+ A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year C) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on December 23, 2018 +
Text: Luke 1:39-55
Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
This morning I am aware how thankful I am for music.
I think music is one of the most beautiful gifts that we as humans have received.
We listen to it from the birds of the air.
We hear it rippling in the streams and blowing through the trees.
We play it with our instruments and sing it with our voices.
Music has a way of amplifying the emotion it expresses.
Joys are heightened and sorrows deepened in song.
Love is more beautiful and longing more potent when it’s sung.
And music has a way of making itself part of us.
Its lyrics get stuck in our head.
Its melodies sink into our bones.
It can lodge into our very selves the way words so rarely can.
Music is especially beautiful this time of year.
Whether it’s the Christmas songs that have been on repeat on radio stations and playing in shopping malls since the Thanksgiving feast was still on the table or it’s the Christmas hymns and carols we are yearning to sing—and will soon, I promise—songs have a way of encapsulating the season, the joy and hope Christmas can bring.
And in many of these songs, we hear about Mary, the mother of Jesus.
We hear of this “mother mild,” this “virgin mother kind,” “the virgin” singing a “lullaby,” and as today’s communion hymn will call her, “lowly maiden,” “gentle,” and “meek.”
One song even wonders if Mary knew if her son was the Son of God—even though Luke’s gospel makes it quite clear that Mary was well aware.
We get this impression of Mary, a young, gentle, meek, mild, and unassuming girl, submissive to the power of God.
And yet, today we hear another carol, this time from Mary’s own mouth, and this carol gives a very different impression.
The Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer—who would later be executed for resisting the Nazi regime—once preached,
“The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings…This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God.”
Yes, this song—the Magnificat, as it’s known—that we heard in today’s gospel is a very different song than we are used to hearing this time of year.
This is a song of resistance, more akin to the slave spirituals of the antebellum South, or “We Shall Overcome” of the Civil Rights movement, or the singing that challenged Apartheid and the Soviet Bloc.
This is more like the protest songs of the streets than it is like “Silent Night.”
In fact, at least three oppressive regimes banned its public use in the past century for fear that its words would stir the people into action—for fear that the casting down the powerful from their thrones would be an all too actualized reality.
And if we cling to the understanding of Mary we hear in our carols or only think of the silent figure in our nativities, we may wonder why Mary would be proclaiming such revolutionary words and how they could possibly bring her such rejoicing.
But it is important to remember that Mary is no stranger to oppression and fear.
She is in fact lowly, not due to her spiritual humility, but to her social location.
A young, female, member of an occupied and oppressed people, economically and politically exploited by a foreign superpower that dominates her land through violence and fear.
And even within her own patriarchal culture, she is a poor, unwed girl from a town no one cares about who may now even be in physical danger because of her extramarital pregnancy—in fact, I wonder if that’s why she hastily fled to the hill country, to find safety and refuge in her cousin Elizabeth’s house.
And it is this same Mary in the little Galilean town of Nazareth that God has chosen to call to be God’s partner in the great work of redemption and love that is about to burst forth.
It is through just a lowly woman as this that God has come to bring salvation to the world and inaugurate the new reign that God is establishing on earth.
That this girl has been chosen to be what Christians have long called the Theotokos, the Mother of God, the God-bearer.
And today from these two unlikely expectant mothers, from Elizabeth, who was thought to be too old to bear a child and yet, to whom God promised a son and who is pregnant with the baby that will become John the Baptizer who even now points us to the coming Messiah and from Mary, we hear the glorious praise of a God whose promises are fulfilled.
Elizabeth who is filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaims the goodness of God and Mary who sings this song of praise, this song of thanksgiving, and this song that is anxiously anticipating God’s justice that will overcome the powers of this world.
And for Mary, the good news here is clear—that God has sided with her and her people, that God’s love lifts up the oppressed, that God is working to flip the world on its head.
And while Mary’s song may be a familiar part of our lectionary, and while its setting in Holden Evening Prayer may be a favorite for many of us, I wonder if we feel the good news along with Mary.
Because for most of us, myself included, we have a hard time really identifying with Mary’s situation here.
We are the ones living in a global superpower with more strength than she could have ever imagined.
We are the rich whose bellies are already full and do not need to be filled with good foods.
We are the ones who benefit from an economic structure that relies on the work of the lowly.
If we’re truly honest with ourselves, I wonder if we would be the ones resisting the message that Mary is proclaiming here rather than joining in her song.
But I think that we too can identify with Mary’s longing here.
