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Sunday, December 23, 2012

My Soul Magnifies the Lord (Luke 1:39-56)

39 Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands. 40 She entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 With a loud voice she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. 43 Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. 45 Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her. ”
46Mary said,
“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
47In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
48He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
49because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
50He shows mercy to everyone,
from one generation to the next,
who honors him as God.
51He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
52He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
53He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed.
54He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
remembering his mercy,
55just as he promised to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”
56Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months, and then returned to her home.

Today is the Fourth Sunday of Advent.  It is December 23, tomorrow is Christmas Eve, our time of waiting with pregnant expectation for the birth of Jesus is almost over.  You can feel the excitement and the anticipation just building.  Our music is making the shift from the somber and penitential hymns of Advent - and let’s be honest, the church has only a few good, singable Advent hymns - to the more familiar and joyful music of Christmas; we’re almost there, but not just quite.
While the culture around us has been in the throes of Christmas, we in the church have resisted the urge to run to the manger too quickly, taking the season of Advent to prepare.  You know that when parents are preparing to give birth or adopt a child, they take some time preparing room in their home for the child.  They get a room cleaned out, fixed up, and furnished so that when the child comes, there will be a place prepared.  If you are a parent or a grandparent, just think of the joy and excitement you felt in anticipation of this child that was going to come into your life.  Remember what that felt like, when you first held that precious little person and looked them in their beautiful little scrunched-up face and thought, “You’re finally here!  I have been waiting so long to meet you!”
During Advent, we in the church want to do the same thing.  We prepare our hearts and our homes and our church for Jesus to be born within us yet again.  The season of Advent is a time for us to pray and reflect, to get ready by preparing for hope, and peace, and joy, and love to be born.
Just as parents start nesting before the baby comes – you get the nursery set, you buy the car seat, you pack the hospital bag, you baby-proof the house – so too do we need to make preparations that are both just as serious and joyful to prepare for the coming of Christ.  My hope is that you have used these four weeks of Advent to do just that - that you have opened your heart wide to receive Jesus in your life, that you are saying with every fiber of your being, “Welcome to my life, Lord Jesus!  Make yourself at home!  I’m so glad you’ve come to our world, I’m so glad you’ve come to me!  I’ve been waiting so long to meet you!”
Parents always claim that the moment they welcomed a child into their lives, their lives were changed forever for the better.  All of a sudden, their values, their priorities, their resources, their energy were re-aligned around the new life in their midst.  The same is true when we welcome Jesus into our lives - our lives are changed forever for the better.  All of a sudden, our values, our priorities, our resources, our energy are re-aligned around Christ.  When we welcome Christ, we are changed.  A deep an indescribable joy plants itself deep within us, that joy fills us up to overflowing, it can’t be contained but bubbles out of us and touches others.
So it is for those who have Jesus within them, as it was for Mary, the mother of our Lord, in the Scripture we have read today.
Mary was one of the Hebrew people, who had been preparing for the coming of the Messiah, the Christ, for generations, and the song she sings in our Scripture today is the culmination of all those centuries of expectant waiting, yearning, groaning for the promises of God to be fulfilled.  Like an underground spring, you can feel the unbridled joy bubbling out of Mary as she lifts her voice in song.  As expectant mothers before and since have said, “It’s time!”
Mary finds herself smack in the middle of God’s plans to reconcile and redeem the world, and we who read this story from the outside know that the child she bears is a gift not only to her, but to the whole world. 
In December, our Scripture readings use the words of angels and relatives to describe Mary - blessed, highly-favored, exalted among women, full of grace, and to be sure, she is all of these things.  We hold her up as a model of faith, a paragon of virtue, an example to follow; after all, don’t we pray for these things in our own lives?  “God, shine your favor upon me!”  “God, lift me up!”  “God, bless me!”
Friends, we need look no further than the life of Mary, however, to realize that these are dangerous things to pray, because God may actually answer our prayers and give us what we’ve asked for!  Bishop Will Willimon says that when an angel appears to you, when you find out you’re blessed and favored by God, if you’re smart, you’ll run the other direction as fast as you can, because your life is about to change, and that doesn’t equal easier for you. 
