Advent 4: Luke 1:39-56
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service at Main Street Community Church and on the Internet. The talk is long.
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Alison: At the time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zachariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leapt in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with Holy Spirit. In a loud voice, she exclaimed, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child that you will bear, but why am I so favoured that the Mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leapt for joy. Blessed is she who believes that the Lord would fulfil her promises to her.”
Mary said, “My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my saviour, for he’s mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on, all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me. Holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm, and he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
“He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but he has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but he has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servants, Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.
Paul: At the start of advent, I waved around Richard Rohr’s book Preparing for Christmas, saying that I hope that I would read extracts from it during the run-up to Christmas, during my advent preparations at home. One of the most awe-inspiring things was how simply he changed my outlook on why Jesus came. He talked about how Jesus only had one sermon, the Kingdom of God. The parables often begin things like, “The Kingdom of God is like,” or, “To what shall I compare the Kingdom of God?”
It seemed that he had this one and only message, the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of God in word and deed. Then, as I listened to a podcast that accompanies the book, Richard Rohr explained something about Jesus that I had never ever considered, which is something I’m still processing today. That as the church we proclaim Jesus, but the church often forgets about proclaiming the Kingdom of God, the stuff, what Jesus stood for, the things that Jesus said and did.
“Proclaiming Jesus and proclaiming the church,” says Richard Rohr, “are not the same things.” Proclaiming Jesus is what we do in church and proclaiming the Kingdom, which is what Jesus did, can be very different things. There’s something to think deeply about, isn’t there? I’ve been musing upon the startling revelation, to me anyway, for the last few days, maybe a couple of weeks.
Then as I read the Magnificat, that wonderful poem that Allison read to us just now, as I read the Magnificat, once again and afresh, it hit me that Mary understood this. She understood that proclamation about the Kingdom of God was why she was in the situation she was in, that her son would be the activist theologian who sought to introduce the world to a role reversal so that those who are low would be lifted up. The humble would be lifted up as well, and that mighty deeds would be done.
Mary had a grasp of how God’s kingdom would look, but it isn’t just Mary who’s got this outlook. In our Tuesday Bible studies recently, we’ve been exploring women in the Christmas Story. We began with Elizabeth, the lady who became pregnant and was very, very old, just like Abraham and Sarah at the Old Testament. Her son, John the Baptist, was the forerunner to Jesus.
We enjoyed speculating, in the Bible Study, how it was that Jesus and John might have known each other from the early days. After all, Luke 1 tells us that Elizabeth was related to Mary and that they had a very spiritual connection as we read this morning. Indeed, when Elizabeth hears about Mary’s experience of the angel visiting and the promise that that baby growing was to be the Messiah. Elizabeth’s own child leaped within her.
John the Baptist came preaching, and he, like Mary, had a pretty good grasp of what the upside-down Kingdom of God was going to look like, as Jesus heralded it in and showed how it could be lived.
John the Baptist was to point to the Messiah, and the Messiah’s message would be the way of the Kingdom of God. In our studies too, we looked, as we do today, at Mary, the Mother of Jesus and her character and how she seemed to be pure and just accepted the situation, that she would be with child miraculously. God enabled to work out the Kingdom of God through their son, through her son, Jesus. She knew that he would be the linchpin on how the world must work from now on.
He would be so important in bringing about this work of the kingdom. Actions, transformations, the whole of humanity turned upside down. The Magnificat is that beautiful poetic song that Mary sang as she became more and more aware of what God was doing through her and for the rest of the world.
In his book, Advent for Everyone, A Journey through Luke, Tom Wright explains that both Mary and Elizabeth share the same dream, that one day all of what the prophets have said would come true, that God would have the final say in victory over human tribes, and his promise to Abraham would be fulfilled, that God would be known throughout the world because of his faithful followers.
Mary and Elizabeth, says Tom Wright, “They explored the scriptures and they soaked themselves in the Psalms and prophetic writings, which spoke hope and mercy and fulfilment, reversal, revolution, victory over evil, and God coming to the rescue at last. All of that,” he says, “is poured into this song like a rich foaming drink that comes bubbling over the edge of the jug and spills out all around.”
This is one of the few texts in the Bible written in an ancient patriarchal culture where a woman is represented as the main character, much less as someone who speaks prophetically. It seems quite probable that she knew the old story of Hannah in Samuel who prayed to God for a son. When her prayer was finally answered, Samuel became a godly priest in the temple under Eli.
Mary’s song here in Luke Chapter 1 reflects just such joyous emotion as she draws upon Hannah’s ecstasy at bearing a child. Mary is responding to her pregnancy, This is a prophetic celebration, but the fact that Elizabeth’s declaration confirms the fulfilment of what the angel promised, her son will be great and will be called the son of the Most High, and the Lord will give to him the throne of his ancestor, David. This ecstatic speech is a prophecy of what God will do through Jesus.
Next, Luke shapes the Magnificat by having Mary speak of God’s actions in the past, “God looked, God did great things for me. He showed strength. He scattered the proud. He brought down the powerful, he lifted up the lowly. He filled the hungry. He sent away the rich empty. He helped Israel.” It’s a celebration full of God’s acting, not only for Mary herself but for those whom the Kingdom of God would be especially impactful: for those who are poor and in need, for those who are hungry.
