Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Midweek Advent Service 1 [Luke 1:46-55] (5-Dec-2012)

This sermon was preached at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, 7pm.

This sermon is dedicated to my dear friend and teacher, Pastor John Kleinig.

Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ.

Text: (Luke 1:46-55)
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.

Prayer: Lord, sanctify us in the truth. Your word is truth. Amen.

During our Advent midweek series this year, we will reflect on three poems or songs which occur in the Gospel of Luke. The first week we will reflect on the Song of Mary, the second week on the Song of Zechariah, and the third week the Song of Simeon.

As we prepare from Christmas time to celebrate the birth of Jesus, one thing strikes me, that is quite unlike any other time of the year. Among all the craziness of December with people scrambling around Target, K-mart and other hoards of mammon, and with all the end of year wind-ups and wind-downs, there is an old remnant of Christianity from a time past which still taps in the minds of church-goers and non-church-goers alike. And that is singing!

Even if people don’t want to actually celebrate the birth of Jesus or even talk about it, many people are not completely against singing the odd carol, here and there, going to a “Carols by Candlelight” concert. Now, for a Christian who actually cares about the true meaning of Christmas, these events can be depressing too because of the shallowness and emptiness. But even though for many people Christmas is an empty shell, when the middle is pulled out of the egg it’s still interesting what parts of the shell still remain. People still like a good sing!

Recently when I was travelling to England, I met a young woman from Birmingham who, like many young people today, grew up in the church but is now an atheist. But she said she did like the music of the church, and she enjoyed singing at church when she was a child.

Now this is not insignificant! Muslims don’t sing hymns. Neither do Buddhists. There’s a kind of uniqueness to Christianity in the way that we sing, not trying to work ourselves into a trance with repetitive chants, but forming one choir with all the hosts of heaven to sing the praises of God.

And isn’t it interesting, then, that in the first chapters of the Gospel of Luke, where he reports the conception and birth of Jesus that there is so much joy, so much exuberance, so much pleasure and rejoicing, that different people can’t contain their words in normal sentences, but they start speaking in poetry. The words of Mary, Zechariah and Simeon read like psalms, and have a special singable quality about them. This is what you do when you are in the presence of God—you sing.

For centuries, the Song of Mary—or the Magnificat, as it is sometimes called, from its Latin title—has been sung at Vespers. In earlier times, it was sung every day, and so Christians would have know it like the back of their hands, like the Lord’s Prayer.

Something very special happens here when Mary visits Elizabeth. Mary has stopped talking about the faith, she is no longer simply speaking about what has happened, but she is now practising the faith and actually engaging in prayer and song. It’s easy sometimes for people to sit around and talk about theology and spirituality and the faith in general, but it is quite something different when people actually speak the word of God, pray and confess the faith and take it on their lips.

Also, when it comes to poetry, it often becomes an excuse for people to exaggerate or say things in an exuberant way. And then people say, “That’s only poetry”, or “that only a way of speaking” or a “turn of phrase.”

In the bible, there are no turns of phrase: there are only realities. God doesn’t love us with talk, but in deed and in truth. Mary says what she means and means what she says.

But before we actually read and meditate on the words of the Magnificat, we need to bear one thing in mind. These words say something, and they say very profound mysteries, which possibly cannot be fully fathomed in this life. But also, these words actually do something: they have an affect on people, they do something, they change people.

So we read:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.

As we read these words of Mary, we are connected to her joy, and we share in it. She has become to mother of Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, and has become a kind of temple for his holy and life-giving flesh. She was caused to conceive the baby Jesus through a word which went into her ear spoken to her from the angel Gabriel. And we too become Jesus mother and brother and sister, when we hear the word of God and keep it. The word goes into our ears and Christ is formed in us, the word of God is kept in us. Jesus allows his living kingdom to be grown and shaped in us even here on this earth, although it is only begun here. It is not completed and made perfect in us—we are always unwilling citizens and lethargic subjects. But the gift is ours anyway, purely because Jesus loves us and has baptised us and wants to speak his words of forgiveness and love into us.

So the words of Mary, “My soul magnifies the Lord”, are the sort of words that cannot be formed without the Holy Spirit. They are words which can only be inspired by God and worked by God. The joy that goes along with them—“My soul magnifies”, “my spirit rejoices”—that joy in also only worked in us by the Holy Spirit. And so these words come from Mary’s experience, so that out of the abundance of her heart he mouth speaks.

