Mary’s Song of Praise
Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
December 13, 2015
Luke 1: 46-55 (CEB)
Mary said, “With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
47 In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
48 He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
49 because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
50 He shows mercy to everyone,
from one generation to the next,
who honors him as God.
51 He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
52 He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed.
54 He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
remembering his mercy,
55 just as he promised to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”
“If you’re happy and you know it…” (Clap your hands!) “If you’re happy and you know it…” (Stomp your feet, shout “Amen!” etc.) We’re all familiar with that song, and certainly it conveys a lot of the ways that we express our joy when we are particularly happy about something. And we do have many ways of conveying our happiness, don’t we? If we’re super-excited, we might call our family, or text a friend to share the big news; we might jump for joy or dance wildly. Well, in ancient Israel, when people were happy, they would sing.
I think that tells us a lot about how people were feeling when news began to break across the ancient near East that God was at last sending the long-promised Messiah. In the first two chapters alone of Luke’s gospels, he records four different songs as a part of the Christmas story. These psalms, or songs of faith, capture the great joy of the people surrounding the birth of Christ. The first of these songs of joy is placed on the lips of Jesus’ mother, Mary. It pours forth from her mouth ten days after the visit from the angel Gabriel, which seems like a long time coming from a woman who has just learned that she is pregnant. Usually, that’s cause for immediate celebration. But we have to remember that Mary’s pregnancy happened under less than desirable circumstances, and she could have been killed for becoming pregnant outside of marriage. So it’s not until she enters the house of her cousin Elizabeth, full of fear and uncertainty, and hears in response Elizabeth’s enthusiastic greeting of blessedness, that Mary finally allows joy to fill her and begins to sing this song of praise, the “Magnificat.”
So why was Mary so happy? What was it that had her singing for joy? Obviously, some of it had to do with the fact that she would soon be welcoming a child into her family. But there is much more at play, and Mary lays it all out in her song of praise, beginning with God’s work in her own life. Remember, Mary is a peasant girl from Nazareth, a poor backwater village in the shadow of the much wealthier Roman town of Sepphoris. And as Mary celebrates her divine pregnancy, she is proclaiming the mighty work of God in turning the established order on its head in favor of the poor and marginalized—people just like her. Mary is celebrating the fact that the last shall now be first because God has looked upon the lowliest of servants with extravagant blessings of love. Even though Mary found herself in the midst of trying circumstances, even though she was a very small fish in a very big pond, she is able to say that, “the mighty one has done great things for [her].” And Mary now knows in the depths of her being that in fulfillment of God’s promises and in response to the people’s hopes and dreams, all generations will be blessed just as she has been! With such hopes and dreams now becoming reality, how can Mary keep from singing?
But Mary’s song isn’t only about herself. After lifting up God’s work in her own life, Mary continues the song with anticipatory praise of all that God will do for God’s people through the son she is to bear. Through her song, Mary announces for the first time in Luke’s gospel the radical revolution that God is about to begin in the person of Jesus Christ. It has prompted many to refer to Mary as “the first disciple of the gospel,” and for good reason. Mary gives a summary overview of all that God will accomplish in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And it is certainly nothing short of a complete revolution.
So as we look at this “first carol of Christmas,” let’s consider all that God was up to in the world that Mary was so excited about. First, Mary says, “He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.” You know, pride is a really terrible thing. A colleague of mine once said, “I know that God considers all sins equally, but if there is one sin that really is worse than any other, I think it’s pride.” You have all heard the expression, “Pride goeth before the Fall.” Pride can lead us to do so many awful things: to ourselves, to one another, and to God. Pride can make us lose sight of what is really most important in life. Pride can cause us to think we are better than we really are, which in turn can make us look with judgment upon those we for any reason consider as “less.” At its worst, pride can lead us to believe that we have no need for God. But Mary now declares that God in Christ Jesus ends pride. Because when we remember that any blessing we experience, any accomplishment we enjoy, is a result of God’s grace shown to us in Jesus Christ, there is no way we can be proud.
