Isaiah 11:1-11; Luke 1:39-56
December 18, 2011
© 2011 Norman Stolpe
I. I want to thank Jaime and the choir for reprising The Magnificat from the choir cantata. Not only did they graciously fulfill my request, they did double duty by singing at both services today. And my special thanks to the soloists whose contribution helps us all appreciate the exquisite beauty of this passage in Luke’s Gospel that puts the birth of Jesus into powerful context.
A. The Magnificat combines elegant poetry with profound theology. It has inspired some of the most enchanting music ever composed. That many commentators have questioned how a young peasant woman from a backwater like Nazareth could compose such verse is not surprising. How would she have the artistic skill, depth and maturity for such poetry? How could she have the knowledge of Scripture and theological sophistication? Also, Luke was written around 60-70 AD when Mary would have been in her late 70s or even 80s. We can tell that Luke interviewed Mary and others to get information for his Gospel, but how would an elderly Mary remember so exactly something from her distant youth?
1. One suggestion is that Mary did not compose The Magnificat but Luke wrote it based on Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. He found a way to express the emotions Mary remembered and reported to Luke. A variation on this is that The Magnificat had become a hymn in the early Church, and Luke selected it to communicate Mary’s response.
2. An alternative, opposing answer arises from the prominent role of the Holy Spirit in Luke’s whole account of the birth of Jesus. As Gabriel told Mary, “Nothing will be impossible with God.” Could not the same God who enabled aged Zechariah and Elizabeth to have a child and Mary to conceive as a virgin have inspired Mary to a spontaneous, poetic response to Elizabeth’s blessing? And for that matter, enable her to remember it more than 60 years later?
B. In my study I found another alternative that is more satisfying to me because I believe it reflects how the Holy Spirit works with Scripture in our lives and affirms what we already know about Mary’s character and spirituality.
1. Start with the presupposition that Mary loved the Scriptures and took every opportunity to learn and meditate on them. Also the song of Hannah from 2 Samuel 2:1-10 was well known and may have been set to music and sung by Jewish women, perhaps especially when approaching marriage. Hannah’s song is obviously the basis for The Magnificat.
2. Luke makes clear that what Gabriel told Mary about Elizabeth’s pregnancy prompted her to go at once to visit her. The Hill Country of Judea is 60-70 miles south of Nazareth, so it took Mary several days to walk there. I imagine Hannah’s song came bubbling up as she thought about what Gabriel had told her, and she began singing it. As she walked along, the Holy Spirit brought other pieces of Scripture to her mind and Mary wove them into her improvisation on Hannah’s song. So when she greets Elizabeth she has a song all her own ready.
3. As I mentioned last week, the role of the Holy Spirit in the conception of Jesus is not sexual but spiritual. Gabriel tells Mary “the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Though the text doesn’t say this, knowing that Mary seems to go directly from Gabriel to visit Elizabeth, I imagine this overshadowing taking place during those days as Mary walked to the Hill Country of Judea. Is it possible that Jesus was conceived as Mary walked, meditating on Scripture, enlightened by the Holy Spirit? Might Mary be just a couple of days into her pregnancy when John recognizes Jesus in her?
4. That Mary would remember and sing her song throughout her life is not surprising. Neither is it unrealistic to think that the early Church might have sung it often as a hymn.
II. We are so used to examining Scripture in dissected segments that we forget they were written to be read aloud continuously. I encourage you to find some time in what’s left of Advent or in Christmas to read all of Luke 1-2 in one sitting, even out loud. You have until January 6 and will find that Luke links each episode with those that precede and follow.
A. To fully appreciate The Magnificat, we need to hear it as conversation between Mary and Elizabeth.
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 56And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
B. Though Mary doesn’t specifically mention the Holy Spirit in The Magnificat, the Holy Spirit is so active in Elizabeth and the unborn John as to be obvious in Mary too.
1. The Holy Spirit enables John the Baptizer, who is still 3 months from birth, to recognize Jesus who has just barely been conceived in Mary. He leaps for joy! Those of you who have given birth know something of the movements of a child within. I suggest imagining not just a sudden, ordinary movement but John jumping up and down vigorously and repeatedly as an excitged young child would.
2. No wonder Elizabeth exclaims with a loud cry! Filled with the Holy Spirit, she blurts out her blessing on Mary and Jesus in disjointed, spontaneous bursts.
