Mary sings of the coming of God’s reign as if it is a complete overturning of the world and our lives, which frightens us at times, but we are reminded that, like times of pregnancy, we wait for God’s coming and healing with fear but ultimately joy.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Fourth Sunday of Advent, year C; text: Luke 1:39-55
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
On the First Sunday of Advent I preached that we should be careful what we pray for when we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus,” because we just might get it. If we’re asking God to come and change the world, God will also change us, something for which we might not be ready. At one point that week I thought the sermon would go further down that path, and get into some specific concerns I personally had with the coming of God as promised, bringing justice and peace. As it turned out, the sermon didn’t go fully in the direction I expected. But now, as this Gospel reading came into our Advent this year, those concerns moved back to the front of my mind.
It’s because of Mary’s song, the Magnificat, which we sang and now just heard read.
I love Mary’s song. I just don’t know if I can or should sing it anymore. I’ve always loved this canticle, and the many beautiful musical settings of it. But this week it occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t sing it. Not if I want to have integrity. Not if I value honesty. Because there is at least a part of me that isn’t sure I want these things to happen, these things Mary sings about so boldly, so beautifully.
And it also seems to me that I can only speak for myself here. There are parts of this song that appear to strike me very close to home. But for me to take that and assume you all share those concerns or sins, or worse, to turn it into a harangue against all of us, feels unfair. So this is going to be an odd sermon, in that what I think I need to do is invite you into my thoughts to hear them as you will, and then you all can see if they’re helpful or instructive for you, if the Holy Spirit has words for you in all this.
Because I really would like to sing Mary’s song again. And my hope this Advent truly is that God will make that possible for me, and also for you, even if I think I’m resistant to that.
My first problem is this: I’m not certain that I want Mary to be right in what she says.
Listen to her sing: “God has scattered the proud in their conceit; God has cast down the mighty from their thrones; and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
And as I think about those words, I begin to wonder if I really want that to happen. Mary’s describing something that sounds very much like a revolution, the world turned upside down. The whole social order will be transformed: rulers will be thrown down, people in the lowest places lifted up. The rich will have nothing and the poor will be fed. The proud will have their thoughts scattered in the wind, for they will have nothing to be proud of.
This is the language of almost every revolution. There was an English song from the mid-1600s called “The World Turned Upside Down,” and tradition says that the British army played it a century later at Yorktown when Cornwallis surrendered to Washington. They couldn’t believe they’d lost; it felt as if literally everything was upside down, the whole world overturned.
In our current political climate, there are some groups in our society who would scream “socialism” or “communism” to hear Mary’s hopes laid out in modern terms. They might be the most honest of all, because she is describing a world turned upside down, a revolution led by God. There’s no other way to see her words, her hopes.
Now, if you are poor, or lowly, or humble, or hungry, this probably sounds like really good news. But I don’t know if I want it to happen fully. Or, at least I know I’m a little afraid of it.
Because, and I know I’ve said this before, I think that I’m one whom Mary would call rich. Mind you, I don’t usually think of myself as rich. But I can’t escape the facts.
A couple weeks ago – and be prepared, this is shocking – a couple weeks ago there was a day when I didn’t get to have lunch until about 2:00 in the afternoon. And as I left the office I thought to myself, “I’m starving to death.” Now, that’s kind of funny. But it’s also pathetic and ridiculous, if you take the time to think about it. I’ve never been forced to miss a meal in my life, never had a day where I worried about what I would eat.
I’ve always had at least two or more good pairs of shoes, a good coat, warm clothes, shelter. I have a house, a stereo, TVs, several cars, a healthy family with a good medical plan and good life insurance. I live better than 99% of the world. Of course I’m rich. And for that matter, Mary would probably also count me among the proud and the mighty.
So if Mary’s hope is that God’s going to overturn it all, I stand to lose. Now, there are millions starving to death who will gain considerably. Millions of suffering people, poor people, oppressed people. And that’s good. But we know that our lifestyle in the U.S. cannot be sustained world-wide. It’s inevitable that my lifestyle will decrease in a new divine order, so that others might simply have life.
Now, I know this, too: I give to Lutheran World Relief, to ELCA World Hunger. I give a tithe of 10% to God’s work here at Mount Olive, and more beyond. I recycle and try not to waste. I turn off lights. I’m doing things. It’s just that I really don’t know if I want to lose everything about the style of life to which I am accustomed.
So I’m torn between wanting God to do what Mary says, and not wanting God to do it. It’s one of those common things in life, that we vacillate between what we know to be good and holy and what our human nature would prefer. Paul talks about that a lot in Romans 7, of course.
So I know that this is good, what Mary promises, and that in the long run it’s crucial to the life of this world. But there’s that sinful part of me that wants to resist.
