Scripture Reading: Luke 1:26-55
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
She has been called Queen of Heaven, Mother of the Church, Madonna. Her image has appeared on some of the most sublime art ever created- but she has also been the inspiration of some terrible kitsch. She has been regarded by some as a model of womanhood and the perfection of motherhood. But she’s also been seen as been seen as a damaging role model for women. There are Christians who have made her the object of devotion: she has inspired popular prayers and beautiful music. And then there are Christians who just seem to ignore her. She is the Mary, and today we can’t ignore her. Because it’s soon going to be Christmas.
The first two chapters or so of Luke’s Gospel prepare us for Luke’s account of the life and teaching of Jesus. There is a wonderful cast of characters- Mary and Joseph, the parents of Jesus, and Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist. And Luke puts words into the mouths of the two prospective mothers- two songs, songs of prophecy and praise which are often called Canticles. Mary’s song is known as the Magnificat, from the first word of the Latin translation of the song: Mary sings, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord!’ It is a beautiful poem, which has found its way into many liturgies and hymn versions- we will sing a version after this sermon today- today. It seems to be modelled on the song of Hannah, the mother of the Old Testament prophet, Samuel- another mother whose son would do great things for God.
Now, we Christians who belong to the Reformed tradition tend to be a bit wary of saying much about Mary. One of the things the reformers most objected to at the time of the Reformation was the tendency of the mediaeval Church to overdo the veneration of Mary. By the time of the Reformation, the cult of Mary had almost turned her into a goddess. Indeed, perhaps that’s why she was so successful- she had replaced the old pagan goddesses which had been worshipped before Christianity came along. Reformed Christians have therefore given Mary a lot less attention. But if we go back to Scripture- and as a good Reformed Christian, that it what I have to do- if we go back to the Bible and ask, who was Mary?- the results are surprising.
Luke tells us that, Mary was from ‘a town in Galilee named Nazareth ’-a small, unimportant town. She was, we hear, ‘a young woman promised in marriage to a man named Joseph, who was a descendant of King David’. Put that way, it sounds as though Joseph is the important one here. For Jesus is to be a king- a king in the line of Israel’s greatest king, King David. But then Joseph rather disappears from the picture, in Luke’s telling of the story. This is unusual, for the Bible is so often such a a very patriarchal book- it often seems to reflect a male point of view, which is not surprising, since it was written in times when women were not treated equally to men. But in God’s plan, and as Luke tells the story, Joseph, the important head of the family, is secondary. The focus in this story is not on the man, but on his wife to be- a young woman, living in a small, unimportant town in the north country, far from Jerusalem or anywhere else important.
And to this young woman an angel appears and says, ‘Peace be with you! The Lord is with you and has greatly blessed you!’. Not surprisingly, Mary is ‘troubled’ by this event. Who wouldn’t be? And then she learns that she is to be a baby, and that he will be very special: a king whose kingdom will never end. It seems impossible- how could Mary be mother of a king? That’s pretty impossible, never mind the fact that she is still a virgin. Yet God’s power can do anything. The angel reminds Mary of the strange experience of her relative Elizabeth: ‘Remember your relative Elizabeth. It is said that she cannot have children, but she herself is now six months pregnant, even though she is very old. For there is nothing that God cannot do’.
Most of us here know just how life-changing pregnancy and having a child can be. It is usually a time of great joy, for everyone loves a baby. Yet every parent has times when they have been anxious about pregnancy, and about the birth itself. The anxieties don’t end there- there is a baby to bring up, a baby which will turn into a toddler and a school child and a teenager. And even when they are grown up, parents worry about their children. So for Mary to be told, you are going to have a child, and he is going to be a king- that all sounds great- but it must have also been troubling. Kings are public figures. They get into trouble. Mary had no idea that she would end up watching her son being crucified on a Roman cross, and no idea what would happen after that.
But nevertheless, Mary says ‘yes’ to the angel. ‘“I am the Lord’s servant,” said Mary; “may it happen to me as you have said”’. I think these words make Mary the first Christian- the first person to put her faith in what God will do through Jesus. And then she hurries off to confirm all this with Elizabeth, her relative in the hill-country. Last week we spoke of how John the Baptist pointed to Jesus. There is a foretaste of that in Luke’s Gospel when he tells what happened when the mother of Jesus met the mother of John. Elizabeth’s joy overflows: ‘Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and said in a loud voice, “You are the most blessed of all women, and blessed is the child you will bear! Why should this great thing happen to me, that my Lord’s mother comes to visit me? For as soon as I heard your greeting, the baby within me jumped with gladness. How happy you are to believe that the Lord’s message to you will come true!” And Mary, too, sings for joy: ‘“My heart praises the Lord; my soul is glad because of God my Saviour, for he has remembered me, his lowly servant!’
