1st Quarter


J Nichols Adams et al

December 15, 2019, 3rd Sunday of Advent



LectionAid 1st Quarter 2019-2020

December 15, 2019, 3rd Sunday of Advent

Measuring our Joy Quotient

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

Theme: Rejoicing


Starting Thoughts

Our passage for the third week of Advent, the Magnificat of Mary, is all about rejoicing. Verses before, Mary asked the angel Gabriel, “how can this be?” when told she would be bearing a child but was told that nothing was impossible with God. She went to her cousin Elizabeth, whose own child leapt in her womb when she heard the voice of the mother of her Lord. Elizabeth cried out with a loud voice, exclaiming that this young woman had been blessed with something amazing, something awesome, something only God could do. And Mary joined with Elizabeth in her delight.
We know that Mary’s joy will turn to grief in the face of her son’s death. But today, in her pregnancy, she knows that she has been touched by God. Thus her soul rejoices. It rejoices because favor has come to the lowly. It rejoices because her legacy is assured: all generations will (and have) called her blessed. It rejoices because the Mighty One has done large things for this small person. It rejoices because God has secured something wonderful for all generations, showing strength by His arm and scattering the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. The Mighty One has confused even the proud on behalf of the poor. The Mighty One has taken the powerful off their thrones and lifted up the lowly. The hungry, who were empty, have been filled. The rich, who were filled, have been sent empty away. The promise made to Abraham and the ancestors has been filled in this day. This could only have been from God.
This commentary has jokingly been titled: “Dat was Zen; Dis is Tao.” Indeed, Eastern religions have a very strong view of chance and fate. They think things happen the way they are supposed to happen and that we simply are to accept whatever comes. And we in Western society, although we don’t want to admit it, buy into that theory more often than not. Many choose the language of fate instead of the language of faith. I hear the language of fate from people daily: “it was simply meant to be.” People will turn the matter over to a “higher power,” but at the bottom of their uncertainties, fate is always silently ready to be an explanation. They even talk about their karma coming true. Rather than seeing their role and responsibility in these events that were supposedly “meant to be,” many people will find peace in the explanation of fate. There’s no sense in wondering what we could have done or how we could have acted different. There simply wasn’t anything we could do about it.
In contrast to the Eastern acceptance of chance, Mary exemplifies that there is a better explanation than “it was fated to be this way.” Mary sees her role and responsibility in this most awesome of times. She gave consent to the angel Gabriel when he said she would be with child—despite the rumors from friends, family, and strangers. (After all, pregnant by the Holy Spirit?) But Mary saw that this was much larger than just herself and what she wanted and how she felt. This was a world-changing event, and Mary knew that and accepted her role as the mother of our Lord. Mary is on the great highway of salvation because God has placed her there for a purpose. She is making a strong Advent announcement. The old has passed away, the new has come—the good news to the small and the poor and the low that God favors them. This long-promised turn of the tables has arrived. Mary doesn’t think it accidental or come to rely on the fates. She says yes to God’s uplifting of her. She joins the divine process and says yes to her role in history.
Do we want to join in the divine process?
If we were really honest about it, do we really want to?
Would any of us—or anyone sitting in the pews listening to us—be as bold as Mary in following what God wants? She gives up everything, knowing she could lose her fiance, knowing that she will be shamed by society, knowing that she may very well be raising this child on her own. But she does it because the angel said, “do not fear,” and told her that God was with her. And she took her place in the divine process of salvation for the world.
Now, of course, we all seem to want to play a role in history—we join all sorts of activities and then we compete to have our names put on plaques, on trophies, in the newspaper or newsletters…and if not us, we push our children and grandchildren into the same rivalries. We want to make a name for ourselves so that everyone can see that we’re the best, we’re first place, we’re the champions. We’re full of ourselves. But when it comes to our role in the divine process, we are sadly under-prepared. We practice for hours and days and weeks for sports competitions, we put hours of overtime in for that project at work, we center our lives around transporting our children to and from their activities. But then we’re content with throwing a prayer toward heaven once in a while and a cursory glance at our Bibles now and then.
Mary is so overcome with joy—so filled with the Holy Spirit—that she sings to God. As we look out over the congregation this week, how many joyous, content faces will we see? My guess is that most of us now are not singing to God. During this time every December, we’re tired from buying gifts for everyone from family to friends to neighbors to work colleagues. We’re tired of trudging around in the slush and the snow. If we don’t live someplace that has snow we’re at least tired of hearing badly performed Christmas carols every time we get within fifty yards of the mall or a grocery store. We also get pretty testy by now and are about ready for this season to be over so we can take down the tree and get “back to normal,” as I have so often heard parishioners say. It’s as though we’re going through this mandatory time with mandatory themes and mandatory decorations and gifts. My soul magnifies the Lord? We’re probably not quite there.
The passage for this week calls us to a realignment of our faith a few weeks before Christmas. A slowing down, a remembering of what is truly important. Easier said that done, yes, but if we can put ourselves in this text we may at least receive a little jarring. We automatically tend to associate ourselves with the underdog, with the innocent. But are we perhaps the ones with proud thoughts? Are we the powerful? Are we the rich who will be sent away empty? We may think we’re the hungry and the lowly on whom God is looking with favor. But are we really?
Let us take time during the remainder of this season to look at God’s promise of salvation, and how God wants us to be a part of this great divine process. Let us get to the place where our souls leap inside of us at the thought of salvation by Jesus Christ. Let us remember not just this innocent baby about to be born, but the Resurrected One who will return.

