“Rejoicing in God” Colchester Federated Church, December 17, 2017, Third Sunday of Advent (Luke 1:46-55)

Right up the road from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, one can find a beautiful shrine called The Milk Grotto.  It’s a sacred place especially for women.  Now  tradition has it that Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt after the birth of Jesus to avoid King Herod’s soldiers slaughtering all the infants who could grow up to be the Messiah (that story is in Matthew Chapter 2.)  On the way to Egypt, Mary had to stop in a cave to nurse her newborn son (this is where the legend comes in with this Biblical story.)  Supposedly a drop of milk fell upon the stone beneath them and turned the whole area white.  The spot where this occurred would later become The Milk Grotto.

The people of Bethlehem have decorated this sacred space beautifully with images of Mary and mother of pearl carvings.  You have to descend to enter and it still feels like a cave truth be told.  Local women come to The Milk Grotto to specifically pray for help with fertility issues.  If they have a baby already, they pray to produce good, nourishing milk so that their baby will grow strong.  Women will scrape some of the soft white chalk from the walls of the grotto and mix it with food and drinks to help with conception or to keep young infants growing strong.

2016-07-10_062255076_40F32_iOSOne fascinating aspect is that it’s a rare holy site that Muslims and Christians share.  Mary is in the Qur’an just like Mary is in the Bible.  So when sitting inside The Milk Grotto you can witness both local Muslim and Christian women praying together, appealing to Mary for help and scraping the walls for the chalky rock substance.  There are framed pictures and letters sent to The Milk Grotto from all over the world that share stories about the effectiveness of the powder from the walls and the power of prayer offered in that sacred space that Mary left behind.  Letters of encouragement from one woman to the next.  It’s warm and light and peaceful inside the grotto.  And highly emotional as you can feel the weight of these prayers and the longing of some women who seek solace there.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is a significant woman in our tradition and she’s usually the focus of the Third Sunday of Advent where we contemplate the theme of joy.  Now some of us sitting here in the sanctuary may be lifelong Protestants.  Others may have grown up in the Roman Catholic Church.  We all have our own unique faith stories and backgrounds.  Though over the years, I have heard former Roman Catholics lament that it feels like they’ve had to leave Mary behind when becoming part of a Protestant church.  Now my mother taught social studies and history at an all-girls Roman Catholic school in Akron for over two decades.  Going into school with her sometimes and roaming the halls, the statues, paintings, and sculptures of Mary would often stop me in my tracks as a child alongside unfamiliar crucifixes and pictures of the Pope.  Because I didn’t know quite what to do with those images which were not to be found anywhere in our UCC church.

Though Mary is obviously part of our Protestant tradition too.  We may not have images of Mary around our church or pray to Mary as part of our spiritual practices.  But Mary is in our Bible.  And she must have been a remarkable person to raise someone like her son—Jesus.  So today we are contemplating Mary because her legacy has lasted within our Christian tradition.  And the words that we hear Mary proclaim today in the Gospel of Luke are stunning and incredible.

Before we get into the specifics of the Magnificat, it’s helpful to get some context within Luke’s Gospel so that we can better understand Mary and what she’s saying.  Luke’s Gospel emphasizes Jesus’ ministry to people who are oppressed, excluded, or at a disadvantage in society. Jesus reaches out to people on the margins that others tend to ignore.  There’s a reason that in Luke’s Gospel, the angels announce the birth of Jesus Christ to ordinary shepherds living in their fields keeping watch over their flocks by night and not to glorious, rich magi like in Matthew’s Gospel.  We often combine birth narratives in our retelling of the Christmas story—having the angels, shepherds, magi, holy family, innkeepers, and animals all together.  Though Luke’s story and Matthew’s story are different and highlight their unique perspectives of Jesus’ birth, life, and ministry.

