Today is the fourth Sunday of the season of Advent – the four weeks of waiting and preparation for Christmas when we celebrate the inbreaking of God into our world, as Jesus, the very Son of God, takes on our flesh and becomes one of us. During this Advent season, we have been acknowledging the dark times in our lives and in our world, as we wait for the coming of the Light of the World to expose those things that rob our hope, our peace and our joy. Today we turn our faces toward the dawning of that Light. We have just passed the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. Light is returning to our land; the daylight will continue to grow until it overtakes the length of the night, and we can once again enjoy long days and greening growth.
Going through these advent rituals in the life of our faith each year can help us to put the dark, winter seasons of our lives into perspective with our faith in the God of Light and Life. That’s why we take the time to fully appreciate the Advent season of waiting instead of rushing into Christmas. But the waiting is nearly over. And as we’ll hear from Mary’s own lips today, the waiting will not have been in vain. Because God is getting ready to do something truly revolutionary, something that will turn the world upside down. In fact, portions of our scripture reading today are so revolutionary that they have been banned from being recited in liturgy or in public in several countries, including India, Guatemala, and Argentina!
Please rise in body or in spirit for the reading of the Gospel of Luke 1:39-55:
39 Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands. 40 She entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 With a loud voice she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. 43 Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. 45 Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.”
46 Mary said, “With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
47 In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
48 He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
49 because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
50 He shows mercy to everyone,
from one generation to the next,
who honors him as God.
51 He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
52 He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed.
54 He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
remembering his mercy,
55 just as he promised to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”
Prayer: My soul cries out with a joyful shout that the God of my heart is great, and my spirit sings of the wondrous things that you bring to the ones who wait. You fixed your sight on your servant’s plight, and my weakness you did not spurn, so from east to west shall my name be blest. Could the world be about to turn? My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn! (Canticle of the Turning, Rory Cooney)
Before Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, the angel Gabriel has just delivered the news to Mary – a 14 to 15 year old girl, who was promised in marriage, but not yet married to a man named Joseph – that she will become pregnant and bear the Son of the Most High, who will be given the throne of his ancestor David. When she asks how this can happen, since she is not married and has never been with a man, the angel tells her, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son.” He goes on to explain that God has caused another miraculous pregnancy in her cousin Elizabeth, who has conceived in her old age. Elizabeth’s child, of course, will be John the Baptizer, the one will prepare the way for the ministry of Jesus. Mary takes a moment to consider all that the angel has told her. And we have to wonder what this young girl must have been thinking…
Young. Unwed. How will I explain this to Joseph? To my parents? To those in my church? My parents will be shunned! This will bring shame on our whole family, on our whole tribe. I’m not sure if those were Mary’s worries, but I can tell you that they were my worries when I found out I was expecting. I was young – not as young as Mary; but I hadn’t finished college, I wasn’t married, and I wasn’t ready to become a mother! I was just getting my own life back on track, and I had already put my family through enough embarrassment and worry over my lack of responsibility and the amount of trouble I had gotten into in my late teens and early twenties. And now, at age 22, just barely an adult, I learned that I was expecting. How will I explain this to my parents? What will my Dad’s church say about the daughter of a preacher becoming pregnant out of wedlock?
But behind the fears and worries over whether or not I was ready for this, or whether or not this would cause me shame or embarrassment, I began to think about the baby, and the possibility of a family. Thomas and I had only known each other a few months! Was this even the person I wanted to have a family with? And even if I did, would he? Did we love each other enough to do this together? Would I be left to do this on my own? If everyone in the world abandoned me, would I still have the ability or the resources to have and raise this child?
When Mary was given this news, whether or not she considered all of these possibilities, she seems wise and mature beyond her age when she simply replies, “Let it be with me just as you have said.” Let it be. Paul McCartney wrote a song that echoes Mary’s answer to the angel: “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be. And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.” It’s hard to know really if Mary was consenting to what the angel said would happen, or if she was accepting in faith that, no matter what happens, it will be OK. That if God is involved, then God will bring something good from it.
