An Advent Song (A Sermon on Mary's Magnificat)

Luke 1:46-55

46 And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

              There are few things in this world quite like a good song. A good song can stick in your memory like nothing else can: can you remember how to find the area of a triangle, or can you recite Antony's soliloquy from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, or can you recall the year that Magellan circumnavigated the globe? I can't at the moment (at least not without Googling it). But a good song...I bet right now all of you could recite the lyrics to your favorite song, even if you first heard it decades ago. I'm willing to bet that if you heard a song on the radio on your way home after church that you haven't heard in years, you'd still know most of the words. Most of us don't know all the lines of every character in musicals like Mary Poppins, but several of you probably know all the words that help "the medicine go down," or even if you haven't seen the movie Frozen, you've likely heard "Let It Go" enough times to mumble it in your sleep! There are few things in this world quite like a good song.

            A good song can stir something within us like nothing else can. Sure there are those songs that start our toes to tapping, our heads to bobbing, maybe even our fingers to snapping and our hands to clapping, but there are those songs written by people with names like Dylon, Taylor, Chuck D, Lennon, and Young that stir something deeper within us, something more than an urge to simply listen or dance. There are those songs that provoke us: they provoke us to listen to stories we would otherwise ignore; they provoke us to look within ourselves, to exam the kind of person we are in light of those around us. There are those songs that provoke us to actions, songs that unapologetically provoke us to think differently, to be different. Those kinds of songs don't usually make the top 40 lists, but when we hear them, when we listen to their words, they stir something within us that just might cause us to do something.

I think of songs like "See How We Are" by the band X, with its lyrics about overcrowded prisons and our passive indifference towards others in the midst of our own luxury. I think of songs like "Only a Pawn in Their Game" by Bob Dylan, how it speaks of the systemic racism in the South around the time of Medgar Evers' murder. I think of songs like Bruce Springsteen's "Ghost of Tom Joad" (and the cover by Rage Against the Machine) and the way it speaks to the real plight of poor people in this country, even decades after the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. At this time of year, I cannot help but think of the Christmas Hymn "O, Holy Night" and the stanza that says, "Truly He taught us to love one another. His law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, and in his name, all oppression shall cease" (I know that's not Scripture, but man, it ought to be!). When I hear songs like that something is stirred within me that I cannot ignore. There are truly few things in this world quite like a good song, because there are few things in this world that can provoke our hearts to action quite like a good song.

I think the song we've heard from Mary is no different: it is the kind of song that-if we truly listen to its words-cannot help but provoke something deep within us. Think of the one who is singing this song: Mary. Just fifteen short verses prior to her song she is told that she is going to conceive and bear a son, even though she herself is a virgin, more than likely just a teenager. Rather than rejecting this news out of sheer fright and concern over social implications of a sudden, unwed, teenage pregnancy, Mary says in verse 38, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Mary humbly accepts the reality that is upon her: she will bear the Son of God. Though the news is not exactly joyous, for Mary no doubt knows what can happen to an unwed girl who begins to show, so she hastily travels to see her much older cousin, Elizabeth, who is miraculously pregnant herself. Upon Elizabeth's greeting and her child's (John the Baptist) leap of recognition, the next words we hear from Mary after her humble acceptance in verse 38 are the words of the Magnificat, Mary's song of praise.

Now, if you take a moment to really read or listen to Mary's song, you'll quickly see why it wouldn't stand a chance as a pop tune or even a top 10 song on contemporary Christian radio. Listen to some of these lyrics again: " he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant... 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." This isn't exactly what a colleague of mine calls a "happy-clappy song." This is a song proclaiming God's justice, God's putting things right-side up after they've been upside down for so long. This isn't just a song praising God for the way he has brought up this singled-out girl from obscurity-this is a song about how God will use her and the child she is bearing to right the balances of all humankind. This is a song about bringing down systems of injustice, about breaking chains of generational oppression, a song about what this coming child is actually bringing into the world with him. This is a song that ought to provoke something in the hearts of those who hear it.

Mary, the poor, unwed, pregnant teenager, a member of an oppressed race, the one with whom God found favor, sings about the justice of God's in-breaking kingdom in spite of everything she sees around her, in spite of everything she knows to be true about the unjust world in which she lives. Mary sings...and her song is more than melodious "thank you." Her song is a call to recognize the coming kingdom of God. Her song is a call to name the injustices in the present world in which we live and expose them to the light of Christ and the coming of his kingdom. Mary's song is a song of hope, a song of joy yet to be realized by the whole world. Mary's song is an Advent song as it provokes us to look forward to the arrival of Christ and the fullness of God's kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

That is, after all, what this season is about-looking forward to Christ's arrival, the in-breaking of God's kingdom. Like Mary, there are countless people in this world who are poor, who live without the conveniences you and I take for granted (like clean water and enough food to eat). Like Mary, there are those in this world who have been pushed to the margins of society because of the situations in which they live, because of the labels placed upon them by the powerful, the religious, and the majority. Like Mary, there are those even in our own context who are oppressed and treated with suspicion because of their race and treated as less because of who they are. Like Mary, there are those who live with the constant gossip, the never-ending finger-pointing, the sideways glances of those who secretly (or even publicly) judge them. Like Mary, they sing-they pray-for justice; they sing with hope-filled voices that one day the world will be put right, that the day is coming when the proud will be scattered in the thoughts of their hearts, when the powerful will be brought down from their thrones and their paid-for offices, when the lowly will be lifted up, the hungry filled, and the rich sent packing! Like Mary, they sing an Advent song, longing for the coming day when (in the words of the prophet) "justice [will] roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."[1]

Like Mary, we all live in a world that is upside-down, a world where injustice and systemic sin control far too much, so many are blinded by comfort, greed, and selfishness to see such injustices, to see that every life matters. There are those who would silence Mary's song, who would halt the Advent of Christ and stop the in-breaking of God's kingdom. There are those whose bellies are full, whose wallets are fat, whose lives are lived in excess and power, those who like the way the scales are balanced now. Too often, those people occupy positions of power during the week and pews on Sunday morning. Too often one of those people looks at me from the mirror.

Yet Mary still sings, all the Mary's of this world still sing, and together they sing an Advent song. They sing a song of hope knowing that this world is not all we have, that this world with all of its brokenness and injustice is not all there is. They sing because the kingdom is still coming, Christ is among us and is bringing the fullness of God's joy and the kingdom with him one day. They are singing an Advent song, and it can only provoke something deep within us. For there's nothing quite like a good song to provoke us to do something, to provoke us to the Lord's work of justice if we would but listen and join in the singing. Amen.


[1] Amos 5:24 (perhaps more well-known from King's "I have a dream" speech.)