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Advent 4C Sermon
Luke 1: 39-55

December 19, 2021

Sermon Archives


Luke 1:39-55

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
46 And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

May the grace, mercy and peace of God be with us in the name of our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

This past week Lucy and I went to the Broadway Series production of, “Fiddler on the Roof,” at the Palace Theater. I enjoy going to musicals, whether they are professional productions, college or High school, or even community theater! There is something about watching a story where the characters are moved to song by the things going on in their lives. In “Fiddler” Tevya, Golda, their five daughters and the townspeople celebrate, argue and struggle to survive life in pre-revolutionary Russia with a song at every turn - from the fun, “If I Were a Rich Man” to the sweet sentimental, “Sunrise, Sunset” and the celebratory, “To Life” each time the music starts we pay particular attention to the words and the choreography to tell the story of the deepest, inner feelings of these characters. In this way, musical theater can be a bit of a religious experience, especially if it is a story that, while it technically may be fiction, shares deep truths through the writing, acting and especially the singing of it.

People in scripture are regularly breaking out in song as they encounter God and their neighbors, rejoicing and lamenting in their lives. The book of Psalms itself was the songbook of the ancient Temple. And there are other instances of singing. After the Israelites are safely on the other side of the Red Sea, following their escape from Egypt, Exodus 15 tells us that Moses and the Israelites sung a song - as a matter of fact, verses 20 & 21 say, “Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them, “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea!”

Hannah, when she (after years of being barren) bore a son named Samuel and dedicated him to the service of Yahweh, sang, “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.” She goes on to praise a God that breaks the bows of the mighty and girds the feeble in strength; who makes poor and makes rich, brings low and exalts. Who raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap. Her song, recorded in 1 Samuel 2, would have been well known among the people of Jesus’ time and society. It certainly was well-known by Mary.
Which brings us to the mother of our Lord. I imagine that her head was still spinning since her visit with the angel Gabriel. He called her “highly favored by God” in his greeting to her, something she had probably never heard before. He promised her that the child she was carrying was to be the savior of the world. She knew the stigma that would be felt toward her, as one who was pregnant and not yet married. I imagine her wrestling with the many feelings that came with this - excitement that the messiah was coming and that she would bear him; excitement that she would have a baby; fear of the danger to her health and life during labor and birth in those days; fear of her entire family being ostracized because of her condition; fear of being abandoned by Joseph and his family; ultimately contentment and peace at the presence of God in her life and in the troubled world in which she lived.

I imagine she contemplated many things on her journey to stay with her cousin, Elizabeth, in the Judean hillside. She may have even been wrestling with how to tell her that she was expecting a child. In Luke’s Gospel the Holy Spirit is always present and at work, so there was no need to explain her visit, for the child in Elizabeth’s womb actually leaped at the sound of Mary’s voice. And then, what happens next? Inspired by Miriam and Hannah before her, Mary sings. She sings a song praising God and also prophesying what this child will mean for the world. She sings about how God has looked with favor upon her, a lowly servant, and how God is about to turn the world upside down - bringing down the proud, powerful and rich, and lifting up the poor, humble and weak. It is a song that challenges us, for we find ourselves on the side of the ledger that has nowhere to go but down in this song, but it heartens us to think of how God is and will lift up those who are faithful and meekly relying upon the Holy Spirit to lead us into the way of peace and joy.

I suppose we like the Christmas season because of all of the well-known songs that are associated with it. We already sang about Gabriel’s visit to Mary. We will close our service by singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” a song written in1868 by Philips Brooks, inspired by a nighttime visit he made to the little village on horseback a few years before. In 1984, a Christian humorist and musician named Mark Lowery wrote a Christmas song that has become quite popular over these last 30 years or so called, “Mary Did You Know?” It is a pretty song, covered by everyone from Dolly Parton to Pentatonix. It has even been sung here a number of times by some of our talented vocalists, most recently last year. The lyrics ask the mother of our Lord if she knows … that this son of hers would one day walk on water … that he would save their sons and daughters and so many other things that Jesus would do in his earthly life. They also ask if she knows that he is the Lord of all the nations, and that he will one day rule the nations? I appreciate how it takes the sentimentality of Christmas and helps us to look ahead to what this baby boy will do, the kingdom that he will initiate in his life, death, and resurrection.

You may or may not realize that this song has come under criticism the last couple of years. If you are familiar with scripture and know the story from our Gospel this morning you would say that indeed, Mary DID know all of these things! She spoke them … no, she SUNG them. Folks have accused the song of another instance of “man-splaining,” and that it demeans Mary’s faith in the promise that Gabriel has already share with her. Now, you can take that criticism as you want to - agree with it or dismiss it - but there is a point here. While “Mary Did You Know” may be a lovely song that helps US focus on the deeper meaning of Jesus’ birth, maybe it is not best or accurate to address Jesus’ mother as a passive, helpless, even clueless bystander in this song instead of the strong woman and prophet, faithfully believing God’s promises and defiantly agreeing to be part of God’s saving mission in the world.
Like any good musical theater and worship service, we are about to break out in song. Our song is the hymn of the day. The words are based on Mary’s song, the Magnificat. It is a familiar tune - an Irish tune, called Star of County Down. The song is entitled, “Canticle of the Turning,” and each verse ends, “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.” We sing this song not only in celebration and faith of the birth of Jesus, but also in hope for what God has promised to do. God is about to make the world turn and God’s justice will break into this shadowy world and shine the light of love and peace for which we yearn. On this, the fourth Sunday of Advent, we get more and more hopeful and expectant that the Holy Spirit will cause all of us to leap for joy at the voice of God in our lives, so that we can sing the song of Mary and proclaim that our God will set things right for all people.

Yes, Mary knew … as did Elizabeth. We know as well, but it is right and good that we remind ourselves of the promises of God whenever we gather - whether it be by reading God’s word, praying, sharing Jesus’ body and blood or by joining our voices in song. This is the week to sing, folks! After a month or more of Christmas carols playing on radios and stores, our songs of faith turn from expectation and preparation to joy and praise! We do this because, like Mary, we know that the world is about to turn! Amen.