After Mary’s “Let it be,” her first action is to rush to her cousin Elizabeth for help in unpacking and understanding just what God is up to through both of these miraculous conceptions. We see in the coming together of these two women, one very old and one very young, that God is choosing to work in unexpected and scandalous ways! In this ancient time, women were considered property. Women were not educated, women were not the authorities on scripture and prophecy. Women had no power in social or religious community, no control over who or when they would marry, and sometimes, no agency over their own bodies. But the angel visited both of these women, and told them that God has seen and noticed them, and has chosen them to be the bearers of the ones who will help bring in God’s new reign. And these women were not even women of prominence; Mary is described as a lowly servant girl. But these women knew something of God, and of God’s promises for their people, and they believed the angel and they became participants in God’s work of reversal and justice.
Mary’s song begins the way we might expect, full of praise for God, and thanks for looking on her with favor and blessing her. Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor in Denver who has a reputation for being very progressive and cutting-edge; she’s covered in tattoos and preaches at a church called, House for All Saints and Sinners. But she grew up in a very traditional and conservative church, and recalls visiting her family’s church as an adult, and being surprised but excited to see that their closing song that day would be a musical setting of the Magnificat, of Mary’s song. She says she couldn’t believe the implications of what it would mean for this very wealthy, prestigious group of mostly white upper-class Americans to sing about God’s raising the lowly while casting down the proud and filling the hungry while sending the rich away empty-handed. She says, “Finally the moment came. The congregation sang a praise music setting of…and I can’t make this up…the first half of the Magnificat. They proudly sang a nice praise song based on the Magnificat about how their soul ‘magnifies the Lord who had looked with favor on them and that generations will call them blessed because the mighty one has done great things and holy is his name.’ And then the song ended.” (Sermon on the Magnificat, Nadia Bolz-Weber)
As I mentioned before, parts of Mary’s song is completely outlawed in some places because of its dangerous implications to those in power because of God’s favor to the anawim, the Hebrew word which means, “bowed down” and which was used most frequently in scripture to describe those who were “the poor of every sort: the vulnerable, the marginalized, and socio-economically oppressed, those of lowly status without earthly power… [those who] depended totally on God for whatever they owned.” (The Anawim: who are they? by Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J.) These are the lowly whom Mary reference, on whom God will have mercy, who God will notice, who God will feed, who God will lift up and to whom God will give God’s kingdom. Her song celebrates that God is about to do something new in the world, to turn things upside-down so that those who are always on the bottom rungs of society, those who are always getting overlooked or overworked, those who do not have access to the privileges others enjoy – like clean water, full pantries of food, adequate healthcare, a democratic government, or living in a world free of bullets and missiles – so that these people will know the good news of God’s love and mercy.
In Mary’s song, we get a different image of the mother of God. This was not some meek and mild Christmas card character, this was a teenager who understood the injustices of her world and was ready to join the resistance. Her song could more accurately be understood as a rebel yell! In fact, just this week I read an article from fellow United Methodist pastor Roger Woolsey who says that he can see the teenage Mary as a punk-rocker, with a ‘raucous song of protest’ in the vein of AD/DC’s salute to all those who are ready to rock. All those rebels with a cause who are ready to join God in turning the world upside down.
Elizabeth and Mary would raise their sons to know this good news as well. They would take responsibility for passing on the rich heritage and faith of their people, and in helping their sons to live into God’s purposes for their lives. Yes, Jesus himself was fully divine, but he was also fully human, and needed the guidance human parents to teach and instill faith and wisdom in him as he grew. In the upside-down reversals of God’s kingdom, it is not at all a stretch to think that Mary had a profound effect on Jesus’ ministry. I can imagine her singing her rock anthem as a lullaby, and of the family talks at the table being about the injustices in the world. And I can imagine Jesus growing up in a household that practices generous hospitality, and radical inclusion, and kindness and compassion to everyone they meet. And then Jesus, as he comes to fully understand his mission as God’s representation in the world, comes back to his hometown synagogue.
Maybe his experience was similar to that of Pastor Nadia’s. He sees that on the lectionary calendar for the day is a prophecy from Isaiah. He knows already the implications of its meaning for this group of church-goers who have bought into the social and religious hierarchy of the day, who have managed to become wealthy landowners and prosper off the backs of their slaves and servants. And he knows the hope it holds out for the anawim, the still bowed down of his region, those who are still being excluded or oppressed. We read this same prophecy from Isaiah last week – about bringing good news to the poor, and release for the captives, and healing for the brokenhearted, and proclaiming the year of Jubilee. Jubilee was the year when all the slaves and servants were freed, and property was restored to those from whom it had been taken; it was a time of restitution and recovery. So Jesus chose this reading and this moment to take up the resistance, likely handed down from his mother and her cousin, and to proclaim that this scripture is being fulfilled – through him. That now is the time for God’s work to begin, to restore what was broken or taken, to free those entrapped in servitude or poverty, to bring justice and equity to those on the margins. And all those who heard it did what?? They drove him to a cliff on the edge of town and tried to throw him off.
