Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Luke 1:46-56 Mary’s Song of Praise
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He 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.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.
The church will come to call her Theotokos, the bearer of God . . . the one who ushered the Incarnation into the world. We first encounter her as Mary, engaged to Joseph, cousin of Elizabeth, Galilean teenager. We will learn that she is brave and faithful, that she trusts God, and knows her scripture, that she is willing to risk the judgement of her community if it means she can do what God asks of her. Mary was in a position of great risk, both the risk inherent in pregnancy and also the risk of being unmarried and pregnant in her community. But she remembered the stories of what God had done for her people. So, when the angel told her God’s plan, Mary was confident that good could come from it. Our scripture today is Mary’s statement of faith . . . a kind of prophecy of the world to come through the life that was growing inside of her. And, it shows us something about the reign that God is inviting us into.
Mary sings this song while staying with her cousin Elizabeth, one who has recently had her own miraculous and unexpected birth. Perhaps she sings in Elizabeth’s home, because, like Dr. Wil Gafney says, teenagers often find a certain freedom talking about surprising relationships and unexpected pregnancies with elder women relatives. It is in Elizabeth’s home that Mary can finally articulate how this scandalous and strange pregnancy brings her hope. Dr. Monica Coleman, in her commentary on this passage, reminds us that sometimes in the Bible, when people need to celebrate what God has done for them and with them, they sing. Mary, the learned and brave teenager, takes up this tradition with gusto. She sings out what it means to her to be chosen to do something very difficult by God.
Mary begins with, “my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” She is clear: God has seen Mary and known, despite her likely poverty, her young age, and her unmarried status, that she could do something vital for her people. She goes on to situate her story within the long history of God’s actions in the world. When we hear Mary say these words, "God has shown strength with God's arm; God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts," we are hearing echoes of the Exodus and the words of Miriam who sang out with joy and praise when God delivered their people from slavery: "[The Lord] has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed; you guided them by your strength to your holy abode." Mary knew that God was a deliverer. God would deliver her. The child she would deliver would be a force of the Divine in the world, again, working to deliver the people.
When we hear Mary say these words, "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," we are also hearing Hannah's words from 1st Samuel 2:1-10, "The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The Lord makes poor and makes rich, he brings low, he also exalts." God is invested in people’s whole lives, not just in their ideas about the Divine. As the Rev. Judith Jones puts it, “Mary sings about the God who saves not just souls, but embodied people.” The God whom Mary has come to know through scripture and her lived experience is one that feeds people and overturns unjust power structures. Rev. Jones asserts that Mary isn’t saying that God will put the currently powerless into unjust power systems. No, God will enact a leveling, where the powerful are emptied of arrogance and learn to love their neighbor. And, the powerless will be lifted up with dignity. Mary’s own uplift is a sign of Divine leveling.
In his commentary on this text, Dr. Rolf Jacobsen noted that the anonymous Psalmist who recorded Psalm 146 once sang: "the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers; upholds the orphan and the widow." He argues that this sounds an awful lot like Mary saying, "God has helped God's servant Israel, in remembrance of God's mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham, and to his descendants forever." Mary, a teenager living in poverty in the midst of a cruel Empire, remembered how God had worked in her people's history, and sang out, assured that though her people were not yet free, God had promised her people freedom. She was certain that her story had become part of how God would fulfill this promise, even if her community did not approve or believe her.
Dr. Fred Craddock, in his commentary on this text, notes that Mary sings of God’s movement in the world through actions in the past, in the present moment, and in the promised future. We can miss a little of this when we read it only in English. She sings of her present joy at both the past actions and future promises of God. Dr. Craddock believes that by remembering the histories of her people and singing about them in the same breath as she sings of her present condition, Mary tells us something about what she knows about God. Dr. Craddock says, “[t]o speak of what God has done is to announce what God will do.” Craddock argues that Mary is so certain about what God will do that she sings about it as though it is already done. God has liberated once. God will liberate again. God has taken down tyrants before. God will do it again and is already doing it right now.
I am under no illusion that Mary thought the next stages of her life were going to be easy. She was likely worried if her family would throw her out, if her fiancé would still want to marry her, if her community would shun her. All these on top of the difficulty of just being pregnant. Even today, with modern technology, in our country, being pregnant is dangerous, difficult, and exhausting. All the more so in the era in which Mary lived. And, yet, she could sing of a future where she would be called blessed. Blessed, here, doesn’t mean that she imagines her life would be easy. It meant that she knew her struggle would have meaning within a framework of God working through humanity towards liberation.
Dr. Monica Coleman, in a couple different meditations on Mary’s life and calling, wonders if Mary’s second gift to us, after Jesus, is that her story is a story about God at work in the life of someone who much of the world would have looked down on. Mary, who called herself lowly, was also clear that God could, and would, work through the lowly. God didn’t need her to be rich or to be a queen. God needed her to be faithful. Dr. Coleman says it this way, “[c]ontemporary readers are reminded that when God brings justice to the world, it may come in unexpected ways, through individuals and communities whom most of our society eschews.” If you are tempted to see yourself or someone as too poor or too marginal or too scandalous to reflect something of God in this world, remember Mary. God called and empowered her exactly how she was to do something incredible. God’s probably going to call you to do something, too. We’ve all got a part to play in this journey towards holy liberation.
Dr. Wil Gafney has several sermons about this passage. One of them is called, “Shalom Miriam, Hail Mary.” In it, she talked about the phrase “fear not.” Angels say fear not all the time in the Bible. One said it last week before talking to Joseph. One said it to Mary in the passages just before today’s reading. Dr. Gafney argues say “fear not,” not because there is no reason to be afraid, but as a reminder that the person they are talking to is not alone. The angelic visitors say fear not because God is already with you. In the midst of all that is scary and all that hard and all that is dangerous, God is already here, with you now just as you are. While her child will be known as Emanuel, God with us, Mary needed to know God was already there, at work in her common and extraordinary life, at that moment. The God who was already there would guide her towards the future yet to come. Maybe this was what gave her the confidence to sing. God was already with her. God would be with the world in a new way, through her, very soon. God is with you, too. I pray that you find your song to celebrate that soon.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Monica Coleman, "Third Sunday in Advent," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013)
Rolf Jacobsen: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-luke-146b-55
Judith Jones: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-146-55
A Definition of Theotokos: https://udayton.edu/imri/mary/t/theotokos-meaning-of.php
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.