Dec. 20 Luke 1 : 46-55
This morning we hone in on the line from Howard Thurman’s Christmas poem: “I will light candles of peace for tempest-tossed days.” Candles of peace for days that are stormy or filled with upheaval, for days that are chaotic and unsettling, for days that are fear inducing or stressful. I hope you have been making use of a candle or candles in your home this Advent. Just lighting a candle changes the atmosphere of the space where you live, work, eat, and relate to others. At our house we often light the purple Advent candles at dinner, this year claiming them as candles of joy, of hope, of courage and of peace.
Candles of peace. Could be the literal candles lit at a peace vigil after the killing of one of our neighbors in Baltimore. Could be the attempts at peacemaking between gangs here at home or between warring factions in Cameroon. We could very easily turn our attention to peace in our community, peace between nations, peace between neighbors, even peace in your own family. God knows we need some shalom, or well-being, in many of those areas!
But this morning I invite you to consider peace within instead of peace around us. I mean peace of mind, peace of heart, peace of spirit. Peace between you and God as we draw closer to Christmas. Listen to the words from one of Howard Thurman’s meditations in Meditations of the Heart— Thurman says:
“I seek the enlargement of my heart that there may be room for peace. Already there is enough room for chaos. But the need of my heart is for room for Peace: Peace of mind that inspires singleness of purpose; Peace of heart that quiets all fears and uproots all panic; Peace of spirit that filters through all confusions and robs them of their power. These I see NOW. I know that here in this quietness my life can be infused with Peace. Therefore, before God, I seek the enlargement of my heart at this moment, that there may be room for Peace.”
Making room for peace in our hearts during tempest-tossed days is an ongoing challenge for any of us. Peace within could include falling into a restful sleep at night, enjoying quiet times of prayer and reflection during the day, sharing a laugh with a friend or loved one, recognizing that your Christmas celebrations must be adapted but still being committed to celebrating Christmas well, as Scrooge finally did at the end of A Christmas Carol. Celebrating Christmas well is giving thanks for the birth of our Savior.
I want to lift up Mary as an example of a serious disciple who has found an inner peace even though the circumstances of her motherhood surely raised eyebrows among the nosy neighbors in her village, even in the face of the upheaval her child will bring to the world, reversing the fortunes of the rich and powerful and lifting up the lowly and the hungry, leveling the playing field for all of God’s children.
. Mary seems to understand her newfound vocation in life, the Christ bearer, or as some will call her, “the mother of God”. Last week we read earlier in Luke’s gospel that the angel Gabriel informed her (twice) that she was favored by God, not because of anything she had done, but because God chose her for a divine task. In her song she now responds with first praising God and then acknowledging for herself that God has indeed favored her, a young woman of low estate, very likely one of those Thurman refers to as the disinherited. She is committed to following through on her response to God, allowing God to work through her in an amazing way. We could say that this is one of the marks of a true disciple—one who is willing to allow God to work through him in ways that he could not do on his own.
Mary proclaims the profound societal changes that will come about when this child is born, changes that tip the scales toward justice. And she claims the work of God in the world as if it has already been accomplished, using the past tense all the way through—God has scattered the proud, God has brought down the powerful, God has lifted up the lowly, God has filled the hungry and sent the rich away empty, God has helped Israel, the nation who historically offended God’s holiness and compassion again and again, who violated God’s love and justice with their actions– Mary signals a reversal of Israel’s fortunes, for God is now showing mercy toward them through the arrival of God’s Son in the flesh.
I wonder if Mary’s pregnancy felt like standing on the edge of a volcano of change that is about to erupt. Of all people in this birth narrative, Mary knew for sure that this was no ordinary child. The words of her song echo the words of Hannah, who was barren and prayed to God to open her womb. Hannah’s story is found in the first chapters of 1 Samuel in the Old Testament—it is a God thing that our group reading through the Bible is reading 1 Samuel right now! God listened to Hannah’s prayer, opened her womb, and she bore a son, Samuel, who she dedicated to serve the Lord, and who became a key figure in the story of the people of Israel. Samuel was the prophet-judge who anointed their first human king, Saul. Hannah’s song also describes the great societal and political reversals in the past tense, affirming yes, they are as good as done: the bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength; the Lord raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. She begins her song with these words of confidence and trust in God: “There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. “ Mary has the same quiet confidence and trust in God who is guiding this pregnancy and the impact this child will have on the world. She does not appear to be afraid, but sure. She appears to have found a peace within her heart, within her spirit, within her mind even though there will be tempest tossed days ahead, even though this birth is going to turn the world upside down.
In addition to echoing the words of Hannah, Mary’s song also foreshadows the reading that almost gets Jesus thrown off a cliff by his neighbors in Nazareth. It was his first sermon in his home church. He reads from the prophet Isaiah the passage about the Lord’s spirit which had anointed him to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free. He could have added a phrase, to provide an inheritance for the disinherited. Then he tells his listeners: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” His ministry upends things, like the lava from the volcano of change flowing into the community around him, blanketing it with the kingdom of God which he is ushering in.
In his book, Howard Thurman describes the way people who are disinherited must respond to the ever-present fear of living in a world of violence, threats and control by the privileged and powerful. He says the way to survive is to cling to the foundational truth that each of us is a child of God. No one can take that away. When that status is claimed and celebrated, the tempest-tossed days have no real power. There is a peace of spirit that filters through all the confusions and robs them of their power. Each of us is a child of God. Thurman’s point is that absorbing that truth brings peace within, pushing aside the fears and the tempests of life that surround those who are oppressed, vulnerable, living with constantly scarce resources, disinherited.
Can we sit with that for a moment? You are a child of God. (pause) Can we learn from Mary about making room in our hearts for peace? Can we learn from Jesus about living as confident children of God? Can we find a way to center ourselves in God even on tempest-tossed days? Let us light the candle of peace, peace for ourselves, peace that comes from trusting that we are indeed beloved children of God, the peace that Christ gives, not the peace that the world gives. May you enlarge your hearts to make room for that peace. Peace be with you all. Amen.