’t really do his book full justice. But part of his book leads from our human experience of reality. He looks across cultures and societies. In them he sees a universal seeking for truth, this sense that there is something ultimate to understand beyond the layers of simple human experience. He sees a universal desire for love that is deep and unconditional, a longing to love and be loved. He also sees a universal longing for a complete and lasting justice, that things like unfairness, oppression, exploitation, all of these might be finally put right. And finally, the fact that beauty—like in nature and art—stirs within us something that isn’t entirely explainable, even as modern, rational and scientific people.

All of these things are inherent to human beings across times and cultures. So Advent draws on something that’s deeply rooted within us. Part of being human is to yearn, to long for these things that we don’t necessary find in perfection. But in fragments scattered throughout life. To long for a world complete. Whole. Made right.

The unfortunate thing about living in the modern world, though, is that we don’t really have a way of understanding or talking about this. For us, everything is reduceable to what we can see, examine. These longings are intuitive, they’re felt and known in the gut and the heart. In our modern mindset, this longing in us can be understood, at best, as something psychological, that we’ve invented to maintain our sanity in an uncontrollable world. Or biological—as an evolutionary adaptation that has helped us survive.

Fortunately for us, ancient traditions actually have a way of understanding these things. Being a Christian, of course, Spitzer says that these deep longings within us are real. And they are ultimately, a longing for God. He calls these “Upward Yearnings” of the soul “clues to our transcendent nature. Each of these things—our hunger for truth, our desire for justice, our need for love, the fact that beauty gets us all jazzed up. These are things are clues to something inherent in us that is reaching out to something real. That “something real,” the transcendent, that ultimate reality is what Christians call God. We were created for relationship with the divine. And these longings in us are actually our own souls, our own hearts reaching out for God. Reaching towards eternity.

And here Spitzer echoes one of the earliest writers Christian writers, St. Augustine of Hippo, from the fifth century in North Africa. His teaching is summarized in his great prayer that does like this: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Like Spitzer, he says that our hearts have a built in longing, a propensity for searching and seeking. And it’s because we’re created this way by God. Our inner restlessness is real. But it can only come to rest in God.

Advent not only speaks to our deep longings as human beings. It points to the fact that our deep longings can only truly be met by the presence of the Creator. The One who put the longing in us in the first place. The coming together of the divine, and our own flesh.

Which finally brings me to today’s scripture passage. Because today’s scripture passage describes a moment, an encounter where these deep longings in us are met. If only for an instant.

You’ll remember last week, Mary, the mother of Jesus, has received an angelic visit. One where she was told she’d become pregnant, and that she’d have a son named Jesus. Jesus would be the Messiah—God’s anointed one. The one sent by God to set the world right. Really, the answer not only to the longings of his own people, but to the longings of the whole world in all of its suffering and brokenness. So Mary carries within herself, Emmanuel, God-with-us. Coming to set the world right.

And so Mary, carrying God within her, the thing she does is run from her home back in Galilee, all the way, it says, to the “house of Zechariah.” Zechariah, who’s a priest, lives in this house with his wife, Elizabeth. The thing about Elizabeth is that she’s also pregnant. She’s pregnant, and like Mary, it was announced with an angelic visit. For her, though, the angel said she would give birth to a child named John. And that John would be “filled with the Holy Spirit” even before he was born. And that this child would “prepare the way for the Lord.” This child would make the way for God to touch down in the world.

And so see what happens when Mary comes knocking with God in her belly. Before she’s even in the house, the calls out a greeting. We don’t know what the greeting is. Could be “hi!” “hey” or “howdy.” But watch what the greeting does:

“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting,” it says, “the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth,” it says. Elizabeth “was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the Mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Mary carries Christ within her, the promise of the world made right. So as soon as she’s near, over the threshold, the baby within Elizabeth recognizes his presence. Gives a kick, does a flip. And she’s filled with the Holy Spirit, God’s life-giving, creative power. She’s filled with joy and gratitude. And she immediately names the presence of the Lord.

This passage describes a moment, an encounter where these deep upward longings in us are met. The child within Elizabeth is this God-given indicator. God has prepared the way in Elizabeth. And when Christ comes near, fullness of life is activated in her.

And like Elizabeth, God has prepared the way in us. God has put these upward longings within us that reach out. And when we sense the presence of God, when God reaches out to us, this seed within us reaches back in recognition. Points and says “there! Look there!” Like the kick of a baby, we know what we want. We know what we need.

And I mean, notice how it’s all activated by the sound of Mary’s voice. Because God always seems to come to us through the physical reality of things. God reaches out to us through the world. There’s no other way. Christ comes to Elizabeth in Mary’s flesh. And Elizabeth encounters him through the sound of Mary’s voice. It seems to most often come by hearing, by sound.

It’s no wonder that, say, music can be one of those things that stirs our souls the most. Because music usually speaks to those deep longings in us, for truth, justice, beauty, joy. Or storytelling. Or preaching. I mean, there’s a reason why the Christian tradition emphasizes the Word. The gospel of John calls Jesus “the Word made flesh,” God’s self-communication to us. You could say there here that the something about Mary for this week is that Mary represents the church, in it’s simple carrying of the Word within it to the world. Reaching, teaching, preaching. Because we believe that within us there’s this built-in-longing. God has prepared the way in each of us, and so God uses our words to reach out to our souls that are already reaching out for God. And that when the two meet, it’s like electricity. We feel that baby kick. We come to know the joy, the ecstasy of the Holy Spirit. Our upward yearnings are met with God’s eternal truth, love, and justice. And we experience a moment, a foretaste, of that final wholeness of Christmas. The one that our Advent longings point us to. And grasp towards.

So, dear friends. Know this season that Advent is the season of waiting, hoping, watching. It’s a longing that already resides in us, a yearning for all things, those broken things within us, and the brokenness of the world, to finally be set right for good.

And the good news of the gospel, the good news of Christmas, is that these longings, these feelings, these intuitions, the little baby kicks and deep feelings of joy. The good news is that all of these things are true. Our Advent longings are real. They point us to, they reach towards the goodness of our Creator, who promises one day “peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.” These moments are a foretaste, a foreshadowing of the ultimate joy of Christmas: all things made right. A world made new.

This Advent, may you hear this good news, Mary’s simple greeting that carries in it the presence of Christ. And when you feel the kick within you, may you be filled with the Holy Spirit, and come to experience the true joy of the fulfilment of your true inner longings. Know not only that God has come near to you, and that God’s kingdom is at hand. But know that that these things will finally come about for good. And forever.