One of the fun surprises of this holiday season has been what we might call the Hallelujah Chorus Flash Mob phenomenon. I’m aware of this having happened two times so far, which might not qualify it as a phenomenon, but I think it’s still worthy of that title. Both instances took place in crowded shopping malls, one in a food court (see it HERE) and another in a large atrium by a Macy’s store (see it HERE), two different groups in different parts of the country.
The basics of a flash mob are that a group of people agree ahead of time to meet at a common place – usually a public place where there are a lot of people. They blend in with the crowd and then, at the appointed time, the group does some spontaneous coordinated act, before dispersing or blending back in with the crowds. One flash mob took place in the London underground subway system. It was a normal busy day when all of a sudden thousands of people started silently dancing disco on the platforms. According to Wikipedia, the largest flash mob to date occurred on March 22, 2008. This was an international event and took place in 25 cities around the world, with more than 5000 people participating in New York City alone. Anyone know what this flash mob was? It was a really big pillow fight. So imagine walking down the street when all of a sudden this massive pillow fight breaks out around you.
In these cases this season, the spontaneous act was singing the entire Hallelujah Chorus. The one by the Macy’s store was accompanied by the world’s largest pipe organ, which is inside this Center City mall of Philadelphia. There were 650 singers from 28 organizations, led by the Opera Company of Philadelphia.
These performances were captured for YouTube, of course. The video cameras are part of the pre-planned strategy so this can be accessible to the masses. The videos start with what looks like a normal day at the mall, with people milling around, eating, shopping. Then there is this outburst of music, really beautiful high quality music, which continues for over five minutes. Throughout the performance there are lots of shots of onlookers who are at first surprised and then joyfully soaking in the experience, capturing the moment on cell phones and the like. At the end of this past week, the two different videos had over 21 million views combined.
These flash mobs were playful, entertaining events and in the videos it’s clear that a good time was had by all – singers and onlookers. They also presented an image that’s hard to get out of one’s head after you see it once, or if you’re like me, five or six times, each. Here in the shopping malls, the cathedrals of our consumer culture, the temples where we gather; here, for five minutes, there is a peaceful takeover of the airwaves by The Hallelujah Chorus. Everybody stops eating, stops browsing and buying, and listens, transfixed in something transcendent and gracefully overpowering. The most poignant moment for me was the point in the song that bellows, “The kingdom of this world, is become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever.”
I have a tendency to read grand things into small moments – I think that’s part of a Christian’s job description, actually – so maybe I’m making something out of nothing here, but give that picture a chance for a little while and see where it takes you. Maybe the whole thing is just a random act of culture, people smile and clap, then go back to doing what they were doing, but maybe it points to something more, something that speaks fairly directly to what we’ve been talking about as Advent hope, the way Christ comes to us.
Today we remember another song that burst unexpectedly into the air that also speaks of grand things. It couldn’t have been more of a different setting. Far away from the crowds, millennia away from shopping malls, inside a small home in the hill country of Judea, two pregnant women greet one another and take comfort in each other’s presence. One is named Elizabeth, a woman nearing the end of her child bearing years, childless her whole life, now entering her final trimester. The other is named Mary, a woman just at the beginning of her child bearing years, a teenager, having just learned that she’s pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Hmmm. There’s a new one.
When Elizabeth greets Mary, Elizabeth’s child leaps in her womb and she gives Mary a blessing, “Blessed are you among you women, and blessed is the fruit of you womb.” The women take refuge in each other’s presence, the two of them holding within their bodies two others whose lives will be so influential for their people. Elizabeth bearing John the Baptist, and Mary bearing Jesus.
At some point in their time together, Mary bursts out in song, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name. God has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
The only onlooker was Elizabeth. The only media capturing the moment that we’re aware of was the pen of Luke, writing almost 100 years later, recording this piece of oral Christian tradition to be accessible to the masses through his gospel. Who knows how many views it has to date. We’re singing two different versions of this song this morning. “My soul is filled with joy,” and “My soul cries out.”
It’s a pretty bold claim coming from a young peasant girl living in occupied territory under the rule of a vast empire. Nothing has changed regarding the sociopolitical ways of the world, and she’s proclaiming, “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” At this point, she and Elizabeth are the only ones in on the secret. God, the Mighty One, is doing great things. It’s happening. They can feel it in their bodies.
Fast forward about 30 years and the bold message is picked up by John the Baptist, now a grown man, declaring to Israel a message of repentance. “Repent, change allegiances, the kingdom of heaven is arriving and all of the other competing kingdoms are being overthrown.” They say that babies in the womb can be influenced by the music that you play to them, so a few measures of Mary’s song must have registered with little John inside Elizabeth. John even gets to baptize the one who will issue in this new kingdom. Jesus comes to him by the Jordan River and undergoes John’s baptism before beginning his ministry. Jesus and John together again. Only this time it’s in a public place witnessed by the crowds.
It’s almost here. The kingdom of heaven is about to arrive in full force and the empire, Rome, doesn’t stand a chance. The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ. The promises of Isaiah are about to be fulfilled. The eyes of the blind will be opened, the lame will walk, the prisoners will be set free, and the reign of God’s shalom will begin.
