Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
In the Name of God: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Amen.
Luke’s Gospel today offers us a few traveling companions to accompany us on the last leg of our journey to Christmas. What a picture we have here, one far removed from the worldly focus of power and prestige that fills our newscasts. Two pregnant women—one very young and one fairly old—words of wisdom uttered from a teenage girl’s, words that would be cherished and sung again and again through the ages, tumbling down all the way to us: The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
Mary was probably no more than sixteen when she sang these words. Like many others of her age, she was betrothed to a man she hardly knew. How frightened she must have been to face family and friends with the news of her pregnancy. Can you imagine a modern day teen’s response to the Angel Gabriel if she got the news Mary received? She would probably say, “OK, Gabe’s, but you’re the one who has to tell my parents!”
Poor frightened Mary. Overwhelmed by her unexpected circumstance in life, she asks her parents if she might get some breathing space by leaving town for a bit to go visit her favorite cousin, Elizabeth. I wonder if Elizabeth was not more like a friend, an older sister, to Mary. When she arrives in the uplands of Judah and beholds the likewise pregnant Elizabeth, I’d like to imagine that Mary couldn’t contain her laughter upon seeing her gray haired cousin’s big belly. But she is caught off guard by Elizabeth’s announcement: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
But how did she know? Who told her about Mary’s pregnancy? No email. No snail mail. No telephone in those days. To Mary’s further surprise, Elizabeth asks no questions, makes no judgments, but takes her in her arms and assures her that all will be well and, in fact, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaped for joy when the two embraced. Even John still in utero, one day to be the prophet whose voice would be heard in the wilderness, had witnessed to the truth that Mary bore the embryo Savior in her womb.
Unable to contain herself, Mary bursts into a hymn of praise—but not an original song, for its words echo those of her kinswoman Hannah who a thousand years before was in her old age blessed with the child, Samuel, and proclaimed, “My heart exults in the Lord, my strength is exalted in God. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.”
We do an injustice to this young woman Mary if we receive her song merely as a lovely act of praise and thanksgiving coming from the mouth of an ordinary, simple, unimportant teenager who has been called to the unbelievable undertaking of bringing God’s Son into the world in the flesh, for there is much, much more to her proclamation. She is no revolutionary, but what she expresses are radical and revolutionary sentiments.
The Magnificat calls for a new world order which would be set in place through the coming and ministry of Jesus. It’s a world where the proud are scattered, the powerful brought down, the lowly lifted up, the hungry filled with abundance, the rich sent away empty.
And the great challenge for us is to discern whether we are the proud, the powerful, and the rich, or the lowly and hungry for it is all too easy to think that this prayer is an indictment of some other people rather than us. Pride, greed, lust for power and wealth are insidious characteristics that can invade and consume any human heart. And while in so many parts of the world people starve and can’t find enough clean water, I, like so many others wanting to beat the onset of the snow, made a mad dash to the grocery store yesterday morning, lest I not have enough food in the house.
Before we leave our traveling companions and return to the world of preparation for the Christmas feast, let’s unpack the operative word of Mary’s joyful song: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Magnifies — a word that means “makes clear, enlarges, brings into focus.” If you have ever used a magnifying glass, you know what that experience is like.
I wonder if Mary didn’t have a huge revelation in her own pregnancy and the pregnancy of Elizabeth. Could it be that the God who had been for her an abstract concept, a vague far away being suddenly became a living, loving reality? Did she mean that all of this wonder and awe brought God into focus for her in a completely new way? Did Mary now see and experience God in a larger, expanded way?
In our limited modern imaginations, this story of Mary and Elizabeth’s pregnancy may seem odd. Yet who are we, in our limitations, to tell God what God should and should not do in order to get to us? The wonderfully Good News about this story is that it shows us what can happen when God touches our lives—even intrudes on them. Mary and Elizabeth’s stories, and the blessings that came through their babies, hold out the promise that God can do great things through us. For God still comes to us, keeps pushing into our narrow, limited and confined world, giving us in return a larger, expanded, wider and broader world.
Barbara Brown Taylor, one of the most renowned preachers in the Episcopal Church, says “In the divine dance we are all dancing, God may lead but it is entirely up to us whether we will follow. Just because God sends an angel to invite one girl onto the dance floor is no guarantee she will say “yes.” Just because God sends us a prophet to tell us how life on earth can be more like life in heaven does not mean any of us will quit our day job to make it so. God acts. Then it is our turn. God responds to us. Then it is our turn again.”
The only thing of which we can be sure in the divine dance of our lives is this: we have a partner who is with us and for us and who wants us to have new life in us—surprising, refreshing, illuminating new life and with it an expanded, larger, deeper relationship with the Creator God. For which my soul—your soul—can magnify the Lord.