I absolutely love how scholar and world renown theologian N.T. Wright begins his commentary on the Magnificat–or the Song of Mary that we have presented to us this morning. Please hear Wright’s words in this extended quote:
What would make you celebrate wildly, without inhibition?
Perhaps it would be the news that someone close to you who’d been very sick was getting better and would soon be home.
Perhaps it would be the news that your country had escaped from tyranny and oppression, and could look forward to a new time of freedom and prosperity.
Perhaps it would be seeing that the floods which had threatened your home were going down again.
Perhaps it would be the message that all your money worries, or business worries, had been sorted out and you could relax.
Perhaps it would be the telephone call to say that you had been appointed to the job you’d always longed for.
Whatever it might be, you’d do things you normally wouldn’t.
You might dance around and round with a friend.
You might shout and throw your hat in the air (I once did that without thinking, before I stopped to reflect what a cliche it was.)
You might telephone everybody you could think of and invite them to a party.
You might sing a song. You might even make one up as you went along–probably out of snatches of poems and songs you already knew, or perhaps by adding your own new words to a great old hymn.
And if you lived in any kind of culture where rhythm and beat mattered, it would be the sort of song you could clap your hands to, or stamp on the ground.
Now, read Mary’s song like that. (Luke for Everyone pp. 13-14)
Read Mary’s song like that.
I wonder if we can.
I wonder if we can experience that kind of joy anymore.
It seems like daily we are bombarded with news that threatens our well being. There used to be a famous tag regarding news stories that said, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Well, they’ve actually come up with all sorts of other stories meant to scare the bejeezus out of you these days. We just came through a presidential election–that once again was called the most important in our lifetime–that once again had both sides convinced that if the other person was elected, we were sending our nation right down the toilet and into the sewer. Forgive me if I don’t give such talk credence anymore. I’ve heard such rhetoric in the last four or five presidential elections. I’m tired of it, and I don’t believe it. Armageddon hasn’t happened in the least. I’m pretty sure it won’t happen now. But you’d never believe it given the rhetoric. And you’d better not try and convince a die hard about your skepticism. They will work diligently to convince you that you should be scared to death.
And the thing about it is, such scare tactics work! They tap into something deep down in our psyches–deep down in the recesses of our subconsciousness. Some behaviorists have concluded that evolution has essentially programed us to focus on the negative. I mean, when our ancestors were surviving out on the Savannah’s of Africa, they had to be acutely aware of their surroundings. Every sound had to be categorized and noted. Was that rustle in the grass simply the wind, or was it a predator stalking you? Was that bubbling in the river just some air escaping, or was it an alligator about to spring? Were the clouds in the sky a harbinger of severe weather? When you are in survival mode, as we were for the longest time, your brain develops so that you are always looking for threats. Are you safe? Are you secure? Is your well being in danger? These are the questions that dominated our species for thousands of years. And it was rare that we got the opportunity to relax and enjoy time without threat.
What did this do to us? Well, it instilled deep within us an instinctual focus on that which threatens us. It instilled deep within us a heightened sense of attention and focus on the negative. Negative things grasp and hold our attention better than the positive things, and interestingly enough, even when the positive things happen to us, we tend to get suspicious and wonder when the shoe is going to drop. Our joy is usually very short lived, and there is always someone ready to be a “Debbie Downer” and rain on your parade. There is always someone ready to point to those who are grieving and say to you, “How can you celebrate when these people are hurting.” True joy is hard to find.
Except in children. Oh, our children exhibit such uninhibited joy. Our children are more than willing to laugh and celebrate and clown around. Our children are willing to sing and dance without worrying about what other people think. Our children are willing to shout with joy and gladness, and what do we adults tend to do when our kids do this? What is our usual response? Yep. We tell them to grow up. Get serious. Act like an adult. We have had our joy tempered, and so we almost feel obligated to do the same.
Can you imagine if Elizabeth and Mary had tried to restrain their joy? Can you imagine what they would have done and how differently the scene before us this morning would have played out? It most likely would not have been included in the Bible, that’s for certain. For Mary’s song bursts forth from her lips because she is filled with unrestrained joy. Let’s take a look at what is happening.
Luke tells us that Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth, like Mary is pregnant, and when Mary arrives, she greets her cousin. Luke emphasizes this a couple of times for a reason. First off, we need to understand that in that culture, it was appropriate and expected for a younger woman to respect her elders. It was also appropriate and expected to honor an older woman who was pregnant given that pregnancy was considered a blessing from God. Mary is following proper protocol for the Jewish society in which she lived. Elizabeth, because of her status as an older, pregnant woman, deserves to be honored by Mary’s greeting. Mary knows this and follows the custom, but Elizabeth does not follow suit. In fact, Elizabeth’s reaction is totally unexpected and totally against the cultural norms. Why?
