Sermon: December 17, 2017 (Advent 3B)

Sermon: Advent 3B
Canticle 15 (Luke 1:46-55)
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol

 “God has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Last Tuesday, I was driving Alex, my 15-year-old daughter, to school when she started talking about a band that she likes named “Fall Out Boy.” In her description of Fall Out Boy’s music, she used the words “alternative,” “ukulele,” and “poetry.” I said, “Well, I sometimes like alternative music, and I like the ukulele, and I love poetry, so maybe I’ll like this band. What of theirs should I listen to?” She said, “Listen to Young Volcanoes. It’s my favorite.”

So I got to my office here at church. I opened my Bible to Canticle 15, The Song of Mary (or The Magnificat), and I prayed over it in preparation for today’s sermon. I prayed over the lines I just said:

God has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.

And when I had finished praying, I brought YouTube up on my computer, searched for Young Volcanoes by Fall Out Boy, and heard this in the first two stanzas:

When Rome’s in ruins,
We are the lions, free of the colosseums.
In poison places,
We are anti-venom.
We’re the beginning of the end.

Tonight, the foxes hunt the hounds,
And it’s all over now, before it has begun.
We’ve already won.

And it struck me, as I listened to this song with The Song of Mary open in front of me, that I was listening to two different versions of the same thing, with one important difference.

So let’s take a look at these two pieces, and begin by noting what is similar.

But first, let me address why. Why do I want to compare and contrast The Song of Mary with Young Volcanoes by Fall Out Boy? Because, folks, we’re always talking about how we need young people in the Church, and lots of people say that young people aren’t in church because the Church isn’t relevant to young people anymore. And I object to that argument. I think that the Church and our message are extremely relevant to young people. We’re just not great at communicating the how: How is our message relevant to them? And in order to communicate the how, we need to know and understand what’s important to them, and show them how the gospel taps into that. So today is practice. Fall Out Boy is an immensely popular band, and Young Volcanoes is an immensely popular teen anthem. How does the gospel connect to and build on it?

First, both songs—Young Volcanoes and The Song of Mary—depict an overthrow of the social order, and a radical reordering of its structures.

In Young Volcanoes, the lions that are used for entertainment purposes are free. The things that poison us have lost their power over us. The foxes hunt the hounds. In other words, the strong and the weak, the powerful and the powerless, flip places.

The Song of Mary says this too. The proud are scattered. The mighty are cast down from their thrones, and the lowly are lifted up. The hungry are filled, and the rich have nothing. Once again, a complete reordering of our society. Both seem to fulfill Jesus’ words, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”

Second, and this is the really astounding thing, both pieces depict this as either already having happened or as currently happening.

God has scattered the proud.
God has cast down the mighty.
God has lifted up the lowly.
God has filled the hungry.
God has sent the rich away empty.
Rome, the force of empire and oppression, is in ruins.
The lions are free of the colosseums.
We are anti-venom.
Tonight the foxes hunt the hounds.
It is all over now.
We have already won.

And both are confounding, because of course they’re not true as they’re stated. The proud continue to wield their power together, in Senate chambers and around boardroom tables. The mighty sit on their thrones, and the lowly remain lowly. The hungry are still hungry, and the rich are still rich. The forces of empire and oppression still stand. Things and systems and people continue to poison souls and lives. The hounds hunt the foxes, not the other way around.

Yet both depict the present as being already different, already better.

It’s the why that’s different in these two pieces. Why do they proclaim this? What gives Scripture and Fall Out Boy the confidence to keep proclaiming a message that on the surface isn’t true? What gives them this hope?

I would argue that what gives Fall Out Boy this confidence, and what gives young people like my daughter the confidence needed to sing this song, is a youthful over-confidence in themselves. I have a distinct memory of me at 18, saying to someone, “I know that every generation believes this of themselves, but I really do think that Generation X has the passion and the will to change everything for the better. What I see in my generation is a passion for equality and justice. You’ll see—we’ll make the world into a much better place.”

I don’t know if you can see it from where you are, but 46-year-old me is rolling her eyes at 18-year-old me.

But this is the job of youth—young people are supposed to think that they’re better than their elders. They’re supposed to rebel against who we are and what we’ve done. They’re supposed to think we’re dumb. In some, that takes on a destructive edge of poor life choices and thoughtless behavior. But in others, it takes on a dreamy over-confidence and idealism. We are the world. We’ll be the ones to make this world a better place for everyone. We are anti-venom. And we’ve already won.

There’s an old, old heresy called Pelagianism. It holds that humans can take all the steps needed to bring about our own salvation. If we just choose wisely, if we just buckle up and do the right thing, we can save ourselves. We can be the anti-venom. We are the beginning of the end. Pelagianism was condemned at multiple councils of the Church, including the Council of Carthage in 418 and the Council of Ephesus in 431. But Pelagianism is alive and well today. Young Volcanoes is a good example of it.

The Song of Mary, on the other hand, draws its confidence and hope from God. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” the song says, “and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” We don’t proclaim our own greatness, and we don’t rejoice in ourselves. Our confidence and our hope come from and are centered in God.

And so The Song of Mary looks back at Scripture, at the promises made to Abraham and his descendants, it looks back at all that God had done for the Israelites in the past, and it looks at what God was in the process of doing through Mary, and it concludes that God must still be at work in the world. If hunger still exists, well, there have been times when the hungry have been fed by God, and since God is unchanging, we can say that God is filling the hungry with good things. If we haven’t seen the complete fulfillment of that yet, Mary sings to us that we can live in confidence that God is working on it. That God has filled the hungry with good things, God is filling the hungry with good things, and God will completely fill all the hungry with good things at a time that we cannot know.

But just as Mary watched and waited for 9 months (and probably longer) for God’s promise to her to be fulfilled, we watch and wait, during this season of Advent, for the complete fulfillment of God’s promises to us, for the complete fulfillment of Mary’s song.

But this we know. The social order will be overthrown. Its structures will be radically reordered. In fact, it’s already happening. God has already won.

So is the Christian message relevant to young people? Of course! In many ways, Christians are called to be the world’s rebellious teenagers, dissatisfied and ill at ease with the way the world is. Living in confidence that things will be better. That what generations of human beings before us have done is not all that is. What we are now is not the promise.

And we can even take that youthful passion to make the world a better place and tap into it. We are the Body of Christ here on earth, after all. We are the Jesus movement. We have a part to play. We can take their youthful passion and enthusiasm and idealism and put them to work for the gospel.

What our youth need to know, however, what I needed to know when I was young, is that when plans fail, or we’re weak, when we fail to be the anti-venom and to hunt the hounds—God’s got this. God wants us to participate in God’s work. But ultimately, we need to put our trust and our confidence in God. Because God is the one who makes our songs into holy canticles. If we do great things, it is because God has done great things for us, and holy is God’s name.

So Young Volcanoes isn’t that far off; we don’t need to change much of it to make it right. A few revisions, and it becomes not just relevant, but true:

Rome’s in ruins,
And God sends his lions, free of the colosseums.
In poison places,
God is anti-venom.
God’s the beginning and the end.
Tonight, the foxes hunt the hounds,
And it’s all over now, before it has begun.
God’s already won.

In Advent, we watch and wait—that’s true. But my friends, God’s already won.

Amen.

 

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