Another Voice

Luke 1:46-55

As I launch into a new sermon series, I need to give credit where credit is due. All four of these 2015 Advent sermons are inspired by Dr. J. Ellsworth Kalas’ book “The Scriptures Sing of Christmas.” For older folks raised in Sunday school, many of these Bible passages are familiar, and I link to them in the King James Version for this series, simply because this translation is what they will most likely remember.

Over the next four weeks, we’re going to take a close look at some positively lyrical Bible passages. In fact, some of them are historically thought of as songs, and have continued to be practiced as such in one way or another.

We begin with what is sometimes called “The Magnificat,” Mary’s song of praise to God after learning she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit, due to give birth to the promised messiah. Songs of praise can also be songs of revolution, we quickly learn.

Mary declared something glorious had happened; at the same time, she made clear that God’s intervention in the world was designed to create great upheaval. God showed this by beginning a divine invasion of a fallen world via the womb of a girl who was, by the standards of her day, barely a person.

Mary lived in a rural, outlying village of no importance, one embedded in a region where the people were considered rubes, identifiable by their accents. Even the more prominent of her people had fallen from power, their so-called “Promised Land” now representing little more than the frontier edge of the mighty Roman Empire.

How does God reach everywhere? By starting pretty much in the middle of nowhere. All he asks is that people “fear” him, that is, show the creator the respect the creator is due, and great mercy comes forth.

The proud? They will be scattered. God says so, and little Mary declared it loudly.

The mighty? They will lose their positions, to be replaced by the least. God says so.

The hungry will be fed, and the rich will find themselves empty. God says so.

Mary’s song was part of a larger promise, a promise God made to the people of Israel. It took thousands of years for the messiah to come, and even today God has not completely fulfilled¬†these big, revolutionary promises. God works in his own time, but we must never forget, God says so, and what God promises does happen.

It is easy for us to forget where God is taking us. We are all drawn to worldly power. Once again, we find ourselves in an election cycle. Money rules, bluster seems to be the only winning strategy, and the proud spend a lot of time imagining what they will do if voters will just give them the chance.

Perhaps our Advent season can be a corrective to some of this. Mary’s song provides us with another voice to hear when we consider wars and rumors of wars, refugees’ cries for help, and even the real meaning of Christmas, which, by the way, has nothing to do with the design on a Starbucks cup.

Mary spoke first because her unborn child was not yet able, despite being divine. About three decades later, Jesus re-sang Mary’s song with his life.

He warned the proud of their folly, of their need to humbly submit to God.

He told the mighty they would fall, that the first would be last and the last would be first.

He fed the hungry with his own miraculous hands, and he told us to do the same.

And then he went further and actually started the process by which everything is changing and will be changed forever. He gave up his own life on the cross to defeat sin and death.

It’s a song worth singing with our own lives.

Featured image:¬†Detail from “The Magnificat,” James Tissot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Let It Be with Me

Cranach, "Madonna Under the Fir Tree," 1510, public domain

Cranach, “Madonna Under the Fir Tree,” 1510, public domain

The mother of Jesus should fascinate us. I know Protestants sometime feel Roman Catholics go too far in their devotion to Mary, but in our reaction to that devotion, we can fail to pause and really appreciate Mary.

Mary is perhaps the most important mere human to have ever lived. (I say “mere” human to take Jesus, who was in some mysterious way both fully human and fully divine, out of contention.) After all, Mary was the “favored one,” the first chapter of Luke’s gospel tells us. God found Mary worthy to carry the Messiah, God in flesh, in her womb. Jesus’ devotion to and love for her was evident even as he hung dying on a cross.

So, what made Mary so special?

Earlier, when I described her as perhaps the most important human to have ever lived, some of you may have flinched a little. Did you begin to run other possible candidates through your mind: biblical characters like Abraham or Moses, or John the Baptist, or great historic figures?

If you did so, consider whether you’re attaching worldly standards to the word “important.” God’s standards are different from worldly standards; humility and unwavering faith would seem to top the divine list, and Mary seems to have been full of both. In addition, God asked Mary to take on an astonishing task, one many older women would resist. She responded with one childlike question about process, and then made a simple statement, “Let it be with me.”

Oh, and we shouldn’t forget bravery. Stoning was the punishment of the day for a poor, unwed pregnant girl, which is how her neighbors would have viewed Mary. To follow God while facing such dire circumstances required a heart wide-open to God’s will, one willing to disregard the potential personal cost.

God chose Mary, it seems, because she had the right soul for the task. She was young, perhaps as young as 13 or 14, but Luke 1:46-55 records her remarkable understanding of the meaning of Christ’s coming.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” Mary said. She was rejoicing with her much older cousin Elizabeth, who carried in her womb John the Baptist, the prophet who would announce the coming of Jesus’ ministry in adulthood.

As Mary continued in her prophetic rejoicing, she laid out the radical mission of Christ. He brings mercy to those who believe and follow God. He scatters the proud. He brings down the powerful. He lifts up the lowly and the hungry. He does all of this as a fulfillment of a promise made to the world through Abraham long ago.

And of course, we now understand that Jesus grew up to accomplish this radical realignment of power through his death on the cross, a sacrifice designed to break the grip of sin.

Governments and armies still seem to have power, but none can help us establish a relationship with God. At best, they can keep the relationship freely available.

Mary’s song also calls us to magnify the Lord, regardless of our ability to carry children. The baby in her womb would reveal God’s nature to all. As the body of Christ on earth today, Christians similarly exhibit God’s Spirit to a hurting world.

And while this task requires humility and faith, it also makes us revolutionaries, like the quiet, demure Mary who suddenly sang of a world to be turned upside down.

The great Scottish theologian William Barclay noted that Mary’s song declares three great “revolutions” that her child would spark in the world.

First, God “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” That is a moral revolution, Barclay noted, bringing about the death of pride. People cannot compare their lives to Christ’s and remain convinced they are somehow superior creatures.

Second, Mary sang that God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” That, Barclay said, is a social revolution.

If we are to magnify God, we ignore labels used to sort people as important or unimportant. In every face, the Christian sees God’s creation. In every person, a Christian sees a life potentially made whole by Christ.

Third, Mary tells us that the hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty. Barclay called this part of the song a declaration of an economic revolution.

“A non-Christian society is an acquisitive society where each man is out to amass as much as he can get,” Barclay wrote. “A Christian society is a society where no man dares to have too much while others have too little, where every man must get only to give away.”

Oh, to magnify the Lord in every moment of our lives, to allow revolution to occur in every choice we make. It isn’t easy, of course.

Fortunately, the baby who grew to be a man and live out his mother’s prophecies did not shrink from the difficult task of the cross. May God grant us similar courage in this season; may we learn to say, “Let it be with me.”