This Advent sermon was delivered at Dunbar and Auburn Presbyterian Churches on Sunday, December 20, 2015.
The scriptural reference is Luke 1:39-56.
A recording of the sermon is available here.
These past few weeks we have heard from the prophets Jeremiah and Zephaniah, as well as one of Christ’s disciples, Matthew. Today we hear the song of yet another prophet: Christ’s mother, Mary. Because of her presumed estate as an unwed, poor, and now-outcast teenager, Mary is not likely one to be placed among the ranks of prophetic voices in scripture. However, one of our Gospel writers, Matthew, illustrates for us in the genealogy of Christ that Mary was the rightful mother of Christ, and therefore, as the bearer of God, she is a prophet.
Matthew 1:1-17 lists the 42 generations from Abraham to the birth of the Messiah, naming only four women in this lengthy list of names. Verse 16, the final verse of the pedigree, proclaims Mary by name, saying: “and Jacob, the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.” Many interpretations of the Magnificat assert the Mother is dumbfounded, in disbelief of her chosen-ness by God, an uneducated or unworthy woman, and the lowliest of servants because due to giving herself, status and all, over to the Lord in obligation. What we often fail to realize due to these modern interpretations – songs like “Mary Did You Know?” or “Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song)” – is that the Mother of God herself has priestly relatives and is of the upper social classes. Her betrothed husband is also of royal background. Without their location in the social order, our Lord would not have been born into the Royal line of David, as the earlier prophets declared and God ordained.
Mary is aware of the theological significance of her pregnancy. She understands that she will be the God-bearer and the “workshop in which God operates” and a willing participant who does not sacrifice herself, but she also does not puff herself up, either. Mary, theotokos, is a liberation singer and prophetess of the Lord. In her book Daughters of Miriam, Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney offers insight to women prophets and parallels Mary’s story with an Old Testament story of Isaiah’s children. Dr. Gafney proclaims that conception, gestation, and delivery are all perfomative prophecy. In bearing, growing and delivering the Son of God into the world, Mary is literally bringing forth the Good News, the light in the darkness, and the hope for redemption of Israel and Judah. Today’s scripture reading is the story of two women bearing witness and encouragement to one another as they live into unique, called, God-bearing circumstances together, and it’s also the song of freedom and joy for us as we approach the manger.
“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 for ever.” (vv. 54-55)
We know from our previous prophetic voices that we are a people who live in darkness and who are in need of redemption. Israel and Judah were under military occupation, the people were in exile, and life consisted of excessive fear. Today we are a people who live in a world where militaries occupy other lands on a permanent or semi-permanent basis, we are discussing what to do about refugees entering our lands, and we are perpetually in fear – of terrorist groups, of political leaders, of violence in our own hometowns. We need the light of God to break through into our lives, our worlds, our hearts this season in a might way so that we will feel the peace of God and the love of Christ. We hope against all hope that we will be able to set fears aside and live into the joy of our redemption. We pray, “Come, Lord Jesus!” asking for God to be present in our world in ways that we can see change, when really what we need is for God to be present in our lives so that our hearts will be the things being changed. We need to hear today’s word. We need to be reminded of God’s promises. Mary’s song is essential to our life of faith.
The Magnificat celebrates how God, through Mary’s child, will restore and help Israel while opposing her enemies and oppressors. This is a song of praise in response to her pregnancy, and it’s also an expression of hope in God’s restorative acts and eschatological power. Mary sings in the language of revolution – a turning around – to share her understanding of the reversals that God has unfolded. David J. Lose offers: “singing is an act of resistance. That’s not all singing is, of course. Sometimes it’s an act of joy and sometimes of camaraderie, but it’s also an act of resistance.” In his commentary on the Magnificat, he urges pastors to allow music to be the preacher for this piece of Scripture. He continues his explanation saying: “The slaves knew this. When they sang their spirituals they were both praising God and protesting the masters who locked them out of worship but couldn’t keep them out of the promise of deliverance of the Bible. And the civil rights leaders knew this, too, singing songs like “We Shall Overcome,” when so many in the society didn’t give them a chance to advance their cause of justice, let alone triumph.” Mary is brining us a song in the midst of resistance. Life is not easy for her people. Life is certainly not easy for her, now that she is an unwed, virgin mother-to-be. When the world would seek to slam the door and shut God out, Mary welcomes God and agrees to bear the Light in the Darkness for all of us. Mary’s song here is a song of resistance to the world’s desires to just shut down or turn away in fear or claim that God is no longer with us. Mary proclaims: “Yes! God is with us, God is keeping his promises, and God is coming into the world to rise up the downtrodden and bring about peace. Immanuel is on the way! Sing with me! Rejoice!”
