A Broken Alleluia 4
Passage: Luke 1:39–1:55
Now that we are at the end of this sermon series I’ll entertain a question you have probably been asking for three weeks now: why is Pastor Matt obsessed with this random song “Hallelujah?” I mean it’s an ok song, but why have we been talking about it all during Advent? Isn’t there something else to talk about, like Christmas or Jesus?
One thing I think this song illustrates is how beauty and magic happen before our very eyes over time. I’ll bet at some point in your life you have encountered this song. But unless you are like a music aficionado you probably didn’t hear it in the mid-80s when Cohen first recorded and released the song. More likely than not your first experience came nearly two decades afterwards. And for me, that’s a lot of what Advent is. Realizing that we are about the celebrate a momentous, universe altering event that has still not yet fully fleshed itself out in creation. Christmas is coming, it’s like right at our doorstep, and we are going to talk about the incredible meaning this has on the cosmos. And yet, here we are thousands of years after Christmas and we are still waiting for its promise to be fulfilled.
But I could have done this sort of illustration with any number of things that were never fully appreciated in their time or innovations that took years to really take hold. So why this song over a piece of art or technology? Well for one I like this song. But mainly it’s because of the impact, the effect that music has on us. The particular way music can work within us that connect our heads and hearts and souls. And its there I want to start this morning.
Music has a way of affecting us that spoken word can’t duplicate. Augustine famously said, “He who sings prays twice.” And I think part of the amazing power that music has on us is the way that it can do two things at once in a way that spoken or written words can’t. When you combine a melody with words there are multiple things working on our emotions, working on our hearts and minds and souls. The music can soar and we soar with it. The lyrics can crush and we are crushed with it. The music builds emotional expectations that the lyrics pay off and the effect is multiplied.
But there’s another way that music affects us and works on us that is relevant here. And that is how music relates to imagination. I think imagination is one of the greatest gifts God has given to us. Imagination might in fact be the image of God that Genesis speaks of as being imparted to humanity. Humanity has this incredible ability to not just see the world as it is and react to the set of stimuli immediately present to us. Rather, humanity can dream of possibilities outside of the set of stimuli immediately present to us. We can imagine. We can picture a different set of circumstances. We can react not just to what is happening right here and right now, we can frame our reactions based upon a future we can imagine. A virtue like patience is purely due to imagination. Instead of immediately reacting to situations that hurt or anger us, we can be patient knowing that there will be other times to engage.
I think music is incredibly powerful in how it relates to our imagination. Not only does music affect our emotions in uniquely powerful ways but music can serve as a catalyst for our imagination. For me the prime illustration fo this comes from Les Mis. The oddsmakers take a beating on this one here. But in the final song of the musical as Val Jean is dying he hears Fantine calling him to come where chains would never bind him, all his grief at last at last behind him. And we can imagine for Val Jean freedom, where his past transgressions no longer following him like an unwelcome houseguest. We can imagine Val Jean finally experiencing grace, mercy, forgiveness, and salvation. We can imagine a space where this is reality and we can imagine what such a place would mean for us, we can imagine ourselves experiencing the same thing. And then the whole company comes in and talks about everyone living in freedom, no more suffering or violence or war. Everyone will be treated equally and given the opportunity to thrive. And we can imagine this world in our minds; imagine a place where this is possible, where this is reality. The music creates this world in our minds.
And its this dimension of music that is especially important for us to keep in mind this morning as we look at our final Advent song. This one comes to us from Mary, the mother of Jesus. We have been looking at more of the meaning of Advent this year rather than the story; sorry about that if you were hoping for the story. Maybe next year! But here’s your Cliff’s notes. Mary was a young girl engaged to a man named Joseph. They are told from an angel that before they are married, and before Joseph knows Mary if you know what I mean, Mary will conceive a child through the power of the Holy Spirit. And then that event happens. Mary is pregnant and unwed, a scandal in the ancient world. And here’s what happens next:
At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
So Mary comes to her cousin’s house and immediately Mary is given confirmation of what is happening within her, with what God is doing in her. I wonder what this experience has been like for Mary? She took this on, she said yes to God, but I wonder if she had moments where she wasn’t sure what this might mean for her. I wonder if she stepped out in faith and then had moments where she wondered what it might be to be normal? Feeling called, finding your calling, is both wonderful and scary. Sometimes it’s fun to have options, to get lost in imagining possibilities. Having a purpose is fulfilling, but sometimes leaves you feeling isolated as the call takes on a path you might have to journey alone. As it was with Mary, she journeyed to her cousin’s home by herself.
Which can I take a second to ask where is Joseph in all this? Mary is pregnant and living in Nazareth. Elizabeth and Zechariah live in Hebron, the city of the priests, which is 25 miles south of Jerusalem. It’s over 100 miles from Nazareth to Hebron, a week’s journey if conditions are favorable. We might read this part of the story and think of Mary visiting Elizabeth in our perspective, just a quick trip down 95. But she would have journeyed to Hebron on foot. And traveling was dangerous in the ancient world. The major roads were packed with thieves, it’s why Jesus can tell a story about a traveler being attacked on a road and folks don’t bat an eye. So Mary travels a week’s journey alone while pregnant. WHERE IS JOSEPH?!
I wonder what made Mary go to visit her sister? I wonder what made Joseph stay at home? I wonder what’s going on in Mary’s mind as she makes the journey and as she arrives at Elizabeth’s home.
But she arrives and Elizabeth immediately greets her in a way that must remove any doubt from Mary. It must remove any feelings of sorrow. It must remove any worry over the choice she’d made in responding to God. For Elizabeth, whom we are not told has any direct knowledge that Mary is to give birth to the Messiah conceiving by the power of the Holy Spirit, says that Mary is blessed. The child to whom she will give birth is blessed. God is keeping His promises through Mary. And Elizabeth knows this because of the reaction her child with in her womb had when Mary drew near.