Often in Christian history, Mary was seen as a model for Christian- especially feminine- humility- God’s ‘lowly servant’. And so it has suited the powerful to say to women, ‘Look at Mary, God’s lowly servant. Learn from her. Stick to being humble and obedient, just like Mary- for Mary is the model of true Christian womanhood’. And so Mary was used to keep women in their place- a place not far from the kitchen on the nursery. Mary became an icon of lowly, personal faith.
But none of this is true to the sentiments the song which Mary’s sings. She sings that even although she is lowly, ‘God has remembered me’. She sings of a powerful God who brings down kings and sends the rich away empty handed, even as he lifts up lowly people like Mary and fills the hungry with good things. Mary wasn’t one of the rich and powerful. She was very young, quite ordinary, we would call her poor. Like all women in that time, she depended on men for her place in society. So often we think of Mary in terms of the beautiful works of art we are familiar with, which quite often show her dressed in beautiful clothing, as if she was very rich. But the Mary of the Bible was just a poor Jewish peasant girl, whose only hope for happiness would have been to marry a decent lad, like that nice Joseph, the carpenter. And yet this wee lassie can sing: God has remembered me! God has lifted me up! And she can sing, not just of a personal faith, but of a God who causes revolutions in politics and economics.
It is one of the glories of the Gospel that God remembers the little people, the powerless, the unimportant. The life and career of Jesus illustrates this very well. He has time for ordinary folk, for those who are ill and fearful. He’s not comfortable in the company of kings and Roman rulers or religious high-heid yins. He touches lepers, he cures people with terrifying psychological illnesses. For central to his message is the idea that all of us matter. Not even a sparrow can fall without God knowing about- and the most ordinary human being is worth much more to God than a sparrow. God remembers us. God lifts up the lowly.
But much of the power politics in our world depends on not remembering ordinary, lowly, people. King Herod, Governor Quirinius, the Emperor Augustus- none of them gave much thought to the lives of Jewish peasant girls. As long as they paid their taxes, and kept the inhabitants of the royal palace, the governor’s mansion and the Emperor’s villa in the style to which they were accustomed, nobody in power gave much thought to the ordinary people of Palestine. But Mary cries, ‘My God has remembered me’. And that has revolutionary results.
For Mary’s sings that her God will ‘scatter the proud with all their plans’, bring down ‘mighty kings from their thrones’, lift up ‘the lowly’, fill ‘the hungry with good things’ and send ‘the rich away with empty hands’. Mary is just another poor pregnant Jewish peasant. But her child will turn the world upside down. For God ‘has remembered to show mercy to Abraham and to all his descendants for ever!’
You see, Christianity is not supposed to be used for keeping people in their place. Quite the opposite. For the song of Mary reminds us that God does not forget us. God does not forget anyone. God does not forget us when we live ordinary, humdrum lives. God does not forget us as we wrestle with trying to decide what is the right thing to do. Rather, the Gospel has been for millions of people good news. It has given them dignity and hope. It has promised them a better life. It has raised their hopes that one day justice will be seen to be done in this world. It has assured them that God has not forgotten about them.
Luke tells us that Mary stayed three months with Elizabeth, before returning home. A few months later, much more heavy with child, Mary would be forced to make another journey. For in his palace in Rome the Emperor Augustus was planning a census of the whole Roman Empire. Soon thousands of people would be forced to travel to their home towns. Mary would go with her husband to Joseph’s family town, Bethlehem, where she would have to give birth in the most dreadful conditions- in a stable, without even a cot to put the baby in. But God was at work, for this child would start something which would put all the achievements of the Emperor Augustus in the shade.
As Mary knew, our God does not forget ordinary folk like her. Mary’s God reaches down into our world to raise up ordinary folk, to raise up ordinary life. For God’s kingdom begins not in a royal palace, but in a stable. For the bairn in the stable will scatter the proud, bring down mighty kings, and send the rich away empty-handed. But he will lift up the lowly and fill the hungry with good things! And that is the Good News as we approach Christmas!
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2017 Peter W Nimmo