Exegetical Comments

Here we have a passage which has become one of the great hymns of the Church—the Magnificat. It is steeped in the Old Testament; and is closely related to Hannah’s song of praise in 1 Samuel 2:1–10. It has been said that religion is the opiate of the people; but it has also been said that the Magnificat is the most revolutionary document in the world.
It speaks of three of the revolutions of God.
(1) He scatters the proud in the plans of their hearts. That is a moral revolution. Christianity is the death of pride. Why? Because if people set their lives beside that of Christ, it tears away the last vestiges of their pride.
Sometimes something happens to us which with a vivid, revealing light shames us. The American writer O. Henry has a short story about a boy who was brought up in a village. In school he used to sit beside a girl, and they were fond of each other. He went to the city and fell into evil ways. He became a pickpocket and a petty thief. One day he snatched an old lady’s purse. It was clever work and he was pleased. And then he saw coming down the street the girl whom he used to know, still sweet with the radiance of innocence. Suddenly he saw himself for the cheap, vile thing he was. Burning with shame, he leaned his head against the cool iron of a lamp standard. ‘God,’ he said, ‘I wish I could die.’ He saw himself.
Christ enables us to see ourselves. It is the deathblow to pride. The moral revolution has begun.
(2) He casts down the mighty—he exalts the humble. That is a social revolution. Christianity puts an end to the world’s labels and prestige.
Muretus was a wandering scholar of the middle ages. He was poor. In an Italian town he became ill and was taken to a hospital for waifs and strays. The doctors were discussing his case in Latin, never dreaming he could understand. They suggested that since he was such a worthless wanderer, they might use him for medical experiments. He looked up and answered them in their own learned tongue, ‘Call no man worthless for whom Christ died.’
When we have realized what Christ did for each and every one of us, it is no longer possible to regard anyone as being beneath us. The social grades are gone.
(3) He has filled those who are hungry—those who are rich he has sent empty away. That is an economic revolution. A non-Christian society is an acquisitive society where people are out for as much as they can get. A Christian society is a society where no one dares to have too much while others have too little, where everyone must get only to give away.
There is loveliness in the Magnificat but in that loveliness there is dynamite. Christianity brings about a revolution in individuals and revolution in the world.
(Barclay, W. The Gospel of Luke [2001, Louisville, KY] pp. 19–20)
What would make you celebrate wildly, without inhibition?
Perhaps it would be the news that someone close to you who’d been very sick was getting better and would soon be home.
Perhaps it would be the news that your country had escaped from tyranny and oppression and could look forward to a new time of freedom and prosperity.
Perhaps it would be seeing that the floods which had threatened your home were going down again.
Perhaps it would be the message that all your money worries, or business worries, had been sorted out and you could relax.
Perhaps it would be the telephone call to say that you had been appointed to the job you’d always longed for.
Whatever it might be, you’d do things you normally wouldn’t.
You might dance round and round with a friend.
You might shout and throw your hat in the air (I once did that without thinking, before I stopped to reflect what a cliché it was).
You might telephone everybody you could think of and invite them to a party.
You might sing a song. You might even make one up as you went along—probably out of snatches of poems and songs you already knew, or perhaps by adding your own new words to a great old hymn.
And if you lived in any kind of culture where rhythm and beat mattered, it would be the sort of song you could clap your hands to, or stamp on the ground.
Now read Mary’s song like that. (It’s often called Magnificat, because that is its first word in Latin.) It’s one of the most famous songs in Christianity. It’s been whispered in monasteries, chanted in cathedrals, recited in small remote churches by evening candlelight, and set to music with trumpets and kettledrums by Johann Sebastian Bach.
It’s the gospel before the gospel, a fierce bright shout of triumph thirty weeks before Bethlehem, thirty years before Calvary and Easter. It goes with a swing and a clap and a stamp. It’s all about God, and it’s all about revolution. And it’s all because of Jesus—Jesus who’s only just been conceived, not yet born, but who has made Elisabeth’s baby leap for joy in her womb and has made Mary giddy with excitement and hope and triumph. In many cultures today, it’s the women who really know how to celebrate, to sing and dance, with their bodies and voices saying things far deeper than words. That’s how Mary’s song comes across here.
Yes, Mary will have to learn many other things as well. A sword will pierce her soul, she is told when Jesus is a baby. She will lose him for three days when he’s twelve. She will think he’s gone mad when he’s thirty. She will despair completely for a further three days in Jerusalem, as the God she now wildly celebrates seems to have deceived her (that, too, is part of the same Jewish tradition she draws on in this song). All of us who sing her song should remember these things too. But the moment of triumph will return with Easter and Pentecost, and this time it won’t be taken away.
Why did Mary launch into a song like this? What has the news of her son got to do with God’s strong power overthrowing the power structures of the world, demolishing the mighty and exalting the humble?
Mary and Elisabeth shared a dream. It was the ancient dream of Israel: the dream that one day all that the prophets had said would come true. One day Israel’s God would do what he had said to Israel’s earliest ancestors: all nations would be blessed through Abraham’s family. But for that to happen, the powers that kept the world in slavery had to be toppled. Nobody would normally thank God for blessing if they were poor, hungry, enslaved and miserable. God would have to win a victory over the bullies, the power-brokers, the forces of evil which people like Mary and Elisabeth knew all too well, living as they did in the dark days of Herod the Great, whose casual brutality was backed up with the threat of Rome. Mary and Elisabeth, like so many Jews of their time, searched the scriptures, soaked themselves in the psalms and prophetic writings which spoke of mercy, hope, fulfilment, reversal, revolution, victory over evil, and of God coming to the rescue at last.
All of that is poured into this song, like a rich, foaming drink that comes bubbling over the edge of the jug and spills out all round. Almost every word is a biblical quotation such as Mary would have known from childhood. Much of it echoes the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2, the song which celebrated the birth of Samuel and all that God was going to do through him. Now these two mothers-to-be celebrate together what God is going to do through their sons, John and Jesus.
This is all part of Luke’s scene-setting for what will follow, as the two boys grow up and really do become the agents of God’s long-promised revolution, the victory over the powers of evil. Much of Mary’s song is echoed by her son’s preaching, as he warns the rich not to trust in their wealth and promises God’s kingdom to the poor.
But once again Luke hasn’t just given us a big picture. Mary’s visit to Elisabeth is a wonderful human portrait of the older woman, pregnant at last after hope had gone, and the younger one, pregnant far sooner than she had expected. That might have been a moment of tension: Mary might have felt proud, Elisabeth perhaps resentful. Nothing of that happens. Instead, the intimate details: John, three months before his birth, leaping in the womb at Mary’s voice, and the Holy Spirit carrying Elisabeth into shouted praise and Mary into song.
Underneath it all is a celebration of God. God has taken the initiative—God the Lord, the savior, the Powerful One, the Holy One, the Merciful One, the Faithful One. God is the ultimate reason to celebrate. (Wright, T. Luke for Everyone [2004, London] pp. 13–16)
The scene portrayed in Luke 1:39–55, commonly called the visitation, cannot be rightly understood without consideration of its pivotal role within Luke’s infancy narrative as a whole. Luke 1 and 2 is constructed as a “diptych,” a painting drawn on two panels. One panel tells of the birth of John the Baptist; the other recounts the coming of Jesus Christ. There is usually a structural relationship between the two panels of a diptych, and so it is with the infancy narrative. The two representations are remarkably parallel. The John panel begins in 1:13 with an angelic promise to the aged Zechariah that his equally aged wife, Elizabeth, will bear a son. That son, John, will have a remarkable ministry before the Lord. The angel then appears to the young Mary in 1:26–38, and in a similar manner promises Mary, a virgin, that she too will bear a son. The parallelism is not confined to content, however. In both panels the angel declares, “Do not be afraid.” In both there is a reasonable objection to the promise: “We’re too old!”; “I am a virgin!” Finally, in both panels there is an angelic response to the objection.
The scenes are not completely parallel, however. In various ways Luke demonstrates the superiority of Jesus over John. The most obvious of these is that a birth to aged parents is unusual; a birth to a virgin is impossible. For our purposes the most important distinction is that Mary, despite her questioning of the angel, is granted a sign while Zechariah, whose objection is very similar, is punished for his incredulity. The sign for Mary is the fulfillment of the promise to Zechariah; his wife, Mary’s relative Elizabeth, has conceived in her old age. Note the manner in which Luke carefully prepares the way for the visitation. On the John side of the diptych, the final word is a note that Elizabeth hid herself away (1:24–25). The final word of the angel to Mary is a reference to this very secret. Because the pregnancy is a secret, it can function as a sign. Mary then sets out to visit her kinswoman, the scene that is the subject of today’s text. The parallelism also continues after the visitation. On both sides of the diptych, the child is born; an aged and pious Israelite, Zechariah for John and Simeon for Jesus, sings a hymn of praise to God; and the child’s growth is described. Much of this common pattern is modeled after the Old Testament descriptions of the births of various heroes of the faith.
The place of the visitation within the infancy narrative is now clear; it is the link between the two parallel stories. In this scene alone the characters of the two panels come together. We will also expect, however, that the scene, in accord with Luke’s theological intent and the flow of the narrative itself, will portray the superiority of Jesus. It will make clear which story really matters. This pericope is the narrative equivalent of the poetic statement concerning the Baptist in the prologue to the Fourth Gospel: “He was not the light” (John 1:8).
