(a sermon for December 13, 2020, the 3rd Sunday of Advent; third in a series, based on Luke 1:39-56)
Every year as we come to this part of the Christmas story, it strikes me that although Mary is almost certainly the most celebrated and venerated woman in all of human history, the truth is that biblically, historically and otherwise, we really don’t know all that much about her.
To begin with, we know next to nothing of Mary’s genealogy: even though we’re told that Jesus comes from the house and family of King David, it’s Joseph’s family line that’s recorded in Matthew’s gospel, not Mary’s; and in fact, Mary is only mentioned there as the wife of Joseph and the one “of whom Jesus was born,” (Matthew 1:16). There is a reference in John to Mary having a sister (19:25), and then in our reading today we learn of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah and the mother of John the Baptist; but that’s about it. Basically, most of what we know about Mary’s background comes from ancient sources and our understanding of the culture of the time.
We are pretty sure, for instance, that at the time of Jesus’ birth, Mary was probably no older than fourteen or fifteen years old: no longer a child, but barely a woman and certainly not a woman of any kind of social standing or power. And we know that she lived in Nazareth, a small and secluded village in southern Galilee of no more than 2,000 people; which made it not only an insignificant town in the eyes of the Roman government, but also a place off the beaten track even from the point of view of the Jews. Nazareth was just another country town full of people struggling to find some meaning in the midst of it all; and in the midst of it all, Mary was simply another daughter of the town, albeit one engaged to be married to Joseph, a local carpenter. And by the way, at that time, engagement was actually fairly common for a girl Mary’s age; and so, up until this point in her life, Mary’s thoughts would well have been filled with hopes and dreams for her future; she would no doubt have been feeling this intermingling of joy, excitement and fear, all of it in anticipation of what her life was going to be with this man who would soon be her new husband.
But now, of course, everything was different; everything had changed the moment the angel Gabriel had come to Mary with the most incredible announcement: that not only had she found favor with God, but that she – Mary, of all people (!) – would bear in her womb a child, a child conceived of the Holy Spirit, a child who would be no less than the Messiah, the Christ, the son of God, come to establish God’s kingdom on earth. And though in that singular moment her mind was most certainly racing and her heart reeling at this “annunciation,” Mary had said yes: if this was according to God’s word, she’d said to the angel, then she’d willingly be a handmaiden unto the Lord.
Still, as the days passed and the new reality of her life to come began to settle in for her, Mary surely must have pondered plenty of reasons to be filled with fear at the prospect of this child growing within her. We don’t need to know the history of those days for us to safely assume that were going to be questions coming from family and friends; that there would certainly be scandalous gossip spread amongst neighbors and townsfolk about “that girl;” and then there was the matter of her fiancée: Mary had no idea at all of how this “holy birth” might affect her relationship with Joseph. Needless to say, this was not how Mary had imagined her life unfolding; this was nothing like how it was supposed to be. Angels and babies and the Holy Spirit – to say nothing of the favor of God (!) – all of this notwithstanding, it was… a disruption of Mary’s life and living. Everything was changing forever; and though scripture does not allude to this at all, one has to imagine that down deep in Mary’s heart, there had to be this tiny aching that in a very real way, life had she’d always known it had come to an end.
I suspect that most of us, at one time or another and in one way or another, know something of what it is to have our lives totally and utterly disrupted. Perhaps it was an unexpected illness or the loss of a loved one; maybe you lost your job and you’re faced with a financial burden that’s untenable; or it could well be like right now when you’re fearful of what might happen with Covid-19 as 2020 becomes 2021 and you’re uncertain as to what to do about… anything at all. It doesn’t even have to be bad news, per se; it’s simply the experience of having everything you want and need and expect to be normal in your life and living to suddenly be upended for what seems like… forever… and you just don’t know what you’re supposed to do about it.
Actually, it makes a lot of sense to me that soon after Mary had learned the news of her pregnancy, she “set out and went with haste” to the hill country nearby Nazareth, to stay with her cousin Elizabeth, who, at nearly forty years her senior, was herself miraculously expecting her own child. Because when disruption has come and chaos abounds, you’ve got to do something, right; if for no other reason than to sort things out and talk to somebody who might understand. As Renita Weems has written, “How do you defend a blessing you cannot explain? [and] who would believe her?” Only, perhaps, one who knew such a blessing in her own life.
