Minister's Sermon - 1st December 2019
Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen
Rev Sue Keegan von AllmenBible Study for Church with Choices

Sunday 1st December 2019

Reading: Luke 1.46-55

Introduction

Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is a song that expresses her heart’s deepest desires. The things she’s hoped for. The dreams she’s longed to be fulfilled. It’s everything, she, her community and her people, have waited for. But it’s more than that. It’s the song that people who have felt downtrodden and excluded have adopted through the centuries, to express their heart’s desires, their hopes, their dreams. And as we arrive at the beginning of another Advent, at the end of a year in which we’ve been exploring issues that make many people in today’s world, feel powerless. We too have an opportunity to ask what it means for the world in our time. But before I come to any of that, I want to tell you about how this passage has sometimes been received, in the last century. You might be surprised to learn that at least three countries have banned it from being read in public. Because the song’s message was thought to be dangerously subversive. I’m not sure whether or not this is apocryphal or true, but I’ve heard that during the British rule of India, the Magnificat was prohibited from being sung in church. In the 1980s, Guatemala’s government thought Mary’s words about God’s preferential love for the poor were too revolutionary. Because they were inspiring poor people in Guatemala to believe that change was possible. And when the Mothers of the disappeared children in Argentina, displayed the words of the Magnificat on posters in the main plaza in Buenos Aires, the military junta outlawed them. These incidents should remind us – as the German theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer said – that “the song of Mary is the… most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings.…This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.” (1) We’re often tempted to soften the message of Mary’s song, to spiritualize its meaning, and ignore just how subversive and revolutionary it was. I’m not going to do that this morning. I’m going to invite you to reflect on three aspects of the context in which Mary was speaking. Its social and cultural setting. Its political context. And how these have been long embedded in the hopes and the dreams of the Jewish people expressed in the Hebrew scriptures.

Luke 1.39-45: the social setting (2)

I want to begin, by reading the story of what happened, before Mary sung her song. This helps us to understand its social and cultural setting.

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women,

and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (NRSV)

After Mary has learned from the angel that she’ll give birth to the Son of God, she hurries off the visit her cousin Elizabeth. The radical nature of the encounter between these two women, is blunted for us, by its familiarity and contemporary culture. But for the early Christians, living in an overwhelmingly patriarchal society, it would have been extraordinary because their story shows us how God was already working to overturn the world’s structures and expectations. The spotlight is on two women. Two lowly and shamed women. Chosen by God to begin transforming the world. The only people who speak in this passage are women, women who are often overlooked or ignored, in wider society and in the bible. When Mary greets Elizabeth, her words prompt an immediate, response from Elizabeth’s unborn child. John leaps in her womb, as he recognises her, and the child she carries. Luke’s explanation is that Elizabeth was “filled with the Holy Spirit,” and filled with the Spirit, she takes on the role of prophet. Proclaiming what Mary has not yet told her. That Mary is pregnant. And that Mary is “the mother of my Lord.” But Elizabeth doesn’t only prophesy, she blesses Mary, and the “fruit” of her womb. The words translated into English as “blessed,” are actually two different words, and each has a slightly different meaning. The first emphasises that Mary and her child will be praised by present and future generations. But when Elizabeth says in verse 45, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord,” she uses a different word. The same word Jesus uses to bless people in the Beatitudes. So, it’d be as appropriate to translate Elizabeth’s words as “Happy is she who trusted…” In other words, Mary is blessed because despite all expectations, her social status has been reversed. She will be honoured rather than shamed for bearing this child. But she has also been blessed with divine joy - with beatitude – because she trusts that God is able to do what God promises to do. Elizabeth contrasts Mary with her husband Zechariah. Zechariah asked for proof that the angel’s word was true. Mary asked what was going to happen to her and then gave her willing consent. Zechariah the religious professional doubted God, but Mary the peasant girl trusted, and her trust in God’s word opened the door for God to bless the whole world through her. So, Elizabeth’s blessing, is a celebration of Mary’s willingness to say “yes” to God. But it’s also much more. Because Elizabeth is overturning every social expectation here. Mary is an unmarried pregnant woman. She might have expected judgment, shame, even ostracism from her older cousin. But Elizabeth also knows what it is to be shamed and excluded. As an elderly infertile wife, she’ll have endured a lifetime, of being treated as a failure in a culture where a woman’s primary purpose in life was to have children. Her social status had been reversed by her own pregnancy and when she speaks of it she emphasizes God’s grace. Now, Elizabeth continues the pattern of social reversal, by opening her arms and her home to a relative whom her neighbours would expect her to reject. Instead of shaming Mary, she welcomes, blesses, and celebrates her, treating her as more honourable than herself. So, the pregnancy that might have brought Mary shame, brings joy instead. When Elizabeth welcomes Mary, she practices the same kind of love Jesus will show to prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners. For she sees beyond the shame of Mary’s situation and anticipates God’s love at work among those who have been rejected and excluded in all times and places.

