Magnificat - In search of songs of hope

Scripture Readings 

Psalm 80
Luke 1:46-56

Lately, as I am sure many of you have been doing, I have been lost in a cycle of binge watching Christmas movies. 

By now I am about 3/4ths of the way through all of my annual required watching. And I’ve begun to notice that even though they are all unique in how they tell the story, almost every Christmas movie has the same plot… some sort of sudden, unexpected, ground-shaking event. A crisis that puts the holiday celebrations in jeopardy and crushes the Christmas Spirit. And they build and build until that one scene towards the end when the character’s finally discover the “Christmas Spirit” restored again almost miraculously from beyond.

The Grinch steals every last bit of Christmas, and the Whos down in Whoville get together around the charred remains of their Christmas tree in order to sing, and in doing so they find the true meaning of Christmas by relying on each other.

Charlie brown is feeling overwhelmed and depressed by the commercialism of Christmas and disturbed that no one seems to care. So Linus stands and recites the story Christ’s birth, and they all find the true meaning of Christmas again and are able to forgive Charlie Brown for ruining Christmas with a twig of a tree. 

Whether it is "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" or "Its a Wonderful Life" We love watching Christmas movies because, even though they all tell the story in their own way, they have at their core this theme of re-discovery of “the Christmas spirit,”  of rediscovering that joy, love, peace, and hope are defiantly present in our world.

And we get sucked in, we follow these characters along every step of their journey until they reach that final scene of discovery at last…and in that process,  these stories help US to find “the christmas spirit” within ourselves. 

Even the cheesiest stories help to remind us of hope, belief, and trust in something beyond us, Even the most classic cartoon can leave us in a place where hope is restored, even in the most hopeless places! Even Buddy the Elf’s Dad who is on the naughty list starts to sing carols by the end of the movie!

I would argue that both of the scriptures we’ve read today, both psalm 80 and Mary’s song are the biblical equivalent of these scenes at the end of holiday movie. They both tell the story of people who have experienced a drastic and dramatic change in their lives and yet they both end in restored hope, in renewed trust in God.

And yet, much like Christmas movies, they are both entirely unique in their process. Each has a different way of re-establishing hope in the lives of the main characters, and finding a way to trust God again.

Evelyn Williams (1929-2012), Couple Reaching Up (1981). Painted relief. Private Collection. The Bridgeman Art Library.

Evelyn Williams (1929-2012), Couple Reaching Up (1981). Painted relief. Private Collection. The Bridgeman Art Library.

Now, I’m sure after hearing Psalm 80 read, your first thought wasn’t of a hopeful holiday movie. You are even less likely to think of this when you learn that it is often described as a song of communal lament. 

Scholars think it was written describing the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel. It describes the kingdom as a once deeply-rooted prolific vine that grew so tall and mighty that it shaded even the most profound cedar trees and mountains but is now seemingly abandoned by God. 

It has been left exposed, plucked off all its fruit, and now susceptible to disease and pests. 

The kingdom of Israel is falling apart, its society, culture, even its government feel so lost that the psalmist describes it as though it has already been scorched by fire and chopped down for the wood pile.

But this is a scene of hope, and the psalmist doesn’t leave us there. The psalmist his own way of rediscovering hope. 

The Psalmist discovers it by holding God accountable. The psalmist thinks, if God is big enough to be the God of heavenly forces, then God is big enough to carry the responsibility for what is going on in his world, and God is definitely big enough to fix it.

He cries out to God and starts to make the bold request that unfortunately most of us hesitate to make for fear of being disappointed. The psalmist says “God, all things are in your hands, so come back to us, grace us with your presence again, attend to this vine, revive us, restore us!”

I read a story once about a seminary student who was doing her residency as a chaplain in a hospital. She was visiting a woman who had received a terminal diagnosis. As she held her hand, she carefully and decisively picked her way through a prayer, asking God for peace this woman, for strength, for healing of body and soul - the standard prayer that was neither controversial or unattainable for the patient.

When the chaplain had safely concluded her prayer, the woman squeezed her hands and added, “Almighty God, I want you to take this cancer away from me. I know you have the power, and I want you to do it. I want to be healed and I want to go home. Amen.”

When this terminally ill patient finished her prayer she looked into the chaplain’s very worried and nervous face and said confidently. “Don’t be shy with God. If I don’t ask for what I want, how could I ever hope in to get it?”

This is the psalmist’s way of finding hope. He decides to put it all in God’s hands. To take all of the stress, fear and anxiety of his world and rest it entirely on God’s shoulder’s and then he expects God to be big enough to change it, he asks a bold request of God and expects to get it.