And as it turns out, Elizabeth not only knew the blessing of her own impending birth but also that of Mary’s: the joy of this child of God’s coming into the world is so great that even the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaped for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice. “Blessed are you amongst women, and blessed is the child you will bear,” Elizabeth cries out to Mary. “…and blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” [NIV]
And as Luke’s gospel tells the story, it’s at that precise moment that everything comes into focus for Mary; for it’s now that she bursts into song, praising God and singing, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” And with a voice that is borne of an unfettered heart, Mary sings of all the incredible, unthinkable possibilities: that God’s mercy would extend not solely to those in positions of worldly power, as the Romans would them believe, but “to all who fear him from generation to generation;” that God with mighty strength would bring down the powerful from their thrones, scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; and that with equal strength he would lift up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich and the powerful away empty.
Mary’s song, that which has been known throughout history as the Magnificat, makes it clear: that everything that was ever known to be true about this world and about life as it was ever known was now about to be turned upside down and inside out; and it was all happening by God’s grace and purpose, and all because of this tiny little baby (!)growing in Mary’s womb! So what might have been seen as a mere disruption was in fact a blessing of divine proportion, the beginning of a new world created and nurtured at the hand of a loving and redeeming God who will do great things according to the promise he made to all of God’s people at the time of Abraham.
And Mary… Mary, of all people… her soul magnified and her spirit rejoicing “in God her Savior,” was now not only assured of the importance of her role in this holy story, but also ready to walk boldly and faithfully into that new world confident in that blessing and the promise that God’s “mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.”
And I guess the question for you and me, who are dwelling amidst our own worldly disruptions – especially this Christmas – are we ready to do the same? As this Advent time of waiting, watching and preparing continues, are we ready to see the ongoing disruptions as part of a perhaps yet-to-be unrevealed blessing that God in Emmanuel is ready to bestow? Will we be bold enough in our life and living – and faithful in the act – to find the true joy of what even now our Lord is doing in the world and in our lives?
As you’re well aware, over the years my guitar and I have had the great pleasure of leading some Christmas sing-a-longs with a great many groups of little children: not only have there been lots of Sunday School kids to sing with, but I’ve also been lucky enough to volunteer at pre-schools and in elementary school classrooms. And along the way I’ve made an interesting, if unsurprising, discovery: when you tell these kids to sing loud, especially when it involves Christmas songs like “Rudolph” or “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” by and large they tend to do it!
What’s even more interesting to me, though, is just who amongst these children ends up singing the loudest; and it’s not always the one you’d expect. Sometimes the most outgoing of children will immediately get bashful and “clam up” when it comes to singing aloud; they might have the most beautiful, angelic voices going, but you’d never know it, because for whatever reason, they can’t bring themselves to share it with anyone! By the same token, however, there’s always a couple of kids who sing with every bit of energy and volume they can muster. And it doesn’t matter if they’re just a tad off key, nor if their volume has long since moved beyond “singing” and approaching the level of “screaming;” nor is it all that important that they’ve gone a note or two ahead of everybody else in the room! They’re singing, and the amazing thing about that is, nobody expects it!
Some years ago I was singing at the nursery school at the church I was serving, and there was this little girl who was singing with everything she had; and I noticed that all the while she was singing, her teachers were looking at one another in astonished amazement! So I asked the teacher about it afterward, and she shared with me that this was the little girl who ordinarilywas painfully shy with all the other children and always extremely quiet! (I guess I fixed that, because trust me, she weren’t quiet no more! In fact, the teachers had kind of a hard time settling her down!) But how wonderful was that; this little girl was so caught up in the utter joy of singing those great Christmas songs, she’d lost herself in the wonder and found her voice of joy!
Well, this very different Christmas is coming soon, and despite all the disruptions you and I are facing this year, the fact remains that we need it now, more than ever. And there are many, many songs that we are given to sing as Christmas comes – songs of faith, songs of hope, songs of joy – but the question is, how loudly are you going to sing them? Are you able to look into – and beyond (!) – all the disruptions of this life that you might discover the blessing and thus find your voice of joy? There is a wonderful opportunity on this of all years to proclaim the coming of Christmas by singing your own songs of surprising, wonderful joy; this joy that is rooted in the love of Jesus, our Emmanuel; can this be the year when that joy will burst forth defiantly from you in every part of your life? Perhaps, with your soul magnified and your spirit rejoicing, your very life might sing and dance the song of your Savior God!
I hope and pray that today and in every day that’s coming that yours will be the loudest voice of all, a voice proclaiming with all joy our Lord’s great and redeeming love.
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.