Chances are, you have heard a wonderful rendition of the Magnificat over the course of your life. It is one of those songs that many non-Christians have heard that have made an imprint on their knowledge of the Christian faith. Usually, the song is sung by a soprano, reminding us of the voice we like to think young Mary the mother of Jesus likely had. Why we think her a soprano rather than an alto is a question for another time, but I see the nods. It is a well-known and well-loved song. Have you, though, paid close attention to the song? Have you ever considered how the song should be echoed in our own voices, even if a bit off key? Have you ever thought that your and my voice ought to be raised in that same song making a joyful noise unto the Lord?
Luke’s reading today ends with the Magnificat, so it is right that we take a moment this Sunday, when we remember the significance of Mary His mother, and consider her hymn. Mary, as it turns out, is cousin to Elizabeth. She heads over to the home village of Elizabeth and Zechariah. We are not told why she goes there. I would like to think that maybe she goes to talk to Zechariah about the strange greeting from the strange man she just received. Who better to speak with unusual events than a priest, especially when the unusual event is that you have just agreed to give birth to God’s Anointed? Maybe Mary liked Zechariah. Maybe she felt safe speaking with him about this encounter than she did her own parents or her betrothed. We just are not told. Of course, given Zechariah’s muteness, which must have begun working its way around the family, I find it doubtful she went to talk to Zechariah. I imagine her real target was Elizabeth. Elizabeth was already dealing with the fallout of strange encounters. I’m sure she enjoyed the enforced silence of her husband, but I am also equally sure that it made communication a bit more difficult than it needed to be. To refresh your memories, Zechariah had scoffed at the idea that his wife would conceive the voice of one crying in the wilderness. For his lack of faith in the message of the angel and of the One who sent the message, Zechariah was muted for the entire pregnancy of his wife! Whatever the reason that drove Mary to Elizabeth, we have this incredible encounter between these two important, if normal, women.
Upon Mary entering and greeting Elizabeth, we are told that the baby within her leapt for joy. To us men, such a description may seem farfetched. Just how far was he going to leap inside her womb? How could she tell the difference? I cannot claim to understand how women can feel what is happening within them, and I have watched my wife go through seven pregnancies and deliveries. Sometimes, Karen would describe the babies’ actions as stretches or turning over. At other times, she would complain about a baby’s elbow or foot hitting an organ uncomfortably often or even in a painful jolt. Sometimes, my wife would laugh at the hiccups of the baby, at least until the little spasms got annoying. Every now and again, Karen would wonder if the baby within her was having a dance party of some sort within her. I see the nods and the laughter on ladies’ faces today, and the same stupid look we men tend to get around such things. Ladies know and we are clueless, right? But Elizabeth recognizes that the movement of the boy within her is one of excitement and joy. More importantly to us, she is filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaims that wonderful blessing upon her younger cousin Mary. Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord. Elizabeth understands the risk that Mary took, perhaps better than anyone. They share many of the same family members. They do not seem to live too far apart, so they likely shared some of the same friends. Mary would be at a big disadvantage in her life relating her tale because of her youth. The older women would think she was crazy or covering up an affair with someone. Elizabeth at least has a reputation to which she can point in her own defense, that and a husband who cannot speak. And she rightly recognizes the some of the potential cost that Mary will bear as a result of accepting the Lord’s invitation. How will Joseph treat her and the baby? Will people ever forget her story? Will the Romans target her if her son grows up to be the military leader for whom they have all longed. No doubt you can think of other thoughts.
Mary’s response is amazing, too. We might be tempted to respond with false modesty (aw, shucks, it’s no big deal), were we in the same place. Mary simply acknowledges the truth of Elizabeth’s words and, far more importantly, gives us insight as to how we should respond to the knowledge that God is not only real, alive and sustaining us, but that He cares for us and has worked to restore the chasm of sin we created between us and Him. Her words are well known. I will not this morning spend much time discussing the nuances of the Magnificat. I want us, instead, to focus how all of God’s acts, both in the world and in our own lives, ought to cause a Magnificat to spring up in our own hearts.
In many ways, Mary’s hymn captures the essence of the Gospel that will be told by Luke. Knowing God in the Jewish culture was considered an honor, and it was treated with a deep sense of respect by those who truly knew and feared Him. The priests mirrored Moses in that they approached God only by reciting certain prayers and hymns and by stepping in certain places. Forgetting a prayer, forgetting a line in a hymn, and mis-stepping were considered disrespectful. Those who have participated in the Bible Study at Advent led by Larry and Tom know this even better. High priests wore ropes and bells to let the others priests know if they were still alive or to pull them out if they were smited by God for dishonor or blasphemy. By contrast, we think nothing of taking God’s name in vain. How many Christian leaders make a mockery of God by ignoring His teachings? How many Christians make a mockery of His love or His mercy by telling those less fortunate, by example if not word, that they deserve what they have received? How many people today are quick to eschew the God who revealed Himself in Scripture for the idol they call “my god”?
