Magnificat - A sermon for Advent 3 based on Luke 1: 46-55
I think it is time to bolt the doors and to speak in hushed voices. For what we are considering this evening is the very essence of subversion. Sure many would like to spiritualise away Mary's Magnificat. And as we shall see there is great spiritual wealth within it but I warn you that within it there are also the seeds of revolt and rebellion against the injustices of this world. After all the Guatemalan military were right to recognise this when they prohibited its public reading back in the 1980s. My only difference with them is that I would love to see Magnificat proclaimed week by week by faith communities in both words and deeds.
Now I do not know to what extent these are the words of Mary and to what extent they are put in her mouth by Luke. You see, Magnificat fits the message of Luke's gospel regarding the according of value to those who are at the bottom of the pile often at the expense of the mighty. Even Christ's ministry in Luke's gospel will begin at the synagogue in Nazareth proclaiming Isaiah's message of good news for the poor.
But on the other hand, Mary seems to have been devout in her faith and I am sure that she would have been well acquainted with Hannah's song which much of Magnificat is taken from, a song born out of a great desire to be freed of the stigma of childlessness. Mary, facing parenthood all too early, may have sensed a connection with the rather more advanced in years Hannah.
We cannot know although Mary would seem to have been a strong minded woman from the little we know of her - certainly she would have needed to be at the time of her pregnancy. A real case of when the going gets tough, the tough get going! And certainly Magnificat cannot be treated as simply a nice song. For it is so much more. Within it is the very heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Now firstly, we need to treat seriously the devotion to God that is found within Magnificat. Mary may speak the language of rebellion but this is not the rebellion of the dysfunctional or the untransformed. At the heart of Magnificat is a deep devotion to God. Not long ago she has heard the news of her pregnancy , news that might have led to her death were it not for the "justice" of occupying forces. But surely for a girl probably in her early teens, shame is more than enough to bear. Yet Mary in the company of her relative, Elizabeth far from complaining, actually glorifies God. For this young woman has a deep trust in God that is rooted in the deeds done by God for her people. And to her God is not just power but goodness itself. To be caught up in doings of God is to be blessed in Mary's eyes no matter what the cost to her. Sure, many will scorn her but for her what matters is that she is on God's side no matter what.
In this Mary is a wonderful example to those of us who struggle to see what God is doing, those of us who are naturally tempted to take the safe option of the easy way out. In this alone we have much to learn from this teenage girl.
But still she leads us on the road of offence. She does not see God working to shore up the status quo with all its unfairnesses. For she knows something of the real world. Herod is on the throne, a man of great achievements in terms of buildings and keeping the Romans from defliling the Jewish nation as much as could have been the case and would be the case after rebellion seventy years later. But his court is opulent when many live a subsistence lifestyle. He is violent when he feels threatened even at the expense of his own family. All around the rich are getting richer whilst life is brutish for the poor. And this along with a shaming of those at the bottom is made possible in large part by the collaboration of the religious establishment.
Against all of this, Mary cries time! That God is intervening in the world through the baby that she bears, means that the world can never be the same again. This baby is not simply about tickets for heaven. To suggest that such is the sole purpose of Incarnation, is demeaning. He comes to bring change to both society and to our hearts. For he will come bringing the Kingdom of God which can not but confront the exploitative kingdoms of this world.
And yet, nowadays we often make Christmas the most predictable of times. Ghastly newspapers like the Daily Mail ( which is good only as a fish and chip holder) will remind us of traditions under threat from political correctness - not that they understand that term. And surely we need to respond not by thanking them for their concern but rather by utilising the catchphrase of Catherine Tate's Lauren;
"Am I bovvered?"
And frankly the answer should be NO! Because much of the traditions of the season owe an awful lot more to Victoriana sentimentality and in the case of Santa Claus to the ethically challenged company Coco Cola than to the underlying message of the Christmas story. What really matters surely is God's purposes which is where Magnificat comes in.
And wow does it come in like a tornado. For the message proclaimed is that the existing social order is under judgement. Listen once more to those words;
"He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich empty away."
No beating about the bush there! It is not about which group of people with which rosette or which unifrom are going to dominate you. It is more than that. It is about a totally different way of being and living. No shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic which is the weakness of Marxism as practiced in East Europe where one lot of dictators replaced another lot of dictators. Far from that this is about the vision of Kingdom values where peace, justice and mercy met, where all are valued as children of God - a new way of life to which we look for signs of the kingdom whilst awaiting the climax of history when God's Kingdom will come in power.
Of course the people of God can face resistance when they take this vision seriously. Yet there are examples. Let me share two example from early Christianity. One is when in the fourth century, the Roman Emperor Theodosius slaughtered 7,000 people in a massacre at Thessolonika. The Bishop of Milan, a man named Ambrose, publicly refused to allow the Emperor to receive the sacraments. Only when he had done 30 days penance did the situation change.
The second example concerns Basil the fourth century Bishop of Caeserea who fiercely opposed extreme disparities in wealth and exploitation be it by pimps or through usury or unjust taxation - even at the threat of torture. Both men who took Magnificat seriously!
And what of today. We live in a world facing many challenges. The global economy is close to collapse. Environmental crisis means that our living as we do may be painfully paid for by future generations. And around us we see conflicts and wars between nations and within nations. More than that we begin to see that tendency when things are tough to scapegoat people merely for being different.
Tonight I offer no easy answers but I encourage you to take Magnificat seriously with its challenge to the accumulation of power and extreme differences in wealth and opportunity between the well off and the poor. I encourage you to take seriously Magnificat with its belief that God is concerned passionately for the needs of those counted as least rather than for the greeds of those counted as the greatest.
No easy answers but forget not for a moment that the corrupted kingdoms of the world stand under the judgement of God's Kingdom, So I urge you to identify with every sign that you can see of God's Kingdom and to foster all such signs. And if that gets you tarred as a rebel, well rejoice. No more than that as we prepare to sing that hymn "Sing we a song of high revolt," I suggest that it is a part of our Christian calling to be revolting - after all some of us have been accused of so being albeit with a very different meaning!