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December 10, 2017

Mary’s Song of Praise

Luke 1:39-56

 

I wrote today’s praise song back in 2007 or 08, I think. I originally wrote it for a youth group that wanted to sing at Christmas, and to sing something new instead of an old hymn. So, I sat down one morning in the sanctuary and began to consider what Christ’s birth meant to me. I thought about the church I went to as a teenager, Vallejo 1st Presbyterian Church, and remembered a banner that was up at this time of year, with two people walking hand in hand into a bright light, and the words, “A Light Shines in the Darkness...” That banner was always important to me, for it reminded me that even in the darkest of times, God’s light shines in my life and I can trust God to walk with me through the darkest of valleys. So, God’s Spirit used this vision to help me write the song, “Light of the World, Shine On.”  I can’t explain how it happened, but it all just kind of flowed and I was pretty much done in an hour or so.  I have written a number of songs over the years, and generally when I write a song, the music and lyrics just sort of come together, and are based on some deep experience of my faith. I have to be in just the right place spiritually, and I cannot write a song “just like that.” I share this story about song writing not to brag, but to say that I can understand how Mary spontaneously came up with her Magnificat, because I’ve had it happen to me as well, although none of my songs are as famous as hers is!

 

Song writing about God comes from deep within one’s soul, and is based upon an experience of faith, in connection with the Spirit. What led Mary to be able to compose this song of praise on the spot? First, there was the faith she grew up with. Then, there was a fresh experience of faith- a heavenly encounter, where the space between heaven and earth was thin. Mary heard from the angel Gabriel she would have a Son in a miraculous way, the Son of the most high, seated upon the throne of his ancestor David, whose kingdom would have no end. Then, Mary said “Yes” to God’s plan for humanity. And, according to Charles Jennens and George Frederick Handel, she rejoiced greatly.

 

After the angel departed, she went quickly, with haste and according to scripture without speaking to her betrothed, Joseph, to Elizabeth’s home- for she heard the angel’s words that not only was Mary going to have a miraculous birth, but so was her much older cousin.

 

Perhaps seeing Elizabeth with child would confirm what Mary had been told about herself. As they met, the baby leapt in Elizabeth’s womb – There was some confirmation perhaps that John and Jesus were connected, and from Elizabeth’s perspective, her child was joyful. Elizabeth knew Mary was pregnant, just by looking (Some women seem to have that gift). This was confirmed by the presence of the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit who had impregnated Mary informed Elizabeth of Mary’s pregnancy. Then Elizabeth prophesied, calling her unborn child “Blessed” and calling her cousin, “The Mother of my Lord.” For Mary this was an important visit indeed. It verified what she had been told, and I would assume gave her strength and purpose as she assumed her lofty calling to be the Mother of God. And as Elizabeth finished speaking those words, God’s spirit led Mary in a song that was very similar to one she probably knew of from her childhood faith- She remembered  another daughter of Jerusalem-Hannah and her joyful song, a song of faith and thanksgiving for yet another miraculous birth of her son Samuel from long ago. Like the childhood vision of the banner which led to my praise song, her vision of Hannah singing faithfully inspired Mary through the Spirit of God to compose a song right then and there.

 

 Now why do we call this a song? After all, verse 46 says, “And Mary said”, not “and Mary sang”.. The style and writing form in this section of scripture matches many psalms that are notated as songs. There are some Hebrew scholars who in fact believe that there is some form of musical notation within the Hebrew language, yet to be fully discovered or understood. In addition, Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel chapter 2, is of a very similar pattern. So this is a song, and Mary sings from deep within her soul.

 

The praise song that followed was one of thanksgiving and anticipation, all from the context of faith. The song is really divided into two parts: First comes a thanksgiving to God. Mary makes the following statement at the beginning of her thanksgiving hymn: “My soul magnifies the Lord”.  What does this mean? Let us consider this phrase. I can remember as a child having a magnifying glass and looking at things in the world in a new way- things I could not have seen without the magnifying glass, yet they were there all along- incredibly small red spiders and

 

tiny flowers in our front lawn- the life of an ant colony- all were there, yet I remained oblivious to them until I saw with the power of magnification. And I confess to lighting an ant or two on fire by pinpointing the sun’s light... for which I have sense asked God to forgive me.  But I digress. The Greek word for magnify in this case, megalunei- means “makes greater”. The root, “Megaluno” is the Greek word of origin for “Magnification.”  Wikipedia encyclopedia defines magnification as: “The process of enlarging something only in appearance, not in physical size.” Magnification allows one to scale up visuals or images to be able to see more detail, increasing resolution. All of us at one time or another have gotten to look through a microscope, either in high school biology, or in college courses- When we look through a microscope, or a magnifying glass, we can see things we haven’t seen before, even though they have been there all along.

 

Mary’s soul magnified the Lord- it helped Elizabeth and others see that God was at work in the world, something that others may not have seen before, even though God had been there all along. It was Mary, who at around the age of 13 magnified the Lord when she said yes to God’s plan of salvation for humankind. It was Mary who sang this song of praise for what God had done for her, and what God had done, was doing and would continue to do for the world in the future. Through this song, God was visible and present to the rest of the world.

