Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year A, on 1 Samuel 2:1-10 and Luke 1:46-55
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness
of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
People-movements always inspire songs. As they sing, the songs inspire the people in the movement. Songs bind the people together in common purpose. They give passion to vision. Recall the civil rights movement and the music that they sang out, in front of dogs, the fire hoses and the angry shouts: songs like “Oh, Freedom,” “We Shall Overcome” and “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
The early Christian moment inspired songs as well. People were so captured by Jesus’ vision: of diverse humans together, in a beloved community, without walls of separation or discrimination, celebrating God’s loving mercy, and the Spirit’s empowering presence, that they produced movement songs. Some of them we have, embedded in New Testament texts.
When Luke sat down to write his version of the Jesus story, five decades or so after Jesus’ lifetime, he must have thought, “How can I tell this story without the power of these early movement songs?” We know that Luke had a copy of Mark’s gospel, but Mark began with Jesus as an adult, leading a movement without any music in it.
So Luke took some of those early Christian songs that celebrated the vision of the movement, and put them into his story. Which character in the story should get to sing the first song? He gave the piece to Mary. Who better to sing a song that laid out the vision from the very beginning than the mother of Jesus herself?
Telling it this way, we might imagine that Mary would have sung this song not just once, but often to the baby Jesus, as he lay in his bed. The song would sculpt the terrain of his mental world, creating a landscape of categories for his imagination, and fixed points of reference for his dreams.
The Song about God
So what is the song about? It is about God and God’s people. It is about what God has done, and therefore, about what God characteristically does, and therefore, about what God will do yet again.
We do not know anything about the Christian community that produced this song, since Luke’s gospel is our only record of it, but one thing is clear: they did not write it from scratch. Almost every single line is either a direct quotation or an echo of the First Testament, or Hebrew Bible (or, the Old Testament). How do you know what God characteristically does, and therefore what God will do? Well, you look back at the stories of what God has done.
Does that strategy work for us? Can we just pick up the stories from the Hebrew bible and what it describes God as doing back then, and expect the same in the future? Should we expect another world-wide flood to kill all the bad guys on earth? Or another battle of Jericho where the enemy’s walls fall down so that we can rush in with swords raised?
Or did that early Christian community have a more sophisticated approach to the Hebrew stories, as they tried to discern what God was, and is, and would be for them? Indeed, they did, and we can see it in this song that Mary gets to sing.
The Jesus Lens
How did early Christians get their approach to the Hebrew bible’s stories that gave them that discernment? They had a template, or a pattern to use, or maybe we could say a lens to look through, to bring into focus what they needed to see about the past; a lens that would give them a vision for the future.
That template, that pattern, that lens, was Jesus himself. Jesus is the criteria by which we too look at stories about what God has done, to figure out what God characteristically does, so that we can know what God will do.
This is so important for today. You see, those early Christians who composed this song out of many lines and echoes from the Hebrew bible used one single poem as their basic structure: it was the song of Hannah, the mother of Samuel. I am sure we all heard the similarities between the two as we read both of them this morning.
Songs and Violence
But did you notice a huge difference? Hannah’s song assumed that God would help his people to victory through violence.
“His adversaries shall be shattered”
In Mary’s song, God is no less effective in his help to his people, but there is no violence. In another one of the songs Luke includes, the song the angels will soon get to sing for the shepherds, they celebrate Jesus’ birth as the dawn of “peace on earth, goodwill to everyone.”
Jesus taught non-violence. Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek instead of seeking vengeance. That is why the Christian symbol for love is the cross: Jesus’ love for all people was so comprehensive that he refused to use violence even to save his life. The cross forever symbolizes for Christians the Jesus’ way. Instead of fighting for the destruction of our enemies, with Jesus, we pray,
“Father, forgive them. They have no idea what they are doing.”
So then, looking at the Hebrew bible through the Jesus-lens, what does the early Christian community see of what God has done and therefore, characteristically does, and therefore, can be relied upon to do?
God Reverses Fortunes
With Hannah’s song as a pattern, they see the theme of God’s great reversals. God brought down the proud and raised up the the lowly:
“He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.”
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly”
Hannah and Mary were both singing about what God had done in their most famous story, the exodus from Egypt. As the story goes, the Hebrew slaves made bricks without straw 24/7 for Pharaoh, to aggrandize his proud empire. But the God of liberation heard their cries and set them free.
That is what God did. That is what God characteristically does: reverse fortunes. Bringing down the mighty and lifting up the lowly. So, now we know what God will do. God will liberate the slaves. Not for the sake of an alternative Hebrew empire to replace Pharaoh, but for the “empire of God,” or as Jesus would call it, the kingdom of God, or as we might call it today, the beloved community.
The Jesus Pattern
That is how Jesus lived. He believed God’s will was liberation from every form of bondage, and he brought God’s liberation to the lowly people who came to him to experience the presence of God’s Spirit and power. He healed people, liberating them from both their bodily bondage, and from the bondage of social stigma that disease carried in the ancient world.
Jesus liberated people from the bondage of fear of an angry, punishing, vengeful God, by teaching them to call God “Abba”; father, or daddy. He taught them that they were not shamefully stained and impure before God (as they had been told) but rather, the human condition is more like being lost, like lambs, apart from the fold. But no fear, God was a finding God, a “good shepherd“, always luring, coaxing, non-coercively persuading his lost sheep back into his beloved community.
The God of the Hebrew stories, seen through the Jesus-lens, had this characteristic: God had frequently reversed fortunes of the lowly, the meek of the earth, the powerless, and had raised them up for new purposes. Second-born sons somehow obtain the inheritance. Barren women give birth. A shepherd becomes king. Exiles return home. Reversals seem to be God’s characteristic way of acting.
Singing Mary’s Song
So Mary, looking down at her pregnant belly, is the best one to sing a song about the greatest reversal of all: that a baby from an insignificant village on the outskirts of an empire will lead a new movement of people that would transform the world.
Luke’s community was part of that transformed world. They gathered around a common table: men and women, scandalously together; slaves and free, subversively together; rich and poor, remarkably together, singing together songs of the movement; songs of praise for the God of reversals:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”
That is our song. We are part of that transformed world. We see God through the Jesus-lens, and we see the world through the Jesus-lens. We see the lowly and the poor with compassion. We see the outcast and the oppressed with mercy and hope. Mary sang that this movement would continue from generation to generation. We, who have been transformed by knowing God as Abba, are thrilled to be a part of the movement in our generation.
So, we do not believe that structures or empires, no matter how big and powerful, from Egypt to Rome and on, will have the last word. We believe that it will not be the proud, but the meek who will inherit the earth. We do not believe we will be saved by violence, but by a willingness to work for peace, animated by the prince of peace.
Inspired by this movement song, like Mary, we do not believe that the present state of the world, in which so much bad happens, where so many feel hopeless, is how it has to be. Reversals are possible. That’s what God does.
We are in the movement of liberation. We look forward to, and work hard to see the day come, when the hungry are fed and everyone has clean water to drink; when no young person is bullied or shamed for their sexual orientation or gender identification; where no one fears injustice on the streets or in the courts. We work for the day when the earth is loved and protected from human harm. When no one fears an angry God, but everyone knows that they are loved and embraced as daughters and sons, members of the beloved community.
This is the vision that inspires us, and fills us with hope and passion, and so we sing, along with Luke’s community, the song of Mary,
“Our souls magnify the Lord,
and our spirits rejoice in God our Savior
…who has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
who has filled the hungry with good things
…from generation to generation.”