Joylessness is a great problem today. It is easy for Christians to be joyless, and it is often difficult for us to be joyful. It is easy to be melancholy, sad, downcast, depressed, burnt-out, helpless. In the ancient church, this was called "acedia". And to feel like this is to be expected, because we share our flesh with Adam and Eve who brought upon a great curse upon the whole human race, and we add sin upon sin daily.

But the joy which Mary has, which he tells about, which she sings, is also a joy that is shared. It is the joy which comes from the word of God. For Mary, the word of God was spoken to her and conceived in her, so that Jesus Christ was assuming her own flesh and taking it on. In the same way, when we hear Jesus’ life-giving word, he comes an assumes our flesh and sponges up all the sadness, the sin, the sorrow which he finds there, so that when he goes to Gethsemane he says, “My heart is very sorrowful, even unto death.” Isaiah predicts about Jesus that he is “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”

And we might think, “But I often hear the word of God, but it doesn’t make me happy.” And you might go home tonight and not feel happy. But the promise is still there in the word of God. Jesus says, “You have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.” When we are feeling sad and sorry, we shouldn’t give up on the word of God. It is precisely when we are helpless and sorrowful that we then need to hear the word of God again—to be comforted by a Christian friend, to be absolved by a pastor, to read aloud the Holy Scripture at home, sing a hymn, pray a psalm. The joy is there in the word of God, and it will break forth in time. It may even break forth after some further suffering so that the joy will be greater, but the joy will come from the Word of God, and it will only be tasted in its fullness in the next life, when the kingdom of Satan is done away with, and Christ’s kingdom is the only thing left.

So we live in this time where we are living in the “now” but “not yet”. We are living in Christ’s living and abiding presence through his word. Christ in his holy and glorious flesh comes to us continually from the right hand of the Father and makes his dwelling in us through His Holy Spirit. But we also wait for the end of the world and the glorious revealing of his kingdom at the end of the world.

And so Mary says: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.

Notice also that she calls God her “Saviour”. She knows and confesses that salvation is afoot. When the Word becomes flesh, when the Son of God takes on a human body, there is something new happening, and Mary knows that God is bringing about not just any old work, but a saving work. Once before in history, God had saved his people from the yoke of the Egyptians: now he saves his people from sin, death and the devil.

For he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed.

What is important here is not that Mary has looked at God, but that God has looked at her. The Son of God is hidden in a dark place at the moment, enclosed in her womb. She hasn’t seen anything, but God has looked at her.

In the same way, Jesus says: “You have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice.” He doesn’t say, “You will see me again”, but “I will see you.” We love God, because he first loved us. If we are going to do any loving, it is God who takes the first initiative. He is the one who has looked. He has regarded. Remember also the words in the blessing which we say every week: “The Lord look upon you with favour and give you peace.” Or the old version says, “The Lord lift up his countenance upon you.” And what about the other words: “The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you.”

But who’s he shining on? Who is God regarding? Who’s God looking at?

He looks on Mary in her humble estate, in her lowliness. This is not talking about the fact that Mary is a humble woman, in the sense that she was lovely, humble person. We assume that she was, but rather, the words mean the fact that she is a nobody, an insignificant person, a poor lowly virgin. Think of all the wonderful women who would have been alive at the time—queens, princesses, ladies of honour and status—whom God could have chosen for this special task, yet he didn’t. He chose Mary. God regards her in her humble estate. And from now on, all generations will call her blessed.

It’s so easy for us to think that human glory is God’s glory. It’s not. We want to be humble, but we want everyone to know how humble we are too. Don’t worry about what people think of you—for all you know they might think that you’re nothing but arrogant scum. Let their judgment be revealed as a false judgment on the Last Day. In the meantime, your Father who sees in secret with reward you. Nobody has to know about your humility, but at the same time, if God wants to promote you and glorify you, let him to do the honouring and not you. “A city on a hill cannot be hidden,” says Jesus. “Let your light shine so that others may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Let your light shine, but don’t seek to shine it in the newspaper, on the billboards. Let your light shine somewhere dark, just as God shines his light on something dark—your heart. And our heart is a dark place. So is our spirit and soul. We can’t see these things and we can’t perceive these things. But still, it is our soul that magnifies the Lord, and it is our spirit that rejoices in God our Saviour. And so Mary says: For he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is on those who fear him, from generation to generation.

