December 19, 2015 by jmar198013
Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday December 20, 2015 at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA.
Luke 1.39-55 [Preaching Text]
The soundtrack for the scripting of this sermon included Patti Smith, “Dancing Barefoot“; “God Save the People,” from “Godspell”; Sufjan Stevens’ version of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing“; mewithoutYou, “A Stick, a Carrot, and a String“; and probably my favorite Christmas song ever, Bruce Cockburn’s “Cry of a Tiny Babe.”
For those curious as to why I like to list the songs I was listening to, I point you to something Bob Dylan said nearly twenty years ago: “The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.”
For those who’d like to follow along, or who’d rather hear the sermon, there’s an audio link embedded below.
Dancing baby, blessed mothers
Well, church—in our Gospel reading today, we heard the very first Christmas carol. Or maybe better, the first Advent hymn. The Magnificat. Mary’s song.
Here’s something I bet you didn’t know: On at least three different occasions, government officials have banned the singing, the recitation, even the public display of Mary’s song.
It’s true. Imperial Britain banned the singing of the Magnificat in Indian churches. And in the 1980s, the military governments of Guatemala and Argentina wouldn’t even let the words to Mary’s song be displayed on signs.
They all said: No! Stop singing that song! It’s dangerous! It’s radical! We’re afraid of it!
To be honest, sometimes I wonder if we church folk aren’t also a little afraid of Mary’s song. Oh, we love the whole, My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior part. But I suspect the parts about the rich being sent away empty-handed embarrass us a bit. Why would the mother of our Lord say such inflammatory things? Well, maybe she got a little carried away. Perhaps some of our men wink and whisper, Oh well—probably just those pregnancy hormones, right?
No. Not at all. Not even a little bit. Mary was singing the wild, gritty, unwashed, undiluted, earth-shattering, table-turning, fortune-reversing, subversive love of God.
And being an Advent people means being willing—like Mary—for God to birth that raw, revolutionary, resurrection love into the world through us.
I can see Elizabeth sprawled out on the couch the day Mary came to visit. In the living room of her home in the Judean hill country. Deep into her third bowl of Milk and Honey brand Greek yogurt that day. Hoping her husband Zechariah would be home soon to massage her swollen ankles. Feeling conflicted. Giddy at the prospect of being a first-time parent in her autumn years. But also prone to remind God rather often, You know, my body could have handled this pregnancy thing better thirty years ago.
In the midst of her throbbing ankles and cranky prayers, Elizabeth was startled by an urgent knocking on the door. The knocking was punctuated by a familiar voice. Sounds like little Mary, my cousin from Nowheresville, Galilee, she thought to herself.
It took a couple of scoots before Elizabeth could ease herself off the couch. She waddled across the living room, opened the front door. And sure enough, there stood Mary. Not looking so little anymore. Her expression was determined. Her face set like flint. But with a hint of uncertainty in her eyes.
And just like that, the baby in Elizabeth’s uterus began to dance around.
And she knew. She just knew. She wasn’t quite sure how. Years later, when Luke wrote the story down, he said she was filled with the Holy Spirit. In that moment, Elizabeth was counted among the prophets.
Between gasps and grunts as the baby inside her cut a jig just over her swollen bladder, she somehow managed to blurt out: Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.
The Spirit confirmed for Elizabeth what the child dancing around inside her already knew: The wild, raw, relentless love of God was growing in her cousin Mary’s womb.
And with the Advent of that little baby boy, the love of God would have a face and a name and a body and a voice.
If it wasn’t for her swollen ankles and six-month-baby bump, I bet Elizabeth would have danced right along with her unborn son. If there ever was a time to dance, it was then!
Only three people were hip to the big secret about God’s love that day. And one of them was’t even born yet!
So often, the wild, raw, relentless love of God is hidden—but growing—among people you wouldn’t expect, and in places you wouldn’t believe.
Mary’s protest song
Well, I guess Mary figured that if an unborn child was going to dance, then she had better sing.
And what a song she sang!
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.
Mary—unwed and pregnant—had tore out of Nowheresville, Galilee to escape the shame her neighbors were sure to lay on her. But Elizabeth’s blessing provided a safe place for her. This child growing inside her would have a future. Her child would be a source of blessing, not of shame.
You know, Mary was so blessed to have an Elizabeth to run to. A lot of girls in similar situations don’t.
When Elizabeth met Mary with words of blessing, she became the love of God for Mary. And that love was enough to lift Mary’s spirit. So she could sing: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. Elizabeth’s blessing was the medium through which God’s own love for Mary was made known. The words were in Elizabeth’s familiar voice, but the message was from God: Future generations will not be ashamed of you; future generations will call you blessed.
Yes, I understand that the angel had visited Mary and told her what was going down. And Mary had said: Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word (Luke 1.38). Y’all, Mary didn’t submit. Mary consented. There’s a world of difference.
But that doesn’t minimize the fact that she was carrying the weight of the universe in her womb.
When Mary sang those words—God my Savior has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant—I don’t think she was just singing for herself. Or about herself.