Ask many people why they fell away from the Church and you will often hear versions of “they were hypocrites.” When people complain we are hypocrites, they are not often complaining we are sinners. No, more often than not, they are complaining that we do not repent when we sin or, worse, we celebrate our sins as if they are acceptable to God. Knowing God, of course, should cause humility to rise in our hearts. Instead, familiarity seems almost to breed contempt of or for God in our hearts rather than fear. It’s crazy. But it is true. Jesus warns us elsewhere to fear the one who can destroy our soul, and yet we treat Him as a good luck charm or, if you will pardon the pun, a Hail Mary. My favorite meme on Facebook this week is the criticism that faith healers only work on television and not in hospitals. Think about that for a second. It’s a deep criticism.
So many of us, though, take the idea that God acted to save us, that God wanted us to know Him for granted that we find ourselves unable to get out of a warm bed occasionally to thank Him. We find ourselves so unimpressed with what He has done for us and for all humanity that we actively neglect to tell our children, or the next generation, of His saving works. As a somewhat priestly father of seven (my kids can speak against ontological change!), I can tell you that one drives me the most nuts. If I had a dime for every I want my child to choose for him/her self when he/she grows up whether to worship God or not? If I had a dollar for every time I heard a version of that, we’d need no stewardship campaign. Ever. Our endowments would be flush with cash. Think of the hubris such an idea conveys in opposition to Mary’s hymn. You know what. I don’t think I want to raise my child to believe that the Creator of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen, wants to be known intimately by my child. I would rather he/she grope about in the darkness. We find ourselves so ungrateful for the saving works He has done in the world and in our lives that we cannot be bothered to feed the hungry in His name, to clothe the poor in His name, to put our talents, given by Him, to His use. We go through life as if He is lucky we choose to give Him any of our valuable time. We go through life as if He is lucky we chose to worship Him at all, rather than reminding ourselves He owes us nothing. In this relationship, we are the debtor. I see the squirms. I seem to have touched a nerve or maybe, maybe, the Holy Spirit is among us giving us a much needed wedgie?
Consider our own thoughts and actions and words in light of Mary’s. Luke will spend much of his book explaining to us, teach us, reminding us that we must take God at His word and that the proper response to His word of salvation and redemption in the world around us and in our lives is amazement and joy. As faithful Episcopalians, we might say our response is a joyful thanksgiving! In many ways, Mary’s hymn describes us in worship. In one sense, her willingness to accept God at His word has incredible potential consequence for her. She has not slept with her husband or any other man, yet now she is pregnant. How will Joseph respond? Her family? The neighbors? More importantly, we often speak of God’s faithfulness, mercy, love, justice, and whatever other characteristics as abstract attributes. But now Mary knows God relationally. He has asked her to bear His child. His has come upon her in the power of the Holy Spirit and caused her to become pregnant. More incredible, He has promised that all that He promised to her ancestors will be fulfilled in her child. Can you imagine?
In truth, we all should. We should all be singing a Magnificat with Mary every day of our lives. We do not worship an abstract truth or collection of attributes, brothers and sisters. We worship a God who wishes to be known, who wants us to love Him, who wants nothing less for us than a great Father wants for His children. Mary’s hymn reflects that incredible understanding. She starts off by wondering who she is, that God should notice her, but she moves quickly to singing her understanding of that same relationship that was offered to Abram & Sarai, to Jacob & Rachel, Moses, to Hannah, to David, to Solomon, to Elizabeth her cousin, and to countless others, including you and me! Mary’s hymn of praise testifies to the fact that the she sees God for who He is, and she rejoices that He has been mindful of her!
Mary’s song, though in the beginning quite personal, is also universal. Everyone we encounter is noticed by God. Everyone. He knows their names; He knows their situations; He knows their hurts, their hopes, and their fears. And across the chasm He calls to them. He may send you and me instead of an angel, but He calls them and us all the same. Put in modern language, He changes the world by transforming our souls and equipping us for ministry in His name.
Brothers and sisters, how is your heart in your breast this morning? Did you drag yourself to church only because you had to? Did you come to church because you were working or because you needed to see some people or because you only wanted to watch the youth put on their presentation? Or did you come, echoing Mary, praising Him who noticed you, called to you, and promised to redeem you, through the work and person of that baby whose birth we celebrate later this week? Did you come, a recipient of His tender mercy, led to Him by the Son whom Mary bore, whom Pilate killed, and whom God raised from the dead? Or did you come merely because you were dragged? In the end, brothers and sisters, He wants us to know Him fully. The beginning of the end of His plan of salvation for all of us began with that little girl’s assent to His request. If He can save the world through the faithful and joyful obedience of a young girl, imagine what He could do through a congregation of believers, a congregation that includes you and me!