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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Tuesday Lectionary Leanings- The Upside Down Edition

Sunday, December 16

Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:5-10 or Luke 1:47-55
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

One of my favorite themes in preaching is that Christianity is an upside down religion. For example, when it comes election time, we're not supposed to ask ourselves if we are better off than we were four years ago, we're supposed to ask if our neighbor is better of than they were before. On Mothers Day, we remember that we need to consider those for whom Mother's Day is a day of sadness, and not of joy. For Independence Day, we are challenged to consider and care for those who are not independent.

Christmas is not for the victorious, it is for the struggling. This is the Christmas Spirit. Christmas is not a harvest festival, it is a proclamation of hope in a dry land. Christmas is not a celebration of victory, it is the shout of hurrah that we have finally gotten on our way.

Mary was not the triumphant mother of God, she was an unwed girl whose pregnancy gave her future husband and her family every reason to turn her out to fend for herself. She was poor, living in a nation that was controlled by a foreign country, and a young woman, the least of the least. She has been told that she will give birth to the child who will change all of that. Not just for her, but for the world.

And the first sign of that changes comes when she visits her cousin Elizabeth and confirms what the angel has told her, that her cousin who was thought to be beyond her childbearing years is indeed pregnant. Her cousin, who, because she was childless, was is in fact blessed by God. She goes from scorn to fertility. And so Mary sings this song that we call The Magnificat, and it is a song about justice for all people.

This message about Christmas being for the needy and not for the victors is good news. Because there isn't a single one of us who doesn't need it. There isn't a single one of us who is left out. We are called to give. We are called to receive. This isn't something else to do during Advent and Christmas. This is THE thing to do to honor Advent and keep Christmas holy.

Anyway, that's what I've been thinking about. What are your thoughts for this week?

And even though the annunciation isn’t included in this week’s readings, I’m going to use the Magnificat as my excuse to include this:

Annunciation, by Stephen Mitchell
He tiptoes into the room almost as if he were an intruder.
Then kneels, soundlessly.
His white robe arranges itself.
His breath slows.
His muscles relax.
The lily in his hand tilts gradually backward
and comes to rest against his right shoulder.

She is sitting near the window, doing nothing,
unaware of his presence.
How beautiful she is.
He gazes at her as a man might gaze at his beloved wife sleeping beside him, with all the concerns of the day gone and her face as pure and luminous as a child's a nothing now binding them together but the sound of her breathing.

Ah: wasn't there something he was supposed to say?
He feels the whisper far back in his mind, like a mild breeze.
Yes, yes, he will remember the message, in a little while.
In a few more minutes.
But not just now.

(The Gospels In Our Image: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry Based on Biblical Texts. David Curzon, Editor. Harcourt & Brace, 1995.)


  1. Wonderful thoughts! Thank you.

    For those who missed it in the book talk yesterday, here is another take on the annunciation that may help with this theme.

    After Annunciation

    This is the irrational season
    When love blooms bright and wild.
    Had Mary been filled with reason
    There'd have been no room for the child.
    - Madeleine L'Engle

  2. I preached this sermon this past Sunday but it is on this week's texts. Wanted to preach on these texts this season, but the week they're scheduled in the lectionary is the week my church wanted to do lessons and carols. (Decided before I got here, I might add.) Is anyone else's church jumping the gun and doing their lessons and carols service this early? Somehow it ruins the anticipation of Christmas for me to hear the whole story and sing all the favorite carols two weeks early. Thoughts?

  3. I think 3rd Advent is a lot of church's lessons and carols. We do that on Christmas Eve which I really enjoy. It means I get to worship too even though I am up front.

    Anyway... this week I am contemplating the promise and being patient. And that's all I've got.

    Thanks Listing Straight - great intro and poem.

  4. WE have PAgeant this Sunday and it is pretty much organized (hopefully I haven't forgotten anything).

    I just have to write a 400-500 word column for the Christmas edition of the paper this week -- in some ways I'd rather a sermon. Oh and figure out what "A CHRISTMAS STORY "In search of the light" will be for the 24th.

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  6. I was captured by the imagery in Isaiah. I really like the personification of the dry land and desert. These seemingly inanimate objects have emotion…dry land shall be glad, the desert rejoice and blossom. Blossoming like the crocus makes me think of that first crocus of spring. Usually blooming in January or February, it is the very first sign of the coming of the end of winter, an assurance that the winter will end. A sign of hope.

    Water is a powerful image here, too. Waters break forth in the wilderness…We often think of wilderness as the forest – wilderness is where the wild things are. That is our context. The Biblical context is more of a desert wilderness, where water would be an unusual thing. Streams in the desert, burning sand a pool, springs of water in the thirsty ground, the haunt of jackals becoming a swampland, the grass becoming reeds and rushes.

    The highway, the Holy way, shall be there for God’s people where no traveler, not even fools will go astray. So if fools are being addressed, even the fools will be there, but they will be protected – they will not go astray. It is a safe road, with no lions or ravenous beasts to threaten the redeemed who walk there. The Lord will have paid a ransom and those who have been saved will come with singing, everlasting joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing will flee.

