December 19, 2021 - Sermon - Rev. Hamilton Throckmorton

Sermon Text

Scripture:  LUKE 1:39-55                                                


   Seminaries can be quirky places. You get all these people crammed together preparing to be ministers, and a somewhat bizarre and idiosyncratic outlook sets in. One day, some classmates and I found ourselves playing a game, of all things, of religious Scrabble, the board game in which players create words from letter tiles. In this seminary version, every word played had to be religious, which, as you might imagine, drastically reduces word possibilities. At one turn, my friend Tom played the word “rent.” I loudly protested that “rent” wasn’t a religious word. To which Tom calmly responded that yes, it was. In the gospels, when Jesus died, said Tom, the curtain in the temple was, as the King James Version puts it, “rent in twain” (Matthew 27:51), or ripped in two. All I could do was shake my head in grudging respect.

   Later on, another friend and seminary classmate, Jill, got herself a cat. Remembering the well-known song of praise that Mary, the mother of Jesus, sings to God, a song called the Magnificat, after its first word in Latin, I suggested Jill call the cat just that: Magnificat—Magnifi-cat! Which she did. We called the cat Maggie. One of my prouder moments. Only in seminary is that likely to happen. You’re free to use that feline name with your next cat, by the way. And you’re welcome!

   The Magnificat, Mary’s Magnificat, is one of the Bible’s great gems. In gratitude for her wildly unexpected pregnancy, Mary here sings her praise to God. She can hardly contain her elation, so thrilled is she by the prospect of what’s to come. Mary is overcome with the joy of God’s presence, and of God’s gift to her. She speaks these words to her cousin Elizabeth, who’s also pregnant, with John the Baptist. Those of you who grew up Roman Catholic will likely recognize in Elizabeth’s song of praise a notable part of what’s called the Rosary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42).

   And then comes the Magnificat. When I hear these words of Mary, I hear a love song. Mary is so smitten with the grace that has poured down upon her that she cannot contain her excitement. She’s so thrilled by the wonder that has overtaken her life that she can’t help but sing in a kind of gleeful abandon to the God who has made it all possible. Her Magnificat is a radiant and “magnificent” song.

   The Magnificat is, as we say, a love song, which is entirely appropriate on this Fourth Sunday of Advent, the Advent Sunday on which we celebrate the love that is at the core of who we are as people and as a church. As we sang in our first hymn this morning, “Love be our song and love our prayer,/ and love, our endless story” (“Awake! Awake, and Greet the New Morn,” v. 3). Love is our very reason for being. And it’s what we’re called to share, with each other, and with the wider world.

   So let me tell you a little that I’ve learned about love. One of the journals I receive as part of keeping up on theological and spiritual thinking is a journal called The Christian Century. And one of their regular features is a series of occasional articles from leading thinkers about what’s called generally “How My Mind Has Changed.” Many of us think we believe the same things now that we’ve always believed. My sense, though, is that if we’re actively engaged with what we here at Federated call Spiritual Formation, we’re always growing and changing and finding new ways to appropriate the faith we proclaim.

   Over time, my own faith has changed, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes in more notable increments. This morning I want to focus on a rather significant way my mind has changed, in recent months, regarding the way I think about God’s love. I recently came across a new and, for me, revelatory way of conceiving of holy love, and I have returned to the image over and over again. Norman Wirzba is a theologian at Duke Divinity School who has an abiding interest in ecology and environmental studies. He wrote a piece recently that had me jumping to attention. And let me say here that, while usually I like to tell stories to bring theology to life, today I’m going to focus on the theology itself. I know this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and that straight theology can sometimes seem pretty dry. I’m going to make an exception this morning, though, because the way Wirzba reframes God and life has made a notable difference to me. And I’m hoping that as I unfold his perspective, it will make a palpable difference to you, as well.

   So here’s what Wirzba says: when God creates, God creates out of nothing. In the Christian tradition, we say not that there was stuff and God made it into something, as though God were somehow wrestling matter into submission. No, for us, God creates everything from nothing. From the absolute nothingness of whatever it is that precedes the Big Bang, God brings into being mountains and hills, trees and flowers, sun and moon, stars and galaxies. And, incredibly unlikely as it seems, you. And me. And Wirzba says essentially that we are God’s body, God’s stuff. More crucially, though, we are the living manifestation of God’s love. The very act of fashioning dust and particles and giraffes and hummingbirds and crabs and the Milky Way, and the very act of fashioning you and me, emanates love.

   Some of us may find it helpful to think, in this regard, of our connection especially to our parents or our children, though I imagine it might happen in other relationships, as well. As children, we are so much the product of our parents—sometimes for ill, of course, but so often for marvelous good. And when that relationship has been good, the child may feel like the creation of a parent’s love, not just in the act of procreation, though that is certainly part of it, but in those years of formation that come to define who the child is. I am me, in large measure, because of the love that was poured into me by my parents. I am their love.

