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The Fourth Sunday of Advent
Micah 5:2-5a; Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:1-10; Luke 1:39-56
Advent is about anticipation, our patient waiting for the Coming of the Lord. But what is it we are expecting? What are we hopeful for? According to the Song of Mary, the famed Magnificat, it is that God will establish justice, that the lowly and hungry will be raised up and fed, and that the powerful will be reduced and humbled. We sing a lot of songs through our lives: hymns to God, music we like to ourselves that makes us feel happy, or sad, or angry. Today, I tell you to sing the song of Mary, that praises God and calls for the powerful to be humbled, a song that holds all societies accountable for their oppression, violence, and greed. Sing the song of Mary.
Luke’s gospel preserves for us the marvelous words of Mary, mother of Jesus, known as the Magnificat, the name taken from the first line, “my soul magnifies the Lord.” In this visit to her cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist at the time, Mary is met with the words “Blessed are you among women,” because she “believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Mary, in other words, is called blessed by all generations down to the very day, because the Lord chose to bless her and she responded in faith.
The Magnificat is the Song of biblical Songs, like Mary is the Saint of biblical Saints. Here we see the culmination of all of God’s promises to his people, and to the world, coming together in the faith of a poor, young woman in a backwater province of the Roman Empire. Her words reflect her own status, and that of the people whom God has come to save. We have been saying these words throughout Advent, and if you do Evening prayer according to our prayer book you could pray them daily.
It begins with Mary magnifying the Lord, rejoicing in God. Why? Because God has looked with favor on her, on a “lowly servant.” She is in almost every way a second-class citizen or worse; she is poor, a Jew in the Roman Empire, a woman in a highly patriarchal time, and pregnant but unmarried. Yet, because of God and his favor, she can say “from now on all generations will call me blessed.” Not a single one of the other facts about her life would change, other than getting married to Joseph, but yet she was blessed.
Mary saw, in other words, that the promises of God were being fulfilled, and that she was chosen to play a central role in them. She was the one set apart, consecrated to bear the very life of God incarnate in a human person. She was the God-bearer, and no one else in the history of the world has ever or will ever bear that unique role.
All of you who are mothers understand this by analogy. You all bore life within you, and brought it into the world. That life is something utterly new, something never seen in the world before. You brought a single, unique individual human into this world who will change, perhaps in a seemingly small way, but irreversibly. Motherhood is already an incredible, momentous role to play in human history. For Mary, it was nothing less than to bear the Life of God itself to be given to the world, to bear the life that gave her life.
And what will this life do? What is it that God is doing through Mary? “He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
God is coming, and Mary here is acting as his prophet to proclaim that God favors those who are oppressed, the poor and hungry, and that those who are proud and rich and powerful will be brought low. Mary sounds like a revolutionary who expects the social order to be overthrown! Consider: How comfortable are you sitting with Mary’s words? Hear them again:he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things,and sent the rich away empty.”. I have many, many times people making sure, going to pains to say that “God doesn’t exclude the wealthy! He wants all people to be saved!” They aren’t wrong. But why do we do that? Why do we feel the need to qualify, when the emphasis is so clearly that God is coming to raise up the lowly and lower the mighty?
These words are not pious words spoken in quiet reflection. We should see Mary’s words here, as Rev. Carolyn Sharp puts it, as “a girl who sings defiantly to her God through her tears, fists clenched against an unknown future.” This is why the Magnificat has been banned on no less than 3 occasions in different countries: In British ruled India (that one we Anglicans are complicit in), in Guatemala, and in Argentina, and it was banned because it gave hope to the oppressed that God could change their plight, that hope was not futile and that he favored them over the powerful. Note that it is not Mary who is doing the redeeming; no, the Gospel is that God will come and establish justice.
Mary sings to her God because she knows that these things, the restoration of all the world and the raising up of the lowly and lowering of the high and mighty, is “according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Oppression continues in all nations on earth. Those who are powerful and rich can certainly receive by faith God’s promises, but with that comes the responsibility to make Mary’s words known, to stand in defiance against those who use power for their own benefit and say, “God condemns you.” We, careful though we may be, can sometimes be unknowing and unwilling participants in oppression, believing and supporting things like politicians, businesses, or even whole industries that benefit from exploiting the poor and vulnerable of our own society.
My exhortation to each of you this morning is this: As we leave this place, ask yourself, do I believe what Mary sang on that day? Do I believe that, some day, God will look at what we all have done, and will raise up the faithful oppressed and lower the powerful who exploited others for themselves? If you do believe it, then I simply say, live as if it is true. Do you exploit, or oppress? Do you allow it to happen, or contribute to it? Do you benefit? And if you do, then what are you going to do about it?
If you are one of the oppressed, the poor, the hungry, then I urge you, look to God, and know that one day he will do for you what this world never did. He will raise you up. And I hope and pray that we, as a church, are a place where the poor and hungry feel welcome, and loved, and where we believe that we all are on our knees in humility before the Lord our God. Sing the song of Mary, brothers and sisters, and make the mighty uncomfortable.
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