Dare we sing the Magnificat?

My sermon from this past Sunday – the fourth Sunday in Advent.

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Exuberant.     It’s a wonderful word, isn’t it?    Exuberant.

It’s one of those words that carry their meaning so well. Even to say the word ‘exuberant’ is almost to be lifted into exuberance. The Mirriam Webster dictionary offers the following definition of the word: joyfully unrestrained and enthusiastic. Exuberant: joyfully unrestrained and enthusiastic.

The thesaurus in my word processor gives these possible synonyms for the word exuberant: enthusiastic, excited, high-spirited, lively.

We read in Luke’s gospel, the words of Mary:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

Does not the word ‘exuberant’ describe well these opening words of Mary’s declaration? My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour. Eugene Peterson translates those words in a more contemporary way: And Mary said: “I’m bursting with God-news; I’m dancing the song of my Saviour God.”

There is a fullness in Mary’s words, a liveliness in her words, a real delight and joy in her words. Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, and upon arriving Elizabeth pronounces a word grace and blessing on her: “Mary, my cousin: God looks very kindly on you, and God looks so kindly on the child you are carrying.”   

In considering Mary’s song I’m reminded of the words of the famous Swiss theologian of the last century, Karl Barth. In speaking about how we confess our faith verbally and publicly – in speaking about our public statements of what we believe, the theologian says that we cannot make our confession merely mezzo forte – we can’t confess our faith only moderately loud. To confess faith is to testify and to make a bit of noise doing so. Mary allows us to add that to confess is to do so with some exuberance. My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour.

Of course, there are those who, reading these words of Mary will almost immediately turn them into an occasion for dry, abstract thinking. They might point out that Mary speaks of her soul magnifying the Lord, and of her spirit rejoicing – and doing so they might wonder whether this means we humans have both a spirit and a soul. Well, what is a soul, and what might it mean that we have a spirit too. What’s the difference between a soul and our spirit, anyway?

But Mary’s words are not an occasion for dry, abstract reflection. Her words are Hebrew poetry. In Hebrew poetry this is what you do – you say one thing, and then you say it again using different words. Mary declares: “My soul glorifies the Lord,” and then according to the tradition of Hebrew poetry, she searches for another way to express her sentiments; “My soul glorifies the Lord… and… and… my spirit rejoices in God my saviour.” Even the repetition, inherent in this form of Hebrew poetry, points to a kind of exuberance that needs to say again and again, in different words, that God is to be praised for what he is doing in our world through the child Jesus.

This past week I was listening to an interview on the CBC radio program Q – Jian Gomeshi was interviewing Harvey Fierstein, who is currently playing the character of Tevye in a Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof. And in the context of their discussion of Fiddler on the Roof they spoke about the fact that Tevye’s closest friend is none other than God. Tevye talks to God constantly. He has a running conversation with God. He is free in every moment to converse with the Lord of the universe. There are certainly moments when Tevye becomes angry with God, and even becomes deadly silent before God – yet the relationship between God and Tevye can accurately be described as a personal friendship. Intimacy, closeness, and conversation are essential to that relationship.

At one point in the interview the actor Fierstein suggested, correctly I think, that in formal worship – the kind of worship we participate in this morning – it sometimes feels like God is shuffled out of our world, beyond our grasp. This space, and the form of our worship, doesn’t necessarily encourage a personal engagement with God. Here the personal dimension of faith is not easy to grasp.

Our sermon title this morning is as follows: The Magnificat: Dare we sing it? It is perhaps a curious title. To sing the Magnificat (Mary’s song) is to enter into the space of an exuberant, a lively, a passionate, and a personal encounter with God. Dare we sing the words of Mary’s song? Dare we move beyond a merely formal, distant encounter with God? Dare we dare to enter into a personal, lively, passionate encounter with God – singing along with Mary her heartfelt song of praise?

Mary’s song is certainly much more than simply an invitation to a personal encounter with God – but that doesn’t mean that her song isn’t also just such an invitation to us, to a personal, vital encounter with God.

Why might we resist such a personal, exuberant encounter with God – the answer may be as simple as this: that such a lively and heartfelt encounter with God hasn’t been part of our tradition or experience. Maybe we don’t even know what it would look like or feel like if we were to engage with God in such an intimate and lively way. Maybe we don’t have the vocabulary that would help us speak with love to and about our Creator and Redeemer.

On the other hand, we might also resist such a personal, lively encounter with God because we rightly understand that a personal encounter with God entails a very real risk – you cannot get personal with God and remain the same person you have always been. Indeed, the change God invites might be dramatic – perhaps even life-changing.

Whatever the basis of our hesitation – and some of us might be more hesitant than others – the song of Mary comes as an invitation to an exuberant, lively, personal engagement with God. If we don’t know what such an engagement might mean for us; if we can barely imagine what it might look like or feel like; or if are hesitant about the risks entailed in encounter with God – there is no better way forward than to simply and prayerfully try to make Mary’s song our own. Take her words onto your own lips – perhaps this evening or during this week – take her words into your own heart, as you reach out toward God. My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. As you earnestly speak these words, and take them into your heart, you might be surprised and delighted where they will take you – where God might take you.

