Prepare Him Room:
Week 1 of Repeat the Sounding Joy
Primary Text: Luke 1:26-38
Three hundred years ago, the words of the hymn that we know as “Joy to the World,” were first published, as a paraphrase of Psalm 98 by English poet and pastor, Isaac Watts. The hymn, as we sing it today, incorporates Watts’ words with a tune from Lowell Mason, an American banker whose love of music found outlet in penning musical arrangements for his part-time gig as Sunday School teacher and organist at a Presbyterian church in Savannah, Georgia. Since Mason loved the music of George Frederic Handel, it’s no surprise that there are pieces of the tune reminiscent of that composer’s Messiah. Three different lives, interwoven across oceans and decades, come together to bring the world one of it’s most beloved Advent and Christmas hymns. We say Advent and Christmas because, though the song is often sung as a Christmas carol, a closer look at its words shows as much focus on Christ’s return as on his birth – a perfect connection to the season we enter today.
In a similar way, a prophecy from Isaiah, an announcement made to Mary, and an invitation that comes to us to “let every heart prepare him room,” weave together to offer a powerful message of hope for us and for our world today.
The prophet Isaiah, whose words we heard earlier, was no feel-good prophet. In fact, the words of hope found in 2:1-5, when we hear the promise that, one day, the nations of the earth will beat their swords into plowshares, is situated smack dab in the midst of some serious judgments leveled against Jerusalem and God’s people. But the painful realities of the present did not leave the people of God without hope, and Isaiah spoke hope into circumstances that would involve pain, exile and longing. As the people of God heard Isaiah’s word, they may have wrestled with the accompanying judgement – looking forward for deliverance, but not sure what part they would have to play. Isaiah was inviting his listeners to hope – calling the people of God to prepare room in their hearts for the one who would come to, “teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”
Fast forward several centuries. After decades of what would have felt to God’s people like silence, if not complete abandonment, an angel appears to an unmarried young woman in a part of Galilee known as a backwater country cousin of the big city. Again, the message comes into a world that is filled with challenge – this time not through a prophet, but through an angelic visitor. I sense in Mary’s troubled wondering that she wasn’t sure that this was good news at first. While she would have joined her people in longing for the coming of a messiah, to deliver God’s people from the judgement and pain all around them, being overcome by the Holy Spirit, and giving birth to the Son of the Most High, who would reestablish the throne of David probably wasn’t on her radar. But the angel was inviting Mary to prepare room in her heart, as well as her very body, for the one whose kingdom will never end.
Fast forward nearly twenty centuries. We gather again today, in this season of Advent, in the midst of a world that is not all that different from either Isaiah’s day or that in first century Palestine. It seems to many that our world has lost its mind, and I’m not just talking about politics. Systemic racism continues to keep us from recognizing and realizing the fullness of the promise of our country. Poverty keeps individuals and families locked in cycles of pain and hopelessness. Addiction tears lives and families apart, and there seems to be little answer for the epidemic that is plaguing rural villages and big cities alike. War and posturing toward war threatens nations, costs billions of dollars and too many lives and casts refugees out in search of safe haven.
All around us, friends and family, strangers and neighbors, are living lives of quiet desperation in need of a Savior, in need of a word of hope, in need of something to break through with life.
Church, our world needs a fresh word from God. The world needs a word of hope, a word of life. The world needs to hear that the same God that created all that is, seen and unseen, is the same God who died on the cross for the redemption of that world. The world needs to know that the promise of a creation restored and renewed is real, and it is coming. The world needs to know that when it seems like it’s all going haywire, Jesus is still on the throne.
We are called to take up the mantle of the prophets and the apostles, to speak a word of hope when much around us seems hopeless. We are called, as Dr. Julianni Claassens, a professor of Old Testament in South Africa, writes, “to paint a picture of the world as it ought to be, which seeks to transform the world as it currently is.”
Sisters and brothers, you and I are called not just to speak a word from God that the world desperately needs to hear. I believe we are called to be a word from God that the world is able to see and experience and receive.
Think about the prayer that we lift up every time we celebrate the sacrament of communion, “Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, so that we may be for the world, the body of Christ, redeemed by His blood.”
We pray in communion, that in God’s mysterious way, bread and cup are transformed into Christ, the Word of God. But we don’t stop there, as if the Word is for us alone. We actually have the audacity to ask God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to make us, you and me, dorky, broken, awkward and unfaithful, frightened, lonely, angry and ordinary, into the body of Christ, into the Word of God, for the world God loves.
And here’s the kicker. The really good news. When we yield ourselves to that prayer and that hope, when we say, take me Jesus, make me Jesus, use me Jesus, Jesus does just that. He makes us new, and sends us out, and uses us to change the world, one heart at a time.
So, sisters and brothers, in the words of one of my heroes, Bob Goff, “Spread hope like it’s grass seed in a big wind.”
Embody the hope the world needs to hear, and see, and experience. And together, we will see God’s will be done, and the Kingdom come in our lives, in our churches, in our communities, and on the earth, as it is in heaven.
But that can only happen if we are willing to take the time to prepare room in our hearts for Jesus to come in. You see, Isaiah had to be open to the presence of God before he could ever speak a word on God’s behalf. Before Mary could ever bear the gift of Jesus to a waiting world, she needed to open herself to the message of the angel and say, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” And before we can ever offer hope to a hurting world, we need to open ourselves to the presence of Jesus in our hearts and lives. We need to remember that, when the world was crying out, groaning with the same birth pangs that would rack Mary’s body that first Christmas night, and when Jesus was delivered, so were we. One of my favorite Christmas songs, recorded originally by Chris Rice, puts words to the hearts’ cry of God’s people in that day. “So wrap our injured flesh around you. Breathe our air and walk our sod. Rob our sin and make us holy, perfect Son of God. Welcome to our world.”
May it be so this season. Amen.