This is a lightly edited transcript of a sermon preached on December 19, 2021. For the original audio and/or video versions of this sermon, check the links on the Resources page.
Please pray with me.
Lord God, thank you, Lord, as always, for this space that we have, for this time that we have. Thank you for getting us through another week.
I pray that you would continue to be present with us and with everyone through this holiday season, Lord — that you would be especially with those who are struggling, who are lonely, or who are pushed off to the side and forgotten by society, Lord. What ought to be a joyous time of celebration and anticipation can sometimes be difficult for people who are struggling just to make ends meet — struggling to find a belonging and a place in the world — and often, we do not, as a society, turn our eye to them and our attention to them, Lord. Instead, we take this as a time to revel in our abundance and our luxury and our privilege.
And I pray, Lord, that as we go through this time of Advent that we would not be like that — that we would let our minds and our eyes and our ears turn toward those who are suffering — that the Advent of Christ would be more than just a celebration of our comfort but that it would be a way of participating in your Kingdom, a way of participating in a hope and a future that is different what exists now.
As we consider scripture, Lord, and as we consider our own lives, please move in our hearts and our minds to transform us into the kind of people who can be like Christ.
We love you, Lord, and we pray these things in Jesus’s name. Amen.
I’m going to be reading out of Luke chapter 1, this morning. Luke chapter 1, starting in verse 46.
Recently, we looked at parts of Zechariah’s song as he sings over the birth of his son, John, and this morning, we’re going to read from Mary’s song as she sings to her cousin about the coming of Jesus and what God is doing in her and through her.
It says in verse 46:
And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the LordLuke 1:46-55, NIV
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been 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;
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 away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
This song is prophetic. It’s not a celebration of what God has done, but Mary sings it as though it is something that God has done. She says he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts; he has brought down rulers from their thrones; he has lifted up the humble; he has filled the hungry; he has sent the rich away empty; he has helped his servant, Israel, just as he promised our ancestors. But none of that has happened.
None of that has happened in any way that really matters. All of the story of Israel has been a proclamation over what God has done, and yet, God hasn’t changed anything. I exaggerate a little bit; I exaggerate in the way that Mary exaggerates, here, in her prophetic song, but the nature of prophecy is not merely to say what God has already done and not merely to announce something that might happen in the future as though it is fortune telling.
The nature of prophecy is to speak into reality what God is doing in a time and place. It’s to speak into people’s lives and the lives of a community the work that God is doing as though it is work already accomplished. It’s a way of both announcing to a community the presence of God among them and also speaking into reality the hope that we have for the work of God. And so when Mary talks, here, she sings about these things as though they have already come to pass, just like all prophets have done before, but she implies the reality that is coming because of Jesus who’s going to be born through her.
We see similar things all throughout the gospel of Luke where Jesus speaks into people’s lives, like we’ve looked at in Luke 4, where he reads out of Isaiah, and he says, “This is the year of the Lord’s favor. I’m proclaiming these things. Freedom for captives. Freedom for the imprisoned. Sight for the blind. Food for the poor.” These things he proclaims as though they have been fulfilled. “Today, this reading is fulfilled through me,” and yet those things haven’t happened. In another place, he says you’ll always have the poor with you.
And so prophetic writing and prophetic speech is not about announcing futures — not merely announcing futures — and not merely about stating things that have already happened. Prophetic speech is like prayer. When we looked at prayers, recently, we talked about how they are liturgical reminders of who we are and who we are trying to be and what is happening in our lives. They’re ways of us assessing ourselves.
In the same way, our worship does that for us. The words that we sing in songs are not merely words that we say. They ought to be self-reflections on our beliefs, on our understandings, on our hopes, on our worries, which is why you get such a rich context out of the psalms — because they’re written out of all these different seasons of life, and they reflect those seasons.
