A sermon by Rev. Chris Jorgensen
Hanscom Park United Methodist Church
December 3, 2017
Scripture: Luke 1:39-55
The scripture we heard today contains a prayer (or song) that is known in our Christian tradition as The Magnificat. The word “magnificat” comes from the Latin translation of this song of Mary. It means magnify. Mary starts her song by saying, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” This is a song of joy and confidence in the power and goodness of God.
…which is actually a little surprising coming from someone in Mary’s, um, situation. Let’s back up in the story a bit. You may know this already. See Mary has recently been visited by the Angel Gabriel. And the Angel Gabriel informed her that she would be bearing a child, Jesus, who will be called “Son of the Most High” and who will “reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end!”
That sounds pretty good. But there’s a little problem. Mary is not married.
If we turn over to the Gospel of Matthew, we learn that Mary is only engaged (or betrothed) to Joseph at this time. My trusty New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary tells us that this engagement “was a binding arrangement between people already legally considered husband and wife, so that unfaithfulness was considered adultery.” So when Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, and they have not yet had relations, technically Mary could have been put to death for her unfaithfulness (though our commentators mention that the death penalty for adultery was not really practiced by the time the gospels were written). However, they still describe the penalty for adultery as “severe and humiliating.” Think: how people sometimes react to unwed mothers in our culture, but like 100 times worse.
Not to worry though. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that upon finding out Mary is pregnant, Joseph (who is a righteous man) decides to divorce Mary quietly. But he too is visited by an angel in a dream. And that angel explains to him that Mary had become pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit and that Joseph should marry her anyway. So that’s good.
But over in today’s gospel, in the one we heard – Luke’s version of the story, we get no such assurances that Joseph was going to swoop in and save the day by covering up the scandal of Mary’s pregnancy. All we know is that the Angel Gabriel visited Mary. That Mary was afraid and perplexed by his visit. But when the angel explained to her that she is going to become pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit, she agreed to this plan. God gave her a choice, and she chose obedience. She said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; Let it be with me according to your word.”
And from that point on, our heroine Mary is not deterred one bit by this scandal. In our scripture today, Mary sets out and goes with haste to see her relative Elizabeth, who is also pregnant. Mary is pregnant. She has not been married up properly to Joseph. She is a young woman having a child out of wedlock in a society that thinks that is a real problem. And she goes to see Elizabeth.
She goes with haste that conveys excitement. Everybody in this scene is filled with joy. Mary is joyful, Elizabeth is joyful, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb jumps for joy – even as Mary is part of this scandalous mess of God’s plan for birthing Christ into the world. And the Magnificat, Mary’s Song of Praise, indicates her awareness that what God is doing through her is counter-cultural. She names that God has come to her in her lowliness, in her humility – and God has done great things for her. God has done and will do great things for her and for her people, who are poor and oppressed and lowly just like her.
God’s plans for Christ being birthed into the world through Mary are unexpected, are counter-cultural (even a little scandalous), depend upon Mary’s humble obedience, and bring Mary and the whole world joy and salvation.
So what might this tell us about God’s plans to birth Christ in the world this year – through us? Perhaps God’s work in our lives too is unexpected, counter-cultural (even a little scandalous), and requires our humble obedience – and will bring us and the whole world joy and salvation.
Now, I think the key to embracing God’s plans for us is to start with the humble obedience piece.
I know, it’s my least favorite piece, too.
Because humility and obedience also require vulnerability. And I think holidays in general, but Christmas in particular can make us feel really vulnerable. During Advent we are invited to come face to face with our deepest longing. Our longing for love and acceptance. Our longing for salvation and assurance. Our longing for a life of meaning. Our longing to really know that we are loved by God and part of God’s dream for the world.
But we can’t really control that. Nothing we can do, can MAKE an experience of God’s grace happen for us. So I think maybe we put all of our hopes for the Christmas season into the things we can control, the things we can plan, the things we can buy. And our whole culture tells us this is what we should be doing. It promises that this is what will make us happy. Right?
The culture tells us things like this: “Giving your kids just the most beautiful tree surrounded by piles of presents will fill your (and their) deepest longing for joy. Making sure that your holiday gathering is just perfect will guarantee that your family will get along and will always be there for you. Buying new clothes or getting your hair done will make you beautiful enough to be deserving of love. Filling yourself with good food and drink will make sure you never have to feel empty.”
Now I’m not against any of those things. Please. Enjoy your festive tree (I’ve got one) and your lovingly set table and the confidence of a new hairdo and the pleasure of food and the fun of cooking it together. But just remember that none of it needs to be perfect, and that none of it can fill the deepest longing of your heart. Only God can do that. Only Christ can do that.
To invite Christ into our lives, we have to humble ourselves. We have to give up the power we think we have to fill our own every need. And we have to offer ourselves in obedience to God’s desires for us. Now, as your pastor, I wish I could give you an exact 3-step process for how to ensure that you will be filled with the Holy Spirit and never feel empty again. But I can’t. But I do have an idea of how we might start.
I believe it starts with prayer. One thing I’m doing to help us commit to prayer during this season of waiting is that I am sharing my daily devotional time on Facebook. Friends, it’s not fancy. It’s me turning on my computer and a camera and asking you to pray along with me through my usual practice. It’s probably not even as long as it should be. But it does help us to be accountable to one another when we commit to praying together – whether it’s in person or online. So if you are on Facebook, go Like the Hanscom Park United Methodist Church page, and you will be able to find me doing a live video there Monday through Friday at 7:45 AM…just praying and reading scripture and a reflection. And you are welcome to join me.
And if not that, then find another way to ground yourself in prayer this season. I encourage you to add whatever prayer practice to your life that will help you stop and listen for God’s presence and desires for us. Because we hear so many voices, so many messages every day, and even if they have the word “Christmas” as part of them, they are most-of-the-time not God’s voice. You know as well as I do that Christmas has been commercialized and secularized and exploited so folks can make money. The voices outside us talking about Christmas have almost nothing to do with welcoming the presence of Christ into our lives. So if we want to hear God’s voice, we have to do something counter-cultural.
We have to stop and listen. We have to be non-productive. We have to pray. Prayer gets nothing done. Prayer is not going to help you get one thing marked off your Christmas list. But I believe prayer is the only way we can hope to humble ourselves before God and submit (that’s a scary word, right? Well, I’m using it anyway). We have to submit to God’s radically different dream for our lives and for the world.
And as counter-cultural as submission and humility seems, it is also the only thing that will bring us joy.
“My soul magnifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”
To be like Mary, we have to be lowly servants. We have to be counter-cultural, wrapped up not in the commercial trappings of a money-making holiday, but in the beautiful scandal of God coming to live with us right here in the mess of our world.
And promising to redeem it.
May it be so.