Mary’s Song – a sermon

My Advent 3 sermon is now available to listen to on the Saint Paul’s Website.  If you’d prefer, you can read it below.

Imagine for a moment that you are a thirteen year-old girl living in first century Nazareth.  Life isn’t easy for you, and, quite frankly, it never will be.  You’re already betrothed to a nice carpenter named Joseph.  He’s quite a bit older than you, but that’s how things work these days.  At this point, you are learning the last bits of wisdom from your mother: how to keep Joseph’s work shirts clean, what spice combination she uses in her lamb stew, things like that.  Joseph will be back from adding your room onto his Father’s house soon, and life as a married woman is about to begin.  Right now, life is all about waiting.

Then, one day, everything changes.  In a moment, the whole world was turned upside down.  There is, standing before you, something like you’ve never seen before and yet something that is amazingly familiar.  As the fear wells up within you, this being, this angel, this whatever-it-is opens its mouth and speaks, “Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.  Blessed are you among women.”  “What sort of greeting could this be,” you wonder as the fear grows into terror.  It speaks again, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”  In an instant, the panic turns to peace, as if the angel spoke peace into existence.  The angel knows your name, and called you by it!  It continues, “Now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High…”

Conceive?

A Son!?!

Now!?!?!?!

“How can this be,” You ask, “for I am still a virgin?”  After a brief explanation of the intricacies of the divine conception of your first-born son, the angel looks you in the eye and assures you, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

Luke doesn’t tell us how long the silence between the powerful promise of Gabriel and Mary’s response went on, but I’m guessing there was a very long, awkward pause, as this young woman – a girl, really – ran through her mind the ramifications of all that had just happened.  Getting pregnant outside of marriage was a serious problem for her.  The dowry had already been paid, agreements had already been made, and her new home was already under construction.  She could be killed for this!  And yet, the fear did not take over.  The peace of God which surpasses all understanding, even the understanding of a young teen-aged virgin, abided as she responded, “Here I am, a servant to the Lord: let it be with me according to your word.”  And with that, she went from an unknown girl who wasn’t even a blip on the historical radar to The Ever Blessed Virgin Mary.

Since that day on or about March 25th in the year 0, the tradition surrounding Mary has been the most divergent in Church history.  It seems as though there are two ways to handle Mary.  Protestants remember her in the early chapters of Luke’s Gospel, and once Linus has finished reciting the Christmas story in the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, they put her away for another year.  Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, seem to worship Mary at level almost on par with Jesus himself.  There isn’t time here to go into the various legends associated with the Mother of our Lord or to parse the doctrines of her perpetual virginity or immaculate conception, but what I found interesting as I spent the week with Mary is that while we have the opportunity to hear Mary’s Song, The Magnificat, every Advent, theologians have spent very little time an energy dealing with what it means that Mary’s “yes” made her not only the Theotokos, the God Bearer, but also made her, in the words of Alyce McKenzie, “a reluctant prophet.[1]

Following Mary’s divine encounter with Gabriel and the Holy Spirit, she does what any wise, young, unmarried, pregnant girl in the first century would do, she leaves town.  Mary packs her bags and heads to the hill country to visit Elizabeth, the aged-and-formerly-barren-yet-soon-to-be mother of John the Baptist who was kin to Mary.  It only seems fitting that this two miracle moms should spend some time together.  As Mary entered the house, she called out the traditional greeting, “Shalom,” which means “peace.”  When she heard Mary’s voice, Elizabeth was overjoyed, her baby leapt in her womb, and filled with the Holy Spirit, she shouted at the top of her lungs, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”  The two women are ecstatic to the point that Mary breaks out in song, a prophetic oracle of hope.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.  From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name. He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has come to the help of his servant Israel for he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever.”[2]

It is a beautiful hope-filled song, but what I find most interesting is that Mary has her verb tenses all mixed up.  Here she stands, still a virgin, yet somehow pregnant, and surely fearing for her life, yet she is able to proclaim, “The Almighty has done great things for me…”  How can she make this claim?

Before the heavenly chorus sings “Glory to God in the highest;”

before the shepherds and the Magi; before the proclamations of Simeon and Anna;

Before the heavenly chorus sings “Glory to God in the highest;”

          before the shepherds and the Magi; before the proclamations of Simeon and Anna;

before the twelve year-old Jesus stays behind in the Temple that he calls “his father’s house;”

before his baptism and temptation;

before he turns water into wine, calls his first disciples, heals his first leper, or dines with his first sinner;

before his triumphant entrance into Jerusalem;

before he turns the tables in the Temple Court;

before his betrayal, arrest, and trial; before his crucifixion and death;

before those three days in the tomb;

and long before his resurrection; Jesus’ mother, Mary, proclaims with boldness that Lord has already fulfilled his promise of mercy.  Mary sings of the future redemption of the world in past tense; the Lord has already done these things.  Like every other prophet in history, Mary was able to see beyond the constraints of the current hardship into the hope-filled future that God promised long ago.

This morning, as we continue to wait for the coming of our Lord through another Advent Season, I’m aware that the world is still full of difficulty.  It is often hard to see the future vindication of history when the news is full of stories of teen-aged drunk drivers getting a slap on the wrist because they are too rich to know right from wrong, or high school students who respond to getting cut from the debate team by taking a shotgun to school, or three people being stabbed to death over a football game, but the promise is sure: the Lord has done, is doing, and will continue to great things.  Mary’s Song invites us to see beyond the bad news of today, to imagine a better future, and to remember the words of the Angel Gabriel, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”  Amen.

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