Go Tell It on the Mountain
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 27, 2020
1st Sunday of Christmas
There is a beautiful statement attributed to St. Augustine: “The one who sings prays twice.” Of all the things we miss about how we worshiped prior to the pandemic, I daresay for many of us, singing together tops the list. To join our voices as brothers and sisters in Christ warms our hearts and reminds us of who we are and, more importantly, whose we are. Hymns of our faith help us tell the story of God’s love in wondrous ways: Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee; Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me; Guide me, O thou great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land; O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel; Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn king.”; Jesus loves me! This I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
As a Minister of Word and Sacrament, charged with the responsibility of designing worship services, when I think of the songs of our faith, I think of songs that simply must be sung at particular times in the life of the church. For example, every Easter Sunday, I feel compelled to include “I Danced in the Morning” as our final hymn. Why? Because in my humble opinion, it provides one of the best retellings of the life of Christ in its entirety. Another song that almost always makes the cut for the 1st Sunday of Christmas is “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere, go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born.
The song, “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is an African American spiritual that likely dates back to the mid-1800’s. Originally it was passed from plantation to plantation orally until it was finally put to paper and then recorded. Regarding the song, I happened upon the following from a Presbyterian Church blogpost:
“Go, Tell It on the Mountain” is a joyful clarion call to proclaim from the mountain that a Savior is born. Messiah is come! It is an expression of joy and ecstasy for the poor, the downtrodden, the lonely, the insignificant. It is a fresh declaration each Christmas that Jesus is in the world – He was born in Bethlehem. Shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, John Wesley Work II, who taught Latin and history at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, heard someone sing this refrain. He shaped the melody, harmonized the tune, and added some original stanzas. In 1907 he published it in a small booklet, Folk Songs of the American Negro. This song and well-known versions of… “Lord, I Want to Be A Christian,” “Somebody’s Knocking at Your Door,” and “Were You There” were also included.[i]
While “Go tell it on the mountain” is an expression of joy, it is also a vivid picture of what we are to do with the news of the Christ Child’s arrival. And just what is it that we are to do? We are to respond. Let us take a moment to look at how Simeon and Anna respond. When Simeon comes face to face with the Christ Child, he praises God, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” The prophet, Anna, who never leaves the temple but worships there with fasting and prayer night and day, adds her own voice of praise, speaking about the child to those looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. In response to the presence of Jesus, neither Simeon nor Anna can keep from praising God—can keep from telling those around them what has happened in their hearts.
Here we are, some 2000 years later. Is our responsibility any different than that of Simeon and Anna? Aren’t we, too, charged with telling the story—over the hills and everywhere—that Jesus Christ is born? And if we do not, who will? Truth be told, Presbyterians are not known for placing an emphasis on evangelism. We tend to shy away from being so bold. We feel more comfortable relying on words often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words. Perhaps such an attitude sufficed when Christianity held a privileged position in western society—when church attendance was a priority for every man, woman, and child in the neighborhood. But those days are long gone. So, what are we to do?
It is common in African American churches for the preacher to call out during his or her sermon: “Can I get a witness?” To which often comes the response: “Amen.”[ii] Can I get a witness? It is a good question, and it is a question to which we must all respond in some form or fashion—if we are serious about being a follower of Christ. For you see, acting as a faithful disciple will at some point require that we speak of our faith—that we offer our testimony, if you will.
If the whole idea makes us nervous, we might reframe it by considering what happens when we have a delightful meal at a new restaurant in our community. How do we respond? Likely, we tell someone about our dining experience. We talk about the atmosphere, the excellent service, the generous portions, and, of course, the delicious apple pie! So, you see, giving testimony is as easy as apple pie! And we need not be afraid because if we are open—if we are willing—the Holy Spirit will give us the words that we need to share the good things God is doing in our lives and in the world around us. In its most basic form, evangelism is simply telling others about the hope we have for tomorrow. It is about inviting others to the Table so that they may taste and see that the Lord is good.
As recipients of God’s great love through Jesus, we do not have to look far to see God at work. The peace, hope, joy, and love of God are writ large all around us. And the Spirit is constantly on the move, creating and calling us to pay attention and then, to share our experience with others. Come and dine and then, go and tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere, go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born. You see, it is as easy as apple pie. Can I get a witness? Amen!
