Sermon for Advent 4
Delivered at Central Lutheran Church, Dallas
19 December 2021
The Rev. Robert O. Smith, PhD
Micah 5:2-5a | Luke 1:46b-55 | Hebrews 10:5-10 | Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]
This sermon was livestreamed; it is archived here via Facebook Live
Grace and peace to you in the name of Jesus, the source of our hope and salvation. Amen.
The Magnificat, Mary’s song when she encountered Elizabeth—both of them pregnant with possibility and purpose—is one of the most beautiful and striking poems contained in the Bible. It is a digest, a compendium of witness to God’s goodness and grace, a true proclamation of the Gospel.
The story of Mary’s encounter with Elizabeth comes immediately after the Annunciation, when the angel, Gabriel, shared the news with Mary that she would bear a son. Either at the town well or in her home—there are separate churches commemorating both possible spots—the angel said
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Nazareth is a complicated place. In addition to being Jesus’ hometown, it is today the main city in northern Israel. It grew tremendously in 1948 when Palestinians were ethnically cleansed out of many parts of Israel. One of those internally displaced refugees is a good friend of mine who grew up in Nazareth after his family was forced from their village of Ailaboun. His name is Said Ailabouni. Nazareth carries a world of memories, ancient and modern.
At the beginning of today’s reading, we’re told that, after the Annunciation, “Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country.” We don’t know exactly where; traditionally, Elizabeth’s home has been identified as part of Ein Karem, a village on the western outskirts of Jerusalem. What we do know is that a huge amount of geography is covered in that little paragraph break.
Like Nazareth, the area surrounding Ein Karem is a place of harrowing memories. Yad Vashem—the Israeli Holocaust Memorial Museum—stands nearby. Just north of there is the village of Har Nof; in addition to a particularly gruesome terrorist attack in a synagogue there in 2014, Har Nof is built on the ruins of the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, the site of a notorious massacre of Palestinians by Zionist militia in 1948. All of this is close to Bethlehem, the City of David, which is today surrounded by a concrete wall.
Mary’s world was no less completed than this. She also inhabited a world of immense suffering and memorialized trauma, a world of imperial occupation, surveillance, and control. She navigated that world as a child, likely no older than 14 or 15.
So Mary goes to seek comfort with her cousin, Elizabeth. Perhaps her parents sent her away. No matter what, it was a journey of at least two days on foot. It is into this sort of world the Magnificat is birthed.
What, then, should we say about this song? The first thing to notice is that this song doesn’t come from nowhere. It is an echo of Hannah’s song of praise when she gave thanks for her young son, Samuel, when she dedicated him for service in God’s temple.
Samuel oversaw the reestablishment of Israel’s kingdom under Saul and later was the one who traveled to Bethlehem and secretly anointed David as king. This enraged Saul, so Samuel provided sanctuary for David when Saul tried to have him killed.
These two songs therefore link Mary and Hannah in a way that links David and Jesus. These connections don’t diminish the importance of the Magnificat; if anything, they are a reminder that neither David nor Jesus would have been possible without the other people in their lives, the thousands of people and intermediaries who bring them to us today. Jesus shows up in the world utterly dependent on others, especially his mother. This is the first great reversal of religious expectations about who God is.
With that in mind, let’s read the Magnificat together.
My soul magnifies the Lord,
47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
The English word “magnifies” translates the Greek word Μεγαλύνει (megalynei), which means “to make or declare great.” Blow it up, make it big, to magnify. Why? Because the Lord “looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” Mary has found favor with God, not because she is perfect, but because God loves her, just as God loves you.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
One might question how “great” or wonderful these things are. In America 2021, underage single mothers are still treated with moral suspicion. Mary’s situation was one of judgment and disgrace.
But Mary is confident in her future, if not her present. “From now on, all generations will call me blessed,” she proclaims. Indeed, Mary is as revered by Muslims as she is by Christians. An entire chapter of the Qur’an bears her name and tells her story.
Without Mary, we would not have Jesus. She is the vessel through which the Word of God became incarnate in this carnal world, the one in whom the human and the divine met, the one who cradled, protected, and nursed this gift of God for all humankind.
It would be a mistake, however, to think of her as merely a passive tool in God’s plan. Indeed, the Gospels each record that she was very active, a figure revered within the close community of disciples around Jesus. She was a young woman who would grow into a formidable figure.
50His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
This is a foundational message of our Christian faith. But it’s a message we don’t often emphasize. We spiritualize it rather than focusing on, magnifying the Gospel’s ongoing threat to those who wield power.
Mary says that God has “mercy for those who fear him.” God’s mercy is for those who approach God in reverence and awe, not those who … approach God in so many other ways, including the temptation to manipulate God for their own political, cultural, and economic interests. Not those who assume that God is on the side of their community or country. These people may rule the world today, but God flicks them off, dismissing them, scattering “the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” Don’t be like them. Be like Hannah. Be like Mary.
52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Here, the message of revolutionary reversal and overthrow comes even more directly. This is what God has done, and what God promises to do.
Mary here articulates the core ethical commitments and historical implications of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Every structure and system that seeks to preserve power, wealth, and privilege—including the systems and structures of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, economic ideologies, the military-industrial complex, tribalist exclusion, and the focused violence of state power—all of these will be brought down.
“He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Here again, the Good News—the Gospel of God in the person of Jesus Christ delivered through Mary—becomes a warning, a threat. Pay attention to the implications of the Gospel, friends, for you might be caught unaware.
54He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Why does Mary know all this? How does such wisdom pour forth from this young woman? Because God has kept God’s promises to God’s people. “In remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors.”
The Holy Land where Mary was standing as she delivered this song is made holy because it is a land of remembrance. That was true in Mary’s time, and it is true today. All the suffering and hope memorialized in that geography is present in the hopes and fears of the people.
We participate in this remembrance every time we join in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Jesus says, “do this for the remembrance of me,” recalling past events into the immediacy of the present.
Notice that none of what Mary says is dependent on her action or her belief. She is proclaiming the truth about God—what God has done and what God promises to do. Through all of this, she acknowledges, she is blessed. But her individual blessing and reputation isn’t the point. God is doing this for the poor, the hungry, for our ancestors, for our future generations.
Mary, like us, is participating, playing her part. But the story here really isn’t about her, just as it isn’t about us. It is about God and about the whole of humanity.
Our comfort and solace and joy come through our recognition that we are part of this massive movement of history, this wave of God’s action in the world, a heritage beginning with Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, extending through Hannah, Samuel, and King David, continuing through the prophets, leading into the Holy Family of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus and, by faith, meeting us here today in, of all places, Dallas, Texas.
Just like Mary, you are both swept up in this tide of God’s lovingkindness to the world AND have your own part to play in this divine drama. Today, you are invited to join Mary in hopeful anticipation for what God will accomplish in the world. Stand firm, knowing that you are loved and lifted up, that God’s grace carries you forward into a world made new. Amen.
Robert Smith, an enrolled Citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, serves as Director of Briarwood Leadership Center and Associate to the Bishop for the Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod of the ELCA. He additionally serves as Bridge Pastor for Central Lutheran Church in Dallas. He holds an MDiv and an MA in Islamic Studies from Luther Seminary and a PhD in Religion, Politics, and Society from Baylor University.