In short, God blesses us to be a blessing to others.  Receiving God’s blessings didn’t make Mary’s life easier or more pleasant.  She ended up an unmarried pregnant teenager.  Mary was exalted by God, and she ended up the source of gossip and finger-pointing and ridicule among her peers because of her unbelievable and unlikely story about how she became pregnant in the first place.  Mary was full of grace, and it’s a good thing, too, because she was going to need it throughout her life.  It was going to take all the grace she had to deal with a son said things that embarrassed the family in front of the neighbors, who got in trouble with the law - she was going to need all the grace she had as her heart broke watching him be executed as an enemy of the state.
When Mary was blessed, her life didn’t suddenly become sunshine and roses.  What it did become, however, was a channel through which God was working to redeem the whole world.  And at the end of the day, making herself available to God was more important than her personal comfort.
So be careful and be clear about what you’re asking from God.  If you really just want a comfortable life, don’t disguise that in psuedo-holy language and ask for a blessing.  Only ask for blessing if you are willing to give it all up and put yourself in a position where God can use you and shine through you.
Historically, the church has focused its chatter on details about Mary like her age, or her virginity, or her obedience, or any number of things that, in the grand scheme of things, are sort of inconsequential.  The thing that should really stand out to us is that Mary just kept pointing to God.  Her soul never stopped magnifying the Lord, her life itself became a song of praise and worship and rejoicing before God.  Her life was full of ups and downs - honestly, far more downs than ups, so far as I can tell - yet her soul just kept right on magnifying the Lord.  Her soul - her heart, the center of her being - magnifies, multiplies, glorifies the Lord.
Blessed is she among women.  Blessed is the fruit of her womb, the child who will usher in God’s reign and govern with hope, and peace, and joy, and love, the child who is none other than God-come-to-Earth, Emmanuel, God-with-us, Jesus the Christ, God’s only-begotten and most-beloved Son.
The early Greek-speaking Christians called her Theotokos, literally “God-bearer” or “Mother of God.”  Mary is bearing God’s very presence, in the person of Jesus, into the world. 
She is blessed, and we know by now that didn’t make her life easy.  Even by the time she breaks into song in today’s reading, life is already hard for her.  It’s not going to get easier for her, and yet she keeps right on singing God’s praises, her soul just continues to magnify the Lord.  Her joy is not tied to her circumstances, indeed there is hardly anything in her circumstances, from a worldly point of view, that would make her happy.  Rather, her joy came from the presence of God within her, and she anticipated the abundant life that child would bring to all, the resurrection, even, of all that was dead and broken and destructive in the world.
Mary sang because through the child in her womb, God would be doing a new thing - toppling the mighty from their thrones, humbling the proud, shaming the arrogant, filling the hungry with good things.
Mary sang because she looked around at her world - a world addicted to injustice and oppression and exploitation, a world in which the wicked seem to prosper, where hopelessness, and hate, and violence, and despair seemed to rule the day - and just as parents know that their world is never going to be the same once their child is born, so too did Mary catch a glimpse that through her child, the whole world was about to change.
Mary sang because God was setting us free from ourselves, our own misguided devices, from our paths of self-destruction; God was instead coming among us as one of us to redeem us and set us in the path that leads to abundant life.
Mary sang because God would get the last word - and the Word is Jesus.
Despite the circumstances of her life and her world, dark and hopeless though it must have often seemed, Mary kept singing.  Today, we are invited to join our voices with hers, to learn her song, to raise our voices in a song that continues to glorify God in all circumstances, trusting that whatever seems lost now will someday be redeemed.  We are called to sing her song because so many in our world desperately need an encounter with the healing presence of God.  In the words of Meister Eckart (1260-1327), “We are all called to be mothers of God, for God is always waiting to be born.”
We have prepared for the coming of Jesus through this season of Advent.  Christmas is almost upon us.  It’s almost time!  May the birth of this child bless us, maybe not as we expect, but most certainly as the world needs, for we ourselves are pregnant with the promise of God’s glory.  So it was for Mary, and she hasn’t stopped singing since.
Mary sang, “My soul magnifies the Lord!  With all my heart I glorify the Lord!  In the depths of who I am, I rejoice in God my savior!”   But, she’s not meant to sing alone.  Mary’s song isn’t a solo performance, it’s a song for all God’s people.  Jesus is coming, and when he does, let’s be singing a song that’s music to his ears.

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