fish6.gif - 0.8 K

A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Luke 1:46-55
“Restored Love”
December 21, 2014 - Fourth Sunday in Advent

         Here’s the problem with opera, other than the fact that you can’t get popcorn at an opera. The problem is that there you are, watching this story in which you are trying hard to be interested, or at least stay awake. And maybe something interesting happened, like a lover betrayed, or someone dying, or a sword duel, or someone dying, or maybe a villain exposed and punished, or someone dying. Whatever it is, though it’s likely someone is dying, there’s a bit of interesting action about to happen when, all of a sudden, the action, such as it is, comes to a grinding halt while one or two or sometimes a whole crowd of people just stand there and sing about it. That’s opera for you.

         Biblical scholar Robert Tannehill says this part of Luke 1 is like an opera. Here we’ve got an encounter between two pregnant cousins. Elizabeth had the incredible experience of her baby jumping for joy inside her when Mary walked in and said hello. She realizes Mary is going to be the mother not just of any ordinary child, but of the Lord Himself. So Elizabeth blesses Mary. But instead of telling us any more about their conversation, or moving us along to the next scene where one of them gives birth, the whole show stops while we listen to Mary sing.

         Of course, if you’re an opera fan you know that the action, such as it is, is really a very minor part of the show. It’s pretty much a flimsy excuse on which to hang the songs. Those songs—in opera they’re called “arias”—are the important thing, the meat for which real opera lovers are there and waiting. Everything else is just a side dish.

         Let’s take a cue from that Bible scholar and opera, and stopping for awhile to really listen and understand what Mary is singing. She’s not just stringing together pretty words. She’s singing her heart out about the most important thing that has ever happened in this world, the greatest thing God has ever done, and what it means for her and everyone of us.

         Mary’s song takes the place of a psalm this Sunday. It is what Christians call a “canticle,” which, like “psalm” is just a word for “song” in an ancient language, Latin instead of Hebrew. “Canticle” identifies all those songs we find in Scripture which are not in the book of Psalms. There are several more listed in the back of your hymnal. But Mary’s song is the greatest of all canticles. I’m just guessing, but, known as the Magnificat in Latin, it may have been set to music more often than any other lyrics in history.

         So let’s go with the flow of Scripture here and not rush into the birth of John the Baptist or the journey to Bethlehem or the Baby in the manger quite yet. Like Advent asks us to do for most of this month, let’s slow down, listen to Mary’s song, and try to take in why this tune is such a huge deal, why it’s an operatic show stopper.

         Like great opera tunes it starts out personally for Mary. She sings how she feels in the depths of her being, starting in verse 46, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” then repeats that thought in different words in verse 47, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” “My soul magnifies” and “my spirit rejoices.” Soul and spirit are two biblical words which point to the very center of who we are, everything that makes us different from the animals, that makes us creatures molded in the likeness and image of God Himself.

         This incredible thing God has done by choosing Mary to be the mother of His Son has gone right to the core of who she is, both physically and spiritually. And so up and out of that center she brings this song of praise to God, acknowledging that what has happened to her deserves the highest praise she can offer.

         Today’s Bible song carries forward last week’s Advent theme, “my spirit rejoices,” joy in God and in what God does. But Mary takes us one further step and develops the reason for our rejoicing. How does God bring joy? The answer is there in verses 48 and 49, then in the rest of the song for all of us. We rejoice in God because of His “favor” as Mary calls it in verse 58, His mercy as she calls it in verse 50. We might just call it His love.

         “For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” Mary understands that she does not deserve what is happening to her. She hasn’t earned the privilege of being the mother of the Lord by some extra measure of hard work. No, God has simply loved her, favored her despite her young age, her low position in society, and all the rest of it.

         Notice how she says future generations will describe her in the rest of verse 48. She takes Elizabeth’s greeting to her, “Blessed are you among women,” and looks ahead to say “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” She doesn’t say they will call her extraordinary or special or talented or brilliant or even good. They will say she is “blessed,” because being blessed is not something you do for yourself. Someone else has to bless you. Someone has to favor you, care about you, love you enough to bless you. Mary is not bragging here. She’s still praising God, because God loved her and blessed her.

