This week, as we travel together through the Advent season, getting continually closer to the stable in Bethlehem, we lit the pink candle in our Advent wreath. It represents Mary’s important part in the unfolding of grace in our world. The message is one of hope—hope that lifts our eyes when all seems dark, hope that quiets our hearts when fears and sorrows threaten. Hope that in the midst of this painful and noisy and conflicted time, God’s presence will become ever more real to us, guiding us toward love and light, peace and truth we can enjoy together.
Our Old Testament reading today comes from the book of Micah, written in a time of despair and darkness when the people were without hope. During Micah’s day—he was a contemporary of Isaiah and Jeremiah–the rulers were self-serving, ignoring the needs of the people; and fraud, idolatry, bribery, and violence were the laws of the land. Chapter 7, verse 2 paints a dire picture, saying, “The faithful have disappeared from the land, and there is no one left who is upright.” Richard Foster’s commentary on this chapter says that in this dark time, ‘God’s face was hidden from the people, their souls were barren, their prayers went unanswered, and judgment lay at the door. From this we learn that communion with God is clouded and social [well-being] forfeited by the sins we are so prone to commit.” People had lost the way in their relationships with God and couldn’t find the way back.
Much of the early part of the book of Micah describes how badly wrong everything has gone. He describes judgment against nations and towns, against rulers and prophets, against even those of one’s own households, saying daughter will turn against mother and the son will treat the father with contempt. At the end of this long and heartbreaking litany of the ways people hurt one another in times of darkness, Micah writes in 7:7,
But as for me, I watch in hope for the Lord,
I wait for God my Savior;
my God will hear me.
Micah wasn’t fooling himself; he was well-aware of the darkness and heartache all around him. It was his culture; it was everywhere, and he must have seen the effects of peoples’ bad choices every single day. But even as the trouble crowded in, Micah made a bold claim. He would stand against the flood of exploitation and selfishness surrounding him and he instead chose to watch in hope for the Lord.
Not to rail against the darkness; not to judge and reject the people. To simply watch—in hope—for what God would do next. This choice changed everything about how Micah lived through that time. Instead of pushing back on what he didn’t want—and thereby connecting himself to it—Micah set his sights on what he did want—the peace and goodness of God. Deliverance for the people of his day. That hope drew him forward like a compass, encouraging him and giving him a renewed vision. And he was able to share that hope with others, telling them of a compassionate shepherd who was coming, who would lead them back to God. When we hope like Micah did, it can become an active, creative force. It’s like Bethlehem’s star drawing us closer to the goodness, the welcome, the kindness of God.
As you can probably imagine, hope is a continual theme in my work in hospice. Often people say things like, “I could never do what you do. It must be such depressing work, so hard when there’s no hope.”
That’s a common misconception about hospice work, because it’s not true that hope is gone when we are facing the end of our lives. Actually, for many people, the last weeks or months of life are a very hopeful time. Granted what we’re hoping for changes—instead of hoping for many long good years ahead, we have a shortened timeframe, but if anything, our hopes get clearer and more real and reachable. We hope to have good times with family. We hope to go places that matter, to see our grandchildren, to have a good dinner, to visit the Christmas lights on the circle, to be part of a favorite tradition. People in the last days of their lives hope to feel love all around them; they hope for calm and peace and to be pain-free. Many people I visit say they simply hope to be themselves—to keep their sense of humor, to have their mind intact, to do what they do and say what they say in the final days of blessing in this realm.
People hope to see God, to be reunited with family members who have gone on before them, to dream of those loved ones, to have kind and gentle people surrounding them. They hope to feel a sense of completeness, to look back and feel good about their lives and what they’re leaving behind. They hope to feel the sense of promise and love and eternal peace that they are moving toward. And they hope they will find that the world is a little bit better now because they’ve been in it. They’ve contributed, they’ve loved, they’ve forgiven. Their souls—to the best of their human abilities in their time here on earth—have glorified the Lord.