(Let us keep silence.)
Cover Art “The Presentation” by Ira Thomas @ https://www.catholicworldart.com, used by permission; Music CCLI 20016020/13
[i] Rev. Sarah Bolhofner @ https://www.northcreektoday.org/blogs?author=5630f41ce4b092885154362d
[ii] Canadian Presbyterian Church Resourse: Rev. Dr. Ross Lockhart @ file:///C:/Users/revho/Downloads/Equipping-For-EM_Aug2017%20(1).pdf
Son of Mary
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 20, 2020
4th Sunday of Advent
Fred Craddock, one of the most influential preachers of the past century, shared a story about something that occurred when he was a young preacher, still wet behind the ears. It just so happened that he was invited to the “coming out” party for a young girl on her 16th birthday. What a shindig it was—a beautiful home, a lovely girl with a lovely dress, food, music—a wonderful celebration. From a well-to-do family, this young girl had the world on a string—a future filled with endless possibilities. A short time later, it just so happened that Craddock had an invitation to another home, to visit another young girl—she, too, was 16 years of age. But when Craddock approached her house, he was taken aback by the scene before him. There she stood on a rickety old porch, no shoes, a baby cradled on her hip, with a face that looked as if it had already seen half a lifetime. From a poor, down-and-out family, her future, and the future of her baby, looked awfully dim. Craddock recalled feeling such sadness as he made his way back home that afternoon. He could not help but compare the circumstances of the two girls with whom he had recently spent time, and, as he made his way down the road, he said aloud to the heavens, “I don’t get it, God. Do you love that other girl, the one who lives on the “right” side of the tracks more than you love this one? It sure looks like it.” And after a while, Craddock was certain he heard God answer. “Fred, O Fred,” the voice of God spoke, “Fred, are you stupid?”
In this life, who is blessed and who is not? It is an age-old question that we ponder from time to time. Into our ponderings, walks none other than Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary is a young girl, living in a poor, nondescript town, likely 12 or 13 years of age. She is betrothed to Joseph, which means, among other things, that the bride price has been paid. By all accounts, they are “married” but Mary will continue to live with her family for a year before the marriage can be consummated. Mary is living in an “in between” time, caught between her life as a daughter and her life as a wife.
One day, quite unexpectedly, the angel Gabriel appears with a message for this young girl with no outstanding pedigree. Gabriel comes to announce a special event—a baby will be born. But wait! Something is oddly familiar about this. It sounds a lot like the stories told of long ago—the foretelling of the birth of Ishmael, the birth of Isaac, the birth of Samson. It is the same pattern, isn’t it? The coming birth is proclaimed, the name of the child is given, and then something of the child’s future is foretold. But this is the coming Messiah so why this hearkening back to birth announcements of old? Could it be that the world needs to remember that the saving work God was up to back then is the same saving work God is up to now?[i]
During our journey through Advent, we have considered different ways of knowing Jesus—as the Son of Man, the Son of God, and the Son of God’s Love. Today we consider Jesus as the Son of Mary. Let me be clear, nowhere in Scripture is Jesus specifically addressed as Jesus, Son of Mary. Yet, Mary is favored by God and called to do an extraordinary thing. In fact, Mary is no less “called” than is Moses or Jeremiah. Have you ever thought of Mary as a woman “called” by God to do a prophetic act? Honestly, have you given her much thought at all?
In the book, Mary in the New Testament, Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars work together to examine what the churches have had to say about Mary over the years. [ii] The authors confess that neither tradition has done Mary justice. The Catholic tradition gave her the title, “Mother of God” and made her into a sort of goddess. While Protestants may not be guilty of putting Mary up on a pedestal and denying her full humanity, we are hardly innocent. In our haste to deny “all things Catholic,” we have thrown out the proverbial baby with the bath water. In truth, Mary makes us so uncomfortable that we only bring her out this time of year. We dust her off, shine her up, dress her in blue, and have her smile that sweet, ethereal smile while she holds baby Jesus in her arms. Then, in another week, quick as a flash, we stick her back in the closet until next year. For us, Mary has become little more than a prop in the manger scene. In our determination not to adore Mary, not to pray to her, and certainly not to bow to her, we have gone to the opposite extreme. We ignore her. It seems to me that Mary may have found favor with God, but neither Catholics nor Protestants have done her any real favors since. Nevertheless, could it be that Mary still has something to teach us on our pilgrimage with her Son?
