Two Sundays ago, we began Advent with the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth – the parents of John the Baptist. An angel comes to Zechariah (who is a priest in the temple) and announces that Elizabeth (who is well along in years) will have a child. Zechariah doesn’t believe it, and he is silenced for the nine months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.
This morning’s scripture picks up during that silence. And we know the story: An angel comes to Mary (who is Elizabeth’s cousin) and announces that Mary will bear the Christ child – Mary – a young woman not yet married. Mary ponders these things in her heart, and says to the angel, “May it be so with me as you have said.” And the angel leaves her.
This morning’s scripture tells the story of what happens next. And I invite you to listen to this Scripture with three questions in mind:
1. Who is speaking?
2. What are they saying?
3. How are they saying it?
39 In those days [after the angel had left] Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies GOD, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for GOD has looked with favor on the lowliness of GOD’s 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 God’s name. 50 God’s mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation. 51 God has shown strength with God’s arm; and scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 God has helped God’s servant Israel, in remembrance of God’s [tender] mercy, 55 according to the promise made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
56 And Mary remained [with Elizabeth] about 3 months,
and then returned to her home.
So – the first question – who is speaking in this Scripture?
Elizabeth and Mary.
My friend, the Rev. Lisa Larges, likes to point out that this is one of the few places in the Bible where only women are talking – only women are in the room where it happens – one woman talking to another woman – no men anywhere to be found – just women – in conversation – having their say. (As best I can tell, the only other place this happens in Scripture is Ruth and Naomi – and that’s it.) And, in this scripture, not only are women speaking – but the one man who has shown up in the story so far (Zechariah) – is actively silenced.
In the Gospel of Luke, this is how the story of Jesus begins – the story of the Christ – the story of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ. In their patriarchal world, the stage is swept clear of men, and two women walk down center stage. And speak.
And it’s not just patriarchy at work in their world. Think about Mary. Mary is a young woman – maybe, maybe she is 14. She is a young Palestinian-Jewish woman living in Roman-occupied territory – so she lives in this world of layered power – of religious authority – of imperial authority – a patriarchal world driven by power-over, and economic and political oppression. Elizabeth and Mary are on the margins of every kind of power – they are in the lowest levels ofevery kind of hierarchy.
And in the Gospel of Luke, the story of Jesus begins in their voice.
Which leads us to the second question: What then do they say? Elizabeth speaks first. Mary rushes into the house. And Elizabeth is filled with Holy Spirit, and she exclaims: “Mother of my Lord! Blessed are you and blessed is the child you will birth.” Elizabeth prophesies. Elizabeth – a woman well along in years – is the first prophet of the gospel – the first one to call Jesus “Lord.”
And then Mary speaks. And what Mary has to say is nothing short of a revolutionary political manifesto: God is bringing the powerful down from their thrones. God is scattering the proud, and emptying the rich. And in their place, God is lifting up everyone who has been held low – and God is dismantling every power that has pushed them down.
In the Gospel of Luke, this is how the story of Jesus begins: Two women walk in from the margins of power, they announce the toppling of every power, and they proclaim the freedom of all people. Good news for the poor. Good news for the hungry. Good news for everyone who has been held down low.
And then, as if that wasn’t revolutionary enough, then Mary says, “And everything that God is doing in the world, God is doing... in me. This 14-year old woman says, “My soul magnifies God.” Actually, the Greek word isn’t really “soul” – it’s more my whole self, my whole being – “My whole being – my life – magnifies God.”
What God is doing in the world... God is doing in me.
My soul – my whole being – magnifies God.
Look, God is lifting up the humble.
Look, God is bringing down the powerful.
Look, God is sending the rich away empty.
Look, God is filling the hungry with good things.
My life...my life... my life... embodies God’s liberating work in the world.
That’s what Mary has to say.
And, how does she say it? She sings. That’s how the story of Jesus begins in the Gospel of Luke. With people singing. Mary sings. And then Zechariah sings. And then the angels sing. And then after Jesus is born, an old man name Simeon will sing when Mary puts the baby Jesus in his arms, because he has finally seen what he has been hoping for his whole life.
What happens here in this text is that Mary breaks out of the prose of the narrative into poetry – into what we now call the Magnificat. Some scholars think that Luke’s community might have included in this gospel a hymn that they were already singing – that they were singing Mary’s song even before the Gospel was written down. What we know for sure is that since they wrote this down – believers have sung the song that Mary sings – the Magnificat – again and again and again -- for two millennia now – the Magnificat, most recently sung by the chancel choir of First Presbyterian San Anselmo, just a few minutes ago.
Which brings me back to a question that I asked last week that I want to explore a little further: Why do we sing? Last week, I mentioned that I’ve been reading a book by John Bell – it’s called The Singing Thing. John Bell is a musician with the Iona Community – a global peace and justice community based in Scotland. Maybe you’ve heard of him. In our hymnal, there are about 20 songs that he’s written – and a few more that he has collected as he’s sung with communities around the world. Some of the global music we have in our hymnal, we have because of hymn. You may have met him – he has been at the Seminary a couple of times, and he was up at Church of the Roses a few years ago. His passion is how singing is an integral part of our life of faith – and our life in community – how our singing is an integral part of the work we do in the world for Jesus. So, in A Singing Thing, John Bell takes on the question – Why do we sing?
And his most basic answer is one that I shared last week: We sing because we can. We are hard-wired to sing. There are all sorts of creatures on the planet that make sound and even melody – but humans alone have the ability to marry words with music to convey meaning.
