Mary’s Subversive Lullaby

December 23, 2018 (Advent 4)

Service for the Lord’s Day

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Micah 5:2-5

Luke 1:37-45

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

1:39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country,40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:39-55, NRSV)

Let us Pray – O God of Elizabeth and Mary, you visited your servants with good news of great joy of the world’s redemption in the coming of the Savior. Make our hearts leap with joy, and fill our mouths with songs of praise, that we may announce glad tidings of peace, and welcome the Christ in our midst. Amen.

Songs or hymns are an integral aspect of faith. Music, songs and hymns can speak to us in ways that words, and liturgy can never touch.  Songs, music, hymns can inspire, they can upset, they can make us cry, laugh and inspire us to love.   Songs can get away with things that the spoken or written word can never dream of.  For example, some of the rap music my children listen to on their phones, if they said those words, they would have their mouths washed out with soap.   Songs can inspire, for example, the 1960’s were filled with songs of protest, struggle and fighting the establishment.  The riots in Paris in the May of 1968 prompted John Lennon to write “Revolution,” the first one recorded for the Beatles, “White Album”, in 1968.   The American troubadour Bob Dylan wrote his classic protest song, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” in 1963. The song sums up the tensions of post- World War II and Korean War America. He wrote it just before the Cuban Missile Crisis.   Keep these types of songs in mind as we think about the song Mary sings in our gospel reading for today.

As Luke tells it, Mary sings a song.  The Church named this song The Magnificat.  While we may not know this ancient hymn by heart, we know it because it has been set to music by dozens of composers.

Mary visits her pregnant cousin Elizabeth, who confirms the message that the angel Gabriel revealed to Mary: that she was pregnant and the child she carried was God’s child.   After Elizabeth pronounced a blessing, Mary poured out this song.

This sort of behavior, singing, was completely out of character for Middle Eastern Jews in the first century.  How could Mary possibly sing this song given the harsh reality of her circumstances.  She sings, “The Lord has looked with favor on the lowliness of the Lord’s servant.”   The word “lowliness” here means poor, but literally it means, dirt poor.  Mary, a dirt poor, unmarried and pregnant woman, actually, she was more like a thirteen or fourteen-year-old girl with absolutely no standing in community, no safety net to protect her.  But somehow, some way, her explanation for her situation was it was the work of God.  We have a word for that – crazy.  The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy clearly states in chapter 22 that under this kind of circumstance, a woman could be stoned to death.  So, how can Mary possibly sing?[1]  Not only does she sing, but she sings a powerful, and very political song of joy.

I have heard many people say, just stick to the bible, it is not political…well this is about as political as it gets.  I am not talking about Democrats and Republicans, red states and blue states but a powerful statement against the ruling governments of her day.[2] 

Notice the words of Mary song.  She begins with words of praise and gratitude, then goes on to note that God has brought down rulers from their thrones.  Everyone knew who the ruler was: Herod.  Herod the Great, that is, who had been given the title “King of the Jews” by the Roman senate decades earlier.[3]

Remember Herod?  Herod knew how power worked.  He was connected to Julius Caesar until Caesar was assassinated, then Herod convinced Mark Antony that he was on Antony’s side.  When Caesar Augustus overthrew Mark Antony, Herod claimed that he was really a supporter of Caesar Augustus and not for Mark Antony.  Herod seems like a real opportunist.

Herod built huge buildings.  One reason the temple became so controversial in Jesus’ day was that it was built from the taxes paid by the poor. Herod confiscated their land so that he could be Herod the Great.  Herod grew wealthy by overtaxing the poor.  Herod knew people hated him, so the story goes that he planned that on the day he died, he had 70 elite Jewish citizens imprisoned with orders that they be executed on the day of his death so that there would be tears in Israel.  Herod saw many leaders come and go; he out lasted, outsmarted, outmaneuvered and outfoxed them all.   So, this was the power that Mary’s song is against.  A song that is not only about joy and gratitude but a powerful song of resistance with the promise that God cared about the plight of the poor, the least, the last, the lost and the Jews who suffered greatly under Herod and Roman imperial power.[4]

This is the reality in which the meek and mild Mary sings:

He (God) has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts,

He (God) has brought down rulers from their thrones… [He has] sent the rich away empty.

Woah, wait a moment, let that sink in….

Apparently only two people really understood the prophetic message of Mary’s ballad about the birth of the subversive child of God would be: Herod, the most powerful man in the country, and Mary, a powerless, penniless, illiterate Jewish peasant girl.

To one of them, the birth of the Christ Child was the foundation of desperate hope; to the other it was a catastrophic threat that had to be stopped at all costs.

          Mary’s song goes on…

He (God) has brought down the ruler, but lifted up the humble;

He (God) has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.

Scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts but been mindful of the humble state of his servant.

God is reversing everything: who is in, who’s out; who’s up, who’s down.  Who the winners are; who the losers are.   Pastor, John Ortberg says: “Mary seems to charge the world with having gotten things pretty much exactly wrong.”

We all know how it really works, blessed are the beautiful. Blessed are the rich.  Blessed are the successful.  Blessed are the secure.  Blessed is Herod.  So, as Mary sings, God’s going to turn everything upside down.  Why would anyone pay attention to her, an unimportant migrant peasant girl?   It was years later that her son said: “Blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry, blessed are the meek.”

Where do you think he learned this?  More than likely sitting in his mother’s lap or as he was trying fall asleep at night her lullaby resonating in his ears.  She must have taught him that it angers God when people are selfish or violent, when rich people watch poor people go hungry and do nothing, when the powerful push around the weak because they can get away with it?

Mary’s son grew up to become a rabbi who didn’t overthrow Herod by using Herod’s methods.  He wouldn’t out-Herod Herod.  Instead he out-loved Herod.  He ultimately overthrew Herod and continues to defeat the would-be Herod’s and their capacity to hate by his greater capacity to suffer.  Her son, born in a stable, grew up in poverty and worked with his hands, humbled himself, even unto death, death on a cross.  He taught wherever people would listen.  He was accused unfairly, tried corruptly and mocked.  He was executed on a cross high on the hill of Calvary.

          So, Mary sings, not knowing fully the importance of her son, the one who will overcome sin through his suffering on a cross.   Mary sings, about God and how God will turn everything upside down, and it will all start with her, a dirt poor, powerless, illiterate, Jewish peasant girl, named Mary.  And of course, her baby boy.[5]

Let us pray:

[1] The Reverend Dr. KC Ptomey, Jr. A Homily on Luke 1:39-55 for the Third Sunday of Advent on December 17, 2000 at The Westminster Pulpit, Sermons Preached at Westminster Presbyterian Church 3900 West End Avenue, Nashville, Tennessee 37205.

[2] The Reverend Niveen Sarras, Commentary on Luke 1:39-45, (46-55), Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church of Wausau, Wausau, Wis.

[3] The Reverend Dr. John C. Ortberg, Jr., “Living by the Word: Luke 1:39-45(46-55),” The Christian Century, 2009.

[4] The Reverend Niveen Sarras, Commentary on Luke 1:39-45, (46-55), Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church of Wausau, Wausau, Wis.

[5] The Reverend Dr. John C. Ortberg, Jr., “Living by the Word: Luke 1:39-45(46-55),” The Christian Century, 2009.