         That’s the theme of this whole song. God loves and blesses the humble, lowly person who does not deserve it. And that is the theme of the Christian Gospel. In Jesus Christ God loves us even though we do not deserve it, even when we are low in sin and despair. I John 4:10 says, “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent His Son as a sacrifice for our sins.” Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And many of us know John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” Mary is singing a love song about God’s love for people who haven’t earned it, who don’t deserve it, the lowly, the poor, the sinful.

         For just a moment more in verse 49 Mary goes on talking about herself, “for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” As we read earlier in Luke 1, God did great things for both Elizabeth and Mary. For Elizabeth He’s done something that is biologically improbable, given her a baby in her old age, after her “clock” had stopped ticking. But for Mary God has done the biologically impossible, given her a baby with no human father. Talk about “great things,” God has worked a miracle in and for Mary. And she humbly acknowledged the love and the blessing she received.

         As Protestants we’ve inherited a bunch of baggage about Mary. We’re always worried that we will make too much of her, fall into some Catholic trap of putting her above Jesus like the old woman who was praying one day before a statue of Mary in an empty church. A priest hidden up in the balcony noticed her and decided to have a little fun. He called out in a deep, resonant voice, “My daughter, pray to me!” She didn’t pay any attention, so he called out again, “My daughter, this is your Lord!” Then she raised her head and said, “Will you please be quiet? Can’t you see I’m talking to your mother?”

         But Mary’s song and everything about Mary shows us that when we honor her, when we called her “blessed,” we are only doing what she did. We are honoring and praising God for the favor, for the love He showed her. And in Mary and her song we learn that God’s love and favor is not just for her but for anyone who will receive it.

         In the rest of the Magnificat, starting in verse 50, Mary becomes a prophet. She’s no longer singing just about what God has done for her but about what He will do for all those He loves. So she says, “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” Once again, it is undeserved, unearned love. It’s mercy, for those who don’t deserve mercy. It’s what Paul called grace. And it goes on and on, down through the generations, for anyone who will fear the Lord and acknowledge how much they need that mercy.

         The remainder of this song takes that gracious love and mercy of God and extends it beyond Mary to include any and everyone who needs and wants God’s love. Notice one more thing about this last and biggest part of it. Starting in verse 51, the song is all in the past tense. Mary talks about what God is going to do for the world in the same way she spoke about He’s done for her, as an accomplished fact. It’s a prophetic way of speaking. If God intends to do it, then it’s as good as done, even if it hasn’t happened yet.

         Verses 51 to 53 are about God reversing who is blessed in this world. We tend to look at proud, successful people as blessed. We think powerful people who hold positions of leadership are blessed. We suppose that those who are rich are blessed. But Mary tells us that the humble and the weak and the hungry are loved and blessed by God. Just skip over to chapter 6 of Luke and read the Beatitudes Jesus speaks there in verses 20 to 22, confirming what His mother said before He was born “Blessed are you who are poor now,” “Blessed are you who are hungry now,” “Blessed are you who weep now.”

         Notice the “now” in Jesus’ words and notice the upsets that happen here in Mary’s song. Yes, it seems like the rich and powerful have all the blessings, but that’s not how it will always be. In verse 51, God has “scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” In verse 52, there is a complete reversal of roles, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” Another reversal is in verse 53, “he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Mary and Jesus together say that you may be humble or lowly or hungry now, but God is going to change that. Just like He loved and favored Mary in all her lowliness, He’s going to love and favor all the low and little people of this world who receive and trust in His Son.

         God wants us to know that His blessing, our salvation in Jesus Christ, does not come from our own cleverness or hard work. All the true blessings are His gift, His undeserved, unmerited mercy. So He shows us that by working through lowly people like Mary who herself tells us that is how God has and will keep working down through the generations. You won’t be saved because you are good or smart or capable. The only way to be saved is by humbly acknowledging and receiving the free gift of God’s love and grace in Jesus.

