Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, December 4, 2016
Taken from Luke 1:39-55
My wife, Karen, loves to watch “Dancing With the Stars,” which means, I get to watch it, too. Or, at least, I get to listen to it sitting there with Karen as I scroll through Facebook. Even supposing there was any kind of dancing gene inside me, my upbringing thoroughly suppressed it.
My old-school Baptist upbringing said, you do not play cards, you do not go to movies and you most certainly do not dance. Also, no cussin’, no smoking and no drinking. Thankfully, the old-school Baptist way did allow for eating, so–we got the church potluck dinner down to a fine art.
By the time I got to my senior high school days, I was ill-prepared for Homecoming and Senior Prom. By the time I was in college, the Twist was far behind us…it was the age of Saturday Night Fever and disco. Precision and flair had returned to the dance floor.
In my poor efforts at learning some kind of rudimentary dance moves, I discovered that three things were helpful for dancing. A sense of rhythm, of course, is pretty important. A second helpful thing is a modicum of coordination. Well, I’ve got a reasonable sense of rhythm, and I’m coordinated enough to walk and chew gum at the same time. But, what I truly lacked was this all-important third thing that is essential to good dancing and even bad dancing.
The third thing you really need to enjoy a good dance is the ability to get out there on the dance floor and just forget yourself. Just cut loose with a total abandonment of any self-awareness. In fact, even if you have absolutely no sense of rhythm and absolutely no bodily coordination, if all you possess is this third ability, the ability to forget yourself, you, too, can dance.
This self-forgetfulness that dancing requires momentarily erases all sense of discomfort or fear. The willingness to be a dancing fool for the sheer delight of it, that is the kind of self-forgetfulness at the heart of every kind of joy, and it is at the heart of religious joy.
There is more dancing going on in our Scripture this morning than first meets the eye*. Verse 44 describes when Mary comes to visit Elizabeth; her much, much older kinswoman is pregnant. And when Elizabeth hears Mary calling out to her, what does Elizabeth say about the baby in her womb? She says, “The babe in my womb leaped for joy.” Then, in verse 47, what does Mary say about her own spirit? She says, “My spirit rejoices in my Savior.”
Elizabeth and Mary use the very same word there. It’s a word that means “to exult…exult.” Now, that’s a word we don’t generally go around using anymore. We don’t go around saying how we exult in this and we exult in that. To exult in something means to be ecstatic about it, to be exceedingly happy.
And ‘exult’ comes down to us from a Latin word meaning ‘to dance; to leap out’. It means to cut loose and forget yourself and go leaping and dancing with delight and joy. So, my anti-dancing upbringing, you see, ill-prepared me to exult in anything and certainly to not exult in or around church since, after all, to be godly meant you did not dance. Isn’t it a shame to knock the capacity to exult right out of ourselves?
Yet, Elizabeth says that baby inside her is just kicking up his heels in a holy dance to celebrate his baby cousin over there inside of Mary. And, Mary says, her soul inside her is kicking up its heels in a holy dance over what God has now down for her. Now, as we read here, Mary’s kind of exulting, dancing spirit doesn’t mean she goes off in some kind of gibbering frenzy. Mary is downright poetic and absolutely brilliant in the way she gathers up from the vast array of Old Testament prophets a few select prophecies. Then Mary weaves those few prophecies together in this song of praise we generally call the “Magnificat”.
Mary starts off by saying, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Think of a magnifying glass that gathers up all the light bouncing off an object, and it concentrates all that light in such a way that it enlarges and makes plain the object of its focus. Or, think of how a magnifying glass can take the rays of sunlight and focus them in pinpoint precision that can set things afire.
Mary is like that magnifying glass. Her spirit is so gathered up and focused full of God, her spirit is so penetrated and concentrated with the truth of God, it spills out of her not as a bunch of random, scattered notions, but as this intense and precise and beautiful proclamation.
Mary forgets herself and exults; she dances; she shimmers and shines in the joy of God. Joy is getting birthed in Mary’s spirit and it wants to get out, now. The joy of God is a full-bodied experience, just like Mary’s pregnancy is a full-bodied experience.
Mary’s experience of divine joy may suggest a few things to us in how we might experience God’s joy. First, it strikes me from this Scripture that the joy of God might come when we least expect it.
The prophecies that Mary proclaims, those prophecies had been floating around unfulfilled for hundreds of years. Why in the world would Mary, this young peasant woman, or Elizabeth, this very elderly woman, think the prophecies would get fulfilled starting with them? No one would expect God to do such a thing.
