Fourth Sunday in Advent
The Rev. Ryan Slifka
Fourth Sermon in our Advent sermon series “There’s Something About Mary.”
This week, we end our four week sermon series, “there’s something about Mary,” all about Mary, the Mother of Jesus.
So far we’ve hosted a revelatory vision featuring Mary as a cosmic woman. Then we experienced an angelic announcement. Then a visitation where a fetus recognized another one. It’s been a wild ride.
This week we’re introduced to another Mary: Mary the revolutionary. Mary, the enemy of the state.
If that seems strange to you, please let me explain.
Today’s scripture passage is a song. One that’s traditionally called “the Magnificat.” Magnificat, which is the latin word from the first line that says in English “my soul magnifies the Lord.” Magnificat—magnify.
You may not know this, but the Magnificat’s been banned by several governments in history. During the British rule of India, the Magnificat was prohibited from being sung in church. It was also banned in Guatemala in the 1980’s. And the military junta that ruled Argentina from the 70’s through 90’s outlawed any public display of Mary’s lyrics.[i] And notice too, that it’s not communist regimes or Islamic republics. All three regimes were Christian. These were all Christians banning scripture, and banning the Mother of the Lord from praising the Lord in church.
To know why they banned it, though, All you really need to do is read it, or sing it. Because it’s about the world getting turned on its head.
Mary sings about her soul “magnifying the Lord.” That in this new baby in her womb, somehow the unseen Creator of the universe has come into focus. The hidden God has become visible.
But it also comes as a surprise. “He has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant,” she sings. You remember this about Mary. In the eyes of the world just another nobody. Just another unwed, pregnant teenager. But God has somehow chosen her to touch down in creation. Bypassing the emperor, the wealthy, the powerful, and the deeply religious—those who the world normally looks to for solutions. Not Rome, not Jerusalem, not Silicon Valley, the stock exchange or the Pentagon. Instead, God’s hidden, saving work’s come into plain view in a baby bump. And not only in a baby bump. But a baby bump on a bumpkin from backwoods nowhere. People like Mary aren’t meant for this kind of love, attention or greatness.
Mary knows God this is a topsy-turvy choice. But the upending of things won’t end there. This baby’s gonna turn everything over.
“For he’s shown strength with his arm,” she sings.
“His mercy’s for those who fear him, but he’s scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.”
“He’s brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”
“He’s filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Because of this baby, everything that stands is going to be overturned. God has flexed her muscles. Those who are proud will be scattered, made humble, while the humble will be exalted. The powerful: Kings, governors, Dictators and Presidents, will be laid low. While those who are helpless and exist on the margins will be lifted up, and given a seat at the table. The poor who work their fingers to the bone just to eat will stuff their stomachs till they’re sick. While the rich: the tax-collector, the merchant, the high-powered executive, the chairman of the board. They’ll be grabbed by the ankles, turned up-side down, and shaken, until every last bill, every last coin, every last offshore account drops from their pockets. For good.
In a country like India, with its rigid caste system, where the lowest rung of people are called “untouchable,” you can see why flipping the pyramid over might be threatening. And in countries like Guatemala and Argentina with ruled by military juntas who disappeared people agitating for the huge, poverty-stricken underclasses, you can see why singing a song about pulling the powerful from their thrones might make somebody at least a bit nervous.
It’s kind of like those great hope-stoking protest songs of the 1960’sLike “we shall overcome some day.” Or “A change is gonna come.” Or “the times are-a-changing.” Because if a different world is possible, people might get hopeful. And they might stop passively accepting the world as it is. And they might start trying to change things.
So it makes sense why this song would be banned. It was banned because it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous because it provides a vision, one that suggests that the way things are isn’t the way it’s gotta be. A different way is possible. A world turned upside-down. Set right. Made new.
But there’s a couple major differences between the Magnificat and the way we usually imagine future hope, and overcoming injustice.
And the difference is all in the verbs. Notice the action in Mary’s song. And notice who’s doing them. He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered the proud. He has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry, and sent the rich away empty.
First of all, God is the agent, God moves first. When it comes the coming of a whole new world etc., it’s usually the outcome of something we have to do. Something we have to create. Like a call to arms, protest, or revolution. But here, it’s he has, he has, he has. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” He was talking about the inevitability of good overcoming evil, even though things look bleak. So to take Mary’s song seriously means to believe that the universe bends towards the goodness of love, meaning we don’t have to bend it that way. It’s already stacked against evil and injustice to begin with. The future’s God’s doing. Not ours. Goodness is a matter of going with the grain of all things. Rather than against it.
