Sermons

God Magnified…In You; Rev. Dee Ledger, December 19, 2021

On this 4th Sunday of Advent, this Advent Sunday of love, this Sunday before the hush of a silent and holy night, where God is birthed in darkness, it seems both necessary and important to revisit today what exactly Christmas is about.  “Jesus,” we might reply, nodding our heads knowingly.  And yes, Christmas is about the baby Jesus, the Christ child, the anointed One who comes to us and is always as near as our very breath…Emmanuel, God-with-us, as we have proclaimed from year to year since this church’s own birth and before.

But really, beyond the nativity, beyond the familiar holiday carols, beyond the tinsel and trappings of Christmas lights and decorations, beyond inflatable snowpeople, Christmas cookies and internet shopping, beyond our mitten trees, holiday gift giving, and our secret Santas, to what does Christmas point and why?

And why, on this Advent Sunday, do we hear various versions of the Magnificat, the famous canticle of Mary?  What exactly prompts a newly pregnant Mary to respond as she does to her similarly pregnant cousin, Elizabeth?  Yes, of course, Mary expects a child and senses new life stirring within her.  Yet, with morning sickness then as now, especially after a long journey that first trimester to her cousin’s home, it is far more likely that one would throw up than sing.  If we also remember the fact that Mary is a poor, pregnant teenager who has seen angels in her quiet moments, and remember also that she will have a lot of explaining to do around Joseph, not to mention the neighborhood village, her singing anything at all is remarkable and not exactly the first thing to come to mind.  So why is this canticle, this song of hers, so very significant to our celebration of Christmas?  Why did the tradition preserve this story as part of our gospel reading?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis, called the Magnificat “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung.”[1] The Magnificat is revolutionary, so much so that governments throughout history, including India, Argentina, and Guatemala, felt they had to ban its recitation in public, as well as its liturgical use.

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth blesses her cousin.  In response, this young girl, this teenager Mary, sings of God’s great reversals, the toppling of power structures and God’s preferential option for the poor:

God has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

God has brought down rulers from their thrones
But has lifted up the humble.

God has filled the hungry with good things
But has sent the rich away empty.

And we who are relatively privileged when compared to most of our world neighbors say “oh yes,” “yes please,” to all this revolutionary reversal, “yes” to this extraordinary song of hope for embattled peoples far and wide.  “Yes. Please. God, do it now,” even at risk to our own comfort we pray.  Even at risk to our own confusion when God chooses to speak through a child, a young girl, or to act through circumstances we would not willingly or necessarily choose.

But that still doesn’t answer why Mary bursts forth with such praise or why we might reflect upon the last time we sung our own personal Magnificat, our own praise song to God.

For a lot of people, if God exists, God exists only in the abstract.  God exists “out there” somewhere.  God’s ways of being, God’s character, and God’s love are all things, we believe, things that somehow occur beyond us, beyond the borders of you and me, and beyond the details of our everyday lives.  God is something to read about, to study, or to hear about in feel-good stories that leave us charmed, if not a little skeptical.  We hear remarkable tales of God’s great deeds of justice in the past; we foster hope for the future despite the circumstances that would destroy that hope, and if we lean on God for anything, we make sure it is a conditional and temporary leaning.

For Mary, this is decidedly not the case.  Yes, she sees God at work around her, God’s justice prevailing in those great and powerful reversals—the rich going away empty, the powerful pulled from their thrones, the proud scattered in their hearts, but there is something more to understand here.

A colleague of mine observed that Mary would have traveled about 100 miles on foot to see her cousin that first trimester.  She would have left her village of Nazareth to go to Elizabeth’s village of Ein Karem—up in the hills of Judah, near Jerusalem.  I’ve been there; it was indeed a climb to arrive at the Church of the Visitation, a two-story church carved into the hillside to commemorate this moment.  Back then, Mary would have climbed upwards from a town at 1,138 ft above sea level to a town 2,474 ft above sea level.  That is 1,336 ft of uphill climbing while newly pregnant and on a road known for its bandits and hidden dangers.

After climbing hill after hill in Judean country just to get arrive to her cousin’s home, this sweaty, queasy, tired and dirty mamma-to-be proclaims that God is at work in her very own self.  This is her response to Elizabeth’s blessing.  It reminds me of Jesus when, years later, he stands in the synagogue at Nazareth, reads the scroll of Isaiah, and proclaims to all the attendees, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  This is another way to say that God’s word is made flesh.

For Mary, this not the praise-song of someone “just hoping” that God exists somewhere “out there” or “over the rainbow” or hiding in a book somewhere; this is the song of someone who believes at her core that God has taken on flesh and residence within her.

Her understanding of God’s immanence becomes revolutionary in a different way, in an intimate way, more in the way of lovers and shared bodies than of a cold, distant, faraway priestly idea of God.  God is “a lover whose touch restores.” It is this kind of intimacy, this striking understanding of God’s presence growing within her that causes Mary to respond to Elizabeth’s blessing with a song of her very own.  She exclaims God’s truth and experience in her when the world might decidedly shun her or shut her, and others like her, down.

Do you remember the words from John’s gospel?  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  God’s word is at the beginning of things but it is not meant to be some abstract kind of thing that we have an academic (or Hallmark) relationship with.  No, God’s word takes shape not two-dimensionally on Christmas cards in holiday sentiments of cheer and festivity, not simply in static church mission statements, or in the predictable liturgy of worship, but three-dimensionally in the hearts of each person on a very intimate level.

The Divine existing within her—a poor peasant girl of lowly estate.  God has not simply noticed her, but raised her.  That is why Mary sings and that is why we celebrate Christmas.  We celebrate Mary’s revolutionary awareness that this God of powerful reversals exists within her too and that she is definitively part of one of those reversals.  Christmas is our own struggling awareness that God’s Word doesn’t remain with Angels on High, or with a distant, unapproachable Divine Force or Being or relationship, but takes root, shape, and form in us.  In Mary.  In Jesus.  In me.  And yes, in you.

Friends, it is not only Jesus nestled in that cradle of straw and grain.  It’s not only Mary who has given birth to the Divine Son.  It’s not only Jesus as the incarnate and coming one, the only Son of God.  For if that were so, then that would mean that history and God’s embodiment stopped with Jesus the Son, and that it ended with Mary’s recognition of her own favored status as a God-bearer.  That would make Mary just simply a vessel for God-in-Jesus, and what would happen to her once Jesus was born?  That, to me, would not make one whit of difference to the ones who so often stand on the sidelines of life wondering if God is for them, for their lives, or in-couraging them along the way.

No, Mary sings because she has discovered that God lives inside of her, that God’s truth has become part of who she is, just as she is.  Her soul magnifies God, makes God larger and more evident to others.  Her soul magnifies God, not just the scrolls, or the priests, or the patriarchs of the past.  God has done great things for her, with her, and in her.

And if you who bend, beneath life’s crushing load,

And if you who climb, with painful steps and slow,

If you stop along the weary way to hear the angels sing

that God’s Word has somehow become a part of you,

that God is deeply connected and willingly bound to you like a lover,

and that the heavens have and will come down to take up residence in your soul and in your life,

then, what manner of risk will you take,

what manner of love will you give,

and what manner of life will you lead?

 

Amen.

[1] For a reference to this oft-quoted phrase, please see https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2018/12/20/marys-magnificat-bible-is-revolutionary-so-evangelicals-silence-it/