Sunday 23rd December
Luke chapter 1 verses 39 – 55
Maggie Cogan - Reader
If anybody really knows me they will know that I absolutely love Evensong and the Book of Common Prayer that we use for that service. Why? You may ask. Well one of the reasons is that the service is at the end of the day – when I can just thank God for the day, appreciate the silence at the start of the service and enjoy the beautiful words that that service uses. And probably my favourite part is the singing of the Magnificat which was part of our gospel reading. “My soul doth magnify the Lord” – Mary’s words to her cousin Elizabeth and the joy of the baby jumping in her womb.
Mary did not sing in order to experience worship. Her song was an overflow of a life of worship, a day to day intimate communion with the Lord. Worship comes out of a life that is rightly related to the Lord. So if we want worship on Sunday to be meaningful to ourselves, then we must be sure we worship on Monday through to Saturday as well.
What can we learn from this song and from this chapter in the story of that first Christmas?
Well first of all we can learn a very important principle of worship.
In Mary’s song of worship there are at least 10 references to Old Testament scriptures. So obviously Mary was very familiar with God’s word. She was a student of it. Remember she has travelled four days, probably alone, to reach the home of her cousin. She has had all this time to meditate, to review the hope found in Old Testament messianic prophecies. Four days to pray, perhaps to sing to herself the scriptural songs of her childhood. Four days of communion with her Lord. Four days of preparation for this spontaneous expression of devotion and adoration.
Mary is the heroine of this story, but it is she who journeys to the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth—perhaps because Elizabeth’s pregnancy preceded Mary’s by six months and she would be great with child—perhaps as a gesture of honour by the younger woman to her elder—perhaps to escape wagging tongues in Nazareth.
This visit is unusual. A pregnant woman, particularly an unmarried pregnant woman, would ordinarily be cloistered and would not travel.
This journey from Nazareth to the hill country of Judah is quite a distance, and is nearly identical to the journey she will make about 9 months later when she and Joseph go to Bethlehem for the census.
In the gospel reading we heard again Mary’s song. Her Magnificat is a song of the Kingdom. Much of it echoes Hannah’s song all those years before which celebrated the birth of Samuel and all that God was going to do through him. Now Elizabeth and Mary, these two mothers-to-be, celebrate all that God is going to do through their sons John and Jesus.
But as Christian people, when we are in our right minds, we are people who are utterly in love with this vision of the Kingdom, utterly in love with mending bent bones and minds fractured by life, utterly in love with the hungry being fed and the lowly lifted up; and utterly in love with the God who can do this, and longs to do this, and is about to do this.
In this last Sunday before Christmas Mary teaches us two things about the offering of faith. The first is this. Faith often involves a rollercoaster of joy and woe, delight and suffering, blessing and curse. Mary’s song recalled the song of Hannah whose life was wracked with agonies and despair about childlessness. She brought her misery to God, and her prayers were answered with the delight and fulfilment of a son. But for her keeping ‘faith’ with God involved giving her son back to God, setting her child free of her own motherly needs, so that God’s future might be possible through him. Samuel, first in the Temple and later as God’s spokesman and prophet, lived out the joy and woe of faith learned as his mother learned it. In that he was his mother’s son, a son of the ups and downs of faith.
And now Mary and Elizabeth found themselves carrying children who must be given up and set free. We can hear in today’s gospel, as young mothers-to-be there is such delight and fulfilment in their lives. But later, we can only imagine Elizabeth’s feelings as the mother of John the Baptist, who according to Matthew lived in the wilderness. Like so many mothers around the world today it must have seemed that she had lost him, and we can imagine her deeply dismayed and anxious about him, not least when he was thrown into prison. And then for her beloved son, God’s gracious gift, to be casually beheaded by a rash monarch at a wild party – again we can only imagine a mother’s grief. The offering of faith may be simple but it is not easy.