In this, we and Mary see confirmation that God is moving, God is working. Her spirit now soaring after this greeting, Mary begins to sing. And her song is the crux of our sermon this morning.
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.”
In 2008 a young woman named Alexandria Burke made it to the finals of the British X-Factor. And the producers of the show told her what song she would be singing in the finale. “Hallelujah.” She said when she heard that was her song she was gutted. I can’t sing that song, she told her mom. And her mom, also in the music industry, agreed. Burke was a soulful singer, not typically suited to indie rock songs. But she listened to different versions of the song, got inside they lyrics, she realized that in all the covers and versions of the song, no one had ever done a soul version. So she told her mom she was going to Whitney-fy the song.
Her performance in the finals is the stuff of legends. She opens up singing the first two verses straight. But then the song begins to swell in the third verse. She’s joined onstage by a gospel choir. There’s an instrumental interlude and then the music stops for a moment. The calm before the storm. And then it comes bursting back, swelling, as Burke lets it all go. She digs into every word and then delivers the final chorus of Hallelujahs in the way Whitney Houston sings the ending of “I Will Always Love You.” It’s irresistible. Burke ran away with the competition after that performance, her version of “Hallelujah” was released as the winners single and set the European record for sales in a 24 hour period selling 105,000 copies of the song. Her “Hallelujah” completely reimagined what this song could be, what it could sound like, what it could make you feel, and what it means.
In the same way Mary’s song is all about imagining a new world. It’s about imagining the world as it would be if God reigned in fullness. It’s about imagining the world that God is trying to build. And how does God build this world? By being mindful of those in humble estate. I’ve heard it put that our God sits high and looks low. God works for Mary, God brings about good things for the troubled and marginalized. Those who are proud, those who have power in this world, God scatters. God shakes their grip on privilege. God feeds the hungry. God remembers His promises, especially in times of trouble, doubt, suffering, and injustice.
This is not the world, as we know it. In our world, those who have get more. And those who don’t have, even what they have is taken from them. In our world the proud are rewarded. If you act like you know what you’re doing you have a really good shot at failing upward. Power, wealth, and privilege are becoming even more concentrated.
If there’s anything that the last two years of politics in America have revealed it’s that the number of people who feel disenfranchised is growing. Automation, globalization, and the digital economy have left a great majority of people feeling left out of where things are going. And of course there are large numbers of people in this country who have felt historically left out. According to studies the richest 1% of this country hold more wealth than the bottom 90% of this country. And those numbers get even more bloated when you look globally. The world’s billionaires could fix world poverty 7 times over. The top 10% worldwide control 85% of global wealth.
All of this speaks to the fact that what Mary sings about is not the world we experience, the world we live in. But that’s precisely the point.
Mary’s song is about imagination. Mary’s song helps us imagine a new world. Mary’s song creates in our mind a world in which those who are economically disenfranchised become the centerpiece of divine action. God’s twelve point economic plan centers on those who feel left out. And the disenfranchised aren’t competing against one another, as they are now in American politics, but are brought together by the work of God.
Mary’s song imagines a world where God is working to help those that are without. Where God works to give to those who don’t have. Where God’s promises come to fulfillment. Where the works of God are made real throughout our world. Where the things that hold us back, the conflicts we see, the injustices and inequalities we see are repaired and put to right by God. Where the things we think are impossible are made possible by the God who made all there is. Where the things that hold us back from loving completely, from hoping completely, from experiencing complete joy are taken away. Mary’s song imagines a world where all of our stumbling blocks are removed and we can approach the world with full hearts unafraid.
The purpose of Advent is imagination. The purpose of Advent is to present a world saved and redeemed by God. The purpose of Advent is to see that the promises of God given to us in Scripture witness to a new world that is directed forward towards human flourishing.
In your heart, in your soul, what better world can you imagine? In your heart, in you soul, what is unsettling? What seems to be needed to become right? What seems like something we ought to fix? What is wrong that you still can’t believe is a thing? The job of Advent is for us to realize there are parts of this world, some obvious, some really deep, that need saving, that need redeeming that need fixing. But realizing that something needs fixing requires imagination.
Here’s a silly example. I love my house and we have a decent sized kitchen. The house has been remodeled so that it’s more opened up. It’s great. But. The kitchen cabinets and countertops are dated. We have laminate countertops. Now the kitchen I have in my house is similar to the kitchen I grew up in, similar countertops and finishes and design to some degree. So when I look at my kitchen why do I see some things that maybe ought to be improved? Because of HGTV, because I have seen other kitchens that are more updated, more up to date, and can imagine what my kitchen would look like if I had granite counter tops and cabinets with modern finishes. When you watch HGTV or go to a friend’s newly renovated kitchen or see a brand new home it allows us to imagine our spaces like that.
Advent teaches us to imagine what could be in the midst of what is. Not about our kitchens but about our world. Advent calls us and teaches us to imagine what God can make possible. But the best is yet to come. Because Advent is the preamble, Christmas is the real thing. And Christmas is to us the sure sign that what we dream of, what God causes us to imagine, the things we long for will come to pass. Christmas is the sure sign to us that the things God promises will come to fulfillment. That what God has given us grace to dream will be brought to completion.
We are going to gather tomorrow night to celebrate God’s giving of God’s self to us, God’s coming to us in Jesus. And that to us is the sure sign that the world God causes us to imagine will in eternity be our reality. The world Mary’s song causes us to imagine will be our reality when the work of God in the world is brought to completion. We are heading that way. We are heading towards peace. We are heading towards hope. We are heading towards love. And the child in the manger is the source or our sure hope that the world as it should be will become the world as it is. And at that we magnify the Lord. Let us pray.