    And then, in the Gospel lesson, the wilderness imagery recurs, if only for Jesus to ask what they went there to see. John asks the question: “Are you it?” Jesus responds: “Tell him what you’ve seen and heard: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Then a recurrence of wilderness imagery. What did you go to see? Did you go to look at the grass being blown by the wind? Did you go to see royalty. Obviously, in each case the answer was NO. So what did you really go to see? A prophet? YES. And that is exactly what you got, and then some! You got the messenger that would foretell the Messiah. You got the road builder… remember the road from Isaiah? But is John the road builder or the survey crew? Jesus calls him great, but the least of the Kingdom is greater.

    These are the initial thoughts I jotted down yesterday. Still much reading to do.

    Husband is still laid up with a bad leg, but the seminary and my kids' schools are closed due to the ice storm, so I should be getting some work done today. I'll check back later.

  7. We do our lessons and carols on Christmas Eve. I'm working on the service this week.

    As for Sunday, I want to talk, somehow, about Mary and Elizabeth and what led up to Mary's song. Don't know what direction to go yet though. I like the visual images I get when I think of those two, one younger, one older, both special and good women. Both pregnant. Both unsure about the future--especially Mary. Love and friendship? God's grace? Expectations?


  8. We are having the production on Sunday. I'm the author/director so I hope we do ok.

    We had Advent lessons and carols last Sunday evening with the local Episcopalians. A friend afterwards said, "I thought it was going to be Christmas music." It was really nice to sing and hear lots of Advent music. Really put me in the right frame of mind. Christmas lessons and carols comes the week after Christmas.

  9. wow listing straight you've got the makings of one powerful sermon goin' on there!

    this week we've got the children's christmas whang-do... a little early for me, but i didn't want to yield christmas eve for a "program"

  10. I'm preaching on Isaiah and Matthew. There is a children's story "The Mountain That Loved a Bird" by Alice McLerran (illus. by Eric Carle) that tells of a barren mountain that is visited by a bird named Joy. The bird comes yearly but can't stay because the mountain is just rock. Generations of the bird's descendants come each year until finally the mountain weeps because it doesn't want the bird (always called Joy) to leave. The weeping creates a stream which allows a seed to grow and the bird brings new seeds each year until the mountain blossoms abundantly. And eventually the trees grow big enough so that the bird can build a nest and "Joy has come to stay."

    It's too long for a children's time, but I'm going to tell it for the adults. It's Isaiah's vision, God's vision, the vision that John the Baptist staked his life on.

  11. Our Lessons and Carols will be on Sunday the 16th in the evening (not replacing the regular service).

    Thanks for this reflection, LS, and these thoughts from everyone. Very helpful as I am personally in search of proclamations of hope in a dry land. You folks feed me regularly and I am grateful!

  12. I am not preaching this week, but speaking of upside down, please pray for me tomorrow

  13. THis has nothing to do with liturgy (or much else for that matter) but I am wondering what a tooth is worth over at my place.

  14. I'm using the Magnificat as a springboard to talk about the figure of Mary in general: how she's more a strong woman of faith and conviction and less the pious starry-eyed little girl of Amy Grant songs.

    I might even take it a step further to talk about what this level of faith over and against sentimentality means for the church as a whole...but I'm not sure whether I'll include that part, or how.

  15. Wow- I love the stuff about Mary and Isaiah that's happening here.

    And a book for the sermon- I bet that will be powerful and well received...

    About wilderness... With drought and water, you could do lots with that. There was an article in the Christian Century a few years about that concluded that if we could figure out water distribution we could figure out middle east peace...

  16. I'm doing joy. The Isaiah passage is full of joy. I'm not sure how I'm going to deal with it. I planned to work on the sermon this afternoon but walked instead. It was sunny and in the mid-70s. For a gal who used to live in Michigan, I love winters in Memphis (summers are another matter!)

    I read a Rick Warren sermon on joy and I like they way he gets specific about how one goes about being joyous.

  17. I'm going with Matthew. I'm working with the idea that last week we had John in the wilderness proclaiming Jesus - "He's the one. I'm not worthy to tie his shoes." And this week, he's in jail & sending his disciples to Jesus asking, "are you the one?" I know there's some discussion about whether John was really asking for himself, or if he wanted the disciples to see for themselves that Jesus was the one. I'm thinking of developing both of those options, and then playing with the idea that this is where we often find ourselves - we are so sure we know Jesus, then something happens - a bad test result from the doctor, loss, etc., and then we wonder, "is all this really true?" And how it's up to us in the community to stand with each other during these times and remind one another, "remember what we've heard & seen." I'm thinking one or both of the other lectionary passages will work in here.

    Obviously not well articulated or thought through yet, but I'm still very much in the percolating stage!

  18. Listing, I'm not preaching this week (Christmas Pageant), but I want to say how much I appreciated this reflection personally on a day when I'm feeling low-ish. Thank you.

  19. I'm going with Mary's song praising the God of all things upside-down! I love the image of God turning things upside-down and believe we are all called to continue that good work. I am hoping to literally turn some things upside down in the sanctuary - maybe even the inside of our bulletin copied upside-down as well. Children's moment: have a child volunteer to stand on their head... Thanks for the passionate opening comments!!

    Oh - and "Gord" - a tooth at my house is worth $1 (sometimes a "gold" dollar coin and sometimes a dollar bill creatively folded).


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