For the past two Sundays of Advent, scenes from the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel have been moving us toward Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus. In both scenes, the angel Gabriel has been hard at work bringing incredible news to unlikely recipients.
First, Gabriel visits the AARP-card-carrying Zechariah and Elizabeth and shares the surprising word that the childless couple will indeed receive a son, who will grow to become the man we’ll come to know as John the Baptist. Zechariah and Elizabeth are overjoyed at this incredible news.
Then, a short time later, Gabriel visits a teen-age girl named Mary and announces that she, too, will bear a son. But unlike Zechariah and Elizabeth, becoming pregnant now has not been among Mary’s prayers, for pregnancy actually creates more problems than it solves. She’s not ready for motherhood physically, emotionally, or financially, and in Mary’s day, having a child out of wedlock puts her arranged marriage at risk. It could even get her stoned to death!
But, in spite of the risks to life and limb, Mary responds to God’s call with courage and humility.“Here I am, the servant of the Lord,” she responds to God. “Let it be to me according to your desire.”
This morning, we turn the page to the next scene, which brings these somehow-related mothers-to-be together in one place. Mary travels to Elizabeth’s home, where the two of them catch up and compare notes about the unexpected ways that God is working unto heaven’s good in and through their lives.
It is a family reunion filled with great joy, and Mary lifts up a soaring prayer of thanksgiving that’s quite appropriate for the occasion: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior … .”
Listen and be enveloped by the Word of the Lord in Luke 1 starting with verse 39.
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
And Mary said, “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; 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 forever.”
And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home. (Luke 1:39-56)
No prayer is quite as stunning as the one that Mary offers after meeting up with Elizabeth. Her words shake and rattle the foundations of everything we know.
The cosmic events encircling Mary’s life have taught this teen-age girl a thing or two about who God is, and what God is doing, and how God operates.
Mary is well aware of her humble status in her time and place. As much as anything, she’s a piece of property, belonging now to her father and soon to a husband. She doesn’t belong to a famous family, hasn’t grown up in a big city, and has absolutely no prospects whatsoever for making a mark in the world or being remembered for generations.
Yet miraculously and surprisingly, an angel visits her with news from God so stunning, so life-changing, that even the rest of her earthly days won’t provide enough time to understand it all.
Even so, Mary’s reversal of fortune – this lifting up of the lowly, this acclamation of the humble – pieces together a big part of the divine puzzle. Mary connects the dots of the Bible stories she’s heard – about how God singles out another old couple, Abram and Sarai, to begin the covenant; about how God in Genesis forever chooses the younger child over the much-more-highly-regarded older child; about how stuttering Moses, and vulnerable Ruth, and baby-of-the-family David are all called to great leadership.
Mary remembers that God choses Israel for divine favor – not mighty Babylon with its beautiful hanging gardens, not impressive Egypt with its towering pyramids – but lowly little Israel. God choses a bunch of slaves serving under the jack-boot of Pharoah, frees them through parted seawaters, and leads them to a land of promise.
Mary remembers all this and connects all the dots to the child growing in her belly – a child so important that even Elizabeth calls him “My Lord!”
Mary is bearing Elizabeth’s Lord!
She is bearing the Savior of the nations!!
Holy cow and zoinks!!!
God has picked Mary.
Little Mary. Meek and mild.
And as she ponders all this, she connects a few more dots to see that those who, for now, fancy themselves as captains of industry and masters of the universe – those with enough money to cause others to kow-tow to them in one humiliating spectacle after another of sheer servility – these allegedly rich and powerful folks, Mary now knows, are going to be on the losing side of history if, at the end of the cosmic day, their wealth and power are their only comfort in life and in death.
Anticipating words that her son will one day speak, these movers and shakers might have the whole world by the tail, but if in so doing they forfeit their own souls, they’ll one day be sent packing. “What has happened to me is a sign of what will happen to the whole world one day.”
Mary could see it. Mary sees it with crystal clarity. God loves the poor, favors the disenfranchised, and has keen eyes to spy the invisible members of society. And in the kingdom of that God’s Son, all the wrongs that produce the perpetually poor, and the perennially invisible, and the chronically afflicted will be righted. All the deep wrinkles of illness, and injustice, and suffering will, one day, be completely ironed out in a kind of righteousness that landscapes the whole earth.
Mary prays, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,”because she could see it all.
Can we see this, too?
As Bethlehem inches ever closer – as more candles are lit, as more lights stay on, as more characters begin showing up at the stable, the Advent question that is so properly refreshing, and invigorating, and challenging is this:
“Can we see what Mary sees?”
Can we see that God is still working in the world and in our lives in splendid and unexpected ways?
I surely hope so, because signs and stories abound.
Sometimes a very young child delivers a stunning indictment or a bone-chilling prophecy of some kind, and even though those same words would startle you no matter who said them, it’s the spectacle of a little child uttering those thoughts that makes you hold your breath as you watch and listen.
In these Advent days leading up to Christmas, let the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit stimulate all your senses and help you connect some dots, so you can see what Mary saw – cosmic assurances and life-changing signs that God is doing a new thing in the world –all spoken – like teen-age Mary – through the mouths of babes.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message in worship for the third Sunday of Advent, December 12, 2021. Scholarship, commentary and reflection by R. Allen Culpepper, Scott Hoezee, and L.T. Johnson inform the message. (Artwork: Jen Norton, Canticle of Mary, FineArtAmerica.com)