Mary finds favor with God—not because of any special status of her own—but because God chose her—plain and simple. “Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you,” the angel Gabriel says. “The Lord is with you.” These are the same words spoken to mighty warriors like Gideon and to godly prophets like Moses and Jeremiah when they are called by God to do extraordinary things. “The Lord is with you.” Following these words, I imagine there is a great pause…and then…and then…the commission. Mary is called by God and what is it she must do? Mary’s mission? Mary’s prophetic vocation? Motherhood.
“How can this be?” When Mary objects (as all prophets seem to do) she is reassured that God is at work and, ultimately, will be glorified when the Holy Spirit overshadows her with the resulting birth of the Son of God. If these words of assurance are not enough though, like Gideon, Mary is given a sign. The angel Gabriel directs her attention to Elizabeth—old, barren, and in her second trimester! You see nothing is impossible with God. Mary is called and she humbly responds: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary joins her voice to those of Abraham, Samuel, and Isaiah: “Here am I.”
Mary becomes the Amma Mother of Jesus. Favored by God, and obedient to God’s call, what wonders she witnesses. She is there when the Magi come from the east to wonder at this king. She is there as a refugee in Egypt, keeping her baby safe. She is there in Jerusalem when her 12-year-old son goes missing. She is there at the wedding in Cana, prompting her Son to make a wine that is oh-so-fine. She is there at the foot of the cross seeing what no mother should ever see. She is there when the news breaks, “Christ has risen! He has risen, indeed!” After his ascension, she is there praying along with the rest of the disciples. She is there, waiting for her next assignment, her next vocation: to continue the work of her Son.
Whenever I pause to ponder the life of Mary, I have renewed respect for this precious woman, who, as a young girl, appears to have little to offer to the world. Except herself! Turns out, that is all God wants from Mary. It is all God wants from any of us! In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Brent A. Strawn, The Lectionary Commentary, ed. Roger E. Van Harn, 286
[ii] By Byron L. Rohrig, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Bloomington, Indiana printed in Christian Century, November 26, 1986, p. 1062
Son of God’s Love
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 13, 2020
3rd Sunday of Advent
After Mary is visited by the Angel Gabriel, who tells her that she will become the mother of the Son of God, she pays a visit of her own—to Elizabeth. In response to Elizabeth’s blessing, Mary sings a song of praise—what we know as the Magnificat. In this song of praise, Mary rejoices in God and in her good fortune. She imagines how others will be blessed through her and through her Son—the lowly will be lifted up and the hungry will be filled—the ways of the world will be turned inside out and upside down. In time, the baby is born—Emmanuel—God with us. In time, the baby grows into a man and begins his ministry of embodying God’s love for the world. He loves the unlovable. He welcomes the stranger. He does everything in his power to make the wrong right and the crooked straight. Yet, his expansive love serves only to get him killed, or so it seems.
In her song of praise, Mary envisions a new day. But that new day—in its fullness—only begins with the birth of her Son. It will not be made complete until he returns in all his glory. After Jesus returns to his Abba Father, like Mary, we live in the “in between times” and, like Mary, we wait.
We look around us and we see that sin abounds, and sometimes we wonder, what is it all for? When will we see the promise fulfilled? Yes, we wonder, as thousands upon thousands have wondered down through the ages. One such wonderer was Julian of Norwich, who was born in 1342. During her lifetime, the Black Plague swept through England three times. Around half of the population of Norwich died during the Plague. Clergy and undertakers could not keep up. They, in fact, in many cases, became victims of Black Death themselves. The Middle Ages were times of social and political upheaval, and incessant wars. The class system was beginning to crumble and with the sea change, came revolts and lootings and violence. Due to widespread corruption, the church was in upheaval, too. Indeed, these were tumultuous times.