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”
Dr. Lose continues: “I think Mary and Elizabeth knew [that singing can be an act of resistance] as well. I think, that is, that they knew just how ridiculous their situation was – two women, one too old to bear a child, one so young she was not yet married, yet called to bear children of promise through whom God would change the world. And they probably knew how little account the world would pay them, tucked away in the hill country of Judea, far from the courts of power and influence. And they probably knew how hard life was under Roman oppression. Yet when faced with the long odds of their situation, they did not retreat, or apologize, or despair, they sang. They sang of their confidence in the Lord’s promise to upend the powers that be, reverse the fortunes of an unjust world, and lift up all those who had been oppressed. When you’re back is to the wall, you see, and all looks grim, one of the most unexpected and powerful things you can do is sing.” Through their words and songs, Elizabeth and Mary remind us of the way of hope. Hope takes us back to that moment of despair where we must look beyond ourselves to find relief, recovery, and rescue. Mary’s words point God as our mighty rescue, once and for all time. In the dim and darkness of today’s world, we must return to these verses in Luke and live into the hope of a teenager fighting the cultural odds to bring the Light of the World into being for us on behalf of God.
As we turn to the manger, and eventually the Table of the Lord, I offer to you some lyrics from Bob Marley’s Redemption Song. When he penned this song and recorded it, just himself and an acoustic guitar, he was in the latter stages of cancer that would eventually take his life. This was not publicly known, but his nearest knew of the pain in which he lived as he faced his impending death. “Won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom? ‘Cause all I ever had: Redemption songs. All I ever had: Redemption songs: These songs of freedom, Songs of freedom.” Mary’s song was a song of freedom. The Magnificat is a song of redemption. Mary teaches us how to praise God, to focus on the attributes of the Almighty – power, holiness, mercy – and to focus on God’s actions in fulfilling promises in bringing the Messiah to all of God’s people. Bob Marley encourages us to all sing – to help bring about the message of redemption, of freedom. These things which will only come to us through a life in Christ, with Christ, and through Christ. Musician and activist, Bono, the lead singer of band U2, shared this about Marley’s song: “I carried Bob Marley’s Redemption Song to every meeting I had with a politician, prime minister, or president. It was for me a prophetic utterance or as Bob would say ‘the small ax that could fell the big tree’. The song reminded me that freedom always comes with a cost, but for those who would prepare to pay it, maybe ‘emancipation from mental slavery’ would be our reward.”
Freedom always comes with a cost,
but for those who would prepare to pay it…
As we move closer to the manger of our Lord, we also move closer to the grave of our Savior. Freedom, a gift of divine mercy, comes at a cost. Mary’s cost was public shame, young motherhood, and carrying a child she knew she’d only rear for a time and eventually return back to her God so that his ministry and mission would be fulfilled on earth. God incarnated himself with us to show us love, to fulfill our hope, to grant us peace, and to bring us unending joy, but this, too came at the cost of Christ’s life. We are granted a life of free will, but our cost is that we are human, selfish, forgetful, and even ungrateful, all of which prevents us from magnifying the Lord with our souls.
So, here we are, at the end of the Advent Story. Hope. Peace. Love. Joy. And we know how it concludes: Christmas. Mary’s prophecy reminds that we should rejoice for the coming Christ child, and rejoice that this same Lord has chosen us for eternity. We should all be so bold as Mary to proclaim the life of Christ, the gift of the Mighty One who has done great things for us. God delivered light into our darkness, hope into our despair, freedom into our captivity, and life into our dying. This is good news! This is something to sing and dance about! This is a cause for revelry! Let us celebrate joyfully at the table of the Lord!
Thank you, God of Life, for your hope…for your mercy…for your love…for your peace…for your joy. Thank you for your Son who came to be with us, to walk with us, to suffer with us, and ultimately to bring us healing. And thank you, O Lord, for your prophets, who sing to us the words of your Good News that we so long to hear. Amen.
 Martin Luther, Explanation of the Magnificat, 1521.
 Idea shared by Colleen Montgomery on Facebook. The idea spurred original thoughts, which followed.