3rd Sunday of Advent
Elizabeth M. Deibert
Usually when we call someone “blessed” we mean things have gone well for them in some measurable way. But we know that in scripture, being blessed is not always defined by success, but by obedience in hard times. The Beattitudes from Luke say, “Blessed are you are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate and exclude and treat you terribly bad, because your reward will be great. Elizabeth called Mary blessed. Elizabeth called Jesus, the fruit of Mary’s womb, blessed. Why did she say that Mary was blessed? Because Mary believed, she trusted the word of the Lord. Faith is a gift, but trust is an active verb. Let us hear the story of the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth and see what we learn from the Blessed Mother Mary, venerated by the whole church for 1500 years, then somewhat ignored by the Protestant part of the church, anxious not to put Mary in the place of the Divine. Well, reverence for Mary is returning to open-minded Protestants, just as weekly communion is returning, as we recover from our over-reaction in the Reformation. How can we not call the mother of our Lord “blessed”? After all, she is the perfect example of faithfulness for the church.
39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."
46And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever." 56And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
How can we not hold Mary in highest human regard, for she is the god-bearer, the one who carried Christ, not just an ordinary child. She carried to full term God incarnate, Immanuel. Talk about being receptive to God! Mary was. Mary is worthy of our fullest regard and honor. She is not only the mother of our Lord, but she represents the church, as we are called to embody Christ for the world. She has shown us what it means when we sing, “let every heart to prepare him room.” Christina Rossetti wrote a beautiful poem about gifts for Christ: What can I give him, poor as I am, if I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part. What can I give him, give him my heart. Mary gave him chromosomes. Mary gave God her womb, and by her gift, a new covenant of love with us was born. God became one of us, and by living with us and suffering with and for us, dying and rising, he defeated death for us. We have much for which to be thankful at Christmas, but maybe today, we should simply give thanks to the One who bore for us savior, when half-spent was the night. Thanks, Mary, for listening to the Angel and believing this incredible news so you could live courageously into it, despite the risk of all family and cultural disapproval.
Just yesterday I stumbled upon a new version of Mary’s Song, written to go with a familiar English Christmas carol. So, thanks to my friend, Gia, who graciously lets me import music at the last hour, I want to sing now in the middle of the sermon, because after all, I’m preaching on one of the oldest songs in the church, Mary’s Song. If Gia will give me a low starting pitch, I’ll sing the first verse for you acapella, as they have sung Once in Royal David’s City to open the Festival of Lessons and Carols for nearly one hundred years.
Mary Gladly Told Her Cousin (“Once in Royal David’s City” PH #49)
Mary gladly told her cousin, “Praise the Lord! My spirit sings!”
Young and humble, she’d been chosen! God was surely changing things!
God of love, her words ring true As we sing her prayer to you:
“Now my soul is gladly singing At the greatness of the Lord.
I rejoice, for God is bringing His salvation to the world.
All who live will say I’m blest Even in my lowliness.
“God is mighty, just and holy, And he’s done great things for me.
Those who fear him know the mercy That God gives us endlessly.
Mighty ones are brought down low; Lowly ones find blessings flow.
“God has filled the poor and hungry, And he’s sent the rich away.
God is active here in history, In a real and wondrous way.
God has promised, and I’m blessed, For I know God’s faithfulness.”
It is impossible to overestimate the significance of Mary’s hymn, the Magnificat. The only extended speech in Luke given by a female character, it casts Mary as a prophet. In the tradition of Hannah and Miriam in the Hebrew Scriptures, Mary celebrates God’s unfolding salvation of her people Israel. She announces God’s compassion for the lowly and introduces a key theme of Jesus’ ministry – the reversal of social structures. “Mary proclaims the topsy-turvy future of God as an already accomplished fact—possibly because that future can already be glimpsed in God’s choice of Mary as the bearer of the Messiah. The song proclaims the reality and promise that the singer embodies…”
Her song inspired the Feast of Fools celebration in Medieval times, as people had a little fun reversing the social status and privileges of people, not taking themselves so seriously. (Feasting on the Word) Christians who are part of the Occupy Wall Street movement could easily be quoting Mary’s song this week, imagining the powerful coming down their thrones, the hungry filled with good things, and the rich sent away empty.
