Text: Luke 1:46-55
One of the ways that this year has affected us has to do with music. Attending concerts and public performances and maybe especially, singing with other people is one of the big losses we have faced.
Mindy and Emma and all those who have provided music for our services have been just wonderful. That music has been a kind of lifeline, but still, if you are like me, you miss singing with other people. We have had a couple of virtual choir videos, which has been fun, and if you can make it through the sermon this morning, we will have a virtual Yuletide Orchestra video. I dusted off my saxophone and made a couple of recordings and emailed them to Mindy and Emma, but I haven’t seen the video yet. It will be as much a surprise to me as it will be to you.
Usually, about this time of year our choir is in high gear. We would be learning a cantata, thinking that there is no way we are going to learn this in time, no way we are going to pull it off. But somehow, we do. I miss that.
The thing is, music sticks with you. Sometimes you can’t get a tune out of your head even if you wanted to. You may hear a song from years ago, a song you haven’t heard in a long time – for me, it’s most likely song from the 70’s or 80’s – and though it has been years, you still know most of the words.
Music is powerful. But we have not been able to sing together or play together because of the risk involved. One of the riskiest behaviors in the midst of this pandemic would be to sing together. Much more so than simply talking, singing propels respiratory droplets into the air, in some cases nearly on a par with coughing and sneezing. Six feet of distance doesn’t cut it. Singing can actually be dangerous.
But we have always known that, haven’t we? Singing always has the potential to be dangerous. Singing can inspire and uplift and lead people to rise up and to work for change – which can be threatening, and make it dangerous. A song can serve as an anthem for a movement. From black spirituals that spoke of freedom to We Shall Overcome, from Blowin’ in the Wind to What’s Going On to Fight the Power, music can be dangerous.
One song in scripture, above all others, has been viewed as a dangerous song. It is Mary’s Song. It’s known as the Magnificat – It begins with “My soul magnifies the Lord” – Magnificat in Latin.
We like to romanticize Jesus‘ birth and make it a sweet story of a young mother and her child, but that is not exactly the way we read about it in the Bible. There is a definite edge to it.
Mary is engaged but not yet married when she has this very strange encounter that we looked at last Sunday. A messenger from God – an angel – tells her that she has found favor with God. She will bear a child, who will be God’s Son, and of his kingdom there will be no end.
Mary believes, and she says Yes to God. And right away, it causes her trouble. She is pregnant and not yet married, and that is a bad combination, especially in that culture. She is worried, frightened, and no doubt overwhelmed. The angel had told her that her relative Elizabeth, well up in years, was also with child and so Mary leaves home, leaves town, to go see and stay with this older and wiser relative, Elizabeth. 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. Elizabeth’s words to her are pure grace. “Blessed are you among women,” she says.
It is while with Elizabeth that Mary sings her song. I wonder if the support and love of Elizabeth helped Mary to burst forth in singing. Mary’s song is filled with gratitude and great hope. And Mary is is prophetic. She speaks boldly as to how things are and how things should be in God’s world. She speaks both of what God has done for her, and what God is doing in the 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.” We tend to overlook this side of Mary.
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. It was considered dangerous.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis, called the Magnificat “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung.”
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 the Magnificat, with its reversal of social structures. Luther’s friends and supporters were in high places, so he decided it was best to leave the Magnificat in Latin.
We are not kings or rulers, but if we are honest, these words make us a bit uncomfortable too. On a global scale, in the big picture, we are all wealthy. We read Mary’s words, about the poor being lifted up and the rich being brought low, and we have to ask -- how exactly is this Good News for us?
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.
The Bible does not glamorize 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 – fishermen and tax collectors and shepherds and a poor peasant girl like Mary.
Maybe what this is about is that those living in poverty know their need while those who are wealthy may not. The wealthy can feel like they’ve got it all together, that they have everything they need or they can easily get it. Those in poverty know better.
Now, this may seem like an odd scripture for this Second Sunday of Advent, a day that we traditionally think about peace. Mary is bold, she is courageous, she is joyful. She is a prophet – saying that through her child God means to turn the world upside down. Which is all nice, but does that really sound like peace?
Well, here’s the thing: peace is a lot more than just the absence of fighting. It is the presence of good will. Mary’s people—the Jewish people—lived under Roman occupation, and Roman soldiers “kept the peace” by keeping the population under the constant threat of violence. The Pax Romana wasn’t really peace at all. And it was an arrangement that harmed all who lived under it. The injustice in Mary’s community meant that a deep peace wasn’t possible - for any of them.
Injustice affects everyone. Mary’s song, with its soaring gratitude to God and recognition of God’s grace and favor, speaks of God’s work in turning the world upside down. And what we need to understand is that in the end, everyone benefits from this – the proud and powerful who will be relieved of their swelled heads, the hungry who will be filled with good things, and the rich who will be sent away empty – so that they will have room in their hearts for those things that money cannot buy.
Because her song is dangerous, we may not think of it in terms of peace. But this is exactly what Mary is singing about. Peace does not mean being quiet in the face of oppression or accepting things as they are. Peace is not ignoring the world around you while you live blissfully in a bubble. Peace comes in the midst of the storms of life. We can know peace in times of trouble as a gift from God, a confidence in God’s care and provision despite the circumstances we face. Even amidst strife and uncertainty – even in a pandemic – we can know God’s peace. And God’s peace is something we join with God in working toward.
Jesus is called the Prince of Peace. He is not the Prince of Passivity. He offers the peace of God, and this means justice and equity and welcome and goodness and grace for everyone. It means bringing reconciliation to those who have been estranged from one another. It means bringing reconciliation to those who have been estranged from God. We are called to have a part in bringing God’s peace to others.
You might think of peace as contentment. Maybe sitting in your favorite chair in front of a warm fire while the snow falls gently to the ground in a winter wonderland. God may bless us with that kind of contentment. But if your neighbor can’t pay the gas bill and is shivering and struggling to get by, it is hard to feel quite so content. And so part of our calling is to bring God’s peace to others – which, as Mary tells us, comes about in tangible ways. Our efforts in this season to reach out and care for others in need and to work to make our community a more just place for everyone are ways that we bring God’s peace.
Mary does not have a sonogram. She does not have a husband. She does not have wealth or power or privilege. All she has, really, is the belief that the God who chose her will be a part of whatever comes next. And that, apparently, is enough. Knowing that gives her peace. Peace enough to sing. May we join the song. Amen.