Singing particularly gives us the opportunity to express emotion. Think back to last week and our experience of the choir singing Vivaldi’s Gloria. And of the songs that we sang in that service. Think of the range of emotion that you experienced – I’ve heard folks talking about it all week. Singing can inspire us – lift us up – move us into action. Not just in church. A lot of major league baseball players have what they call “walk up” music – a playlist or a song that they listen to as they walk to the plate. I have “walk up” music that I listen to in the car on my way here to preach (Now, I’m not going to tell you what’s on that playlist, because then you’d know that it’s a bunch of showtunes, interspersed with some Lady GaGa.) Singing can lift our spirits.
But it’s not just the joyful emotions. Singing lets us express the full range of emotion – singing can get at our sorrow like nothing else can. That’s something the Psalms do – the hymn book of the Bible. The Psalms lift up the lament of the people – what it feels like to be down in the pit –when it feels like God is nowhere to be found.
Think of someone singing, the blues.
When I was in college I was the academic tutor for the women’s basketball team. We’d meet in their study hall every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I remember one Monday, I asked them what they’d done over the weekend. And they said, “Oh, we went to a party Friday night, and then Saturday night we just all got together, turned on the radio, sang some sad songs, and sat around and cried.” I said, “Oh my gosh, that sounds awful.” And one of them said, “Oh no, oh no, sometimes you just need to get together and feel what you feel.” Singing lets us do that.
Someone once said, that all that a good country music song really needs is “three chords, and the truth.”
John Bell also says that we sing to remember the past and to tell a story. In church, we do that a lot – we sing songs that tell the story of God and us – and us and us – the stories we collectively remember and continue to pass down through the generations, the stories of God’s saving presence through the generations.
That’s particularly true at Christmas. Think of your favorite Christmas hymns – not the songs with reindeer – but the hymns – O Little Town of Bethlehem – Hark the Hearald Angels Sing – Silent Night – they tell a story – the story of how, when we needed God most, God came to us in Jesus Christ – God’s Word, made flesh – God’s love for us, as vulnerable as a newborn baby – God’s love for us, stronger even than death. We sing that story.
And here’s the thing – when we sing that story – our singing doesn’t justremember the past. In our singing, John Bell says, we also shape the future. Particularly in places like this, we sing what we believe. We sing songs that say things like “All are welcome!” or “Together We Serve” or “Jesus Loves Me” – again and again – so that we might make it so in the life we live in community.
In the civil rights movement, they sang – and continue to sing – “We Shall Overcome” – not because anyone had yet overcome – but to create a future where that is true.
We sing what we believe and it shapes who we are – and the song, in us, shapes the world around us. We sing what we believe. We sing it again and again because we are singing to make it true.
Now, in his book, John Bell has 11 reasons why we sing – and I just want to mention one more: “We sing to give of ourselves.” Each of us is created in the image of God. When we sing – we offer a bit of that to each other and to the world. And we don’t have to sing perfectly. John Bell calls us “singers in progress.” Each of us has a particular voice – a particular song – that matters to the world. It matters when we join our voices together – when we sing together.
We do that in church – this is one of the few places left in our culture where folks gather regularly to sing together. When we sing together, we are offering something of ourselves to each other – and to God – and it’s a once in a lifetime experience. John Bell puts it this way:
“The chances are that never again will every one of these people be in exactly the same place, singing these particular hymns and songs. Even at the next worship service, some will be missing, others will be new, and the likelihood is that the liturgy will require a different set of songs for singing.
So, if we can but sense it, every time a congregation sings, we are offering an absolutely one-time-only gift to our Maker. It is important that every song sung is offered to God with that sense of uniqueness. Because God is worth it.”
So all this talk about why we sing, just raises one more question for me about today’s Scripture: Why does Mary sing? And I don’t want to overly psychologize her. But we can see what is plain the text. Why does Mary sing? Because she is filled to overflowing with Good News. In one sense, Mary is bearing Christ into the world, she is pregnant with Jesus – she has become what Greek Orthodox Christians call the Theotokos– the God-Bearer.
And, Mary also bears that Good News into the world in her song – she sings it out – with her whole self – everything she is feeling – all the wonder, all the fear, all the determination, all the justice, all the joy. Mary remembers God’s saving faithfulness throughout history. God has brought down every power – every Pharaoh, every Babylon. God has lifted up those who are held low – all those who are in slavery, and all those who are in exile. She sings what God has done, and proclaims –in her song – that this is what God is doing right now – in her, in Mary, in Elizabeth – in the baby in her womb – whom we know as Jesus – and in you and in me. With her song, and with her whole self, she births the future God has promised. And with her – in our song – as Meister Eckhart says – we become Theotokostoo – we become God-Bearers– in our song – and in our whole selves. We birth the Good News into the world.
This is how the Gospel of Luke begins: God takes ordinary folks – people on the margins of power – and gives them a song to sing – and their song shapes and creates a future that sets the whole world free. It is the song that God has been singing from the very first moment that she brooded over her creation. The song God sings – in Mary, and Elizabeth, and Zechariah – in every one who has joined the song ever since – in you, and in me – the song God sings in us – to set the whole world free.
© Scott Clark, 2019. All rights reserved.
I wasn’t able to re-find this sermon in my internet searches, but I have carried Lisa’s words with me since I first heard them.
For more on the canticles of the Gospel of Luke, and the background of this text generally, see Alan Culpepper, The Gospel of Luke, The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. ix (Abingdon Press, Nashville: 1995), pp.53-56; and David Lose, Working Preacher commentary, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=515
John L. Bell, The Singing Thing: A case for congregational song(GIA Publications, Chicago: 2000).
Bell, pp. 13-15
Bell, pp. 21-35
This quote, attributed to Harlan Howard, is repeated again and again in the recent Ken Burns documentary on country music.
Bell, pp. 37-52.
Bell, p. 81