December 8, 2005

Through the Lens of the Magnificat: A Sermon


If a preacher isn’t honest, he or she shouldn’t be preaching. I need to start by telling you how very hard it is for me to preach into the joy of Advent today.
Last week, Bill shared during our time of joys and concerns that four members of the Christian Peacemakers Team were abducted in Iraq. The Peacemakers are in Iraq because they believe that the mandate to proclaim the Gospel of repentance, salvation and reconciliation includes a strengthened Biblical peace witness. They believe that faithfulness to what Jesus taught and modeled calls Christians to more active peacemaking. They believe that a renewed commitment to the Gospel of Peace calls Christians to new forms of public witness which may include nonviolent direct action.
Tom Fox is one of the men abducted by Swords of Righteousness. In May of this year he wrote about the mission of the Christian Peacemakers Team in Iraq, writing, “We are throwing ourselves open to the possibility of God’s grace bringing some rays of light to the shadowy landscape that is Iraq. We are letting ourselves be guided by something that is beyond rational, intellectual analysis. Gardens beneath which flow rivers can again be the dwelling place for the people of Iraq. Everyone whose government and corporations are playing a role in this land needs to throw open the book of their heart. They need to let their Light run before them as they bring redemption to those in power who are seeking to rule from a place of fear, violence and shadows. That truly would be the highest achievement.”
As I write this, Tom and his coworkers are still alive. The people at Swords of Righteousness are threatening to kill the four peacemakers on Saturday, December 10th. Even still, the headquarters of the Christian Peacemakers Team have released a statement saying that “While we believe the action of kidnapping is wrong, we do not condemn you as people. We recognize the humanity in each person, and respect it very much. This includes you, our colleagues, and all people.” Men and women who volunteer as members of Christian Peacemakers Teams make a commitment to reject violence, even if violence is done to them. They covenant to stand firm against evil, and they swear not to dehumanize their persecutors.
As you can imagine, the work of the Christian Peacemakers Team is controversial. And perhaps no one despises the mission and method of the Peacekeepers Team more than Rush Limbaugh. On his November 29th radio broadcast, Limbaugh said that he liked that this is happening to Tom Fox, James Loney, Harmeet Singh Sooden, and Norman Kember. "Here's why I like it… any time a bunch of people that walk around with their head in the sand practicing a bunch of irresponsible, idiotic theory confront reality, I'm kind of happy about it, because I'm eager for people to see reality, change their minds if necessary, and have things sized up.” I listened to a recording of this broadcast—I had to hear these words come out of Rush Limbaugh’s mouth to believe that he really said them. And now I cannot get them out of my head. Even though I know they are intended to shock, they infuriate me and distract me from my prayers for the peacemakers.
Only Rush Limbaugh might have been right about one thing. He called prophetic Christianity a bunch of irresponsible, idiotic theory. According to the standards of the world, Christianity is irresponsible and idiotic. And it is in our most idiotic doctrines that I finally weave my way back to a place where hope is real, peace is possible, and joy is in the air.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary sings. Here is a girl who is unmarried and impoverished, and who has recently been visited by an angel with a very peculiar message. “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.” Mary had every reason to run screaming from this angel, every cause to consider him an Angel of Darkness, not a messenger of the Lord. For having a child out of wedlock, she could be stoned for adultery. At the very least, she could be rejected by Joseph, her parents, her village. She could spend the rest of her days in even deeper poverty, struggling to keep herself and her child fed outside the safety of a marriage and community. But she doesn’t reject God’s ridiculous plan to inhabit her womb. She hurries to see her cousin Elizabeth and breaks into song: “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.” (NRSV)
This great hymn of praise has empowered the oppressed and unnerved oppressors for millennia. Mary, who knows our Creator so intimately she carries the Son of God, sings of a God who reaches down and touches the pain of his people. This God lifts up the victims of economic poverty and political violence and draws them into his gentle arms, the way a mother hen gathers her chicks beneath her wings. And this God sends the proud packing. The powerful and corrupt kings who are fluent in the ways of violence and domination are deposed. The rich, who have hoarded the stuff of Creation for their own purposes, are sent away with nothing to show for their greed.
Now let’s get back to our irresponsible and idiotic faith. Instances of Christian foolishness are really adding up. As Christians, we believe in a divine incarnation—that God took human form in the person of Jesus. What’s more, we believe that a young virgin in a Podunk town in Israel carried this Son of God to term. In these Advent weeks, we prepare to hear the wild and glorious story again: that the King of Kings and Lord of Lords made himself at home in swaddling clothes in a manger. And this baby King’s mother tells us what the incarnation means: things are going to change. Oppression will give way to justice. Tears will flow into rivers of laughter. The high and mighty will be humbled, and a poor, unmarried mother will give birth to a Savior.
At the time that Mary sings her revolutionary anthem, though, nothing has yet changed on the surface, for God’s time is not akin to our own. She claims that God has brought down the powerful from their thrones—but the Roman Empire continues to dominate the Israelites in their own land. She professes that God has filled the hungry with good things—but famine still plagues the peoples of the earth. How can Mary’s very soul be bursting with glimmering joy when there is so much reason to tremble with fear and quake with sorrow?
It’s irresponsible. It’s idiotic. And yet every word of Mary’s delirious rejoicing is true. The magnification of God that emanates from Mary’s soul, that jeweled core of each human, is deeply, radically, eternally truthful.
The joy of Christmas is all about trusting God’s promise to redeem creation, and Mary’s song reveals the ultimate meaning of the incarnation that is growing within the space of her womb. With the birth of this child—or, more accurately, the conception of this child by the overshadowing power of the Holy Spirit—the course of human history is transformed, altered drastically for the better. Things are not right—this much we are sure of. We believe that God created the world to be a garden of praise and life, not a den of pain and death.
It isn’t right that bodies deteriorate and die. Women shouldn’t be widowed. Young girls shouldn’t be killed in senseless car accidents. Neighborhoods shouldn’t be ruled by guns. Buildings shouldn’t be felled by terrorists. Nations shouldn’t quarrel with bombs. Young men and women shouldn't lose their youth to war. Lakes shouldn’t be polluted by toxins. But God is moving, and a pregnant young girl bears witness to the glory at hand. A beautiful change is in gestation, and the final triumph of life over death is inevitable.
Centuries before Mary revealed the great works of the Mighty One in her bold canticle, the prophet Isaiah issued a divine clarion call: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion-- to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” (NRSV)
In Isaiah’s words, we find the same unabated rejoicing in the work of our God. Now we have the fact of oppression, the excruciating pain of broken hearts; Isaiah declares the advent of good news and the binding up of wounds. Now we have captives and prisoners— Isaiah affirms that our four brothers in Iraq and all persons unjustly jailed shall be liberated. Now there is talk of God’s anger with his creation, but Isaiah announces that the year of the Lord’s favor is at hand. Now men and women are racked with tears of mourning—Isaiah prophecies that they shall be adorned with garments of celebration. Now we are faint with fear and despair, but Isaiah proclaims that we shall be reborn under the happy weight of the mantle of praise.
The child developing within Mary, who causes John the Baptist to jump for joy within his mother’s womb, will grow into a King whose reign is everlasting. And the words he will use to illuminate his holy mission at the beginning of his ministry in the Gospel of Luke are these words of Isaiah. He is the anointed one. He has been sent to bring good news; indeed, he is the good news. Everything is going to change, all because God is enfolded into a human being. Intervention by incarnation.
It may be irresponsible and idiotic to trust the impassioned words of the virgin and the prophet. Good. Blessed are they who are made fools for Christ!
The same spirit of God that came upon Isaiah and overshadowed Mary still moves among us today. The light is bright now, though we are still living in the darkness. Now we pray fervently for wars to cease and captives to be liberated; now we petition anxiously for beloved ones to survive another round of chemotherapy and another barrage of tests. And even now we rejoice, for through the lens of the Magnificat, everything looks very different. Let us join our souls with Mary’s to magnify the Lord. Stand and sing, friends. The Son of God is on the way!


