46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. 50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”
One of the most challenging things about preaching during Advent is that you’ve heard these stories before. Maybe even many times before. I could preach from Jeremiah 5:14 and give that passage a new interpretation for you, enlighten you with a few phrases from the Hebrew language, and send you on your way to bake Christmas cookies. But what do you say about the early chapters of Luke’s gospel that hasn’t already been said? Even Linus from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” has a significant part of this scripture memorized, and he isn’t even real. Worse yet, I’m going to be preaching from these chapters today and next Sunday. How am I going to say something new next week?
Every year we sing these song. Every year we read these verses. We do this year after year after year, so what’s left to be said that hasn’t already been said?
Nothing, and that’s okay. Because no matter how many times I sing these songs, I’m moved. It doesn’t matter if it is “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel,” sung in a minor key, or “The Virgin Mary had a Baby Boy,” performed in the style of Reggae with steel drums. I’m still moved. The story of Christmas is a story of hope, a story of restoration, and a story of reconciliation. That doesn’t get old! And as long as there is sin and suffering in this world, I need the story of Christmas because I still need Jesus.
What I want to do this morning is to remember the situation that Mary found herself in, her life and her experiences. Because if Mary was able to find hope in her situation, maybe we can too.
So what do we know about Mary? If her son was the Prince of Peace who grew to be the King of kings, then she must have been born into royalty herself. I’m guessing she must have been a young woman, probably in her mid 20’s, married to the king, and doing well for herself. Servants. Riches. Power. Or maybe just the opposite. Let’s start with her age.
In the first century, it was common for a young woman to get engaged significantly younger than we are used to today. Many people guess that Mary was between 12 and 14 as the customary age for a Jewish girl to be betrothed in the first century was the age of 12. And if you think about it, this makes good sense because the parents could send their daughters away right as were entering that difficult time known as the teenage years.
Many of us today get a bit queasy at the thought of getting married at such an age. I was 23 and Sonya was 22 when we got married, and many tell us that we were young. That’s a full decade older than Mary. Obviously, a lot has changed, and there were cultural and biological reasons why people were married so young back in those days. But the reason I like to emphasize how young Mary was when she received news that she was going to give birth to Jesus is because Mary shows a remarkable amount of maturity for a 12-14-year-old! I’m probably three times as old as Mary was here, and I’m not that mature.
If we look at the way the story unfolds in Luke’s gospel, we find the angel Gabriel showing up unannounced and telling Mary that she has found favor with God and will give birth to Jesus. This very mature young woman then asks a very mature question in verse 34, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
A very good question. So Gabriel explains to her that God will give her this child, and it will be God’s own son. And if that isn’t confusing enough, on the other end of the age spectrum is Mary’s older, barren relative, Elizabeth. And she has a special baby growing in her womb, too.
As all this is going down, Mary asks the very practical question, “How can this be?” And the next thing that she says is found in verse 38, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Mary goes from “How can it be?” to “Let it be.” And yes, this is where the Beetles got their song title from.
Mary isn’t exactly your average 12-year-old. As I’ve said before, I think that Catholics sometimes make too much of Mary. But I also think that we Protestants often don’t take her seriously enough. Mary is a pillar of faith.
Great, now remind me, who was Mary married to at this point? Nobody. She was betrothed to Joseph; some translations say that she was promised or pledged to be married to Joseph. But they were not locked in the bonds of holy matrimony in the way we might think of it today.
Recall that it was the Hebrew tradition of the time for a couple to be betrothed for about a year or more before they actually got married. And the betrothal ceremony was a binding covenant. Some livestock was probably exchanged, some vows were made, and then the man and woman lived apart while he built them a house. And important for our story is the practice of the man and woman never being left alone with one another until the man had completed their living quarters. Wink, wink; nudge, nudge. If you get my drift.
So Joseph and Mary have not been together, yet Mary is pregnant. Joseph knows it isn’t his child, and he probably also knows that Deuteronomy 22 lays out the punishment for someone who has relationships with a person who is betrothed to another. Mary should have been taken out in the street and stoned.
We know that Joseph made the decision to dismiss her rather than put her to death. Thankfully, the angel visited him as well.
But at least Jesus’s family had money and power. If you have money and power, you can get away with stuff like this, even during inflexible times like the first century.
Wait a second. In the second chapter of Luke’s gospel we find the story of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. 40 days have passed since his birth and it is now required by law for both the dedication of the child and for Mary to perform the postpartum rituals of purity. In Leviticus 12:6 we find the requirements: “When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering.” This is not a sin offering for the child, but for the mother, who has not been permitted into the Temple/Tabernacle since giving birth. She has been ceremonially unclean.
