Let It Be 12/16/18 (Advent 3C)

LET IT BE: THE STORY OF MARY
REV. HEATHER M. HINTON
TEXTS: LUKE 1:26-38, 39-45, 46-55
DECEMBER 16, 2018
THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT (YEAR C)

ADVENT 3: THE STORY OF MARY

On this “Joy Sunday,” we’re going to hear the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus – that is, we’ll hear the parts of the story related to the Advent season. There is, of course, much more to her story, but we will save that for other days and other seasons. For today, in word and song, we will consider Mary, the maiden who became mother of our Savior Jesus Christ.

We begin by “Sing[ing] of a Lady.”

ANTHEM    Sing of a Lady

SCENE I     THE BIRTH OF JESUS FORETOLD      LUKE 1:26-38

In the sixth month [of Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John who would become known as “The Baptist,”] the [very same] angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 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. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ 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. 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. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

Having heard this part of Mary’s story in Scripture, let us listen now to her interaction with the angel Gabriel as portrayed in this traditional Basque carol.

ANTHEM     The Angel Gabriel 

REFLECTION

Nazareth: an insignificant little town. No one in Mary’s time cared about it. It isn’t among the sixty-three villages of Galilee mentioned by first-century historian Josephus, who wrote about everything of note at the time; nor is it mentioned in the Jewish Talmud. Probably filled with a mere one hundred to four hundred people, this itty-bitty village is far more well-known today than it was when Mary met the angel Gabriel.

“Nazareth was likely a town of farmers, shepherds, and laborers, [many of whom] walked an hour each way to sell their goods and services in Sepphoris,” the nearby prosperous and active town of roughly 30,000 people. The people of Nazareth “were not affluent by any means. In fact, evidence shows that…some of them may actually have built their homes within and around the area’s soft limestone caves – the least expensive form of housing in the first century and a sign of relative poverty.” [1]

Mary, a girl who was probably around thirteen years old, came from a family in this small working village. She was likely uneducated and probably came from a poor family. She was engaged to be married but she and her fiancé were in the in-between time common in Jewish marriage practices in those days. They had made their commitment to one another which basically made them married, but they would not live together and consummate their marriage until about a year had passed. We may find it shocking that an uneducated girl of thirteen was about to be married, but we must remember that most people were uneducated and that life-expectancy at the time was about thirty-five years. There is nothing unusual about Mary’s situation. She was just a common girl living an unremarkable life in an unremarkable tiny village, and yet: she becomes the bearer of the child who would change the world.

If God can use even such a girl, even such a place, to bring salvation and hope to people everywhere, what does that tell us about God? Among other things, the beginning of Mary’s story shows us that God isn’t looking for power and might and wealth and status when God is considering how to bring about God’s vision of justice and peace for the world. God always chooses the least likely to accomplish his work: an enslaved people become God’s chosen ones; David, the youngest son of a poor shepherding family becomes Israel’s greatest king; and a young maiden of no renown becomes the mother of the savior of all people. God’s concept of worth and purpose have very little to do with the world’s concepts about those things. God chooses the least likely among us to do the most wonderful things, and their lives – and all of our lives – are changed in the process.

But here’s an important point: Mary’s life, and by extension our lives, were changed because Mary said “yes” to God. Nothing happened until she said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Author Kathleen Norris says this:

Mary proceeds – as we must do in life – making her commitment without knowing much about what it will entail or where it will lead…I treasure the story because it forces me to ask: When the mystery of God’s love breaks through into my consciousness, do I run from it? Do I ask of it what it cannot answer?…Am I virgin enough to respond from my deepest, truest self, and say something new, a “yes” that will change me forever? [2]

I wonder: what transformation is God offering to you in these days? The messenger probably won’t come and stand before you and tell you – or me – as explicitly as Gabriel told Mary, so we have to keep the eyes and ears of our hearts wide open to catch the often-subtle clues God drops for us. And when we notice them, when the invitation becomes clear, when we notice God’s love breaking into our world, can we say, with Mary, “Here am I, the servant of God. Let it be with me according to your word”?

I wonder…Let us ponder these things – God’s invitations to us and the possibility of our “yes” – in our hearts.

SCENE II     MARY VISITS ELIZABETH      LUKE 1:39-45

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

And so we hear now a setting of Ave Maria, the Latin meaning “Hail Mary.” This was composed by Jacques Arcadelt in the mid-1500s.

ANTHEM     Ave Maria      J. Arcadelt

REFLECTION

According to tradition, Elizabeth and Zechariah lived in Ein Karem, a village on a hill just a few miles (less than an hour’s walk) from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem to the northeast, and about the same distance from Bethlehem in the southeast. Which is to say that Elizabeth lived near Bethlehem, where Mary’s betrothed, Joseph, lived – but about 80 miles from Mary’s home in Nazareth. This journey from Nazareth to Ein Karem by foot would take about nine days. Why, upon learning of her pregnancy, would Mary “go with haste” to her cousin Elizabeth’s home so far away?

We don’t know, of course, but we can imagine. Cousin Elizabeth, who was beyond normal childbearing years, must have been several years – maybe even a whole generation – older than Mary. Maybe Mary went to her because she was a wise elder in her life – maybe she was a person Mary had gone to before for wisdom and counsel. Or maybe the two had an especially close relationship – maybe Elizabeth was like an aunt to Mary, treating her the way lots of childless aunts and uncles treat their nephews and nieces – spoiling them and doting on them and cherishing them whole-heartedly in the absence of children of their own. Maybe Elizabeth was sort of like a second mother to Mary, more supportive of her than her own mother was. Or maybe Mary remembered Gabriel’s words that Elizabeth, too, was expecting a child under miraculous circumstances and hoped against hope that here would be a woman who would understand and help her through a bewildering time.

