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The sermon for week December 20, 2015

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Breaking into Song

Luke 1:39-55

Today the text has in it a song, a song known as the Magnificat. It is not the only song found in Luke. There are at least four songs in the first several chapters of Luke’s story about Jesus. Mary sings when she is greeted by her cousin Elizabeth (today’s reading). Zechariah sings when his son John is born and his tongue is finally loosened. The angels sing of peace and goodwill when they share their “good news of great joy” with the shepherds. And Simeon sings his song of farewell once he has seen God’s promises to Israel kept in the Christ child.

Why, one might wonder, all these songs? Three of them are songs of joy. But this one is different. It begins as a song of joy, but then once you are hooked on the tune of joy, it turns into a song of resistance. It is a song that turns things upside down, reverses things. It is a song that challenges the status quo. It is a song that upsets all of our expectations.

Over the centuries, there have been many occasions when songs were sung as acts of resistance.

In the 1800’s, the slaves sang songs of resistance. When they sang their spirituals, they were not only praising God, they were protesting the masters who locked them out of worship but who couldn’t lock them out of the promise of deliverance as told through the scriptures. Like the slaves, the civil rights leaders also knew the power of song. Despite overwhelming odds when it appeared that all the power was held by those that wanted the status quo, they sang songs like “We Shall Overcome.” In 1989, there were protesters in Leipzig, Germany who also knew the power of singing. For several months preceding the fall of the Berlin wall, the citizens of Leipzig, young and old, gathered on Monday evenings by candlelight around St. Nikolai church – the church where Bach composed so many of his cantatas – to sing. Over two months their numbers grew from a couple of hundred people to little over a thousand people to more than three hundred thousand.

In a city of less than 600,000, over 300,000 were singing songs of hope, songs of protest, songs of justice. The power of their singing shook the powers of their nation. The power of their singing helped to change the world. (Later, when someone asked one of the officers of the East German secret police, why they did not crush this protest like they had so many others, the officer replied, “We had no contingency plan for song.”!) Their singing songs of faith and hope became revolutionary.

As we look back at the time of Mary, it becomes apparent that our world today is so far removed from the world in which Mary lived that we do not have the eyes to see nor the ears to hear how revolutionary is this song of Mary’s, or how revolutionary it was for the early church to pick it up and claim it as their song.

Here is some background to help us hear it with new ears. As the story unfolds, Mary is informed by the angel Gabriel that she is pregnant even though she has not been with Joseph. This presents a major problem for her. For we have been told that Mary is engaged to Joseph but not yet married. Being engaged to Joseph, Mary will be treated as a married woman. Since she is carrying a child that is not Joseph’s she is guilty of adultery. The law is clear, that if she is found guilty she is to be stoned to death. (Deuteronomy 22:23-24).

Mary is in need of help so she runs to Elizabeth for protection. This was no social visit. Elizabeth is a woman of power. Elizabeth was the wife of a priest, a descendant of Aaron, and she is the matriarch of her clan. Mary fled to Elizabeth, a distant cousin, whom she hoped would save her life. We also find out as the story unfolds that Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, a powerful priest has lost his voice because of disbelief. Had Zechariah been able to speak, he would have condemned Mary. As a priest, he would follow the law. He was known for following the law (Luke 1:6). As a man in a patriarchal culture with a patriarchal religion and institutions, there would be pressure to enforce the law. The Law demanded death. Had Elizabeth not blessed Mary’s pregnancy, had she not taken a stand against unjust laws, Mary might be put to death. This is not the children’s story we thought it was. This is a story that is challenging the laws on which society had been built. This is a story that is challenging the religious powers. This is a story that is challenging the patriarchal foundation of their society. Luke is giving us a heads up here. If we claim this story as ours, if we take the way of Christ seriously, we too will be called to stand up against the status quo, to stand with the poor and oppressed, to sing songs that will change the world.

When Mary and Elizabeth meet, rather than receiving condemnation as the reader would expect, Elizabeth greets here with a blessing, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

It is then that Mary begins her song. A song that was clearly in here heart for some time but now released for the world to hear. Instead of a song of lamentation, a song of woe is me, she sings a song of joy praising God. She sings a song of praise of God’s reversing the power struggle between the lowly and the powerful. She sings of God’s fulfillment of the promise to raise up the poor and scatter the proud.

Mary’s song is a lead in to the entire gospel. It describes a “great reversal”. We soon find out that God stands with the powerless among us. Mary describes herself as a servant or slave. God scatters the proud, brings down the powerful, and lifts up the lowly. God feeds the hungry and sends the rich away empty. As the story unfolds, we later read that Jesus too scattered the proud, he brought down the powerful, he lifted up the lowly, he fed the hungry and more often than not the rich went away empty.

This is not a song for the faint hearted. It is challenging much of our preconceived notions and expectations. If you want a soft glow of Christmas, this is not the song for you. This song is not only a song of resistance; it is a marching song that is ushering in a new world. It is reversing the order of things. First it silences the voices of those who thought they could speak for God.

It was a bold challenge to those laws that had been created to oppress the poor and powerless. But more importantly, in a very bold way it was proclaiming that God values the very ones that society devalued. You see, Jesus would have been considered an illegitimate child due to the suspicious circumstances of his birth (John 8:41). As an illegitimate child, he would not be allowed to “enter the house of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 23:2). This means he could never become a leader of his people or take a leadership role in the nation of Israel. First through Mary and now clearly through Jesus, God is enacting another reversal.

Are we ready for the reversal that God is enacting? Do we have eyes to see it? Are we willing to join in Mary’s song and become part of the revolution that God is bringing about? There is so much to sing about. We could join in the chorus of those concerned about climate change, We could join in the chorus of those who stand against walls being built to keep people out. We could join the chorus that is standing against laws that support the widening gap between the rich and the poor.…..

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Note: This sermon is indebted to two posts on textweek.com, The first is a post by David Lose, "Singing as an Act of Resistance," where Lose recounts how songs have been used to bring about revolutions, and the second is a post (December 17, 2013) by Rich Procida where Procida develops the historical reversals that are found in the Gospel of Luke.

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