3. Since the Hail Mary Roman Catholics use in the Rosary is drawn from Gabriel’s words as well as Elizabeth’s blessing and Mary’s Magnificat, Protestants avoid getting too involved with this story. Without getting distracted by the debate between the Catholic and Protestant wings of the Church, I do think a few observations are helpful.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
a) The grace and blessing on Mary is that the Lord is with her to bring Jesus, the savior to humanity.
b) The phrase that Protestants object to, “mother of God” is a translation of the Greek theotokos, with literally means “God bearer.” Long before the Reformation that word was chosen over christotokos with means “Christ bearer.” The point was not to suggest divinity for Mary but to affirm that the human Jesus was fully God.
c) Theologically, Protestants have more trouble with praying to Mary. I’m not going to sort all that out in a sermon, but I would suggest that it touches something deeply human: to have God close by in the daily journey of life and when we come face to face with death. I do think The Magnificat does address this deep longing.
III. When the Holy Spirit shows you that things are not what they are supposed to be, the Holy Spirit also gives you the power to act in Jesus’ name for God’s great reversal.
A. If Protestants avoid The Magnificat because of its connection to the Rosary, we all may avoid the radical power of its core content. We’re happy to stay with the beautiful poetry and music, but quite uncomfortable with the substance. I can’t imagine any politicians of any party summarizing their platform by saying, “I will scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. I will bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly. I will fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty.”
B. I’m not at all suggesting The Magnificat as a political agenda for this next election cycle. But I do believe it defines the point of Jesus’ birth as good news for the weak, lowly, broken and suffering. If you can hear good news and not a threat in the core substance of The Magnificat, that is the Holy Spirit speaking.
C. For Mary this great reversal ss God keeping the covenant with Abraham and his descendants forever. It is what Isaiah and the other prophets keep calling for. As we read in Isaiah 11:1-10, this is the work of the Spirit of God: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of council and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.
IV. Bill Goettler is co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church in New Haven, Connecticut. He tells about Danny who walks the streets looking for handout. Bill confesses he doesn’t like Danny or being encountered by Danny. Yet, he usually digs into his pocket and gives Danny a few dollars. It’s not the money, it’s Danny’s question that bothers Bill. “Is this the way it’s supposed to be?” Sometimes Danny does odd jobs instead of panhandling. He’ll sell newspapers in front of the bagel shop or wash windows for the hardware store. Everyone in town knows Danny. He greets them cheerily by name. Whether a simple hello or some semblance of a conversation, Danny always ends with his question, “Is this the way it’s supposed to be?” During Advent, Bill hears Danny’s one question sermon as an echo of John the Baptizer’s, “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make God’s paths straight.” (Drawn from “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century, November 29, 2011, p. 20)
A. The Magnificat answers Danny’s question. “No, this is not the way it’s supposed to be. And God is doing something about it! Jesus is bringing the great reversal of God’s Kingdom. If it seems lost under all the glitz and chaos, not to worry. You can start living with Jesus now, you don’t have to wait until all the rough places are smooth. You can be part of the preparation crew. Of course, Jesus will start working on your rough places, and maybe put you in rough places to live in his name.”
B. Sara Miles is Director of Ministry for Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, CA. She asks, “What does it mean to live as if Jesus is real? As if you and other around you are filled with the power of Jesus sent to do his work? How do we practically carry out the acts of Jesus in his name?”
C. Does living God’s great reversal in the name of Jesus seem impossible? Not because of politics or the economy or the environment or secular society. No, it seems impossible because you know you are one of the lowly and hungry, desperate for God’s mercy. As with Gabriel’s announcement to Mary, The Magnificat affirms that what for us is impossible, for God is glorious. As Madeline L’Engle describes Mary’s visitation with Elizabeth.
Mary, overwhelmed by all that had happened, hurried off to the hill country to see her cousin Elizabeth. Sometimes it is very important to have an older friend who is not a parent, someone who can be both loving and objective. Elizabeth was old enough to be Mary’s mother, but she too, was pregnant; and when she saw Mary, the unborn baby in her womb leaped for joy. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she, too, accepted this Glorious impossible without reservation or doubt. How marvelous! The unborn child in Elizabeth’s womb recognized the baby Mary had just begun to carry and leaped for joy! With us it is impossible. With God, nothing is impossible. The stars in the sky above Mary and Elizabeth were brilliant; and the power that created all the galaxies, all the stars in their courses, had come to the wombs of these women: one old, one young.