Whatever their relationship was, it seems clear that Mary and Elizabeth were close and had spent significant time together since Mary stayed not with her own parents but with Elizabeth for at least three months.

When Mary arrives at Elizabeth and Zechariah’s home in Ein Karem, Elizabeth greets her with enthusiasm which quickly turns to astounded joy. Before Mary can speak a word about her situation, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and utters a loud cry.

Correctly interpreting the kicking of her unborn child in her belly, Elizabeth – filled with the Holy Spirit – recognizes Jesus for who he is. She is the first person to call Jesus “my Lord,” the first to name him rightly – even before Mary and Joseph can name him Jesus (which, of course, means “God saves” or “God delivers”).

Let’s pause for a moment and take in the enormity of that fact. These two women – in a world where women held very little status or power and rarely even got their names recorded in sacred scripture – these two women play a pivotal role in the salvation history of God’s people. Two women made it possible for God, in Christ, to change the world.

But back to Elizabeth’s cry of joy and awe, her recognition of Mary as the mother of her savior.

I wonder: do we recognize God in our midst? Can we spend the rest of Advent intentionally creating space in our lives to pause and notice God?

And when we do, can we imagine leaping for joy as John did, and shouting with delight and wonder as Elizabeth did?

I wonder…Let us ponder these things – our opportunities to catch sight of God and our opportunities to rejoice – in our hearts.

SCENE III     MARY’S SONG OF PRAISE     LUKE 1:46-55

And Mary said,
‘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,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He 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.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.’

The Magnificat, or the Song of Mary, gets its name from the first word of her song, “Magnificat” – magnifies. The Magnificat is one of eight of the most ancient Christian hymns and perhaps the earliest Marian hymn. There are quite literally hundreds of musical settings of this canticle. This morning we’ll hear an arrangement that Neil found in some hymnal somewhere!

ANTHEM     My Soul Now Magnifies the Lord

REFLECTION

We’ve heard Elizabeth’s joy upon seeing Mary, the mother of her Lord. But up until now we haven’t heard any joy from Mary. We’ve heard submission to God’s will – “let it be with me according to your word” – and we’ve had hints of some fear, since the angel said, “Do not be afraid.” But it seems that it isn’t until Elizabeth calls Mary blessed that Mary can finally feel and express true joy. And then her joy is so powerful, in fact, that she begins to sing.

Interestingly enough, she doesn’t sing about her personal joy about becoming a mother. Last week, you may recall, we heard Zechariah’s song when his son John was born. That song, too, was not about personal joy. For both of these parents, the joy is found in the hope that their children signify to the whole people.

Mary says her soul magnifies (or praises) the Lord and her spirit rejoices in God her Savior. Why does she sing, praise, and rejoice? Listen to the list of verbs and actions Mary offers us as she tells us of what God has done:

The Mighty One has done great things; his mercy is for those who fear him across the generations; he has shown strength; he has scattered the proud; he has brought down the powerful; lifted up the lowly; filled the hungry with good things; sent the rich away empty; helped Israel.

No wonder she sings praises! So certain is she that God’s promises, made to her ancestors, to Abraham and his descendants forever, have begun to be realized with the coming birth of her son, that she even sings about those promises in the past tense, as if they have already been accomplished.

We learn so much about God from Mary’s song. We learn that God is always, always, on the side of those who are outcast, oppressed, in need, left behind. God, who works through humble people like Mary and Elizabeth, Joseph and Zechariah, is not interested in the same kind of power humanity cares so much about. God’s promises are that no one is to be left on the margins; all are welcome into God’s embrace; and in the coming kingdom there will be no war or hunger or need of any kind. And God will continue to be active in the world until that kingdom has fully come.

Jesus, God-with-us, will embody these very same divine characteristics described by Mary in her song: he will be champion of the underdog, helper of those in need, ruler with a heart for true justice, giver of all good gifts.

I wonder: How has God lifted us up when we felt low? How has God fed us when we were hungry, or shown us mercy?

I wonder, as we look around at the world, at the people on the margins, at the people who are in need: are we able to see glimmers of the kingdom, ways in which it has already come? Can we catch a glimpse of heaven right here on earth?

Of course, there is one thing that’s slightly troubling in Mary’s song: that whole bit about “sending the rich away empty.” After all, everyone in this room today is, by the world’s standards even if not by Winchester’s standards, rich. What does this mean for us? I certainly don’t want to get sent away empty.

Adam Hamilton considers this question in The Journey, and answers it this way:

I see her words as an invitation. It is an invitation for us to humble ourselves before God and to be used by God to fulfill the first words of that line – to help the poor walk away full. I am called to share my resources and to pass along the blessings I’ve received. In seeking to bless and encourage and lift up other people, they are sent away full and I discover what it means to be blessed. [3]

In other words, we are invited to be a part of the fulfillment of God’s promises. We are called to be actors in God’s salvation story for all of humanity.

I wonder, can we envision ourselves as makers of peace and justice for all? And how has God already used us to do those very things for others?

I wonder…Let us ponder all of these things – these questions that Mary’s story might prompt in us – let us ponder them in our hearts.

Where in my life is God offering me an opportunity – where can I say “yes” to God?

Where is God already appearing in my life – and can I give myself permission to rejoice exuberantly?

Where is God giving me a chance to fill the hungry with good things – by using the gifts God uniquely gave to me?

I wonder….

Thanks be to God.

 

[1] Adam Hamilton, The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem, p. 15-16.

[2] Kathleen Norris, “Annunciation.”

[3] Hamilton, p. 75.

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