These words are so rich, and I’ll skip over these for a while, and you can enjoy them at home in your own devotions. These words are so wonderful, and we shouldn’t just come to church once and say: “Oh—the Song of Mary, “the Magnificat”. Yes—I remember that old thing. Pastor Stephen preached a sermon on that back in the old days of 2012!” No, you should take it home with you, and let the words preach its own sermon to you, and let the words create something new in you, and have its full effect on you. It’s not just important that we hear the words and learn them, but also that we stand passively under them and let the flavours infuse us and marinade us. As the prophet Joel says: “I will pour out my [marinading!] Spirit on all flesh.”

But I’d like to show you something in the last part of the Magnificat which is very special. Listen to these words:

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.

What do you notice that is strange about these words?

It’s a very different message to John Lennon’s faux-Christmas carol of despair:

So this is Christmas And what have you done?
Another year over And a new one just begun
…And so this is Christmas For weak and for strong
For rich and the poor ones The world is so wrong

Well, for Mary, she says the opposite. She says the world is right. God has shown strength with his arm.

So who’s living in the fantasy land? John Lennon or the Virgin Mary? Which one’s right?

Well, look around you—
Atheists think that God has been silent and doesn’t exist.
Mary says: God has shown strength with his arm.
There are plenty of proud people who think they know what’s what! Mary says: He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
There are many mighty ones who are still on their thrones, new world leaders who are giving themselves more and more power day by day. Mary says: He has brought down the mighty from their thrones.
There are plenty of people, plenty of faithful Christians, throughout the world who are oppressed and down-trodden. Mary says: He has exalted the those of humble estate.
The poor are getting poorer, the rich are getting richer. Mary says: He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has send empty away.

So what’s going on here?
Notice also that Mary doesn’t say, “God will show strength, he will scatter the proud, he will bring down the lowly”, but that he has already brought them down, he has already scattered their hearts, he has already shown strength.

Do you see? According to what Mary says here, God has already done this.
And the atheists laugh, they scoff at this thought. So does the devil, so does our flesh.

But as Christians we are living in two overlapping realms. We are living with our flesh, with our old Adam, with our old self, with all its sin and with all its disappointment. But we are also living with Jesus flesh, we are putting off the old self and putting on Christ, we are baptised into Christ and made a branch on the true Vine—his own body, we eat and drink the body and blood of Christ with our mouths and believe that these things are given to us and shed for us for the forgiveness of sins. We are listening to the living and active word of God, we are receiving the Holy Spirit, and God is building and shaping his kingdom within us, one brick at a time. He also builds us into his kingdom, so that we are called spiritual stones being built into a spiritual house, with Christ as the cornerstone. We are already spoken the final judgment on the Last Day ahead of time in the church, the free forgiveness of all our sins through the blood of Christ.

St Paul says: If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

This is the same language as Mary. But this is what happens when God shows the strength of his arm. His arm is so powerful, Christ is with us in the flesh, our God, our Immanuel. And now creation is rolling towards its great conclusion, where he will judge the world with righteousness.

As Luther says: We ought gladly to be poor in spirit and in the wrong and let our adversaries be in the right. They will not long continue; the promise is too strong for them. They cannot escape God’s arm but must succumb and be brought low as they once were high, if we will only believe it.

The words of Mary invite us to believe that God is in actual fact our loving heavenly Father after all, and it is only a matter of time when his Son Jesus Christ will draw us to himself so that where he is, we will be also.

He has already brought down the mighty from their thrones. He has already lifted up the lowly. He has already filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

Now we wait with joy and with gladness, with the magnifying of our souls and the rejoicing of our spirits, as we wait for the seed that is planted to bear fruit, as we wait for the cross that is planted in our hearts to bloom into a wonderful flower, as we wait for the mustard seed to break forth into a wonderful tree with all the birds coming and nesting in its branches!

And do you know what? When we see all these wonderful promises of God revealed to us before our eyes on the Last Day, we will look back and see that this same glorious kingdom was with us all along, hidden under the cross, among Christ's own humble people, his poor, his suffering people. Our living Master and Saviour, Jesus Christ, was walking with us every step of the way and sustaining his church and his preaching his gospel in all the corners of the earth.

In the meantime, the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, calls us to believe it, in the darkness of faith, and to remain faithful to the true and living promises of God.

And so we sing: My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.


Ah, dearest Jesus, holy child, Make Thee a bed, soft, undefiled,
Within my heart, that it may be A quiet chamber kept for Thee.
My heart for very joy doth leap, My lips no more can silence keep;
I, too, must sing with joyful tongue the sweetest, ancient cradle-song. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment