Saturday, December 18, 2010

Christmas It's worth Singing about: Mary's Song (Luke 1:39-56)

Christmas it’s worth singing about. In our New Zealand culture there are not many times when we have a common sound track a common body of songs that we sing or have an occasion to meet together to sing. But Christmas is one of those times.

Yes at rugby matches we will sing the national anthem with gusto, even the Maori verse if we can see the words. And praise God our children know them off by heart.

We are not like the home nations who support their Rugby teams and express their enjoyment of sport in song. We are not like England’s balmy army in Australia at the moment doing backing vocals to the radios cricket commentary. Mind you our Cricket team doesn’t give us much to sing about.

We shouldn’t be surprised that Christmas is worth singing about, because it has been from that first Christmas. Luke’s starts his gospel by telling us two parallel birth narratives, John the Baptist’s and Jesus of Nazareth. And the start of Luke’s gospel reads very much like a Bollywood movie or an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. At significant moments in the narrative people break out into songs of joy, songs of praise. In fact in Luke chapter one and two there are no less than four songs recorded. Three solo’s and the production number to end all productions numbers.

Christmas it’s worth singing about and this Christmas, this advent season leading up to Christmas day. I want to use these four songs to look afresh at the Christmas story, its message for humanity and its hope for this world. In the songs are motifs that reflect central themes in Luke’s gospel: Important aspects of Jesus purpose and mission that continue to speak to us today individually and corporately.

The songs of praise come in response to God making a promise and then that promise being fulfilled. Mary is told she is pregnant and it is confirmed by Elizabeth’s own pregnancy and greeting, Zechariah is promised a son and after his birth after almost a year on mute, Zechariah sings God’s praise, the Angels proclaim Jesus birth as a fulfilment of his promise for a messiah to Israel, in a song we don’t have the words to the Shepherds go home from Bethleham rejoicing because what the Angels had told them was true. and Simeon in the temple was told by God he would not die till he saw God’s promised messiah and into the temple Mary and Joseph bring Jesus.

We no longer have the tunes for these songs, but my hope is that the lyrics might resonate with our hearts and cause us to bring forth our own praise our own new songs, a lyrical beauty in our lives that will give Glory to God for God’s grace shown to us in Jesus Christ. Christmas it’s worth singing about.

It’s appropriate today to start with Mary’s song, A song that JT Wright calls the Gospel before the gospel. A bold proclamation of the coming of God’s Kingdom, thirty weeks before Bethlehem and thirty years before Calvary. That foretells Jesus as God’s Good news for the Poor, the blind, the oppressed, the outcast and the prisoner, and for you and me.

It has been called the Magnificat after the first word of the Latin translation; ‘My soul does magnify the LORD’. It is one of the oldest and most famous Christian songs it has been whispered in monasteries, chanted in cathedrals’, orchestrated by Johann Sebastian Bach, recited in remote country churches, become the basis for Hymn’s. its formed the basis for contemporary worship songs, like one written by the wife of a friend of mine, she was reading the Magnificat while visiting a couple of friends living in Cambridge, who had really struggled to have children and were finally expecting. Mary’s song seemed to capture the Joy.

Mary’s song is a new song, but it’s drenched in the scriptures of the Old testament, it has overtones and follows the same structure as Hannah’s song In 1 Samuel it echoes the story of Abraham and Sarah and Israel being descendant from a child of promise born to a couple in their old age. You could imagine that song from Hannah’s story and Sarah’s that parallels Elizabeth’s, being on Mary’s mind as she headed into the hill country to meet her older relative. Hannah like Elizabeth was childless and God allowed her to have a child, Samuel who when he was grown up would anoint king David. Definite parallels here between Hannah’s son and Elizabeth’s.

It’s a song that has three parts.

It starts with Mary finally being able to rejoice about her pregnancy and over what she had been told by the angel.

The Angel Gabriel had appeared to Mary and told her that she was to become pregnant and that her son would be the heir to King David’s throne, that he would reign forever.

She is perplexed by this as she is still a virgin and its mind blowing that she is with child. But is told, “It will be a miracle and will happen through the power of the Holy Spirit, that nothing is impossible to God”. Then as a sign of this she is told that her elderly relative Elizabeth who has been barren and is post menopausal is also pregnant. If God could do that then God could do what he had said to her. Mary’s response to the angel is faithful and devout and she says ‘ I am the Lord’s servant, May it be to me according to your word’. But there dosen’t seem to be much joy in that. You could imagine that Mary is still bewildered and amazed by the event and she doesn’t really know what to make of it. Luke tells us that Mary hurried off to see her relative Elizabeth. Could the news she had be true could this amazing angelic visitation be real? She arrives at Elizabeth’s house and as she greets a six month pregnant Elizabeth the child in Elizabeth’s womb that Zechariah was told in Luke 1:15 would be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he was born, leaps. John starts the musical off with an unseen dance. Elizabeth now affirms to Mary what the angel had told her about her own baby and Mary’s response is to burst out into song. Finally after the uncertainty of a journey to the hill country where Elizabeth was living and hoping that what she had experienced was real Mary allows herself to express the wonder of God’s great love and power. She expresses Joy at what the Lord has done.

The heart of Christian worship should be Joy, wonder our souls bursting with the good news of what God has done. It’s also Joy that often only comes as we are prepared to yield ourselves to God and follow him even when we don’t fully understand. Mary had obediently yielded to God’s will and had struggled with doubts. Yes there will be sorrow and pain child birth and later her soul will be pieced with a sword of such sorrow as she is told by Simeon in the temple, but despite suffering and pain and sorrow, there is Joy because of God’s goodness and mercy.

The second portion and theme of the song is a personal reflection on God’s mercy that God would be mindful and bless his humble servant. There has been a lot of veneration of Mary in the Catholic church that is not helpful for us. In classical catholic dogma, she is seen as being the product of an immaculate conception, remaining a virgin for all her life and being taken up into heaven like Elijah rather than dying, but that does not fit in with the expression Mary gives in this song and the picture we have of her in Luke’s gospel. I got in trouble at a church once for saying that Mary was just an ordinary woman. A Catholic women in the church took exception to that. Can I say that Mary is to be honoured and respected as a women of faith and as the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ but in her song of praise the amazing thing is that God would look with favour on such a humble person as her. This is the amazing truth of the Gospel the reoccurring theme of the nativity narrative that God looks with favour and mercy on ordinary human beings.

We see that the God’s saviour coming into the world is firstly acknowledged by two women who would have been stigmatised in their society and time. An older women who had not had any children in a society where women got their value through their husbands and the children they bore tham and a young women who despite her miraculous tail of angelic visitation would still be in a dangerous and ostracised position of while being betrothed to a good man but being pregnant out of wedlock. But in the lives of these two women on the margin of their society God was bringing his salvation into the realm of humanity. Not through the great and the powerful but through the least and the powerless. The praise that God looks for comes from those who are humble they know their need for God, they don’t think that God needs them, and are surprised and elated and respond to the magnitude of God’s grace.

The church in the west tries desperately to hang onto its perceived place in the centre of society, to hold on to status and position, but we forget the way God’s kingdom came into our world, on the margins, not to palaces and positions of power but to the humble and ordinary. Maybe as the church here in our society, here in the twenty first century finds itself more and more sidelined and marginalised, we will see again what God wants to do in this world and wants to birth in us.

In the third part of Mary’s song It moves out from a close-up of what God had done in Mary’s life to a panoramic big picture of what God is like and what he will do and does in the world. In verse 49 Mary says God is Holy. Holy here means that God is totally different than his creation. He is ethically pure and always acts and reacts in a just and righteous way. In the beginning verse of the first of John’s letters to the church he puts like this, “God is light and there is no turning of darkness in him.” Mary expresses this holiness of God in that he is for the poor and oppressed the lowly and humble. This sets the scene for Luke’s gospel where the Kingdom of God is seen as an upside down kingdom where the poor and the sick and the outcasts are the ones who receive God’s favour and are blessed. A kingdom where we don’t settle for the ‘that’s just the way it is of any social order but rather seek God’s justice. Where leadership is service. Where Jesus comes to seek and save the lost. What joys for us right those of us who have gone astray and are far away from God. We are the objects of his grace. Also it shows in Luke’s gospel that the way we are to express our Joy and thanks to God is not only in song but in our lives as well. That our lives lyrically live out the upside down nature of God’s Kingdom by caring for the least and seeking out the Lost with the Good news of Jesus Christ.

Let me finish by sharing with you A story that illustrates the revolutionary nature of the kingdom of God that Mary articulates in her song. A story of a young women that both moved me to tears and made me want to sing for Joy when I heard it.

Catherine Rohr is a petite attractive thirty something women By the time She was twenty four she was making hundred million dollar deals on wall street, she was making quarter of a million dollars a year. But something was missing in her life. She became a follower of Jesus and went on a short term mission trip to Eastern Europe, then she was invited to go to prison. Now we’ve seen a lot of top executives and wheelers and dealers go to prison recently but this was different. Chuck Colsen the head of prison fellowship invited her to visit prison. Her initial thoughts were that she didn’t want to meet the dregs of society, murders rapists and violent criminals but as she went into prison she was amazed because what see saw was people with potential. She was so moved by what she saw she sold up quite her job and moved to Texas to work in the prison. She started a programme called the Prison Entrepreneur programme. Giving felons who want to reform their lives the skills and support they need to start fresh lives when they leave prison. Basically she is teaching these men to own and run their own business, giving them the skills they need to get a job or start their own company. Working on their character and arranging venture capital for them. Helping support and house them and their families till they can start to get on their own feet. The state prison authorities were rather concerned as high flying CEO’s from round the country were suddenly coming by private jets to help train these men. Catherine Rohr is straight up with these hardened men and tells them she will not tolerate any sideways inappropriate looks, and because of who she is she breaks down the barriers between rival gang leaders by getting them to hug and dance with each other. She brings hope and Christ like love in to the lives of these men.

The cynic in me wondered if she wasn’t just creating a class of smarter criminals. However over 400 have gone through this scheme and while the reoffending rate in Texas is between 50-80%. For the men who have gone through the Prison Entrepreneurial programme the rate is about 2.5%. Cathrine Rohr has yielded her life to what God was wanting her to do, she reflects God’s desire and care for the lost and the least and now she has a song of great Joy at seeing what God is doing.

Christmas it’s worth singing about.

The challenge I want to leave this morning is to invite us to yield our lives to Christ and live for his Kingdom and see what Songs of Joy he will bring.

1 comment:

  1. It is through His grace, His calling, our living faith in Jesus Christ, our Baptism, our gift of the new heart and the new human spirit, the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit, the Sacrament of Confession that make us righteous in the eyes of God, the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist that gives us the living bread as our assurance of salvation and the power of the Holy Spirit that sanctifies us so we may grow in the fruit of the Holy Spirit to become shining lights in the world. How abundant are the gifts of our loving Father!