At the age of 31 Julian became ill—so much so a priest was called in to administer last rites. While she lay on what she and others thought was her deathbed, she had a series of mystical revelations—visions—or showings as she called them. After a few days, much to everyone’s surprise, she recovered. But the experience changed her life forever. In the years to come, she would write a short text, describing her visions, and many years later, a long text in which she further analyzed and reflected on all that God revealed to her through decades of meditating on the experience. It is interesting that her book was the first to be written by a woman in the English language. It was a dangerous task to undertake—a woman interpreting the things of God—in English, no less. Some 500 years would pass before the writings of Julian of Norwich would gain the attention they deserve.
From Julian’s writings, we learn of an encounter she has with Jesus. In the vision, she sees the results of sin all around and she drums up the courage to ask why God did not prevent sin from ever coming into the world. Instead of answering her question, Jesus gives her all that she needs, saying, “Sin is inevitable, yet all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” While these are Julian’s most often quoted words, she has more to teach us. One theme worth noting this morning appears near the end of her writings. All along she knew in her heart that the visions were not for her so much as for others. They were meant to be shared. She was merely the vessel. Still, one question remained. What was it all for? And the answer she received was quite simple. It was for love.
Through a modern-day translation, let us hear Julian’s own words:
And from the time that this was shown, I often longed to know what our Lord meant. And fifteen years and more later my spiritual understanding received an answer, which was this: “Do you want to know what your Lord meant? Know well that love was what he meant. Who showed you this? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it to you? For love. Hold fast to this and you will know and understand more of the same; but you will never understand or know from it anything else for all eternity.” This is how I was taught that our Lord’s meaning was love. And I saw quite certainly in this and in everything that God loved us before he made us, and his love has never diminished and never shall. And all his works were done in this love; and in this love he has made everything for our profit; and in this love our life is everlasting. We had our beginning when we were made; but the love in which he made us was in him since before time began; and in this love we have our beginning.[i]
During the Season of Advent, we are looking at Jesus as the Son of Man, the Son of God, and the Son of Mary. Today we reflect on Jesus as the Son of God’s Love because Jesus and love are synonymous. In other words, if we say the name of Jesus, we mean Love. Scripture tells us that God is love and God’s love becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ. When we look at how Jesus lives his life, we see love in action. We witness healing and hospitality, mercy and compassion. To follow Jesus is to live in loving ways. It is to become sacraments of God’s own presence to those we encounter—even those who do not look like us or speak our language or worship as we do or agree with our social or political views.
Above all, God is love. And God is ever loving us and ever working on our behalf. The life and death of Jesus is the supreme act of love and the cross shows us the heart of God—reaching down from Glory and reaching out to all humanity. God can be trusted. God is faithful. In Christ, the Son of God’s Love, a new community begins—one that Mary catches a glimpse of—one that Mary sings of. Truly, the fullness of Christ’s promise of a loving community will not be complete until he returns in all his glory, but in the “in between time,” no matter how things may appear, we can trust that all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well. Furthermore, as members of this loving community, surely, we recognize there is much work for us to do—and it is the work of love. On our journey through Advent, let us ponder in our hearts how we are handling our assignment to be God’s love for the world.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Mary C. Earle, Julian of Norwich, 189.
*Cover Advent Art by Stushie, used by subscription
Son of God
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 29, 2020
2nd Sunday of Advent
Is. 41:1-11; Mark 1:1-8
Today we open the Gospel of Mark and read, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” If we hear these words and take them literally, as THE BEGINNING, then we miss out. For this is a story that’s been going on in grand themes, in grand ways, since “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” What Mark provides is neither the LITERAL beginning of Jesus Christ, nor the LITERAL beginning of THE STORY. Instead, all of Mark, the entire Gospel, offers us the gift of a NEW CHAPTER in the grand story of God’s relationship with humankind. The history of God loving and caring for humanity and God being revealed in unexpected ways through unexpected people is a long, long story. And while John the Baptist, this New Testament prophet, prepares the way for the Lord, Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life! Good News, all around!
