“Mary’s Beatitude”

Scripture – Luke 1:46-55

Sermon preached by Sudie Niesen Thompson

Sunday, December 11, 2022


Over the past few months, Dr. Jones has led us through a series on the Beatitudes found in Matthew’s Gospel — those eight blessings with which Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount. We’ve wrestled with sayings like: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and “Blessed are those who mourn” … sayings that initially startle us, because they seem so counterintuitive … until we realize that the Gospel is counterintuitive when measured against the norms of this world.

His sermon series concluded on the 2nd Sunday of Advent with the most challenging statement of all: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for [the sake of righteousness], for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And, so, our journey toward Bethlehem began with a surprising blessing … surprising because — on the surface — it doesn’t sound like a blessing at all.

As it happens, Mary’s journey toward Bethlehem began in the same way.

The song Mary sings for us today is itself a response … a response to the beatitudes she hears.

Just before Mary lifts her voice in praise, she hears the blessings that pour out of Elizabeth’s mouth the moment this pregnant teenager turns up on her doorstep. At this point in the story, Mary has received a visit from a messenger of God. She’s learned from the angel Gabriel that the Lord has chosen her to mother the Messiah and she has consented to bear the Son of God. And, as soon as the angel departed from her, Mary has rushed to the house of her cousin Elizabeth.

Now, Elizabeth is also pregnant … much to everyone’s surprise. You see, she is no spring chicken; she is getting on in years. And she has never had a baby. Elizabeth was deemed barren long ago. But the angel Gabriel has visited her household as well. And, now, she is six months pregnant with a son who will be called John — the one we know as John the Baptist.

The moment Mary greets her cousin, John leaps within his mother’s womb and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. Blessings tumble from her mouth: Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!

 Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. They are surprising beatitudes because — to those of us who know Mary’s circumstances — they don’t sound like blessings at all. Mary is unwed. Engaged, yes … but not yet married. And she’s pregnant already. Mary will be the talk of Nazareth, and not in a good way. And her child — the poor child! — every time he enters a room, people will turn to their neighbors and whisper:

“Is that Joseph’s boy?”
“Well, you know what they say …”

The whole thing’s a scandal — one that will certainly subject Mary and her child to shame and derision. It seems like Elizabeth should have said it like it is: Accursed are you among women. You poor, poor thing.

But, of course, that’s not how Elizabeth greets Mary. Because Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, and she sees what the world cannot yet see: that Mary is blessed. She is blessed to participate in the promises of God. And Mary sees it, too. And, so, she sings: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!

Immediately following that eighth, surprising beatitude we heard last Sunday, Jesus tells his listeners: Rejoice and be glad! … Rejoice and be glad! And that’s exactly what Mary does here, in the Gospel of Luke. She responds to the surprising blessings that Elizabeth has uttered with a state of beatitude — a state of utmost bliss:

My soul magnifies the Lord, she sings
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for [the Holy One] has looked with favor
on the lowly state of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations
will call me blessed.

Mary sings with exuberant joy because the Holy One has looked with favor upon her and drawn her into Gods’ creative work. Mary sings with unbridled joy because the Holy One has shown her unmatched mercy. But also because she knows this gift is so much bigger than her. God is not just nurturing new life within her womb; God is working in and through her to bring a new creation to birth. Mary knows in the depths of her being that the child she carries in her womb will transform the world. That, through him, the lowly will be lifted and the hungry will be satisfied. That, through him, God’s promises will be fulfilled and justice and peace will prevail on earth.

Mary knows in her inmost soul that — in this new creation — surprising blessings will make sense. Those who mourn will be comforted and the meek will inherit the earth. Those who hunger for justice will be filled and the pure in heart will see God. Those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness will, indeed, inherit the kingdom of heaven. And, yes, in this new creation, Mary is blessed among women. For she has been invited into God’s creative work. And she has responded with a faith-filled ‘Yes!’. Mary has the joy of participating in the promises of God. And so she sings:

[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly;
[God] has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
[God] has come to the aid of his child Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

As soon as Mary has finished her song, Luke tells us that she remained with Elizabeth about three months. And, then, she returned to her home.

We don’t know how these pregnant cousins spent their time together, but I like to imagine it … I expect these unlikely mothers-to-be shared the work of nesting: sewing baby clothes and weaving blankets and cleaning every corner of Elizabeth’s home. The women probably compared notes on morning sickness and swollen ankles and how exhausting it is to grow a human being. And I imagine they sang …

I imagine Mary kept singing her song of praise as she baked bread and hung out tunics to dry and stitched the baby clothes Elizabeth never thought she’d use. And, after hearing the melody a few times, I imagine Elizabeth hummed along. And — soon — the words that escaped Mary’s lips in response to Elizabeth’s blessings belonged to both women. And, together, they sang from dawn until dusk, as they prepared for the new creation that John the Baptist would announce and that Jesus the Christ would usher into reality.

Even after they parted ways, I like to think their song resounded through the hardships they must have endured as neighbors whispered about suspicious visitors and scandalous pregnancies. And, as their sons grew, I imagine they kept singing … despite the heartache they knew would come when the empire caught wind of what John and Jesus were up to. Still, they sang. I imagine this song became the soundtrack of their days as they heralded the new creation that God was bringing to birth. And how could they not sing? After all, Mary and Elizabeth were participating in the promises of God!

