When my children were in 8th grade and 4th grade we took, what felt to us like, an epic journey. We left the cold weather of Indiana on Christmas morning and flew to Hawaii for two weeks of bliss. My husband’s sister, who lives in Hawaii, had instigated our trip by telling us that she was getting close to retirement and contemplating retiring to the mainland. (She admitted later that it was a lie to get us to come visit her.)
But I have no regrets. It was a dream trip. We island hopped. We experienced Haleakala at sunrise. We went snorkeling off the Big Island. We splurged on surfing lessons for our boys. On our last full day we took a catamaran cruise to the Na Pali coast off Kauai.
I was so thrilled to be going on a catamaran with dolphin accompaniment that I had not considered that I might get seasick. There I was in this magical island haven and all I could think of was heaving. The boat captain told me to sit outside in the air, find a spot on the horizon and focus on it.
I resonate with that feeling this Advent season. Here we are in this beautiful season of Christmas and I feel like I am going to heave. Every morning I get up and check my news feed to see which politician, celebrity or journalist got fired for sexual harassment. There are shootings and bombings in churches and mosques. There is an investigation on the national level to discern if our leadership has been in collusion with the Russian government. Meanwhile we cut funding to the most vulnerable of our society while the rich get more benefits with the hope that some of that might trickle down to save the starving. I feel sick to my stomach most days. I have been trying to find a spot on the horizon and focus on it but I’m afraid the horizon is just a mirage.
I got out my Christmas decorations this year and stacked the boxes in the family room. This is usually a one-day event for me. It has been said about me that I have a “go” button but not a “stop” button. I usually want to get everything decorated and put away before I go to bed. However, this year, once I got all the boxes in from the garage, I couldn’t force myself to start putting things up. The next day I finally put up the tree. A day later I trimmed the tree. Another day I decorated the mantel. This went on for days while I lived among the boxes. You see, hanging the wreath on the door this year felt like an act of faith. By this time each year I am usually drowning in Christmas music. I belt out “Silent Night, Holy Night” with feeling while I peel potatoes. But I haven’t fully committed this year. Somehow I know that music and decorations cannot blot out my fear and anger. Do you feel like that this year?
It’s a good thing I’m a minister because most weeks out of the year I have to figure out how to bring the good news to others. It means when I hit these times I have to deal with them because I know I have to get up here and remind you….and me…..to focus on the horizon.
For the last couple of weeks I have been looking over our Advent scripture texts for today. I sat out in the air and used our two scripture texts as my focal point to help me find my sea legs. In our first scripture Isaiah describes a new reality, in which the Temple Mount, a hundred feet shorter than the Mount of Olives, will become the highest mountain in the world. It will attract the nations of the world and they will stream to it. God will become the great arbitrator, resolving all international disagreements. With no need for war, war will cease. We won’t even study it anymore. All our weapons will be re-tooled into plows and hedge shears. All peoples of the world will walk together in the light of God. It sounds like a pipe dream….just a mirage on the horizon. The voice in my head says, “You can focus there if you want but it isn’t possible. It is never going to happen.” No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t make this scripture my focal point.
The other scripture today is the well-worn Magnificat, the song that Mary sings after Elizabeth recognizes that Mary has been chosen to carry the incarnation. Mary, belts out a birth announcement on the spot, declaring that God lifts up the lonely, the downtrodden and the oppressed, not just of her day but for us, as well. She sings in the past tense as if God’s promises are already a reality. She declared her relationship with the God who has been siding with the oppressed since the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt. She sang of the Divine One who has been keeping promises since the time of Abraham. Mary…fearless Mary pitches her tent in God’s redemptive history.
Here I am on the boat, trying not to heave, focusing on the Magnificat on the horizon and what I see is that Mary enters right into God’s reign. Mary didn’t focus on the horizon. While I’m drifting at sea, she landed her boat and made the horizon her home.