So it is that “upon hearing Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in [Elizabeth’s] womb” (Luke 1:41). This prenatal greeting hearkens back to the angel’s promise that John will be the forerunner of the Lord (1:16–17) and draws the mind forward to his role in the body of the Gospel (3:1–20). It has already been noted that both sides of the diptych are influenced by Old Testament accounts of the births of heroes of the faith. Elizabeth’s greeting and blessing are also shaped by the Scriptures of Israel. Her words to Mary echo the greetings both to Jael (Judg. 5:24) and to Judith of an apocryphal book (Jdt. 13:18). The faithfulness of both women is instrumental in the saving of Israel, though the analogy ought not be pressed too far. The means of salvation in both cases is assassination! Perhaps it would be fair to say, however, that these echoes do remind the observant reader that the salvation to be wrought through these present events is more than personal; it is for the people as a whole. This corporate understanding is reinforced when another allusion is identified. Elizabeth’s words echo the farewell of the aged Moses to Israel in Deuteronomy 28:4: “Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb.” That blessing is to be accorded Israel if it is obedient. This understanding also leads us forward to the body of Luke’s Gospel. Elizabeth’s words are not only an echo of what has been; they are an anticipation of what is to come. In 11:27 there is another blessing on Jesus’ mother. A woman shouts out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” But Jesus replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” A right hearing of God’s word always issues in obedience. In precisely this way Mary is worthy of blessing, for she has heard the angel’s word and has obeyed by coming to her kinswoman. Elizabeth’s blessing rightly culminates therefore with a final word: “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Hearing, believing, obedience, and blessing—these are the keys to the story.
The visitation culminates in Mary’s magnificent hymn of praise. This hymn, like the other hymns of Luke’s infancy narrative, the Benedictus and the Nunc Dimittis, culminates in a promise/fulfillment/praise progression. We have already noted the promise, that Mary will bear a special son. The sign promised by the angel, the pregnancy of Elizabeth together with the greeting by Elizabeth and her unborn child, shows that the promise has been fulfilled. Note the previous words: Mary believed that there would “be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Now comes the praise, Mary’s Magnificat. The progression promise/fulfillment/praise is homiletically helpful. It suggests a possible structure for the sermon.
As is the case with Elizabeth’s greeting, the Magnificat is shot through with Old Testament allusions. Almost every phrase finds a parallel in the Scriptures of Israel. Nor is the kinship a matter of words only. The synonymous and antithetical parallelism that fills the hymn is the distinguishing mark of Hebrew poetry. Likewise, its overall structure—word of praise, reason for praise, extended in this and many cases—is common in Israelite poetry. The beautiful hymn was probably used in the worship of the early Jewish Christian church. Some have even argued that it comes from the church of Jerusalem itself. If even the more general supposition is true, it is more testimony to the Jewishness of the early Christian church. The magnificence of the poetry, which has inspired many truly magnificent musical compositions, is not diminished by this dependence on the Old Testament. Rather, we see in this hymn the way those who live within a tradition can use the language of the tradition to weave a rich new tapestry. That the threads of the tapestry have been used before but adds to their luster.
Another progression in the hymn is from the personal to the corporate. The hymn begins with personal references, “My soul magnifies.… The Mighty One has done great things for me.” From verse 50 on, however, all references are corporate: God has lifted up the “lowly,” filled the “hungry,” helped “his servant Israel.” The Hebrew word behind the New Testament Greek rendered “lowly” is particularly interesting. Not only does it refer to those who are objectively “poor,” but in the Psalms it also serves as a common designation of Israel. Finally, it represents those who, having nothing else to depend on, cast their trust completely upon the Lord. It is these folk whom the Lord, then and now, has reached out to save.
The tense of the verbs is worthy of note. The aorist (past) tense normally represents something completed at a point in the past. But how can it be said that the wonderful things spoken of in this hymn have already happened? Sometimes they are treated as if the verbs were really present tenses describing what God habitually does (cf. the well-known hymn based on this text, “Tell Out My Soul”). Others argue that they refer to future events, but the speaker is so confident of them that she can speak as if these things had already happened. A more nuanced version of this is that the singers of the hymn do in fact look back on something that has already happened, something that makes them so sure that God has triumphed that they can speak of all the rest of God’s victory as sure and certain. For Mary that something is the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise through the angel. For the early Christians the events that gave them such certainty were the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (Farris, S. Year C. In R. E. Van Harn (Ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis For Sunday’s Texts [2001, Grand Rapids, MI] Volume 3 pp. 290–293)
The Visitation actually contains very little narrative. It consists almost entirely of inspired speech and song, reminding us of the affective force of literary forms. The visit of Mary to Elizabeth joins the two larger units of the annunciations of the births of John and Jesus and the accounts of their births, thereby accenting the similarities and contrasts between the two sons. In fact, the twin themes of those surrounding narratives are to be found in this beautiful interlude in the hill country of Judah: prenatal and natal signs point to the greatness of both John and Jesus, but the signs are equally clear that Jesus is the greater of the two.
The account of the visitation is in four parts. First, there is the brief narrative introduction to the visit itself (vv. 39–41a). There is no reason to think Mary’s visit was to check out the angel’s statement about Elizabeth; Mary had already accepted Gabriel’s word as true. The two women, not only kin but drawn by a common experience, meet in an unnamed village in the Judean hills. The one is old and her son will close an age; the other is young and her son will usher in the new. Even the unborn John knows the difference and leaps in the womb when Mary enters. Luke is here offering a historical reminiscence and making a theological point. The historical allusion is to Rebekah in whose womb Esau and Jacob struggled, the message being in both cases, “The elder shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:21–23). The theological point is that prenatal activity, because it precedes all merit or works, witnesses to the sovereign will of God.
The second unit is the visitation story and consists of the inspired speech of Elizabeth (vv. 41b–45). Filled with the Holy Spirit (we will notice throughout the Gospel the variety of activities of the Holy Spirit but will avoid making a list of “things the Holy Spirit does”; after all, it is God’s Spirit and hardly would submit to such a catalog lest it be taken as an agenda of what the Spirit will do), Elizabeth eulogizes both Mary and her child. She blesses Mary on two grounds: she has been chosen to be mother of the Lord, and she has believed the word of God. Elizabeth’s humbling herself before Mary is reminiscent of John’s humbling himself before Jesus in Matthew’s baptismal scene (Matt. 3:13–15).
The third and by far the largest unit of the episode is Mary’s song (vv. 46–55), the Magnificat, so termed from the opening word in the Latin translation. In the song, Mary only briefly praises God for the favor bestowed on a handmaiden of low estate (vv. 46–49), and even then, this portion is not solely autobiographical. What God has done for Mary anticipates and models what God will do for the poor, the powerless, and the oppressed of the world, the central theme of the second movement of the song, the triumph of God’s purposes for all people everywhere (vv. 50–55). The song draws heavily on and is patterned after the song of Hannah (1 Sam. 2:1–10), with other Old Testament phrases and allusions interspersed. Since Hannah was promised and given a child (Samuel) in her old age, some scholars have argued that the song originally belonged to Elizabeth. In fact, some Old Latin manuscripts read “And Elizabeth said” at verse 46, but the earlier Greek texts attribute the song to Mary. Clearly verse 48 refers not to Elizabeth but to Mary.
Two unusual features of the song deserve special attention. First, God is praised in terms of what he has done. To be sure, to speak of what God has done is to announce what God will do; the pattern is a familiar one. However, it is most striking that the lines that clearly refer to God’s establishing justice and mercy in the future, in the end time (the eschaton), contain past tense verbs, not future tense verbs. Why? This particular use of the past tense (aorist) of the Greek language here expresses what is timelessly true: past, present, and future without differentiation. But we should also consider the past tense as a way of expressing the confidences and the certainty as though they already were. So sure is the singer that God will do what is promised that it is proclaimed as accomplished fact.
The second unusual feature of the song is found in verses 52–53. Even though the entirety of verses 50–55 is packed with vivid images and has a buildup of momentum through repeated words and phrases, rhythmic lines, and patterned contrasts, the greatest intensity occurs in verses 52–53. In these four lines, Luke expresses in sharpest focus what has been called a classical statement of God’s activity: the lowly are raised and the lofty are brought low (John Drury, Tradition and Design in Luke’s Gospel, p. 50). Mary sings of the God who brings down the mighty and exalts those of low degree, who fills the hungry and sends the rich away empty, and through her Luke introduces a theme prominent in both the Gospel and Acts. More is involved than the social message and ministry of Jesus in behalf of the oppressed and poor. That will follow, to be sure, but here we have a characteristic of the final judgment of God in which there is a complete reversal of fortunes: the powerful and rich will exchange places with the powerless and poor. And this eschatological reversal has already begun; God’s choice of Mary is evidence of it. The pattern of reversed fortunes will reappear often in Luke; for example, recall Luke’s beatitudes and woes (6:20–26) and his story of the rich man and Lazarus (16:19–31).
The fourth and final unit in the visitation story is a simple narrative in a single sentence: Mary stays with Elizabeth three months and then goes home. We may assume that her three-month stay ended with the birth of John, the record of which will follow immediately. Mary will reappear at the time of her own delivery. Luke is not rushing the story, so we will have to wait, as Mary does. (Craddock, F. B. Luke [1990, Louisville, KY] pp. 28–31)

