A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 11 December
2016, the Third Sunday in Advent, by Rune
Nielsen. The scripture readings that day were Psalm 146:5-10; James 5:7-10; Luke 1:46-55.
Ever since the arrival of European
settlers in the US hundreds of years ago, indigenous people known as Native
Americans have faced intense persecution. Today they are a minority ethnicity,
and still without access to quality education and other social services. In all
areas of life they have to endure the humiliation of racial discrimination that
has kept them in poverty.
In the early months of this year, a
pipeline company announced its plans to build an oil pipeline near land
belonging to a Native American tribe in the state of North Dakota. For the
Native Americans, this area of land is sacred, a place where their ancestors
were buried, valuable to the traditions of their culture. Additionally, there
are environmental concerns that any leaks from an oil pipeline could pollute
their water source and cause major harm to the natural environment. So, to
protect their land, Native Americans started protesting against the pipeline
plans. Some of them have been protesting for over eight months, living in tents
at the site where the pipeline would be built.
In the past few years it had seemed
that some progress had been made when Native Americans got their first
representative in the local government. But incidents such as the pipeline
threat remind us that there is still much farther to go in the fight for social
Today is Human Rights Sunday, a day
which reminds us of the injustice taking place around the world. But after a
few years of increased progress in human rights in places such as the US, it
seems we are now in a time where the campaign for human rights is suddenly
losing progress. In some countries religious intolerance has increased, severe
droughts and natural disasters have left many without adequate food and
shelter, and many people are being denied intellectual freedoms. The US presidential
election of a man known for sexist and racist comments is a big step backward
after previously electing a president who was the first member of an ethnic
minority to serve in that position.
This Sunday’s Advent theme is joy. But
how can we have joy in a world of human rights abuses? In a time when progress
seems slow or even to have been reversed? In the case of the Native American
protesters who have been protesting non-stop for several months, some people
wonder: would it have been better not to bother getting involved at all? Is the
quest for human rights in vain?
We will address the concerns behind
this question in looking at the first chapter of Luke. In this text, Mary sings
the Magnificat, her famous song of praise. She has been informed that she will
give birth to God’s Son, a savior of the world. Now she is visiting her cousin
Elizabeth. At this point, Mary is a pregnant young woman, likely a teenager. In
the eyes of society, she has broken the rules and deserves punishment for pregnancy
outside of marriage. As a woman, she has very few rights. She is a target for
harassment and violence. Scholars note that Mary’s visit to Elizabeth is a
journey seeking refuge, for she is in great danger.
But when Mary sees Elizabeth, she sings
a song of joy. What right does she have to be joyful? She is an outcast. But
Mary sings of God’s promise to rescue the lowly, poor, and hungry, and to
overturn the powerful and proud. Today we may wonder: has that promise been
Christians have discovered that God is
“a God of reversal.” Whatever peace and justice is undone by human hands can be
raised up again. Even before Jesus’ ministry on earth, God was working wonders
among the people. Slaves were set free, the sick were healed, and the lowly were
exalted. But Mary speaks of the reversal of the high and low, the proud and
humble not only for the past. Her song is prophetic, in the tradition of the
song sung by the prophet Hannah in the book of 1 Samuel. Mary’s song also
echoes the themes of many psalms. The ancient Israelites regarded the book of
Psalms as a book of prophecy. For them, it was in the same category as
narratives of the prophets, such as the books of Jeremiah and Isaiah.
But doesn’t Mary realize how difficult
her life will be as the mother of Christ? For soon she will have to flee from
her homeland with her husband and son, going to a foreign country to avoid
death at the hands of a powerful politician. Her son will have many enemies who
oppose his message of peace. During Mary’s pregnancy she might not know these
details of the future to come, but I believe she was aware of the danger and
risk involved in her role as Jesus’ mother. Even at the moment when she sings
the Magnificat, she has begun to experience the danger. But still she sings
with joy. Psalm 146 says “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose
hope is in the Lord their God.”
In the past two months in North Dakota,
the weather has gotten very cold. Sitting in thick snow all day, many
protesters got frost bite, a harmful injury from cold temperatures. But still
they protested. Why?
I will tell you a story of endurance.
There once was a beach where hundreds of starfish had washed up on the shore.
The starfish were dying because they could not survive out of the water. A
little boy at the beach walked along the shore, picking up the starfish, one by
one, and throwing them back into the ocean so that they could live. As he did
this, an old man was watching him. The old man said to the boy, “Boy, look at
how many starfish there are. You will never make a difference.” But the boy
smiled, picked up another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. He told the
old man, “It made a difference for that one.” Although the struggle for human
rights is often not this simply or easily achieved, it relies upon the same
attitude as the boy in the story has. Mother Teresa said, “No act of
kindness…is ever wasted.” Imagine if the whole town of people had joined in to
rescue the starfish—how many could be saved!
In the case of the protesters in North
Dakota, entire towns did join in the cause. Some churches began to donate
blankets and other supplies to help protesters stay warm. Also, two weeks ago,
thousands of US war veterans traveled to North Dakota and protect the
protesters from any harm they may receive from police. Still, they face many
It makes us wonder: How do people in
desperate situations cope? They sing. After a deadly shooting and bombing took
place in Norway in 2011, thousands of people gathered in the capital to sing
songs of peace and justice. Persecuted Christians in the war zone Gaza Strip of
Israel sing similar songs as they gather around the oppressive walls that
replaced their church buildings. They sing in the hope that one day the justice
and peace in the lyrics will be accomplished.
Mary’s song is also amazing. She knows
that the future will be difficult, and does not know the details, but she
trusts God. One day, Mary’s baby boy will be sentenced to death as a criminal
and die before her very eyes. The baby boy she received as a gift from God was
taken away from her. Was that the end of God’s promise to her? Had it been no
use that Mary had raised God’s son if he could not save the world?
In the Native American protests, many
politicians still continued to ignore the rights of Native Americans, despite
the thousands of people crying out for equality and justice. Some politicians
suggested setting up a barrier that would prevent food from reaching the
protesters, to force them to leave by starvation. Other politicians suggested
destroying the tents and campsites. All
of this made people around the nation wonder—were the protesters’ efforts
But Mary experienced a story of hope we
can all learn from. Jesus rose from the dead…Mary’s son lived! Jesus’ story of
resurrection is the story of this world. This world in which people are hurt,
degraded, and even killed, is being transformed. Jesus died that we may have
eternal life! The Magnificat is not just Mary’s song, but also our own, a song
for all times and places.
As a human rights activist once said,
“At the moment when it seems the battle is lost, when even desperate hope has
begun to fade away, that is when the tide will change and the flame of justice
Last week the US government decided not
to give a drilling permit to the pipeline company for building the pipeline in
the Native American lands. After months of clinging on to desperate hope, the
protesters have begun to see positive change. They have gathered around
campfires, singing songs of joy.
However, the protesters are aware that
the authorities’ decision could be overturned by the new Trump administration.
There is still a possibility that their long struggle for justice will have to
last even longer. But still they sing. There is joy that their voice was heard,
that people are now aware of their cause and allies have joined them.
Similarly, Mary didn’t give up on the world when she experienced the injustice
of society, and neither shall we. To be joyful is to celebrate God’s promises,
because Jesus has already declared victory over sin and death. Joy lives.