“In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.” – Luke 1:39-56
Today the lectionary has given me a choice between two beautiful, deeply moving topics to talk about: love, represented by our final Advent candle; or Mary’s song, the Magnificat, which we just heard read from the book of Luke.
The gifts of Advent – Hope, and Peace, and Joy, and Love – we need these right now. And in a very real way we are looking forward to them. When the world’s celebration of ‘Sparkle Season’ ends, our Christmas begins, because the Prince of Peace will finally be here.
But I’m getting ahead of myself! We’re still a few days away from Christmas. So today I want to take a few minutes to stop and listen to Mary’s song. I wish I could sing it for you because it’s been set to music so beautifully… but the words will have to do.
Luke tells us when Mary became pregnant with Jesus she – immediately and with great joy – traveled south from Galilee, where she and Joseph lived, to the hill country of Judea near Jerusalem to visit her relative Elizabeth. In those days that would have been a difficult journey, about 80 miles on foot, and not a very safe road. Mary probably did not travel alone but Luke doesn’t mention any other people. In fact in this entire reading Joseph and Zechariah are conspicuous by their absence. I imagine they were probably there, somewhere in the background – maybe they were working on adding a nursery to Zechariah’s house! We don’t know.
But this much seems clear: there is no way Elizabeth could have known that Mary was pregnant! There were no letters sent, no emails, no posting of sonograms on Facebook, not even word of mouth because Mary wasn’t showing yet and Joseph, if he knew about it at this point, hadn’t told anyone.
Zechariah and Elizabeth both knew their baby was a gift from God, and that he would be born to prepare the way for the Messiah – the angel of the Lord had told Zechariah that. And Mary knew about Elizabeth’s miracle pregnancy – the angel Gabriel had told Mary about that. But there’s no way Elizabeth could have known Mary was expecting, or that Mary’s baby was going to be the one her son John was preparing the way for… until Mary’s greeting made John leap for joy in Elizabeth’s womb.
Isn’t it amazing the connection between a mother and child, even in the womb? At the sound of Mary’s voice, John leaps around (“like a spring lamb” is the direct translation) and immediately Elizabeth knows. And the Holy Spirit gives her the words to say: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” And she calls Mary “the mother of my Lord”. Elizabeth confirms for Mary what the angel told her – not because Mary doubts the angel’s message, but because it’s good to hear it from a second source. Mary is now no longer alone in her faith. She’s not carrying the Messiah alone any more. She has a relative who knows God’s truth and who loves her and supports her. And God knows we need that: much as we need God, we need other people too, and God provides what Mary and Elizabeth both need. Mary has Elizabeth’s support, and Elizabeth has Mary’s physical help through her last three months of pregnancy.
After Elizabeth speaks, Mary herself is filled with the Holy Spirit – which, by the way, there is a lot of Holy Spirit annointing going on in this chapter: in the first chapter of Luke alone, Zechariah and Elizabeth are filled with the Holy Spirit, and the angel foretells that John the Baptist will be filled with the Holy Spirit and that Mary will be filled with the Holy Spirit, so there’s a lot of Holy Spirit inspired stuff going on – anyway Mary, filled with the Spirit, sings a song of praise, in very simple language in the original, but with a depth of understanding that ties the Old Testament to the New Testament and a depth of perception that has confounded scholars ever since. She sings: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour…”
The song is familiar, and the tradtional translation is a comfort to our ears and hearts. But for the sake of clarity I’d like to look at a fresh translation from The Message Bible. In it Mary says:
“I’m bursting with God-news;
I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
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.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
beginning with Abraham and right up to now.”
This modern translation is very accurate, and in its accuracy it tends to shine a spotlight on two things in Mary’s song: the first is the relationship of Israel to God being that of God’s child. The older translation says “servant Israel” and while that’s not wrong, the Greek word paedos is the word we get pediatric from; it speaks of a father-child relationship. So “child Israel” is closer to the intended meaning.
The second is God’s elevating the poor and the lowly and putting down the rich and the proud. A couple of comments on that:
First: as Bible Gateway online points out, “Mary’s remarks are often misinterpreted in two directions.” (a) Some read them as a reference to God’s defense of all the poor, all the hungry, as if being poor and hungry is somehow better spiritually. This misses the point Mary makes when she says “God’s mercy is on those who fear Him…”. (b) On the other hand, people sometimes water down Mary’s message and spiritualize it – interpreting her to mean the poor and hungry in spirit. This, while true, also misses the point, because Mary is talking about God’s mercy to the literal poor and the literal hungry.
Secondly, what makes Mary’s words about the poor and the rich hard to hear is they beg the question: where do we find ourselves? Where do I find myself? Are we the poor and the lowly? Or are we the rich and the powerful? Maybe we’re a little bit of both? How will God measure us? These questions bother me. And it’s comforting to know Jesus’ disciples were bothered by them too. When Jesus remarked how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven, the disciples’ immediate reaction was “who then can be saved?”
Mary’s song answers that question: “His mercy flows in wave after wave on those who are in awe before him.” That’s the deciding factor: not what’s in our wallets but what’s in our hearts.
Which brings to mind a poem I heard years ago. The poem is a prayer, and it compares entering the Kingdom of Heaven with visiting a playground. Let me share part of it with you:
(* the sermon left out the verses in brackets – too many ‘British-isms’ to explain that would have been offtopic)
by Adrian Plass
Oh God, I’m not anxious to snuff it,
but when the Grim Reaper reaps me,
I’ll try to rely on
my vision of Zion;
I know how I want it to be.
As soon as You greet me in Heaven,
and ask what I’d like, I shall say,
“I just want a chance
for my spirit to dance;
I want to be able to play.”
Tell the angels to build a soft playground
designed and equipped just for me.
With a vertical slide
that’s abnormally wide
and oceans of green PVC.
There’ll be reinforced netting to climb on,
and rubberized floors that will bend.
And no one can die
so I needn’t be shy
if I’m tempted to land on a friend!
[I’m gonna go mad in the soft, squashy mangle,
and balmy with balls in the swamp
colored and spherical,
I’ll be hysterical!
I’ll have a heavenly romp!]
There’ll be cushions and punch bags and tires
in purple and yellow and red,
and a mushroomy thing
that will suddenly sing
if I kick it or sit on its head.
[There’ll be fountains of squash and ribina
to feed my continual thirst,
and none of that stuff
about “You’ve had enough,”
surely heavenly bladders won’t burst.]
I suppose I might be too tall for the entrance
but Lord, chuck the rules in the bin.
If I am too large,
tell the angel in charge
to let me bow down and come in.
That is my prayer for all of us this Christmas as we approach the manger: that God will allow each one of us to ‘bow down and come in’. This is what God invites all people everywhere to do, through Mary’s song, and through the coming of Jesus into our world. AMEN.
Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 12/20/15