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Serious and not Serious
Text: Luke 1:26–38, 47–55
These are serious times. We are dealing with serious issues. There are many dark places in the life of this world. Things are not working out as we thought they would. Our confidence is shaky, and enemies of spirit seem to surround us.
But we are not the first to find our present circumstances worrisome and our future uncertain. It was so when the angel Gabriel visited young Mary, at first so perplexing her, and in the end thrilling her. She would be the mother of a new age, a new kingdom. Occupied by Rome, oppressed, and maltreated, the people of Israel would be saved, freed, restored under God’s favor. Through Mary and her son.
Mary was not the first, either. Mary’s song is a hair’s breadth away from a copyright violation of the song of Hannah in the first book of Samuel, and it echoes the songs of Miriam (in Exodus) and of Deborah (in Judges). All women who saw and praised a new coming of God that would bring about God’s kingdom. A resetting of the world to conform to God’s design, which means not only power to Israel, but more importantly a world of compassion and justice for all people—men and women, rich and poor, family and alien. A new thing, but not a new new thing. For all, these were times—like ours—times of change hoped for. Serious times.
Theologians debate: who was Mary? Was she extraordinarily pure and good, and for that reason chosen by God to bear and then mother Jesus? Or was she ordinary, and chosen not in spite of but because of that? Are we to be amazed that a flawless person like Mary existed or instead that God would chose any old Mary to bring God to human birth?
Mary is called as a prophet is called. Surprised, at first frightened. Wondering, as all prophets do, why me? Astounded not that a king would be born (that astonishment would come later), but that God would come to her for anything. She is nonplussed by the messenger before she even hears the message. Greetings, favored one!—that is all Gabriel says. Why would God favor her in anything—she, of all the people in the world, she who has nothing.
Surprised, frightened, eventually obedient. Saying yes without knowing—how could she know—what she was getting into. Hard enough to be a mother at all, harder still—painful, it turned out—to be the mother of the restorer of the world. Here I am, Lord, says Mary, the same answer of all those who become prophets, hearing God’s call. Here I am, say the prophets. All ordinary people in hard times delivering God’s message.
The song we just sang, Mary’s song, called the Magnificat, is a song of praise for things to come, but mysteriously wrapped in sentences written as if they had already happened. The grammar reminds us that Mary’s hopes are not for some far-off spiritual future but about the present state of the world, hers and ours.
As all prophets do, Mary reminds us how the world should be. Her verbs are strong, simple, clear. God scatters the arrogant (the King James version says “scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts,” making us think that they only imagine they have something to be proud of). God brings down the mighty, the rulers and leaders in power. God raises up the lowly, the oppressed, the humiliated. The rich are sent away with empty pockets. God feeds the hungry.
Yet here we are, two thousand years later. Where people still go hungry, and the rich still prosper, and the poor remain poor, and the powerful continue to consolidate their power, and are proud of it. We have just sung Mary’s song with energy and feeling. Yet is Mary’s song good news to all? Do the proud and the humble, the hungry and the well-satisfied, hear this song in the same way? Do we hear it as prophecy—or as sentimentality? It is exciting, but can it be real? Does it call us to action, and if so, what kind of action?
My spirit rejoices, sings Mary, who has invited people for centuries to join her in joy. And mostly we accept that invitation. Rich and poor alike. Why is that, when Mary seems to talk about winners and losers. Why aren’t the rich afraid, or at least embarrassed. Why aren’t the poor in despair, or at least annoyed. The song threatens and promises. And different fates for different people.
Yet all celebrate with Mary. Why is that? Partly it is because the song is about Jesus, whom we revere and follow. And partly it is because the inequalities that benefit some and deprive others make all, or almost all, uncomfortable. The promise of Jesus, as you have heard me say before, is not to swap power centers like political parties do when one gets control of Congress, but to change the relationship between people from up and down to horizontal. What would the world be like if that came about? A good world, many would say.
But mostly we all celebrate because we are pleased to remember that God is effective, that God can effect this world. Sadly, it is easy to think cynically that God cannot change things. To think that the stuff Mary sings about is not possible. But this song has the power to thrill us because we remember that it is possible. Mary is filled with enthusiasm. Nothing is impossible with God, the angel says. And when we sing this song, we feel that to be so. Hooray for Jesus, the song says. And hooray for the world, it says. But mostly, hooray for Mary’s proclamation that Jesus can seriously change the world.
My spirit rejoices in God my savior, sings Mary. She dances and sings, which is what the word means here. The times are serious, but not solemn. We can rejoice in God’s wish and power to heal the broken world. My spirit dances and sings.
There is a power behind the words of this song. It is the power of God to use us—to bless us—to make the world better for everyone. To restore justice, to live in peace, to care for each other. And the power of God to change the world, to save it from serious problems, to heal it, to restore it.
To take us from who we are now to whom we might become, and to be who God has called us to be.