Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Magnifcat - A Sermon

By now, I’m guessing you are feeling a little stressed. I know I am. Four days, and there’s shopping and dinners and oh yeah, I don’t have the Christmas Eve services done! Is this how it’s supposed to be? Stressful?

Of course it is. It’s our tradition.

But what’s not our tradition is to really look at all these scripture readings for the Advent season and really see what they say. Because if you haven’t been paying attention, you might have missed that they are not very cute and cuddly.

Even today’s Gospel with the Blessed Virgin Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, in that heartwarming encounter where Elizabeth’s baby leaps in her womb for joy at the presence of Jesus – even that has a more radical feel to it when you actually look at what is being said.

To understand Mary’s words – you know, those beautiful words: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant” – we have to reach back into the Old Testament. Back to the words of another woman who also had a miraculous baby boy who would change his world.

That woman was Hannah, and her son would grow to be the prophet Samuel. What SHE said when her son was born was this: “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.” Of course there was more to that in both songs, but often we tend not to see beyond the first lines, so they sound very similar.

And indeed, Luke wrote Mary’s Magnificat (the name we call that song comes from Magnify) to echo Hannah. She exults in the Lord who has done a great thing, after all.

Both songs also talk about the poor being cared for and the rich getting nothing. In short, both songs praise God for this child who will set things right.

But they are different. Hannah’s song is set in a time before Israel even has kings (though probably written much later). It is her son who will anoint the first two kings – Saul and David. She speaks of a king who exults in his power. Of a God who thunders from Heaven. Of adversaries who are shattered and derided.

When Hannah talks of salvation, it is the same sort of salvation so many of the Old Testament prophets speak of: salvation from earthly enemies. It is battle, state against state. When she talks about the poor, she means her people who have been put upon by outside forces – as was common in the day.

In that way, she is very much like Micah in our Old Testament reading today. The enemy is from without. Peace means that the bad guys have been overthrown and that everyone in Israel worships God.

Mary brings something new. She brings mercy. “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.”

What’s more, when Mary talks about mercy for the poor, she means the poor among them – the poor who live and eat and beg and die right there at home. This is not about battles, it is about good things for those who have not.

Yet there is nothing sweet about her song. When she talks about the rich being sent away empty, she is not talking about some outside force. It is they who will be scattered in the imaginations of their hearts – those who imagine themselves to be good yet watch the suffering of others with indifference. She calls out the faithful to live faithfully.

In short, Mary foreshadows the ministry of her son, she is expecting one who will guide the people of Israel – and all those who fear the Lord – into lives of generosity and mercy, not just from outside forces but from within. This is something we still struggle with.

Yet even with this foreshadowing of Jesus’ ministry, Mary, like John the Baptist later, can’t possibly grasp the enormity of what her son would do. Who could? Still, this young woman speaks the words of a prophet who knows that what she is preparing to bring to the world is the Kingdom of God itself.

And I was worrying about preparing for a Christmas Eve service. Amen.