The title of our teaching last week was “Ponder,” and this week the title is “promise.” Promises are weird, right? Because they’re made with the implicit understanding that someone else is going to hold up their end of the bargain. And it’s interesting that everything, from some of the smallest, most arbitrary things we do in life to some of the biggest, most important things we do, require a certain level of trust. Whether it’s trust of someone else or someone else trusting you, there’s always a foundational level of promise that goes in to every decision, every action that we’re a part of.
When I lived in New Jersey, I would go to Wawa every week with my co-pastor Chris on the way to our church office hours and I would always get an Italian hoagie. Praise God. Anyway, this one day I went down the line and got all these ingredients and at the end of the line, the guy tried to fold the bread over and wrap it up in the sandwich paper. But when he did, half the stuff inside the sandwich spilled out, but he still wrapped it. And in the moment, I felt so betrayed. I just thought, “dude, you should have warned me. You’re a sandwich expert. You should have told me halfway through, ‘hey man, you might be reaching maximum sandwich capacity here.’” The whole appeal of a hoagie is that all the ingredients are contained within the confines of the roll. I was frustrated in the moment because I wouldn’t have gotten half the stuff if I knew it wasn’t going to fit in the sandwich. That guy let me down. Forget him. He’s the worst.
Everything functions on a particular level of promise, whether it’s something as small and insignificant as a hoagie at Wawa, or something as big as the fulfillment of God’s plan for Israel. The ancestors of the Jewish faith had to trust that this would all come to fruition at some point, even if they wouldn’t be there to see it. And this “coming to fruition” is what Advent is all about. Now, last week we worked through the annunciation text where Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel and told she will bear a son named Jesus, and this week, our text picks up right after, as our text says, “the angel departed from her.”
The first thing we see in this passage is Mary setting out and going with haste to a Judean town in the hill country. In other words, Mary is going to Jerusalem where Elizabeth and Zechariah live. Remember, Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, is a priest and priests live near the temple in Jerusalem. Now, how far is the journey from Mary’s home in Nazareth to Jerusalem? I’m so glad you asked, because I just happen to have a map right here. And if we look at this map, we see Nazareth up at the top, and Jerusalem at the bottom. Now, if you draw a straight line between them, it averages out to about 70 miles of travel. And that’s if you were to literally travel a straight line. It doesn’t take into consideration any ancient landscapes or terrain someone might have to travel around, it obviously doesn’t take into consideration natural occurrences like weather which might reroute someone on a journey, nothing like that. If you type this into Google Maps, which I did, and have it map out the modernroute from Nazareth to Jerusalem, it’s actually in the vicinity of 95-100 miles.
So, in this scene, we see pregnant Mary who, if we remember from last week, is somewhere between 12-13 years old, walking something around 70-100 miles from Nazareth to Jerusalem. And this should lead us to ask a very important question. WHERE ARE MARY’S PARENTS?! Why is there a pregnant preteen walking 100 miles by herself without adult supervision? If there’s ever a time where there should be a qualifying statement of “adult supervision required,” you’d think this would be it, right? But no – this story has what I call the “nursery rhyme” factor, that is a small child doing either 1) something extremely dangerous, or 2) something that really only adults should be doing. I would like to illustrate my theory with the classic nursery rhyme, “Baa Baa Black Sheep.” It goes like this: “Baa, baa, black sheep,have you any wool?Yes sir, yes sir,three bags full;One for the master,one for the dame,and one for the little boywho lives down the lane.” Why is there a young boy living alone down the lane?! Who signed this boys lease?!
In any case, we see Mary here making the long journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem to see her relative Elizabeth, and we’re told that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child “leaped in her stomach.” And we’re told earlier in Luke’s gospel of Elizabeth’s child, who would later become John the Baptist; that“…even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him…to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” So, we’re told that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit before his birth, and here we see him leap in Elizabeth’s stomach upon hearing the voice of the messiah’s mother. One commentary I was reading this past week said this: “Even from the womb he prophesies, implicitly transferring the designation of ‘Lord’ to Mary’s unborn baby, recognizing in this baby the eschatological coming of God.”
That’swhat is coming in a few weeks. That’swhat we’ll be celebrating on December 24. Not just the birth of a child; not just a promise of peace and goodwill toward humanity; but the eschatological coming of God. In other words, on December 24, we celebrate the fact that the final divine judgement has come upon; we celebrate the fact that the end of the world as people knew it came upon us as a little, poor, helpless child. The Advent season isn’t just a season of waiting for Jesus’ birth; it’s a season of waiting for the beginning of the end. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty cool. More on that in a few weeks; stay tuned.
For now, though, we’re told John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, says these famous words: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Remember what I said last week: Luke’s gospel lovesparallels. And here, we see a parallel of Mary, a young woman, and Elizabeth, and elderly woman. Now, in this time and place, it would be proper for the younger to praise the elder and for the guest to praise the host, but here we see a complete reversal of these roles – another motif Luke’s gospel loves: role reversal. And we see that begin to play out as Elizabeth blesses Mary; something veryunusual at this time. But one thing we can probably point out is that there may be some foreshadowing here. Because here we see Elizabeth, the elder, blessing Mary, the younger – a reversal of roles in this time. And later on, we see John the Baptist, Elizabeth’s son, baptizing Jesus, an unthinkable act; the messiah being baptized instead of baptizing.
