Luke 1: 26 – 55
If I were to ask what is emblematic of Advent or Christmas for you, what would you say? For Holy Week or Easter it may be the cross or the empty tomb? But for Advent and Christmas what would it be for you? Anyone? What would you say? (Star?, shepherds?, …)
For me it is the manger — that humble, practical manger. Nothing more than a feeding trough really, a place of sustenance for those domesticated animals. I love that it is this humble manger that cradles the newborn Jesus who is to be, our sustenance.
But as much as I have loved the manger, there is another image that I am finding particularly arresting right now — an image that I had never really noticed before but that I now that I see it, I cannot get it out of my mind, so compelling do I find it.
It is an image that is conjured up in Mary’s beautiful and provocative words — in what we have come to know as the Magnificat. It is not that image of all that God is doing in the great reversals that fill most of her song. It is, instead, in the startling and provocative claim in Mary’s opening words. Mary says “My soul magnifies the Lord.” “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
Now I don’t know how many of you are finding yourselves, like me, holding the menu at arm’s length in order to try and make out what it says. Or how many of you are finding yourselves, like me putting that can back on the shelf in the grocery story because you cannot make out the list of ingredients on the back of the label. I am even finding myself lately having to increase the font of my manuscript here just so I can see clearly what it is I wish to say. I would not be surprised even, if in the not too distant future I put on reading glasses in addition to prayer as I prepare to preach each Sunday morning.
And so when Mary says that her “soul magnifies the Lord.” I hear her saying that her soul is like my much needed glasses. Her soul is that which is somehow making something of God more visible, bigger, more conspicuous. Through her something of God is more readily seen. Through her something of God is coming into focus. What a bold statement for this young, poor, rather no body of a woman.
But of course, in God’s eyes she is not a nobody is she? In fact, in God’s eyes, I tend to think that none of us are nobodies. This young, poor, seemingly insignificant woman will be after all, the one to make God visible, literally in the sense that she will give birth to Jesus. And it is in Jesus, that God becomes manifest in flesh and blood. It is in Jesus that we come to know God in a new Way, the Way of Jesus, a way that will transform our living if we let it.
So yes, in a very real way, Mary will indeed magnify the Lord. She will indeed participate in making God visible.
But all of that is in the future. Right now as Mary sings, she is not thinking of Jesus. She is thinking of herself. She is thinking of how God has blessed her by lifting her up out of what she terms her lowliness. It is this experience of being blessed, valued, redeemed even, that Mary sees the hand of God at work in the world. All the great reversals of which Mary sings, “scattering the proud,” “bringing down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly,” “filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty.” All of these great reversals come into focus for Mary through the confirmation that the words the angel spoke are indeed true. She indeed has a role to play in the great unfolding of God’s love in the world. She is indeed to magnify that love through her living. No wonder she sings!
Now, we are used to hearing her words translated as “My soul magnifies the Lord” but the Greek word that is translated here as “soul” and is defined as “the vital force which animates the body, is the same word that is translated elsewhere in the New Testament as “life.” So we could also say that it is Mary’s life in that moment that magnifies, makes more visible, the Lord.
There is someone else whose life magnifies the Lord, I would say. And that of course is Nelson Mandela whose life we remember with gratitude in this, the time of his passing. Through his life, we saw what it is to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, to let the oppressed go free. (Luke 4:18)
I’d like to read for you if I could some words that Mandela spoke during an Easter service in 1994. He said,
“Our Messiah, is one who is born like an outcast in a stable, and executed like criminal on the cross.
“Our Messiah, whose life bears testimony to the truth that there is no shame in poverty: Those who should be ashamed are they who impoverish others.
“Whose life testifies to the truth that there is no shame in being persecuted: Those who should be ashamed are they who persecute others.
“Whose life proclaims the truth that there is no shame in being conquered: Those who should be ashamed are they who conquer others.
“Whose life testifies to the truth that there is no shame in being dispossessed: Those who should be ashamed are they who dispossess others.
“Whose life testifies to the truth that there is no shame in being oppressed: Those who should be ashamed are they who oppress others.”
Sounds quite a bit like a rift on Mary’s song, doesn’t it? Mary, Nelson Mandela, these are lives that magnify God, lives that help us see, touch and live God’s vision of peace where love and forgiveness put an end to violence, fear and oppression.
So while I do think that our Advent work is to prepare our hearts to be those humble mangers ready to receive the gift of Jesus that is
coming. I also now, very much think that our Advent work is to recommit ourselves to having our lives in some way magnify the Lord that is with us now.
OK — I think I know what you may be thinking right now for I am thinking it myself, and that is how in the world can I possibly magnify the Lord? I can barely make sure my shoes match and my teeth are brushed as I rush out into my life each day.
So what does it take to have a soul that magnifies the Lord? Well, look at Mary. Mary trusted in God enough to say yes in the midst of her own insignificance.
Look at Nelson Mandela who said yes to a vision even when the outcome was uncertain and the risks were great.
But that’s Mary and Nelson Mandela, two really amazing people. We cannot possibly expect the same of low lives like us, right?
Wrong. But what makes both Mary and Nelson Mandela so amazing is how ordinary they really are and in being ordinary, just like the rest of us, the rest of us can see through them how extraordinary we too can be, not for ourselves but for God. South African President Jacob Zuma said “what made Mandel great was precisely what made him human. We saw in him what we seek in ourselves.”
Mary’s song and Mandela’s witness call to us and ask us to consider how do our lives magnify the Lord? How through what we do and say and live are God’s great reversals of injustice, oppression, inequity, to which the bible speaks to which Mandela lived being made manifest? Are our lives like those reading glasses I sorely need, — lives that help others see more clearly, see more clearly what God is up to in this world?
Now before we all collapse under the crush of inadequacy or the pressure of performance, let me lift up what for me is the Good News of the Gospel this morning. And that is that this song that Mary sings, her remarkable and provocative claim that her soul magnifies the Lord, well it takes her a good long time before she is ready to sing that.
I had somehow thought that Mary bursts into song right after the angel tells her that she is favored and that she is to bear the Son of God. But that is not at all what happens. Instead, it takes an encounter with Elizabeth before Mary’s song rises in her soul. It is only under the loving gaze and in the loving arms of Elizabeth that Mary’s conviction rises, that her song soars. Magnifying the Lord, making God visible is not easy and we cannot do it alone! We do it together, supporting each other, confirming each other, rejoicing in what God is doing in each other. That is why we gather here together. That is why a life of faith is a life lived together.
And as a final thought, “magnifying the lord” has nothing to do with spiritual sentimentality. We are talking about flesh and blood here. Mary sings when that baby leapt in her womb.
This life of magnifying the Lord takes a lot of courage and community but it is what life is all about. Within us all right now, regardless of where we are on life’s journey, I am convinced that there is something of God that is waiting, yearning to emerge, ready to begin. Within us together right now, I am convinced that there is something of God that is emerging, beginning. There is something in our life together that is coming into being and I am quite convinced that it is of God; it is magnificent and we are to magnify it with all our being.
So let us sing. Let us sing! Let our living, let our life together as church join with Mary and Mandela and all to magnify the Lord. Thanks be to God that is, even now, by the grace of God, being magnified in our living. Amen.