Fourth Sunday of Advent C
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.
If you have been living under a rock for the past week or so you might not have heard the news, but this weekend Star Wars: Episode VII, “The Force Awakens” hit theaters, and it was kind of a big deal.
I admit, being a total Star Wars fanboy, I almost—almost—bought tickets for the midnight showing, but decided against it. It wouldn’t be the first time I went to a midnight showing! Nevertheless, the media hype for this movie was astounding. As the day approached, my friends grew more and more excited; it seemed like all they could talk about was Star Wars. On the day it came out, most of my Facebook feed had to do with Star Wars and people going—or, in some cases, specifically NOT going—to see the new movie. And though I didn’t end up going to midnight showing, Debbie and I did go see it on Friday.
No spoilers, don’t worry, but while it was a good movie, I don’t think it was as good as the original trilogy which, get ready for this, came out before I was born. And while it has managed to garner a 94% rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website, seeing Star Wars on Friday was not a life-changing event for me. The movie came, I saw it, and now—well, life moves on. It got me thinking.
I wonder how many things I missed getting caught up in the hype surrounding Star Wars. What other stories did I not hear because I was focused on seeing this movie? What other important things in life was I ignoring? For fans of the movie franchise, Friday December 18, 2016, was the day the new Star Wars movie finally hit theaters. But for everybody else, it was just Friday, a Friday like any other, full of work and stress and hopefully play and rest. What else happened in the world that day that no one ever knew about because Star Wars came out that day?
It’s easy to get caught up in the hype surrounding an event, and few events are hyped in our culture today like Christmas Day. Do you know how many months I’ve had to watch people count down the weeks and days until Christmas? Since at least September, I think—people were using a picture of Will Farrell from the movie Elf to show how eager they were to get to Christmas and it was driving me crazy.
Christmas is only five days away, and I’m willing to bet some of us still have a few gifts to get. Is anyone feeling comfortable about that? Or how about the retail workers who are being run ragged trying to keep up with corporate demands for Christmas sales that try to squeeze every last cent out of customers—the pressure they’re under is intense, too. Christmas is kind of a big deal, celebrated by our culture for months beforehand, and around which it seems our entire out-of-control consumer culture revolves. But it gets me thinking.
I wonder how many things we miss getting caught up in the hype surrounding Christmas. What other stories do we not hear because we are focused solely on the gifts, the parties, the stuff of Christmas? What other important things in life are we ignoring? For Americans and Christians, December 25 is Christmas Day, the day we celebrate Jesus’s birth. But for everybody else, it is just Thursday, a Thursday like any other, full of work and stress and hopefully play and rest. What else will happen in the world that day that no one will ever know about because Christmas is that day?
One of the beauties of the Christmas story, of the days and months leading up to it, of the Advent season, is that in contrast to our cultural Christmas the story of the first Christmas and the events surrounding it are surprisingly small. It involves people who, except for their presence in the story, are entirely and 100% unremarkable. People like Elizabeth and Zechariah and Mary.
Their stories are so unremarkable that after our Gospel reading this morning, half of those characters never show up again. They themselves are simply unremarkable people, especially Mary, a poor, young, unmarried woman about to become a single mother. In our Gospel reading this morning, she has just found out that she is going to be a mother, and not just any mother, but the Mother of God, or “theotokos”, as the Eastern Orthodox Churches still call her to this day.
Do you know how many people knew at that time that she was going to be the Mother of God? I can guarantee that there were no cards sent out months in advance. There weren’t television commercials for weeks imploring the Judeans and Galileeans to go out and buy gifts for the newborn child. There wasn’t a road sign next to the inn in Bethlehem that said, “Coming Soon! The Baby Jesus!” It was not a big event that people were eagerly anticipating.
In fact, you could argue quite the opposite. Mary being an unwed mother would have serious consequences for her. Heck, unwed mothers in our own time are still highly frowned on and treated with disregard. In Mary’s day it wasn’t any better, and was probably a lot worse. Her story, her situation, includes a great deal of fear and worry. She had every reason to be afraid that Joseph would cast her out, or that her family would reject her.
And yet in this section of the Gospel according to Luke, we have a most wondrous encounter. Mary and Elizabeth, cousins, friends, come together, and there is joy; joy enough that Luke records Mary’s response to her situation in song. Luke has a habit of this in his first few chapters—everybody sings. Mary sings, Zechariah sings, the angels sing, Simeon sings. None of these are people of any importance outside of this story. Their lives, on the grand scheme, were not worthy of remembrance. They were, in a sense, unimportant.
But since when has a silly thing like importance mattered to God? When has the grace of God been gated behind how many friends one has, or how popular one is, or how many followers on Twitter, or how many news stories are written, or how often one is interviewed on 60 minutes?
With all of the hype going around the Roman Empire at the time, it would have been easy to have Jesus born in an important time and place to important people who could “really” make an impact on the world. Instead, God picked the most unremarkable people with no hype at all surrounding them to make God’s presence known in the world.
It is a habit, a trend of God to use people no one would pay attention to craft a story that is unforgettable. By all rights, this shouldn’t work. And yet it does, over and over again. God writes stories that should get overlooked in all of the surrounding hype, and yet somehow, they endure. When all of the excitement dies down, when the hype passes, and the world looks just as it did before, it is God’s story and God’s presence that remains.
Advent is the season of stories, the season of the “unimportant”, the season of quietness amidst the hype. What stories do we have to tell in the midst of all the hype? What lowly, “unimportant” things do we do that seem like ridiculous ideas doomed to failure?