We Magnify and Rejoice in God’s Love

A sermon based on Luke 1:46-55
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 8, 2013
by Rev. Scott Elliott

I read a joke the other day about a pious soul who died, went to heaven, and met up with Mary. The visitor asked Mary why, for all her blessings, does she always appear in paintings as a bit sad, a bit wistful: “Is everything O.K.?” the visitor asked. Mary reassured her: “Oh, everything’s great. No problems. It’s just … it’s just that we . . . wanted a daughter.’” 1

Most of you know by now that I direct plays. On my bucket list is the dream to one day direct a production of the musical Godspell with a female Jesus. See God incarnate in our lives is not limited to one gender, nor is one gender better than the other as a vehicle for Christ’s work in the world and I think a female Jesus in Godspell would make that obvious.

Nancy and I tried very hard to raise our children to understand that male and females are equal and that, truly, girls and boys could choose to do anything in life, that there were no gender limitations of any import. That approach countermands some teaching in the Bible, like First Timothy wherein Paul purportedly laid down this rule “ Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. (1Ti 2:11-12 NRS). Similarly 1 Corinthians 14:34 provides that “ women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak . . .”

Let me be clear on this, I find those texts unloving and ungodly, and far from being the inspired word of God. They are vestiges of a misogamy laced patriarchal culture, they are not remnants of Jesus’ teachings and certainly are not God’s call to us. In fact, many scholars believe that it is unlikely Paul wrote either of those offensive texts. Both appear to have been written decades after Paul. In short, they are not the words of Paul, let alone the Word of God. 2 So why are they in the Bible? They were likely written later when a portion of the Jesus following had taken on the trappings of the Roman patriarchy.

But decades before those two texts were written the author of Luke penned what we know as the Gospel of Luke and in it he portrays the Jesus Movement in an entirely different light with respect to women. Women are remembered as mattering much in the movement and clearly matter much to Jesus.Women are reported as being followers– disciples– of Jesus and the Jesus movement and as respected and even powerful members of the Jesus movement.

One of the greatest example of this is the reading we heard Kathy read today. Unlike Matthew’s version of the Christmas story Mary, not Joseph, is whom God speaks to through an angel. And Mary, not Joseph, chooses to accept the conception of Jesus the Christ through her body. She is in control, she has a choice and she is whom God directly approaches and empowers. And because she makes the choice and claims the blessing offered by God, Mary conceives Christ.

That last sentence actually can apply to every Christian, because when we make the choice and claim the blessing offered by God, we conceive Christ. And therein lies at least one metaphoric universal truth in Luke’s story. See it is always between just God and us when it comes to the “conception” of Christ.

And it is really important that the first persons recorded to conceive Christ was not a royal or rich or powerful person. God instead chose to offer the first conception of Christ to an unmarried peasant teenaged girl, a lowly person to the culture, one of culture’s unworthiest expendables.

In Luke’s marvelous re-telling God did not follow the cultural ideas on worthiness– as we discussed couple of weeks ago, God never does. Simply put, earthly constructs that labeled anyone unworthy have no place in God’s realm, that’s why later in Acts (10:28) God issues the command that Christians “should not call anyone profane or unclean.”

So Mary-the-nobody to virtually the rest of the world, is Mary-the-somebody to God and the Jesus Movement. And Mary does the miraculous, she consents to, and then does, conceive and incubate the Christ child in her womb, and then she delivers him for all generations since to have the chance to also conceive him. It’s mind bending metaphor understood that way.

In a world where cultures often act disrespectful toward teenagers and women, God does the opposite and shows great respect for them. The Nativity story is a case in point. God chooses a teenaged woman to offer the opportunity to carry, birth and raise the Son of God.

And God, of course, makes the right choice. Mary is not passive about the whole thing, her affirmative decision not only changes her body, but her being– and the world. Like most teens she is smart and she gets the meanings conceiving God incarnate, God who is with us.

And like many teens today music was important to the teenager Mary, and she sings the awesome song we call “The Magnificat” which has taught and inspired generations of church goers. This teaching woman image flies in the face of the anti-women texts I read from First Timothy and First Corinthians, and so as a feminist I especially love that text.