But there’s a second problem I have with her song: I wonder if God will ever do it anyway.
Has there been any progress toward this kind of vision? Ever? Not if tens of thousands still die of hunger each day. And they do.
Hannah, the prophet Samuel’s mother, sang virtually the same song 1,100 years before Mary. Look it up: 1 Samuel 2. And nothing changed. Then Mary sang it. And now 3,100 years after Hannah and 2,000 years after Mary, still nothing.
Still there are rich and poor. Still people like me watching their weight while others starve to death. Still proud oppressors and beaten-down oppressed.
After awhile, maybe I should get the hint, and realize it’s not happening. The inevitable question I ask is: were these just nice, beautiful songs, or did these articulate, musical women actually believe they would come to pass?
So I don’t know if I can sing her song anymore if I don’t think it’s any more than hyperbole of joy over the birth of a child, the catalyst for both Hannah’s and Mary’s songs. I don’t know if I can sing their songs if I don’t actually expect God will do this thing. It doesn’t feel any more honest than singing it if I don’t want God to do these things.
And then, thinking about all this, I realized something interesting: there is a thread that connects Hannah and Mary beyond their songs, and also connects to today’s other wonderful woman, Elizabeth. Pregnancy. Mary and Elizabeth in our Gospel today are pregnant, and Hannah had finally given birth to a child after years of waiting.
And that image of pregnancy, an experience I have only ever lived second hand (except, I suppose, for my own birth) seemed to give me an answer.
It is for me, and perhaps for you, too, as if I am, we are, pregnant.
My fears and struggles with Mary’s song are very much like the fears and struggles of pregnancy. Even with the most wanted birth, pregnancy is frightening.
There is fear of the outcome: Will this be a healthy baby, a happy baby? Just as I fear the outcome of God’s transformation: will it be a good place, a place of joy even for me?
There is fear of the change in life: Even if the baby is healthy, wanted, hoped for, there is this reality that the parents’ lives will irrevocably change. Their lifestyle will move from self-centered to other-centered. They will sacrifice many things for their child, and that’s frightening. Just as I fear that if God does bring about this change, my life will irrevocably change as well. I will sacrifice, I will not have the same lifestyle.
And there is fear of the delay: Every pregnant mother I have known, including the mother of my children, has had impatience at some point, or some variation of the fear at least once during the pregnancy that this birth will never happen, that she will be the first woman in history to carry a child for years. Just as I fear that God may never bring about this age of equality, of peace, of shared wealth. The difference is one of time, nine months versus several millennia. But in God’s eyes, is that such a temporal difference?
And as in pregnancy, all these fears subside when one considers the end result: a miraculous gift of life. Whether you are old like Elizabeth, long-suffering like Hannah, or barely out of childhood like Mary.
And so my fears begin to subside when I realize that I really do want God’s new kingdom, regardless of the cost to me. That the alternative is much worse than any fears I might have.
And there is one more thing to remember. Something has changed, with this baby of 2,000 years ago. The baby of whom Mary sang, her son Jesus, did in fact live a life that revealed that transformed kingdom of God his mother envisioned. He died for it, as a matter of fact.
But his resurrection began the process of transformation for us all. It has already turned the world upside down. In his life, and ever since, whoever met Jesus and followed began to live transformed lives, and changed the world.
Zacchaeus spontaneously returned all he had cheated, and more.
Matthew left his tax booth, Peter his fishing, and both brought the Good News to the world.
Mary Magdalene lost her demons and began to be a disciple, and was the first apostle, the first one sent to proclaim the resurrection.
Martin Luther King started a revolution. Mother Teresa cared for thousands in one of the worst places in the world. And millions more lesser-known disciples were shaped by the sacrificial love of Jesus which enfolded them and made a difference in this world, began working Mary’s vision in the world.
And so God works this change now. As we each meet Jesus in his Word, in this Meal, in our lives, Jesus changes us. We begin to live lives that reflect Mary’s vision.
More and more we do not fear losing our lifestyle because we have gained so much more: the peace of a heart that trusts in God alone, and sees the pain of the world with God’s loving, compassionate eyes. A peace that longs for the world to be turned upside down, even if that means I who am on the top am also turned over.
So as it turns out, I not only can sing with Mary, I really want to.
And I invite you to sing with her as often as you can. Share her pregnancy as an image of our life here, waiting, afraid, expectant, hopeful, nervous.
For God has come to make things new. In our pregnant lives, this is already happening. The gift the Church gives in Advent each year is to remind us of what we already know but sometimes forget, and to help us find our desire for it anew. God give us faith to hold this hope, and live changed lives, until the day of the birth of this new thing God is making in us and in the world.
In the name of Jesus. Amen