What Are You Waiting For? Gratitude
[audio http://www.opcbrookhaven.org/worship/audio/sermons/12-20-09.MP3]Old Testament: Micah 5:2-5 New Testament: Luke 1:39-55
The familiar name by which Mary’s song is known is the Magnificat. It comes from a translation of the first word in Latin for her song, “to magnify,” or “to give praises.” It calls to mind a song that happens in the Old Testament, the song of Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel. She was without child and when she found out that she was pregnant, she sings a very similar song to the one that Mary sings, a song of praise. Mary, on the other hand, has come to visit her cousin Elizabeth after hearing from the angel that she is to give birth to the son of God. Elizabeth is the one who initially gives praise, but Mary’s response to this is the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
Right after this story, we return to a scene we left little while ago. Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, was one of the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem. He and his wife Elizabeth were “advanced in age” (as the Bible says quite gently). They did not have a child and had given up on having one. Zechariah is in the Temple, preparing the sacrifice. An angel appears and tells him that his wife is going to give birth. And because he doesn't believe, the angel says that he will not be able to speak until John is born. Now we pick up the scene as Elizabeth gives birth, and Zechariah’s voice returns to him. He, too, gives a song of praise.
The early part of Luke’s gospel is full of songs of praise. And I think that it’s fair to say that there is a comparison between the song of Mary and that of Zechariah. I want to look at that in a moment, but first, I want to spend a little bit more time looking at Mary’s situation.
For most of us, this time of year is so filled with memories that when we look at the stories, they are so familiar to us that they are covered in layers of nostalgia. It’s like we have to move aside the cobwebs in order to get to the story that’s at the heart of what we read. The reality for Mary is pretty grim: she was probably a teenager, as would have been the custom of marriage at the time. So when she goes to visits Elizabeth, she has probably been sent away. She’s not married. The child was conceived out of wedlock. We’re not quite sure whether Joseph is going to stick around. Her family seems to be sending her away until they can deal with things and figure it all out. This isn’t a friendly family visit. She is being sent away in shame. On top of this, as a friend of mine pointed out, teenagers don't even have a fully-developed frontal lobe. So we're even talking about a person whose brain chemistry isn't complete. And yet, in the midst of all of this, what does she do? She sings praise.
Her song is curious, because it's a song that a full more of promises that it is of realities. Listen to what it says: “God has shown the strength of God's arm and has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things; God has sent the rich away empty.” This doesn't sound like a world that I know. This is a song of promises. And yet it's this song that lays out the rest of the Gospel of Luke. As Jesus emerges on the scene and begins to preach, he does so in the echoes of his mother's own song about the promises of God.
When we put this song and its context next to Zechariah, we come across some startling differences. There's the difference in age or development or maturity. Mary is a young girl; Zechariah is “advanced in age.” There is their respective standing within the community. Zechariah is one of the high priests with authority. Mary is just a village girl. There is gender difference as well, especially in this time, between a man and a young woman. And there is a huge difference in their songs of praise. When Zechariah sings, it is because he has proof of god's grace in the child that has been born. But when Mary sings, it is because of promise. When we put these two characters side by side, it strikes me that God always seems to choose the instrument of surprise as the instrument grace. When Jesus is confronted with his disciples sending the children away, he says, “Unless you become like a child, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Mary is a child, and it is her song which offers us the vision of the kingdom of heaven. T
This last week, we went Christmas caroling with some of the families from the church to the houses in the immediate neighborhood. When we left the church, we weren’t quite sure how this would all happen. We had a broad group of ages. But as it turned out, the children took the lead. For them, it was like Halloween. They ran up to the door and as soon as it opened a crack, they burst out singing. There was one house that we couldn't get to the door. Their yard was surrounded by a white picket fence, and we couldn't figure out how to open it. So the children began screaming Christmas songs in order to be heard. There’s something about what our own children were doing on Thursday night that teaches us about Mary’s song of praise. There is a sheer joy in what she sings.
What she says is earth-shattering: the proud being scattered and the rulers being brought down from their thrones and the lowly being lifted up and the hungry being filled and the rich being sent away empty. This is incredible stuff that she’s preaching. And it comes out of a place of sheer joy.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been focusing on this theme of “What Are You Waiting For?” The idea is that we are in phases of life. And most of the time, if you're anything like me, you probably end up thinking more about that next phase and not living in the moment; making plans for what's coming next and not recognizing what it is that is right around. Mary is a supreme example of what it means to live in the moment. Think about how her life has been changed by what God has done. If there is anyone who has reason to despair, it is this unwed pregnant girl from a small village in first century Nazareth. And in this unwanted phase of life, this child shows us the kingdom of heaven by giving thanks.
There's something about gratitude that should uphold all that we do. As we’ve talked about our theme over the past few weeks, there has been a subtitle of “Setting Faith in Motion.” It’s a phrase that comes from our mission and vision statement as a church. Listen to the gratitude that is in the midst of that statement:
“Our ministries are response to God's grace already work in our lives. And so we exist for the community around, which includes our members. As a people of faith in motion, we gather together so that the Spirit might shape and move us so that our lives are empowered to serve God by serving others.”
There are two things that speak to me in this paragraph above:
- Our ministry is our response to God's grace, not an effort to earn that grace. We should not be motivated to do good things because we think it'll get us into heaven. Instead, we do good because we already recognize that God has been at work in our lives, maybe even we weren’t paying attention. The right response is to show thanks to God.
- When we gathered together for worship, the whole focus is to give glory to God and to open up our lives to the Holy Spirit so that we might be spun out into the world to do these acts of mercy that we've seen in our own lives.
This text today is a text of hope. Especially if you feel yourself where you think God is far away, I want you to put yourself in Mary’s shoes for a moment. Is Mary can find a reason to see God at work, why can't we? The gospel is many things, but it is not nostalgic. It is very real. It works with messy lives. Thanks be to God for that! All of us know what it means to live with a mess. It could be in our hearts, in our relationships. It could be in the way we view life. It could be in that very thing of wanting to get out of whatever it is we're in right now so we can get onto that good thing that's coming next, knowing full well that once we get to that next thing we're going feel the same way and want to move on to the next stage.
God is already at work in our lives. God is already a work in our lives! Thanks be to God. May we live with that deep sense of gratitude now and always. Amen.