Text: Psalm 137, Luke 1:26-47
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Dec. 21, 2014
A few weeks ago I was listening some golden oldies that were playing on a PBS special. I was dozing in my recliner when suddenly I became wide awake a smash hit based on the Psalm we read today. “How can we sing the songs of Zion when we are in a strange land? We will hang up our harps on the willow trees. And by the waters of Babylon we will sit down and weep.”
The Children of Israel, God's chosen people, were in exile. They were captives of Babylon, the world power of the time, who functioned much like Russia has in more recent times. However, Babylon not only imposed their will on other nations like Russia did on Eastern Europe but to make sure the people did not rise up in revolt, they also deported all potential leaders to another captive nation. Some of the Jewish people were sent to Babylon itself and became household servants. One of their duties was to sing for their new masters about their faith in their homeland, in much the same way that Afro-Americans were called upon to do in our country during the nineteenth century.
But this proud people, now in slavery, remembered their heritage. They mourned the loss of their freedom. How could they sing? How could they sing about their homeland? How could they sing about their God to these, their captors who had taken them from all that was meaningful?
To sing brought back the memories of what once was, but is no more. It brought back feelings of sorrow and sadness. They could not sing, so they hung up their harps and wept. But there arose at that time, a man of God who did not weep—the prophet Ezekiel. As he walked among his fellow friends in exile, and as he remembered the greatness of his people He also remembered the promises of His God. So he took courage, and with great boldness, proclaimed a message from God, a message of hope. Not always would his people be in exile in this strange land. Some day God would again raise up someone like Moses to deliver his people, someone like David to govern them with justice and peace. God heard the heart cry of His people and was faithful to the message he had given to his prophet Ezekiel.
The time came when the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland to rebuild their temple and restore their cities. But they were not able to live out their lives in peace. Again and again, they came under the control of a foreign power. They longed for the day when as a nation they would again control their own destiny. They remembered the promises of their prophets, and they waited for the Messiah who would come to lead them to freedom and would rule them in peace with justice. They waited and watched and lived out their lives. In their pain they wondered whether God would remember His chosen people.
Suddenly, in the fullness of God's providential time, an angel of the Lord appeared. When he came, it was not to the Jewish puppet King or even to the High Priest. No, he appeared to a young peasant girl, in the Appalachia of Israel, who lived in a little town called Nazareth that had the reputation of being that nation's, Hazard, Kentucky. Not all that bad, really, but which served as the stereotype of all that was wrong. They had a saying back in those days, “Can anything good come out of Hazard?”
When God gets set to move, you can count on the fact that Washington D.C. probably won't be the place which gets the message first. Over and over again, God has demonstrated in history that it is the poor, the humble, the weak, whom he chooses to confound the wisdom of our human way of thinking. He wants to make sure that we understand, that although he desires to work with us, it is He who is bringing about the fulfillment of His purpose in our lives.
And so, when He set about to deliver His people, and bring salvation to the world, He chose as his instrument a Jewish peasant girl from the backwoods of Palestine. But even backwoods peasants have their pride. The angel told Mary she would have a son, a son who had no human father. The message came to a girl who was engaged, but who was not yet married. What could she do? Who would believe her? Should she trick her fiancée into having premarital sex and then force a shotgun wedding? What would her parents and her friends think of her when they found out, as they surely would? What should she do? Did she have a choice in the matter? If so, should she say no? What would you have done if you had been in Mary's shoes?
God does not make mistakes. He knew whom He was choosing. Mary weighed the message carefully. She pondered within her heart the news which the angel had brought. And although she was greatly perplexed (who wouldn't be at such news!) and reminded the Angel that she was a virgin, she, nonetheless, accepted her call. “Here I am, she said, the Lord's servant, as you have spoken, so let it be!”
This was not a passive acceptance of the inevitable. Mary became for us, a model of active obedience to the will of God. She took the risk of open reproach with her parents and friends and the possibility that Joseph would reject her. She believed that God would take care of the gossip in the neighborhood and somehow make her parents understand. And although she could not have understood, that the time would come when she would stand by helplessly and watch her beloved son be betrayed and suffer—when it happened, she believed that somehow God would bring good from the pain. So faced with the bewildering news, news that brought promise of national deliverance, but at the expense of personal pain, Mary sang a song, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, My spirit doth rejoice in God, my Saviour.”
Today, we have come to the last Sunday in Advent. During the Advent season, we have been called upon to wait before the Lord. As we wait before Him, we have been called upon to remember what God in Christ has done for us. We have been called upon to remember what he has promised to do for us. We have been called upon to reflect on how we have responded to his promises and to His claim upon our lives.
None of us will ever be exiles in a strange land. But for all of us, life has brought its share of heartaches, dreams that were set before us, visions which we held that have gone unrealized. Many of us may be wondering: “Will this period in the wilderness ever end?” How will you respond at the end of Advent? Do you resonate with the Jewish exiles in thinking: “how can our hearts sing the songs of Zion when our hearts ache and our lives are filled with anger and bitterness for the injustice and hurt that has been our lot?” “How can I sing when I have become a stranger in a strange land?”
I understand the feeling. But the messenger of God comes to us with God's call and claim upon our lives, just as He came to Mary. How do we respond? Mary could have said “Lord what you ask of me is too hard a thing, let someone else carry the burden, let someone else be your instrument.”
Or, by faith, will we respond with Mary: “Here am I, I am the Lord's servant, as you have spoken, so let it be,” and then burst forth with her in singing the Lord's Song. Amen.