While more Americans than ever (15%) slipped below the poverty line this year the wealthiest 1% now controls 40% of the nation’s wealth. It was half that, 20% in the early 80’s. Another way to size it up: the top 10% hold 70% of the wealth, and the bottom 50% of country’s population hold 2%. That kind of disparity is damaging to our nation. Economic injustice should always be a concern to faithful Christians, because our Scriptures call us to another way, the way championed by Mary’s Song. We may have different ideas about how to solve the problem of the growing wedge in our economy, but we cannot be indifferent to it. Mary affirms that the God who came to us in Jesus Christ lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things. Remember that the first words out of Jesus when he began his ministry were, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me …to proclaim good news to the poor.”
I wonder what the new megachurch pastor who is in Lakewood Ranch now to start a new church would say about Mary’s Song. The recent newspaper article says he preaches a prosperity gospel, encouraging people to feel good about being rich. On Celebration Sunday, congregation members bring all kinds of gifts like brand new flatscreen TVs and computers to give away to anyone, including first-timers who attend.
We haven’t tried that method of outreach. But we will give you postcards today encouraging you to share them with your friends, family, and neighbors who might be interested in special Christmas services at Peace. We cannot promise to give them any fine material gifts when they visit, maybe a recyclable grocery bag that says Peace with a pen inside. But we will offer inspiring worship and nurturing discipleship. We will offer authentic relationships and compassionate outreach.
We will encourage a responsive stewardship that commits to helping those in dire need, as we are doing in four ways this very month – gifts to our missionaries in Pakistan, Alternative Gifts International – a way to give things to your own family and friends while making a difference for those in need, Angel tree gifts for Beth-El and our own buddie, the Tuite family in Vero Beach, and last but not least, the Joy Offering, a Presbyterian collection for racial ethnic colleges and retired or struggling ministers.
We will not promise you health or wealth here, nor do we aim to be mega-in-size, but just mega-grateful and mega-faithful, and mega-generous toward God and our neighbor. But I will promise you will be blessed at Peace. You will be blessed like Mary, if you seek to be like Mary. Remember the commercials a few years back when Michael Jordan was the basketball phenomenon. “Be like Mike.” Well, I challenge you today, “Do not tarry to be like Mary, even if God’s call is scary, or your life is feeling harried.”
Be like Mary. Be receptive to God’s will for your life, even if it is disconcerting to you, as it surely must have been to her. You know about a year after we got here, I nearly left this call, thinking it must have been a mistake. Some of the early movers and shakers were leaving Peace and criticizing me constantly on the way out. I feared the few left would lose hope because of the others. Our three older kids were not very happy. In a dead-end position at Eckerd College and misunderstood by some in the church, Richard was not happy. Even Ben the golden retriever thought the neighborhood was a little stifling with all the HOA rules. I was thinking surely God had brought us to the wrong place, and we would have to toss in the towel. But God was teaching us something about trusting. We were learning to have faith in the uncertain times, trusting God to provide, and God did. Now we rejoice in the church growing here, which is deeply attentive to God’s Spirit in Christ, prayerful and pious, in the best sense of that word, yet also committed to acts of compassion, to social justice. We are to be like Mary, who one verse is saying “Here am I, servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your Word.” And a few verses later is boldly announcing God’s concern for the poor and intent to bring the powerful down from their thrones.
I have often wondered how a young woman like Mary could handle the strain of her news and then sing this song of praise. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” There is only one way she could sing this powerful song of praise, with vision for social change. She had earlier said to the Angel: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me, according to your word.”
That kind of receptiveness to God’s word and will is what made her the perfect servant of God, mother of Christ, and model for the church. “Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.” For Christ to enter, we have to get ourselves out of the way – that’s meekness – not having an ego too large, submissive to God’s Spirit. All generations have called her blessed, because she gave birth to Immanuel, God with us. Her womb is more spacious than the heavens to be able to hold the all fullness of God inside herself. We cannot understand the logic of that any more than we can understand what happens to us in the Eucharist when we receive Christ by faith, and become Christ for the world. But we simply say humbly with Mary, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me, according to your word.”
God chooses ordinary people, young people, even powerless people by the world’s standards, to accomplish challenging and unfathomable goals. Are you open to hear the voices of angels calling you, to serve God with your whole self? That’s what it means to be blessed, even as you are being a blessing to God’s world, still in need of the full reception of Christ’s presence and power? A beautiful change is in gestation in the church. The final triumph of life over death is inevitable. I pray we will welcome Christ into our lives as Mary did. I pray we will nurture his growth in us, trusting him to fill us with all goodness and truth in believing. How will you greet Christ this Advent, this Christmas? Will he know you have been waiting for him, especially in the dark nights of your soul? Will he find you eager to embrace him and to do his will?