Fast forward just a little bit further, one or two years, we don’t know for sure, and we have another development. Matthew 11. John is in prison, having brought the heat a little too hot against King Herod. Apparently kings don’t like it when you’re declaring the end of their reign. Silenced and isolated, from prison, John sends his disciples to check in with the one John had so confidently declared as the Messiah. They were to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” How’s that for confidence? Hey Jesus, are you really the one, because if the kingdom of heaven is going to come, now would be a pretty good time…. Or…. are we to wait, for another? Did we somehow misunderstand? Will we have to tell our constituency that ‘mistakes were made,’ in our expectations?
Jesus answers them this way: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me, or, more literally, who is not scandalized by me.” A pretty impressive list. Worthy of Messianic claims, pretty good on Isaiah’s checklist of what things will look like when the Lord redeems Israel. But, for John, at this time, not wholly sufficient. For one, it doesn’t include, (ahem), the prisoners being set free, – hello, – and for another, it’s not the full package. It’s not the kingdom of heaven coming with power. It’s not the new world. The good wheat is not getting separated from the bad chaff, and the chaff is certainly not being burned up with unquenchable fire, as John trumpeted earlier.
Jesus knows that John’s apocalyptic expectations aren’t being fulfilled. The old is not completely gone, the new is not completely here. He describes what he’s doing, what you can hear and see, and then says, “And blessed is anyone who is not scandalized by me.” Who doesn’t lose faith by what I do and don’t do. By the kind of kingdom I’m bringing into being, and the kind of kingdom I’m not bringing.
I’ve got a spoiler alert here regarding what becomes of John the Baptist. He doesn’t make it out of prison alive. No miraculous deliverance. No Prison Break for him. Like some of the prophets before him, like Jesus himself, like many of the early Christians, like many of the early Anabaptists, John becomes a martyr.
Jesus and John begin together, before they’re even born, in that house in the hill country of Judea, when Mary sang her song of triumph; and, in a way, they end together, each losing their life for their mission, a picture of failure, of being triumphed over. In between, it appears, they take different paths in how they interpret what is happening. In what God’s coming, God’s triumph over evil, looks like. We don’t know for sure John’s thoughts on this, but it appears that he went to his grave with profound disappointment and disillusionment with the one he had so confidently declared as the one who will bear the winnowing fork of judgment and separation of wheat from chaff. We know he had questions: Is this what we’ve all been waiting for, or should we wait for another? We might have similar questions. Advent, we know is a time of waiting, but what exactly is it we’re waiting for? Waiting for the apocalyptic moment to finally come? Waiting for the triumph of good over evil? We’re waiting for Christ to come, paying attention for where that might be happening, but what does it look like?
Jesus feels the question is important enough that he pursues it with the people who are there with him when John’s disciples pose their question. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” What a strange thing to say. Out of everyone who has ever been born, ever existed, John is at the top of the list. But the person who gets this kingdom of heaven thing, even the least person, is greater than he. Jesus goes on to say that the kingdom of heaven, rather than inflicting violence, it suffers violence, and the violent try to take it by force. The kingdom of heaven appears to be under the thumb of the other powers, but for those who enter into this new way of being, for those who recognize the greater power of unrelenting love indiscriminately offered and available to all creation, it’s already clear who is in the process of losing their grip on their throne and who is being lifted up as victorious. For those who enter into the Christ consciousness, that acceptance and recognition of love as the underlying power out of which all of creation flows, the apocalyptic moment has already happened. Abusive power has already been overthrown, already on its deathbed; the new order is already present in its pervasive, persistent way, being born each moment.
Mothers have an unfair advantage in recognizing this before the rest of us. They know that true power to bring about life is the power of joyful, surrendered love. Of giving one’s life to another. Of letting life form within us, and then be born and given to the world as a gift. Mary knew that the kings had nothing over what was miraculously happening in her body. The proud have been scattered in their thoughts. The lowly have been lifted up. That’s the order of things. Blessed be the name of the Mighty One, who has done great things.
But these things don’t show up as overpowering forces that unilaterally take over the world and set all things right. Maybe we take offense at that. Maybe we struggle with faith and are scandalized by this kind of weak power we are supposed to accept as the underlying force at work in creation. That’s alright. We’re in good company. The greatest among those born of women had similar thoughts. Rather than being a definitive break in linear time, an apocalyptic intervention, we encounter Christ in occasions, in glimpses that break into our normal way of seeing the world and point to a deeper reality. We see it in flashes and bursts, where, for a brief moment, everything comes together and opens our eyes and ears to transcendence. So basically, what I’m suggesting, is that Jesus invited his followers to imagine the kingdom of God being something like a flash mob. At any time, in any place, we may get a glimpse of the ways that the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our God, and of his Christ.
Maybe what we’re trying to do in the church is to be a sustained flash mob, manifesting the presence of the kingdom of God. The reign that is already happening. Living by different rules, our lives under a different authority, synchronized to a different way of experiencing time. Onlookers scratching their heads, then taken in by the beauty of it all, and maybe even realizing that they already know some of the words to the song, dropping what they’re doing, and joining the chorus.