I have asked the question: Dare we sing Mary’s song. And as we continue with this theme today, we might push now in a slightly different direction. In her song Mary not only gives voice to exuberant, personal praise – she also explains why it is that she gives lively worship to God. She recounts what God has done and will do – which his the basis of her praise.

Yet as we read through the list of what God has done and will do, we might begin to worry a little. As we read about this God of encounter, this God who comes to meet us in Christ, we might be find ourselves wondering:

            God sends the rich away empty – perhaps God sends me away.

            God brings down the powerful – perhaps God will bring me low.

            God scatters the proud in heart – perhaps God will scatter us.

Mary’s song, as a number of biblical commentators point out, is revolutionary in nature. One theologian says that the Magnificat announces powerful revolutionary principles. Another theologian insists that the Magnificat is a bombshell and that people have read it so often they have forgotten its revolutionary terror.

            On the one hand:

                        God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

                        God brings down the powerful from their thrones.

                        God sends the rich away empty.

            On the other hand:

                        God’s mercy is for those who fear him.

                        God fills the hungry with good things.

                        God lifts up the lowly.

This song is sung from the perspective of those who oppressed – from the perspective of the poor and downtrodden. This song points to the revolutionary thing that God is doing in Jesus Christ – putting the least at the front of the line, filling the poor with good things, forgiving those we would have written off. Mary song, here at the outset of Luke’s gospel, announces ahead of time the message that will be proclaimed in the life, death and resurrection of her son Jesus. And it is not necessarily a song of comfort. It is a song of challenge, of a world turned upside down, of a world we might not even recognize.

As we read Mary’s song we have to ask ourselves: Are we the oppressed? Are we the poor? Are we the hungry? Are we the lowly?

Do we not belong to one of the wealthiest societies in the history of the human race? Do we not have medical treatments that most in history and in the world couldn’t even imagine? Does not more food cross our tables in one year than cross the tables of some in their whole lifetime? Are we not those who try to keep a firm grip, a desperate control, over their own lives, rather than living in the fear and trust of God?

Just when we were perhaps accepting Mary’s song as an invitation to an exuberant, personal, lively faith in the God of Jesus Christ; just as we were perhaps getting comfortable with the idea of a move beyond mere formality into personal engagement with a living Lord – all of a sudden this song pushes us back on our heels.

Yes, at one level, we’re prepared to praise God for his greatness; prepared to thank God for the gift of Jesus in Bethlehem; prepared to celebrate God’s remembrance of his people. But to sing this song is in a sense to sing a song that comes back at us with challenge and perhaps even judgment.

Otherwise put – this song announces a revolution, but a revolution with which we might hesitate to get on board.

Maybe a little aside is important here – there may in fact be some sense in which we are the lowly and the humble. In some real sense we may well be those who look for God to undo our grief and our pain – to lift us up. In some sense we may indeed be poor and in need of God’s blessing. Nevertheless we would be mistaken if we only interpreted Mary’s song only in terms of our personal struggles – for this song is also about very real political, economic, and social change. It is about the changed world God in Christ brings – a world in which our preoccupation with wealth and power and security and control of our lives is undone in a humble trust in God and in a humble service to those who live around us – these are lives lived in the strength of him who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped by made himself nothing, taking the very form of a servant.

Mary’s song announces the revolution that Jesus brings. Are we prepared to sing this song?

Are we prepared to sing a song that calls for an undoing of some of our financial security?

Are we prepared to sing a song that calls for a weakening of the grip we have on our own future?

Are we prepared to sing a song that suggests the extension of someone else’s life-expectancy and a possible shortening of our own?

Are we prepared to sing a song that calls us to a life of radical service in the pattern of our Lord?

One of the very real temptations that every minister faces when she or he stands up to preach, is the temptation to wrap up every sermon into a pleasant package – perhaps with a bow neatly and symmetrically tied on top. Above all, there is a temptation to resolve any tensions lingering in the air, to clear up any ambiguities left in our minds, to make everyone feel comfortable in the end.

Mary’s song, however, won’t let us tie up this sermon in a nice package – a perfect little bow on top. It will allow us to end with mercy and grace, but that is not at all the same thing.

Mary’s song concludes with these words: “God has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and his descendants forever”

God comes in Christ to draw us close to himself, that we might respond with lively, exuberant praise of his name – that we might get personal with God. The first word and the last word is a word of grace. God does not finally abandon his people. God does not finally condemn. In Jesus Christ the first word and the last word is of God’s love toward us and the world God has made.

But that word of grace and love does nothing to alter the radical vision of life God gives us as he comes in Christ – a radical vision expressed in the song of Mary. Might we make this powerful, revolutionary prayer our own heartfelt prayer this Advent and Christmas season.

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