Date: December 11, 2016
Title: “It’s a Wonder-full Life!”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Luke 1:47-55
In Nome, Alaska, teachers receive the same professional journals & publications as teachers in other states. One year, there was a 4th grade teacher who was a newcomer to Nome…
She had just received her latest curriculum resource and was discussing with the class the suggestions for a Christmas production.
The instruction manual read: “For the children playing Santa’s reindeer, there should be brown outfits, and passable reindeer horns can be
made of bare branches, trimmed into the proper shapes and painted.” The teacher looked out at the barren, treeless, snow-covered tundra
and sighed. “Well, kids,” she said, “I guess we’ll have to do something else. We can’t make horns of branches because there isn’t a tree
for miles.” The children looked disappointed until one little boy spoke up. “We haven’t any trees, teacher”, he said, “but we do have lots of
reindeer horns… will they do?”
Today is the third Sunday in the season of Advent. As we continue to wait, prepare, anticipate and hope for the coming of God’s reign, it is good time for us to take a look around and recognize what it is we do have.
Last year, on this very Sunday, my daughter Kate called me in the afternoon with a story out of southcentral Texas. It seems she had gone to a United Methodist Church that morning. “Mom!”, she breathlessly told me over the phone, “You’ll not believe what Pastor Doug said this morning!” “Oh,” I thought, “some good material for me to use.” But Kate went on with her story. It seemed that when they lit the Advent wreath on that third Sunday of Advent, they lit two purple candles and then the traditional pink for this Sunday. And the pastor said, “You might be wondering why the candle is a different color this morning. It is pink, because pink is the color for laaadies… and since Mary was a lady, we have a pink candle today.”
Kate said it was all she could do not to lose her breakfast right there in the pew! Fortunately she held it together long enough to get home from church and call me. You see, the real reason for the pink candle is because today – this third Sunday in Advent, is all about JOY.
We know what joy feels like. We know we are supposed to be filled with joy during this season. So why is it we so often feel more like George Bailey, the protagonist of the classic Christmas film It’s a Wonderful Life? The movie tells us that George lives his life with integrity and purpose, even though time and again his personal plans are put on hold in order to care for others. In the film George faces his demons of disappointment and fear one Christmas Eve when his business is in peril and it looks like he is headed for prison. Rather than feeling the joy of incarnation, George tries to end his own life but is saved at the last minute. Drying out from the plunge into the river, George is inconsolable
Dustin Kensrue suggests that Christmas joy may not come easily to any of us:
Christmas is an old story; we all know it well. It’s said that familiarity breeds contempt, which is often true. But if not contempt, familiarity at least breeds apathy, and where there is apathy, there is no joy. The cure for this sickness though, is not in doing and striving, but in seeing – in wonder. Deep joy and deep wonder are intimately connected.
When George Bailey stands on the bridge preparing for suicide – and then later decides it would have been better to never have been born at all, he has lost his sense of wonder. And George is not the only one prone to such a loss
All of us constantly lose wonder at the world around us. If we cannot see beyond our preconceived notions of life, we cannot recognize the beauty and the abundance surrounding us. If we decide we cannot create reindeer horns when we have no trees, we will totally forget we are living in the heart of reindeer country!
It is all so familiar, the many miracles and blessings of life, that it is easy to slip away from wonder into apathy. We stop wondering about hearts that beat all on their own, hands that effortlessly do our bidding, and the beauty we touch every day. We lose the wonder William Blake nudges us toward, To see a world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower.
It is a wonder-full life. And when we can recapture that wonder, we can rediscover joy. For joy goes beyond happiness. It is a state of mind and an orientation of the heart which CS Lewis defined as “a deep longing embedded in each of us, a longing looking for its proper object.” And Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that
The only condition for joy is the presence of God. Joy happens when God is present and people know it, which means joy can erupt in a depressed
economy, in the middle of a war, in an intensive care waiting room.
Joy happens when we recapture a wonder-full life – recognizing God’s presence in every circumstance and in every possibility we face. Mary’s story is the story of God’s presence, even in the most difficult of circumstances. As the story goes, Mary is a poor, unmarried teenaged girl living in an occupied territory, asked to play a central role in God’s story. Faced with the angel and his outrageous invitation, Mary does not do what I might do. She does not point out all the reasons she cannot do what is asked of her, but instead she sings a song of praise which we have come to call the Magnificat.
It has been called the most revolutionary document in the world, inspiring people on the margins throughout history to believe God can actually bring liberation to them. It is considered so revolutionary it has been deemed to be dangerous. During the British rule of India, for instance, the Magnificat was prohibited from being sung in church. In the 1980s Guatemala’s government found Mary’s words about God’s preferential love for the poor too dangerous to allow any public recitation of them, and when Argentinian mothers, whose children had disappeared during political protests, placed the Magnificat on posters in Buenos Aires, Mary’s song was quickly outlawed.
Perhaps the reason her song is so threatening is that the promises of God she names – to scatter the proud, to bring down the powerful, to lift up the lowly, fill the hungry and send the rich away empty – are all listed in the past tense, as if all those promises are already present. Mary enters into God’s preferred future, recapturing for us a wonder-filled life. In the Magnificat, Mary reclaims that intimate connection between wonder & joy, and helps us to do the same.
It is a wonder-full life. And sometimes – like George Bailey, and indeed the whole town of Bedford Falls – we just need to be reminded. The movie ends with word spreading through town that George is in trouble. An $8,000 deficit has been found in the banks’ deposits, the bank examiner is ready to close them down and haul George off to prison for fraud. As the drama plays itself out, you see the whole town coming to George’s aid, offering whatever funds they have on hand, while the bank examiner and the arresting officer give up on their mission and join in the celebrations. At the end, George’s brother flies in from New York and offers this toast – “To George Bailey, the richest man in town!”
The richest man in town, it turns out, is the one who sees what he has been given, not just what he has lost. The richest woman or man is the one who recaptures that sense of wonder, the presence of God in our lives, which brings us not only a wonder-full life, but a joyous one as well. Thanks be to God! Amen.