Yr B ~ Advent 4 ~ Psalm 89:1-4, Luke 1:46-55
I know you’ve been waiting a long time. Advent is all about waiting. You’ve been waiting for more Christmas carols (come back Wednesday night you’ll get plenty!), you’ve been waiting for more happy Christmas reflections instead of soul-searching psalms, and you’ve been waiting for more talk about Jesus. This is a Christian church, after all. Shouldn’t we be talking about Jesus all the time? Maybe.
But I’m going to suggest to you today that Jesus is not the real star of Christmas – Jesus is not the most important figure at Christmas – and Jesus is not really what Christmas is all about. Well, of course he is, but then again, not.
While I accept that Jesus’ birth is what we’re celebrating if you know anything about birthing babies you know that it’s not really about them – they aren’t the ones doing all the hard work – the fathers are! 😛
Ok, I’m just kidding. Don’t shoot me! (It’s Christmas!)
I’ve been in the room when it happens and I guarantee you the person working the hardest in birthing babies is the mother. And she’s the one working the hardest during the pregnancy too. I went on a profound spiritual journey during the pregnancies that brought our kids, but my wife’s journey was bigger.
And yes, I’ve read that the baby’s experience in birthing is pretty dramatic and hard work, but in many ways they’re just along for the ride.
So yes, I’m saying that at Christmas Jesus in many ways is just along for the ride. There’s lots to say about Jesus, and what his birth symbolizes, and what it says about God to talk about incarnation and strength in weakness. Again, we’ll do some of that on Wednesday night.
But if you really want to look at a character at Christmas time and learn something about faith and hope and trust and love then you ought to focus your attention on Mary. And that’s what today’s all about.
This passage has become known through history as Mary’s Magnificat. It is a beautiful song of love, and obedience, and hope, and justice. How we got it is up for debate. Some believe Mary actually sang it, some believe the writer of Luke’s gospel wrote it and put it on her lips, some believe it was an early hymn of the church that was attributed to her later, some believe it is a reworking of a Hebrew song of faith.
None of it really matters as far as I’m concerned. It is part of our tradition. However it got onto her lips it is meaningful and appropriate. Whether she said it or whether the church wanted her to be seen saying it amounts to the same thing for me. We need to go beyond the simplistic argument and get to why it’s important.
One of the reasons it speaks so clearly to us is because of its context, the singer and her circumstance. It’s the first chapter of Luke’s gospel – a gospel that is designed to tell non-Jewish people as complete a story of Jesus’ life and ministry and importance as possible. It begins with the stories of two very surprising and improbable pregnancies.
The pregnant women are Mary and Elizabeth – one probably too young and one probably too old for this. Well, Mary was likely around 14 which sounds young to us but was culturally normal in their time. She and Joseph were legally betrothed, which meant the marriage had been fixed and agreed to but the actual ceremony hadn’t happened yet. Elizabeth on the other hand was “getting on in years” and her husband Zechariah was an old man. They were barren but had been trying forever.
So according to community standards at the time neither of these women should be getting pregnant – but they both did. How? Well, that’s another debatable point. Luke’s gospel describes both families being visited by an angel who foretells the greatness of the child, and more than that foretells the holiness of the child. Wherever you may come down on the biology of it the message is clear – both these kids were going to be special, important, holy, and blessed.
But that too is surprising and improbable. Everyone knows that important people are only born to important people, right?!
If you were writing a fiction to create a great backstory for your hero you make it so they’re born into royalty, or power, or giftedness.
Not here. Here we get two vitally important, world-changing spiritual leaders – born to a poor, uneducated nobody of a peasant girl from a backwater little village in the middle of nowhere, and an over-the-hill wife of an ordinary, insignificant temple priest.
What does it say about a religion that wants to set the foundation of its story on two sketchy pregnancies that would instantly cast doubt on the worthiness of either the mothers or their kids?
I think it says that this religion, this Way, is meant to set our usual human perceptions about what’s valuable or powerful or important right on its head.
The light of the world gets born in the palace, not the stable, right?!
The world is shaken and shaped by the empire- and temple-masters, not by wild-eyed itinerant preachers who preach Presence to peasants, right?!
If Jesus was to be literally born again today where would we look for him? In the Vatican? In the White House? In the Parliament buildings?
How about in the suburbs to a middle-class working family who look a lot like everyone in this room?
Here’s another surprising and improbable thing about these women and their pregnancies. Even though society would have probably laughed at them, shunned them, berated them, or worse, these women make their journey with faith, hope, joy, courage, and most importantly love. They are remarkable women. Women! Remarkable women in a time when women were nobodys. But that’s where our story begins!
Now we get to the text.
Here’s little barely-a-teenager Mary, pregnant under surprising and improbable circumstances, singing a song about her state of being at this moment in her life.