Still, it’s not just that God “scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” Mary also celebrates that God brings “down the powerful from their thrones, and lifts up the lowly.” Mary has already learned this first-hand. God didn’t go to Herod’s castle to impregnate one of Herod’s many wealthy wives with his Son. God went to a tiny village and an unwed peasant girl to carry the Messiah. It was the beginning of God’s upending of every social and political structure that we humans ever try to put in place so that we can maintain power for ourselves while keeping “the other” oppressed. This is a major declaration about who God is because the simple truth of the matter is that if we are all being honest, we will see that it’s not just politicians and leaders who maintain such structures, we reinforce it through our own thoughts and actions.
Someone shared a story with me earlier this week about three businessmen who were traveling for an important business meeting. On their way back home, the first leg of the journey was delayed with a late flight. They arrived in some airport, I think it was O’Hare in Chicago, and they had a very short time to make their connecting flight. The men exited the plane as quickly as they could, and began running through the crowded airport with their briefcases slung over their shoulders, and their carry-on suitcases rolling along behind them. As they ran, one of the men’s suitcases knocked into a fruit stand, causing all of the apples displayed there to go rolling across the terminal floor. Knowing their time was limited, the men turned, waved, and offered an apology as they continued running toward the next terminal. As they went, though, the man who had hit the fruit stand was bothered by what had happened, and he began to slow. Finally, he yelled ahead to his two companions, “You all go on ahead, I’ll see you back home!” Then, he turned around and retraced his steps to the fruit stand.
When the businessman arrived back at the fruit stand, he saw that the stand attendant was down on her hands and knees trying to pick up the mess of apples, and he noticed that she was blind. So the man knelt down with her and began to pick up apples as well, apologizing again for what he had done. But as he picked up the apples he saw that they were all bruised and broken. So he offered to pay the woman for all of the apples, about forty of them. As he pulled several $20s out of his pockets, the woman asked, “Are you Jesus?” And the man said, “Well, no, far from it. I’m the one who knocked all these apples down, and I feel really bad about it, so I came back to help. I’m so sorry.” Then the woman explained that as she was down on the floor trying to clean up the mess of apples, she was praying over and over again, “Please, Jesus, I need your help!”
Jesus the Christ is the one who puts us all on an equal playing field. The businessman is found on his knees picking up bruised apples alongside the blind fruit stand attendant. The homeless man gathering cans to earn a few cents for a sandwich is as loved as the CEO of the Fortune 500 Company. The President in the Oval Office is no more powerful than the janitor who vacuums his floor each night. Jesus the Messiah puts an end to the world’s labels and prestige. What Christ did for one, he did for all, “pulling the powerful from their thrones and exalting the lowly.”
The final revolution of God in Christ Jesus that Mary sings about is not unlike the one before it: Jesus will “fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty.” These words ought to bother us all a little bit because compared to the rest of the world, we in America are relatively wealthy, even those who are unemployed. But imagine how we could be enriched in a different way if we became a part of God’s revolution, offering good things to the hungry from our own abundance. This is what Saint Nicholas did some 1700 years ago when he began the tradition of giving Christmas gifts as he went around the town of Myra, where he was Bishop, putting coins in the shoes of any who would leave them at their doorsteps. We have to stop viewing the world in such a way that we seek gain only for selfish purposes, and instead we must take to heart the financial wisdom of John Wesley, “earn all you can, save all you can,” so that you can “give all you can.” In the giving of his very own life, Christ taught us that we have too much when there are any who have too little.
I pray we will all keep this in mind this Christmas as we rush our way around the malls and click away in the online marketplace. We can look around us and quickly identify the many problems in our world right now. But what we need to understand is that some of those problems start with us, our own compliance with “the way things are.” We have to remember that the birth of Christ is about revolution, and as long as we are living according to the standards and expectations of the world, we are missing out on God’s revolutionary work.
Over 2,000 years ago, an unwed, pregnant, peasant woman broke out into joyous song because she saw the way God was going to change the world through her son, and she was immeasurably happy. Why not make this Christmas a revolutionary one? Why not change things around a bit as we celebrate Christ’s birth this year? Try something different, forget cultural expectations, join in God’s work! We might just find we are so happy we want to break into song ourselves!
I sure hope so!!!