Advent 2, The Magnificat
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As we shall see that song, which we call the Magnificat, reflects the final establishment of God’s just rule. As you may be aware, the early chapters of Luke’s Gospel contain three sets of songs or sayings, which come from the lips of people who are involved in or around the birth events of Jesus Christ. They’re all based to a large degree, on passages from the Old Testament, and proclaim something of the things that Jesus ’ coming will achieve.
Just as in our first week of Advent, we thought of hope. We looked back at the Old Testament prophecies about how the Messiah came true in Jesus.
So the joy, which comes through these songs in the early chapters of Luke from the Old Testament writings to over centuries, they have become part of church liturgy. The songs have entered through the Roman Catholic Church many hundreds of years ago when, of course, services were in Latin. I’m not going to be preaching in Latin you’ll be pleased to know.
These three songs these three hymns of praise are still often known by their Latin translations. The Nunc Dimittis, the song of the old man Simeon, who saw the baby Jesus when He was first brought into the temple. The Benedictus, the words of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, said when Jesus was born, and this one that we read today, the Magnificat, the song of Mary when she visited Elizabeth. Simeon’s song, the Nunc Dimittis is perhaps not pronounced particularly correctly.
Now, Lord, let your servant depart in peace. It celebrates the fact that Jesus has coming to reveal God to the whole wide world. Zechariah’s song, the Benedictus, which began, Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel. It tells us that God is to come in person to redeem us and to be with us. Mary’s song in the NRSV Lectionary begins with the words, My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour. Slightly different from the NIV and tells us something about redemption, that life with God is going to be amazing.
If you haven’t remembered a Bible verse ever before, then this morning, as Gill read, that’s a Bible verse. My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour. You now know one verse from the Bible, verse 47, of Luke 1. It’s probably the simplest, the Magnificat is probably the simplest of these three stories, these three sayings, these three songs to understand, as far as language goes, but is probably also perhaps one of the most challenging. When Mary said or sang these songs, I doubt that she had suddenly been blessed with the literary gift of being a poet.
She would have known her Scriptures, and the combined effect of the visit that she had from the angel Gabriel and the prophetic cry of Elizabeth when she arrived to visit, probably confirmed in Mary’s mind that what was happening to her, happening in her own body, was the fulfilment of so many of those Scriptures which she obviously somehow knew. It got me thinking about the profile of Mary, where did she come from? What was her background?
We just pick up perhaps some lines in the story that Mary was probably brought up in a godly home, where life may have been hard, but she knew that God was good. When she heard that she was to be the mother of the Messiah, she didn’t know how it would turn out, either in the future or the present. She simply heard the angel say,“For nothing is impossible with God.”She answered with total readiness,“I’m the Lord’s servant. May it be done to me, according to your word.”
Mary had learned that God was faithful and trusted him even though she didn’t fully understand. Even today, as we struggle with issues of life, especially for those who struggle with the possibilities and impossibilities of what God’s can, can’t, will or won’t do, God is still God. Even when we don’t get it, even when we don’t understand, God is still God. When we read these words that we’ve spoken two or three times today, we might think,“Wow, that was Mary’s first impression? Gosh.”
We might wonder whether Mary perhaps had a chance to catch her breath. Maybe she needed to sit down or have a brandy to try to make sense of such earth-shattering news.“Pregnant? Yes, okay, angel. If that’s what God wants, not a problem.”What faith, what trust. However this occurred, Mary expressed her joy at what was happening and using similar words from Scripture from the Old Testament that she would have known. The prophecy of Micah 5 may have been such a reading that she remembered.
In that reading, Micah tells us of a ruler who is to come, whom we recognize as Jesus. Although we usually hear just from the first part of this prophecy, it’s the one that tells us that He was born in Bethlehem. The rest of that chapter is significant, too. That this Messiah will feed his flock, that they will live secure, that he will be a person of peace. Ideas that Mary picks up when she says that God has filled the hungry with good things and scattered the proud and brought down the powerful.
Another place where Mary may have got a lot of her ideas in this song is in the song of Hannah. In 1 Samuel 2, words Hannah prayed when she had become the mother of Samuel. What is it that Mary says? She begins by expressing her own joy. My soul magnifies or glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour. Seems to be straightforward. God has looked upon her with favour. Great things he has done. So far it’s straightforward. She’s concentrated on herself, and what God has done for her, but then she broadens that vision. She broadens the vision.
This is where she begins to draw more on her knowledge of the Scriptures and can see that what is happening to her has a much wider influence and relevance than being a mum. Looking at the next few verses, we see that in this event of her having a son, God has shown mercy from generation to generation. He has scattered the proud, He’s brought down the powerful. He’s lifted up the lowly and has filled the hungry. This is big stuff. It’s affecting the world at large. It’s not just a bit of domestic rejoicing. This is what the birth of her son will mean. This is God’s rule coming.
