At this time of year there is a different sound in the air. It’s hard to miss. It fills our ears when we buy food at groceries or shop in department stores. We hear it when we turn on radios in our cars or when we step into elevators. That all-pervasive sound is music.
Christmas music. Some of it is lovely and inspiring; much of it is trivial and silly. I’ve heard sales-people at malls say they have to listen to so much of it that by the time Christmas arrives they are ready to climb the walls. Personally, I like it. Or at least I like much of it. The music of Christmas stirs my emotions and helps prepare my heart for celebration.
The sound of music and the coming of the Messiah have been yoked together since before our Lord set His foot upon the earth. While Jesus was still stirring within her womb, Mary sang the first song about the coming of Christ. The joy of her heart spilled from her lips in the form of music.
Mary had gone to visit a relative by the name of Elizabeth, who was also pregnant and would give birth in a few months to an infant who would be known through the centuries as John the Baptist. When Mary entered Elizabeth’s home, the growing child within her gave quite a kick. Elizabeth told Mary that the baby had jumped for joy because he recognized Mary as the mother of the promised Christ child. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth declared that Mary was exceedingly blessed because she believed the Word of God would be fulfilled.
When Mary heard this, she burst out in song. It wasn’t just some timid little ditty that she sang, nor a sweet and sentimental rhyme. The lyrics were revolutionary. What Mary sang had the tone of a protest song. She sang about the overthrow of the world order; she sang of a reversal of fortunes for the poor; she sang of justice for the oppressed. Her song envisioned a hopeful future. Because Mary believed that the baby within her would pave the way for that future, she had a joy that could not be contained. She could not help but give voice to her triumphant song,
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for God has regarded the low estate of His handmaiden.
Simple Mary. Frail Mary. Without power in a land occupied and oppressed by imperial Rome. At the mercy of those who by the force of armed might could sweep away every obstacle and determine the shape of the world. What difference could be made by one adolescent girl from among a vanquished people? But Mary knew the hidden truth. She knew that “God has regarded the low estate of His handmaiden.” Tucked in Mary’s tummy was the loving might of God in embryonic state. Nothing on earth could disarm it or resist it.
In Mary’s womb was the very power of God which would burst upon the world in the form of Jesus Christ. He would live and speak in ways which would challenge and threaten every form of injustice and unrighteousness. No person, no institution, no nation could withstand Him. This was Mary’s vision, dream and joy.
Evidently Jesus’ eyes could see the same things Mary envisioned. He began His ministry with the words from Isaiah 61 on His lips, words about justice for the oppressed. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
With these words He announced a new world order. Is there any wonder that King Herod wanted to kill Jesus when He was still in a crib of straw? Is there any wonder that Jesus ended up nailed to a cross at the hands of the religious and political authorities? Jesus announced that big changes were coming and this was frightening for those whose comfort depended upon maintaining the inequality of the social arrangement which was in effect.
But Jesus did more than just talk about big changes in the future. He lived the future in the world of the present. His life embodied the standards of the age which was yet to come. Jesus did not participate in the hatred and hostility which filled His first century world. He neither bowed His knee to the Romans who oppressed His people nor did He take up the sword against them. He did not adjust to the pervasive sin in His situation nor did He meet it on its own terms. Jesus did not wait for the new world before He lived the new way. In a world where the rich were honored and the poor neglected, Jesus treated the poor with dignity. In a world where women were disregarded and powerless, Jesus dealt with them with the same respect He gave to men. In a world of conflict, Jesus lived peaceably. He was the incarnation of the just future that Mary had seen and the prophets had proclaimed.
How we see the future shapes the way we live in the present. Ask any investor; the financial forecasts determine where he or she puts money. Ask the average consumer; sales have been down this holiday season because many people feel difficult times are coming. Ask the military; armies beef up their strengths because they see war on the horizon.
And quite often we get the future for which we have prepared; in fact, our very preparation helps to usher in that future. Too many overly cautious consumers will cause an economic slowdown. The feverish preparations for war heighten tension, evoke hostility, and make conflict more likely to occur.
What kind of future do we see? Do we have in our eyes the future that God has promised? Or do we see no better than the politicians and the economists? Do we accommodate our lives to a grim tomorrow or do we live for the light of a glorious day after? It is a tragedy of the church that it has been too ready to adjust to a disfigured world and to do so in the name of realism. What we most need to do is not to conform to the injustice and violence of the world as it is; rather, we are to embody the world as it will be.
There is an incident that took place shortly after World War II involving Francis Pickens Miller. Miller was a great churchman and a statesman. At that time he was in charge of an American military unit in Germany. A lieutenant in his command had a meeting with his Soviet counterpart, who asked the American lieutenant if he had ever read Karl Marx. The lieutenant said he had. In response, the Soviet officer said, “Then you know how history will come out.” Miller heard about this encounter and wished he could have asked the Russian, “Have you ever read the New Testament? If you have, then you know how the future will come out.”
The story is not over. I am still convinced of this: that the real truth about life and history is not found in the forces of oppression or in the dynamics of bloody revolution; that the final truth cannot be seen in the practice of inequality or the presence of poverty; and that the real truth is in the future that Mary saw and that Jesus lived. And when we open our eyes to see it and move our limbs to live it, we, too, like Mary, will sing for joy.
Giovanni, the fifteenth century Italian religious artist, wrote from deep conviction these words:
The gloom of the world is but shadow.
Behind it, yet within reach, is joy.
There is radiance and glory in the darkness,
could we but see,
and to see, we have only to look.
I beseech you to look.

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