A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr B ~ Advent 3 ~ Luke 1:46-55 (Mary’s Magnificat)
I’m going to start today by talking about something that might at first seem disconnected from Advent and Christmas and Mary. There are numerous theological concepts floating around the church that give me pause, and one of them is the idea of the second coming. Stay with me here!
Advent is absolutely a season of waiting – but we’re not waiting for God to finally act and “send” Jesus back to us from some far off place. All that second coming language betrays a remarkable blind spot in theology. Second coming language makes it sound like Jesus isn’t already here – that his light is somehow absent from the world. I guess it’s built on the texts that speak of Jesus “ascending to heaven” after his resurrection, and the texts in the book of Revelation that describe his blockbuster return. That would give the impression that Jesus wasn’t here anymore.
But that also means that we’d be saying that major aspects of Jesus’ teachings were incorrect. Jesus says all sorts of things like John 14:20, “I am in you and you are in me,” and things like Matthew 28:20, “And behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
So which is it? Is Jesus here or not? Because if he never left then a second coming makes no sense!
Why am I pressing this odd theological point?
Because I want us to shift our focus from passively pining away waiting for God to make the world all better, and for us to realize that what we’re waiting for and searching for is already here – waiting for us to awaken to it, embrace it, and enact it.
And that’s why Mary’s song of faithfulness, known as the Magnificat, is so incredibly important for us to understand – not so much for the exact content of the words that she sings, but for the circumstances of her life and her faith journey that put that song in her heart.
This is another key reason why churches work so hard to focus on Advent themes rather than Christmas ones at this time of year. It’s because Mary’s song is light years away from the usual stuff we get at Christmas.
But then again, especially from the lens of people of faith, Christmas is a weird holiday. Well, at least the way we celebrate it is weird. The major focus of it all is about gifts. The usual reason we trot out for that is that it’s because God gave the world Jesus, and the wise men gave the holy family gifts, so we are somehow participating in that gratitude and worship by giving and receiving gifts.
That’s a lovely sentiment. And it’s nice to be nice to people and celebrate your relationships by giving and receiving nice things.
But let’s not pretend that this is somehow a reflection about what’s really going on in the stories surrounding Jesus’ birth.
We should probably create a separate holiday called “Honour your friends and family day” – or as some have suggested just call it “Giftmas” and show our love through gifts and things that way.
That would be fine by me! Because then we wouldn’t mix up that stuff with the really big stuff that’s happening at Christmas in the bible.
We focus in on the Nativity story every year, but really, if you want to get down to the “so what?” of Christmas then Mary’s Magnificat story tells it all.
If Mary was a cartoon character she’d be picking up her blanket, walking to centre stage of the school auditorium, having the lights go out and a single spotlight shine on her and she’d be saying, “I’ll tell you what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown!”
What’s Christmas about?
It’s about Mary being filled with God’s Presence at a time when she had every reason to feel abandoned. She was a very young unwed pregnant teen. In her world that was very bad news. And yet here we find her revelling in God’s Presence. She is joyful! Luke 1:46-49, she says,
My soul magnifies (or is magnified or amplified by) the Lord (the Greek word’s root is mega – her soul is made mega-size by God! Have you ever felt your soul become super-sized?!)
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for God has looked with favour on the lowliness of God’s servant.
Unwed pregnant teen and favour usually don’t go together – not in any time period! Yet she feels favoured and joyful.
Some context will help here. A few verses before today’s reading (and we’ll be looking at this next week) we have the story of Mary experiencing the Presence of God in the form of an angel, and emerging from that holy encounter convinced that her humiliation in the world’s eyes (that’s what lowliness means here) is irrelevant, because her child is holy.
Consider this: How different might our world be if we had the understanding that every child is holy?! (But that’s another sermon!)
And she says, “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name.”
What is Christmas about?
It’s about a holy light dawning on you and changing your perspective on the world.