   What Norman Wirzba has helped me to see, in a way that I hadn’t before, is something richer than I’ve ever conceived. As perhaps have many of you, I have long thought that God loves us. A divine Creator made me and loves me, not unlike one person loving another. What Wirzba suggests is something significantly different and noticeably more intimate. It’s not so much that God over there loves me over here. It’s more that I myself, and you yourself, are the very expressions of God’s love. For God to create out of nothing means that everything that is is the manifestation of holy love. It’s not just that God loves you and me. It’s that you and I are the love of God.

 Here’s how Wirzba puts it: “Each creature, we can say, is God’s love variously made visible, tactile, auditory, fragrant, and nutritious.” And he goes on to say: “Creatures are not simply the objects of God’s love. They are, more importantly and more mysteriously, the embodied sites through which the love of God is continuously at work in the world. God doesn’t simply delight in creatures. More radically, each creature is the material expression of God’s delighting life” ( This is dense, I know—it’s dense for me, too. Here, though, is what I think we’re invited to take in: you and I are not just some thing that God loves. We are, instead, the love of God in bodily form.

 One way to think about this would be to liken God’s connection with us to the way we might think about a song that we sing or a dance move that we pull off. If we sing or dance, it’s unlikely we would say that we love the phrase we sang, or the pirouette we made. The song and the dance move aren’t different from us. They really are us. Or think about how a smile lights a person up. The person who smiles doesn’t say, “Oh, I like my smile,” as though it’s somehow separate from us. That wouldn’t occur to us. No, the smile is the person.

 So this maybe is a key to understanding what Wirzba is saying. We are God’s smile. We are God’s affection. We are God’s sheer delight. It’s not that we’re wrong to affirm that God loves us. That way of understanding our relationship to God is deeply embedded in nearly all of us. I’m sure I will continue to say that God loves us in the days and months to come.

   Today, though, we’re invited to open ourselves to an even more intimate and audacious way of conceiving of that divine love. It’s not just that God loves us. It’s that we ourselves—all of us, and indeed the whole creation—are the very expression of that love, we are the language of that love. So when I look at you, I don’t see just someone whom God loves. I see that very love itself.

   Now we can’t let the moment go without acknowledging that we all muck up the love that we are. Our egos poison us. Jealousy and rage and insecurity and fear stanch the embodied love we were intended to be. Cruelty and the demeaning of neighbors and the dismissal of people of other races and the exploitation of women and children—these are toxins that spoil the waterfall of God’s love that we were intended to be. They’re perversions of God’s exquisite love. No accountable community of Christ’s people will turn a blind eye and allow these corruptions to stand. It would be totally inappropriate, certainly, to claim that every detail of life, including all our worst sides, is just as God intended it to be.


 Mary is abundantly aware of this. When she sings her Magnificat, she knows the lows of human life. She knows that, in the world God intended, the proud are scattered, the powerful are brought low, the lowly are lifted up, the hungry are filled, those who exploit are sent away empty (Luke 1:51-53).

   Mary also knows, though, that her soul magnifies the Most High God, the God who reveres all of creation, the God whose very mercy is who God is. And what she magnifies is that this holy love pours out of God as lava pours out of a volcano. And that we are all, at root, that lava, that burning flame of God’s love. Our job is to see and know that about ourselves. And it’s to see and know that about every person we encounter. No matter how they might frustrate us or annoy us or seem to be far off the path of God, underneath it all is God’s lava, God’s beautiful self.

   And maybe the great challenge of faith is to see this. Christmas Eve of 1914 was, as a British soldier wrote, “a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere.” As British, Belgian, and French soldiers fought their German so-called enemies on the Western front early in the First World War, another soldier described what happened next: “First the German soldiers would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing—two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of the war.”

   And this extended moment went on. “The next morning, in some places, German soldiers emerged from their trenches, calling out ‘Merry Christmas’ in English. Allied soldiers came out warily to greet them. In others, Germans held up signs reading ‘You no shoot, we no shoot.’ Over the course of the day, troops exchanged gifts of cigarettes, food, buttons and hats. The Christmas truce also allowed both sides to finally bury their dead comrades, whose bodies had lain for weeks on . . . the ground between opposing trenches.”


Of course, as one account puts it, “it was only ever a truce, not peace.” Yet even now, more than a century later, that “truce has been remembered as a testament to the power of hope and humanity in a truly dark hour of history” ( 

   And from our vantage point today, and in light of Norman Wirzba’s way of framing it, we might say that truce is a manifestation of the love of God whose very expression we are. When we truly take in God’s overflowing lava of love, we are remade as we celebrate the wonder of each person, the beauty of each moment,

 It’s that realization to which we’re to be alert. It’s that love that we’re to tend. It’s that truth that we’re to see in every person even when they can’t see it themselves. God’s love has poured itself out in you and in me and in everyone. Let’s be on the lookout for it. Let’s make it a lifelong habit to practice it. And let’s be thankful. It’s all a magnificent gift. And you and I? We are that gift, the love of God in human form. Thanks be to God.