Text: Luke 1:39-56
One of the things that I love about this time of year is the music. From holiday concerts to Christmas caroling to the John Denver and the Muppets Christmas album (you should really check it out). I love to get out my saxophone and play along with our Yuletide Orchestra. If you weren’t here last night, our youth and children presented a fabulous Christmas program with really wonderful music. I love all of the music we have in worship in this season, including our Christmas Eve service, filled with music.
Now, there is quite a variety of music you will hear this time of year. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and O Come, O Come Emmanuel are really different genres of music. There is a world of difference between Joy to the World and the Barking Dogs version of Jingle Bells.
Music has always been a part of the Christmas story. The song of angels surrounds Jesus’ birth. But before that, there are other songs, voices raised by prophets, by Elizabeth, by Zechariah. And a young woman named Mary breaks into song, a song that is completely different from much of the music we hear in this season.
Mary is promised to be married to a carpenter named Joseph when she has this very strange encounter. A messenger from God – an angel – tells her that she has found favor with God. She will bear a child, a son, and this is the work of the Holy Spirit. This child will be God’s Son, and of his kingdom there will be no end.
Can you imagine? We have heard this story so many times that it has lost its punch. An angel appears and tells Mary that she will have a son who will be the savior of the world.
And here is the thing: Mary believes the angel. This is a miracle in itself. Mary doesn’t write it off as a weird dream, she doesn’t ignore it. She believes. And then Mary, who is perhaps fourteen years old, consents. She says yes. “Let it be with me, according to your word,” she says to the angel.
Mary says yes to God’s plan for her. But that doesn’t mean this will be easy. She won’t be able to disguise her condition for long—she won’t be able to keep it from her family or from the community – or worse yet, from her fiancé Joseph. What can she possibly say to him?
Mary says Yes to God, and right away it causes her trouble. She is pregnant and not yet married, and that was much more difficult in that culture than it is today. The angel had told her that her relative Elizabeth, well up in years, was also with child and so Mary leaves home and goes to see and stay with this older and wiser relative.
And amazingly, she finds that Elizabeth is indeed pregnant in her old age. Elizabeth is the only one who could understand, maybe the only one who could believe Mary. At Mary’s arrival, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy. Elizabeth’s child will be John the Baptist, who will prepare the way for Jesus’ ministry. Old Elizabeth blesses young Mary: “Blessed are you among women.” After the reception she was no doubt expecting in her own town, Elizabeth’s words are pure grace. To be frightened and unsure and then hear those words, “Blessed are you among women.” Mary stays with Elizabeth for three months.
And it is while there with Elizabeth that Mary sings her song, which we know as the Magnificat -- “My soul magnifies the Lord.” I wonder if the support and love of Elizabeth helped Mary to burst forth with this song.
These are powerful words that Mary sings. Her song is filled with gratitude and great hope. And she speaks boldly of how things are and how things should be in God’s world.
The word that comes to mind when reading the Magnificat is revolution. God means to turn this world upside down. And it all begins with Mary. To accomplish God’s work, God chooses a poor, unmarried peasant girl in an occupied backwater country. From the very start, God is turning things upside down, doing the unexpected.
Mary looks ahead to the implications of the birth of this child. “The proud will be scattered. The powerful will be pulled from their thrones. The weak and poor will be lifted up. The hungry will be filled. The rich oppressors will be sent away empty.”
There were places in Latin America where just a few years ago, the public reading of the Magnificat was forbidden as subversive activity, what with all that business about the mighty being pulled from their thrones and replaced by the weak and poor. Mary’s vision of Jesus’ ministry sounded dangerously like revolution.
When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, he left the Magnificat in Latin. The German princes who supported and protected Luther in his struggles with Rome took a dim view of the social and political implications of Mary’s Song, what with its reversal of social structures. Luther’s friends and supporters were in high places, so he decided it was best to just leave the Magnificat in Latin.
If we are honest, these words can make us just a bit uncomfortable too. Compared with most of the world, we are fabulously wealthy. We read Mary’s words, about the powerful and well-off trading places with the poor and unconnected – and we might ask, how exactly is this Good News for those of us who seem to be getting along OK?
Sometimes, before the gospel can be good news, it has to be heard as bad news. What this may be saying to us is, we have to know how poor we are before we can receive God’s gift of redemption. We can be too full of ourselves and all of our things to have room for God. If we look to wealth and power and status to save us, we are going to be sorely disappointed.