***Edited to add***

This sermon has been plagiarized widely. It is fine to quote someone else's sermon, or borrow ideas. But you should, at the very least, acknowledge that some of the work is not your own. You do not need to name the author by name. It is enough to say, "As another preacher has said..." If you do plagiarize sermons, do not be foolish enough to publish them as your own.

Thank you.



8 comments:

  1. I have often wondered if it is the fact that the tales/parables are so far-fetched that is is proof of faith to believe.

    Mary was an admirable woman.

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  2. This is a really wonderful sermon - so wonderful, in fact, that I have sort of stolen your structure for my own foray into the Magnificat. I hope you don't mind, and I just wanted to let you know that I was inspired, and suspect your congregation will be as well!

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  3. Thank you for your wisdom and generousity in posting your sermon. Your words and truth really touched me deeply. Amazing.
    K

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  4. This is a wonderful sermon and I am envious of your church members for getting to hear it in person! Is there even the smallest chance that your church puts the sermon online as an audio file? I would love to hear it.

    So well done! Thank you.

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  5. Thanks for your words.

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  6. Thanks for the kind and generous comments! I hope it was helpful. Since it was listed on textweek, it got about 600 hits... yikes.

    Stacey, I'm sorry I didn't get back to you, but you are always more than welcome to borrow structure or whatever. I've already stolen one of your blog posts to be a sermon illustration, so the gates are wide open.

    Teri, I'm sorry but we don't have any audio technology yet... I wish!! I know that sermon podcasting is a growing trend, so maybe someday...

    I think the sermon went well this morning. I continue to doubt my preaching skills; I'm more comfortable writing than speaking. But I'm getting there.

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  7. Great stuff. Thank you.

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  8. This is the first I have read of your work. You have a wonderful way with words and harnessing the beauty and power and truth of the meaning of this passage. Your words themselves sound like a song.

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Disqus for any day a beautiful change