Preaching Possibilities

This is all about sudden joy. It is first about recognizing the central place joy has in our relationship with God. The second area that needs to be highlighted is the inability of most of us to recognize the joys in life. We need to make sure we have a way to measure our Joy Quotient.


Different Sermon Illustrations

Joy wells up
sudden as bird song,
piercing as beauty.
Out of the quiet day
joy bursts like a rocket
for no reason. Or for
some homely thing
that speaks to the heart...
one crimson strawberry
sun-warmed on the tongue,
crystal light from a star dancing
in our yesterdays,
or the beloved at the
bend of the road,
coming home. (

Gratitude for Sudden Joy
For the gift of this month of starting again, and for the gift of this community to share it with, I am feeling a warm, wide gratitude at this moment. Thank you all for being there.
The word I chose for this morning’s meditation was “peace”, which I long for, but so often cannot find, especially in recent years, when challenging events and losses seem to pile on more than usual, and for so many.
So. The sun came out this morning, first time in days, a full sun in a clear sky, shining straight through the window onto the wee sacred space I have arranged for sitting. A muddy overcast winter here, not a crisp sparkly one, so full sun on my full person was a joy.
I sat in the sun, set the timer for a half hour, closed my eyes, listened to Sharon’s voice, touched the word peace, thought about peace, reminded myself not to think, settled in a bit, touched the word peace, thought about how lovely it was to have sun, and the bit of joy that came with it, and boom: peace arrived. I don’t know how else to describe it. The joy of sun, the joy of sitting again, all that the word “peace” means to me, how I have longed for it through so many years of chaos–global, local, and personal–all of this arose as feeling, and it was vast. And blissful. And simple. And familiar. And I just sat with it for a while. Instead of returning to the word.
And then I returned to the word “peace”, and the foot that always complains a bit and then goes numb and cold did its part, and the hip that grumbles for a rice bag settled into a murmur of ache, and back to the word “peace” and then “wow, I love this…”, back to the word “peace” and back, and a long quiet, and then the timer, and I opened my eyes and thought “Well, now we start hard part.”
(It is February Challenge, after all.)
May we all be safe. May we all be happy. May we all be healthy. May we all dwell in peace. (

