December 10, 2023 ~ Second Sunday of Advent
Rev. Beckie Sweet
She stands at the podium, her face serious, her eyes fixed, her voice steady. Before her are the powerful of the world—the leaders of nations, presidents and prime ministers, even kings. There are the leaders of industry too, the possessors of personal billions, executives who control well over half of the world’s economy. Many, before such an audience, would cower or fall into a pattern of fawning flattery. But not her. She tells them that our global house is on fire and their excuses for not stopping it are worthless. She tells them that for all the pageantry of their climate talks, they continue to make empty promises. She tells them that fossil fuel investments have to stop today, not tomorrow. Her moral clarity is sharp and her arguments hard to refute in the face of the facts. These leaders, accustomed to compromise, shift in their chairs before her steady gaze.
She was then 17 years old, about the age of a girl, some two thousand years earlier, who walked through an occupied territory and proclaimed to the overburdened peasants that God had started the revolution that would bring down the mighty from their thrones, lift up the lowly, and remake the economy to benefit the poor. She announced with boldness that God keeps God’s promises and that in her was the hope that Israel had long awaited.
Who are these teenage girls, boldly proclaiming a new reality? Fearlessly speaking truth to those who long for its coming and to those who would rather not face the facts? The first is Greta Thunberg, the teenager from Sweden who made the international headlines for her unrelenting challenges to the hypocrisy of the world’s leaders with the steady truth-telling of a prophet. And the second is Mary, the teenager from Nazareth who welcomed the action of God in her life as a chance to join in God’s great reversal, freeing the oppressed and putting all of the forces of greed and violence to justice.
To compare Greta Thunberg to Mary, the mother of Jesus, may be too much for some of you. It may seem like a politicizing of a precious figure of our faith to imagine Mary as an activist. But if a walk through the drug store card aisle is any indication, we need a serious reappraisal of Mary, so often pictured in the soft glow of a 40-watt bulb, looking with tender passivity at the angel Gabriel or her newborn son in a manger.
This is not the Mary we find in our scriptures, it is not the Mary who sang the song of revolution we call the Magnificat. If we want an image to help us understand Mary, then we should toss the Christmas cards and turn on the news. The young women who are leading the way toward justice in our world such as Greta Thunberg are far better models for our imagination than anything produced by Hallmark or American Greetings and embossed in gold.
Yet Mary is also more than a young woman boldly speaking for the cause of justice. She is someone who made room in her life and soul and body for God’s work and action in the world. She did this with openness, a sense of waiting and possibility through her expectant “Yes,” her “Here am I” in response to God’s eternal “I am.” Her call for justice that spills forth in the praise of the Magnificat began not in the life of an activist but in the posture of expectant prayer.
In Luke’s story of Mary, we hear the right pattern for the life of faith, the movement toward God’s putting the world right again. As we heard this morning, Luke begins with the story of the Annunciation. Mary, a teenaged peasant girl in Palestine, receives the amazing word that she is going to bear the long-awaited savior of her people, the Messiah, the Holy One of God who is going to take this world filled with violence and injustice, greed and idolatry, and make it all right again.
We know nothing of Mary’s life up until this point. There was no contemporary biopic steaming on Netflix, and for all her greatness she was one of the many workers for justice who were mostly unknown in their lifetimes. But whatever came before the day of that visit from Gabriel it is clear that Mary knows the stories of her faith community, has memorized its poetry and prophets, and is ready. She responds to the angel as one who has long expected God’s salvation, even if she is surprised that she will play such a central role within it.
In the story of the Annunciation we are given an image of the contemplative stance; the position of willing and defenseless waiting before God. It is in this posture of prayer that we make room for God’s coming by surrendering our plans and strategies, however good they might be. But then, from that waiting, when the word of God arrives, we move toward action. That is what we find in the song of the Magnificat—a revolutionary poem that would have certainly gotten Mary arrested had a passing Roman soldier heard it.
Contemplation, the receptive posture to the will of God, draws us into the flow of God’s action in the world. And that action is always on behalf of the downtrodden, it is an action that undoes the accounting of the economies of greed and ecocide and reminds us again that all creation was called good and is beloved of God. God’s action dismantles the institutions and governments of the world that profit from the ruin of God’s creation and God’s creatures.
So, this Advent ~ Christmas season, to which we now turn, when so much is unsettled and nothing seems normal, let us lean into the strangeness. Now is our chance to leave behind the sentimentalities that have insulated us from accepting the radical gift of the Incarnation; now is the time to embrace the unexpected wonder of the new world God is making. Let us leave behind Mary of the soft glow and look instead to the bold teenager who challenged the world with the goodness of God’s justice.
When Greta Thunberg stands before the world’s elites and tells them that the future of her generation “was sold so that a small number of people could make unimaginable amounts of money” we should hear an echo of the teenage girl who received the word that God had come to remake the world in truth and goodness and that the revolution would begin in her. May we be like Mary, joining in her bold “Yes,” and singing gladly her song of praise to the God who lifts up the lowly and scatters the proud, fulfilling ancient promises and offering mercy to all who seek Divine Love. Amen.