The very first person to conceive Christ to experience the Jesus Movement (in more ways that one I might add), is a woman. And she is not stifled or silenced. She powerfully describes and teaches aloud what happens when we accept God’s offer to conceive Christ. Mary sings:

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. Surely, from now on all generations will call me
blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 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. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his
descendants forever. (Luk 1:46-55 NRS)

This song in some cultures inspires the Christmas revelry to include what’s called the “Feast of Fools” where Christians act out Mary’s teachings as comical, because the powers that be will not let it be acted out in reality. It’s comical because it’s not how the wolrd works in earthly powers’ ways, a peasant pregnant unwed girl is the one with the strength to first teach the prophetic Way of Jesus. It’s a way that envisions and proclaims a world stood on its head.

The song mocks the world as it is, because the world as it is opposes the Way of Jesus, a way where the oppressed are the honored and respected, lifted up and taken care of. The oppressors, who in Mary’s day were the only one’s honored and respected and lifted up and taken care of, those oppressors in Mary’s song and God’s realm, are removed from power. (FOW 96, 98)
Mary’s song is about turning the world upside down. The Feast of Fools was, as it sounds, a sort of Christmas season April Fool’s Day, silliness of all sorts in church and on the streets subverting the solemnity of power in the religious and the secular world.

The Feasting on the Word commentary on the today’s text notes the Feast of Fools

is a day to prepare for the incarnation by lampooning the “powers that be” (including the powers in the church) with the topsy turvy news of the gospel, which is first celebrated
by two pregnant women laughing and singing, and which enters the world through a young unwed mother and child laid in a manger because there was no room at the inn. 3

The words that Mary sings in The Magnificat are so brave and so bold and so brash. She’s a nobody to the culture, a nobody. But by God she’s a somebody. And she declares that by conceiving Christ, “[Her] soul magnifies the Lord . . .” That’s brave. She claims that God “has looked with favor on the lowliness of [her]” That’s brash. She notes that surely, from now on all generations will call [her] blessed…” That’s bold. ///

We can learn a lot from Mary teaching us, and thank God that whomever wrote the awful texts in First Timothy and First Corinthians did not have a say in God’s way so that Mary would have been silenced!

Mary knows that despite what the culture may think of her lowly estate that God loves her and that love and the knowledge of it empowers her. She not only takes on the task of bringing Christ into the world, but gets that she is blessed and that the sign of fully experiencing God’s steadfast and enduring love is to in turn magnify that love from the very depths of her soul.
Mary gets that God “has done great things for [her]. . .” And that God is holy and works to stop oppression.

Mary’s song is actually a summary of Jesus’ first sermon in Luke that we discussed two weeks ago. Remember? Jesus says these words

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:17-19)

Mary proclaims in song that she magnifies God and that God helps the oppressed. Jesus preaches that the Spirit of God is upon him and he is sent to help the oppressed. You see both Mary’s first song and Jesus’ first sermon are summaries of Jesus life and ministry and what it means to follow Jesus’ Way. 4

In our Advent stories Mary, a teenaged woman – disrespected by the culture, but highly regarded by God– is the very first to proclaim this even before the baby Jesus arrives.

I mentioned last week that the Christmas story is revolutionary and subversive. Mary’s song at the very beginning, makes this clear. Just as on the first Easter Sunday when women are chosen by God to herald the good news of the resurrection, at the first Christmas, women are God’s chosen heralds of the good news of Jesus’ arrival in both bodily and Spiritual forms. A woman heralds the good news that Jesus as God’s instrument is going to shake things up. And she teaches that so can we when we conceive Christ!

Mary’s song is about peace. Peace in the Bible means fullness and well being. It comes about when all are in a state of well being. When the oppressed are taken care of, when all have enough there will be well being, peace on earth good will to all will exist.

Christmas is, as Mary sings about, “ help[ing God’s] servant[s] . . . in remembrance of [God’s] mercy, according to the promise [God has] made . . .” That promise is peace on earth good will to all. Christians have been singing about it for 2,000 years, and working at bringing it about.

Thanks to Mary who was Jesus’ mom for sure, but also the first person in the Christian story who’s very soul magnified God and who’s spirit rejoiced in God’s love of her. And those two attributes, magnification of God and rejoicing in God’s love, are exactly what we are called to do this time of year, and all the rest of the time too! AMEN!

1. I found this joke on line in a manuscript called “A Church Mary Can Love” by Nicholas Kristof at this link: http://forums.thenest.com/discussion/4642403/amusing-joke-about-virgin-mary-catholic-church
2. E.g., Borg, Marcus, Crossan, John Dominic The First Paul, 55-57.
3. Feasting on the Word, p 97
4. Borg, Marcus, Crossan, John Dominic The First Christmas, I got this idea from the book’s general premise is that the Christmas stories are overtures, and the texts I quote bear this out.