Finding a parking space in a packed car par, leaping onto a train a split second before the doors close and leaving work early have emerged among a list of the top 50 feel good triggers.
Researchers who carried out a detailed study also found knowing a new episode of your favorite show is online and cruising through green traffic lights on the drive to the office are likely to make our day.
Lugging a basket of shopping to the till and finding no queue, bumping into a friend out of the blue and giving money to charity also made the list.
And despite the benefits of modern technology, nothing beats the good old days as we all still get a thrill from receiving a letter or card in the post.
The study commissioned to launch BP me’s new rewards loyalty programme.
The scheme gives customers the chance to enjoy the ‘feel good factor’, with points earned on fuel and shop purchases – and redeemable from as little as £1.
Samantha Clarke, happiness consultant, ‘changemaker’ and spokesperson for BPme, said: “BP’s Feel Good Index shows that it is the little things that go a long way to boosting our wellbeing and mindset.
“In a world where we are becoming increasingly isolated with technology, the Feel Good Index shows that small moments and human interaction help to boost our happiness and can make everyday a little better.
“Happiness isn’t derived from ‘things’ and money, but through those light touches of connection such as giving or receiving compliments, smiling or holding the door open for someone.
“There’s always a ripple effect to making every day brighter, so a small win for staff or a customer can then ripple out to those around you.”
Some of life’s more simple pleasures also featured on the list, such as indulging in a chocolate bar, the sound of birds chirping and turning up the volume to a song which takes you back.
The ‘Feel Good Index’ also includes having a cup of tea made for you and showing off a new outfit.
The sun poking its head out of the clouds, enjoying a delicious treat and patting a pooch are often the cause of these spells of sudden joy.
The research also found nearly a third said Friday is the best day of the working week, so it comes as no surprise a glass of wine or beer after a long day also featured on the list.
As a result, one fifth hit ‘peak’ happiness on Friday, with nearly half (46 per cent) experiencing that ‘Friday feeling’.
And regardless of what day of the week it is, the research also found Brits’ mood is at its peak between 6pm and 9pm every day.
But these peaks and troughs come to us frequently, and by 11am on a weekend we reach the same ‘level’ of happiness as they do at 6pm on a weekday.
It also emerged during a typical weekday adults up and down the country hit a ‘dip’ in mood at 6am, as the morning alarm chimes to signal another day.
These early starts leave a nation of sleepy heads, as half of people admitted they are often too tired to be in their best mood.
More than one third put their happiness slump down to having ‘too much on their mind’.
And a further 23 per cent said hunger gets them down, while 27 per cent said being strapped for cash can cause them to feel low.
It also emerged Brits are trying to spread the happiness, as a third will make someone else a cup of tea, surprise them with a hug or compliment them, all in a bid to pick up their mood.
Gemma Clarke of BP Retail said:“We acknowledge that refuelling your car, or picking up some groceries may not make it into the top ten, but there are many things that we can do to brighten up the experience that customers have when they visit us.
“At BP, we always look to see how we can brighten up those everyday tasks, which is why we wanted to better understand the triggers that influence our mood.”
The Top 50 Feel Good Factors
1. A good night’s sleep
2. When the sun comes out
3. A walk
4. Receiving a compliment
5. Finding money in your pocket or wallet you forgot about
6. Receiving a hug
7. Having good weather on the weekend
8. Birds singing outside
9. Seeing flowers in bloom
10. Enjoying a delicious treat
11. Hearing the words ‘I love you’
12. Hearing a nostalgic song
13. Eating a home cooked meal
14. A lie in
15. Eating a chocolate bar
16. A smile from a stranger
17. Stroking a dog
18. The smell of freshly cut grass
19. An early finish from work
20. Bumping into a friend unexpectedly
21. Taking a bath
22. Seeing a rainbow
23. New episodes being released of your favourite TV show
24. Hearing children or babies laughing
25. A glass of wine or beer after a long day
26. No queue at the supermarket
27. Someone making you a cup of tea
28. Getting a voucher or discount from a favourite brand
29. Receiving a letter or card in the post
30. Wearing a new outfit
31. A free coffee
32. Having no delays to your journey
33. Cooking a meal from scratch
34. Someone holding the door open
35. Getting a parking space in a busy car park
36. The smell of a favourite perfume or cologne
37. Having a good hair or make-up day
38. Giving money to charity
39. Pay day coming early
40. Waking up without an alarm clock
41. Changing into dry clothes after you’ve been caught in the rain
42. Older people holding hands
43. Saying hello to a stranger
44. Taking a daytime nap
45. Just managing to catch a bus or train
46. Catching all the green lights on the way to work
47. Hitting a new Personal Best
48. Getting a seat on the train or bus during rush hour
49. People liking or commenting on your social media post
50. Cake or biscuits in the office (

Twas the day before Christmas, when all through the house,
Every creature was stirring, especially my spouse.
She moved with the grace and speed of a sprinter,
As she prepared our home for the best day of the winter.
For on the morrow a slew of guests will arrive,
A swarm of Duggans will descend on our hive.
Weather permitting, the large clan will meet,
To share turkey and craft beer and maybe some sweets.
But that won’t happen without full preparation,
Much work comes before any celebration.
So directions were given to start cleaning and cooking,
And I at my cellphone was asked to quit looking.
She said, “Please pick up the dog toys and dust off that shelf.
“That bag of potatoes won’t peel itself.”
And I in my Rockies cap and nice warm hoodie,
Pitched in with the prep work, especially the goodies.
But as I carted scraps to the backyard compost pile,
A train horn sounded, louder than I’d heard in a while.
And what to my wondering eyes did suddenly appear,
But a BNSF engine pulled by eight tiny reindeer.
Far from the tracks the behemoth stood steaming,
It was covered with red bunting and tinsel a-gleaming.
And up in the cab stood my good friend Saint Nick,
Who smiled down broadly through a white beard so thick.
“What’s up?” he called in a voice bright and merry,
“I’m told this year for you was kind of hairy.”
“‘Twas indeed,” said I, with a grim nod of my head,
“It was the kind of year I should have spent in bed.
“Our country acts like someone with a sore tooth,
“Our leadership struggles with just telling the truth.
“The world feels quite dangerous, ready to blow,
“How long we’ll survive this I really don’t know.”
“The holiday spirit has become so hard to find,
“When so many people seem to be out of their minds.”
“I see,” said he, while slowly stroking his chin,
“I’d like to cheer you up, but where to begin?”
As if on cue, who should burst through the back door,
But Cheddar our sweet Aussie with energy galore.
He zoomed around with unbridled delight,
Not bothered at all by the strangeness in sight.
“See there?” said Santa with a smile on his face,
“There’s plenty of happiness all over this place.
“Your friend doesn’t waste time feeling down in the dumps,
“He always recovers from taking some lumps.
“Do the same,” Santa said, “and you’ll find in the end,
“You’ll find great comfort with family and friends.
“The world is sure nutty, it has always been thus,
“It won’t get better if all you will do is fuss.
“Appreciate good things when they come your way,
“And spend your time fretting on some other day.”
With that the mirage train moved ahead with a jerk,
Santa said with a grin, “You should get back to work!”
And he called out again as the train roared out of sight,
"Merry Christmas, you all, try to look for the light.”
(With apologies to Clement C. Moore.)
(Kevin Duggan is a Coloradoan columnist