The Bible does not glamorize poverty -- we are not to aspire to poverty. And Jesus did not condemn the people of means who gathered around him, people like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. There were a group of women who supported Jesus’ ministry out of their resources – some were apparently well-to-do. But it’s instructive that God seems again and again to work through the poor and lowly and unlikely and marginalized – fishermen and tax collectors and shepherds and a poor peasant girl like Mary.
Maybe what this is about is that poor and powerless people know their need. And rich and powerful people sometimes don’t. Those who are looked down on, those who are seen as outsiders, those who are not seen as having much worth – they may be open to receiving, open to others, open to God. Those who are insiders, those who are comfortable – maybe not so much.
The folks Jesus has harsh words for are not the obvious sinners, not the thieves and adulterers and the social pariahs. Jesus accepts and forgives them and seems to like their company. The people Jesus has a real problem with are the self-righteous folks who think they are above others, who think they have no problems. Seeing no need for forgiveness, they don’t receive it. Feeling no need for grace, they are not open to it. They see no need for redemption, no need for love, no need for God. And so, they don’t get it.
Mary, the young, poor, unlearned, not-yet-married girl, is open to God. She is willing to say yes. And she responds with this powerful song that has echoed through the ages.
This week, as our nation remembered President George H.W. Bush, we recalled one of the key world events of that era, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Pastor David Lose shares about his visit to Eastern Germany a few years after the fall of the wall. The group he was with had a chance to meet with leaders of the resistance in Leipzig. For several months prior to the fall of the wall in Berlin, peaceful protests were held by the citizens of Leipzig. Gathering on Monday evenings by candlelight around St. Nikolai church, the church where Bach composed so many of his cantatas, they would sing, and over two months their numbers grew from a little more than a thousand people to more than three hundred thousand, over half the citizens of the city, singing songs of hope and protest and justice until their song shook the powers of their nation and changed the world.
One of the hosts told Lose that after the fall of the wall, a pastor who was helping to lead the resistance asked a former secret police commander why they hadn’t crushed this movement as they had so many others before. His answer was, they had no contingency plan for song and prayer… They had no plan for dealing with song and prayer.
And Lose said, of those of us worshipping today, “I realize that a few voices drawn together in song in December may seem a small thing in the face of the … worries of the age, but surely no smaller than those voices raised in Leipzig… or in Selma … or in the Judean hill country so many centuries ago. Mary’s God, we should remember, delights in taking what is small and insignificant in the eyes of the world to do extraordinary and unexpected things…”
We gather to sing like Mary, and our songs of yearning and hope and peace and justice and love can be powerful.
Advent is about preparing our hearts for God’s coming. Mary really didn’t get a chance at preparation. For her, Advent wasn’t a season of the year; it was a lightning bolt out of the sky. An angel suddenly appeared and gave her a startling message. How could anybody possible be prepared to hear the news she was told? How do you get ready for something like that?
If there is anything that we can learn from the stories of this season, and for that matter, if there is anything we can learn from the Bible, period, it is that God’s work is surprising. Often, beyond surprising – you can choose your adjective: amazing, shocking, startling, scandalous, astonishing.
If we are anticipating the coming of the One who constantly surprises us, how can we ever really be ready? How can we possibly be prepared for something we would never expect?
A simple peasant girl is told that she will have a baby who will be the savior of the world. And she handles it. More than that - she rejoices in it. There is no way Mary could see this coming, but somehow she was ready, and somehow, she responds to God’s call with a Yes.
How do you get ready for those things you can’t really get ready for?
Commenting on how people contemplating marriage or having children may be more ready than they think they are, Po Bronson said, “You learn that being half-ready is a significant advantage in this world, and being half-ready may be as good as it gets.”
In this season of preparation, maybe the best we can shoot for is being half-ready. God’s work can be so surprising, maybe we can never fully anticipate it. But we can prepare our lives so that our hearts are willing and our spirits are attentive and our souls are eager to say Yes to God. We can be as open as we can be and trust in God’s love and goodness, but at the same time expect the unexpected – anticipate that we will be surprised by God.
How was Mary able to sing, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” when she knew that back home, there were parents and a fiancé to face and neighbors who would talk? How could she sing, “All generations will call me blessed” when at that moment, her own generation probably wasn’t thinking that?
Mary is a model of love and trust and faith in God. She believed that God’s word was true. She found encouragement and support and a confirmation of God’s call in her relative Elizabeth, who called her “blessed among women.” And she led the choir, singing of the great change that God sought to bring about.
Mary rejoiced in being chosen by God. Because of her love and trust and faith, when the time came, Mary was at least half-ready. May we aspire to as much, and lend our voices of hope and praise. Amen.