         As I said on my blog this past week, that’s why I despise what Peter Jackson has done with Tolkien’s The Hobbit. The whole story of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is how salvation is accomplished by the blessing of small, humble, weak people. Jackson gets it all wrong when he fills the screen with extended battles and clashing of muscles and swords, when he takes the humble arrow that slays the dragon and turns it into an iron and steel missile launched by a machine. For Tolkien, all the conflict, all the show of force is merely background story to how little characters like hobbits and a simple man with a bow and even a tiny bird are blessed to be the ones through whom salvation comes, just like Mary is blessed to be the mother of our Savior.

         The good news is that if you are feeling low, then you are in the right place for Christmas, in the right place for the good news of Jesus. If you are feeling powerless and poor, then you are exactly the sort of person God is ready to bless with His love and favor. That’s what Mary’s song says, God is ready to pull down the folks up on thrones and lift up the people down below.

         The bad news or maybe the warning is that if we are feeling up there, doing well, in control, filled with cookies and lots of presents stacked around the tree, we may need to come down a little to find God’s real blessing.

         In an article in First Things Timothy George wrote about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s thoughts during Advent while a prisoner in Germany during World War II, before he was finally executed by the Nazis in April of 1945. Eight months after his arrest, Bonhoeffer wrote, “By the way, a prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent; one waits, hopes, does this or that—ultimately negligible things—the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside.”[1] And Advent reminds us that:

misery, sorrow, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something quite different in the eyes of God than according to human judgment; that God turns toward the very places from which humans turn away; that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn—a prisoner grasps this better than others. And for them, this is truly good news.

         It’s hard to hear good news like Mary’s or the good news of Jesus Christ when you are rich and powerful. As the television show “Leverage” always says, “The rich and powerful take what they want.” The show goes on to say, “but we steal it back for you.” But Mary’s message, the Christian message is that the only way to really have what you want is to wait for it, and to receive it as a gift. You can’t take it or steal it back either one. You can only wait for it to be given to you.

         Bonhoeffer also tells us, “We simply have to wait and wait. The celebration of Advent is possible only to those troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.”

         That something greater to come is God’s good work in this world now through humble people who follow Jesus and God’s great and final work when Jesus comes again, as some of us have been hearing N. T. Wright say over and over, to “sort things out.” God is sorting things out now by lifting up lowly people who believe in Jesus. And we believe He will do that completely and forever when Mary’s child comes to us again someday.

         In the meantime we are blessed with the knowledge that in His love, God keeps His promises. That’s what the last couple verses of Mary’s song tell us. “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,” says verse 54. God remembers. He remembers His love and mercy. No matter how long it seems we wait, God has not forgotten us, not forgotten His love. Israel waited hundreds of years for the Messiah and now Mary sings because He remembered and kept the promise.

         That promise, says verse 55, was “the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” Mary meant her own Jewish people, the literal, biological descendants of Abraham. But Paul tells us that part of what God did when He sent Jesus to be born of Mary with no human father was to make it possible for anyone to join the family, to become a descendant of Abraham. All you need do is admit that you are lowly and poor and helpless like Abraham was when God chose him, and trust in Jesus like Abraham trusted in God. Then God’s promise, the promise He always keeps, is yours too.

         Our lives and our world are out of balance. People and things aren’t where they should be. Some are too high and some are too low. Jesus came to restore the balance, to bring down the high and lift up the low. Jesus came to restore the balance which is God’s love for everyone, God’s free gift of love in mercy that none of us deserve. We can only accept it and wait for it. May God restore His love in you as Jesus your Savior comes to you this Christmas and when comes again to reign in this world.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] This and the other Bonhoeffer quotes in the sermon are from Timothy George, “Bonhoeffer in Advent,” 12.15.14 on the First Things web site, George quotes without specific citation, though the words almost certainly come from Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison.

Last updated December 21, 2014