I puzzle throughout December: “Is all of our holiday stress a recent-days phenomenon?” And in my most reflective moments, I ask, “Is there any way to find deeper joy in December’s work?”
J.R.R. Tolkien loved Christmas. He was so fond of Yuletide that beginning in 1920, he crafted a Father Christmas letter each year for his beloved children. These marvelously imaginative letters were drafted with rich characters, unique “Elvish” and rune-like handwriting, and colorful sketches to coincide with the seasonal tales. Originally a labor of love for the Tolkien children’s enjoyment, the letters were eventually published posthumously in 1976.
Joy at Work
Tolkien’s own take on the calendar carried a deep rootedness that included his full immersion in the Christian tradition. In March of 1939, he delivered his famous essay On Fairy-stories at the University of St. Andrews. With this essay, Tolkien coined his original term eucatastrophe. His unique word conveys the concept of a person experiencing a perspective shift, a “good turn” even amidst life’s catastrophic, down-turned circumstances. The Professor observed of his genre:
The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth…But in the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world…it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories.
From Tolkien’s perspective, such good effect was really an echo of the primary good news as presented in the Christian gospel accounts. Nearing the final strokes of his essay, Tolkien said:
The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.
For J.R.R. Tolkien, the work of fairy-stories was grounded in something far greater than whimsical fancy and flighty happiness. Fairy-stories carried gospel foundations capable of delivering deeper, truer, lasting joy.
A Tolkien Letter at Christmas
Now consider this curious Tolkien account at Christmastime. Just a little over one year prior to his delivery of the renowned essay, he wrote a letter. It was December of 1937, the same year The Hobbit was first released. Sent to his publisher, Sir Stanley Unwin, the letter’s opening excerpt is tremendously insightful:
16 December 1937
Dear Mr Unwin,
I have been ill and am still rather tottery, and have had others of the common human troubles, so that time has slipped out of my hands: I have accomplished next to nothing of any kind since I saw you. Father Christmas’ 1937 letter is unwritten yet…My chief joy comes from learning that the Silmarillion is not rejected with scorn.
We might assume Tolkien was having a most magical Christmas in light of his book’s successful debut that year. Surprisingly enough, that was not the case. Instead, this letter reveals one worn out, stressed out, time-crunched, regretful author. He was even feeling very tardy about his annual tradition of writing the Father Christmas letter for his children. But Tolkien recognized the importance of discovering joy in the dazzle and frazzle of Christmastime. He found joy in pondering the ongoing progress for his decades-long work toward his masterpiece, The Silmarillion.
I find some sense of comfort in the reality that a highly successful individual such as Tolkien was battered by Christmastime work stress. Perhaps yuletide fatigue is not such a new-to-our-generation phenomenon after all.
Tolkien was well versed in discovering joy—yes, with great intentionality—especially in times of stress and turmoil. He knew that the very best stories, including the grand Christian stories like Christmas and Easter were punctuated with genuine joy, even amidst serious stress.
I am moved in the midst of my own hustle and bustle of this year’s season with these two rich realities.
First, we discover life-giving rejuvenation by slowing down and pondering.
We can celebrate simple goodness in everyday simplicities. It’s the stuff of crackling logs on the fire, trees and tinsel, good storybooks, joyous singing, creative projects for our children and grandchildren, and delectable feasts with friends, both old and new.
Slow down to ponder. What’s your own “Silmarillion?” What have you been creating this year or perhaps for a stretch of years? Amidst all of the challenges and setbacks, what has proven productive or portrays serious prospect? What product line is making some progress? Is there a group of leaders or students in whom you are seeing real growth? Amidst all the holiday rush, take intentional time to pause, to celebrate, and to see the good.
Second, we are encouraged by the reality: we are not alone in the rush and push.
Tolkien was acquainted with feeling overwhelmed at Christmastime. And we dare not forget. The same was true for that holy family over two millennia ago as they wearily entered the gates of Bethlehem. The Christ Child was arriving amid great chaos. Winsomely, Mary found time to ponder and treasure all these things in her heart. Over and over again in Luke’s account, the characters of Christmas discovered joy.
How about you? Have you taken time during this season to ponder anew the old gospel story? Have you considered how the babe born in Bethlehem made it possible for us to discover God’s gracious goodness, even in our own chaos and catastrophe? His wondrous incarnation, loving death, and glorious resurrection brought us forgiveness, personal awakening to new life, and glorious redemption.
Tolkien discovered genuine joy! May we all!


There is a real doublethink in these matters of taking the risk of the Magnificat. It is a kind of gamble. It bridges the many moral problems in gambling itself. We often hear that we are not supposed to gamble but we are to risk. Gambling has received much of religion’s disapproval. It is a socially disastrous problem. The same negativity does not permeate our constant advice to “take a chance,” “give it a go,” or “take a risk.” This prohibition of public gambling and encouragement of private gambling has to confuse people, making life’s difficulties ever so much more interesting. There is great paradox in the language of risk in the personal counseling setting also. We are to act free even though we don’t think we are free. Mary couldn’t possibly have known enough freedom to be mother of our Lord until she acted as though she was free. In other words, action controls thought before thought can control action. Mary’s magnificat was a doing of salvation as well as a saying of it.

A key issue in the language of chance, intimately spoken, is whether the person sees him or herself as an actor or as a victim. There is a spectrum of thought possible, with high agency and high passivity both being possible. Most people live on a spectrum of confusion here, not knowing whether they caused their trouble or were just hit by a flyswatter called fate. Mature people will take responsibility for what they can and will let the rest go. The fates have a role in our lives. Getting to the “right” level of role is a matter of wisdom and insight.

Mary is magnificent precisely because she “yielded” to her God and became her God’s active agent. She did a both/and that turned her into a promise maker rather than a gambling winner. She actively participated in her fate. She said yes to God, in the most intimate and certain of ways, by giving birth to God’s son, became an actor in the ancient promises – and that has made all the difference. No wonder she was rejoicing.

