First Baptist Church of La Crosse, Wisconsin
First Baptist Church of
La Crosse, Wisconsin
1209 Main Street
La Crosse, WI
(608) 782-6553

Journey to Joy (Isa. 35:1-10 Luke l:46-55)

On further reflection, I would title this sermon “Isaiah, Mary, and Scrooge” (but not necessarily in that order).  In fact, the last shall be first.  Last Tuesday, Maxine and I went to the Twin Cities to see a stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’ great little story A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie Theater.  We went last year, too, and enjoyed it immensely, so we were looking forward to a repeat of this great performance.  Well, this was, as I was reminded by the program notes, the 44th consecutive year for A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie theatre. When the house lights went to black and the stage lights came up, I was“into it” immediately.  But something was wrong. There was a child on stage shaking a snow-globe and singing “The Coventry Carol,” “lullay, lullay, thou little tiny child, by-by, lullay, lullay.”  This was followed by a flurry of snow and fog and characters swirling on the stage, with a tall, thin,bespectacled young man at their centre. All that covered up the disappearance of the child and the appearance of the adult Scrooge.  As we came to find out the child was Scrooge and the young man who was at the center of the stage for most of the scene was Scrooge as a young man. Of course, past, present, and future are important ideas all through. Though I was really absorbed by now, it was not what I’d come prepared for. It was a new adaptation, this 44th, with words drawn more closely from the text of the novel than some past adaptations.  That’s what stories that are repeated in oral form have done for millennia. They have been modified,expanded, curtailed, sung, in order to draw the same audience along on a journey the same but different, and more apropos to its current moment. 

Most of us know the story of Scrooge, since A Christmas Carol is one of the most adapted novels ever written.  It has been done in graphic novels (or, as I’d call them, comic books), on radio, in the movies,and on television.  In fact, many series as different as “NCIS” and “WKRP in Cincinnati” have done adaptations.  It’s the story of the remaking, the transformation, dare I call it the redemption of a man who went from one Dickens described as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching,covetous old sinner”  to what he said later that he “became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.” It is the story of the transformation of  one, to use Luther’s definition of sin,“curved in upon himself,”  whose only value was “gain.” His core was not making of money, or the use of it to make himself comfortable, or even the wasting it on himself, but simply the wanting and having of it; Squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching,covetousness. This Scrooge was transformed into one who gave generously to those in need, and was inclusive in his care.

Apropos of the day, it is also the story of Scrooge’s journey from grumpiness, ill-will  and suspicion toward all to great joy.  From “Bah-humbug.” and “[E]very idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart,” to “it’s Christmas Day, I haven’t missed it.”   “I am as light as a feather,I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to every-body! A happy New Year to all the world!”  As I say, this describes the journey to Joy for every one of us this Advent. We are all, in some way, Scrooge. We all may be transformed into something better than we are.  The story says that selfish people may becomes selfless, that just people may become generous, that good-natured people may enlarge the sphere of their good-natures. It’s as simple as this.  Life is found in goodness and in community, in openness and inclusion of others.  In giving the hour of time to others we didn’t think we could spend, or the dollar we’d rather keep for ourselves for our neighbour. 

The coming of Jesus the Messiah makes transformation possible as well. In looking at our scripture lessons from the point of view of this principle of transformation from spiritual jaundice to joy, we first come to the Old Testament Lesson from Isaiah 35. It is really a prelude to the symphonic poem that occurs a few chapters later, in chapters 40-55, and summarizes many of the themes of those chapters.  This poem is about the wonder that happens when God comes to people who feel alone and transforms them by liberating them to life in community. The chapters are like a many-faceted gemstone. The particular facet of the transformation story to which I point  here has to do with God’s bringing liberation to our narrowness.  We are often bound to sameness. As I said a few moments ago, I was initially disappointed to discover that we were not watching a duplicate performance of Christmas Carol to the one we saw last year. But, once we can let go of that captivity to sameness, we can experience transformation. As God arrived many things happen to those who heard these words, who were trapped in sameness.   

Isaiah 35 says that God’s arrival brings a revolution:  It makes the desert bloom, rehabilitates people who can’ t walk, stand, run, hear, or think, to do all of these things. It makes a highway that is broad and straight through desert places to bring people home. Now, remember, this is a poem, and we read poems amiss to think of desert places really rejoicing as humans do, or reading these as promises of what must literally happen in history. They are poetry. These are images of people and places brought to shalom – wholeness,health, energy, and well-being. In short, when God transforms people it is in the direction of liberation from the sameness of what they’ve been to the newness of what they can become. When such transformation happens it brings smiling joy to our hearts.

As I said to you last week, the Gospel of Luke sprinkles his early narratives surrounding the coming of Messiah Jesus with songs. Today’s Gospel lesson is Mary’s song from Luke 1,and it grows out of her first reaction to being told she will be mother of the  Messiah, found earlier in chapter 1, when she said:  “How can such things be?”  God liberates Mary from what is considered possible and thinkable in our world. It makes transformation possible. In Luke’s story, when Mary said these words, she was pregnant and probably about 13 years of age. She was not  the perfect example of good family, religious upbringing, and great perfection in spite of what Christians have tried to make her into. She was not the model of piety, but the first thing God said was that such was not only OK, but God’swill and plan. That might surprise some who think that “family values” always refer to certain kinds of marriage and family, issuing from some kind of mythology of our imagined (and imaginary) past. They were certainly imaginary among folk in Mary’s situation. God makes transformation from sameness possible.

When we actually read Mary’s song and take off our rose-coloured glasses of 19th century American piety, we find that it is really overtly political. Dozens of people (maybe you) think there’s no place for political statements in the church, surely not in the Bible. It’s interesting to see how blind to the obvious we can be made when we’re told that the plain meaning of words isn’t what they really mean.

The reading of Mary’s song in Luke 1 was actually banned by the government of Guatemala in the 1980’s because they understood the words, and, considered them subversive and politically dangerous. They are. Her song star ts by rejoicing in God who saves. And, by this, she does not mean the cozy value of getting right with God at an evangelistic service(or a baptismal font)  and living ever after in the 1950’s morality of Dick, Jane, Sally, Spot, and Puff. That wasn’t what made Mary sing. No, what rejoices Mary’s heart in God is that God, rather,saves this way:

God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…

In Mary’s day, every peasant like her knew who the proud, the powerful, the rich, the lowly, and the hungry were.  It was her view, from these words, that the little life within her was going to start a revolution that would be a joy to some and a plague to others in the interests of justice!.  Herod the Great understood it that way, as he tried to eliminate the threat of this King of the Jews. One writer said that it may be that only two people truly understood how subversive and dangerous this little life of baby Jesus was going to be. Herod the Great and the 13 year old Mary. When God transforms, it’s in the direction of justice.

Of course, God’s transformative power can move us in many directions. We have lifted up two from our Scripture texts:  Liberation and Justice. There are, of course, others. These things move people in the direction of joy. Sometimes I think we are afraid to be joyful because we’re afraid that people will laugh at us and heap scorn and derision upon us.  Here’s the last word about Scrooge:

“Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.”

When we allow God to liberate us from the slavery of our solitary ways into broad freedom of sharing with community and caring about one another as much as we do ourselves, we can know what the poet of Isaiah 35 meant in these poetic lines:

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and ears of the deaf unstopped ; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

In the name of God:  Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.