Luke is all about Jesus empowering the powerless, and reversing our expectations.  You think that the first people to hear about the birth of Jesus will be the wisest, richest among us?  No.  The shepherds are the first to hear the news.  We’ll hear all about it in a couple of days, don’t you worry.  Furthermore, you think that a Samaritan will walk right by that poor, helpless man nearly beaten to death in the road?  No.  The Samaritan (the foreigner who people automatically distrusted) is the hero of that parable.  You think that God will deem a rich woman from a noble family to bear God’s Son into the world?  No.  God chooses Mary—a poor, young, ordinary Jewish girl.  All these stories found within the pages of the Gospel of Luke about reversals, lifting up the lowly, and changing our preconceived notions are what Jesus’ ministry are all about.[1]

This reversal of expectations is what we can clearly see in Mary’s story.  This is why Mary celebrates the goodness of God in her grand song the Magnificat, which comes from the Latin “to magnify.”  As in, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”[2]  Mary is an ordinary person—specifically she’s an unwed, pregnant, poor, Jewish girl.  And yet she accepts that she has an extraordinary task ahead.  For she is to bring an extraordinary child into the world.  She says yes to the call from God.  And in so doing, births love and light beyond measure into our world.

Theologian Albert Schweitzer once said, “I have always held firmly to the thought that each one of us can do a little to bring some portion of misery to an end.”  Sometimes the bravest thing we can do is say yes to a new opportunity even though it can be scary.  Because each one of us can do something to bring even a small portion of misery to an end.  Mary encounters the Angel Gabriel and responds to the notion that her child will be great and called the Son of the Most High and will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there will be no end with, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”[3]  Mary goes to visit her relative Elizabeth and learns that she’s pregnant too, even though this shouldn’t have been possible at her age.  And Mary just breaks forth into this song of pure joy.

Charles Campbell (Homiletics Professor at Duke Divinity School) tells us Mary’s story like this, “The church prepares this week for Jesus’ birth, not through serious theological reflection, but through subversive laughter, singing, and astonishment . . . . The story is not only odd and joyful, it is fleshy, embodied, earthy, appropriate as a forerunner to the incarnation . . . in the women’s actions, the world is indeed turned upside down.  Hierarchies are subverted.  The mighty are brought down.  Two marginalized, pregnant women carry the future and proclaim the Messiah.”[4]

This is fantastic and joyful beyond measure.  Mary can’t help but proclaim the goodness of God in the midst of all these unexpected blessings.  In line with the reversal theme we can see throughout the Gospel according to Luke, she says that God has “brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”[5]

Where I’m from, we’d say these are fightin’ words!  Because if said powerful, rich people heard Mary speaking this way; it wouldn’t have been pretty.  She’s thanking God for reversing the status quo.  This wouldn’t have been a welcome message for everyone to hear back then.  It’s not a welcome message for everyone to hear now.  Not everyone wants the lowly to be lifted up.  Not everyone wants the powerful to be brought down from their thrones in humility by none other than God.  Yet that’s what Mary praises God for in the Magnificat: “God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”  This is not Mary meek and mild as some Christians may think of her.  Mary is bold and powerful as she’s rejoicing in God caring for people on the margins just like her.  God wants God’s people to look out for each other, to be our brother and our sister’s keeper.  You want proof of that belief?  Look at Mary and the joyously proclaimed Magnificat on this Third Sunday of Advent, my friends.

In the end, Mary’s daring and influential song comes down to two hopes that we Christians have had from the beginning.  Two hopes that Mary shouts from the rooftops.  Two hopes that still ground our religion from its infancy (literally) until today.

  • God is good. All the time, God is good. 
  • God keeps promises. All the time, God keeps promises.[6]

Mary will be there for her oldest son throughout his ministry.  She will remain by his side from his birth among the animals to his death on the cross and beyond.  God never promised that Mary wouldn’t have some pain in her life.  God never promised that life would always be easy.  Just like God never promised those things to me or to you.  But God is good all the time.  And God is there for us in the moments of abundant joy and in the moments of inexplicable tragedy.  The goodness of God and God creating humanity and declaring us very good enables God to be present to us in amazing ways still.  Mary’s story reminds us over and again, year after year in this holy season of Advent that God is indeed good and that God keeps promises.  So just like Mary, we can go forth rejoicing in God.  May it be so, and thanks be to God!  Amen.

[1] Mark Allan Powell, Fortress Introduction to the Gospels, 93.
[2] Luke 1:46-47, NRSV.
[3] Luke 1:38.
[4] Charles L. Campbell, Homiletical Perspective of Luke 1:39-45 (46-55) in Feasting on the Word, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds., Year C, Volume 1, 93 and 95.
[5] Luke 1:48, 52-53.
[6] Robert Redman, Theological Perspective of Luke 1:39-45 (46-55) in Feasting on the Word, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds., Year C, Volume 1, 96.