"Mary's Unsettling Song"

December 18, 2011
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Luke 1:46-55

Did you hear the one about Jesus reprimanding Peter at the entrance to heaven?  Peter is standing guard at the pearly gates determining who gets in and who is denied entrance.  Jesus approaches him and appears a tad agitated.  He begins complaining to Peter about the quality of people he's admitting to heaven; some have dubious reputations.  Peter says, "I know, I know.  But what can I do about it?  They come to me, I check their résumé and turn them away.  So they go around to the backdoor, talk to your mother, and she lets them in!"

While Mary is often pictured as a soft-hearted figure who spends much of her time pondering angelic words in her heart, today's passage displays her other side.  The canticle she sings at the beginning of Luke is anything but soft and sentimental.

The Gospel of Luke begins, not with Mary and Joseph, but with Zechariah and Elizabeth.  They are a faithful and upright couple who revere God and live according to the commandments.  They are getting up in years.  They are at the age when most of their friends are becoming grandparents; yet they have never had a child of their own.

Then, one day, while Zechariah is performing his priestly duties, the angel Gabriel visits him and tells him that Elizabeth will bear a child.  Zechariah scoffs at the notion because he and Elizabeth have just signed the papers to move into a retirement community.  For doubting, Gabriel strikes Zechariah mute until their son is born.

Six months into Elizabeth's pregnancy, Gabriel pays a visit to Mary who is engaged to Joseph.  Gabriel tells Mary that she too will give birth to a child and he will be called Son of God.

Not long after the angel's visit, Mary goes to see Elizabeth, her older relative.  Elizabeth welcomes her with generous hospitality and is thrilled with Mary's news.  That is the moment when Mary cannot contain herself.  She breaks out in song - today's Scripture reading.  It is a song that was sung regularly in the ancient church and most of us know it as the Magnificat, because Johann Sebastian Bach put it to such glorious music.

Listen again to a portion of Mary's song.  She sings, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior...God 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."  To the poor, her words are hopeful and liberating; but to the wealthy, they are subversive and threatening.

Mary and her fellow Jews lived under the harsh reign of King Herod and the oppressive occupation of their country by the Romans.  Each day the people struggled to eek out a meager existence under an economic system that rewarded only the collaborators.1 Mary's song is about the revolution that is coming.  Hers is a vision of a world very different than the one they currently inhabit.  She's talking about turning the world upside down.  She's talking about the world becoming what God intends it to be.  Her vision is about her son, Jesus, and the revolution he will inspire.  Her son will launch a mission focused on overcoming evil and injustice.   It will focus on God's will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

Calvin Seminary professor Cornelius Plantinga says, "When life is good our prayers for the kingdom get a little faint.  We whisper our prayers for the kingdom so that God can't quite hear them.  We pray, 'Thy kingdom come,' but we hope it won't.  When our own kingdom has had a good year we're not necessarily looking for God's kingdom"2

As I reflected on today's passage, I could not help but think of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Regardless of what you think of these protests that have sprung up in cities around the country, they point to the fact that something has gone awry in our society.  The playing field is no longer as level as it once was.  The gap between the top one percent and the bottom 99 has become too great.  In some quarters, greed has become just another word for extraordinary success rather than what it truly is: a destroyer of character and a retreat from the pursuit of the common good.

One thing that often gets overlooked in the Christmas story is the way in which God chose to become present in our world.  It was not among royalty. It was not among the powerful or the wealthy.  God chose Mary, a poor, vulnerable teenage girl who had no standing in her community.  And in case people missed this point, when Jesus was born, not one religious, political or business leader was given the heads up.  Luke said that the birth announcement was made to lowly shepherds.

Occasionally I will hear someone say that she wants to deepen her spiritual life.  She wants to study the Bible, draw closer to God and live her faith in her daily life.  My first thought is: Do you really know what you are asking?  If you study the Bible and take its message to heart, you may not be ready for the revolution it will unleash in you.  God wants us to reorder our values and our commitments.  Are you ready to do that?

The Scriptures teach that each of us is created in the image of God.  God loves all people and cares deeply about the conditions under which all people live.  That is why God gets angry in the face of injustice and inequality; because God wants everyone to thrive.

Roman Catholic priest, Ernesto Cardenal, worked among the poor in Nicaragua.  He sat down with the campesinos, farmers and fisherman who lived around Lake Nicaragua and they studied the gospels together.  He recorded some of their discussions and later included some of their observations in a book.  When they studied the passage of Gabriel announcing to Mary that God had chosen her as the mother of Jesus, they identified very closely with Mary and understood that God had chosen to be born among poor people like themselves.  Hearing Mary's radical song of God knocking tyrants off of their lofty thrones and lifting up the poor, one said, "It's not the rich but the poor who need liberation."  Another responded, "The poor and the rich need to be liberated."  A third said, "Us poor people are going to be liberated from the rich.  The rich are going to be liberated from their wealth, because they are more slaves than we are."3

Some voices in our society encourage us to be independent and to get ahead of the next person, but in God's view of justice, no one gets left out.  The Scriptures counsel that if we do not care for the least and the lost, we will lose our soul.

As you read the Christmas cards that come in your mail, and make your way past the bland "Happy Holidays" to the few that quote Scripture, you may find: "Unto us a child is born" or "Peace on Earth" but I suspect you will not find "God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."  Hallmark has not found a groundswell of support for that message.  Yet, it is a vital message for followers of Christ to hear at Christmas even if it carries a bit of a sting for those of us who are well off.

Christmas is about God's amazing gift to us - God's self in the person of Jesus.  But Christmas is also about God's vision for the world where the divine realm of justice and peace becomes a reality on earth as followers of Christ partner with God to make it so.  It is why Christmas is not complete for us without filling Christmas boxes for families out of work, without making a donation to an organization that supports justice, without giving a present to someone who cannot repay you.  Giving to others who are in need - generous giving - is the catalyst for joy.

William Willimon tells of a student who sat down with him when Willimon was the chaplain at Duke.  "After graduation, this young man dedicated three years of his life to the organization Teach for America.  Although he was an honor graduate of a great university, they placed him in one of the smallest and poorest little towns in the state of Mississippi.  His salary barely covered his rent. What made him do it?  What force drove him to give himself to others rather than taking all he could get for himself?"

When the young man sat down with Willimon following his 3 years, he said, "Something, it's hard to say just what, made me think that this was what I ought to do.  I felt a sense of responsibility to give back to the community.  So much had been given to me.  I felt that I had an obligation to reach out to the needs of others and to experience firsthand what it's like to be with the poor.  Something just made me want to do this."4

I wonder if he heard Mary sing the Magnificat?  Or maybe somewhere in the recesses of his mind, he heard Jesus saying "Whenever you do it to the least of these, you do it to me."

What would happen, if each morning this week, between now and Christmas, you began your day with this simple prayer?  God, in all that happens today, in every personal encounter and in everything I do, help me to magnify your name.  Help me to love those who are difficult to love and help me to strive for justice for the poor and neglected.  Help me to embrace your will to turn the world upside down.

What do you think would happen?  There is only one way to find out.



1. G. B. Caird, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries: Saint Luke, (Middlesex England: Penguin Books, 1963), p.55.

2. Cornelius Plantinga, "In the Interim: Between Two Advents," Christian Century, December 6 2000.

3. Kimberly Bracken Long, "Homiletical Perspective," in Feasting on the Word, (Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 95.

4. William H. Willimon, "How You Will Know If It's Jesus," Day1.org, August 07, 2005.