Maybe you have been there in that very human place, I know I have been there. Maybe you have been so down that the only option you saw was to cry out to God, praying in desperation for renewed hope and restoration, and perhaps you found hope there, by asking big requests of God that gave you the strength to trust, believe, and endure. But maybe not which is why I am grateful that the bible presents other ways of nurturing God’s hope in our lives.

Unknown Artist

Mary’s way of finding hope is completely different. We have already journeyed through her story quite a long way, but until today we haven’t yet learned how she will come to trust in God again.

We first saw Mary at the moment when she was told that her life was about to totally change, when she was visited by the angel Gabriel and told that she will become pregnant and give birth to the Son of God. 

Mary responds at first with fear and anxiety, even questioning how this could be possible, wondering how this will change her life…

…and then we saw her after talking with the angel a little longer, when Gabriel reminded her that she should trustbecause with God, nothing is impossible, and we saw Mary left in a state of what seems to be passive acceptance, she says “Here I am, a servant of the lord, let it be with me just as you say.”

And then just after this encounter we traveled with Mary to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who immediately responds as soon as Mary walks in the door with womb jumping joy… Elizabeth helps Mary see this pregnancy thing in a whole new light!  In fact, she declares it emphatically three times ”You are blessed among women and This child you are carrying is blessed too, Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

And immediately after hears this declaration from her cousin, we arrive at today’s reading, when what God is up to has finally sunken in and Mary’s perspective begins to shift, and in her words you can see that her hope has somehow been restored.

She names it loud and clear, “my soul magnifies the Lord, The lord is made greater within my soul, and my spirit is now rejoicing, because God has met me in my low status and has shown me favor and from now on generations of people will see how blessed I am.

And it is here, in these next words of the Magnificat that we finally understand what it was that made Mary able to find hope in the midst of her situation, and how she was able to start to trust what God is doing… 

She thinks of her own situation, the difficulties this new pregnancy will cause her to face, and instead of getting lost in it, somehow she begins to think back to all the good things God has done. 

How God has been at work not only in her past life, but in the highest offices of countries, and in the lowest ramshackle slums of the streets. 

She sees how in all things God has provided, and how at all times God has been present … actively establishing peace, and joy, and hope, and love even to the most vulnerable.

And as Mary thinks through this, as she begins to understand what God has done even for those on the fringes, she begins to see a little clearer the ways that God is currently active in her life, and a glimmer of hope begins to take light within her.

This past week, in preparing for my sermon, I asked a number of people a pretty simple question, 

“Where do you find hope?”

Everyone had different answers, and each of them were meaningful, but I think I was most moved by the answer that was given by Hunter Farrell, the Director of World Mission for the national office of the Presbyterian Church. 

I wrote to him after the PCUSA released a video that was their attempt to lift up signs of hope from across the globe in the midst of all of the war and random acts violence that we have all experienced over the past year.  

After watching the video, I wondered what it must be like to work in the context of world mission?  How do you continue to work after hearing horror stories from around the world? How to walk on in partnership with people after experiencing events like the acts of Terrorism in Paris or Nairobi? 

How do you re-establish hope in your life? 

So this is what I asked Hunter Farrell, and this was his response:

My wife Ruth and I were serving as mission co-workers in the Congo for six months. We lived in a 20’ X 20’ mud hut with a 6 ft tall hot tin roof.

The context of the site was abject poverty,
babies were dying for a lack of clean water,
The members of my Presbyterian youth group I worked with were being picked up and beaten by the dictator’s secret police that were supported by the US, and it all literally brought me to my knees.

I was as close to clinical depression as I’ve ever been in my life because I was unable to see hope anywhere around me.

It was Congolese friends who came to me,
they prayed with me, one time they even came and prayed in a vigil that lasted all night. They helped me to see that faith is both a gift from God and an act of human will.

The Congolese Presbyterians consistently “chose hope.”

They inspired me to get over my “First World problems” and lift my eyes to the margins of society where God is especially at work. I guess it was their faith (and their hope) was somehow contagious for me.”

I am grateful that the stories of how people discover God’s hope are as diverse as the people in this world. I am grateful that we live in a world where Hope not only comes from God, but where we have the ability to share hope with each other.

I hope that God brings your story to a place where you have that beautiful A-ha moment at the end of the movie, That scene where you are moved into song and you and all those around you can see and trust that God active in your life. 

But if none of these stories brought you hope, I hope you will at least discover hope in this constant truth of advent…

Our Great God has been and is still at work in our world, 

The Christ Child is on his way.

Thanks be to God, Amen.