Sheepscott Community Church December 20, 2009
Micah 5: 2-5a
Hebrews 10: 5-10
Luke 1: 39-45
Blessed Are You
“My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit rejoiceth in God, my Savior.” How about you? Does your soul magnify the Lord and your spirit rejoice in God your Savior? Mary’s prayer of praise, which we read this morning as the Call to Worship, is a prayer of overage, if you will. Mary is so full of joy that she is overcome. Some people sing, some people go running, some people laugh. Mary prayed. She was so full of joy in the moment that she spilled out the Magnificat, as that prayer of praise is called.
Just for the record and in order that you will be able to sleep tonight and not be worrying about it, magnificat, the word itself, it is from the Latin verb, magnificare, meaning to esteem highly. In this case, soul is the subject of the verb: “My soul doth magnify, or esteem highly, the Lord.”
If any time of the year calls forth the occasional feeling of Magnificat, it is this Christmas time, and that especially for children. Do you remember the feeling of almost unbearable excitement? I remember listening to Don Kent who was the weatherman for WBZ-TV in Boston almost forever. By the time of the Christmas Eve evening weather forecast, he would have the first reports of an initially unidentified flying object, which became identified by the end of the forecast as––amazing as it might seem––a sleigh with what appeared to be reindeer pulling it. Then he would demonstrate on the map where in the Arctic region it had been spotted. Oh my gosh. The thrill. He’s on the way. They actually saw him. Definitely Magnificat time.
We have different reasons for Magnificat throughout our lives. Getting an A on your first research paper you worked hard on in the seventh grade. Smelling the earth during mud season, when the frost comes out. The taste of that first homegrown ear of corn from the garden. Falling in love, whether it’s at 15, 25, 50 or beyond. Your first child being born. Your first grandchild, your second, third and fourth. A sudden awareness of God’s presence in any situation: in nature, in the delivery room, the emergency room, the cemetery, over coffee with an old friend. The list is endlessly varied because people and how they experience God is endlessly varied.
But today we’re talking about Mary and her Magnificat. The story tells us that it was when Mary was visiting her cousin Elizabeth and they got talking about the extraordinary events in their lives that is when she erupted in spontaneous prayer.
Mary doesn’t get a lot of play in the gospels. We know about the annunciation, when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that God had chosen her to bear his Son; we know about the Nativity, the birth of that child, which we will celebrate in another five days; we know about the vigil of the mother at the foot of the cross when that same divine child, the Christ, was dying. We are also familiar with today’s gospel of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth to help her during the last three months of her pregnancy. That’s difficult enough for any woman, when she feels like a beached whale as those last three months progress. Getting out a chair with grace is a lost cause. Getting out of a chair at all is an accomplishment.
Complicating the universal discomfort and difficulties of the third trimester as all women experience them, Elizabeth had the added factor of bearing her first child at an advanced age. The gospel doesn’t tell us just how old she was, only that she was no spring chicken. Mary, on the other hand, was really just a kid, by our estimation: probably between thirteen and fifteen years old, according to scholarly estimates. She easily could “hurry” to the hill country, where Elizabeth lived, or go “eagerly” as another translation has it, because although she herself was newly pregnant, she had the strength and fleetness of foot of one who is young.
Elizabeth says to her young cousin, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the child you will bear!” This echoes the words of the angel who came to Mary at the annunciation according to the NIV translation, which we use: “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Another translation has the angel saying just what Elizabeth said, “The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women!” Blessedness is what I want to consider here.
If someone were to ask you if you would want to be among the blessed, as opposed to those not blessed––cursed or outside or other, perhaps––it seems like something of a no-brainer that you would choose the former, to be among the blessed. But before making that dive, that leap, a little circumspection might be in order, especially and for our purposes this morning, through a consideration of the reading of the gospel.
There is paradox to consider: the joy of the moment with her cousin, who confirms her status before she has said anything about what has happened to her with her question, “Why am I so favored that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” How that must have rejoiced Mary’s soul: There. I’m not crazy. Elizabeth knows about it too. And the two women would no doubt have sat and sipped whatever they had for tea in those days and chatted on about the events that they were living out. Just imagine...
But as those who have read and heard about the story of Jesus for much of our lives, we know the other side of the paradox is the sorrow down the road for this young mother-to-be. And whether Elizabeth survived into John’s career as a prophet of Jesus, the one he came to point towards, we don’t know. But I find myself hoping that she didn’t live to see his violent end at the hand of Herod’s executioner. If old age didn’t kill her, that surely would have.