Similarly, prophecies, like this one from Mary about the work of God in creation, reflect our understanding of what God is doing and ought to call us into participating in something that God is doing. So, when Mary, here, talks about these things, she’s not merely stating them as though they are finished. She’s stating them as realities into which she is going to live as a participant in God’s work in creation.
And if you’re wondering why I called this a prophetic song, it’s because of all the reasons I just said about what a prophecy is and does. This song checks all of those boxes, for me, and what that means is Mary is a prophet of God, and in the protestant tradition, we don’t talk about it that way, because we’re so anti-Catholic imagery of Mary and any kind of exultation of Mary that we would rather deny the prophetic nature of Mary’s life concerning Jesus than accept the risk of accidentally exulting her “too high.” But Mary is a prophet of God.
In fact, Mary is the prophet who comes to proclaim and then actually participate in the presentation and the incarnation of Jesus in the world, and because of that, we have this powerful song from her. What does she actually envision of God’s work in her community? What does she actually envision of God’s work in the world?
She says God scatters the proud; those who are proud in their inmost thoughts are scattered by God. The rulers are brought down by God, the humble are lifted up by God, and the hungry are filled with good things. The rich are sent away empty, Israel is helped, mercy is shown, and promises are kept. These are the things that she says are part of the work of God in creation.
So just like with prayers, we ought to come to this worshipful moment in scripture and ask ourselves how we understand our place in the work of God. What does this reveal to us about who we are? Because the common language that’s used when we analyze our own status, our own position as citizens in the kingdom of God, is whether or not we are “living in sin.” I can’t count how many times I’ve heard that.
How do I know if I’m participating with God? How do I know if I’m saved? How do I know if I’m living rightly? And people will say, “Well, if you’re living in sin then you’re not living rightly,” and usually what they mean by that is: calculate the amount of things you can think of in your own life that could be called “sinful,” and try to get that number as low as possible. Right?
It’s like golf; your score doesn’t really matter. You just want it to be as low as possible, and there’s this arbitrary baseline that we call “par,” and that’s what people want you to do. They want you to just get below par, and that baseline is usually really [stereotypical] purity culture things like, you know, maybe don’t sleep around with people. Maybe don’t drink a lot. Maybe don’t smoke or do drugs. Maybe don’t curse. They set this arbitrary baseline. Then they say if you could just get below that baseline — if the number of sins you can count is just below that number — then you’re not “living in sin.” Or if you can show me in how you express yourself that you struggle with these things, then you’re not “living in sin.” And if you’re not “living in sin” then we’re just going to call it good.
But that’s not the image presented in Mary’s song, and that’s not the image presented in the gospel of Luke, and that’s not the image presented through the life of Jesus. What’s presented through those things is not “are you living in sin” but “are you participating in the Kingdom?” It’s not “salvation through negation.” It’s salvation through participation.
And when we analyze Mary’s song and we shine that light on our own lives, we begin to get similar questions to what we saw when we were talking about prayer and when we were talking about peace through Jesus. We get to things like are we part of the process of scattering the proud, or probably even before that, are we among the proud, or are we among the humble? Are we among those who are going to be scattered by God, or are we among those who are going to be lifted up by God? That’s a very different question than “are you living in sin?” That’s a very different question than “can you enumerate the lifestyle choices that you made?” This is a self-reflective question that forces us to examine ourselves and say, “Are we proud, or are we humble?”
We get questions like, “Are we among those who are ruling over others, or are we among those who are struggling because of the rulers over us?” We get questions like, “Are we among the hungry who will be filled with good things, or are we among the rich who will be sent away empty?” Are we among those who require help from God? Are we among those who are willing to receive mercy from God? Or are we among those who do not need either of those things?
When we examine ourselves in the light of Mary’s song, we begin to understand a baseline that’s different from sin and purity. It’s a baseline of how we participate in the work that’s happening among us. If we look around at our communities and our communities are only rich people, are only proud people, are only rulers and people of influence, there’s a really good chance that we are not participating in the work of God to scatter the proud, bring down the rulers, and lift up the humble and fill the hungry.