The word serendipity was formed by English author Horace Walpole (1717-1797) from Serendip (also Serendib), an old name for Sri Lanka, in reference to a Persian tale, The Three Princes of Serendip, whose heroes “discovered, quite unexpectedly, great and wonderful good in the most unlikely of situations, places and people.” Walpole describes the way princes made accidental discoveries of things they weren’t seeking. Any of you who have spent lots of money on dating services, only to meet a possible partner or friend at the office water cooler, know exactly what this is about. Serendipity suggests inadvertence. Accident spurs insight. Mary is serendipitous. She finds life on the road. She makes an accidental discovery that she wasn’t seeking. She discovered something good in an unlikely place, Elizabeth’s house.

Amy Tan ‘s new book The Opposite of Faith gives another story of active mercy. Tan has known many tragedies…. her father and brother died from brain tumors, her mother suffered violent bouts of depression and her best friend was murdered…. She has Lyme disease, which keeps her weak many days. But she describes a life of triumph over fate. She describes small activities that take her beyond tragedy. Tan, though Eastern in origin, understands that fate has an opposite. The opposite of fate is grace. It is the consequence of activating mercy. “With understanding over time, the accidental is transformed into the essential. Luck has nothing to do with it.”

Responsibility doesn’t come in neat little zip lock bags. Responsibility is an overflowing interlocking fountain! Stokely Carmichael said it very well, “Racism is not my fault but it is my responsibility.” That’s what we mean by mobilizing and achieving magnificently: we take responsibility for more than is ours.

The first time I saw “The Passion,” I was overwhelmed with the plethora of images. It was very much like reading one of the gospels through in a single sitting. Afterwards they swirled in my memory the way one is left with a reordered world after a violent storm. But watching it a second time several months later, I was struck by the portrayal of Mary, the mother of Jesus. I was especially struck by her face-down torment on the pavement while he was being scourged and then again as he was placed on the cross. When it was finished, the picture of her hands releasing those stones certainly stands in contrast with her confident song here: ‘surely from now on all generations will call me blessed.’ That we do is a testimony to God’s mystery and God’s faithfulness.

“Of particular interest is the contrast (of this passage with) Luke 11:27 between ‘blessed is the womb that bore you’ and Jesus’ correction, ‘rather blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.’ In Luke’s view, of course, Mary is blessed on both counts.” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke [The Liturgical Press: Collegeville, Minnesota, 1991], pg 41)

The phrase ‘power in his right arm,’ is “a dramatic anthropomorphism for God’s activity. Together with other verses, this statement marks a transition from what God has done with Mary to what He has done in history.” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke [The Liturgical Press: Collegeville, Minnesota, 1991], pg 42)

“God, also, in an upward movement, exalts the lowly, fills the hungry and takes the hand of Israel. Precisely such a reversal is announced by Jesus in his Beatitudes and woes and is enacted by him in the narrative of his ministry.” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke [The Liturgical Press: Collegeville, Minnesota, 1991], pg 44)

The piercing truth is that God does not choose a person for ease and comfort and selfish joy but for a great task that will take all that head and heart and hand can bring to it.” (William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke [The Saint Andrew Press, Edinburgh, 1956], pg 18)

We are inclined to believe that good things are meant only for the rich. Yet Mary’s song challenges that notion. One day a wealthy woman entered the Catholic Worker house in Manhattan to donate an expensive diamond ring to the religious group’s cause. Rather than sell the jewelry for money, Dorothy Day decided to take the ring and give it to a poor, old woman. A staff member objected, pointing out that if the ring had been sold, there would have been enough money to pay the old woman’s rent for a year. Day responded, “Do you suppose that God created diamonds only for the rich?” Day intended to leave it up to that woman to decide for herself whether to sell the ring or whether to enjoy it sparkling on her finger. (Richard Wightman Fox, Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004], p 368)

A “Tiger” comic strip (8/4/04) shows the younger brother watching television and saying, “I hate this show.” His older brother responds, “Then how come you always watch it?” “I’m used to it,” he says. We may detest the way that the wealthy are often lifted up at the expense of the poor, but we often assume that is the way it will always be. Yet Mary’s song reminds us not to get too used to how things are, because one day God is going to bring about a great reversal.

As a society, we tend to reverse the priorities set forth in Mary’s “Magnificat.” Our tendency is to fill the rich with good things and to send the poor away empty. Each Sunday we pray “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” but we do not even consider what those words could mean when it comes to our dealings with the Third World nations of our planet. Many of those countries are forced to spend three to five times as much of their national budget paying off foreign debt than they spend on basic services for their own people, many of whom are living in abject poverty. (William Sloane Coffin, Credo [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004], pp. 57-58)

The concept of giving presents at Christmastime originated out of the practice of wassailing. During the Christmas season, poor citizens would stroll through the city streets and ask for gifts from their wealthier neighbors. Those gifts often took the form of food and drink, which were normally consumed on the spot. (Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas [New York: Vintage, 1996], p 110)

The New York Tribune, on Christmas Eve of 1845, ran an editorial criticizing the lavish celebrations the rich enjoyed at the holiday time while so many poor families were forced to go without even the barest of necessities. The editorial derided those “who can devote even one day to hilarity and social enjoyment until he shall have at least devoted as much of his worldly substance as that day’s enjoyment will cost him to the relief of the misery so imminent and appalling.” (Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas [New York: Vintage, 1996], p 352)

One of the reasons the poor are so often sent away empty-handed is that we cannot bear to part with our possessions. An extreme example of that tendency to hoard was in the 1940s when the Collyer brothers crammed their mansion in Harlem from floor to ceiling with 136 tons of hoarded possessions. Newsweek (7/26/04) reported that while such behavior was regarded at that time as a kind of eccentricity, some psychologists now view it as a serious disorder. In dealing with the problem, some have thought that the best solution is to forcibly clean out the hoarded items. But psychologists who have studied hoarders, such as Randy Frost of Smith College, warn that doing that can traumatize the hoarders and perhaps even make them suicidal. A dozen cities across the United States now have hoarding task forces, and workshops are springing up throughout the country to help people deal with the problem. Beth Johnson, founder of the online Clutter Workshop, says, “The problem has escalated in modern society, because there’s just so much stuff out there.”

A “Tiger” comic strip (6/11/04) illustrates the way we are frequently hesitant to share what we have so that the poor may be lifted up. In theory, we are in favor of sharing. Yet we are often reluctant when sharing means that we have to part with some of our own possessions. In the comic strip, Tiger sees his friend eating a cupcake and so he asks him, “Hugo, do you believe in sharing?” Hugo ponders the question for a moment, but then ends up replying, “I’ll answer that question as soon as I finish this cupcake.”