And, still — centuries later — they sing. Mary’s song echoes from the pages of Scripture … Not as a soundbite from some long-ago moment of celebration. But as an enduring call for every person who longs to participate in the promises of God.

And we are invited to join in the song … to hum along as we, too, prepare for the Christ child, until — one day — Mary’s prophetic words take up residence in our hearts and our feet begin to move in step with her joy-filled melody. We are invited to magnify the Lord … not just with voices lifted in praise, but with hands offered in service to the new creation of which Mary sings. We are invited — through our words and, especially, our deeds — to herald the Son of God who comes to lift the lowly and satisfy the hungry, to fulfill God’s promises and bring justice and peace to earth … who is born to do nothing less than transform the world.

Yes, we are invited to join in the song. And, in doing so, we just might glimpse the new creation God is bringing to birth …

One of our elders recently shared about her experience delivering a holiday poinsettia. Her story points to one of the many ways Westminster joins in Mary’s song … not necessarily with voices lifted in praise, but with hands offered in service.

In this case, the hands offered in service have worked tirelessly to resettle refugees fleeing the crisis in Afghanistan. This has involved working with an interfaith network to secure housing and furnish apartments. It’s meant driving families to doctors’ appointments and teaching newcomers English and helping parents find work and children enroll in school and … well … making sure people who have lost everything to the devastation of war have what they need to begin anew. Though the people involved in this effort might not have Mary’s lyrics on their lips, her song certainly underscores this ministry: God has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things …

One of the refugee families that has arrived in Delaware has a child who was severely injured while fleeing Afghanistan last August. After not receiving any medical attention for 10 whole days, the child was finally stabilized in a hospital abroad. Now, having arrived in the United States, the child is undergoing procedures to repair the damage done more than a year ago.

Most of us can only imagine the trauma this family has experienced … They are now safe and receiving the care they need (thanks be to God). The other Afghan families who are already settled in Delaware have welcomed them with a feast, held downstairs in Walton Community Hall. And they are being sponsored by a local congregation. But, still, they find themselves in a foreign land with a foreign language and foreign customs.

So, when one of our elders — along with a more-established refugee who could serve as an interpreter — turned up on this new family’s doorstep to deliver a poinsettia, you can imagine the joy that transformed their faces. They were overwhelmed by this gesture of welcome, by this small act of kindness that — for a family who has endured so much — was no small act at all. And — as so often happens — the joy could not be contained. Tears of joy flowed all around in a moment of shared gratitude.

When we strive to lift the lowly and fill the hungry with good things — we hear echoes of Mary’s song. It underscores our ministry. It becomes the soundtrack of our days as we wait and watch and work for the new creation God is — even now — bringing to birth. And we can’t help but join in the song. For it is our own response of joy and gladness for the blessing of participating in God’s ongoing creative work.

We do not rejoice because we are somehow shielded from sorrow. We do not rejoice because our lives are free from hardship or heartache. No, like Mary and Elizabeth before us, we know that a faith-filled ‘Yes!’ to God’s call will likely expose us to the suffering of this world. But a faith-filled ‘Yes!’ will also bring joy — exuberant joy. For, when we move in step to the rhythms of Mary’s Song, we find that God is at work … still bringing to birth a new creation in which war-ravaged souls find peace, and the downtrodden dare to hope, and those who hunger for justice are filled with joy. And, so, we sing: My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior! Yes, we sing. How could we not sing? For we, too, are participating in the promises of God.


Prayers of the People

Gregory Knox Jones


Sculptor of this unfathomable cosmos, now made all the more visible by the James Webb telescope, as we move ever closer to the glorious celebration of Christmas, we light candles to mark the path of Advent. On this third Sunday, we pray that you will arouse our memories to things that bring us joy –

the grandeur of your majestic creation…
the echo of children laughing…
family or friends gathered around the table for a sumptuous meal…
the sight and sound of a geese flyover…
a second chance after we have mangled something precious…
the considerate gesture of a person we have never seen before…
discovering something new and illuminating…
a loving touch by someone dear to us…
a good soul who patiently listens when we need to unburden our heart…
an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life…

Generous God, during this season of Advent, as we remember your love for the world in the birth of Jesus, as we raise our awareness of you coming into our lives, and as we respond to your call to be gracious and generous, we give thanks for those moments when the hungry are able to feast, when the ill are restored to health, when the oppressed have their chains of bondage snapped, and when people in despair begin to dance again.

Loving God, our hearts swell with joy when people who grieve the loss of their loved one catch a glimpse of your eternal realm, when adversaries put their bitter feelings behind them and embrace, and when people who are stumbling around aimlessly hear a cause calling their name.

Mighty God, as Christ came into the world centuries ago, we pray that he will break into our lives again and again, to shake us from our drowsiness and to stir us from our lethargy so that we will awaken to the rich life that awaits us if we choose to live in harmony with your will.

Gracious God, there is too much in our world that is dark and divisive. During these cold days of Advent, may we train our eyes to spot the moments of joy that appear and may we pause long enough to savor them.

We pray in the name of the one who taught us to pray together, saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.