It’s a similar sort of self-analysis that we find when we looked at Luke 4, again. Are we poor and blind and oppressed, captive and imprisoned, or are we already seeing ourselves as rich and well-fed and free and sightful, and if we find ourselves in that second group, are we working in some way to part of the work that God does to free the oppressed and the imprisoned, to give sight to the blind and to feed the poor, or are we just coasting along with our fellows who feel secure in the resources we already have?
This song from Mary shows us a different vision for what is happening in the Kingdom of God. It calls us to a different way of participating — of living into the righteousness that we claim to have received through Jesus.
Jesus tells two parables. One of them is really popular. It’s called the Prodigal Son, and the temptation is to find ourselves in one of those two sons, and many times we just want to say, “I’m not the prodigal son. I’m the one who stayed and worked in the home — worked for the father.” Sometimes, we just want to be able to say that we didn’t take our inheritance and go out and squander it and then come back begging, but Jesus tells a second parable. It’s a parable of two sons who stayed home, and one of those sons said he would go work for the father, but he didn’t, and the other son said he wouldn’t go, but he changed his mind, and he did. And we forget that just because we’re in the house of God doesn’t mean that we’re participating in the work of God. Just because we decided to stay home doesn’t mean we’re participating in the work that our father is doing. And so we end up like the son who stayed in the prodigal story. Yes, we’re in the house, but we misunderstand everything.
We misunderstand the difference between life and death. We misunderstand the difference between lost and found. We misunderstand the significance of a person coming home. We misunderstand the significance of a person having left the house. We misunderstand the love of our father for his children, and so we fail to cultivate real love for our brothers and sisters in ourselves. Instead, we fill ourselves up with pride and bitterness, and we revel in the riches that we have, and we greed after more.
“All that I have was yours,” the father said, and yet the brother asked, “Why didn’t you give me more? Why didn’t you give me the fatted calf? Why didn’t you throw me the party?” He’s so consumed with bitterness and blindness because of his position that he falls into the temptation of greed without even realizing it and in his heart becomes an oppressor of his own brother. He would rather push his brother out to the margins than suffer his brother’s presence and the praise of his father going to him.
The brother in the prodigal son and the brother who fails to do what his father requests are both failing to live into this prophetic reality of Mary’s song. They find themselves in the proud and the rulers and the rich who will be sent away empty, brought low, who will be scattered, and they don’t even realize it, but if we take our own lives and we shine this light on them and we ask ourselves, “Are we participating in the work of God to do these things that Mary enumerates — are we living into the hope of that reality coming true,” then we can get a good idea of where we stand in relation to the kingdom.
This is all the more important as we approach Christmas, as we approach the time when we celebrate the actual coming of Jesus, because we’re in this anticipation of that reality, and Mary lives, too, in that same anticipation. And we have to be careful that as we anticipate the coming of Christ, as we remember the coming of Christ, that the implication of receiving the Gospel is more than just a hope for some Heavenly future and more than just a remembrance of what Jesus did “back then.” Like Mary, it is a commitment to living into a hope of a reality that begins now and isn’t yet fulfilled — a reality that says we’re going to live as though these things are true while we work to be part of making them true.
We can’t ignore the reality of suffering, but neither can we sit back and assume that just because we have accepted Jesus we don’t have to work against any of that suffering. We have to be part of it. We have to participate in the work of our Father, and when, like the prodigal son, we realize that we have squandered what we have received, we turn around and go home realizing that the father is still about his own work, which includes, then, receiving us in mercy, helping us, and restoring us back to the work to which we had previously committed ourselves.
This week, as we approach Christmas — this week, as we approach that time of celebration with family and friends, I hope — don’t forget to reflect on your relationship with God. Don’t forget to reflect on Mary’s song. Are you participating in the kind of kingdom that brings into reality the things that she claims, or are you just among the proud and the rulers and the rich who will be sent away empty?