That’s a lot of hope, isn’t it? When the ends of our lives come into view, our hopes stop being abstract, based on some far-away, vague idea of happiness. They become quite specific, and the happiness we hope for can be grasped, enjoyed, and savored in thousands of beautiful tiny moments. Some might say that is how life was meant to be lived, fully awake, as though each moment is a blessing–because it is. The hopes of hospice patients can carry them safely forward into one of the most profound, mysterious, and transformative experiences of their lives. And we can trust their hopes are met because all along, our hopes are drawing us back to God.
In our New Testament reading today, we heard Mary’s song of hope, when she meets her cousin Elizabeth after a long time apart. Last week I mentioned that Mary received the news from the angel with an amazing amount of grace and acceptance. Instead of questioning God’s plan, or coming up with reasons why she wouldn’t be the right person for the job—which even Moses did, by the way—she simply said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
And Mary’s faith had carried her through those first early months of her pregnancy. And now, as the angel foretold, as she visits her cousin Elizabeth, she gets confirmation of the heavenly identity of her growing child. Elizabeth’s baby—who was conceived several months earlier—leaps at the sound of Mary’s voice. This must have been a tender and heartening moment for Mary, a beautiful reminder that God was with her and that all was unfolding according to God’s plan.
In that moment, Mary’s heart overflows and she says,
“My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
Mary begins her praise with a simple truth—a truth that could be said for each of us—“my soul glorifies the Lord.” And then she marvels that God would choose to be mindful of a life as small as hers. What an amazing honor, a blessing too big for words to convey.
The ideas in Mary’s song tell us a lot about the humility in her heart. Instead of taking God’s blessing as a sign that she was a great soul, deserving of God’s honor—even though she was—she overflowed with thanks and praise for all that God has done, is doing, and will do, across the generations. She gets that she is a small part of an infinitely larger work of love that is unfolding for all God’s children, across all time. Her hope is in God and that’s where she fixes her gaze, not on her own abilities or the happy fact that she was chosen for this role.
She fixes her gaze on that miraculous hope—her knowledge of God’s great mercy, protection, righteousness, and love. She sings about God’s faithfulness, how his promises supported generations, how he rebalances power and makes sure people have what they need, caring for the powerless and voiceless in every culture. Mary’s hope is in God’s love and goodness, mercy and truth. That’s the Bethlehem star leading her—and leading us—forward.
It’s sometimes hard to know, when times are as tumultuous as these, how our hope can make a difference. One small life, doing what it can. But Mary would have said the same. And God tells us—and God’s story shows—that each of our lives and examples make a difference, that our hope is justified, and that Christ comes to teach his people himself. Maybe someone will be more open to God today just because of something we said or did, perhaps without even knowing.
But we can each make the choice Micah made—that even when things look dark around us—we can watch in hope for the Lord and listen in prayer for our part in the story. When we tell God we’re overwhelmed or discouraged and ask for help, help comes—a spreading sense of peace, a feeling of comfort, and an idea that has energy and brings an answer we were praying for.
And the help we receive isn’t just for us alone—we are part of the infinitely larger work of Love God is unfolding in the world. The concerns of our hearts point us in the direction we can help—maybe we have a concern for a particular need in our community. Or we’re worried about kids or families going hungry—that’s been on my heart for the last several weeks. Perhaps we are drawn to help the elderly or have a concern for animals or the environment. Maybe we yearn for more civility—I think we all are yearning for that right now. God can show us how we can help foster respectful dialog among people with different views.
Whatever our concern, we can pray with hope, knowing that God has a place for us in this love story. Whether our part is to pray or to give or to serve in some way, God needs and blesses us all, helping us turn away from the darkness and take our place—our much-needed place—in God’s loving work of Light. And that’s how *our* souls glorify the Lord—bit by bit, as we do what we can to share God’s hope in a struggling world. Our hope is ultimately realized because it connects us—closely, intimately, inseparably—with the love of God. And that’s a true and living—and eternal–miracle.
- OT Micah 7:7
- NT Luke 1: 39-56