Texts: Isaiah 35:1-10; Luke 1:46b-55
Date: December 15, 2019
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
A poet named Jennifer Henry wrote a variation on the Christmas song “Mary Did You Know” that highlights the revolutionary character of what she’s singing. Here are some selected verses of her revision:
Mary did you know,
that your ancient words
would still leap off our pages?
Mary did you know,
that your spirit song
would echo through the ages?
Did you know that your holy cry
would be subversive word,
that the tyrants would be trembling
when they know your truth is heard?…
Mary did you know,
that your song inspires
the work of liberation?…
Did you know that your Jubilee
is hope within the heart
of all who dream of justice,
who yearn for it to start?…
Mary did you know,
your unsettling cry
can help renew creation?
Do you know, that we need your faith,
the confidence of you,
May the God that you believe in,
be so true.
Mary’s song, based on an even older song in the Hebrew Scriptures, is definitely insubordinate. One of the commentaries I read says that the Guatemalan government actually banned the singing of the Magnificat in Guatemala some thirty years ago. Unlike a mild Christmas carol like “Away in a Manger,” the singing or praying of these verses was apparently considered “subversive, politically dangerous;” the government worried such words “might incite the oppressed people to riot.” Rulers in high places don’t especially like to hear any suggestion that the powerful will be brought down from their thrones while the lowly are lifted up.
Rulers in high places don’t especially want those folks whose lives are being trampled upon to harbor any hope that things could change, that fortunes could be reversed. People who live in despair are just so much easier to manage. People who have to spend all their time and energy just trying to survive another day are, such rulers hope, too spent to riot. It helps keep the folk quiet to rule with terror as well. Lest we wonder what kind of ruler Mary might have pictured when she sang her radical song, here’s what kind of guy Herod was, according to scholar John Ortberg: His reign was characterized by terribly burdensome taxes, taxes that built the temple and supported Herod’s lifestyle but also cost the poor their land, concentrating wealth at the very top and leaving the masses impoverished (can we imagine such a thing?). Herod was so brutal and unpopular–and knew it, Ortberg writes–that one tradition says that he had “70 elite Jewish citizens imprisoned with orders that they be executed on the day of his death so that there would be tears in Israel.”  He was not exactly a prince of a Prince. He would not want to hear Mary’s song being sung in his courtyard.
Yet such a song was being voiced by poor folk like Mary, and the downtrodden Christian community that formed after Jesus’ death and resurrection continued to sing it as they bloomed where they were planted. Its lyrics were drawn on a long-standing faith in a God who rescues the people, ransoms the captives, and liberates the oppressed. Mary’s hope was desperate and deep; her spirit rejoiced even under the thumb of Empire because she trusted the God who was stronger and longer lived than any unjust ruler. It was not a “justified” joy she expressed, poor and powerless as she was. It was not a “reasonable” or “rational” hope–this deep, desperate hope she voiced. Yet she gave voice to hope and joy. Madeline L’Engle’s poem “After Annunciation” notes the beauty of such irrational hope and joy:
This is the irrational season
when love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
there’d have been no room for the child.
In one sense it’s always “the irrational season when love blooms bright and wild” for people of faith. L’Engle’s poem, whether consciously or not, hearkens back to the poetry of the prophet Isaiah whose vision was of the desert rejoicing and blossoming. The prophet, whose words were written during the Israelites’ terrible exile, specifically mentions the crocus in these lovely lines about the dry land becoming glad with blossoming. In this part of the world we see the crocus as the harbinger of spring; in snowy places it sometimes pokes up and blooms through the snow cover near the end of winter. In Israel the crocus is an end-of-summer flower—more like the fall crocuses we may have in our gardens. Lynn Miller shared this information about this desert flower in her blog: “The Winter Crocus (Crocus Hyemalis) grows after Israel’s long, hot summer. It is among the earliest plants to bloom. The crocus isn’t much of a sign as far as volume and height go. The plant is stemless and stands only 1″-3″ high. Its value as a sign (and symbol) is in its ability to withstand the drought of summer and to sprout, sometimes in anticipation of the rain. When you see the crocus you know that the rains are coming. In an arid land, this is indeed a sign.” It’s fascinating to me that the crocus may well come up before the rains fall, a sign of hope and joy even before the season shifts. It’s an irrational flower, daring to bloom before the rain comes, trusting that the Creator is going to shower down blessed living water into its open purple cup of petals.
