“Come and Worship” Colchester Federated Church, December 15, 2019, Third Sunday of Advent (Luke 1:46b-55)
On this Third Sunday of Advent—when we contemplate the theme of Joy—we hear Mary’s response to her cousin Elizabeth’s declaration that Mary is blessed among women and the fruit of her womb is blessed. Mary can’t help but respond to Elizabeth’s words with a beautiful hymn of praise to God which we have called the Magnificat in our Christian tradition. The familiar words that we heard this morning begin Mary’s extraordinary praise of God: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on, all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me.”
Mary is another remarkable biblical figure just like John the Baptist we encountered in the wilderness last Sunday. Mary was a young Jewish girl, not from a well-to-do family by any means and grew up in the unremarkable town of Nazareth (a town never even mentioned in the entire Old Testament.) Mary gave birth to her first-born son Jesus in a borrowed bed of straw, for there wasn’t even room for them to stay in an inn when they had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the purpose of the census in their region ordered by the Romans.
We can see Mary as a model disciple, called by God to be the mother of an incredibly special person. In the story of the Annunciation (found earlier in the first chapter of the Gospel according to Luke), Mary responded to the Angel Gabriel telling her that she was to bear a son and name him Jesus with the amazing words, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Keep in mind that she’s young and poor, a Jewish girl living in a small town under Roman occupation. And yet she responds with courage to a religious experience and says “yes” to the call of God in her own life. No matter what we may believe theologically about the virgin birth or even the place and role of Mary in our Christian tradition, Mary is an amazing example of someone saying “yes” to God wholeheartedly. A compelling example of how we can respond to those gentle and subtle (or sometimes not so gentle or subtle) calls of God.
Moreover, the Magnificat is a remarkable hymn of praise within scripture. Some of the sentiments that Mary expressed are rather controversial even today. Just imagine hearing a young woman with an unremarkable background declare (on the Town Green or in the halls of our government locally, state-wide, or nationally) 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.” Do those words strike us as popular sentiments for those in power to hear? God is praised for the salvation of the lowly and oppressed and God scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. These are fightin’ words about God caring about the vulnerable and the oppressed, about Mary and Jesus beginning a divine reversal where the first would be last and the last would be first. Because it ends up that the Savior of the world was born in incredibly humble circumstances that almost defy our ability to fully comprehend. Christians have been trying to understand what the birth of Jesus, our Emmanuel, means ever since.
Considering that these are words we hear from the mouth of Mary herself today it can make us think about what her son Jesus went on to teach. Where do we think that Jesus may have first heard the conviction that the first shall be last and the last shall be first in God’s realm? Maybe it’s an invitation for us to not underestimate the influence that Mary may have had in Jesus’ life and his own beliefs. We would probably agree that parents do their best to instill values and model how to be a good person for their children. What if Jesus was learning about God seeing what’s truly in a person’s heart and not their outer status from an early age from his own mother? His mother who once declared that God has shown strength with God’s arm and scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts? His mother who once declared that God is all about bringing down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly? His mother who sang about filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty?
These sentiments are political, showing deep thoughts and strong convictions. So much for that whole image of Mary as meek and mild! Jesus’ message as an adult would align with the words of his mother in the Magnificat and the Jewish prophets who came before him, with that whole idea that God cares about how we treat those who are particularly vulnerable in society. That it’s our job as people of faith to care about “the widow and the orphan” as the vulnerable are often characterized in scripture. Yes, God has done and will do great things and holy is God’s name. Yes, God isn’t simply favoring the strong and powerful, God looks with favor upon the lowly. God fills the hungry with good things. God helps and is merciful.
And on this Sunday where we contemplate the joy that comes from that sense of connection to God and one another, the joy that comes from doing good in God’s name, from saying “yes” to the calls of God in our own lives—we turn to the final Christmas Carol that we’ll explore in this Advent Season together, “Angels, from the Realms of Glory.” The author of the lyrics was James Montgomery born in 1771, of Irish descent and the son of Moravian missionaries. His parents worked in the West Indies while he was raised and educated in Ireland. By the time he was seven, both of his parents (who he barely even knew) died. Montgomery flunked out of seminary and by around the age of 20 he was aimless, moving from job to job and often homeless. The only interest he had was writing, and he spent what little money he had on pencils and paper to compose works on everything from loneliness to faith.
People weren’t really interested in his work, but the editor of a radical newspaper called the Sheffield Register hired Montgomery to write stories. He learned of the hardships that went along with being an Irishman under English rule and ended up eventually taking over the paper when the owner was run out of town due to editorials calling for Irish freedom. Montgomery changed the paper’s name to the Sheffield Iris to hopefully be in a little less hot water with the authorities, though he continued the stance of the paper. Like his parents, he resisted the strict rules and rituals of the Church of England and waged a written war for Ireland’s freedom. Montgomery even became an active leader in the abolitionist movement with his fiery stance against slavery landing him in prison twice.
So he was this Irish freedom fighter and abolitionist. People would turn to the pages of the Sheffield Iris to see what James Montgomery had to say for the good of the causes he cared so much about. Though folks were in for a surprise when they turned to the paper on December 24, 1816, for readers discovered a poem called “Nativity” that would eventually become the carol “Angels, from the Realms of Glory.” The poem told the story of angels proclaiming the birth of a Savior for everyone: English and Irish, rich and poor, Anglican and Moravian—everyone. “All creation, join in praising God the Father, Spirit, Son, evermore your voices raising to the eternal Three in One: come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ, the newborn King!”
In one of those great ironic twists of fate, the Irish revolutionary’s Christmas poem would have been largely forgotten and never become the carol that we sing today if not for an Englishman. Henry Smart was the son of a music publisher and he gave up a successful legal career to become one of England’s best composers and organists. His battle was to bring new music to English congregations. Many traditionalists wanted nothing but simple chants that had been part of worship for hundreds of years (because that was the way we’ve always done it!) Meanwhile Henry Smart believed that the congregation should be more involved in worship and not just the clergy. He felt that God spoke to everyone and that worship itself should be joyful and corporate and that meant that everyone should be invited to sing.
Despite his critics, Smart published new songbooks with harmonized melodies. And realizing that some of the other Protestant denominations were using that new musical style, the Church of England began allowing his music to take root. Some say that Henry Smart is to harmonized church music what Bach is to the German chorale. And here’s another irony in this whole story behind the carol—Henry Smart was almost fully blind. So he never sat down and read James Montgomery’s poem “Nativity”! But just upon hearing the powerful words of the poem from that Christmas Eve newspaper in 1816 he was able to compose a tune to go with the powerful words.
When the collaboration was eventually published, it was given a new title: “Angels, from the Realms of Glory.” And this Christmas Carol was not only welcomed as a new carol, it would soon become one of the songs that opened up a whole new joyful and uplifting musical style in the Church of England. This happened in part because of the beautiful words of a fiery Irish revolutionary and a nearly blind English church musician who wanted the whole congregation to participate in worship. Because Jesus didn’t just come to show the ways of life and love to the powerful, but to everyone. All creation can join in praising God! “Come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ, the newborn King!” Thanks be to God. Amen.