Now, after this blessing, we finally come to Mary’s famous song, often referred to as the “Magnificat.” Magnificat is Latin and it means “magnifies”, taken from the first line of the song, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” This is regarded as one of the earliest composed Christian “hymns,” and the source material is all over the place. We find parallels to Mary’s song in 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, Exodus, Esther, a handful of Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, Kings, and other. It’s crazy. Now, this tells us a couple things. First, the author of Luke’s gospel is supersmart. When they were writing this they very likely didn’t have a copy of the OT in front of them, but it was probably all swirling around in their mind and were pulling on pieces here and there to compose this hymn. So, in a way, it’s a testament to just how well-read this author was in the OT texts.
But second, and probably even more significant, the fact that this text consistently reaches back, the fact that it pulls forward themes and ideas which are woven throughout the entirety of the OT is more than just a testament to the fact that this gospel’s author was well-read. It’s a testament to the fact that the God we’re talking about here is the same God being described in the entirety of the OT. Obviously, this idea isn’t new but historically, it was pretty much set in stone dogmatically within the first few hundred years of Christian history.
There was an ancient theologian named Marcion. And Marcion argued that the God found in the OT was not the same God as is found in the NT. He said that the God of the Jews in the OT was a tribal, vengeful, hateful deity who was incompatible with the love and grace and mercy found in the teachings of Jesus, the so-called “God incarnate.” So, he argued that we should basically throw away the OT and keep merely the NT gospels and epistles as the sacred canon of Christianity. Not only was this problematic because of passages like we’re talking about this morning, but it also created issues of antisemitism which are clearly incompatible with the Christian faith, both ethically and scripturally. Marcion was later excommunicated from the church because of his teachings and has since been deemed an “arch-heretic” of the Christian faith, which I think is kind of cool, to be honest.
In any case, one of the core tenets of the Christian faith we profess is that the God we find in the Hebrew scriptures is the same God who becomes incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ; that the creator we read about in Genesis is the God who continues to work in the church and world today. And in our text, we’re merely seeing the vessel begin to transform and expand. God’s activity is no longer confined to the temple or the Law, but is coming through a young woman named Mary and her unborn child.
And there’s something really amazing toward the end of Mary’s song. I want to read again verses 52-55: “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.” Notice here that there is a definitive shift in attitude in the song frompraise and toaction; from worship and to justice. And we can break this down even further, because verses 52-53 are somewhat different from verses 54-55, and I actually want to start with 54-55.
“He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham ands to his descendants forever.” Now, like good, narcissistic human beings, we Christians often attribute this passage to ourselves. We look at this bit about “Abraham and his descendants” and we’re veryquick to throw up our hand and say “oh! That’s me! That’s me!” All the while, though, we conveniently forget that Abraham has other descendants, too. First, our Jewish brothers and sisters are stilldescendants of Abraham even if we disagree about the identity of the messiah. So, this promise still applies to them even if we believe the Law has been fulfilled once and for all in Jesus Christ. Okay, that’s part one. Second, though, we veryoftenforget that there is yet another branch of Abraham’s family tree, and that is our Muslim brothers and sisters.
In Genesis 16, we find Abraham and a childless Sarah. And Sarah, in keeping with the customs of the time, told Abraham to go bear a child with their slave-girl Hagar. So, he does this and bears a son named Ishmael. Later, though, Sarah is granted a son, Isaac, and commands Abraham to send away Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness so that Isaac will be the only heir to Abraham’s family. Abraham does this, and we see God speaking to Abraham in Genesis 17, where he tells Abraham, “As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.” And it this great nation of Ishmael that we believe yielded the Islamic faith.
So, if we come back to this hymn of Mary’s and read that God is going to be faithful to the promises he made to Abraham and his descendants, then we have to conclude that not only Christianity, but also our sister faiths of Judaism and Islam are blessed and promised a future by God. And it would do us well to remember this when we see hate and discrimination being carried out against members of those communities; when we see Menorah’s being vandalized in town, when we see bumper-stickers that say things like “Don’t be a Jew”, when we see people lumping all of Islam, a peaceful and loving faith, together with the tiny, radical sects that carry out acts of terrorism and hate in the world. We have a responsibility to stand in solidarity with these brothers and sisters against a system which is often bent against them.
Now, speaking of corrupt systems, let’s finally get to verses 52-53: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and set the rich away empty.” If we believe that the God of the OT is the same God present in the NT then we have to believe that God’s character doesn’t change. If we believe that God stood in solidarity with the poor and oppressed in the OT, then we have to believe that he will continue to do so in the NT and in the person of Christ. This Magnificat is not only a hymn which celebrates what God has done but is also a hymn which tells us what God will do. And I think it’s pretty amazing that the God spoken of in the Hebrew scriptures, spoken of in this hymn, will become human in the form of an apocalyptic prophet who seeks to upset and overturn all systems of oppression in the name of the Kingdom of God. It’s amazing to think that this hymn, spoken by Mary, is the first look at the fact that Jesus, the messiah, was coming into the world to upset and overturn this oppressive Roman-military-industrial complex which would eventually nail him to a cross and kill him.
I entitled this sermon series “False Profit” because I want you all to walk away from this series with the feeling that Advent and Christmas is infinitely more radical and subversive than the cultural phenomenon it’s become. Advent is a season of waiting for promises to be fulfilled, yes, but the promises are extraordinarily sweeping and fundamental. This is a season of waiting for the promised messiah to come; it’s a season of waiting for that promised day during which all systems of oppression come crashing down to the ground in the name of this little, helpless child in Mary’s womb. It’s a season when we wait for this apocalyptic event to come and overturn our lives and make us new. It’s a season to ponder and a season to wait for the fulfillment of promises; one might say it’s a season to prepare. More on that next week. Let’s pray.