A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on December 19, 2021
Luke 1:39–45 (46–55)
39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Back in the dark ages of time, before I went to seminary, I occasionally ate dinner with friends. One time, her parents were there visiting, and after dinner, we were invited to play cards. It was a new game to me, and I wasn’t sure about it but we started and we were having a great time – I was doing well, and thought I was winning – but then my friend’s dad said, no you can’t play that card… and the rules turned upside down. So I followed the new rule, and began to get ahead – and then the rules changed again. Thoughout the game, the rules changed erratically, and always in favor of my friend’s dad. I never did feel as though I understood what we were doing. I lost, of course.
It was, in my mind, utter chaos. I still don’t know if the rules were that complicated, I was that slow in picking them up or the dad was cheating. I’ve never played it again. But the chaos of that game was utterly disorienting, and took the fun out of the evening.
You know what I mean?
Just as we think we know the rules, just as soon as we begin to get our balance again, it seems as though something changes with COVID and we’re turned topsy-turvy, what seemed so sure, even safe, no longer sure… and right around Christmas, too… a time when we count on doing what we’ve always done, a time when the stability of the usual means so much, and it seems so broken.
I think that this year, this COVID, has thrown us right back to something about our faith that we don’t often see. It’s thrown us back to a truth we’d rather hide. Chaos is part and parcel of our world.
Chaos is part and parcel of our reality. We try to hide the chaos, we’re frustrated and embarrassed when it shows up, but it is there. Much of the time we try to control that chaos – we make laws, we have customs and habits – and hopes and dreams – but chaos is always right out there on the edge of life. And this year, it’s closer than ever.
That’s bad. But it’s also good, in a weird way. It’s good because it helps us see more clearly than in decades just what good it is that faith brings to us.
Into a world with its own version of cataclysmic chaos came a baby. Jesus didn’t magically “make it all right,” as much as we might wish that were so. What he did, and continues to do today, is that he helps us see and live out a way which takes the energy of chaos and helps us use it to form lives of meaning and purpose.
Mary touched chaos with the visitation of the angel, and her immediate thought was to go see her cousin Elizabeth, who had likewise been touched. The two pregnant women, pregnant under the strangest of circumstances, embraced and in their conversation found a way out of chaos. Mary proclaims that way in the words known as the Magnificat:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Those words are a declaration that in the midst of a random world, there is justice. In the midst of an uncaring world, there is love. In the midst of everything that can go wrong, there is still meaning and purpose to our lives.
We are made to live out God’s spirit. The true counter to chaos is not a new and better COVID protocol, as much as I’d love to see that. It’s not even a perfect vaccination, and everyone in the world signing right up, as much as we’d all like to see that. The true counter to chaos is a Christmas dinner, open to all, served to anyone, welcoming the poor and the rich. The true counter to chaos is a bell choir, started this fall, and already producing music which lifts our hearts. The true counter to chaos is Heather Kennedy and her many colleagues who care for us when we are ill with a compassion which goes beyond the minimum required. The true counter to chaos is love.
When I was in seminary, I had a number of classmates who were Presbyterians – there was a friendly rivalry among us… we’d tease them about their need to “go by the book” and they’d give it right back about the truth that we had no book.. we were the Un-tied Church of Christ. But under that friendly rivalry, was a truth that we can all hold onto. God has called us to create order out of chaos, to live (in the old Presbyterian way) decently, and in order. This is the gift of the babe of Bethlehem…. meaning, purpose, order, justice, mercy and love.
permission has been obtained through CCLI for all music.
© 2021, Virginia H. Child