Magnifying With Mary

Luke 1:46-55 / Mary’s Song of Praise

And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He 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;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

Luke 1:39-45 / Mary Visits Elizabeth

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

Stained glass window of The Visitation, Mary is pregnant with Jesus and Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist, Church of the Reconciliation, Taize Community, Taize, Saone-et-Loire, Burgundy, France, Europe

25 Jul 2014, Taizé, France — Stained glass window of The Visitation, Mary is pregnant with Jesus and Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist, Church of the Reconciliation, Taize Community, Taize, Saone-et-Loire, Burgundy, France, Europe — Image by © robertharding/Corbis

Advent4 / John Stiles / First Lutheran Church / 12-20-15

Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God our First Love, in Christ Jesus. Let all who hear say, “Come!” Amen.

I’m going to go out on a limb today and bet that everyone sitting in this room has, at one time or another, felt superior to or inferior to someone else; either more important or less important than another, for some reason.

We live in a society that is hard-wired for ‘winners’ & ‘losers.’ In school there are athletes and loners, popular kids and stoners. At the movies there are Jedi and Sith, and the Dark Side to play with. And, Santa’s makin’ a list and checkin’ it twice. Why?   Gonna find out who’s Naughty or Nice. And, at the end of every sporting event only one team can sing: “We are the champions!”

So, whose side are you on?

It’s a tempting question we get asked a lot in life. But I’m not sure it’s the right question. Asking ‘whose side are you on?’ only drives the wedge of division deeper between us. Surely there’s a third way to live in this world between winner and loser. Mary shows us how in the song she sings on this fourth Sunday in Advent. It is known as “The Magnificat.”

“My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary sings. In this moment she is neither inferior nor superior – she is simply a ‘magnifying glass’ to show the world what God has done. Mary blows up the fine print of scripture, recalling God’s past faithfulness to Abraham and Sarah – who were also poor, unlikely candidates for God’s will to be carried out. Then Mary zooms in on her own experience of being loved by God (a very intimate and personal testimony): “You have looked with love on your servant here and blessed me all my life through.” And finally, Mary keeps the focus on what God has done (and is doing).

There is no haughtiness to her song: No, “I’m da man!” No, ‘woe is me’ self-pity, either. Only this magnificent testimony that Mary gets to participate in something bigger than herself – she has come, empty-handed, and has been made a vessel for the Almighty. Notice who the ‘subject’ is of nearly every one of Mary’s ‘verbs’ – God! “[God] 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.”

So, inasmuch as Mary’s song isn’t ‘about Mary’ it does leave me wondering: Does God ‘root for the underdog?’ playing favorites with the poor? The powerless? The insignificant? Does God really flip the world upside-down – choosing Moses, with his speech impediment / or David, the scrawny shepherd boy /or Ruth the outsider to lead the people to greatness? Does God really birth kings from poor peasant girls whom nobody knows?

I mean, who else besides Mary understood the depth of this song? That’s right: King Herod. When he heard a child had been born and the prophecies were ‘that the government would rest upon his shoulders’ and that he would come from little town of Bethlehem, what was his reaction? He dispatched a garrison of soldiers to have every child under the age of 2 killed in that region. There aren’t any Christmas carols that tell that part of the story. Herod, that ruthless pawn of the Roman occupying force – who knew his subjects loathed him, but he could care less. Herod, who kept 70 Israelites prisoners at any given time, just in case he might die suddenly. His orders were that those 70 Jews would be killed upon his death, so that there would truly be mourning in Israel when he died (that’s how much his subjects hated him). What an ego trip! What a flagrant abuse of power! Needless to say, Herod was not one to feel inferior to others.

How different were the words of President Abraham Lincoln, when asked whether he felt God was on his side in fighting the Civil War. His reply was: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”

And so, Mary’s song is not diminished, for she strove to be faithful to God throughout her ordeal.  Even through the horrific slaughter of little children, her song stood the test of time. Governments in India and Guatemala once banned the singing of the Magnificat, or its public recitation – for this very reason: it’s dangerous and subversive because it might incite riots in the streets. Mary flips the world upside down as she sings about rulers being cast down from their thrones and the rich being sent away empty. So how is it good news for everyone?

You see, if this song had only been about Mary it wouldn’t have been remembered. But the world was about to change forever in the birth of Jesus. This Magnificat is anchored in that promise that God works through the lowly and the insignificant. Through Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt into the freedom of the Promised Land. Through Mary, in her virginity and her poverty – through Elizabeth, in her old age – through you and me, when we think we have no power. Even through the tragedy of daily mass shootings in our country.

Today I want you to imagine God being born in you, like a song rising up inside of you. Not a victory song of winners or losers – but a song of faith, bringing about a new beginning. What does your ‘magnificat’ sound like? How has God loved you and blessed you, like Mary? You may not have words to express it. When the angel told Mary about it her response was: “How can this be?”

I once visited a gospel singer, Robert Anderson, in his home in Chicago. He was well into his 70’s by then. It was 1993, and I was interviewing him for school project. He spoke of a joy that wells up within the believer’s heart – that doesn’t come from worldly power or wealth. He said,

“Some folks can actually get up and say many things that they wanna say, that they got this and they got this. Yeah you got it, but how long you gonna keep it? And somebody else could receive the same thing, and won’t even think nothin’ of it, and throw it out to the wolves… So, these things don’t mean anything. I’d rather have the love of God, and have his concern than anything in the world. All of this don’t mean nothin’. I’ve sang in front of ambassadors and kings and queens. That don’t mean nothin’! If they haven’t received the word and received the Christ, they’re still sounding brass.”

So, what does ‘joy’ have to do with Mary’s song and Elizabeth’s child dancing in the womb? Just think how distraught Mary must’ve been – all the shame and talking behind her back that must’ve gone on there in that small town. People talk. They want to know who the father of the child is. Joseph wanted to know! And in the midst of all this stress and shame,  Elizabeth couldn’t be happier to see Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” It’s pure joy that she greets Mary with.  This child will rule with love and mercy – not fear and force. His joy will come from the Word of God. It was Jesus who would some day say: (in John 15:11) “I have said these things to you, so that my joy might be in you, and that your joy might be complete.”

Whenever our world seems to be spinning out of control, it’s in our nature to try and take over – to believe that old adage: “God helps those who help themselves” (which isn’t even the Bible). No, Mary will have none of that today. You want to talk about somebody who’s life is out of control? Look no further: Mary knows she cannot help herself. She has appeared before the angel, in her humility and vulnerability, and received all the power she needed from on high.

If the best we can do this day is to put our trust in worldly power – to “Make America Great Again” to be “Winners and not Losers” then we’re just riding the coattails of the Empire, like Herod.

Christmas isn’t about being naughty or nice – and worrying about which list we’ll end up on! It’s about being faithful – which is all Mary & Elizabeth had to go on – faith.

That’s why we need Mary’s song today more than ever. That song of magnificent love – full of the promise and hope and joy that is about to visit the earth. A song that invites us to receive all that is coming to be born in us.

Let us pray: O God, you come to us in ways we cannot understand. In a humble manger, born of lowly Mary. Be born in us ~ and may we too sing that magnificent song of faith, in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

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