This is God’s justice. This is the way of the coming Messiah. You’ll notice that it’s not all in the past tense. It’s not that God will do this, but actually God has done all these things. That’s a religious way of speaking in ancient literature. When something was certain to follow after some other events, even though it actually hadn’t happened yet. We occasionally use it ourselves. We might say he’s won, when the opposition has collapsed, but the race isn’t actually over. It’s the anticipation of full knowledge that it’s in the bag. Perhaps no doubt about it.
It was the big hoo-ha, on Thursday evening, with the general election poll, the exit poll. Prime Minister had not yet won, but the indications were that he would. Whatever our thoughts about politics, I want to just say in passing the wise words of a friend of mine, who shared this on Facebook just the day after.“Ultimately, it isn’t governments or politicians that shape how we live. That’s down to us. Choose kindness, choose love, choose forgiveness.”That’s God’s justice and righteousness. Mary could see that in the birth of her Son, the Messiah, the one who was not just to be her Son, but the Son of the most high. All these other prophetic ideas in Scripture were going to be fulfilled. A new world order was going to come, in which hunger and oppression would be done away with and the powerful and the mighty would no longer have it all their way.
It was all certain so that she could say,“He’s done it.”This was the kind of world Jesus would bring. This was what it would mean to be redeemed, to be with God. Jesus was certainly very concerned about the poor, those who are unwell or disabled or looked down upon for any reason. Those who were oppressed. If Jesus was concerned, then so should we. That’s where the challenge comes in. Despite all the things that Jesus did, despite all the work that people have done down the ages, Christians and non-Christians, there are still plenty of people who are oppressed.
Plenty of hungry people who are not filled. Plenty of people lording power over one another from their thrones. For all Mary’s certainty, what she said has not happened. Or if it has, it’s only happened in part. Our calling, our politics, must point to how we treat the least of these. Has something gone wrong? The answer is partly, of course. That when Mary’s song reflects the final establishment to God’s rule, that might not be until Jesus finally returns.
When the disciples asked Jesus about it at the beginning of Acts, they said,“Is this the time you’ll restore your kingdom?”It was to that, that Jesus replied,“It’s not for you to know.”The kingdom, when that vision that prophets had spoken about, which had inspired Mary’s song, would be fulfilled, was yet to come. At a time when God alone determined. At present we live in-between times. Jesus has been and done what is needed, but we await that final realisation.
Perhaps just to leave it at that might be a cop-out. If God is biding his time just before the return of Jesus, maybe there’s a job for us, in the meantime. Maybe we have much to learn, to enable us to live in the full kingdom of God. To be a part of the world where the hungry are filled and the lowly are lifted up. Mary’s song issues us with a challenge. It’s not a challenge to change the world into the vision that she has, but it’s a challenge to change the way that we think and that we act so that we actually desire and seek that world.
Your kingdom come, as we have just prayed on earth, as it is in heaven. To achieve it would be beyond us. It is only something that God can do. To desire it, to seek it where we can and to be available as God’s channel, is not beyond us. How do we do that? There’s a bit of a clue, but not a very obvious one. In Hebrews 10, there are five verses there, from verse five,
Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said:
‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
with burnt offerings and sin offerings
you were not pleased.
Then I said, “Here I am – it is written about me in the scroll –
I have come to do your will, my God.” ’
That’s Psalms Chapter 40. Hebrews goes on,
First he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them’ – though they were offered in accordance with the law. Then he said, ‘Here I am, I have come to do your will.’ He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
It’s another reading about what Jesus has achieved for us. But here the emphasis is not on changing the world, but on changing us. The writer talked about the way Jesus has abolished the need for sacrifices by offering himself but he ends up by saying, we, we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ. We’ll notice that the usual language about Jesus offering of himself on the cross bringing forgiveness there is missing. A different word. Holy sanctification is used. Making holy. Setting apart.
The point is this. It is the change in us that God has made. We are changed. Later on, in the same chapter, in Hebrews 10, the writer says that because of this change, because we are holy people, we can enter into that presence of God. Being made holy, being sanctified means more than just being forgiven. It means we can come into God’s presence. It means that we have a relationship with him. We can start to enjoy that relationship and build it up as we pray and as we worship and as we come together as a community.
It’s as we grow closer to God, that we start sharing his desires. For a world that, of which Mary sang. It says we grow closer to God, that we start to become channels of His love to the rest of the world. At Christmas, we joyfully celebrate God coming into the world as Jesus. We celebrate God coming to be with us. Emmanuel means God with us. Perhaps we can also make it a time when we decide that we want God to be with us. Perhaps we might want to enjoy God’s love, even in the face of sadness and pain and difficulty, and allow God to be the comforter.
Which Jesus speaks about when he talks of the Holy Spirit, that sense of peace and comfort and inner sighing. Even those feelings inside us which might be the workings of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps not joyfully swinging from the chandeliers joyful, but in the least a grateful heart that God is with us. That God might still be in the habits of changing us from one degree of glory into another. Perhaps Christmas time, can bring a little closer some of the things that Mary had a vision for, and sang about in her Magnificat. May God’s blessing of a baby boy who came to be the saviour of the world in so many ways, bring us a little joy today and always.
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