December 21, 2008
Waiting with Mary: Rejoicing
So many memories that I have of my father have something to do with music. My dad, as those of you who remember him will recall, loved music. He loved to sing, whether in the choir at church, on the road with his quartet, or at home with his family. Ever since the day he first stood on a wooden crate as a four-year-old in front of the congregation in Emmaus and sang
Cheer up ye saints of God, there’s nothing to worry about,
Nothing to make you feel afraid, nothing to make you doubt.
Remember Jesus never fails so why not trust him and shout?
You’ll be sorry you worried at all tomorrow morning,
singing was as much a part of my father’s life as breathing.
Of all the memories that I have of my dad singing, however, none stir me more than those of him spontaneously bursting into song, often around the dinner table. Ask my wife and kidsthey remember, too. We’d be sitting at the table, enjoying the meal and talking, when all of a sudden, dad would start singing. No advance notice. No “Would anybody like to sing?” He just started singing. And when we’d turn and look at him, we’d typically find him with his eyes closed and tears running down his cheeks. “What a day that will be,” he’d sing, “when my Jesus I shall see, when I look upon his face, the one who saved me by his grace…” Or “When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll. Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, ‘It is well, It is well, with my soul.’” Or…. The great African American poet, Maya Angelou, once commented, “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.” That was my father. Dad didn’t have much, but he had a song. Do you have a song?
Mary did. So did a lot of characters in Luke’s gospel. If you read through just the first two chapters, it seems as though someone is always singing. In 1:59-79, Elizabeth and her muted husband, Zechariah, bring their newborn son, John, for circumcision. After writing the name of the boy on a tablet, Zechariah regains his speech, is filled with the Holy Spirit, and bursts into song: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.” In 2:14, the heavenly host gathers in the hearing of the shepherds and sings, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” And in 2:29-32, an aging saint named Simeon, longing for most of his life to see God rescue his people, holds the child Jesus in his arms and sings, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation,…” One after another, men and women, young and old, burst into song when they experience God birthing something new. They don’t have all of the answers. But they have a song. Do you have a song?
Mary does. Mary, this otherwise ordinary virgin from a nondescript village called Nazareth, has seen her very life pulled apart and reoriented right before her eyes. She has said “Yes” to God, in spite of the challenges that her favored role would inevitably bring. She has shown the courage and determination to confide in someone, having shared her deepest secrets with Elizabeth. And now, nearly overwhelmed by all that has taken place, Mary pauses, not to shut down, but to shout. Not to rationalize, but to rejoice. Not to figure out the details, but to sing. Mary has a song, and what a beautiful song it is.
Mary’s song, as you can readily tell, is no simple lullaby, no cradle tune from Veggie Tales. Neither is it a song of lament or intercessionwe find here no complaints, no requests, no attempts at bargaining with God. It is, instead, a moving song of praise that swells up from the very depths of Mary’s soul. She is, quite simply, overcome by the power and mercy of God, and she is groping for words to adequately express the sentiments of her heart. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she begins, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” But why such an outburst of unbridled emotion? What lies behind Mary’s overwhelming joy?
To begin with, Mary cites what God has done specifically for her. In selecting her to mother the Christ-child, God has, in short, looked with favor on her in spite of her obvious personal, social and economic limitations. Mary had little by way of position, power or possessions. She was not a leading character on the stage, not someone who stood out in a crowd. She didn’t come from a particularly influential family, and has done nothing that we know of to distinguish herself. When something big was going on in Nazareth, Mary undoubtedly stood quietly on the sidewalk while the more important people of the town took care of business. And in spite of the film clips and postcards that typically present her otherwise, Mary was perhaps not even unusually beautiful to look at. She probably wasn’t the first person invited to the dance, not the center of attention at the party. She wasn’t the CEO of some company or even a shift supervisor, for that matter. She’d never written a book, held public office, or earned a degree. Mary knew virtually nothing about the stock market, had probably never traveled more than 100 miles from her house, and had spent most of her time with the other nobodies of the town. There is nothingabsolutely nothingsaid about Mary to suggest that she was in any way out of the ordinary. By the standards of the world. Yet God knew exactly who she was. God came to her. God blessed her. God performed a miracle in her. “God has done great things for me,” she sings, “and holy is his name.”
But Mary, as we’ve seen in recent weeks, was anything but self-absorbed. She demonstrated, in fact, surprisingly little regard for herself. When the angel spoke to her and told her of God’s plan, she simply responded, “…let it be with me according to your word.” And even in these opening few verses of her song, what strikes Mary is the fact that God has blessed her, not because of who she is, but in spite of it. While so many songs today are filled with “I this” and “Me that,” Mary rarely makes reference to herself. She is, by her own admission, just a “lowly servant” who has found favor in the sight of a great God.