Second, you’ll notice God is already at work. It’s not just a beautiful dream. God’s the actor, and it’s not only going to happen one day, but it’s already begun. It’s more like “a change is already coming.” Or “The times have already been changed.” Or “God has over come today.” The great preacher Fred Craddock says that “so sure is the singer that God will do what is promised that it is proclaimed as an accomplished fact.”[ii]
Mary sings this song, because that’s the promise hidden in her womb. The promise of the coming of Christ. The promise of Christmas… is the promise of a whole new world. One that’s already on the way.
For those of us here who are poor, beaten down, and oppressed. For those of us at the bottom of things like Mary, this overturning is of course, good news.
But what about the rest of us? None of us here are ultra-rich, powerful, or elite, of course (as far as I know… and thus far the church budget doesn’t know, either). But the promise of the gospel is an overturning of all things. Inside-out.
All of life passes away, we know this. All things grow, but then they die and fall. Everything we know… whether it’s the order of the world, with its wealth, its power, its empires and economies. Or whether it’s personal—the products of our pride, our selfishness, our addictions, or self-justification. Whether it’s on the large scale of currencies or public policies, or the small scale of the individual human heart. In one way or another, we all work against the grain, we all cling to and resist God’s will for the world. And all these things, all things will be torn down, and taken away from us.
This song’s dangerous for us, too. Because it means our lives, too, will be turned over. In fact, they already are. Whether we like it or not.
It’s dangerous. But believe it or not, though, it’s good news for us, too.
There’s a story about Archbishop and anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu. One I’ve probably shared before.
During the darkest days of apartheid, the South African government tried to shut down opposition by canceling a political rally, Tutu called together a church service instead.
The Cathedral was filled with worshippers. And outside the cathedral hundreds of police gathered. An obvious attempt at intimidation. As Tutu was preaching they entered the Cathedral, armed, and lined the walls.
But Tutu would not be intimidated. He preached against the evils of apartheid, declaring it could not endure. Its end was inevitable. And at one extraordinary point he addressed the police directly.
“You are powerful,” he admitted. “You are very powerful. But you are not gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked. So, since you’ve already lost… Since you’ve already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!”[iii]
Now that’s faith, you know! Magnificat, Mary-like faith. He has scattered the proud, and thrown down the might. For Tutu, the fact that God holds the future, that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice, was a source of courage. He had faith that no matter how long, how hard the struggle would be, it would not be in vain. His soul magnified the Lord who had been hidden under and obscured by a regime of oppression.
And for those soldiers doing the oppressing, it was good news, too. Because it meant they could let go of their racism. They could give up their violence, their pride, their struggle to control. And embrace their enemies as friends without fear. Because God had already won. It was only a matter of time.[iv]
And that’s the same proclamation of good news to all of us, too, issued forth by Mary’s song. In our poverty and suffering we are being lifted up, yes. But we too are being freed from clinging to the old world. We’re being freed from our greed, and can begin to learn the way of generosity. It means we can let go of our pride and our self-centeredness, and start giving in to humility, and love of neighbour. It means we can start to leave our addictions, our petty fears and hatreds behind, and instead give ourselves over to the release of forgiveness, and the joy of unconditional love.
The proud have been scattered, the mighty thrown down, and the rich sent have been sent rich away empty. All of these things are already being taken from us because God’s already won. So we might as well join Mary in singing this dangerous song. Because according to Mary, according to the Christian vision for the future. God’s already set this in motion with Christmas. Because Jesus, his life, his death, and resurrection is a sign that points us to this truth. It’s a signal, it’s an arrow. It’s a sneak preview of our eternal destiny. Everything in our world’s being turned upside down. The world of injustice, hatred, and fear is being torn down. And like the baby in Mary’s womb… there’s a new, Christ-like one being born in its place.
So, like Mary, we might as well start singing. We might as well let start letting down our defences, and start dropping our resistance to the God of justice and grace. Because it’s a losing cause! God’s already won! Love is our destiny!
The train’s already left the station. There’s no going back. And there’s no getting round. So we might as well give up, give in, repent and believe in the good news.
We might as well join Mary at the manger. And we might as well join Jesus on the Way.
[i] Jason Porterfield, “The Subversive Magnificat,” Enemy Love website, accessed Dec. 15, 2018. https://enemylove.com/subversive-magnificat-mary-expected-messiah-to-be-like/?fbclid=IwAR3JFqDTO6lEXFouFdP3euOKfxEnz0Xk_8SUMYiJT6EUlcTHvaES0MR-Msg
[ii] Fred B. Craddock, Luke: A Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 30.
[iii] Mike Dorn, “Since You’ve Already Lost,” website of the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph, accessed Dec. 21, 2018. https://www.thecapuchins.org/jpic/since-youve-already-lost
[iv] “[It] is not to say that God’s overruling human rulers is God’s last word for them. Quite the contrary, God’s triumph over those who oppose him is itself a redemptive act, thereby placing his opponents in a position whereby they might elect to join God’s project.” Joel B. Green, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 102.