It’s about changing how you understand yourself from being lowly and humiliated to being blessed, because God loves you, and God is with you in really profound ways.
It’s about awakening to that gift of awareness of God’s Presence.
Now, what does that do for a person? What did it do for Mary? It makes her joyful! And it opens her eyes to other revelations of God’s Presence everywhere.
She goes and chats with her cousin Elizabeth – who also has a surprising pregnancy to deal with, although this one is because she was much older and could never previously conceive.
I need to pause for a moment here and hold these two stories up for how provocative they are.
There are all sorts of stories and myths in all sorts of cultures around the world that deal with a story of the gods, or the power of the gods, being made manifest on earth. But almost invariably the powerful gods come to (or through) the powerful people. Kings, and rulers, and emperors, and the highest religious leaders, and the heads of state, and whatnot. These are the people supposedly “worthy” of receiving such godly power!
That the Christian story is rooted in the birth of such powerful godliness to a poor, lowly, peasant nobody in a backwater little village – whose cousin was an old barren lady who also was pregnant with a baby who would move mountains – is a shocking occurrence.
Such births utterly undermine and upend the conventional way things are understood in the world.
And that’s exactly the point!!!
What is given birth to at Christmas is a means to turn the world upside down and reshape it into God’s vision of what a kingdom of love should be. [Read that again!]
Now I’ll un-press pause and get back to the story.
Mary has awoken to God’s Presence in a profound way.
She meets Elizabeth and has another experience of that Presence.
And then, as Luke tells it, she gives us this speech, or song.
Now that she is full to overflowing with God’s Presence she sees the world differently. She then casts a vision of what God’s kingdom-vision looks like.
God’s mercy is for those who (are awestruck by God) from generation to generation.
God has shown strength with God’s arm; God has scattered the proud (and arrogant) in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
God has helped God’s servant Israel, in remembrance of God’s mercy, according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
I know what you’re thinking. Mary’s wrong. That stuff hasn’t happened yet.
We hear that and are struck by how far away we are from the justice-filled world of which Mary speaks. From where we sit the hungry are still hungry and the rich keep getting richer. (We don’t like the part where we find out WE are actually the rich ones, but that too is another sermon!) In our world we know that the arrogant aren’t being humbled and the powerful are still on their thrones.
But that doesn’t change the truth of the vision. It just shows us there’s more work to do.
What’s the work? Birth!
People who are filled with God’s Presence receive a glimpse of that kingdom that God has placed us all in but we refuse to open our eyes and see.
Presence-filled people are like pregnant people, like Mary, with wonder and love and joy growing day by day within them, growing and growing until the time comes – the time to give birth to that vision in the world.
Mary does that literally. What about us?
What’s Christmas all about?
Well, it ain’t about what we’ve made it, that’s for sure.
It’s about a pregnancy of Presence, and it’s about bearing and birthing God’s Presence into the world to help reveal and enact that justice-filled vision of God’s kingdom in whatever way we can.
And so the thing that will change the world, and help bring about God’s kingdom as Mary sang about it, isn’t the second coming – it’s the second birthing! And it’s all on you.
Meister Eckhart, a 14th century mystic, wrote, “We are all meant to be mothers of God.”
Remember though, birthing is hard work!
Birthing is a life changing awakening.
Once you participate in giving birth you never see the world the same way again. And to say that birthing something brings profound joy is an indescribable understatement!
I began Advent this year by challenging us to look differently at the idea of waiting.
Instead of us waiting for the in-breaking of God from some far off place I’m suggesting that God is the one waiting for us!
We’ve talked about a waiting hope, and a waiting peace. And today we’re pondering a waiting joy.
And again, maybe it’s not about us waiting for joy to come?
Maybe it’s about the world waiting for US to birth joy into the world?!
It begins with a profound experience of God’s Presence, which leads to a pregnancy during which a vision of God’s kingdom grows, which leads to a birthing.
That’s what Christmas is all about.
That’s where Mary’s song of joy came from.