It comes as no surprise, then, to notice that, in the remaining verses of her song, Mary fades almost entirely into the background. It is as though her personal experience with God has somehow helped her to see the way in which he has worked, continues to work, and ultimately will work in the lives of all people through the very end of time. Mary isn’t thankful, in other words, simply because God has blessed her, but because she now understands that God works in much the same way in the lives of others. She isn’t an exception to the rule. God blesses the lowly. God dethrones the haughty. God elevates the ordinary. God chops the arrogant down to size. Do you see this recurring theme? God has scattered the proud. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones. He has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things. He has sent the rich away empty handed. Do you see it? God is a God of reversals. God levels the playing field. God pays particular attention to the down-and-outers, the have-nots, the victims, the abused. God looks with favor upon the lowly, of whom Mary is but a single example.
Two observations about this latter portion of Mary’s song must be understood. First, Mary’s sentiments or convictions about God’s great reversal seem at best unrealistic and at worst unfounded, don’t they? She sings eloquently throughout about how God has already done such thingsthe verbs are virtually all in the past tenseand yet both history as well as personal experience assure us that he hasn’t, at least not to the extent envisioned here. In Mary’s day, for example, the rich continued to prosper, the poor to suffer, the religious leaders to use their position for personal gain, and the mighty Romans to exercise their unforgiving will on all of their subjects. In the same way, the pages of human history are filled with example after example of the rich and powerful lording it over the less fortunate. And in our own world, even the least informed people recognize the gross injustices that take place from one corner of the globe to another. If God has, as Mary insinuates, cast down the mighty and elevated the weak, then why are the likes of Robert Mugabe and Omar al-Bashir still in power? If God has leveled the playing field, then why are corporate executives and professional athletes earning more money in a week than many people will earn in a lifetime? If God has already righted all of these wrongs, then why do we live in relative abundance while countless others in the world go days without even a simple meal? What in the world was Mary thinking?
Just this. The very working of God in her own life as well as the signs of God working in the lives of othersand such signs are everywhere, even in our war-torn worldhelped Mary to understand that, with the birth of her anticipated sonwith the coming of Jesus into the worldthe total fulfillment of God’s reversal was just a matter of time. So convinced was she that God would one day right every wrong, correct every injustice, dethrone every tyrant, and put food in hungry bellies that she simply stated it as a completed fact. “It is a done deal,” Mary believed. God has pronounced a death sentence on all of the evil and corruption in the world. The lowly will be exalted and the proud humbled. “You can take it to the bank,” she declares.
But there is a second point that must be said about this latter section of Mary’s song. Mary sings about this great reversal, not because she wants to see evil and powerful people suffer the grave consequences of their waystoo many people think that way. Mary is not like the grieving mother of a murdered child who wishes only for the killer to suffer endlessly behind bars. On the contrary. We must notice that this wonderful depiction of God’s great reversal begins and ends with references to the incomprehensible mercy of God. Mary’s awareness of and reference to God’s mercy serves as an antidote for the human longing for revenge and retribution. As God’s great reversal unfolds, it could be that even the mighty who lose their thrones and the rich who cough up their resources might come to see and experience the transforming mercy of God. Mary sings, not because she merely wants the powerful and the weak to switch placeswhat good would that do?but because she sees in the Christ-child the possibility that all may come to God with equal standing. Mary wants what has happened to her to happen to everyone.
We’ve waited with Mary in recent weeks through this remarkable experience of hers. She has received the life-changing word from the angel Gabriel, spoken a resounding “Yes” to God, and confided in her aging relative, Elizabeth. Now, as we sit with her this morning for this last time, we hear her suddenly burst into song. A song of praise. A song of hope. God has singularly blessed her by calling her to mother Jesus. But he’s done so much more than that. God has, through Jesus, turned the entire world upside down! And as Mary sings, you can, if you listen carefully, begin to hear others singing, too. People throughout the centuries and from all of the nations of the world, joining in the song. Tenors. Sopranos. Baritones. And monitones. All singing the song of Mary. All worshipping the Christ-child, God in the flesh. On and on they sing, repeating the same two stanzas that Mary herself sang centuries ago. God, so stanza one affirms, gives a new song to even the ordinary, otherwise nameless people of the world. He births new life in all of the Marys who have little influence and power. The Marys who have nondescript histories and are of no particular significance according to the standards of the world. The Marys who feel as though they are standing on the curb while the key players on stage dance around. Do you have a song? Are you singing, too?
But, stanza two declares, God did not send his son into the world simply to benefit isolated individuals. Oh no. Advent and Christmas are about more than personal transformation, as important as that is. As Mary continues to sing, we come to understand as she did that this same God who cares deeply about ordinary people will not stop until the entire world is turned upside down, inside out, and totally recreated. This world of ours is not a hopeless mess. God hasn’t forgotten or abandoned it, and we who serve Christ do not labor in vain. The mighty will be brought low, the humble exalted, and all who will say “Yes” to him and this Christ-child will live forever.