Salvation by Reversal
Dec 19, 2021
Fourth Sunday in Advent
Text: Luke 1:39-55
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
The four blue candles are flickering; we have lit the candle of hope, the candle of peace; the candle of joy, and today, the candle of love. Only the white Christ candle remains, which will be lit on Friday as we celebrate Jesus’ birth and the arrival of hope, peace, joy, and love. Today, though, we see love confirmed even before it, or I should say he, is fully present.
Mary, a young woman who is betrothed to a man named Joseph, has recently been visited by an angel – Gabriel, to be specific – who proclaimed good news that both perplexed and shocked Mary. That familiar story is the background for today’s Gospel lesson, so we will take a moment to reflect on it.
I have a collection of children’s Christmas books, each beautifully illustrated and written. The one titled “Until the Christ Child Came” describes the annunciation in this way:
“Mary loved the carpenter. She dreamt of Joseph’s honest face, and canopies and wedding lace; and everything was all in place… until … the angel came.
“The angel came to Mary’s room in whistling wind and shimmering wings and whispering such amazing things: ‘You’ll bear God’s Son, the King of Kings!’ She thought, what wondrous news he brings! … until … she wondered how.
‘How can it be? I’m not a bride. What miracle has God designed?’ Had any man or womankind, been asked to leave so much behind? Said yes like that, with souland mind … until … she said, ‘I will’.
“She said, ‘I will’ and bowed in prayer, as peace and joy replaced her fright. She thought of Joseph in the night, believed that it would work out right … until … the word got out.” (1)
I’ll stop there, although that thoughtful verse continues throughout the book.
We read in Luke that by the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary would become pregnant, and the child will be “great…the Son of the Most High…the one who will assume the throne of his ancestor David”. This child, the angel said, will “reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Is there any way that this girl, most likely a young teenager, could have understood what that meant? Was she to bear and raise the one who would reclaim the Kingdom of Israel and reign over it? How could that be when she would, no doubt, become an outcast in her community after Joseph rejected her?
Yet, in spite of her questions and fear, she accepts God’s call saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary is the embodiment of faith and faithfulness. Still, she needs support and affirmation, so Mary visits her older cousin, Elizabeth, who the angel said was, given her age, miraculously pregnant, although by the usual means.
As they greet one another, Elizabeth and her yet-to-be-born son John (the Baptist) recognize the yet-to-be-born child of Mary as the Messiah. Baby John leaps, and Elizabeth calls Jesus “Lord.” Elizabeth’s response is by the power of the Holy Spirit; she and even her son, in utero, know what is true but unseen. The Messiah is in their home.
Shouting, or as one commentator said, “using her outside voice,” Elizabeth proclaims that Mary is blessed. Not only because she is pregnant with Jesus, but because she believed that the angel’s announcement would become a reality. Elizabeth views herself as doubly blessed, first in her own pregnancy and then being “let in” on the astounding news that her own young cousin is the Mother of her Lord. She might have said, “How did I get so lucky?”
Commentator Chelsey Harmon surmises that “if Mary came to Elizabeth with any doubts and fears about what she has said yes to, hopefully these words from God through Elizabeth, along with seeing what Gabriel said God did for Elizabeth is true (Elizabeth being visibly pregnant in her old age) quelled them.” (2)
And so, Mary sings. In fact, the beginning of Luke is filled with singing – first, Mary, then Zechariah, who praises God for the birth of John the Baptist, then the angels as they celebrate the birth of Jesus and finally, Simeon, who upon seeing the newborn Jesus, proclaims God’s mercy being extended to all the world. Their songs are powerful, especially true of Mary’s verse.
Her wonder, faith, courage combines, no doubt, with the power of the Holy Spirit, and she praises the extraordinary goodness of God. She also points to how God has been, and Jesus will be, interacting with the world – siding with the oppressed and the downtrodden.
It’s interesting to note that in this scene, there is no mention of the historically powerful, as has been the case previously in Luke. Also, there is no mention of significant cities. The focus is on two pregnant women, one very young, the other too old to be six months pregnant, in the hill country of Judea, greeting one another in love and amazement. In them, the lowly HAVE been lifted-up, which is the theme of Mary’s song.
Let me present her song as Steve Thomason does in his sermon on this text: “God has shown strength with his arm! God has scattered … who? … the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down … who? … the powerful from their thrones. And lifted-up … who? … the lowly. He has filled … who? ... the hungry with good things … and has sent … who … the rich away empty. (2)
Mary is proclaiming what will prove to be true about the baby she bears. Jesus will challenge situations in which the rich and powerful exploit the poor and weak. He will include the excluded. Jesus will feed the hungry, honor humility and reject arrogance. He will show mercy to the faithful and those who suffer. He will help God’s servant Israel and all who receive God’s grace through his sacrificial, forgiving, transforming love.
Mary may not have known the depth and breadth of what she was singing. Yet, she sang. There were so many unknown aspects to what God had called her to do; this is the most joyful thing that has, or will, happen to her, but also the most challenging. And, yet, she said, “yes.” Would we have done so? Mary realized the magnitude of God choosing her and proclaimed God’s greatness. So it is that Jesus’ story – on earth – begins with God taking what is small and insignificant in the world (both an infant and a young woman) to do extraordinary and unexpected things.
It is salvation by reversal; that is our guiding principle in sharing the love of Jesus, which is our on-going opportunity to say “yes.” When we do, we too may magnify the Lord while our spirits rejoice in God, our savior. AMEN
(1) Until the Christ Child Came by Dandi Daley Mackall, 2002, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis
(2) “Sermon Commentary for Luke 1:39-55” by Chelsey Harmon, www.cepreaching.org
(3) “A Deeper Love: Advent 4” by Steven Thomason, Dec. 26, 2018, www.stevethomason.net