Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 11, 2022
Luke 1:46b-55 Commentary
The Year A Lectionary presents two options on this week’s Psalm. One option is what I will reflect on here from Luke 1. The other is a portion of Psalm 146. I am not writing on that psalm as this entire psalm was the Lectionary psalm just a couple of months ago. If you wish to preach on Psalm 146, I would refer you to a previous sermon commentary I did on that poem.
But now onto Mary’s Song in Luke 1: At a preaching conference in Canada a few years ago, a colleague of mine made a bold statement for these politically riven times in which we are living: the Gospel is unavoidably political. Note: The Gospel is not partisan, and if any preacher grinds a blatantly partisan axe in the pulpit—and then claims that the Bible or the Gospel endorses ever and only one partisan point of view—that is wrong. But to claim the Gospel has no political ramifications and applications would likewise be wrong.
Enter Mary’s Song, The Magnificat, in Luke 1. Whether in the short-term or in the longer-term, Mary’s Song is all about public events that have a political edge to them. She foresees a world turned upside-down: the high and mighty get brought low, the wealthy and comfortable get sent away empty handed. In other words, if and whenever this happens, it will be the most famous people in the world who will find themselves on the wrong end of the stick. It will be celebrities from the entertainment and sports fields, it will be well known millionaires and billionaires, it will be the most highly elected officials in any given nation.
Those who will be lifted up and exalted in the place of these famous folks are, quite naturally, precisely the opposite: they will be the little people on the margins of society of whom most people have never heard. They will be, well, they will be like Mary herself. In fact, it seems that in addition to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, what led Mary to sing the lines she did was precisely her own recent experience.
There she was, an unknown young woman living in the backwaters of the Roman Empire. She lived in what the wealthy and powerful of her day might have regarded as something of a podunk town. But of all the people on the earth, it was she who got a visit from no less than an Archangel of God (and who bowed down before HER as though Mary, not Gabriel, were the exalted person in the room!). The angel told her she had been selected for an utterly remarkable honor: to bear God’s own Son.
She was told that all generations would rise up to call little old Mary blessed. She went from a Nobody to very nearly the ultimate Somebody in the blink of an eye. And something about that core dynamic of God’s raising up the lowly humble from the margins—folks like Mary herself and probably most every single person Mary had ever known in her life—something about all this triggered in her the idea that this reversal of fortune is just generally how God behaves. What happened to her will happen to everyone eventually.
C.S. Lewis called the Magnificat “a terrible song” and by that he was not critiquing the quality of the lyrics. Rather he meant it in the deeper Latin sense of the word terribilis, meaning something awe-some, awe-inspiring, chilling, and terrifying in its vision of God’s rebuking the proud, the powerful, and the rich in favor of exalting probably many of the very same people who had previously been exploited by the proud, the rich, and the powerful. To imagine this amazing vision of a world upended and made new emanating from the lips of a young maiden like Mary was . . . well, it was a terrible thing to countenance because it was an awesome thing. (One wonders what a parent today would think were he or she to hear a teenaged girl singing violent lyrics—probably we might chalk it up to too her streaming too many rock-n-roll music videos on YouTube or TikTok or something!)
Of course, none of this happened literally in Mary’s day. The ultimate fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to Israel of which Mary sings were a long ways off (and anyway “Israel” was soon going to be defined not as just the descendants of Abraham but anyone and everyone who joined the New Israel by virtue of following Jesus as Lord and Savior). But the vision is valid. This is what Jesus’ coming kingdom is going to look like, as Jesus would make plain again and again 30 years later in his public ministry when in places like The Beatitudes Jesus turned the world’s way of reckoning value upside down by blessing the lowliest of the low: the meek, the mild, the suffering, the weeping.
Like mother like son.
Does Mary’s vision in this song carry with it some socio-economic blueprint for societies yet today? Should this song be seen as a manifesto on which to build nations and economies? Probably not. But the political nature of the Gospel does mean that this should have a powerful shaping influence for how followers of Christ to this day view the world and the manner by which we assess value.
Whether the powers that be in any given society want to pursue this kind of vision, those who follow Jesus and count themselves already now as citizens of his Kingdom need to see the world as young Mary did. We view it hopefully for the completion of final justice. We view it radically differently than most people, seeing those who are powerful and rich now as altogether insignificant in the longer run. No, powerful/wealthy people are not automatically damned on account of their position and vulnerable/poor people are not automatically saved on account of their poverty alone. We all get saved via baptism into Christ. But once we are thus saved, joining Mary in this terrible song seems only fitting.
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I mentioned C.S. Lewis earlier. Here are his reflections on Mary, her song, and her influence perhaps on even her divine-human son:
“I think, too, it will do us no harm to remember that, in becoming Man, [Jesus] bowed His neck beneath the sweet yoke of a heredity and early environment. Humanly speaking, He would have learned this style, if from no one else (but it was all about Him) from His Mother. “That we should be saved from our enemies and from the hands of all that hate us; to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant.” Here is the same parallelism. (And incidentally, is this the only aspect in which we can say of His human nature “He was His Mother’s own son”? There is a fierceness, even a touch of Deborah, mixed with the sweetness in the Magnificat to which most painted Madonnas do little justice; matching the frequent severity of His own sayings. I am sure the private life of the holy family was, in many senses, “mild” and “gentle”, but perhaps hardly in the way some hymn writers have in mind. One may suspect, on proper occasions, a certain astringency; and all in what people at Jerusalem regarded as a rough north-country dialect.)”
~~ C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1958, pp. 5-6.
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