She was singing God’s love for everyone who’s been put down. Abandoned. Shamed. Abused. Pushed out. Bullied. Oppressed. Enslaved. Trafficked. Scapegoated. Denied justice. Whose dreams have been deferred. Who haven’t been given an opportunity to have an opportunity.
God has looked upon all these people who have been denied the fullness of life, and favored them.
What Mary sings next proves that the love of God is not sentimental. It’s not a syrupy glob of feel-good. It’s not a cozy pile of pious warm fuzzies. It’s not a benign tolerance that always affirms us.
God’s love is fierce as any mother’s. What’s more, God’s love is wild and free and subversive and relentless and unruly and even dangerous.
God’s love turns the tables. Flips the script. Chases the money changers out of the temple.
Mary’s song celebrates the untamed, inconvenient, unruly, unfit-for-polite-society love of God. Just listen to her sing!
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.
The wild and wise and wily love of God deflates big egos. It also tells people who never thought they could that they can. The two are intimately connected. The love of God comforts the afflicted. And it is often the case that when the already-comfortable see this, they cry foul. As if you’re afflicting them by comforting someone else.
So they tend to cling to their comfort come hell or high water. Protesting the injustice of it all. Coming gradually more unglued. Until it all falls apart. The ground opens up to swallow them. And as they fall, they still talk big about how they stood their ground.
And we call it the judgement of God. But what it really is is God’s love for the people who are left out, put down, bullied, and oppressed.
Truth is, Mary wasn’t singing a new song. Not really. The Magnificat is really just another verse to a song that goes on throughout the Scriptures.
My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God . . . The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor (1 Sam. 2)
But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him (Psalm 103.17).
I could go on quoting scripture after Hebrew scripture that sings this song. It even shows up in the Apocrypha. 4 Ezra 9.45 says: God heard your servant, and looked upon my low estate, and considered my distress.
Mary had heard the old, old song about how the steadfast love of God works relentlessly to turn the tables of injustice, and tip the scales in the favor of the vulnerable. That’s because as footloose and scandalous as God’s love can be, it’s also quite tender. And when it comes to some people with their boots on the necks of other people, God is always—let me repeat it, write this down, the scriptures confirm it time and again—God is always partial to the ones being stepped on.
The church is an Advent people. A people waiting and longing and preparing for the arrival of Christ. And Advent people are called to imitate the love of God. When Jesus said, Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5.48), he was talking about loving the way God loves.
And God’s wild, rebellious, scandalous, unflinching love always favors underdogs and outcasts and scapegoats. That’s what Mary was singing about. And the Scriptures back her up on it.
We’re all mothers now
I’m often afraid that, with two thousand years of Christian history behind us, we’ve tamed the Magnificat. We hear it as a pretty song that’s particular to Mary. It’s about her joy at finding the love of God growing in her womb.
I worry that Mary’s song has lost its power for us. Remember how I said that in recent history, the governments of Great Britain, Argentina, and Guatemala had banned the Magnificat? Because it’s so dangerous and revolutionary and subversive? Well—it only freaks people out enough to ban it when it is sung by people who really mean it.
Truth is, Mary was singing for all sorts of folks in her time, and beyond her time. Did you hear what she sang? From now on all generations will call me blessed.
The love of God she carried in her womb; that she birthed into our world; who fed at her breast; who she nurtured with her own hands and sang to with her own voice—he is Jesus. He is God’s love for us. The love of God Mary sang about became flesh in her child.
Jesus gave the urgent, untamed, raw, relentless, tender, scandalous love of God a name and a face. A body and a voice.
Don’t we feel that raw and tender and scandalous love of God at work reaching out to us from the words of scripture?
Whenever Jesus touches a leper.
When he restores the demon-possessed to their right minds.
When he invites the people everybody hates to come sit at his table.
When he stands as a human shield between a woman and the mob about to lynch her.
When he calls out the scribes and Pharisees to their faces for robbing widows.
How’s about this. We all know the story of how Jesus turned over the tables of the merchants in the temple, and chased them all out of there. Do you remember who he let in after he cleared them all out? It’s in Matthew 21. He brought in the lame and the blind—the people who’d been kept out of the temple, excluded from God’s presence—and a choir of screeching children.
Yes, there’s even a little bit of holy anarchy sprinkled into the love of God. Okay—a lot, really.
And the love of God becomes its most fleshy on the empire’s cross, and in the empty tomb.
Yes, Mary—your boy will turn the tables and shake the world to its foundations. All that stuff you sang about. It will happen. But it will look like cross and resurrection. That’s how God’s love will conquer and colonize the world.
Your baby boy will kick down the doors of hell itself to let loose the prisoners. Mary, you’re only just beginning to see how it will be. What he will do.
And church, so are we.
In the meantime, we are an Advent people. And that means we are all mothers now. God invites us all to carry and birth and nurture the unpredictable, relentless, tender, and scandalous love of God. In our lives. In this church. In this community. In our time.
The old Christian wise man Meister Eckhart said it best:
What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.
What good is it, indeed. Not just to me or you or us, but what good is it to anyone?
Church, God has made us all mothers now. All of us like Mary. May the wild, holy, tender, scandalous, relentless, redeeming, reconciling, resurrecting love of God be born in us. To us. For us. In our world. In our time.