Texts: Isaiah 35:1-10 ; Luke 1:46b-55 ; James 5:7-10 ; Matthew 11:2-11
Grace and peace be with you my sisters and brothers, in the name of God’s living song, Jesus Christ. Amen.
“You’ve got to let the air out,” is what he said. I was watching Keith Hampton working with the north side satellite of the Chicago Community Chorus here in our sanctuary a couple months back. He was working with a singer who was struggling with pitch. This chorister didn’t have a lot of experience singing and he was making a really common mistake. Nervous that the sound he was producing would be off pitch, this singer was taking short, shallow breaths and keeping all the air trapped in his throat – letting it out in thin streams, the way air squeaks out of a balloon. “You’ve got to let the air out,” is what he said, “make a big sound, like an opera singer.” Sure enough, the note that came out next was big and round and messy – but it was also strong and clear and reasonably on pitch.
It’s fear that keeps air trapped in our throats – fear that keeps us trapped in general. Fear of voicing a wrong note. Fear of sounding foolish in front of others. Fear of losing face. Fear of change. Fear of something new coming into the world and disrupting the fragile, provisional understandings we’ve come to so far.
It’s very difficult to sing when you are afraid. Singing requires you to take deep breaths, to fill your body with air, and then – in a very relaxed, controlled way – to release that air out into the world carrying vibrating waves of sound on its back.
Living in exile, the people of Israel lamented,
By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. 2On the willows there we hung up our harps. 3For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 4How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? (Ps. 137:1-4)
And after generations of waiting on the Lord, a word came through the prophet Isaiah,
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing…then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. (Isa 35:1-2a,6a)
Contrary to the popular imagination, the role of the prophet is not so much to predict the future as to remind the people of God’s intentions for the world along with the consequences of acting outside of God’s purposes. Thus, Isaiah describes God’s hope for Israel as being so far from their present circumstances that it would be like a dry wilderness becoming a lush oasis.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert…the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isa 35:6b,10)
The prophet teaches the people a song that they can carry within them, to hold them through the most difficult of times. A song with a vision of God’s reign, God’s justice and mercy and healing. Singing this song moves people from fear to hope, and from hope to expectation.
The songs of the prophets have to be sung in the assembly because they shape our imagination, our field of vision. Singing the songs of the prophets gets them deep into our psyches, it prepares us to see the unlikely as achievable, the impossible as probable. Having been raised with the songs of the prophets as her hymnbook, Mary is prepared to perceive Gabriel as a messenger of the LORD, and to accept the audacity of the message he brings, “for know a blessed mother thou shalt be, all generations laud and honor thee; thy son shall be God with us.” She is carrying God’s own song within her, and so to her kinswoman Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, she lets go of all fear and sings,
You have…cast the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.
You have filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
You have come to the aid of your servant Israel, to remember your promise of mercy…
Mary, seen by others as a young, unwed mother has been shaped by the songs of the prophets into someone able to see her life as part of the unfolding of God’s intention for the world: an intention of hope, and healing and reconciliation.
John the Baptist, whom Jesus names as another prophet in this morning’s gospel text, knows the songs of the prophets – singing them has gotten him thrown in jail. His song of immanent change and a new world order has frightened the rulers of the day, and they’ve thrown him in jail – thinking that holding him tight would keep his song from getting loose in the world. Hearing about Jesus’ ministry he sends word to Jesus, asking if he is the fulfillment of the song of the prophets. Jesus’ doesn’t send a reply like, “yes, I am the one – I am the Messiah.” Instead he shows not only that he knows the song – but that he is the song. Jesus says,
Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. (Mt 11:4b-5)
One of the difficulties of Advent is that we are told it is a season of waiting. We hear words of prophecy and promises of fulfillment, and we are left to puzzle out for ourselves what it means to be waiting for something that has already come. If prophecy is just a kind of fortune telling, then something that is foretold should only happen once and then be over. But prophecy isn’t reading palms or tree leaves or horoscopes. Prophecy is speaking the truth to power – it is singing the song of God’s intentions for the world. Like a crop that rises from the earth again and again with each new spring, God doesn’t come once and for all, but God does come for all – and so we wait during this Advent season for the world to turn once again. We are encouraged by James to be patient, to strengthen our hearts, and to take as our example the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord (Jas 5:10).
We take our place this morning with Isaiah, with James and John, and with Mary. We take our place with the church throughout the centuries that has heard the songs of the prophets and has sung them in plainsong. We join with Ralph Vaughn Williams and his English hymn setting, and the brothers at Taize with theirs. We listen to the driving beat of the song of Mary, which is really the song of Isaiah, which is really the song of God’s living hope for the world, set to an old Irish folk tune and we wait, patiently, for the world to turn. We fill our bellies with wind, we let go of our fears, and we let the air out.