Magnify the Lord with Me!

“Magnify the Lord with Me!”

Luke 1:38-56 (1:46) – December 6, 2020

            Do you know any teenage girls? Any girls with the maturity and balance that teenaged Mary shows to us here? This kind of maturity and balance in one so young is not very plentiful among teens, believe me.

            Socially and culturally, Mary was in an awkward situation. Even, a tight spot. A young woman (for, that was what Mary was considered, in the culture of her day), pledged to be married, who turns up pregnant. Scandalous! I am sure the old biddies in Nazareth were clucking about Mary’s situation—and character—and a whole lot more.

            While we, today, may read this narrative and think, “what a nice bible story!” this reading today is much more than that. Mary decides to go and visit her older cousin Elizabeth, in the hills of Judah. Elizabeth has miraculously gotten pregnant several months earlier. (The angel Gabriel told Mary so!) Two miraculous pregnancies, two women blessed by God. Plus, Elizabeth was an older, wiser woman, able to be a companion and mentor to the teenage Mary.  

            Yes, Mary’s extended visit to Elizabeth probably was comforting and encouraging to Mary. However, my attention is drawn to Mary’s song. The Magnificat is a tremendous counter-cultural song, turning everything in the political and cultural order upside down and topsy-turvy.

            Do you have any experience with an extended situation turning our world today upside down and topsy-turvy? Any disease or pandemic that is causing nationwide—even worldwide disruption and confusion? These two instances do not have a direct one-to-one correspondence, but there are many similarities here! The political and cultural upheaval Mary sings about in the Magnificat will greatly upend the established order of things. And, in many ways today, so will the COVID pandemic and its surrounding upheaval.

            I am reminded of a fellow professor friend of one of my Bible commentators. She grew up as a missionary kid in a poverty-stricken area in the Philippines. “Growing up among that nation’s poor, Professor Malcolm has reported that when they heard Mary’s Psalm, it was the first time that anyone had told them the good news that God cares about them — the poor, the oppressed.” [1] Some people in poverty have never heard this Good News! “Christ has come to challenge the structures of sin, death, the devil, and oppression. Christ has come in the strength of the Lord to do what the Lord has always done: lift up the lowly, free the enslaved, feed the hungry, give justice to the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner.” [2]

            Imagine Mary, having the maturity and the balance to sing such a radical, counter-cultural song! Is there some secret that Mary knew about, helping her to stay balanced and level-headed during all the upset and disruption of her unexpected pregnancy and the surrounding gossip and backbiting and sometimes outright nastiness of her fellow townspeople? Did Elizabeth aid her in finding this hope and balance, this calmness and serenity?

            Knowing what we do about the marvelous words of the Magnificat, and its similarity to Hannah’s song from 1 Samuel 2, we can learn from Mary. Her strength was in her trust in the Lord. Her faith was in God’s mighty power to overthrow society’s structures and the cultural norms of her day. Although our continuing situation is not exactly similar to Mary’s, we can still rely on God, too. Our strength can be our trust in the Lord. Our faith can be in God’s mighty power to overcome society and cultural norms.

            I’d like to think that Mary had a pleasant voice. Not operatic quality, although I do enjoy the voices of people who have studied and trained their voices into wonderful instruments! I can see how Mary knowingly turned for help to the One who would never leave her nor forsake her. Singing is one deep-seated way to come to God in prayer, in sadness, in hope and in joy.

            As commentator David Lose says, “songs are powerful. Laments express our grief and fear so as to honor these deep and difficult emotions and simultaneously strip them of their power to incapacitate us. Songs of praise and thanksgiving unite us with the One to whom we lift our voices. And canticles of courage and promise not only name our hopes but also contribute to bringing them into being.” [3]

            As we come before God in these next days and weeks ahead, perhaps we may come with trust and faith. Trust and faith in the God who is always with us, even through dark valleys, even through sickness, depression, despair and death.

            And may we, like Mary, lift up Mary’s radical song of resistance. Even though there is so much oppression and evil, and so much disease and despair in the world, God has brought light and hope into the world with the birth of God’s Messiah.

            I pray that you, like Mary, find joy even in the darkness of this particular Advent season of 2020. I also pray that the songs of Advent and Christmas bring light and hope to you as you draw closer to God each day. Alleluia, amen!


[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-luke-146b-55

Commentary, Luke 1:39-45, (46-55), Rolf Jacobson, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/a-promise-that-changes-the-world

“A Promise That Changes the World,” David Lose, WorkingPreacher, 2012.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Do Not Be Afraid!

“Do Not Be Afraid!”

Luke 1-38 annunciation icon

Luke 1:26-38 (1:30) – December 17, 2017

Pictures of Christmas in the church bring to mind all sorts of things: Joseph and Mary entering a crowded Bethlehem, shepherds abiding in the fields, pictures of the Nativity scene. All manner of different pictures. But—we still haven’t gotten to Christmas. Christmas has not arrived yet. We are still in the waiting period; we are still in the third week of Advent.

Our Gospel reading—and presentation this morning—comes to us from the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. We look on with Mary, the teenaged girl engaged to Joseph, when she has a heavenly visitation. This Annunciation, or visit from the angel Gabriel, has been the subject of paintings, stained glass windows, mosaics, and other forms of artwork for centuries. About as long as the Gospel of Luke has been written down.

