Tomorrow is the fourth and last Sunday of Advent. People are chomping at the bit to sing Christmas carols in church, but they will have to wait until Christmas eve. The gospel text is from Luke and this is what I'll be sharing with the people of God at Bethel Lutheran Church in Portville, NY.
Last Sunday afternoon a group from Bethel went caroling. We sang at several senior citizen housing sites in Olean and Portville, as well as the home of one of our members. Everyplace we went, people responded with smiles and thanks. However, there was one place that was new for this group of carolers—a group home for developmentally disabled adults. I was struck by seeing and hearing the responses of these so called disabled people. One man had a sleigh bell and rang it as we sang. Others entered into the spirit of the season as they heard familiar Christmas songs by singing along with us. I saw the power of music to move people, especially in this place. In scripture, we have songs of lament, which help us express our grief and fear during difficult times when emotions run so deep. Songs of praise and thanksgiving unite us with God. Then we have canticles of courage and promise, which name and bring to pass our hopes.
The gospel writer, Luke employs many songs throughout his writings. We have songs sung by Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon, Mary and of course, the angels as they announce the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. In today’s gospel reading, we have two songs, one sung by Elizabeth and one by Mary, which is often referred to as the Magnificat.
The two women, Elizabeth and Mary were cousins and both were pregnant. They were like bookends, neither of them expecting what was happening to them. Elizabeth was so old and Mary so young and unmarried. God had turned their worlds upside down. The futures of their babies were inextricably linked. As we have heard the past two weeks of Advent, Elizabeth’s baby, John, prepared the way for his cousin Jesus, the Messiah.
Even in Elizabeth’s womb, John recognized how special his yet unborn cousin was. Luke reports that John leapt inside Elizabeth when Mary arrived. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth bursts into song, pronouncing blessings upon Mary. Elizabeth sings of two reasons for blessing Mary. God chose her to be the mother of the Lord and Mary believed and accepted the word spoken to her by God (vv. 26-38). Elizabeth sings of the child in Mary’s womb as “my Lord”
We are probably more familiar with Mary’s song than Elizabeth’s song. Mary’s song has been set to music more than any other passage of scripture. It also parallels much of the song of Hannah, the mother of Samuel in the Old Testament. Mary praises God for his favor on her. First, she praises him for looking with favor on her lowliness. After all, Mary was a young peasant girl who was unmarried and pregnant. That would give her very low status in her society. God changed her status from lowly to favored as a result of his grace. Second, Mary praises God because he has done great things for her. Even though Mary had many personal reasons to praise God, she did not sing God’s praises solely because of her own blessings.
Mary’s song continues with the triumph of God’s purposes for God’s people everywhere. God is the subject of many powerful verbs in Mary’s song. We hear of the triumph of God’s favor, “the dramatic reversal that is the signature of God’s mighty acts” as one commentator writes (The New Interpreter’s Bible: Luke). The proud have been scattered, the powerful deposed, the lowly exalted, the hungry fed and the rich sent away empty. This is not a call to revolutionary action, but a celebration of God’s action.
But if God has already done this in the past, why is our world in such a mess? Mary is expressing her hope in God in the past tense. It does not mean that this is how we experience our world now. She was so sure of what God would do. Mary knew God’s faithfulness. In God’s view of time, all these things have already been done. God lives in the eternal now, which is so radically different from our understanding of time, especially when we are the ones in the middle of difficulties and grief.
Mary doesn’t just name God’s promises, but she enters into them. She is now included in God’s history of redemption, as is her cousin Elizabeth. Mary’s song began by focusing on what God had done for her, then on what God had done for Israel and his promises for the whole world. Her focus went from the personal to the corporate. God works in our lives and through us works in our communities and the entire world. “God remembers…and acts” (Joel. B. Green). God does the work, but he calls humans to be involved with him in the story of salvation and deliverance. God has called many to be his hands and feet in this world: Zechariah, Mary, Elizabeth, Joseph…us.
Elizabeth and Mary’s songs were their response to God. What will our song be? Will we be a part of God’s history of redemption in our own world? God is a God who keeps promises. He made a promise to Zechariah that he would be the father of John the Baptist. Zechariah was slow to believe, but God still kept his promise. God made a promise to Mary and she believed immediately and trusted God’s promise. In Jesus Christ, God makes a promise to all of us—that God will come and live with us, that he will save us, that God in Jesus Christ has lived through the hard things that we experience in life. There is plenty of darkness and pain in our world today, but those who put their trust in the promises of God can find hope and will have a song of praise to sing. As Professor of Theology at Emory University, Fred Craddock wrote, “To celebrate the future as a memory, to praise God for having already done what lies before us to do: this is the way of the people of God.” Amen.