Sermon - 11th December 2016
Scripture - Luke 1:39-56
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Two weeks ago, I spoke of the Advent season being the start of the church’s year, and I suggested that Advent Sunday was the day to make New Year’s resolutions and to refresh what our faith means to us. Today, Luke leads us from the start of our church year to the first expression of what Luke believes the Good News really is.
When Luke was compiling his gospel, he uniquely included three powerful and moving songs of praise to God in his first two chapters. Each of them is an outpouring of emotion in response to a major event in which the working out of God's purposes can be seen.
When you look at the way modern bible publishers set out these texts, they are usually printed in the form of poetry, in rhythmic lyrical lines. These are not just ordinary speeches: they are set apart in the layout of the page and are treated as poetic proclamations with special characteristics.
Those three texts start with the Song of Mary which we heard in our reading today.
This is Mary's outpouring of love and obedience to her God, and it starts with those remarkably uplifting words: “My heart praises the Lord”, or in some translations, “My soul magnifies the Lord...” often called by the first word in its Latin translation, “Magnificat”.
The second text is an impassioned acclamation by Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, which is his response to birth of the boy to Elizabeth and himself, despite their very advanced years. It is often referred to as “The Benedictus” as that is the first word of the text in latin: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel...”
The third text is a short but highly moving prayer spoken by an ageing and devout man called Simeon when Jesus, as an eight day old child, is brought to the temple for circumcision. Simeon's inner wisdom reveals to him that this child is the long-awaited saviour of his people and he says to God, “Now I can go in peace, knowing that I have seen your promises come true.” This text is also often known by its first words in Latin, 'Nunc dimittis'.
Not surprisingly, the church has taken these songs of praise into its worship.
By tradition, substantially shaped by the pattern of worship in the monastic traditions with their use of psalms and bible texts in daily worship, the Song of Zechariah is sung or recited as the climax of morning prayer, and the Song of Mary is sung or recited as the high point of vespers or evening prayer, with the Song of Simeon also appearing usually in the last service of each day – building on its sense of our being peacefully released from the responsibilities of one day so as to wake to the challenges of a new day.
These biblical songs from Luke's Gospel are deeply embedded in church worship, and are loved and treasured as powerful statements that God delivered God's promises to humanity through the birth, life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. They have often been given the most glorious musical treatments by church composers and modern musical settings are still being composed for church and cathedral choirs to introduce into their repertoire – this is particularly so in the case of the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis as used in the Anglican service of Choral Evensong.
But then comes one of the most lovely paradoxes which emerge occasionally in this strange creation we call 'the church' - because every time we sing the Song of Mary, we are actually giving voice to one of the most revolutionary texts that the church has ever embraced.
When you get beyond the opening acclamation of the greatness of God, Mary's song proclaims the coming of the Messiah of the poor and the lowly. She speaks of a God whose love of humanity will make the poor and the powerless the top priorities.
And as we travel further into Luke's Gospel we will see that these are also the focus of Jesus's mission because, in his words and his actions, he challenges the rich, the powerful, the corrupt and the self-serving throughout his ministry.
Mary doesn't just talk about the poor: she is one of them. We actually know very little about her. Early Christian traditions wove many legends around her and, in some of those traditions, the legends began to be regarded as formal beliefs. But there is much scholarly debate about the facts of her early life.
One general viewpoint says that she was probably a servant girl somewhere in her teens when she became pregnant. We can certainly imagine that any woman who was about to become a mother while still only betrothed and not yet fully married to her future husband, would be facing all kinds of doubts and worries about the future for herself and her child.
It seems unlikely that Mary would have been financially secure, influential, or of any great social standing. So, the whole story of the birth of Jesus is, itself, the story of God's identification with those on the margins, those whom society devalued and disregarded. And perhaps this is where the Good News begins – amid a family scandal, in poverty, in a backwater, among the powerless.
Luke sets a scene which prepares us for his message that Jesus did not come into the world for the benefit of the temple, the cathedrals, or the great religious centres of his own time nor any time. He didn’t come to exercise authority in the Roman palaces, nor in the seats of power in Westminster, Washington or Moscow.
He came to cast down the mighty from their thrones and to lift up the lowly. It’s no surprise that the Temple and the Roman palaces saw to it that he was disposed of: it’s no surprise that, to this day, the seats of power regularly tell the Christian churches to keep religion out of politics.
So when one hymn writer wrote a hymn based on today’s reading that begins: 'Sing we a song of high revolt...' and ends:
'He calls us to revolt and fight with him for what is just and right,
to sing and live Magnificat in crowded street and council flat', (Fred Kaan)
the hymnwriter was remarkably close to the spirit of Luke who introduced us to a woman who knew that her son would put the kingdom of God before the kingdoms and empires of men.
So perhaps the next time we hear the Song of Mary sung, read or recited, we might listen for just how revolutionary her first declaration of the Good news really was, cast in the form of a song of high revolt.
And every time we make that song our own, in our private prayers and in public worship, we might recognise the radical changes that our faith has always called us to bring about in the lives of the poor, the marginalised, the voiceless and the powerless – those whom God calls us to lift up into lives of value, dignity, and justice.