Monday, December 05, 2011

Sermon: Luke 1: 39-56 Mary's Melody of Mercy

Imagine that you were trapped somewhere, in a difficult position. Perhaps you were walking around the coast somewhere and the tide came in quickly, leaving you trapped on the cliff face. Or maybe you were stuck inside a lift for several hours. How thankful would you be when you were rescued? You just have to remember back to the Chilean miners last year, and the relief, the joy, the celebrations when they finally made it back to ground level after so many days.

Or think of a country living under occupation, suddenly becoming free. Just think of the relief when the Germans were defeated at the end of World War Two, those captured countries were freed and Britain too was safe. Every so often we see the footage of street parties and bells being rung - the Blackout was finished, peace was restored.

In our Bible reading this evening, we find something similar. It’s another salvation song, one of several that Luke records in these first two chapters of his gospel. It’s the song of Mary (the Magnificat, from the first word of the Latin translation), but there’s a chance that we’re so familiar with Mary’s song (because it’s mostly used at Evening Prayer) that we need to hear its message again afresh.

This morning we heard of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, announcing news of the birth of a baby to this virgin. Mary then goes off to visit Elizabeth, her relative, who is also about to have a baby in remarkable circumstances - much later than she ever would have imagined possible. It’s when Mary arrives at Elizabeth’s house, having travelled three or four days, that she bursts forth in this salvation song, with that opening line: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour’ (46-47).

Mary is obviously not making the Lord bigger - but if you can imagine seeing something in the distance - a house, or a person; how do you magnify them? You come closer to them, you enlarge your vision of them - Mary is doing the same, coming to the Lord in praise, reflecting on his nature and character and deeds, and so she bursts out in praise, rejoicing in God her Saviour.

But why is she praising and rejoicing in magnifying? We find that she seems to have two ‘verses’, each of which end in a kind of chorus with the theme of mercy found in each of those choruses. The words and phrases are Bible words and phrases - you’ll notice parallels and links between Hannah’s song and Mary’s song. So let’s look at the two verses to see why Mary is rejoicing.

Mary rejoices because of 1. What God has done for Mary: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.’ Why? ‘For he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.’

We’re nearly at the time when the next round of the Queen’s Honours will be announced - in January. All over the country, people will have been receiving letters from the Queen, inviting them to receive an MBE or an OBE for their community service, their charitable work or whatever it might be. A very far out relative through at least two marriages (so that’s how far out he is!) received one of those last year. Now of course the Queen herself doesn’t sit down, go through the phone book and say, now who will I honour? There’s a whole network of nominations, advisors, through the Civil Service and so on, yet it’s still a high honour to go to Buckingham Palace and receive the award.

Put yourself in Mary’s sandals for a moment. The God who is mighty, ruling over the universe he has made, the all-powerful one, the majestic one - he has chosen and blessed Mary - the gap is even greater than the Queen and Harold! That’s why all generations will call her blessed - she has been blessed by God; he has done great things for her. He has chosen her to be the mother of the Messiah - the Son of David, the Son of God.I almost said it’s a once in a lifetime chance, but it’s more extreme than that - a once in the entire history of the world task God has chosen her for.

As she finishes off the first section, she celebrates God’s mercy - mercy for her, yes, but for ‘those who fear him from generation to generation.’ You see, while God is holy (holy is his name/character/whole being), Mary knows that she’s a sinner, there’s nothing special about her, yet she fears God - she reveres him, acknowledges him as God her Saviour. And she says this mercy she has received is for all who fear him.

I wonder can you echo these words. Just as Mary speaks out what God has done for her, I wonder if you could do the same. Testimony may not be a very ‘Church of Ireland’ thing, yet there’s power in being able to say what God has done for you. Through this past week I celebrated 19 years since I came to faith - I was turned around from what I thought of as my own goodness to see my badness, and how the Lord Jesus had done all that was necessary for my salvation. What’s your story? Does it lead you to praise? There’s great power in being able to simply tell your story to someone else.

In the second ‘verse’ Mary’s vision is widening from what God has done for her, to what God has done for all his people. Her song is connected to her son, and what he will achieve as the kingdom is unleashed. Yet you might have noticed it’s all in the past tense: ‘he has...‘ Why is that? It’s a bit like the prophets - when God says something or promises something, it’s as good as done, it’s so certain, you can say it as if it has already happened. So he has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, and so on.

The proud, the mighty, the rich, are scattered, brought down, sent away empty; while the humble and the hungry are exalted and filled with good things. It sounds like a political manifesto, doesn’t it? It’s a bit like Occupy Wall Street or Occupy London Stock Exchange - except they’re trying to do things by force, by physical presence, by pressure groups and campaigning. They may fail, but God’s action is perfect and certain.

Remember that Mary lives in Israel under the evil King Herod, who was under the even more evil Caesar. Various Zealot movements have tried to get rid of the Romans, and failed miserably. But Mary is celebrating that God is putting his plan into action, and nothing will stop it. God’s kingdom will turn these earthly kingdoms upside down. The mighty rulers will be dethroned; the meek will inherit the earth.

And all this is in fulfilment of those promises of mercy for Israel, for God’s people going right back to Abraham. God has promised that through Abraham’s seed every nation will be blessed - and it’s in Mary’s child these promises are going ahead, and God’s mercy is spreading to all who will fear him, and become children of Abraham by faith.

What Mary sings about, Jesus puts into action when he says that those who humble themselves will be exalted, but those who exalt themselves will be humbled. This song is like the gospel before the gospel, the first taster of life in the kingdom. But the question remains - where will we put ourselves? When the world is turned upside down, where will we be? Will we be clinging to our pride in our achievements or our goodness? If so, we’ll be brought down in the judgement to come.

Or will we humble ourselves, acknowledge our sin and poverty, our low estate, and find his rich mercy in Jesus, and so rejoice in God our Saviour?

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall, Brookeborough on Sunday 4th December 2011.

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