This is the message I preached last Sunday, 12/23/18 at St. Timothy Lutheran Church, for the last Sunday of Advent. The text was Luke 1:39-55.
Today’s gospel is the story of the intersection of two women’s lives—that of Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist and Mary, the mother of Jesus. The first part of the reading is the Visitation, where Mary visits Elizabeth. Then we have Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s words, the Magnificat,which we’ll be concentrating on today.
If you’ve ever heard or read the story of Samuel in the Old Testament, you may hear a similarity in Mary’s words to that of Hannah, Samuel’s mother.Hannah prayed, “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies because I rejoice in my victory” (1 Sam. 2:1). Perhaps Mary was inspired by Hannah’s words.
One of the hallmarks of Luke’s writing is the frequency with which he refers to joy and the sheer number of songs, like the Magnificat that are throughout the gospel.The Magnificat’s poetic structure and content resembles many of the psalms of praise attributed to David. We see the joy of the announcements of the births of John and Jesus in the first two chapters of Luke, followed by joy of forgiveness, healings, raising the dead, and receiving the outcasts throughout the ministry of Jesus.
Mary sings about three things in the Magnificat: joy, justice and God’s faithfulness.
The first half of Mary’s song, emphasizing joy, is very personal, focusing on the marvelous work God has done for her. Joy bursts forth from Mary’s heart as she sings her song. She has reason to be joyful for God has given her a unique place in the scheme of salvation. The joy of the mother will be the job of the Son.
Mary praises God as her savior and yet it is Jesus who will bring about that salvation. The Son saves the mother.
Mary rejoices in God her Savior. Savior expresses the desperate need of the lowly, poor, oppressed and hungry. Savior gives evidence of the sense of need greater than one’s own strength. Savior also confesses that the need for deliverance has been met by another.
Only v. 48 speaks directly to the Mary’s situation, “for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” Why would Mary refer to herself as lowly? For one thing, she was from Nazareth, a small town of lower class tradespeople. And of course, she was engaged to Joseph, but she was pregnant! That in itself was a shame, so much so, that if you remember, an angel had to stop Joseph from breaking off their engagement, affirming Mary’s story of the baby in her womb being from the Holy Spirit.
This verse declares the reason for Mary’s praise and identifies her with the lowly, which foreshadows both the promise of the exaltation of the lowly and the fulfillment of this promise in Jesus’ ministry. Mary sings of God’s redeeming work not as something in the future, but as already having been fulfilled. She is so confident in what God will do in establishing a kingdom of justice and peace, that the future vision of the kingdom is described in the past tense.
As we progress through this song, it turns to the effect of the Lord’s coming for all God’s people as it addresses the issue of justice, vv. 51-53. The horizon across time and space is broadened. Throughout scripture, we find God taking sides with the weak, the poor and those on the margins of society. In these verses about justice, we find that the overthrow of the powerful came not through the mounting up of the weak in rebellion, but through the coming of God in the weakness of a child.
Such dramatic reversal is the signature of God’s mighty acts. The proud are scattered and the powerful deposed. By contrast, the lowly are exalted and the hungry are fed while the rich are sent away empty.
Mary’s faithful trust in God alone brings her to sing the lyric of God’s abundant justice and the fulfillment of God’s promises.
The third element of Mary’s song is God's faithfulness, vv. 54-55. In this final part of the Magnificat, we hear echoes of the promises God made long ago in the Hebrew Scriptures to the people of Israel. The Lord has helped Israel to remember God’s mercies. Mary expresses active confidence that God would bring God’s promise into reality.
This is a motif that recurs throughout Luke and Acts. God’s salvation and aid comes to the ancestors, to Abraham and his descendants for ever (vv. 54-55). Mary has entered the unfolding story of God’s faithfulness to Abraham and his descendants. In Luke’s narrative, the covenant promises to Abraham are kept in unexpected and unprecedented ways. Who would have thought that the death and resurrection of Jesus, with the giving of the Holy Spirit, could be the means by which God could fulfill the ancient pledge to Israel? But this is what Luke emphasizes through Mary’s words and those of others elsewhere in his writing.
In Mary’s song, we can understand that Jesus’ salvation starts at the moment of the Annunciation and ends at the cross. Salvation is not limited to the crucifixion, but the whole life of Jesus was salvific action.
God is ruling on earth as in heaven. God rules instead of Caesar. Jesus, the new king, rules on earth without Caesar’s permission or anyone else’s. He rules not through violence, but gentleness.
Mary was blessed because she is the mother of God and she believed God’s Word.
Was there anything so special about her? Did she do anything to deserve this honor of being Jesus’ mother? No. What is more significant here is the grace shown Mary, the inexplicable gift of an impossible birth. Mary’s faithful response warrants praise because she assents to become God’s servant, because she trusts the words spoken to her.
