Sunday, December 20, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Mary"

Luke 1:46-55

Mary said, “With all my heart I glorify the Lord! 47 In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. 48 He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant. Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored 49 because the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is his name. 50 He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God. 51 He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. 52 He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. 54 He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, 55 just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”  (Common English Bible)

“The Nativity Scene: Still Life Comes Alive in Advent,” Week Four

The image is one that we might see fairly commonly—something you may well have seen yourself recently.  A young couple—he in work clothes, winter coat, and baseball hat, she in jeans, hoodie, and toboggan—are outside store trying to use a pay phone.  She is also pregnant.

But you begin to pick up on things—the inn across the street is called “Dave’s City Inn.”  The storefront has advertisements for “Star Beer” and “Good News” candy.  The aforementioned inn’s no vacancy light is on, and its movable type marquee is advertising its “new man ger,” as though it was supposed to say “new manager,” but the removal of that second “a” created an entirely different word altogether.  And the pregnant teenage girl?  Her hoodie says “Nazareth High School.”

As you may have surmised by now, this young couple are meant to be Joseph and Mary—“Jose y Maria” is in fact the title of the piece by artist EverettPatterson, which he drew last December but has gone viral this December as an image of what the Holy Family might look like today.

And in Mary—Maria’s—expression, there is a veneer of worry or apprehension, but there is also a steely determination that she will get through this…and that comes from a place of genuine courage that we will be talking about today as we wrap up our Advent sermon series.

This has been a sermon series for the church season of Advent, what we colloquially think of as the “Christmas season,” but in fact the Christmas season in the church traditionally refers to Christmas Day and the eleven days afterwards between it and the Epiphany—the day the Magi arrive in Matthew 2 to worship the newborn Jesus and present Him with the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Advent, rather, is much like the pre-Easter season of Lent in that it is meant to be a season of preparation—of preparing for the death and resurrection in the case of Lent, and preparing for the birth (“preparing the way for the Lord, (to) make His paths straight,” as John the Baptist puts it, by quoting the Old Testament prophets) in the case of Advent.

This Advent season, did this by going one by one through the figures in the nativity scenes that we all know and love—the setting of Jesus in the manger surrounded by His earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, as well as the shepherds and the angels who herald His birth.  We began with the angels, then we moved on to the shepherds, in their role as the first human heralds of Christ’s birth, and we heard from the adult Jesus in John 10 on the role a good shepherd must embrace.

Last week we begin talking about Jesus’s earthly parents, beginning today with Joseph before wrapping up the series next week (already?!) with Mary.  While Matthew’s Gospel focuses on Joseph in telling the Christmas story, Luke’s Gospel focuses on Mary, and that is where we arrive today, and specifically, on the song that Mary sings after both the archangel Gabriel and her cousin Elizabeth have spoken to her to confirm that the child she is carrying in her womb is indeed the Messiah.

In response, Mary sings what we now know as the Magnificat, so named because of the song’s first line: My soul magnifies the Lord.  It is a song that echoes the song of the prophet Samuel’s mother Hannah in 1 Samuel 2, after she gives birth to the future prophet and judge over all of Israel.  I have to think that Mary chooses this song on purpose because she knows exactly what she is up against.

Consider that childbirth in Biblical days was at best a coin flip, and at worst a death sentence. Consider that an unwed mother was shunned in the society of the Ancient Near East so badly that even if she survived childbirth, she was likely to die from lack of shelter. Gabriel has not inspired Mary with a divine charge so much as he has assigned her upon a suicide mission, and her response is not to curl up in fear, or to react in anger to God’s messenger, but to praise God again and again.

And in the midst of this praise, she utters this often misinterpreted line—“for He has looked in favor upon the lowliness of His servant.” It would be a mistake to simply believe that Mary is referring to humbleness, or modesty, or meekness when she is speaking of being lowly, for the Greek is fairly clear—she is talking about societal lowliness, about cultural lowliness. In other words—she knows. She knows that in carrying God’s only Son, she will, on the surface, at least for a time, fail to outwardly live up to the demands of respectability and honor that her world demands of her. She knows what is at stake, and she sings anyways. She sings of God’s promises and blessings for those as lowly as her, and in doing so, she gives words and voice to anyone and everyone who longs for a better world, for their deepest desires, their most heartfelt wants and needs, are being sung in the voice of a teenaged girl.

One of my favorite Christmas songs used to be the song “Mary Did You Know?” Now, it really is a beautiful song, but one that, over the course of writing this sermon, I realized was asking the wrong question. Because just as Mary knows the risks of what she is about to do, she also knows the great joys that will come from what she is called to. It’s right there, in her Magnificat—blessed be the Lord who has done mighty deeds, who lifts up the humble, who feeds the hungry. She knows!

Which makes the whole song just come across like one big mansplain to the Mother of God about what it is she really has already knowingly and decisively signed up for:

“Mary, did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?”


“Mary, did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?”

“Sure did.”

“Mary, did you know…”


It’s a perfectly nice song, but it really should have been shorter than a 15-second commercial:

“Mary, did you know that your baby boy would give sight to a blind man?”


And scene.

It may sound unduly harsh of me, parsing a perfectly well-meaning, perfectly lovely Christmas song like this, but I think it diminishes the sheer courage with which Mary knowingly said “yes” to God.

It doesn’t really do justice to the person Mary was, and that who she was, well, it was why God had chosen her to begin with: because she was and would always be the woman to stare the hardships she faced dead-on with a courage that we ourselves may honestly scarcely know, because courage is not the absence of fear or apprehension, it is plunging forward in spite of, or acknowledging, that fear and apprehension.

That is why I love this portrait of Mary as a Maria by Everett Patterson—to me, it so masterfully and poignantly combines both, the fear and the bravery, the apprehension and the courage, and the steadfastness amid being forced to travel while eight or nine months pregnant to still see through that which she had been called to do by God. 

She knows what will happen, and she knows why it must happen.

So…yes, Mary knows that her son will save all humanity, because she knows that there is no redemption without grace, no arrival without the journey, no action by God without a reaction from the world, and no love, no true love, without any risk.

Because it is a simple matter to love your family, and your friends, and your neighbors. It is an entirely different calling to actually love the rest, to love a Joseph and a Mary who look like a Jose and a Maria, to love a Syrian refugee, to love a shelterless addict, to love, dare I say, the real versions of ourselves that we see in others, not the idealized versions of ourselves that we think we are.

In that same way, Mary is the real deal, the genuine article, not the varnished, marbleized lady we may make her.  She is still human, so her praise and her hope comes from a God who proffers a genuine reversal of circumstances—not just an uplifting of the humble like her, but also a humbling of the proud who would otherwise live to keep her down because she is a woman, because she is an Israelite, because she is who they could never hope to be—a genuinely radical vessel of God’s love.

This Magnificat, when you think about it coming from a young, young girl, is a song not simply of tribute for past deeds, but of anticipation of even greater works to come. Even in the days of the Bible, God did His wonders through men and women, through Moses, and Elijah, and Mary.

Now, God relies upon us to do His wonders.  So let us go forth and do those wonders in God’s name.  Because we too know that we must.  We know, as Mary did.

Mary, did you know?  Yes, she did.  She absolutely, positively did.

We’re down to just five days left.  Stay devoted, friends.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 20, 2015

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