The lamb offering is to restore her ceremonial cleanliness; the pigeon or dove is for a sin offering to atone for her sins. She needs one of each. Now look at Leviticus 12:8: “But if she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.” Pigeons are cheap. You can catch them yourself if you have to. Lambs come at a price.
Now if we turn to Luke 2:24 we read, “And they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the Law of the Lord, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” If they had the money to pay for a lamb offering, they would have. Mary and Joseph most likely catch their offering in order to comply with the Law.
Just to recap, Mary is a young, unmarried, poor woman who is now forced to deal with the consequences of an unexpected pregnancy. She’s going to be rejected by her friends, maybe disowned by her family. And her response is…Oops! Oh, No!
Not even close. Mary says, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.”
Mary sings. And her song isn’t entirely original. It seems to borrow a bit from Hannah’s Song, found in 1 Samuel 2, when Hannah finds out that she will give birth to the prophet Samuel. Mary seems to borrow a bit from Isaiah 61, which Jesus reads as his first public sermon. What we find in Mary’s song can best be described as hopeful resistance.
A poor, pregnant, unmarried girl living in Roman-occupied, 1st-century Palestine chooses to sing a song of praise, a song of thanksgiving, a song of hope. She totally could have gone the other way with that one and nobody would have blamed her.
I think of the African American spirituals sung by slaves as they worked on the plantations. Songs with biblical themes, adapted for their current situations. “Wade in the water, wade in the water, children. Wade in the water. God’s a gonna trouble the water.” A reference to the Israelites crossing the Jordan River to escape their pursuers and the healing waters of John 5. “Swing low, sweet chariot. Coming for to carry me home.” A reference to the prophet Elijah being taken away by a chariot from heaven.
In one of the bleakest times of American history, these slaves sang songs of hope, songs of resistance. Times are tough, but God is here.
I wondered what songs of resistance and songs of hope we sing today. Of course we can sing Bob Dylan, “The times, they are a changing.” Or “Get up, Stand up!” by Bob Marley. I thought of songs by NWA reacting to police brutality, which we won’t quote in church. I also thought of “Fight the Power,” by Public Enemy. But really, who can take Flavor Flav seriously with that clock around his neck?
After I had written this sermon I thought of another song of resistance, this one by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The song is simply called “The Message.” The chorus from “The Message” is in a kid’s movie about penguins, and my kids saw the movie about a year-and-a-half ago, right around Hadley’s fourth birthday. A few days later I took her in for her four-year-old doctor’s checkup, and she really didn’t want to be there. She was twenty-five pounds of stubbornness. When the doctor came in she asked me to set Hadley on the edge of the bed and the word “edge” must have reminded her of the song from the penguin movie, because she starts to sing it. And the doctor didn’t know what was going on, all she saw was a little girl who didn’t want to be there singing, “Don’t push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge. I’m trying not to lose my head.”
Proud moment for this daddy.
But in all honesty, I’m not sure that’s what we are going for here. “Fight the Power” and strongly-worded songs about law enforcement will get people motivated and prepared for action. But it also causes a lot of reaction. Sometimes riots break out and people are hurt. Music can be powerful, for sure. There’s no question about it, Mary calls for the “rich to be sent away empty,” and for the hungry to be filled, and for the humble to be lifted up. But Mary’s song isn’t about rallying the troops. Mary’s magnificat isn’t a militant song. It’s about resistance through hope.
What are our songs of resistance and our songs of hope in the church? Well, we have entire hymnals of them.
At every funeral I’ve ever been to there has been singing. Some funerals are extremely sad, especially when people die tragically or too soon. But without fail, someone’s going to sing “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a retch like me.” A song of hope for the future, a song of resistance to dark place people can go in such times.
Eastertime is one of my favorite seasons to sing the songs of hope and resistance in the church. “Low in the grave He lay, Jesus, my Savior, Waiting the coming day, Jesus, my Lord! Up from the grave He arose, With a mighty triumph o’er His foes, He arose a Victor from the dark domain, And He lives forever, with His saints to reign.”
Just yesterday I gathered with Christians and even non-Christians of all kinds at Gypsy Hill Park for the annual caroling in the park event. Voices from people of every race, color, and even different religions gathered together and sang, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King!”
That is a song of resistance and a song of hope. Joy in a time of darkness and sadness. The King has come. Not Herod, not Caesar, not even Elvis. Jesus, the King of kings, Lord of lords has come.
Mary doesn’t sing her magnificat because she knows life is going to be easy. Mary sings her magnificat because she knows who God is. Mary’s song is a song of resistance. Resisting the temptation to be afraid, resisting the pressures of the community around her, resisting the rich and the powerful. We sing songs of resistance and songs of hope because we know who our God is. And that God will see us through whatever we are facing.