A Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Advent (as always, this was written primarily to be heard rather than read)
My soul magnifies the Lord!!!
Image by Parker Fitzgerald
Last Sunday was the day which is traditionally known in the Church calendar as Gaudete Sunday. Any of you who know any Latin from school will probably remember that it means ‘joy’. But this morning’s Gospel reading is the one that’s really full of happiness. From the moment that Mary enters Elizabeth’s house you can imagine the hugs and squeals of joy. When you were given your service sheets this morning you would also have been given a small picture of Mary and Elizabeth. The joy and excitement just spills out of that painting. Obviously, this is someone’s interpretation of that meeting but it feels right and authentic. These are two women so full of God’s joy and the Holy Spirit that, even when imagined and painted by a modern day artist, we can’t help but be infected by it. Every time I hear the words of Mary that were read for us a moment ago, I feel that joy and that promise. And every time I hear them I feel more in awe and admiration of her. You see, I don’t see Mary as the quiet submissive young girl that so many nativity scenes have painted her as. I see her as a feisty revolutionary! I wonder if any of you find that a surprising take on her character. For so many, the annunciation story, when the angel Gabriel comes to Mary, takes the form of a confused young woman being told what is going to happen to her and Mary obeying – handing herself over. That’s not how I see it. Yes, Mary agrees to what is being asked of her. But I don’t read it as a “if that’s what you want, Lord. Your will not mine”. I see it as a joyful and heartfelt “YES! Bring it on!” “Let it be with me, according to your word”. She must know what this is likely to cost her. I don’t doubt that she is acutely aware that Joseph may decide to quietly let her go when he finds out she is pregnant, and she will become the shamed woman. But she still says “yes!”. If she was weak and submissive I think we would have sensed more sadness and resignation. We would have heard her handing herself over to God’s mercy in her fear or begging God to release her from the task, before, ultimately obeying her Lord. But she doesn’t do any of that. She simply says “Let it be”. The Angel told her that she was favoured and she trusted that. And then this young, unmarried woman meets with her cousin Elizabeth. This woman is old and has never had children. Immediately that puts her pretty near the bottom of the social pile. She would be pitied and shunned. If an old couple have no children, there is no one to look after them once they are unable to look after themselves. They are destined for a lonely death in poverty. So here we have a private meeting of two women on the edge of society. And, in the words of the New Testament scholar NT Wright, “this is where God’s purposes and plans are first revealed”.
And what wonderful purposes and plans they are! The Magnificat, those words of Mary’s we heard today, is my favourite piece of scripture. It tells of a God who is going to shake things up. It’s a revolutionary song sung from right in the middle of a broken world. Mary lives in an occupied land. She, her family and their traditions are constantly on the edge of threat from the occupiers. Control is being exerted on them – remember, when she is heavily pregnant, the Emperor dictates that everyone is to journey to their ancestral homes to be counted. There are no extenuating circumstances for people to stay where they are. The emperor has spoken and these people must obey. The rich and powerful rise high in their safe towers and the poor … well the poor might as well rot. Mary sees the brokenness of this. How could she not, standing where she stands? But instead of bewailing her bad fortune she trusts God’s promise of something different. She sings of a time when the rich and mighty will lose their power and their privilege, and the world will be restored in equality and justice. This is a vision not just of people being brought out of poverty. In this vision, those at the top are brought down. It sounds very much like the Liberation theology idea from South America that there is no salvation outside the poor (to borrow a line from Liberation Theologian Jon Sobrino). For the Kingdom of God to become a reality on Earth, those who have been in positions which oppress others must be released from them. It is when people are liberated from being the oppressor that people are liberated from oppression. It sounds intuitive and logical in a way, but maybe we have to spell out that it’s not enough just for people not to be oppressed. There has to be an end to the behaviour which oppresses. There have to be no oppressors – only seekers of justice. Only in that way can all be liberated and freed to take their place in the perfect kingdom that God promises.
It’s these radical, revolutionary ideas which Mary sings of and that Jesus would have heard at his mother’s knee. Fully divine but fully human, He needed a mother who believed strongly in God’s mission to restore humanity to right relationship with God and with itself. Jesus himself, of course, became a revolutionary leader. His ministry was about restoring people to their right place in community. His stories and parables talk about turning things around in order that relationships are restored between people in a way in which none are exploited by others. Justice, community and peace come about by shaking up the received order. These are the things of God which Jesus would have learnt from His mother. She shaped His divinity in His humanity.
Mary, the poor (likely to have been) teenage girl living in an occupied land who later became a refugee, was prepared to put herself in the most difficult of situations because she passionately believed in a mission of freedom for all. The question for us is, what uncomfortable things does this mission call us to do? How can we free the oppressors and the oppressed? Is our calling to get involved with the homeless project, campaigning on social issues, to call out when we believe our politicians have made wrong decisions, to speak up for those who have no voice? Just because it feels uncomfortable and scary and we feel that we’re the least likely people to be asked to do it, it doesn’t mean that we can’t. When you see something that tugs at your heart, listen to the voice of God who looks with favour on your lowliness. With the inspiration of this weak, young, poor and powerless girl and the power of God and the trust and faith He has in us, we can sing our own song of justice.