It’s been a little more than a week now since the murders of 27 people in Newtown, Connecticut. We’ve heard about events there we can barely fathom: an insane young man blasting his way into a school; teachers doing math problems in one moment and shielding children from bullets in the next; funeral after funeral for 6- and 7-year-olds.
Now, as the days give us some distance from the initial shock, we begin to try to place this horror in some larger context. There are several contexts to choose from, at least based on what we hear in the media; and the common denominator seems to be identifying which of society’s failings we should blame. Some look at the shootings and blame public policy on gun control. Some blame inadequate mental health services. Some blame violent movies and video games. Our culture and our government offer plenty of failures for us to work on, but my hunch is that blame for this tragedy doesn’t reduce to any one of them. And with so much pontificating in the media about what’s right and what’s wrong with American public policy, you certainly don’t need another talking head in the pulpit this morning.
Instead, here in church, it’s enough to try to figure out what to make of a liturgical moment that doesn’t seem to fit the world around it: the joyful anticipation of our Savior’s birth in a time of deep and tragic grief. I can’t begin to imagine how the people of Newtown, Connecticut, are preparing their hearts for Christmas this year. What does the fourth Sunday of Advent have to say to us in a week of funerals for first graders? How in the world do we celebrate Christmas this year?
Well, consider what I’m about to say as Part 1 of a possible answer. Part 2 will come tomorrow night, at least at the 8 and 11 o’clock services. Part 1 is about us: How does God ask us to respond to a world where children may be murdered as they sit in their classrooms? Then, on Christmas Eve, we’ll ask the harder question: Where is God in a world like that?
On this fourth Sunday of Advent, our Gospel reading is about Mary’s visit to her cousin, Elizabeth. Mary and Elizabeth are about to bring children into this world – both inexplicably, but for different reasons. Elizabeth is old and barren; she and Zechariah have been unable to have children for decades. At the other end of the spectrum is Mary – a girl who has no business being pregnant, given that she’s never been with a man. Yet, in the reading just before today’s Gospel, which we heard in Lessons and Carols last week, Mary receives a visit from the angel Gabriel, who tells her that not only is she pregnant; she’s pregnant with the Son of God, the one who will reign as king and save God’s people. “Do not be afraid, Mary,” the angel says (Luke 1:30). Yeah, right.
And yet, at the end of this astonishing announcement comes an even more astonishing reply from the unwed teenaged mother: “Let it be with me according to your word,” she says (1:38). Mary hears an implausible story of God’s desire to save people, to deliver them from the oppression of Roman rule, to unveil an entirely new set of ground rules, to reveal God’s own kingdom on earth – and Mary says, “Yes.” Ridiculously, in the eyes of the world, Mary chooses to be God’s primary instrument – someone who seems an entirely inadequate beacon of hope for a world that doesn’t even deserve that much blessing.
As she and her cousin celebrate the astounding news they’ve both received, Mary lifts up a song of praise that honors both God’s foolishly hopeful plan and her ridiculous role in it. She begins with one of the most amazing statements in all of Scripture, something we’ve heard so many times that it may not strike us as it should. Mary says, “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46). Now, think about that a minute. You can hear that word “magnify” in a small and poetic way, simply meaning that Mary praises or glorifies God. But it can mean much more. In the Greek text, the word is a form of the verb megalynō, which literally means to enlarge or to amplify (http://www.teknia.com/greek-dictionary/megalyno). What a thought: that Mary’s spirit, and that our spirits, might enlarge or amplify the sovereign Lord of the universe. Who is she to think such a thing? Who are we to do such a thing?
Well, think for a minute about magnifying in another context – using a magnifying glass. Remember how you played with a magnifying glass when you were a kid? At least I did. Used one way, the glass enlarges something small. It lets you look at an ant crawling by and really see the head, thorax, and abdomen in detail you could never make out on your own. It lets you see the wonder of creation with new eyes. But little kids also know a magnifying glass can be used another way. In the sun of a summer day, you can take your magnifying glass, hold it just the right distance from the ground, and focus the sun’s rays into a tiny point, concentrating the light so much that you can burn through a piece of paper. Or, for that matter, you can burn to death that little ant you were studying so intently a few minutes before. The instrument that magnifies is also the instrument that focuses light with such clarity, precision, and intensity that it can set the world on fire.
And there’s the rub. We can set the world on fire with the power of God made manifest in ordinary people who choose to say “yes” and make love bear flesh. Or, we can set the world on fire by twisting that power God shares with us, setting loose the demons within us that long to be gods themselves.
What does God ask of us? In a world where a twisted killer can steal the life from 27 innocent people in a matter of seconds, what does God ask of us? God asks us to join Mary in magnifying the Lord.
Through the magnifying glass of Mary’s womb, the light of God’s salvation was focused into the ultimate act of divine healing, as God’s saving nature took on flesh and bones to dwell among us. That child would live out God’s shepherding rule, bringing divine power to earth in a kingship of saving love. Mary chose to be the magnifying glass that set the world on fire, aflame with God’s own Spirit.
And through the magnifying glass of other human hearts – yours and mine – we still focus the light of God’s salvation into specific saving acts. We show God’s healing power when we turn away from “the thoughts of [our own] hearts” – when we, who think we’re powerful, come down from our thrones and lift up the lowly (Luke 1:51-52). We set the world on fire with God’s Spirit when we “fill the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:53), when we act “in remembrance of God’s mercy” promised to us across the generations (Luke 1:54-55).
Every day, angels visit us and ask us to say, “Yes.” Every day, we have to choose how we will use our freedom. Every day, God asks us to help invert the worldly order, the apparent victory of death over life, of darkness over light. Every day, God asks us to bear salvation into humanity’s corruption of God’s intent. Every day, God asks us to scatter the darkness of human agendas and twisted priorities so that the light of God’s saving purposes can shine through.
Even though this is a world where killers sometimes have their way, we must remember that they will not win. Neither those who spew bullets nor those who spew hate will have the last word. In the darkness of this world, God asks us – remarkably, even us – to embody a different reality, a kingdom reality. God asks us to fight back by choosing to focus the light of Christ, to shine it into this darkness that surrounds us, and to set the world on fire, as each and every one of us “magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46).