And Mary herself at the very moment when Simeon blessed her son, the gift of God, “appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel”, Mary was also told “a sword will pierce your own soul too”. And we do have some clues in the gospels about Mary’s journey of faith – the 12 year old Jesus staying in the Temple and putting his mother through the lost child nightmare. Mary trying to get to see her grown-up, wandering preacher of a son but being told he would rather stay with his new friends; and then, of course, the desolate mother at the foot of her son’s cross, and the strangeness of those resurrection appearances. The offering of faith may be simple but it is not easy. It has its easy moments, when the window of heaven is open and the Kingdom seems to shine all around us; but soon the sun has gone behind the clouds and like Mary we must treasure these things, and persevere with faith when it is full of woe as much as when it is full of joy.
The second thing Mary teaches us on this last Sunday of Advent is for us to be prepared for a God who is in charge but in unexpected ways. Mary recognises God’s moment when it comes, even when it is startling and disturbing – angels, shocking pregnancy, becoming a refugee. And she sticks with it. How often we are tempted to think – perhaps it was all a mistake, this thought we have that God was interested in us, that he spoke to us, that he was doing something in our lives. We must have been mistaken. No, Mary teaches us that faith is about treasuring these things in our hearts and pondering them and not letting go of the God who does not let go of us, who is in charge whatever seems to be happening to us. Faith is about keeping the faith as well as offering it. And it is about sticking with faith in the one who is in charge and not trying to take charge ourselves. It is so easy to speak as believers but to act as atheists. Functional atheism is the unexamined assumption that if anything decent is going to happen we are the ones who must make it happen. Of course, we do have to make many things happen – Sunday lunch to name but one; our complex lives require us to take responsibility for so much, and that is inevitable and mostly appropriate. But Mary teaches us to be open to God’s initiative; strange as an angel, miraculous as a pregnancy, odd as the tale of shepherds. On this last Sunday of Advent she teaches us to be prepared for the unexpected birth in our lives.
As I have studied Mary’s song one dominant theme has kept surfacing in its words. In her song, Mary repeatedly refers to the principle of humility. In Luke 1:50 she says that God’s mercy is given to those who humbly “fear Him.” In subsequent verses she sings that “God scatters the proud…brings down rulers…but has lifted up the humble.” And Mary’s experience teaches us that the most important quality we can have as Christians is humility. In fact, God’s selection of the place and people of this story: Galilee – Nazareth - Joseph and Mary, Zechariah, and Elizabeth -helps illustrate his reversal of human ideas about greatness and smallness, significance and insignificance. It is not the spiritually proud, the socially mighty, nor the materially prosperous who have the last word in God’s kingdom. Arrogance and power and wealth are totally out of place here. Mary’s song reminds us that God exalts those who fear Him, those of low degree those who realize how much they need God in their lives -those who hunger for Him.
• God uses people who realize their need of Him.
• In the Kingdom of God, humility is an essential.
Think about it. A person cannot even become a Christian until he or she humbly admits their need for God, until in humility they confess their sin and ask for God’s forgiveness. And then after we become Christians humility is still important because God cannot use us unless we humbly place our lives at his disposal. To be useful in God’s kingdom we must humble ourselves and become God centred instead of self-centred. Mary knew this. She understood that it was her humility that led God to choose her for this task. In Luke 1:49 Mary rejoices in the realization that God, “has been mindful of the humble state of his servant…” Because she was humble, Mary knew that God had a right to interrupt her life. Because she was humble she made herself available to God.
• We must humble ourselves and become God-centred, as Mary was
• We must be willing to adjust our circumstances to what God wants to do.
God has a right to interrupt our lives. He is Lord. When we accepted him as Lord, we gave him the right to help himself to our lives anytime he wants to. And when we humble ourselves and make ourselves available to God we learn—as Mary did—that with God nothing is impossible! This is more than an angelic insertion. It is a positive reality.
• With God nothing is impossible!
• With God it was possible for an old, barren woman and her husband to conceive and bear a son who was the forerunner of the Son of God.
• With God it was possible for a virgin girl to give birth to a baby who was the Son of God.
• With God persons like you and me can find redemption in Christ and have new life through faith in Him.
• With God nothing is impossible.
Now we must think about that. If God could use the life of a young peasant girl, then he can use any life, including our lives. St Francis of Assisi said, “If God can use me….God can use anyone.”