When Mary considers what God is doing in her life, she breaks out in song. In fact, the “Magnificat” could well be thought of as the first Christmas song that was ever sung. The Christian church continues to be a place of song. Christian Century (4/5/03) reported that a study estimates there are about 250,000 choruses in the United States, and the overwhelming majority of them—approximately 200,000—are church choirs. The poll discovered that one or more adults in 15.6% of households sing in public as part of a chorus each year. The study found that far more people take part in choral singing than in any other performing art.

Are we able to experience the same Christmas joy that Mary did? According to the BBC (12/25/03), Dr. Stephen Joseph of Warwick University found that people with religious beliefs are happier at Christmas than those who have a more materialist outlook. His research further found that people also find more joy if they put less emphasis on striving for financial or material success and instead concentrate on fostering their sense of community.

Until recently in American society, the “rich” were only an extremely small minority of the population. Nowadays that has certainly changed. Back in the 1890s less than 1% of households in the United States earned the equivalent of $75,000 in today’s dollars. Today nearly a quarter of all households are at or beyond that point. (Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse [New York: Random House, 2003], p 9)

It is difficult for many of us to even begin to imagine what it is like to lack things, because we have so many possessions we don’t know what to do with all of them. California Closets is an upscale chain store that specializes in prefabricated and custom-installed possession-maximizing closets that cost up to $30,000. The average purchase at California Closets is about $2,000. (Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse [New York: Random House, 2003], p 143)

Mary’s faithful response to what God called her to do has led many people to think of Mary as the first Christian disciple. Peter Gomes of Harvard University praises Mary and compares her devotion to that of Jesus’ when he says, “I am not persuaded that Mary’s obedience to the will of God is any more demeaning than Christ’s obedience to the will of God in the Garden, when he says, ‘Not my will, but thine be done’.” (Peter J. Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998], p 13)

The “Magnificat” boldly declares that our relationship with God is linked to the relationship we share with the other people of our world. Our welfare in bound to their welfare. In Africa, when someone asks a person “How are you?” the reply is often given in the plural, even if you are speaking to only one person. A man might answer by saying, “We are well” or “We are not well.” The idea is that even if the person you are talking with is in good health, that person’s grandmother might be ill, and so he will say that he is not well either. (Desmond Tutu, God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time [New York: Doubleday, 2004], p. 25)

Long after Mary sang of the reversal of positions between the rich and the poor, the American colonists recognized that deep rifts between economic classes would not be a good thing for the new country. Writing in Federalist Papers #73, James Madison asserted, “The most common and durable source of faction has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.” (Andre Resner, Just Preaching: Prophetic Voices for Economic Justice [St. Louis: Chalice, 2003], p. 3)

William Sloane Coffin, the former pastor of New York City’s Riverside Church, remembers that when he was a boy in public school, he was taught that there are rich people and there are poor people, as though that was how God intended it to be. Later on when he moved to New York City to take over the leadership of Riverside Church, people readily bragged about how exciting their city was, but they admitted that “we do have problems,” meaning that there were a lot of poor people in the metropolis. But Coffin notes that when we read the Bible, we repeatedly discover that the poor are never the problem. Rather it is the rich people who are shown to be a problem for the poor. (William Sloane Coffin, “The Politics of Compassion,” Just Preaching: Prophetic Voices for Economic Justice, ed. Andre Resner [St. Louis: Chalice, 2003], p 52)

Legend says that Saint Nicholas, the historical figure on whom the popular Santa Claus is loosely based, was deeply concerned about lifting up those who were at risk for being trampled by their society. At this time of year we think of Santa Claus coming down the chimney. But that idea is based on how St. Nicholas, the bishop of Myra in Asia Minor, threw bags of gold through the windows or down the chimneys of poor families’ homes so that their daughters would not have to resort to prostitution. (Thomas Hine, I Want That!: How We All Became Shoppers [New York: HarperCollins, 2002], p 176)

Many of the abuses in our society result from the fact that we believe that those of higher rank have an unquestionable right to use their position for their own benefit, even if doing so is to the detriment of those of lower rank. Robert Fuller believes that most of the major social problems in American society—such as racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and ageism—all are a product of that mindset. Corporate executives plunder their companies and exit with “golden parachutes” while thousands of workers end up getting laid off. Clergy take advantage of their parishioners. Workers at personal care homes mistreat the elderly. In each case, Fuller suggests, people do those things because they figure they outrank those who they are abusing and therefore are justified in doing so. (Robert W. Fuller, Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank [Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society, 2004], p 3)

Mary’s song declares that no one is a “nobody” in God’s sight, and the day will come when those who are treated as nobodies will be redeemed that position. Even though we might consider ourselves above doing something like that, it is worth considering who are the people we treat as nobodies. For instance, we undoubtedly know the name of the doctor who cares for us. But do we know the name of the doctor’s assistant who schedules our appointments and phones in our prescriptions? (Robert W. Fuller, Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank [Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society, 2004], p 29)

Although our world often finds ways to ignore the lowly, if we are faithful to God, we have no choice but to minister to those who are most in need: “I have learned that assistance given to the weak makes the one who gives it strong; and that oppression of the unfortunate makes one weak.” (Booker T. Washington)

Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)

Call to Worship

Leader: The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad;
People: The desert shall rejoice and blossom.
Leader: It shall blossom abundantly
People: And rejoice with joy and singing.
Leader: They shall see the glory of the Lord,
People: The majesty of our God.
Leader: The ransomed of the Lord shall return.
People: And they shall obtain joy and gladness!
All: Let us worship God.

Prayer of Confession

Merciful God hear our confession. We do not rejoice in servanthood, nor put ourselves wholly at your disposal. We keep back bits of ourselves, that we can escape exposure do not wish to expose to your bright and probing light. We are impatient to have our own way, rather than patiently seeking your way. Forgive us and free us, in Christ’s name we pray, Amen.

Prayer of Dedication

Take these offerings and gifts, O Lord, and use them to do your will. In gratitude, we render to You this portion of your blessings, that we might share them with those less fortunate than we. May the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers be cleansed, the dead be raised to new life, and the poor receive good news, to your honor and glory, Amen.

Pastoral Prayer

Open our hearts, dear Lord, that we may be willing to hear the prophets. Open our minds to understand your word. Open our eyes to see where You are going, and open our hands that we may generously serve, as You have served us in Christ Jesus.
In this season where materialism seems so pressing, where greed can reign and blind us to your presence, help us to give with generosity, and to be original and personal in our giving. Instead of adding to the piles of useless things we gather in defense of our own insecurity, help us give useful things in joyful and helpful ways.
Remind us and our leaders, that they greatest gift is ourselves, our time, our attention, our insight, our encouragement, our loving presence. Just as You gave your all in sending Christ, so may we give, that in loving we may find our greatest fulfillment, to your glory. Amen.