But, Pastor Melody, aren’t you supposed to be preaching about love today? I’m getting there.
You see, the anawim of the world are also those of us who are bowed down by too much reliance on jobs, or money or government or other principalities and powers that we look to for security, for meaning, and for happiness. And they are also those of us who are bowed down by mental or physical or spiritual illnesses – cancer, depression, despair. They are not just the physically hungry, but all of us who hunger for connection and relationship and purpose or meaning in life. They are all who are enslaved – in addictions, in the rat race, in sex trafficking, in proving our worth to others or to ourselves. Mary’s song is a song for all of us – that God has looked on us with favor. That God, who is Love, cares deeply for each one of God’s creations. And that when we find ourselves brokenhearted, or being held captive by things that cause us harm or despair, or being stepped on or overlooked, or when we are just struggling to make sense of life, and to find our purpose and meaning, that God is ready to break into our world with Love. This love is powerful. This love will cancel out the powers of darkness, and fear, and sin, and death. This love will shine a light on the injustices of the world so that we can see the way things should be. This love will cause people to reach out in compassion with friendship and food and help for those who are being oppressed or marginalized by others. This love will topple the empires of greed and hate and will welcome, clothe, feed, visit, include, and heal. This love will even risk death itself to give others life. This is the love that comes to us at Christmas.
I remember the first time I encountered Mary’s song. It was the Christmas that I was expecting my first child. I had been asked by my voice instructor to sing Mary’s song as part of her church choir’s Christmas concert. I remember sitting in the choir loft that year. I don’t really remember much about singing that particular song. But I do remember the part in the concert when this teenaged girl came walking down the aisle, draped in a bright blue headwrap and robe, accompanied by a teenage boy, and carrying a baby. A live, wriggling, fussing, baby. And I remember feeling the baby inside of me move, and feeling this sudden kindred with Mary. A realization that like me, Mary was unwed when she conceived and when she gave birth. That like me, Mary may have received more than a few disapproving glances, or even endured being shunned and shamed by others. But that when Mary gave birth, it must have all been worth it. To hold a real flesh-and-bones, wriggling, fussing baby and realize that God had entrusted you to be a mother. And to feel a love like you never knew you could feel. Love that could endure embarrassment and abandonment, if necessary. In that moment, I became overwhelmed with this Love – not just the love I already felt for the child that I was bringing into the world, but Love that I knew God had for me, as God’s own child. That was the moment that I said, “Let it be.”
If the words to all those scriptures I’ve heard and all those songs I’ve been singing are really true, then be born in me! If God really is looking down on me with the love that I see this teenage representation of Mary looking down with on this baby in front of me, and with the love that I feel in my heart for this not-yet-born child of mine, then thank you, God, for loving me. Then thank you, God, for seeing past the mess I’ve made of my life and giving me this wonderful gift of motherhood. Then thank you God for turning my world upside down, for lifting me up out of my brokenness and giving me a future with hope. For meeting me in my need and filling me with good things, for freeing me from the old ways of my life, and binding up my broken heart. Today I rejoice, Thank you God for giving me a husband and three wonderful children, and inviting me to join you in the resistance to the world’s greed and power in order to help grow your kingdom of incredible hope and good news and unconditional love for all.
Can you sing with Mary today? What is the good news that God has given you to share with the world, to help turn it right-side up for others who are still living bowed down? The Love that came down at Christmas is the love that everyone wants to feel. So let’s make room for more of that this year – in our personal lives, in our church, in our community. Let’s share this dangerous song of Love with the whole world!
Prayer: Though I am small, my God, my all, you work great things in me, and your mercy will last from the depths of the past to the end of the age to be. Your very name puts the proud to shame, and to those who would for you yearn, you will show your might, put the strong to flight, for the world is about to turn. My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn! (Canticle of the Turning, Rory Cooney)