St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Bart Smith
The Third Sunday of Advent (December 17, 2017)
Luke 1:36-55 – “Reclaiming Mary – Rejoice”
Continuing with our sermon series on Mary the mother of Jesus, we turn to another passage from Luke 1, called “Mary’s Song of Praise,” or alternatively “the Magnificat,” which is a latin word based off the first line of Mary’s song, “My soul magnifies the Lord…” To help me bring this story alive in a different way, I’ve asked Stephanie and Elaina to help me proclaim it drama-style.
Let’s listen for God’s Wisdom and Word through the gospel according to Luke…
Narrator: Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands. She entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. With a loud voice she blurted out,
Elizabeth: “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.”
Narrator: Mary said,
Mary: “With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
She has looked with favor on the low status of her servant.
Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored.
Holy is her name.
She shows mercy to everyone,
from one generation to the next,
who honors her as God.
She has shown strength with her arm.
She has scattered those with arrogant thoughts
and proud inclinations.
She has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
She has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed.
She has come to the aid of her servant Israel,
remembering her mercy,
just as she promised to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”
In this series we’ve explored how often Mary often rendered passive and meek in tradition, how theology and art and preaching have portrayed her as a mere bystander in the story of Jesus and not the active participant she actually was.
On previous Sundays we’ve done some thinking about Mary’s yes—the extent of her yes, the willingness of her yes, the free and courageous nature of her yes. We talked about how the favor she received from God is grace for the least and the lost and the outcast. Mary is therefore a prophet in her own right, someone who receives a mission from God to proclaim a bold word.
Mary is never more prophetic, never more bold than this moment. There’s a wood-print-esque drawing of Mary by the artist Ben Wildflower that’s been circulating on the internet.
So if we are to reclaim anything in Mary for our faith, it’s this song.
Rachel Held Evans, who’s an author, blogger, and speaker, a brilliant thought leader of young people who are leaving American evangelicalism in droves, wrote about this recently. In a post entitled “Mary, the Magnificat, and an Unsentimental Advent,” Evans wrote this and I just have to read it to you:
When sung in a warm, candlelit church at Advent, it can be easy to blunt these words, to imagine them as symbolic, non-specific, comforting.
But I’m not feeling sentimental this Advent. I’m feeling angry, restless.
And so in this season, I hear Mary’s Magnificat shouted, not sung:
In the halls of the Capitol Building….
“He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
In the corridors of the West Wing…
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”
In the streets of Charlottesville…
“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.”
Among women who have survived assault, harassment, and rape…
“He has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”
Among the poor, the refugees, the victims of gun violence, and the faithful ministers of the gospel who at great cost are speaking out against the false religions of nationalism and white supremacy…
“His mercy is for those who fear him, from generation to generation.”
With the Magnificat, Mary not only announces a birth, she announces the inauguration of a new kingdom, one that stands in stark contrast to every other kingdom—past, present, and future—that relies on violence and exploitation to achieve “greatness.” With the Magnificat, Mary declares that God has indeed chosen sides.
And it’s not with the powerful, but the humble.
It’s not with the rich, but with the poor.
It’s not with the occupying force, but with people on the margins.
It’s not with narcissistic kings, but with an un-wed, un-believed teenage girl entrusted with the holy task of birthing, nursing, and nurturing God.
This is the stunning claim of the incarnation: God has made a home among the very people the world casts aside. And in her defiant prayer, Mary—a dark-skinned woman, a refugee, a religious minority in an occupied land—names this reality.
Amen! We can all leave now, get out there, and get to work!
I’m with Rachel Held Evans 100%, but I also think, when I try to imagine what Mary is going through, that she’s talking herself into feeling bold and confident in the midst of an uncertain future, or rather she’s singing herself into it.
What I mean is, I hear her gathering up some nerve for the road ahead. Luke says she’s perplexed, and I bet she’s also scared, anxious, confused, maybe even a little perturbed. And what people often do when they feel that way is to sing. They sing songs of hope and joy as a way of steeling themselves.
Did you notice how Mary was singing in the past tense? It’s what people often did back then—sing about what God did in the past in order to re-assure themselves that God would come through yet again.
Mary’s song is a combination of, or at least alludes to, other songs in Israel’s scriptures. There’s the song of Miriam, Moses sister, who sings God’s praises as Pharaoh’s army, who had been pursuing the Israelites, the band of freed slaves, is drowned in the red sea: “horse and rider God has thrown into the sea,” she sings. There’s also the song of Deborah, a judge in the early history of Israel, who praises Yahweh after an unlikely win on the battlefield. Then there’s the song of Hannah, the prophet Samuel’s mother, which Mary’s resembles oh-so-closely. Hannah was thought to be barren, but was able to conceive in her old age.
So with the songs of all these women in her heart, Mary sings because God had been with her people in the past, so she’s trying to trust that God will be with her people yet again.
People do this, we do this. They borrow past-tense lyrics and music from their community and their heritage, songs that have given hope and joy to others, to face the challenges of the present.
A colleague of mine in my Tuesday lectionary group pointed me to a story about the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra. Did you know that they’ve been giving concerts across the island since Hurricane Maria hit? They’ve been giving them for free. They’re playing classical pieces, of course, but they’re also playing Puerto Rican bolero folk music, music from their culture. One piccolo player said, “I think it’s very important that we start performing as an orchestra and reaching out to the people, because we need to feel hope and I think music helps us feel hope,” she said. “Music is the universal language, and it can definitely heal people.”
Think about the song, “We Shall Overcome.” It’s got such a history. The song has its origins in people of African descent who were enslaved in this country. They sang it to sustain themselves. It made into a hymnal in African-American Methodist churches at the turn of the 20th century. It was called “I’ll Overcome Someday.” It evolved, though, as tobacco workers sung it in South Carolina right after World War II, as organizers at the Highlander Center sung it as they organized for the Civil Rights Movement, as the Hortons taught it to Pete Seeger, who turned it into “We Shall Overcome.” They sung it at sit-ins, at the March on Washington. At each point in its history, the song was sung by people who somehow, despite the despair and sadness of the moment, dared to sing, “Deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome someday.” We still sing it at rallies and vigils.
I had the good fortune to be at the concert at San Xavier Mission last Wednesday. A very talented pair sang a duet version of “O Holy Night.” That second verse gets me choked up every time:
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother,
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
This year I was thinking, “So hurry up already!” I started wondering, what’s the point of singing this year after year when it seems like the world is increasingly terrible shape? Why do we sing it when nothing seems to change?
Then I remembered Mary. Mary who was frightened facing the unknown, who despite that and any reservations she had about partnering with God in bringing Christ into the world, as a co-creator with God of a more beautiful world, dared to hope and dared to sing, “My spirit rejoices.” Mary who sang with her ancestors of God’s saving help from generation to generation. Mary who felt the reign of God being born within her.
Hope is like that, isn’t it? It begins in a place deep within us. And sometimes all we can feel is the faintest stirring, but we know it’s there. We trust for a moment that things are going to work out, somehow, some way… but not passively. Far from it; we are joining God in this new reality being born.
May Mary inspire us this Advent to rejoice, to locate that joy and hope deep within us.
May she help us find our songs, so that we can sing of those radical reversals of God’s reign in our own time.
Yes, the future is uncertain, but we have work to do. So let us rejoice!