Sermon for December 4th, 2016
46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Mary's Song of Praise: Holy Is His Name
Little Bobby was having a rough year. But he really, really, really wanted a new Playstation 4 for Christmas. He sat down to write his annual letter: Dear Santa, I've been a good boy this year. He thought of Santa's list, and all those elves keeping lookout for naughty behavior. "This isn't going to work," said Bobby to himself. "He's not going to buy it. I need someone more forgiving."
So he crossed out Santa's name and started again: "Dear Jesus... I really, really want a playstation 4 for Christmas this year." He thought about what he'd learned about Jesus in Sunday School--about being kind to your neighbor and turning the other cheek. "Jesus, if you can make that happen, I promise I won't fight with my brother for a whole month!" Then he thought about it some more, and crossed out "month" and wrote "for a whole week." Then he crossed out "week" and wrote "for a whole day." Then in frustration, he put down his pencil, said "This isn't going to work. He's not going to buy it, either."
Bobby went downstairs, to the nativity scene in the living room, and there he found the little figurine of Mary kneeling by the manger. He gently picked her up, and carried her back to his room upstairs. There, he carefully wrapped her in tissue paper, and put her inside a little cardboard box. He put the box underneath his pillow. Then he went back to his desk and started writing a new letter. "Dear Jesus: If you ever want to see your mother again..."
Sometimes I think we, as protestant Christians, also take Mary, throw her under the pillow after Christmas, and then forget about her until Easter.
But it wasn't always like that. For the first thousand years of Christianity's existence, Mary was exalted among all women; she was considered first among all the saints. Why is that? Well the usual answer is that she's the mother of Jesus. Jesus, as one third of the Holy Trinity, is God; therefore Mary is, in a sense, the mother of God. It's a striking statement, but I think we focus on the wrong part of it. We focus on the "God" part more than the "mother" part, and then we see Mary through the lens of God. As in, God is omnipotent, amazing, beyond our comprehension...and Mary is God's mother.
But I think we can flip that around, too: We can see God through the lense of Mary. Let me explain:
Raise your hand if you've ever walked on water, turned water into wine, raised someone from the dead, created the universe? No? It's hard for us to relate to God, isn't it?
Ok, how about this: Raise your hand if you have, or have ever had, a mother. That's more like it, right? So did Jesus. So did God. It's hard for us to relate to Jesus the son of God, but it's easier to relate to Jesus the Son of Mary; Jesus the human being who, like us, came into this world as a small, vulnerable child, loved and protected by a mother who held him, who fed him, and who watched him grow. We get that, we understand that.
And in understanding God, through the lens of Mary, we are more able to approach God in a personal and meaningful way.
Last week, we began to work our way through the Magnificat, Mary's song of praise. It is the song attributed to Mary, which, according to the gospel of Luke, she sings when her cousin Elizabeth greets her and acknowledges Mary's miraculous pregnancy.
Which, to us, may seem like kind of a strange thing to do. Hey Mary, you're pregnant... and then Mary bursts forth into a song that doesn't really have anything to do with being pregnant. Or does it?
I said last week that Mary's song (though it comes to us in Greek, the language of Luke's gospel) is actually in the tradition of Hebrew poetry, like the Psalms. And there is one Psalm in particular--Psalm 113--that may have a connection. It's short, so I'll read it to you--if you have your Bibles open, keep them opened to Mary's song so you can compare the two.
Psalm 113: "Praise the Lord! Praise, O servants of the Lord; praise the name of the Lord. Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time on and forevermore. From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the Lord is to be praised. The Lord is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens. Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people."
So far does it sound familiar, so far? Listen now to verse 9, the last verse: "He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the Lord!"
There's another song in the Old Testament that follows the same pattern: It's found in 1st Samuel, chapter 2, and it's the song of Hannah. Hannah was the mother of the prophet Samuel, who prayed for many years that God would grant her a child, and when that finally happened, she sings a song of praise that is similar to Mary's, and to Psalm 113.
So this seems to be a "thing" in ancient Jewish custom--just like we throw baby showers, or send out birth announcements, perhaps it was considered appropriate, customary, for an expectant mother to pause and give thanks to God in this way, in this time.
It's also worth noting that Mary sings her song in the company of her cousin Elizabeth, who is much older, also pregnant, and who had waited a long time for a child. In a few of the earliest manuscripts of the gospel of Luke, the song is actually ascribed to Elizabeth, not Mary. I think it makes sense to see it as a song of praise for both of them.
I also think that this song has a beauty and a symmetry to it that surpasses even the song of Hannah and Psalm 113. In fact, throughout history, many have seen Mary's song as a model prayer, not just for an expectant mother, but for all Christians, and for all occasions.
As a model prayer, it's often overshadowed by the model prayer we are most familiar with, the one Jesus taught his disciples, the Lord's prayer. But even the Lord's prayer has some strong resemblance to Mary's song of praise...and that shouldn't be surprising when we consider who it was that taught Jesus himself to pray, who it was that prayed with him from his earliest days on earth.
If you're using Mary's song as a model for your own prayers--and I would encourage everyone to try it as we enter into the Christmas season this year--there are three basic movements to remember. As we noted last week, Mary begins with herself, and her situation. This is a very natural place for all of us to begin our prayers. If, like Mary, something wonderful has just happened in your life, you give thanks and praise. If you're going through something difficult, you bring that to God as well, laying your burdens at his feet.
But, having done that, the next phase of the prayer is a movement upward. This shift for Mary comes in verse 49: "for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name." She goes on in verse 50 to contemplate the nature of God, what God is all about: "His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation."
Incidentally, the theme of eternity shows up in all three parts of the prayer. Here's it's the phrase "from generation to generation." In the first part of the prayer, it's when Mary says "all generations will call me blessed," and in the last part of the prayer it's when Mary speaks of the promise made to Abraham's descendants forever.
Verse 51 continues Mary's contemplation of God, but then halfway through the verse begins the final shift: "He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts." That final shift is outward, to others in the world, in this case those who are overly proud.
We'll talk more about the final part of Mary's prayer next week, but for now, if you're ready to use it as a model for your own prayers, all you need to remember is three things: Myself, God, and others.
We begin our prayers by bringing our joys and our concerns to God. And then we let them go, pausing a moment in God's presence to acknowledge as best as we know how, who God is, what God is all about. If nothing else, we can certainly remember and speak in our prayers of God's mercy, God's love and God's strength.
This prepares us for the final part of our prayers, where we turn our thoughts to other people in our life and in our world, to their needs, their hopes and fears, how God can make a difference for them, and how we can make a difference for them, acting as God's hands and feet in the world.
This three-part pattern from Mary's song works as a way to think about communion as well.
When we come to this table each month, we come first as individuals. Sometimes we come to the table in our brokenness, and sometimes we come in our blessedness. Sometimes we come out of strong conviction and faith, while sometimes it is our doubt and unbelief that we bring to the table.
But when we come to the table, we encounter God. We lay down our anxieties and our burdens as well as our pride and our joys. We encounter God in a simple meal of bread and wine, like the one he shared with his disciples so long ago. And we remember God's love, God's sacrifice of himself for us.
Through this encounter, at this table, we are transformed. We are joined with others who come to the table with us. We come as individuals, but we leave as a community, as God's people, prepared to share God's love with a world that is hungry and thirsty for just that kind of community, just that kind of love.
I am certain that countless times when Jesus was a young boy, Mary his mother prepared a place for him at the family table. Today, Jesus has prepared a place for you at his family table, so that you in turn may prepare a place for others. Come to the table of the Lord.