The following is a sermon I presented at Austin Graduate School of Theology. It was adopted from an earlier sermon I preached at La Grange Church of Christ.
Text: Luke 1:39-56; 1 Sam. 2:1-10
Luke is a wonderful storyteller, and he begins this narrative by introducing, not one, but two stories. The birth announcements of John the Baptist and Jesus are placed side by side. In our text, these two stories are intertwined as Mary visits the home of Elizabeth. These two expecting mothers come together to share their excitement, and perhaps comfort one another in what has to be a stressful time for both. Mary and Elizabeth are both expecting for the first time, but their situations are very
Elizabeth and Zechariah had been trying for years to have a baby, and they were getting older when finally, Zechariah received a message that they were going to have a child. You can imagine their excitement, but there must have also been a little stress involved. After all, they had tried unsuccessfully many times before, and this may be their only chance at having the child they always wanted. Elizabeth may have been especially nervous. Have you ever known a couple who have tried and tried to become pregnant and finally it happens? They are excited, but they are also nervous. They may wait to tell others. They want to make sure everything is just right, so they will have a normal pregnancy.
Mary, on the other hand, may be nervous for a very different reason. She wasnʼt expecting to have a child at this young age, and she doesnʼt want to tell others because she knows the results could be deadly. She doesnʼt know how others will react when they discover she is an unwed woman who is pregnant. The world Mary lives in is a scary place, and she doesnʼt know how it is all going to play out, but she trusts in God. So, here are these two women, who are probably a little bit nervous, and so they come together to comfort one another, but this is not the only reason they come together. Their nervousness is overshadowed by something greater, and that is the joy they both share at this moment. Mary and Elizabeth find themselves in a unique situation. They are living in special times.
What would make you jump up and down in celebration? Maybe if the woman you asked to marry you said yes. Perhaps you find out you are going to get to visit the one place you always wanted to visit. It could be the opportunity to meet the person you have looked up to and respected for years. Whenever we hear news like this, we often do the unexpected. We might shout out loud in the middle of a crowded room, or we may hug someone we barely know. We may cry uncontrollably, or we might sing a song. We may even add words to an old song that we are familiar with, making it our own. This is what Mary does. She sings a song based off the prayer Hannah prays in 1 Sam. 2, but it is not the same. Mary makes it her own.*
The song Mary sings, known as the Magnificat, has brought hope to many throughout the years. Mary begins by offering a personal praise to God. She is overwhelmed with joy and canʼt help but sing. She cannot believe what God is doing in her life, so she responds out of the overflow of her heart. The rock band, U2, who often sing about their faith, have written a song entitled “Magnificent” which captures the heart of this text.
I was born
I was born to sing for you
I didnʼt have a choice but to lift you up
And sing whatever song you wanted me to
I give you back my voice
From the womb my first cry, it was a joyful noise
Only love, only love can leave such a mark
But only love, only love can heal such a scar
Justified till we die, you and I will magnify
This is what we are here for. We were created to praise God. From the womb to the grave, our soul should magnify the Lord. We are to give back, because God has already given so much. We are to magnify the Magnificent. This is easy to do on Sunday morning when we gather together as the Christian community and read passages about Godʼs grace and mercy, but then we have to go back into the world.
We go back into a world where students at a prominent state university riot after the university fires the coach, because he would rather protect the football program more than some innocent children. We go into a world of economic uncertainty and civil unrest. A world where parents will lock their child in a dog cage, deprive him of food and water, and beat him until he eventually dies. How can we magnify God in a world where atrocities like this occur everyday? Were things that much different 2,000 years ago when Mary sang her song? Did she not have a realistic take on the world around her? The answers to these questions are found in her song.
When Mary begins her song, it seems that it is a personal praise and nothing more, but as she goes on she acknowledges that God is working in more lives than hers. Listen to her words again.
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.
If anything, the world in which Mary lived was not any better, it was worse. Israel was an oppressed nation living under the harsh rule of the Roman empire. Iʼm not sure we can really grasp what that would be like. We complain about the taxes we have to pay to our own government, but Israel had to pay higher taxes to a foreign government. Many people, such as women, children, and slaves had no rights at all. Mary was aware of her surroundings. She perfectly understood the complexities of the world she lived in, but she also trusted God, and that made her sing.
When Mary and Elizabeth met for the first time after becoming pregnant, Iʼm sure they were both a little nervous. Elizabeth nervous about the pregnancy she had waited years for, and Mary nervous about the dangerous world she lives in. They are fully aware of the dangers that lie before them. Even though there is so much to bring these women down, you would never know it from their meeting; it is a meeting overflowing with joy. They are not filled with joy just because they are pregnant. That is a great joy many have experienced over the years. No, there is something different about their joy. They are filled with joy because of what God is doing. The world they live in is not a good one and there are many dangers around them, but God is at work and so Mary sings.
When we look around, it is easy to get depressed at the news we hear and the things we see around us. If we are not careful, we will go around being angry or depressed. We will be just like the people in the world, and who can blame them? This world can be a depressing place. The difference is, as Christians, we have eyes to see and ears to hear. We know what God has done, and we also know what he is doing. We know there is something on the horizon the world cannot grasp, something that Mary sings about. It is a day when the proud will be brought low, and the humble shall be lifted up. The hungry will live well, but the rich will go away empty handed. God is coming, and because of that, we can sing!
* The illustration in this paragraph was adopted from an illustration in Luke for Everyone by N.T. Wright.