A few years ago, Ira Glass (who hosts the public radio show This American Life) did an interview with Kathryn Schulz, the author of a book called Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. Each week, his show follows the stories of ordinary people in an incredible variety of different situations. Most of the time, their stories touch on issues you never thought would be interesting at all, but by the end of the show you’re totally caught up in the feelings of a situation you never knew existed. In this interview, Ira Glass starts talking about what makes for a good story. He says, “The fact is, a lot of great stories hinge on people being wrong.” The theme underneath every one of their shows, he says, is “I thought this one thing was going to happen, and something else happened instead.”
Now most of the time, we don’t like being wrong. Or, actually, we really don’t like finding out we’re wrong. But stories of other people’s wrongness are a whole different thing. Surprise endings and plot twists and dramatic irony are what make stories interesting. Because in a way, that’s really how life works, isn’t it? We plan for one thing to happen, or expect things to happen in a certain way, and then something else happens instead.
Stories like that grab our attention because they feel true. O. Henry’s classic story The Gift of the Magi resonates so deeply because this story of a young couple selling their prized possessions to buy each other Christmas gifts, which are then useless, feels like just the kind of tragic irony that sometimes makes up our lives. We feel for those characters, and our expectations are wrong just like theirs. The art of the storyteller, then, in Ira Glass’ words, is that “if it’s done right, you as the audience get flipped upside down,” along with them.
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The song of Mary sets the whole tone for the life and ministry of Jesus. And as she tells it, this divine life that she carries is one who also turns the world upside down. She sings out to God, “You have brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; you have filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” She, a lowly young girl, has been looked upon with favor, and has been raised up to a place of honor. This upside-down kingdom of God is a very good thing for those who are stuck at the bottom, and it’s a good thing for all of us, even if it’s sometimes harder to see for those who are doing pretty well in the current order of things.
The way she tells it, these are things that God has done already! And in some ways, that’s true. But all the same, we still live in a world where the hungry will be hungry again tomorrow, while the rich will just keep getting richer. We still live in a world where bad things happen – where unimaginably awful things happen.
The massacre at a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school on Friday is one of those awful things. It is times like this – with nearly 30 people dead, the majority of them children less than 7 years old – when God’s realm seems so inconceivably far away. There are no words sufficient to capture the horror. This is just so very not right. This is not what God wants for our world. And sometimes it feels like there is just nothing to do but curl up in this darkness, clinging to the people who are closest to us.
But in the midst of all this, somehow, we still proclaim the coming of God’s light into this world. We light these Advent candles, one tiny flame against the dark, then two, then three; and we look out despite the darkness pressing in around us and we shout for joy because we have seen the beginning of this kingdom where God upends all of the patterns of this world, all the awful things we have almost come to expect. We have seen a world, like Mary has, where “by the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (v. 78-79)
Because it is into our world, this same broken and unjust world, that Jesus is born. Matthew’s gospel tells us that in the weeks following Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph fled with him as refugees to Egypt, while King Herod slaughtered every infant and toddler in Bethlehem. Our world is not beyond hope: because it is into the very depths of this inconceivable brokenness that our Christ is born. It is into the midst of all that is wrong with our world that one tiny baby is born, carrying within him all the rightness of the universe.
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Mary’s song is known as the Magnificat, for the Latin translation of the first line, “my soul magnifies the Lord.” How do we, today, magnify the tiny light that is the presence of the Lord, to shine that light out into the darkness? There are times when simply waiting for that promised kingdom doesn’t feel like enough. But we ourselves can magnify that light by proclaiming that there is a better way. By asking those hard questions like, how did we allow this to happen? Why didn’t this boy have access to adequate mental health care if he needed it? Why is it that we live in a country with more than twice as many gun shops as there are Starbucks locations in the world? Why is it that gun violence in urban communities doesn’t inspire this same kind of outrage and mourning?
Because more than anything else, we know that our God’s way is not the world’s way. Our God has raised up the people the world leaves behind. Our God affirms that it does not pay to be greedy or arrogant or violent or full of hate, because ultimately our world will follow the way of One who has a very different plan.
And so today is still the Sunday of Joy. We rejoice not because everything is already right with our world, but because we have seen the promise of something better. We rejoice because we have seen our God working in and through and despite the brokenness of these times, we rejoice because brave and loving people protect each other and those around them, we rejoice because we today can show forth God’s love and God’s presence in our own community. We rejoice because we know that this is not the end of the story.