I think her songs sings to our own hope that the world will finally change.
Our hope that our human family will be united in equality and love, not divided by hierarchies and wealth.
Our hope that our planet will be healed and our climate restored.
Our hope that our neighbors will finally have roofs over their heads and a warm meal in their stomachs.
Our hope that people fleeing from fear and persecution will find refuge and welcome in our land, like Mary did, like her family did, instead of a wall blocking their path.
Our hope that our own efforts to solve these problems, small though they may seem, may actually make a difference on an individual and systemic level.
Our hope that our God will partner with us and work through us that our labor is not in vain.
Yes, I wonder if we can hear our own anxious anticipation harmonizing with Mary’s.
The same anticipation that is palpable this Advent.
Our anticipation of the coming of Jesus, for the return of Christ.
Our hope that this Christmas will finally change things, that God’s reign will finally be born and realized in our midst, and our fear that nothing will change and the status quo will endure.
Mary’s words speak to us here, as do Elizabeth’s.
“Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Blessed are we that trust that God’s promises will be fulfilled.
These women are telling us to hold onto that hope, to hold onto that trust.
These women know that the birth of Jesus every year upturns the world as we know it.
They know that God’s mercy and love are for all people and all generations.
They know that God has long been working among us, is still at work within us, and is not finished with us yet.
They know that this humble birth we will celebrate just hours from now will once again proclaim that God’s reign rules above all the powers of this earth.
So this morning Mary, the Theotokos, the God-bearer who is literally pregnant with the fullness of God, sings to us.
She proclaims the goodness of a God who would partner with her to bring about the transformation of our world that only God can bring.
And she who is full of the endless possibilities God promises calls us to trust in God’s faithfulness.
And these words of one woman two millennia ago can give us hope this morning that God can work with us and in us and through us too.
Because while we may not be the Mother of God, preparing to birth Jesus into our world, we will come to this table in a few minutes and be offered the fullness of Christ in the bread and cup.
We will join Mary as we too become God-bearers, carrying the richness of Christ in our bodies into the world—willing and active partners in God’s transformational work.
Or as the 13th Century mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, “We are all meant to be mothers of God for God is always needing to be born.”
And sure, if I’m honest, I’m going to guess that the world will not be completely righted on the morning of December 25.
It may be that the world won’t appear to have turned on its head two days from now.
It may be that oppression will continue, that hunger will endure.
And if we demand an instant fix, a quick solution to our problems, we may be disappointed.
But we can be sure that it is coming.
We can be sure that our God is faithful to God’s promises—that the work may still be in progress but will be fulfilled.
We can be sure that the new world is coming, growing like Jesus is growing within Mary, growing within us waiting to be born.
And while we impatiently wait for Christ’s perfect reign, we join Mary in partnering with God to turn the world on its head.
In bearing Christ to a world that needs his birth again and again.
In working with God to transform the world.
In bringing God’s blessing to our neighbors and our communities.
In magnifying the Lord with our words, with our songs.
To sing that God’s justice will reign in the halls of Capitol Hill, at the White House, on our southern boarder.
To proclaim God’s filling the hungry with good things on our streets and in our shelters.
And to transform these songs into action.
Because while we anxiously wait for the fulfillment of the Lord’s promises, we know we cannot be idle.
We know that we cannot let our prayers remain merely words.
We know that we cannot sit waiting for the world to change.
Because we have been called to join with Mary as willing and active participants in the transformation of our world.
And we as Holy Cross, we as individuals, are doing this work.
In bringing food to Hopelink so our neighbors can celebrate Christmas with a feast.
In visiting our homebound members and bringing them cookies and flowers.
In caring for our little patch of creation.
In advocating for change in our city, in our state, and in our country.
And though our efforts may seem insignificant compared to the enormous challenges we face, we can trust that we are part of a much larger movement.
A movement that will topple tyrants and end oppression.
A movement that will cause wars to cease and peace to reign.
A movement that will feed the hungry and welcome the refugee.
A movement that found a new spark in the birth of a little baby, the child of a lowly unwed mother more than 2000 years ago in a small backwater town in the Judean hill country.
A movement that will turn the world around.
And while we wait and work for its fruition, we let the song of Mary be our song.
Its words on our lips, its melody in our bones, its promise in every action, until the world is transformed.
May it be so.
I usually don’t post the hymn of the day that follows the sermon, but today I will. We used ELW #723, “Canticle of the Turning” – a retelling of the Magnificat. You can listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TXyGh1MW2OM