In many of these paintings, the teenaged girl Mary often looks relaxed and comfortable. She’s holding a book, she’s sewing, she’s arranging flowers, she is hardly startled at all. [1] Consider this situation another way. What are the first words out of the angel Gabriel’s mouth? “Do not be afraid, Mary!”

Look at another picture of Mary and the angel Gabriel, in the modern-day image of the Annunciation painted by Benedictine priest, John Giuliani. “In his rendition of the Annunciation, Have No Fear, Father Giuliani depicts Gabriel coming down from heaven, feet first, aimed right at Mary’s face, with a stem of lilies outstretched like a sword. For her part, Mary nearly falls out of her chair as she shields her face from Gabriel’s descent. The chair is pushed back on only two legs, swept over by the force of the messenger’s entry into time. It’s not as pretty a picture as the ones on Christmas cards, but it might be more accurate.” [2]

Before we go further into this Gospel reading, we need to consider Mary. A teenaged girl, can we even consider how frightened Mary must have been after she was greeted this way by a heavenly visitor, an angel? I am not sure, but I suspect I would have been at least as frightened as Mary at the totally unexpected visit of the angel.  How do you think you might feel if an angel appeared to you?

The separate branches of the Christian faith think of Mary in different ways.

I grew up on the northwest side of Chicago. For me, surrounded as I was by Roman Catholics, I knew that Catholics considered the Virgin Mary to be an extra-special woman. It was not until years later that I learned exactly how: “for Roman Catholics, Mary is a Co-Redeemer with Christ whose job description is to act as a go-between with us sinners on earth and God in heaven. During the Middle Ages, Mary became important in the prayer lives of the common folk, as one who could empathize with their plight and mediate forgiveness. In the councils of the Church through the centuries, she gradually gained supernatural qualities.” [3]

Again, we are getting way ahead of ourselves! Here in Luke chapter one, Mary is still a teenager. The angel Gabriel has just left. She travels to see her older cousin, and now we come to another great picture from the life of Mary. We have the Visitation of the Virgin Mary with her cousin Elizabeth, another picture that has been painted countless times throughout the centuries.

Women are so often overlooked, when we consider the Bible. In both the Old and New Testaments, as well as in general society, women are forgotten, ignored, shunted aside, and treated as second-class citizens. That is, unless we are reading the Gospel of Luke. Luke lifts up the characters of Mary and Elizabeth, and provides a memorable exchange.

“God is already at work to overturn the world’s structures and expectations.” [4]

At our neighboring church here in Morton Grove, St. Martha’s Catholic Church and Shrine of All Saints, we would discover something else about Mary—and about her cousin Elizabeth, and about many women of many periods and cultures. We would see that in many pictures at St. Martha’s Church, each woman has a covering on her head. Similar to certain cultural standards of dress today, many religious women cover their heads. Like religious Christian women today—like many Catholic nuns, and like many Orthodox women all over the world. We have religious Jewish women who cover—like observant married Jewish women. And, we know some observant Muslim women today, here in our area as well as in other places, cover their heads. They wear hijab. Head coverings. Just like Mary and Elizabeth did.

Returning to the many pictures and other artworks that portray the Virgin Mary, many of them show Mary interrupted from reading. A book is something that has been in pictures of Mary for centuries. Mary remembered as a literate young woman.

What a wonderful thing to tell our children and our children’s children! We have it on good authority that Mary could, indeed, read. Many Jewish women of that time could, unlike their contemporaries in other places. What a wonderful opportunity for the young Jesus to have both an earthly mother and father who were literate and able to teach their children.

Is there anything better that what Gabriel said?  The angel “assured Mary that God’s Holy Spirit would be with her. Even though she was frightened, Gabriel promised that God would take care of Mary. Mary learned from the Bible about God’s love, so she knew that she could trust the words of the angel when he said “Don’t be afraid!” [5]

Mary’s cousin Elizabeth adds some intelligent and insightful comments.  “When Elizabeth says, ‘Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord,’ she implicitly contrasts Mary’s trust in God’s power and promise with her own husband Zechariah’s skeptical questioning.” [6]

The high-powered priest Zechariah was skeptical when the angel came to him, a few months before. He asked for proof that the angel’s word was true. In contrast, Mary asked for an explanation of what was going to happen to her, and then gave her willing consent. Zechariah the religious professional doubted God, but Mary the girl from a poor family believed what the angel Gabriel said. “Her trust in God’s word opened the door for God to bless her and to bless the whole world through her. Elizabeth celebrates Mary’s willingness to say “yes” to God.[7]

We know God’s call is not always convenient. And sometimes, God asks us to set aside everything we think we know about reality in order to accomplish the Divine agenda. Such was the case with Mary. Thankfully, we know the end of the story. All of us can listen to the angel when he tells us “Do not be afraid!” Those are good words for all of us to take to heart.

 

[1] From An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide, Week Three. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry.

[2] From An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide, Week Three. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry.

[3] http://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/mary-reluctant-prophet-alyce-mckenzie-12-17-2012.html  “Mary, the Reluctant Prophet,” Alyce M. McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 2012.

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2723  Judith Jones

[5] From An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide, Week Three. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry.

[6] Ibid.

[7] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2723  Judith Jones

 

(A heartfelt thank you to An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide. Some of these sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this guide.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my Advent sermon series. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)