Isaiah-of-the-Exile voices a promise that the desert will bloom and then instructs the beaten-up, beaten-down people to encourage the weak, the feeble-kneed, and the fearful to be strong as they watch for God who is going to save them. You could say that he is urging them to be like the crocus, blooming with joyful anticipation of God’s rescue even before it comes. Don’t wait to start blooming until the season shifts and everything is made new; bloom now, bloom irrationally, bloom bravely in a still-parched season! “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God!” [Isaiah 35:4a]
The prophet looks forward to the day when the redeemed and ransomed captives will go home singing, having obtained joy and gladness, while sorrow and sighing flee away. That’s a promise of a whole world made new, but we who are still waiting for the Kingdom of God to be fully realized know that we don’t have to wait for a whole new world to obtain joy and gladness. Joy crops up, blooming bright and wild, even in a long dry-throated season of fear, rage, grief, and anxiety—like crocuses in the desert that pop up before the rains fall. Human life is never (so far) just suffering or just joy—it’s always a mixed bag. I appreciated the way Marcia McFee expresses this: “We like to think if we just get through the suffering that joy will come: first comes suffering and then we progress to a joyful state of being. But the truth is, these deep feelings get tangled up together.
We can go from one to another, back and forth, or feel them all at the same time.” So true! Another writer puts it this way: “Hope and despair dance cheek to cheek around me often.” Dancing cheek to cheek is an even sharper image than feelings being tangled up within ourselves. Hope and despair can dance cheek to cheek; so can fear and courage, sorrow and joy. Perhaps what we need to pay attention to is which is taking the lead as we waltz through our days.
If sorrow, worry or despair are taking the lead, we can seek out joy. Joy, as you know, is different from happiness or jolliness. It’s deeper and more durable, and can be tapped into under any human circumstance. I got an unforgettable lesson in joy when I went to visit Benjy Cunningham in the hospital a couple of days before she died. She had lost much of her powers of speech by then, but she still had a handful of decipherable words. Benjy had fallen and her face was bruised the same purple shade as a crocus; she had knocked out a couple of teeth in the fall as well. Still she smiled and said “Glory be! Hallelujah!” when I approached her bedside. Broken but blooming still. She had made a practice of seeking joy even in hard times and that practice was deeply ingrained in her.
Our book group here at church read The Book of Joy together last year, a book about two of the most durably joyful people in the world, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. The book is about joy as a practice; it’s practically a lifestyle with these two holy men. They observe that one sure-fire way to heal our own pain is to turn to the pain of others and try to relieve their suffering. “It is a virtuous cycle. The more we turn toward others, the more joy we experience, and the more joy we experience, the more we can bring joy to others. The goal is not just to create joy for ourselves, but, as the Archbishop poetically phrased it, ‘to be a reservoir of joy, an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that can ripple out to all those around you.’” 
Tutu’s words “reservoir, oasis, pool” reminded me of another excellent story in a book I have quoted often recently, The Soul of Money by Lynne Twist. Its setting in a desert also connects with the Isaiah prophecy. When she was working for the Hunger Project, Lynne had occasion to travel far into the Sahel Desert in the country of Senegal to meet some villagers whose water resources were running out. They had to either find a new source of water or move their village. They live in a very harsh environment, fine yellowy orange sand with the consistency of flour as far as the eye can see covering everything as it blows around, getting into eyes and lungs. The Hunger Project leaders rode with their local guides over a rough desert road until it ended and the drivers steered over the sand by compass. At a certain point they stopped, turned off the engines and listened into the silence. They could hear faint sounds of drumming and singing, and they drove in that direction to the shade of two large baobab trees where the villagers had come to meet them and greet them with cheering, singing and dancing.
