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Sermon on Luke 1:39-55
4th Sunday in Advent, Year C
The fourth Sunday of Advent in the third year of the lectionary cycle of readings is always Mary’s day. That doesn’t seem like much, given Mary’s pivotal role in the Christian salvation story, but the fact is that Luke is the only one of the Gospel writers to give Mary much attention. Mark treats her almost as a nuisance, while Matthew focuses on Joseph and his dilemma. John seems to accord Mary a major role in the newborn church, but her presence in his Gospel is shadowy at best.
In Luke, though, Mary has a voice and a story. For a short while every three years, we get to see the world through her eyes.
In Mary’s visit to her older relative Elizabeth, two strands of the story Luke has been weaving come together. The story of Elizabeth, Zechariah and their son, John the Baptist, joins up with the story of Mary, Joseph and Jesus in a little out-of-the-way place in the Judean hills. This encounter between two women almost two generations apart, both about to be mothers, would seem to be a quiet interlude, a little marking of time before the real story begins. We might expect Mary and Elizabeth to have a little kitchen-table conversation about the aches and pains of pregnancy and what foods they were craving. But no – far from a quiet interlude, Elizabeth and Mary greet each other with shouts of excitement. Their speech is unrestrained, prophetic, visionary. These two pregnancies aren’t just a family matter; something world-shaking is happening, and Mary’s song is about a world turned upside down by a new thing God is doing: “He has scattered the proud…, he has brought down the powerful …, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
This is quite a speech for little Mary. On the one hand, it looks forward to Jesus; it sounds a lot like things he would later say, like “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the poor, …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” to the dispossessed of the earth. It also looks back to the Hebrew Scriptures and their proclamation of a new day for those who were crying out under various forms of oppression.
Mary’s vision of a world radically reordered according to God’s purposes puts her in the stream of biblical prophets who announce God’s overturning of the structures and institutions that kept the poor poor, doomed forever to live on the margins of society. Just like John the Baptist, she is preparing people for Jesus, the one who barged into the temple to overturn the tables of the money-changers, who pronounced indictments on the rich and careless, and who pronounced God’s blessing on the poor, the meek and the sorrowful. Meek little Mary (as we usually think of her) sees that the world is not OK as it is.
Mary of Nazareth herself was undoubtedly poor. Nazareth was a backward, out-of-the-way place. (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” was a sneering question asked about Jesus in John’s Gospel.) Luke’s whole Nativity story centers around women, children and the elderly, the people who bear a disproportionate amount of the world’s suffering through poverty, then and now. Just to give one contemporary example: The New Yorker recently reported that the female prison population has risen dramatically in recent years: in state prisons, it has increased by more than 800 percent in the last four decades, and the number of women in local jails is 14 times higher than in the 1970s. Most of these women in the latter category “haven’t committed a crime but are too poor to post bail while awaiting trial. The majority have been charged with low-level, nonviolent offenses… The result is that more than a quarter of a million children in the U.S. have a mother in jail.”[i] This is against a background of falling incarceration rates for U.S. men. It’s the women’s disproportionate poverty that keeps their rate rising, with appalling consequences for their children.
Mary knew first-hand the struggles of the poor. Her song about the coming reversal of the status quo has been called a protest song – maybe a prototype for Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing” – but Mary wasn’t calling for a revolution. She was just looking forward to the day – imagining the day – when God would finally tip the scales of justice in favor of the long-suffering ones. Mary makes the coming Christ’s promised victory over sin, death and evil concrete: she shows what such a victory could look like in contemporary, material-world terms. She sees that the oppression of the weak by the powerful, the poor by the rich, the lowly by the proud and haughty is against God’s will and intention, and God will not let these things stand forever.
I think of some of the people today who might be stirred by Mary’s song: those incarcerated women, of course but also
- Appalachian coal miners ravaged by black lung disease, no longer able to work and facing an agonizing death;
- People living in Rust Belt towns devastated by unemployment and the opioid crisis;
- Children all over the U.S. who wonder how they will get enough to eat on weekends and holidays, when there is no school lunch (and I’m thankful that this church has started a program to serve some of these children);
- Wounded warriors struggling to make it day to day on their veterans’ benefits;
- Parents and children fleeing from violence and poverty in their Central American homelands, arriving sick and exhausted to seek asylum in the U.S.
I think of people everywhere who live precarious lives, never knowing what disaster the next day might bring.
Mary’s song is a work of imagination. It is meant to excite our imaginations in a way that no newscast or government report about the plight of the disadvantaged ever could. Mary’s song is meant to help us imagine a world brought into conformity with God’s purposes, a world that lives on God’s terms and not on ours.
I should make a qualifying remark here. “Imagination,” as Mary exercises it in her glorious song, is not the same thing as fancy or fantasy. It is not a kind of sentimentality that closes its eyes to the hard realities of human life, as they affect not only the poor but everyone who has had to deal with serious illness, significant loss or failure, human betrayals of love and trust. Mary’s audacity in imagining a world so different from the one she knew was based on her confidence in God, whose new order was already being announced in the coming birth of her son. Mary’s imagination was grounded in her hope in God, and that’s what gives it a certain tough-mindedness – the same kind of tough-mindedness that led Martin Luther King to say “I have a dream” at a time when black children had to have police escorts to get to school safely.
But does Mary’s song sound like a fantasy after all? The question you might well be asking is “Well, has it happened?” Have the ruthless had their comeuppance, have the hungry been fed, have the greedy been forced to share? How can we talk in such optimistic terms when children are starving by the thousands in Yemen?
No, it hasn’t happened, except here and there, now and then, where we do see lives lifted out of poverty, or peace treaties signed, or diseases cured. Here and there the captives are freed, the blind receive their sight, the poor receive good things. But no, it is not enough.
So no, it has not happened yet. But ever since Mary’s son walked the earth, the poor and the powerless and the suffering have had a face and a voice. In Jesus Christ, God still walks among the suffering yet hopeful ones.
Mary understood what she was up against, what we are up against. She understood that no human person, project or program of reform will be able to vanquish the “powers that be” that militate against human flourishing. Only a power greater than our own, a mercy more comprehensive than ours, can ever rescue us, both the oppressed and the oppressors, from the evils that beset us and the evils that we do. Nothing short of divine intervention can break the cycle of human misery in its many and varied forms.
Mary’s song is an invitation to us to let our imaginations be fed by the wild joy and hope that made her sing. It’s an invitation to consider that in Jesus of Nazareth, born of Mary, born of the Spirit, God has invaded the world in order to save it, and plans to transform it by the power of love.
“Blessed is she” – or he – “who believes there will be a fulfillment of what was spoken by the Lord.” Blessed are we who have heard and believed.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
December 23, 2018
[i] Sarah Stillman, “America’s Other Family-Separation Crisis,” The New Yorker, November 5, 2018.