On the one hand I want to go with her. But on the other hand, I know that Mary’s decision does not mean that her life is going to be easy. She isn’t going to sit home and eat bon-bons. The conscious decision to make the horizon your home takes a new set of eyes, but more importantly it takes commitment. Beating swords into plowshares is not a passive thing to do. Donald Miller, one of my seminary professors writes: “Changing our communities from cultures of violence to cultures of justice is hard work.” By entering God’s story Mary declared herself the indomitable spirit that she was. As Nancy Rockwell writes:
Mary gives birth in a barn…and welcomes weathered shepherds in the middle of the night. She is determined, not domestic; free, not foolish, holy not helpless; strong not submissive.
Mary sets up housekeeping in the Kingdom of God and sings out this song of revolution:
…God, you have scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. You have brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. You have filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
This protest song, sung by the determined, strong, holy Mary doesn’t match the soft hues of the woman we paint as Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus. While I sat out on the deck of the boat and focused on the horizon by reading Mary’s Magnificat I figured out why I’m not feeling “Silent Night, Holy Night….all is calm, all is bright” this year. It was because we have decorated the real story of the birth of Jesus with a story where the cattle are lowing; no crying he makes; the Virgin Mary so sweet and kind; peace on earth and mercy mild. No wonder I haven’t been able to belt out the Christmas carols this year. We’ve scrubbed them of the revolutionary truth the incarnation is trying to speak to our situation and time.
Rachel Held Evans, one of my favorite bloggers, wrote an incredible essay this week on Mary’s song. Evans described how she is feeling this year and like me she is angry. So instead of singing the Magnificat this year she is imagining shouting it…in the halls of the Capitol Building, in the corridors of the West Wing, in the streets of Charlottesville, with the woman who have survived assault, among the poor, the refugees, the victims of gun violence. In those settings this song makes absolute sense. Evans writes:
With the Magnificat, Mary not only announces a birth, she announces the inauguration of a new kingdom, one that stands in stark contrast to every other kingdom—past, present, and future—that relies on violence and exploitation to achieve “greatness.” With the Magnificat, Mary declares that God has indeed chosen sides.
And it’s not with the powerful, but the humble.
It’s not with the rich, but with the poor.
It’s not with the occupying force, but with people on the margins.
It’s not with narcissistic kings, but with an un-wed, un-believed teenage girl entrusted with the holy task of birthing, nursing, and nurturing God.
This is the stunning claim of the incarnation: God has made a home among the very people the world casts aside. And in her defiant prayer, Mary—a dark-skinned woman, a refugee, a religious minority in an occupied land—names this reality.
“God is with us. And if God is with us, who can stand against us?” 
Mary sings the song of our revolution. She chooses to lives as if….as if the rules really apply to everyone….as if a dark-skinned woman, a refugee, a religious minority in an occupied land really matters. You have heard of people who have chosen to land their boat on the horizon. Rosa Parks chose to live as if she was already treated like an equal. Women in the #MeToo movement have chosen to live in the world where sexual assault is not okay. Dreamers have chosen to fully live in the land in which they live. And that is how things get done….when people live as if.
Today we lit the candle of peace. We sang songs of peace. But it isn’t enough to long for it. It isn’t enough to sit in this gorgeous sanctuary and sing about it. That only rings hollow. We can’t cover up the fear and anger with carols about peace. We need to live as if…as if peace on earth is a reality. We need to live as if… by starting to beat our swords into plowshares. We need to live as if…by disembarking the boat on the horizon and living in harmony with our brothers and sisters. We need to be peace on earth…this is the moment….now. Amen.
 Donald E. Miller, Ain’t Gonna Study War No More: Isaiah 2:1-4, Brethren Life and Thought, September 1, 2007, p. 201.
 Nancy Rockwell, No More Lying About Mary, The Bite in the Apple. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/biteintheapple/no-more-lying-about-mary/
 Rachel Held Evans, Mary, the Magnificat and an Unsentimental Advent, Rachel Held Evans Blog, December 5, 2017.