In our reading, Jesus is referred to as the Son of God. The title, “Son of God” appears often in the Old Testament, in reference to persons having a special relationship with God: angels, holy men and even the descendants of Seth are called “sons of God.” In the New Testament, Jesus is often called “Son of God,” referring to the special relationship between Jesus and his Heavenly Father. This connection is made even as the angel appears to Mary announcing his coming birth. “Do not be afraid, Mary” the angel says, “for you have found favor with God. And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son…The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”[i]
Both the writer of the Gospel of Mark and John the Baptist point us to this Son of God. Like prophets before him, John the Baptist does strange things in strange ways. When he appears in the wilderness wearing camel’s hair and a leather belt—make no mistake, people take notice. Maybe he reminds them of Elijah or one of the other prophets of old. By this time in Israel’s history, the people are longing for a word from Yahweh, so when John appears in the wilderness urging repentance and baptism, they come, they listen, and many are baptized. The truth is—this rough and roaring prophet has one purpose and one purpose only—to point people to the Son of God who will usher in the Holy Spirit. In a way, John’s life serves as a hinge between the Old and the New Testaments—drawing us back to the stories of the prophets and judges and kings and drawing us toward Jesus, the Son of Man; the Son of God, who comes to redeem creation and all its people.
While the angel, the writer of Mark, and John the Baptist testify to the Son of the Most High, so does his Father. At his baptism, Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens are torn asunder, the Spirit descends upon him like a dove and a voice is heard from the heavens, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”[ii] At the Transfiguration when Jesus talks with Elijah and Moses, Peter, James and John see the clothes of Jesus transformed into a dazzling white and they hear a voice out of the cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.”[iii]
Jesus is the Son of God—but not in the sense of a human father and his son. God doesn’t wed Mary and produce a child. Jesus is God’s Son, conceived in Mary by the Holy Spirit. The relationship between this Father and this Son is beyond our comprehension. Even in our brightest moments, we peer through a glass dimly. Yet, we sense that when we have seen the Son, we have seen the Father.
Jesus speaks frequently of his relationship with his Abba Father. In the midst of praying for his disciples, in what is known as Jesus’ “high-priestly” prayer, he says, “So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.”[iv] Before the world began, Jesus was with the Father. In Colossians the Apostle Paul speaks of Jesus as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation…”[v] Through Jesus the invisible God is made visible.
Mark starts us on another chapter of a story that began long, long ago. The Son radiates the Father’s glory. For us and for our salvation, Jesus breaks into our lowly existence, does his saving work and returns to the side of his Abba Father. But he hasn’t left us alone. The Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom he promised, is here with us now, filling us, praying for us and empowering us to carry on the work of God the Father and God the Son until that day when the Son will come again in all his glory.
There is so much to this story of God’s love…more than can ever be spoken adequately. Yet what can be said is enough…enough to make us see, hear, hope and dream. It is enough to draw us in, claim us in the waters of baptism, nourish us by the bread of life…it is enough!
In Kathleen Norris’ book, Acedia & Me, she tells this story: “When my oldest niece was three years old, my brother would drive her to day care in the morning, and her mother, who worked as a stock-broker and financial planner, would pick her up in the afternoon. She always brought an orange, peeled so that her daughter could eat it on the way home. One day the child was busying herself by playing “Mommy’s office” on the front porch of our house in Honolulu, and I asked her what her mother did at work. Without hesitation, and with a conviction that I relish to this day, she looked up at me and said, “She makes oranges.”[vi]
It’s the Season of Advent and there is a glorious story to be told; a story with chapter upon chapter, layer upon layer, section upon section. It’s so easy to see the part and take it for the whole, but this story is too large to be contained in a chapter, in a section, even in the entire Bible! This story cannot be contained. The Gospel breaks forth from the pages of Scripture and reaches into all creation through all eternity. The whole story of God’s love for us as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, is still being written and, by the grace of God, we are a part of it. Our part is to seek the face of our Abba Father, walk in the path of Jesus our Brother and, as believers baptized through water and the Spirit, live obedient lives.
Jesus Christ, Son of Man, Son of God, enters human history. The Bread of Life comes, comes, ever comes, during the Season of Advent, during every day of our lives, to feed us manna from heaven and to give us the blessed hope of a full life now and eternal life to come.
[i] Adapted from Luke 1:30-35.
[ii] Adapted from Mark 1:9-11.
[iii] Mark 9:7.
[iv] John 17:5.
[v] Colossians 1:15-16.
[vi] Acedia & Me, Kathleen Norris, 216.
*Cover Art by Stushie Art, used by subscription