After some dancing and celebration, they got down to the meeting. The people were Muslim, and as they sat in a circle, the men did all the talking. The women sat in a circle outside the primary circle and listened as the male leaders of the village explained their situation and spoke of their desire to find a resolution to their water problem. Lynne said she could feel the power of the women sitting behind her, and she sensed they would be key in the solution. After a while she asked to meet only with the women. It was a strange request in this culture where the mullahs and the chief were empowered to speak for all but they allowed it.
In the circle of women, several women assumed leadership and spoke right away, saying that it was clear to them that there was an underground lake beneath the area. They could feel it; they knew it was there. They had seen it in visions. They needed the Hunger Project leaders to get permission from the men to dig a well deep enough to reach the water. They men had not so far permitted it, as they did not believe the water was there and also did not want women to do that kind of work—weaving and farming were women’s work, planning and digging a well were not. Lynne said it was clear to her that the women knew what they knew, and they could be trusted to find the water if she and her colleagues could help get the men’s permission to let them pursue their vision.
After many meetings and negotiations the men agreed to let the women begin the work of digging the well. It took a year of carefully rationing the existing supplies while the women worked with hand tools and simple well-digging equipment the Hunger Project supplied. The women dug deeper and deeper into the ground, singing, drumming, and caring for each other’s children as they worked, never doubting that the water was there. The men watched skeptically but allowed the work to continue. The women were certain that if they dug deep enough, the water would be there. And it was! They reached the underground lake of their visions. In the years since, the men and women have built a pumping station and water tower for storage. Not just one, but seventeen villages now have water; the whole region is transformed. There is irrigation and chicken farming. Women’s leadership groups in all seventeen villages are the centers of action with literacy classes and batiking businesses. People are flourishing. It’s a wonderful story.
One of the features of that story I love best is that the women saw the underground lake in their visions. Remember the vision that Mary sang in the Magnificat? It was a vision of the lowly being lifted up, the hungry being filled with good things; a vision of God’s mercy being poured out onto Mary and her people. There was joy in that vision of hers, rejoicing as she both experienced and imagined the lowly being lifted up. I believe there is a connection here with the Dalai Lama’s and Tutu’s insights into tapping into joy by trying to alleviate the suffering of others. There is joy available like a vast underground lake for those who have the vision to tap into it by acts of servanthood to the God of mercy and love. Joy bubbles up into us and flows through us as we find ways to help others, to lift up the lowly. Visions like the Magnificat and Isaiah’s vision of the blooming desert point the way to this vast lake of joy available to servants of our God. Then as acts of mercy and justice provide needed support for people who are laid low, the community is strengthened and joy abounds all the more—like the seventeen villages that ended up being nourished through the well the visionary women dug.
It’s not rational, this idea that in seeking to bring joy to others we will find joy and become in ourselves a reservoir of joy, an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity. But this is the irrational season, when love blooms bright and wild. If you’re in a dry, parched place, Beloved, tap into the lake of joy by lifting someone up. Fill someone who’s hungry for food or companionship or affirmation with good things. Don’t wait until you “feel like” being generous with what you can offer—be like the crocus who blooms before the rains come. God’s promise is that the blessings will rain down, causing endless deserts to bloom, bright and wild, bringing Joy to the world. We can be the channels of God’s reign of truth and grace, and the wonders of God’s love.
 Henry, Jennifer https://holytrinity.to/2017/12/mary-did-you-know/
 Ortberg, John Christian Century, December 2009
 L’Engle, Madeline “After Annunciation” in Cry Like a Bell: Poems (p. 58)
 Sermon fodder for the “Heaven and Nature Sing” worship series
 Kennel-Shank, Celeste Christian Century December 4, 2019, p. 18
 The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams New York: Random House, 2016, location 754 Kindle edition
 Twist, Lynne The Soul of Money: Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Life New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003 pp. 69-74