A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 20, 2015. The lectionary readings are Micah 5:2-5a, Hebrews 10:5-10, Canticle 15, and Luke 1:39-45.
Listen to the Gospel and a shorter version of the sermon HERE. (This recording was made at the 6 p.m. Sunday night Contemporary Eucharist.
In 1962 a Scottish theologian named John Macquarrie came to New York to teach theology at Union Seminary. When he came, he was a Presbyterian minister, but after a while in New York, and especially as a result of his experience in several churches here, Macquarrie became an Episcopal priest. As he moved from the Reformed tradition into the Anglican tradition, John Macquarrie explored a lot of big, basic questions about God—God the creator and parent, God the Spirit, and Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Father. But Macquarrie also explored Jesus as son of the Mother, the mother Mary.
It was basically through a footnote in Macquarrie’s book that I met the Blessed Virgin Mary and began a relationship that continues to grow today. Buried in a footnote was the mention of a group called the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I was intrigued. I felt like I had stumbled on a secret that had been kept from me, and so I went to the library and began to read articles from this Ecumenical Society—articles by Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Catholics, and the Orthodox. This is how a relationship began for me first in the head, and increasingly in the heart and experience of my faith.
Mary is a powerful figure. Not only is she the folk-hero of much Catholic and Orthodox piety, but some believe (and I agree with them) that she’s the best hope forward for us to be in conversation and prayer with people of other faiths. For Jews, she is Miriam. Christians know her as the Mother of Jesus who gave him birth and witnessed his death. Muslims know her as Maryam, and in the Quran there is an entire chapter named for her. In addition to interfaith and ecumenical discussions of Mary, in the last few years, Pentecostals and Evangelicals have also begun to re-examine Mary. The famous experiences of Mary in the lives of ordinary people (Guadalupe, Fatima, Medjugorje) as well as the quiet, personal experiences—happen whenever we are vulnerable, when we are humble, when we most need God.
Mary sings from this place of humility and neediness in her song, Magnificat, the Latin shorthand for the beginning of, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” She begins by singing, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” but really, the Lord has magnified Mary. This is a theme that runs through today’s scripture lessons—this idea that God takes what’s small, insignificant, or weak, and God magnifies it—enlarging and creating more than was ever imagined.
In the first reading the Prophet Micah singles out Bethlehem, tiny Bethlehem. “From you shall come forth the ruler in Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.”
The second reading is from the Letter to the Hebrews, a kind of poetic argument about the ways in which Jesus is both high priest and perfect sacrifice, who accomplishes salvation for us in a way that nothing else can. Hebrews argues that no amount of offering from us, no amount of sacrifice or work or good deeds or perfect living will ever accomplish what was accomplished by the simplicity and purity of Christ’s faithfulness to God. God is more pleased by the simple act of faithfulness than the complicated scheme of temple sacrifices and offerings.
Far beyond the scriptures we read today, the Bible recounts over and over again how God favors the small and insignificant. Israel was not the mightiest of the nations. Moses was not the most likely to lead the people of Israel out of bondage. David was not the most likely to be king. Sarah was not the most likely to be the matriarch of an entire people. Great things were not expected from Jonah the prophet, Ruth the Moabite, Ezekiel or Esther, and many others.
Mary’s song in today’s Gospel sings with eloquence the song of God’s reversals, of God’s ability to turn everything upside-down and inside-out. The lowly and ignored are seen and appreciated. The mighty are put down and the left out are lifted up. The hungry are fed and those who are full are sent away. God remembers. God shows mercy. God magnifies.
I wonder in what ways we are being called to be like Mary and to magnify the Lord even as we are aware of the way that God magnifies our efforts and prayers? What can we do to lift up the lowly, to help feed the hungry, to offer healing to those who hurt? The scriptures today invite us to do at least two things: First, we can extend the love of God to those who might feel small or insignificant. And second, we can remind ourselves of God’s ongoing work of lifting up, no matter how far down we might feel sometimes.
Shannon Kubiak is a youth leader and writer who wrote a great little book a few years ago called “God Called a Girl.” She writes
Mary was a nobody, yet she found favor and blessing with God. How many times do we look in the mirror and find a nobody staring back at us? We often limit what God can do with our lives because we think our upbringing, our appearance, or our life is not a sufficient tool for the hands of God to use….[But] if Mary really was a nobody, all it took for God to make her “somebody” was one miracle on a lonely day when she was just going about her daily business… God called a girl. And that girl changed the world. The same God is calling again, and this time He’s calling you.” (God Called a Girl, p. 14-19, passim)
May we sing with the Blessed Virgin Mary the song of God’s reversals, of God’s surprises, and of God’s magnifying love, that we may do our part to magnify the Lord.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.