Words will be spoken this morning to Margot, her parents and her sponsors. These words will declare Margot to be a child of God who is sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.
What a tremendous responsibility is given to Ben and Jackie, as well as Margot’s sponsors, to raise God’s child. Thankfully, they are not alone in this. Even though there is a geographical distance between us, it is
bridged by prayer, emails, phone calls and social media. Ben and Jackie, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
People of God, remember the promises you will make as well and reach out to this family. Ben and Jackie, God is faithful and will give you all you need to raise Margot in the way of the Lord.
Those of us who have children know how our joy is peaked by waiting. Sometimes the months of pregnancy seem like they’ll never end, but then at last, we see our baby. Love is disclosed in tenderness and promise. Those without children are not left out. We experience these feelings through other means—the period of engagement before marriage, the final days of high school or college before graduation or the last days of work before retirement.
The season of Advent is much like that of any of these times of waiting. We wait, we hope and we rejoice at the appearing of the babe who becomes the man who dies on the cross for us, saving us from sin, death and the power of the devil and who will return.
These words of Mary in this beautiful song that has been put to many settings, including several in our own hymnal, are more than predictions of the future, in the sweet by and by. The Magnificat praises God for the goodness of God’s nature and redemption that both Israel and the church have experienced.
Mary’s words also speak to us of God’s abundant blessings. It is easy for us in tight financial times to yield to the myth of scarcity. Theologian Walter Brueggemann states, “The lyric of abundance asserts that in the hand of the generative, generous God, scarcity is not true” (The Covenanter Self: Exploration of Law and Covenant). God gives us enough to do all that God wants us to do.
The lyric of abundance that Mary sings and her Son brings is not just pious, religious sentiment. It is a message that encompasses politics, ethics, social structures and economics. We first world people need the liberation celebrated in Mary’s song, one freeing us from our reliance on money and possessions, freeing us for a life of complete trust in God. Likewise, the witness of the poor in developing nations and our own to God’s abundance needs to be compassionately affirmed, for they have a witness to offer to the world of liberation and justice.
When my family and I lived in Bethlehem, we saw this repeatedly borne out in the families we visited in refugee camps and rural villages. They may have wondered where their next meal was coming from, but there was always a welcome and tea or coffee and some snack. And these were not Christian, but Muslim people, from whom we experienced the greatest hospitality. They gave the little they had. And the rich?
Their noses were in the air and they looked down on our association with the poor. Haven’t we heard something like that about Jesus?
Recently, the CBS Evening News, featured a story that beautifully illustrates this. Annually, there is a rich man who gives away $100 bills during the time before Christmas in various places throughout the country. This time he was in Phoenix, AZ and decided to ask a homeless man named Moses to be his Santa’s helper. He gave Moses around $3,000 with the instructions to give it away to whoever he saw fit. The man said, "I think this will be a joyful experience for him. You know, it's a myth that the homeless just take.
From my experience, the people with the least give the most of what they have."
CBS News saw that, too. Danny McCoy put change in his cup, even though he has seven kids, and until this moment, had no idea how he was going to buy Christmas presents. "I'm eternally grateful for what he did," Danny said.
That's the kind of relief Moses brought to so many. Most of those he blessed were strangers, but not all.
He gave one man from church $400. He gave a homeless mother of five $500. "Remember, people appreciate you with your kind, giving heart that you take care of your kids the way you do," he told her.
Of course, in the end, Secret Santa also gave Moses some money to keep for himself. "This here is a new beginning for me," Moses said. But he said that reward pales to the joy he received from helping others.
"Today we changed a lot of people's lives. But I believe my life was changed the most," he said. Moses said even when you're homeless, it feels so much better to give than to receive.
"You know, kindness is a bridge between all people and so if you're ever down, and you want to lift yourself up, go do something kind for somebody," the Secret Santa said. (Steve Hartman, cbsnews.com)
Jesus is concerned with our own social realities—the safety of our children and grandchildren, making ends meet, the violence in our country. We too, can sing with Mary and participate in her song. Through us, God can bring down the powerful from their thrones and fill the hungry with good things (vv. 52-53).
We don’t have to be wealthy to be part of God’s plan. Mary wasn’t. Moses in Phoenix wasn’t, but God is.
God seeks partners like Mary to advocate for the marginalized and to participate in their salvation. Why miss out on the joy of trusting God’s abundance for all? Amen.
David B. Burrell, Patrick Gray, Jane Anne Ferguson,
Eric Fistler and Robb McCoy, pulpitfiction.com
Beverly R. Gaventa, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year C
Niveen Sarras, workingpreacher.org