Mary got that the Kingdom was an upside-down rule for what the world was and is. It was only going to come to its fruition from a connection between God and humanity. Jesus was that connection. The Magnificat speaks of a future where God will bring in the yet-to-be-born Messiah and the full reign of his kingdom. Not only words but actions, a kingdom full of upside-down activities.
For example, in a male-dominated culture, women shouting out praise. Having had God come to a woman to say that through her all generations would call Mary blessed, that those who are mighty would be brought down, that the hungry would be filled with all good things. That the rich would be like poor people, that God in his mercy remembers his people and has promised to come through with his promises.
It’s as if Mary knows that the kingdom is here, but it’s not yet here in its fullness. That’s the paradox, the confusing, yes, and not quite yet-ness of the kingdom of God. This is the already, the past tense and the not yet the hope for the future. Already the reign of God has arrived, but when we look around at our world, we plead that God’s reign might yet come.
Is this not the paradox that’s his advent itself? Christ already came. He’s been born. He preached, he healed, he opposed the powers. Then he died, he was resurrected and ascended. Yet we begin the Christian year waiting, preparing, and hoping for him to come.
At the centre of this potential confusion is the concern for why Jesus came or is coming and is coming. We talk about the work of Jesus that Christians call salvation in terms of individual redemption, but Mary won’t allow us to think in individual salvation, apart from Jesus turning the power structures on its head. She doesn’t speak about Jesus himself, but the work that comes because of his ministry.
Mary’s focus doesn’t seem to be on a relationship with Jesus, but rather the activities that make the world a more godly place as Jesus himself taught, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” It’s not to say that relationship with Jesus is unimportant. It really is.
At the beginning of the Magnificat that focused on the reversal of Mary’s situation can’t be separated from the later portion that focus on systems being brought down. Our salvation is part and parcel of being the saving of the world. In simple words, God always chooses people to be part of his mission. Not only are specifically Christian mission activities, but holy, how we live our lives.
Luke’s way of seeing faith is concerned with the reversal of the systems of oppression that sometimes, that keep some on top by putting others on the bottom. This, says Mary, is why Jesus is coming to turn the world upside down. This is then what we are to preach and to celebrate, and for which we come to advent in hope. This is our job as followers of the one who has come and the one who will come.
Gosh. I said that proclaiming the kingdom was different from proclaiming Jesus. Of course, at Christmas, we proclaim Jesus because he was to become this instigator of the fulfilment of the full reign of God. That’s why Jesus is and was so important. That we have God in a body. The word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth.
The example of how we do kingdom things, how we live kingdom lives. Of course, there are so many things that I could become excited about having learned there is a difference between proclaiming Jesus and proclaiming the kingdom. Mary got it and she shouted it from the rooftops by the sounds of it in her song in Luke. Advent and Christmas are celebration times for Christians.
Yes, there are preparation times for the big day itself in a full knowledge that the Christ’s child has come, completed his earthly ministry, and now fills us with his own holy spirit to continue the work that he had begun.
The expectation from Mary’s song seems to be that whilst it’s only God who can do such marvellous things, he chooses ordinary people like her and like you and like me to get the job done on earth as it is in heaven. I know that Christians so often feel ill-equipped to tell people about Jesus, but I’m not sure that’s the point here. I think the point that Mary is celebrating is that God has done the main work.
After the shock of becoming the actual fulfilment of all those Old Testament prophecies that she would become the mother of the Most High, the actions aren’t all to leave it to God. It’s rather to partner with God in the transformation of things. If you feel ill-equipped to tell people about Jesus, I rather think that Mary’s song here reminds us that our job is to show what God does through people who respond to him. Our job is to proclaim the kingdom through how we live. As Peter says in the New Testament, live such good lives among the pagans, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day that he visits us.
Our job, Mary’s job, is to point people to the way of the kingdom. Sometimes it can be through social action or drawing people’s attention to something specific. At other times, it’s praying for God to break through, just like Anna, another lady in the early writings of Luke, patiently worshipping and praying and fasting in the temple day and night.
Perhaps it’s for you to use your spiritual gifts so that people know that this is God. Most of the time as Sally Mann, one of the ladies who works for Red-Letter Christians put it about her neighbourhood. She says, “We love the hell out of our neighbourhood and work hand in hand with everyone who shares a vision for the common good. As Christians, we blur the edges between things that usually happen in our congregation on Sundays with things that happen midweek, it’s all service, it’s all worship.” It’s all service, it’s all worship.
I think Mary got that. She was no theologian. She got the shock of her, but she accepted God’s invitation to partner with him and proclaim the kingdom of God in a most spectacular way by giving birth to Jesus, the one who would show us the way to the kingdom. This Christmas and in the year ahead, whatever it’s going to look like, it’s our turn to love the hell out of our neighbourhood. Literally. To work with everyone who shares the common good, to blur the edges between the things that happen on Sundays and the things that happen midweek. We do it by being confident that Jesus is with us. He works his kingdom through us. May we know this blessing as we enter Christmas week, however it unfolds. May God bless his words to us today.
References and sources
Rohr, Richard. Preparing for Christmas: Daily Readings for Advent. Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2008.
Wright, Tom. Advent for Everyone: A Journey Through Luke. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2018.
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Scripture quotations marked NIVUK or NIV UK on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Scripture quotations marked NIV on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.