She could be forgiven for singing a lament, or a prayer for help, or an angry ‘why-is-this-happening-to-me’ – but instead she sings a love song.
But not the kind of sappy, insipid love songs we’re bombarded with on the radio – her song of love is much more profound than that.
And do you know why Mary’s singing? It’s the same reason Elizabeth had just sung to her. And do you know why Elizabeth is singing? Because, Luke 1:41 “She was filled with the Holy Spirit and sang out!”
When you’re Spirit-filled, when you’re revelling in the Presence of God, just try not to sing! And when you’re in the presence of a Presence that is wholly love, you can’t help but sing a love song. But not just any love song. Let’s look at it…
In Latin it begins with the word Magnificat which means to magnify.
Luke 1:46-48 “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.”
I think we can all relate to the part about her spirit rejoicing in God. That’s kind of our bread and butter around here. Surely God is in this place! We sense and savour that Presence and we rejoice in how it fills, fuels, and transforms our lives.
But what does it mean to have your soul magnify the Lord?
Magnification means to make bigger, to make larger, to increase.
Mary’s soul, her life force, her innermost being, magnifies, or glorifies, or illuminates God. By looking at Mary you can see more of God’s light and love because she amplifies it.
What in your life magnifies God?
In verse 49 she sings of how God has done a great thing for her.
Unwed poor pregnant teen.
Doesn’t sound like a great thing, but Mary saw the blessing because Mary was experiencing the Presence of God in this pregnancy. For those of you who’ve had the gift of pregnancy doesn’t that sound about right? That it was an experience of the Presence of God, a holy and blessed thing? It felt that way to me with my family.
Then the tone of the song changes. My question to you in a minute will be ‘is this still a love song?’
In the 1980s the government of Guatemala banned the Magnificat because, “unlike ‘Away in a Manger,’ this prayer was apparently considered subversive, politically dangerous. Authorities worried that it might incite the oppressed people to riot.” [Scot McKnight]
Ok, let’s hear Mary’s dangerous love song… (From The Message translation)
His mercy flows in wave after wave on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength, scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses, pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet; the callous rich were left out in the cold.
The Magnificat is a special song of faith from the point of view of someone without standing or agency or power in their society. And it squarely challenges the powers that be and upholds the ideal of God’s justice and righteousness.
So, is scattering braggarts, knocking down tyrants, and feeding the poor about love? You bet it is!
God’s love isn’t sunshine and unicorns; God’s love is justice and peace.
God’s love is holiness and truth.
Mary’s song IS subversive and dangerous. It’s a protest song. And protest songs ARE love songs.
You might be thinking that’s a nice sentiment but last time you looked the powerful were still calling the shots and injustice still runs rampant. Sad, but true. But what if we don’t read it literally but read it spiritually?
What if the banquet for the starving poor is a banquet of Spirit and that those who know they need it can feast on it and be filled with all good things?
And what if the rich being left out in the cold is about those who are offered the banquet but think they’ve got it all covered on their own and don’t need God or aren’t willing to surrender their own spot at the centre of their selfish universe so they refuse being filled with Presence because they’re so full of themselves?
That sounds to me exactly how it is with spiritual things.
Now the best part. So we have poor little Mary trusting God and singing protest songs of love, facing a huge life deal and doing it with joy, and faith. She is about to do something huge. She is about to give birth to God’s Presence in a really tangible way. That’s why she was referred to in Greek as theotokos which means God-bearer.
Ready for the really shocking part? She’s not the only one!
The great 14th century mystic and theologian Meister Eckhart said, “We are all meant to be mothers of God.” We are all meant to be theotokos – God-bearers.
How different would our churches be if our focus over the centuries hadn’t been doctrine or buildings but we’d spent all our time trying to come to terms with how we were to be God-bearers?
What would it be like if we, today, here at Faith United, understood ourselves as God-bearers?
You are a God-bearer.
You are a mother of God.
You are birthing God’s Presence into the world.
You! Today! Like Mary.
And like Mary thought, that’s awesome! What a gift of love that is! What a privilege to know God’s Presence so fully and intimately that we can sing a song of love and bear God’s Presence in the world.
And do you know why that’s a new sounding idea to most of us?
Do you know why it’s a bit shocking to think of ourselves that way and why the church hasn’t embraced it?
I think a big reason is that birthing is hard work. It’s not easy. Birthing something is a life changing experience. It’s an awakening. Giving birth to God today changes you profoundly. And that scares us.
But this is what Christmas is all about.
That’s why the glittery flickering lights and 50% off sales don’t come close to the meaning of Christmas.
Tis the season alright, but not to be jolly – tis the season to be bearing God’s Presence.
Tis the season not to be singing about snowmen and reindeer – tis the season to be singing songs of love – songs of God’s love – songs of hope, and truth, and courage, and peace, and joy, and justice.
The church has put Mary’s song of love on your lips.
Sing your heart out!