Given the way things turned out for Mary and Elizabeth, not to mention Jesus and John, why would anyone sign on for blessedness? This does seem like a very good time to be asking that question. Last week I talked about our hearts becoming the Christmas crib, the receiving blanket that will provide a place of rest for the divine child. It is the Spirit of God who shows us where we need to repent in order to prepare our hearts for such a visit. It can be through Mary’s agency as mother of the Christ, she who brought him to us when she bore him into the world that Christmas night, it can be through her agency as a model of surrender that we can have our hearts prepared to receive him in the fullness of his identity, knowing what we do––perhaps more than Mary knew when she assented and when she gave birth––and knowing that increasingly more may be asked of us as we draw closer and closer to the author of life.
When Mary said to the angel, “Let it be done unto me according to thy word,” or “May it be to me as you have said,” her saying that is called her “fiat,” the Latin for “Let it be done.” I would like to think that Elizabeth’s exclamation about Mary’s fiat, “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished,” may be exclaimed in the courts of heaven about us. Is that too much? Too outrageous? Why can’t we have that same level of faith that Mary had to believe what the angel had said, to believe that God can use us to promote peace and justice, to embody love and kindness in a world that cries out for it. As Paul wrote in Romans 8: 22, “All creation groans and is in agony even until now.” We live in a world that groans in agony and cries out for us to be willing to believe, to set inordinate modesty aside that would keep us from believing God would use us for his purposes. “Let it be done unto me according to your word.” Fiat.
Do you think that Mary and Elizabeth’s world was vastly different from ours? Perhaps, in the technologies and medical advances and infrastructure changes, yes. Of course. It would be vastly different, but if we look closely at Mary’s Magnificat, we can easily see that although the surface of things may change, people do not change. And because they do not change, governments made up of people do not change nor do modes of behavior.
In this context, consider the Magnificat as a revolutionary document. “He has scattered or confused the proud in their inmost thoughts.” That is a kind of moral revolution. William Barclay, in addressing this issue, relates an O. Henry tale of the friendship between a boy and a girl, who were good friends when they were in school. The boy went off to the city, where he fell into evil ways, making his living as a thief. After he had successfully relieved an old lady of her purse and was feeling particularly pleased with himself, the girl whom he had known back in the village approached in all her innocence and goodness, and he felt overcome with shame because of what he had become. He leaned against the lamp post. “God,” he said, “I wish I could die.” He saw himself for what he was, which is the beginning of the end of pride and the beginning of a moral revolution. “He has scattered the proud in their inmost thoughts.”
The Magnificat also contains in its lines social revolution: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but he has lifted up the humble, or raised the lowly to high places.” There is no honoring of class or caste in God: we are all equal. There are also the lines, “He has filled the hungry with good things while the rich he has sent empty away.” These are revolutionary words economically speaking. Nothing wrong with a fortune, but it is what is done with that fortune that declares who the person is before God. Think Ebenezer Scrooge. The expected key word is share. Share the wealth, no matter how much, no matter how little. We are challenged by the words of Mary to share, just as she shared her own self, bodily. She was not impressed into service. She was invited, and she accepted, thereby giving us a model of how to respond to God.
It is a revolutionary act to say yes to God because thereby one life begins to be changed and one life––think Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Greg Mortenson of Three Cups of Tea fame––one life can beget great change in the larger world. Our own lives can beget change. Which brings me to the prophet Micah, from whose writing Tony read this morning. Most of us are familiar with this morning’s reading, which concerns the prophet foretelling the reign of Jesus, who has yet to come. And he does fill the bill, doesn’t he? Born in Bethlehem, one who shepherds his flock in the strength of the Lord, and one whose greatness did reach to the ends of the earth. And finally, he is peace, no matter what else you may hear. He is the Prince of Peace, no matter the bending and twisting of his words to fit any other model.
If Micah foresaw this blessed one, whom Mary consented to bear, and whom Elizabeth recognized by the leap in her own womb at Mary’s greeting, we are called these eons later to consider these words and events, to decide whether they have meaning for us now. We have a responsibility to consider carefully what we heard read this morning and what we will hear read and sung later today. I like what Carroll Smith said about the Advent Service of Lessons and Carols, that it was another opportunity for a person to make his or her soul “aright,” viz., in a right manner, justly, correctly, straightway, in a right course. That’s what we want, isn’t it?
Although not included in today’s reading from Micah, it is in his book that we find the epitome of that soul set aright lived out in these words, and they are literally words to live by:
Micah 6: 8: “He has showed you, O man, what is good./ And what does the Lord require of you?/ To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” There we have the formula to live a blessed life, but knowing the paradox of blessedness in the lives of those who have accepted God’s invitation, I caution, Take care in accepting the invitation. It will mean the greatest joy, and commensurately the greatest sorrow, but also, more work because everyone who accepts the invitation to be among the blessed assumes responsibility to share that blessedness. But what could possibly be better than to know that we have said yes to the Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace? Just ask Mary: I expect she will say it is and was all worth it. Amen.