Imagine you’ve stumbled into an awards banquet. You’re sitting in the very back; you’re not even sure how you got invited to this banquet in the first place. The master of ceremonies is way up front at the head table. He’s about to announce the winner of that year’s award. As they are want to do, the MC goes on and on about all the grand accomplishments and wonderful qualities of this person whose name he’s about to call out. You’re kind of sitting up, looking way over the backs of everybody’s heads, wondering just which one might be this wonderful person.
The master of ceremonies finally finishes his long list of superlatives and begins to say, “And, of course, the person whom I’m describing is none other than….” Suddenly, people are looking at you and slapping you on the back and congratulating you. It finally sinks in, the master of ceremonies has called out your name, and you didn’t even think you were suppose to be there in the first place. How unexpected! What a surprise! And, what joy. The joy of the unexpected good bestowed on you!
That’s what’s happened to Mary and to Elizabeth. They just didn’t see it coming, did they? Their faith had taught them to expect that God would send a prophet who would announce the Messiah’s arrival. Then, after the prophet got everyone ready, the Messiah himself would arrive. They fully expected it to happen someday. But, they never, ever in their wildest dreams, imagined God meant them to be the two women through whom, first, the prophet and, then, the Messiah would be born.
What a weird strategy God has for accomplishing salvation. Incorporating an elderly woman well past child-bearing age and a young woman, most likely a teenager, for whom an unwed pregnancy could possibly have been a death sentence, incorporating these two as key players in salvation.
Well, it may seem a weird way to go about things to us, but God is God and God works in mysterious and surprising ways. And, so God continues to be active in this good world. You and I are part of God’s unfolding drama of saving this beautiful and messy world. As unexpected as that may be for us, we have to ask the question, “What does God want to get borne out into this world through us, in cooperation with what God is about in this world?”
After Jesus gets born, eventually Mary and Joseph and little Jesus settle down in Nazareth. Decades go by. Finally, Jesus leaves home, following God through the Jordan River, following God through the wilderness, following God as Jesus starts calling out his disciples. And what’s the first thing he hears in response? It’s, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” What could God possibly find in Podunk-Nazareth of all places that might help out in God’s good work?
Are you ever tempted to ask that about yourself? What good can come out of my personal Podunk-Nazareth? What could God possibly find in my neck of the woods that could make a difference? Well, a lot of good did come out of Nazareth; God wants to bring forth a lot of good out of your own Nazareth. So, don’t let anybody cast doubt on what God might bring forth from you, whether you are quite elderly as Elizabeth was, or quite young as Mary was, or in your prime but apparently not holding the right credentials, as Jesus was.
Why would God do it that way? Look again to Mary’s example. Verse 47, “…my spirit rejoices—my spirit dances—in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden….” And then, she goes on to say in verse 50, “…his mercy is on those who fear him, from generation to generation.”
Mary sees that God has chosen her for no other reason than God’s own mercy. No doubt, Mary had always heard that God was merciful, and now, she knows it…God has shown profound mercy on her.
God has mercy on all who reverence God and who seek to honor God through their lives. God has this kind of mercy for us, today. God’s mercy is like God’s invitation to come on out to the dance floor and to dance with God. But, we’re just so self-conscious or so full of our own selves, so full, usually, of our own self-doubts, we just won’t go out there with God.
I regret having been so self-conscious growing up that I could not enjoy getting out on the dance floor with my friends. A far deeper regret is knowing there are lots of times my own fears or self-preoccupations have kept me from hearing God’s call to come dance in the presence of God.
But, God is merciful. God has promised, as Philippians 1:6 tells us, “…that the One who began a good work in us will bring it to completion at the advent of Jesus Christ.” A little further over, Philippians 2:13 assures us, “…for God is at work in us, both to will and to do God’s good pleasure.”
God wants each one of you, and God wants me, to be God’s dance partner. Sometimes, in the most unexpected ways and in the most unexpected moments, we’ll hear God calling, “Come, dance with me; forget yourself for a few moments and know my joy, exult in me,” says God to us.
In those moments, don’t worry over what others might think of you. No matter if you suffer from “dance arrhythmia”…don’t even think of yourself. The only thing that matters is what God thinks of you. And what God thinks is, you’re just the one who should be out there exulting in God. That is God’s mercy-filled choice for each of us. This is our joy.
* Exegetical notes are from Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, NICNT (Eerdmans, 1971).