Luke 1.46-55: the political setting (3)

So, that’s the social and cultural setting, in which Mary sings her song of praise. The social reversals she speaks about, are already anticipated, in these two women. For Mary, an unmarried mother, a pregnancy would have been scandalous and she would have been excluded. While Elizabeth, who has endured years of exclusion, is now included. And because Elizabeth knows what exclusion is like, she not only welcomes Mary into her home, but recognises her as someone whose trust in God will transform all of their lives. So, let’s listen to Mary’s words.

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour 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.”

The second aspect of the setting of Mary’s song that I want to talk about its political context. Religion was inseparable from politics in the first century. The political leaders in the Roman Empire held religious office. Emperor Augustus was considered to be a divine being as well as a political leader. And the meaning of his name in English is, “Commander Caesar, Son of the Divine.” Jesus, on the other hand, is presented by Luke as a nonviolent King who resists Roman imperialism. So, understanding the Gospel’s political environment, is important if we’re to really understand Mary’s song of praise. The best knowledge we have, suggests Jesus was born in the same year that Herod the Great died, and the year in which the Jews rebelled all over the land. Their rebellions were crushed by Syrian legions under the direction of Rome, the city of Sepphoris in Galilee was burned down. And those who could not escape from the Syrian legions “were killed, raped, and enslaved. Those who survived… lost everything.” (4) Jesus grew up in Nazareth, which was about 4 miles from Sepphoris, and Mary and Joseph, Zechariah and Elizabeth must have known about all of this. But Roman rule was more brutal than this and their brutality was imposed consistently over the year. Wherever they occupied other lands, they exploited the people economically, and took advantage of the natural resources. Peoples living under Roman imperialism experienced poverty, hunger, and disease. And this was the day to day experience of the Jews. They were so heavily taxed, that many could barely subsist from day to day, and were forced into choosing between collaborating with the Romans or resisting them. The Jews believed that the only way to overcome the power of Rome was through God’s intervention. And Mary’s song expresses, not only her hopes of God intervening to rescue Israel from Rome, but also her people’s. They longed for a Messiah to bring freedom and healing. Because they were convinced that the only way to overcome the power of Rome was through God’s intervention. And this is what Mary sings. She begins with her own situation. God has shown her mercy, she says, which is surprising give the shame she’s experienced, as a result of her “yes.” But maybe she also sings of the mercy Elizabeth has shown her. For it’s often those who have known shame and suffering that are able to offer mercy to others and are willing to work for political solutions that result in enduring change. What she says next, addresses her people’s political context. “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.” God, she says, is concerned with the daily life of her people, and God is acting on behalf of those who are hungry and oppressed, and against the proud and powerful. God upsets the status quo by turning everything upside down and reversing everyone’s fortunes. And according to Mary, the salvation God is bringing is present-already, and not just in the future. So, Mary affirms that God rules, not Caesar. She invites us – and her people - to imagine how the world would look if Jesus sat on Augustus’ throne. And we can because this is what God promised “to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

So, that’s the political setting in which Mary sings her song of praise. Her song voices themes that appear in every time and every place. People are still anticipating freedom, deliverance from unjust rulers and unjust law. And God continues to seek partners like Mary to speak up for those who live on the margins and to share in delivering them from injustice and violence.

T

The scriptural context: 1 Samuel 2.1-10 (4)

The third aspect of the setting in which Mary speaks, is the context provided by the Hebrew scriptures. At first hearing, it sounds as if there are two women in today’s reading, but there are actually three. There’s Elizabeth, cousin of Mary, wife of Zechariah and mother of John the Baptist. Her story echoes the stories of some other of her ancestors. Like Sarah from the Book of Genesis, and Hannah from 1st Samuel, Elizabeth was unable to have children. The second woman is Mary, cousin of Elizabeth, wife of Joseph, mother of Jesus. And like Elizabeth, her importance has to do with what she says, and not just because of whose mother she is. The third woman we meet is not out in the open, but hidden in, within, and under Mary's song. And she’s Hannah. Hannah is the wife of Elkanah and the mother of the prophet Samuel. Once again, Hannah is more than Samuel’s mother, she’s a prophet in her own right and she also sings the promise that her child is not only for her, but for all Israel, because he will do God’s work. I’ve printed Hannah’s Song for you alongside the Magnificat. This is what she prayed and said.