Listen again to what Luke records, “41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’”
When Mary greeted Elizabeth, something marvelous happened within her. The child that she was carrying lept in her womb!! The child in Elizabeth’s womb recognized that God was up to something mighty because of the child in Mary’s womb. Elizabeth felt this and then felt the power of the Holy Spirit fall upon her, and she proclaimed a greeting to Mary!!! This was unheard of!! Older women certainly did not talk to teenagers this way!!! Older women certainly didn’t offer this kind of respect to young women who, by all external appearances were sinning because they were pregnant outside of wedlock. Anyone in that culture would have been shocked by Elizabeth’s actions!! This shouldn’t be happening!! But proper protocol’s were not in control of this situation. The joy instilled by the Holy Spirit was.
“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?” Listen carefully to Elizabeth’s words here. She announces that the child that Mary is carrying is her Lord. The child in Mary’s womb is her ruler. Even before he is born, Elizabeth is testifying to his greatness!
“For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb lept for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” There it is again. Joy. Unadulterated joy. From an infant in the womb to the infant’s mother. And all focused back on the promise given by the Lord. The Lord’s promise is coming true. The Lord is acting in the world. Focusing on the Lord and His work brings joy. Remember that. It will be a recurring theme.
Mary hears Elizabeth’s words. And Mary spontaneously breaks into song. She sings. Filled with joy, she lifts her voice to the skies and proclaims the majesty of the Lord. I would dearly love to go through this marvelous song verse by verse, statement by statement, but that would require far more time than is available. It is a marvelous piece pointing to all the things that God has done. And I want to emphasize that point. Mary is singing about all the things that God has done. If you read through this song in English and in Greek you will see that the vast majority of the verbs are all in the past tense. They are not focused on the present. They are not focused on the future. They are recounting the things God has done to fulfill His promises to the world and then to the people of Israel. What God is doing now in Mary has caused her to look back and see all that God has done; how faithful God was; and how what God is doing now is right in line with what God has always done. God is faithful. God’s promises are secure. Focusing on what God has done; focusing on God’s work brings joy! Pure and unadulterated joy!
I want to ask you whether or not you see such joy in your life? I want to ask you whether or not you see such joy in the world around? I want to ask you whether or not you see such joy even within our churches these days?
When you walk around the grocery store; when you go to a game; when you drive down the street, how many people do you see smiling, laughing, singing for no apparent reason–and I’m not talking about singing with the radio–even though I seem to observe fewer people even doing that! I’m talking about singing when there’s no music being played. Singing for the pure joy of singing? How often do you see such things?
I have personally noticed a decline in the singing of many churches. Even when I was at Christian City Fellowship attending Thanksgiving worship, I only heard strong singing from the congregation during one particular song. The band and worship singers were very, very strong. The two lead singers were professionally trained, but as far as a great many voices being raised in song? No. Not really. Why is this? Why don’t people sing out anymore?
I have a hypothesis that singing is often tied to joy. When your heart is full of joy, it can’t stay deep down within. It has to spring forth. It has to come out. You want to let it out because if you don’t you will feel like you will burst.
But we have little joy. We are haunted by the past. Overwhelmed by the present, and fearful of the future. We think about all the things that have effected us. We think about all the things that we have to do. We think about all the things that could possibly happen to us and effect us negatively. Our joy vanishes because we fail to remember what God has done. We fail to remember who God is. We fail to remember His promises in our lives.
Thinking about who God is and what He has done leads to joy. Period. Have we forgotten? Have we forgotten that God is the one who brings the dead to life and calls into existence things that were not? Have we forgotten the love of the God who was willing to pour Himself out for the world? Have we forgotten that God has reached down into the depths of our world to become like us; to take our sin upon Himself; to die for us to pay the penalty of our sins; to rise again to new life showing us what our future holds?
Have we forgotten that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life, for God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved by Him? Have you forgotten that God so loved you that He came to die for you so that you may find yourself deeply loved by Him?
Remember. Yes, remember. Let your thoughts turn to God and what He has done. Let your heart turn to God and be filled with His Holy Spirit. Let your focus change from that which consumes you and worries you and frightens you, and see the cross in your mind’s eye. See the empty tomb and the future you have with the God who loves you. See yourself resting in God’s arms and knowing His mighty power. Feel His presence. Feel His Spirit. Feel your heart filling with pure, unadulterated joy. And don’t be afraid to sing. Sing to the world and tell of all that God has done. Amen.