 

Mary then expresses her thankfulness for God asking her to fulfill this role, a poor and lowly hand maiden. The word for “handmaiden” is actually bond servantwhich comes from the Greek word “doulos, meaning “one who is subservient to, and entirely at the disposal of her master; a slave.” In Roman times, the term bond servant usually referred to one who was held in a permanent position of servitude. Under Roman law, a bondservant was considered the owner’s personal property. Bondservants essentially had no rights and could even be killed with impunity by their owners. At the age of about 13, Mary was already a bondservant, likely working for a wealthy homeowner and family, one of the many working poor of the first century.  Mary goes on to sing praises to God for choosing such a lowly bondservant as herself to bring the Messiah into the world.

 

 

In the second section of the song, Mary sings from the perspective of a poor bond servant in faith- she sings of God’s works in the past tense- God has already done these things listed, and she has seen them through the eyes of faith- the proud have been scattered, the exalted have been made low, the poor and hungry have been fed, and the wealthy have been turned away. In this second section, Mary sings of her past and present experiences of her faith in God, things she has witnessed. Yet it also in part is a vision of the future- It echoes the final judgement of God in which there is a complete reversal of fortune; the Koch brothers or Bill & Melinda Gates of the world exchange places with ones who stand in line at the Food Bank here in town.  This reversal of fortunes has already begun, in that God chose Mary, this daughter of Jerusalem, of low estate to give birth to the Savior of the world. It continues, every time a person caught in the grip of poverty is lifted up by those who show their faith in God through their actions. When our church opens its doors to the homeless for the winter shelter, feeds the needy at our monthly Community dinners, those in need are lifted up by God’s mercy and justice, and a glimpse of God’s future can be seen.

 

 

Then Mary sings of God’s faithfulness with her people and with her nation, Israel.  In both sections, this song has a common theme- It magnifies what God has done, what God is doing and God will do- Mary sees God at work in the past, present, future, without differentiation.

 

So what can we learn from this very familiar song of praise today? Through Mary’s faith, she magnifies God, makes God larger. This leads us to the question- What does your life magnify? Do others see hopelessness or hope in you? Do they see a troubled soul or one at peace? Do they see sorrow or joy in you? Do they experience indifference or love?

 

What will you magnify for the upcoming Christmas holidays? Will you magnify stress- purchasing and wrapping presents, stretching your finances to the breaking point to give your children or grandchildren that perfect Christmas, trying to get everything ready for December 25th? Or will you magnify the simple yet miraculous story of the birth of the Christ child in the manger? If we magnify stress, then that is what others will see and experience. In doing so, they may fail to see God, who has been there all along. Mary magnified God’s faithfulness in her life, and through that magnification, others experienced God. We are called to follow her example.

 

What Mary magnifies most in this song is TRUST, even in a time of potential stress and the unknown.  Mary trusts God, in that whatever becomes of her; whatever becomes of this surprising pregnancy, her life will be what it will be, and God will be there with her. She trusts God with her past, present, and future- that her whole life has been, is, and will be in God’s hands. Rev. Gay Lee Einstein wrote, “Mary trusts. That is, she is virtually certain that with God in control, it will all turn out for the best. When faced with the prospect of mothering the son of God, less trusting souls might shove Gabriel out the door and tell him to never come back. They might even close and bolt the door and shutter the windows—or move out of town and not leave a forwarding address. Mary, on the other hand, can praise God for this new surprising turn of events in her life. Indeed, she even sings about it.”  What about you? Do you trust God? Do you trust that you are in God’s hands, no matter what may befall you, even in times of uncertainty and upheaval?

 

 

A few years ago, when my father was in the hospital and close to death, we had a really good talk about life and death and faith in the life to come. My dad said, “I really believe it. I really do.” I could tell in that moment that my Dad trusted in those promises of faith in a particularly scary and difficult time. That kind of trust is the same kind of trust Mary sang about. German Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg wrote, “Trust is one of the fundamental aspects of life for every human existence...only trust allows the soul to breathe.”  May we follow Mary’s example of faith, magnifying God and trusting in God’s purposes for our lives, allowing our souls to breathe, even in the midst of the unknown, or in times of difficulty and stress. Who knows, if you can live this way, perhaps you too will one day write your own song of praise! Alleluia! Amen.

 

 

Pastoral Prayer: God of our salvation, grant us a clear vision of the new day that You have promised, the new day that Mary sang about so long ago. Help us to pray with an unfailing confidence that Your Word can be trusted. We lift our prayers this day for peace- for peace within ourselves, within our own families and throughout this war torn world.  We lift our spirits and ask for You to infuse us with hope, that we might magnify the promises you give us in faith. We pray for the lowly, that they might be lifted up as your servant Mary was.  We ask, O Holy One, for You to show us what we can do to ease the suffering of Your people. And we pray for the hastening of that day when poverty will cease to exist and when all Your people will be able to share equally in the riches of Your kingdom.  We ask, O Light of the world, to shine on, to shine deep within us now, that we might magnify the promise and the hope made real to us in the birth of your son, Jesus. Amen.

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