“My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.

“There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. 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 honour. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.

“He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail. The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.”

Hannah’s song is more violent, more challenging than Mary’s, but it still includes the reversals in which God will raise up the poor and the lowly. There are several ways in which Mary’s and Hannah’s song might be so connected. ‘Though which you’ll choose will depend on how you read scripture. Some will say that, it’s a song Mary might have remembered, because it spoke to her social, cultural and political position. So, it was bound to come out in her own song of praise. While those who think Mary’s song was composed by the early Christians, or by the editor of Luke’s Gospel, will say that Hannah’s song has been used as a model for Mary’s. It doesn’t really matter which. It is clear how closely connected they are. Both Hannah and Mary exclaim their joy in their God. Both Hannah and Mary speak of the way God cares for, and acts on behalf of, the least and the lowest. Both of them say that what God is doing, is not just for them, but through them for the whole people. Both of them say that it’s happening now – through the leaders of God’s people in Hannah’s time – and in Jesus in Mary’s. And it’s happening because these women say “yes.”

Before I continue, I want to invite you to reflect together, on what I’ve said.

• Where is God at work, through people whom our neighbours and fellow church members often exclude or treat as shameful?

Conclusion

As we continue, I want to show you a video. This is Barbara Glasson, the current president of the Methodist Conference on a visit to the Holy Land.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTRcLgWwh60&utm_source=Methodist+Church+House&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=11109073_Week+Ahead+28+Nov+2019

I’m struck by Barbara’s words. “Hope is an act of resistance.” One of the most significant aspects of the Magnificat, of Mary’s song, is the hope it speaks of. And this hope is expressed, is spoken by women, who like the women in Palestine live in circumstances of social, cultural and political limitation. Mary is a young woman, with very little power in her own community, so choosing Mary to speak God’s message was like choosing the person with the smallest voice to tell a noisy crowd to quieten down. If God wanted someone to captivate the audience in an instant, or someone who would be believed without question, then Mary was the wrong person. Yet, in the opening scene of a story that would turn the world upside down, God entrusts the world’s most treasured message to Mary. A message of radical change, began with a choice which can rewrite the power of society. Instead of beginning where the power lies, God begins among the people, and in the heart of the places, God longs to transform. And God chooses shamed women, who belongs to an oppressed and exploited people, but whose story contains the seeds of the story that God now brings to fruition - through Mary and Elizabeth. In John and Jesus. People who will resist the ways of the world and embody the values of God’s kingdom. And it all begins with God deciding that the best way to spread the message of God’s kingdom, of social, political and cultural change, is to begin with those who aren’t usually given a voice. Just in case you think I’ve missed out the most important change of all, the spiritual change that undergirds all of this, that’s where I want to end. The willingness to speak as they do, witnesses to the fact that they are being changed, by God. Mary speaks for all young woman and men who God invites to say “yes” to God’s invitation to join in God’s kingdom work. Elizabeth speaks for older women and men whose shame does not lead them to focus inwards or on themselves, but opens them to God’s Spirit, and enables them to embrace their new situations with joy. Hannah speaks for women and men in middle age, who are willing to sacrifice the things they longed for most, and use them to serve God. These were women of a deep spirituality. Women whose words and actions were hopeful acts of resistance. For me, they’re role models, not just for women but for all of us. And like them, God can use us, God can change things through us, God can give hope to God’s people through our words and deeds. Because just as their lives are rooted in God’s. Just as they are open to God’s Spirit. And just as they welcome Jesus. God invites each of us to do and be the same.

As we wait for the others to re-join us, there are more questions for you to ponder, now or later.

• What stories of hope and of hopeful acts of resistance do we see in unexpected people in our world today?

• Will we listen to the Spirit’s prompting when the bearers of God’s new reality show up on our doorstep?

Sue Keegan von Allmen

1st December 2019

(1) http://enemylove.com/subversive-magnificat-mary-expected-messiah-to-be-like/

(2) Judith Jones https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2723

(3) Niveen Sarras https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3917

(4) John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now (publication place: HarperOne, 2009),110 cited by Niveen Sarras (above)

(5) Rolf Jacobson https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1500

References

(1) http://enemylove.com/subversive-magnificat-mary-expected-messiah-to-be-like/

(2) Judith Jones https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2723

(3) Niveen Sarras https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3917

(4) John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now (publication place: HarperOne, 2009),110 cited by Niveen Sarras (above)

(5) Rolf Jacobson https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1500