I Samuel 2.1-10

Isaiah 42.1-9

Hannah and Her Sisters

Songs of the Season – I

First Sunday of Advent

There is an old New Yorker cartoon that captures the feeling I have about this morning, the first Sunday of Advent with Christmas a mere 24 days away.  The cartoon depicts a family standing at the top of the stairs on Christmas morning, poised at the railing like a pack of runners at the start of a race, with the tree in the downstairs living room brightly lit and decorated, a prodigious pile of presents underneath, while Dad is standing at the bottom of the steps with a camcorder perched on his right shoulder.  (I told you it was an old cartoon.)  As he presses the “record” button he says, “On your mark, get set – Christmas!”  At which point you know the family rumbles down the stairs and the bedlam begins.

So here we are on December 1st, Thanksgiving leftovers still in the fridge, Advent devotionals neatly stacked on the narthex table, one candle of the Advent wreath already lit, the Remembrance Tree downstairs awaiting our beloveds names, a few Christmasy-but-not-too-Christmasy hymns and anthems to be sung and invitations to a tree and menorah lighting, Christmas Fair and multiple opportunities for giving and gifting in our announcements, twenty-four days in which to git ’er done, and I stand here this morning with my mental camcorder about to hit “record,” and I’m thinking, “On your mark, get set – Advent!”

This Advent we’re going to be looking at and listening to some of the songs of the season.  Not so much the carols and music of Christmas, although naturally there will be plenty of these.  But we’ll also be diving into some of the biblical songs of the season, most of them from the gospel of Luke.  You probably already know one or two of them:  the Magnificat of Mary, who sang “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” and certainly the best-known of them, the song of the angels, the “Gloria in excelsis deo” from the story of Jesus’ birth in Luke chapter 2.

But before we can get into those, we want to look at two songs from the Old Testament whose themes echo insistently throughout Luke’s songs and stories.  The first is the song of Hannah, which she sang when she learned she was about to give birth to Samuel; and the other is one of the four “Servant Songs” from Isaiah’s prophecy, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.”  We’ll get back to these in a moment.

Speaking of songs and singing, we sure did a lot of that last week, didn’t we, during our annual pre-Advent hymn sing?   Well, I have a confession to make:  I felt a little uneasy about not preaching last week.  You and I and our entire nation, with the rest of the world watching, have been through an extraordinary couple of weeks what with the impeachment hearings in Washington and accusations and counter-accusations of partisan politics and fake news and traitorous diplomats and spineless apologists.  And here we sat last Sunday in bucolic little Chester singing songs about pilgrims and the harvest and such.  To be completely candid, I felt a little irresponsible for not saying something about the crazy world that has been spinning around the past several weeks.  And I understand that a lot of folks don’t like the big bad world of politics barging into their Sunday morning sanctuary; I get that, I really do. However, the biblical stories of Advent and Christmas are chockablock with politics and potentates and public policy pushing into the news of the nativity, or perhaps a better way to say it is that the biblical stories of Advent and Christmas are chockablock with examples of God pushing into the world of politics and potentates and public policy.  Notwithstanding our reluctance to jump right into the Christmas story on this the first Sunday of Advent, let’s remind ourselves of the way the story of Jesus’ birth begins:  “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled.  This was the first enrollment, taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”  These are familiar words, right?  We hear them every year on Christmas Eve, and admit it, some of us can hear Linus’ voice reciting them in the King James Version at the end of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”  In fact, woe betide the preacher who does not intone these words on Christmas Eve.  But what is Luke telling us?  How does he choose to begin the story of Jesus’ birth?  By laying out for us three political realities in the first two verses:  Augustus is the Emperor of the Roman Empire, Quirinius is the Governor of Syria, and the populace is in the midst of being registered to be taxed by the government.  Potentates, politics and public policy.  If we have a problem with current events barging into one of the holiest times of year, then we have only Luke to blame.

But before we get there, we need to back up and view the broader landscape, because both Hannah’s Song and Isaiah’s Servant Song bring a necessary perspective, a background against which we want to read the Advent stories, because Luke borrows liberally from both throughout his story.  Listen again to some of Hannah’s hymn of gratitude and praise when she learned that, at her advanced age in life – we’ll encounter this again in the story of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth – she is gravid with child:

“The bows of the mighty are broken, while the feeble gird on strength… Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.  The Lord makes poor and makes rich; brings low and exalts.  God raises up the poor from the dust, lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.” 

It sounds like a Bernie Sanders stump speech, right?  Those who have will be brought low and those who do not will be lifted up.  Hannah’s song of praise is infused with the restorative justice of a God who is about to right an unjust world.  And remember that the child Hannah is carrying is Samuel, whose place in Israel’s history is pivotal because it is Samuel who anoints the very first king Israel ever had, King Saul.  Hannah’s is a song that is fraught with public policy, potentates and politics.  Through her child Israel becomes a kingdom.  Through Elizabeth’s child John the Baptist the world is prepared for God’s intrusive incarnation, and through Mary’s child Jesus that world is transformed.  We might say that Hannah and Elizabeth and Mary are sisters in God’s salvation history.

The servant song from Isaiah is also a song of justice and social scales balanced:

“Here is my servant whom I uphold… I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.  He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.  I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness… I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”

Isaiah’s servant song is about bringing a vision – opening the eyes of the blind – a vision of liberation – setting the prisoners free – a vision of nations living together in justice.  These Old Testament songs on which Luke will base his story of the nativity are songs that become new with every generation.

So what if Luke, taking his lead from Hannah and Isaiah, and in the full spirit of the beloved nativity story, were writing it this morning?  It’s not very difficult to translate.  Instead of “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled.  This was the first enrollment, taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria,” a passage that takes pains to name the emperor, the governor and the leading topic of public discourse, if not to say discontent, perhaps Luke might have written something like this:  “In those days a decree went out from Donald Trump that it was a perfect phone call, and there was no collusion.  This was the first impeachment, undertaken while Ned Lamont was governor of Connecticut.”

You can understand why I felt a little uneasy not giving a sermon last week; I felt as though I had neglected something both important and biblically compelling.  But think about it:  if Luke had written his gospel today, and he took into account the very same factors he did two thousand years ago, what might that say to us?  It might say that Jesus is born anew into the world in every year, in every generation, in every circumstance.  It might say that ideas like restorative justice and setting the prisoner free and economic equality are ideas that that transcend both time and territory, Hannah’s and Isaiah’s and Luke’s and ours.  It might say that Jesus needs to be born anew to every generation and every age, that God is always breaking into our world and unsettling human affairs, because God has been doing this from the beginning of time.  In some respects the times and circumstances have changed dramatically – and in other ways they have not changed very much at all.

In these very early days of Advent, you and I have the opportunity – and the relative leisure of time – to consider the ways that Jesus breaks into our own world, into our own communities, into our own families, into our own lives.  We hear the clarion call to justice that pulses like an insistent ostinato through the songs of the season.  And we recognize that God has always found a way to work through what you and I call current events to bring light and life to a waiting and hopeful world.  In this time of Advent waiting, may that very light and life find its place once more in the human heart.  In your heart, and in mine.

Amen.

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