Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 23, 2018
Luke 1:39-45 (46-56) Commentary
We like musicals. Back in the day Hollywood turned out a great many films in this genre, though in recent years the movie musical has been pretty well restricted to Disney films like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. A recent exception was the exceptional La La Land that somehow managed to capture the power, drama, and beauty of old-time musicals from Hollywood’s heyday. It was a hit!
In that film—as in all musicals—people broke into song all over the place. The opening sequence alone was a tour de force as a long line of traffic-jam-bound drivers outside Los Angeles abandoned their cars and delivery trucks for an eye-popping music-and-dance extravaganza of an opening number. Of course, we would all readily admit that if in the break room at work one day one of our colleagues decided to tell a funny story about his daughter by singing a song about it—perhaps jumping up on the lunch table to do so–we’d all quietly begin exiting the room one by one! In recent years we’ve seen the “flash mob” phenomenon take off as pre-planned groups of people infiltrate places like Grand Central Station or a shopping mall and suddenly burst into song. Onlookers stop and stare, mouths agape, until they realize what’s up and then the cameras come out and the crowd gathers round and everyone has a good time.
Still, the reason even such flash mob musicals arrest people’s attention is because this is just not typical. It’s not even all that common in the Gospels, with the giant exception of the opening chapters of Luke where Luke all-but morphs into Andrew Lloyd Weber, having his characters—from Zechariah to a whole host of angels—bust out in song again and again and all over the place.
But no song is quite as startling as the one young Mary sings after meeting up with her pregnant older cousin Elizabeth. C.S. Lewis famously labeled this “a terrible song,” playing on the Latin word terribilis, which means “dreadful, frightful, fearsome.” The lyrics themselves shake the foundations of all we know—more on that in a moment—but the fact that they emanate from the larynx of such a young girl as Mary stuns our imagination on yet another level. Sometimes in TV dramas or in a movie a very young child will deliver a stunning indictment or offer a bone-chilling prophecy of some kind, and even were it the case that those same words would startle no matter who in the movie said them, it’s the spectacle of a little child uttering those ideas that makes you hold your breath as you watch. For a Halloween fright, we re-watched the harrowing movie The Shining recently in which a little boy becomes the herald of impending doom, repeating over and over in a chilling voice “Redrum, Redrum, Redrum” or “murder” spelled backwards. His being a child and yet saying such awful things added to the spectacle. And the terror.
In this part of Luke’s sprawling opening chapter, Mary reveals that the recent cosmic events in which she has been caught up have taught her a thing or two as to what God is up to and how God just generally operates. Mary is aware of her humble status in her time and culture. She was property as much as anything, belonging first to a father and then later to a husband (a husband who could divorce her at will in ways she herself could never initiate no matter what her circumstance). She didn’t belong to a famous family, hadn’t grown up in a big city, and had absolutely no prospects whatsoever to make a mark in the world or to ever be remembered beyond the next generation or so. Yet miraculously and startlingly, God had visited her with news so stunning, it would take at least the rest of her mortal days to understand it all.
But that reversal of circumstances, that lifting up of the lowly, that exaltation of the humble, told Mary that this is how God works. Maybe she remembered her Bible stories, remembered how it was Abram and Sarai that God picked out to begin the covenant, remembered how God in Genesis was forever choosing the younger child over the much more highly regarded older child, remembered stuttering Moses and vulnerable Ruth and the baby of the family named David. Perhaps she recalled how God had chosen Israel and not mighty Babylon with its hanging gardens nor impressive Egypt with its towering pyramids.
Perhaps she remembered all this and then connected all the dots to the child growing in her belly, a child so important that even her older cousin Elizabeth had just referred to him as “my Lord.” Mary was bearing Elizabeth’s Lord!! She was bearing the Savior of the nations!! Her. Little Mary. Mary the meek and mild.
And as she pondered all this and treasured all these things in her heart, she connected a few more dots to see that those who for now in this world fancy themselves as captains of industry and masters of the universe—those with enough money to cause others to kowtow to them in one spectacle after the next of sheer sycophancy—these allegedly rich and powerful folks, Mary now knew, would be on the losing side of history if at the end of the cosmic day their wealth and worldly power were their only comfort in life and in death. They might gain the whole world, Mary perhaps thought in anticipation of some words her own son would one day speak, but if in so doing they forfeited their own souls, they’d be sent packing, empty as a pocket and without hope.
“What happened to me” Mary as much as sang in her terrible song, “is a sign of what will happen to the whole universe one day.”
Mary could see it. Mary saw it with startling clarity. God loves the poor, favors the disenfranchised, has keen eyes to spy the invisible members of society. And in the kingdom of that God’s Son, all the wrongs that produced the perpetually poor and the perennially invisible would be righted. All the injustices under which people suffer now would be ironed out in a righteousness that would landscape the whole earth.
Mary could see it clear as day.
The Advent question that is so properly bracing for all of us as Christmas comes once again two days after this Fourth Sunday in Advent in 2018 is: “Do we still see this, too?”
It is interesting to note that Elizabeth is said to have called out to Mary “in a loud voice.” That is curious to see in that so far, most all of the action in Luke has been in the quiet shadows. Zechariah emerged from the Temple mute. When Elizabeth became pregnant, we are told she stayed in seclusion for five months. Mary likewise does not appear to have made any public pronouncements about what Gabriel had said to her—indeed, she likely did not dare to speak of it at all. In fact, she may have visited Elizabeth because she was the only person she could trust. But once Mary arrives, those things that had been done in secret are revealed in a public way. Elizabeth is not shy to proclaim God’s truth with a loud voice.
Maybe that’s where her boy John got his preaching voice from!
Scientists tell us that there is a most amazing, and thus-far inexplicable, phenomenon called “quantum entanglement.” If two particles of energy are kept in close proximity to each other for a long time, they form a relationship, a kind of bond that defies the imagination. The connection between these two particles is so strong that if you take one particle to a laboratory in Los Angeles and remove the other one to a lab in New York City, whatever you do to the particle in L.A. will instantly happen to the one in New York, too. Einstein called it “spooky.” It also defied his theory that nothing can travel faster than light. Somehow, however, once particles form this kind of bond, it cannot be severed no matter how great the distance between the two becomes.
A similar but opposite thing happened between Mary and Elizabeth. In this case, two separate people formed a relationship across a great distance—a relationship that finally drew them together. Yes, they were cousins to begin with, but you get the feeling that the difference in their ages meant they had never been all that close. You know how it goes at family get-togethers: the cousins already in college hang out together while the younger elementary school-age kids do the same and the two groups don’t mix and mingle much. Mary and Elizabeth also did not live terribly close by each other. But something remarkable—something filled with holy mystery—happened to both of these women and so despite their geographic and chronological distance from each other, these two formed a bond across that distance—a bond that would last the rest of their lives.
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