THE BIG SURPRISE Luke 1:39-56
46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is his name. 50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered the arrogant thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has pulled down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” 56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil his promises to her!”
I want to share with you one of my biggest surprises over the last few years, and it has to do with a man called Charlie. If you met Charlie, you would be confronted with a bed-ridden elderly man, fed via feeding tube, who has locked in syndrome which resulted from a stroke. Charlie cannot speak, or move any part of his body apart from his head, and he has limited facial expressions. His mind is intact but he is trapped within a paralysed body. He communicates using an alphabet chart, and nods his head on a particular letter when slowly read aloud, and it’s a painstakingly slow process. As part of my work as a music therapist, I conducted music therapy sessions with Charlie on a long term basis. I managed to find a way for him to make music using a machine called a SoundbeamTM that converts head movements into music. As he moved his head the Soundbeam made instant notes, and I accompanied him on piano or guitar.
We had been doing this for several years, but here is the big surprise. For at least a year, unknown to me, Charlie had been experiencing a condition called synesthesia; an ability to experience vivid colours triggered by music making which literally clouded his eyesight when he moved his head using the Soundbeam. No, this is not his imaginings; synesthesia is a real neurological effect that scientists have been studying for the last 20 years. After Charlie experienced these colours in the music he would slowly spell out what he saw; he described some of the colours as powder blue, shiny olive green, caramel brown, and gold. Many were so intense, that he often cried as he shared his experiences. But here is the amazing thing. Under this broken and profoundly disabled man, was a world of beauty and wonder contained within his mind that I had limited access to. In the music he was encountering something wonderful that we both had to work very hard at using alphabet letters to bring to the surface. Once it came out though, it was an absolute joy to behold. But even before any letter was spelled, we encountered each other in this wonderful non-verbal exchange using music.
Hidden underneath its opposite, was an internal world of colour and joy. No-one would expect to find anything like this if one just looked upon a mute and locked-in disabled man on a bed. But in our text today, we encounter something extremely similar when we look at Mary, the type of person she was, and the extraordinary encounter she has with Elizabeth. Inside these two women, there is also an internal encounter with John the Baptist as a 6 month old unborn baby, and with Jesus as an embryo. Hidden sources of joy who do amazing things to the two women, which we will explore as we go through this amazing text.
Before we do that it is important to say something about Mary and the type of person she was and how she would have been perceived in the ancient world. We know very little about Mary’s background, but Luke gives a clue in verse 48 when he uses the Greek word doules which has been traditionally translated as handmaiden. Basically if you were a doules in the ancient world, you were a female slave, a maid, or someone who did all the menial tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and helping women in higher social standings give birth. A doules had no rights at all, she was one of the lowest servants in Israelite society. For someone like Mary to be granted the privilege to be pregnant with the Son of God, would be like in our times a Dalit peasant woman from India, or the women who go through rubbish tips in Brazil to find things to sell for food for their family. If you think about it, choosing someone like Mary would be the last thing you’d expect God to do.
Now that we have this context in mind we find in the beginning verses Mary travelling with haste to see Elizabeth in the hill country following the Angel Gabriel’s visit informing her not only of her own pregnancy but of her relative Elizabeth’s. In verse 40 we get the first hint at Mary’s character in the way she greets Elizabeth. This is not an equal social kiss on the cheek, but the Greek text gives us the added dimension of a ‘paying homage’ style of greeting. Remember that Mary is a doules, a female slave and Elizabeth is a wife of a priest; in those times a lady of distinction. Mary honours Elizabeth above herself in her humility and models already the very behaviour that Jesus would later do as a man. This greeting is not merely about the two women as very soon in verses 41 to 43 there is this remarkable encounter between the two babies in their respective wombs, and the effect this has on both Mary and Elizabeth. Luke tells us that Elizabeth’s baby John, leaps with ecstatic delight in her womb as he encounters Jesus in Mary’s womb through Mary’s greeting. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesies; suddenly we are seeing some spiritual activity going up a level.
So what does Mary do with all this? Does she let it go to her head saying: ‘Yes I am the mother of God, all praise to me!!!’ No she doesn’t. What she does is no surprise in terms of what we’ve already seen in her personality: she lifts up God. To be precise she wants to magnify God with her very life breath, make him great and enlarge him in song and in the process she does it with great joy; the same leaping of joy that baby John does in Elizabeth’s womb. When you have so little and you receive so much without earning it that praise just wants to go to God alone. Mary composes this song with such profound insight and thankfulness. She sings not only of her own lifting up and how God has done such great things for her, but she sings about how this exalting of the humble and bringing down of the proud, is the mighty work of God.
One of my favourite verses of this song is verse 51. ‘God winnows or scatters the arrogant thoughts of their hearts’. Winnowing is that job of tossing wheat into the air, and letting the chaff blow away leaving the good wheat behind. God is always at work sifting out our pride and arrogance, preparing the true wheat of a humble heart in all of us. In fact I would go as far to say that God the Father is humble, like Jesus is, and his constant work is coming down to our brokenness and lifting us up.
What an incredible song that Mary sings! But the text seals it off by simply saying that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for a further 3 months and then went home. This is not only evidence of a special bond between Elizabeth and Mary but actually Mary would have served Elizabeth by assisting her in birth of John, doing the very job a female slave was expected to. Such amazing humility.
In preparing to write this sermon I enjoyed listening to various composers who have set Mary’s song (commonly known as the Magnificat) to different styles of music. Some composers have used big sounds, trumpets, percussion and others have used very restrained and sombre sounds; almost as if they have to hold back the joy. In Martin Luther’s day the church was setting Mary’s song as some big triumphant showcase, far removed from its true humility. Luther says: We chant the Magnificat daily to a special tone and with gorgeous pomp; and yet the oftener we sing it, the more we silence its true music and meaning.
Luther hits the nail on the head here: the song’s true music. Luther had identified that Mary’s song is a song of grace and humility and not a song of triumph and pride. And yet as we approach Christmas, we really do see that side of Christmas which seeks to emphasise the celebration of the holiday, Father Christmas, expensive presents, vibrant colours, money, prosperity. Not all of these are wrong completely in themselves but they do easily function to hide our pain and brokenness, and struggles; things we put aside at Christmas if we can so we can pretend everything is all ok. That veneer of pride and pretence that all is well and good can take so much energy to maintain, and many times at Christmas relationships can break down, arguments happen, because we try so hard to make Christmas a distraction and cover for our problems. The songs we sing in our hearts in these moments are the ones that are glorious, motivational, and happy much like Jingle Bells, and Rudolph the Red nosed Reindeer; songs that help take us into another realm away from our problems.
But it can also work the opposite way round too. We can sing an entirely different song with a new meaning when we are honest and confront our pain, and we allow God to lift us out of the muck and mire. This is the song that says we can’t manage things on our own. We rely solely on God to change things round, and he often creates a song of joy from the most unlikely circumstances. One of the most famous examples of this is the Christmas truce of 1914 in World War 1. On Christmas Eve German and English soldiers began to sing carols in their trenches to one another resulting in one of the most moving ceasefires in any war. The next day both German and English soldiers were talking, exchanging mementos and food, playing football together, and burying their dead. Although sadly the ceasefire didn’t last, that Christmas was when the soldiers experienced the Christ child dwelling inside them.
That encounter with Him moved them to sing their own Magnificats or songs to one another in the backdrop of dark pain and suffering.
What songs will you be singing this Christmas? Will they be songs that are glorious and happy that cover up the truth of our pain, or songs of joy that come from praising God for his goodness and help in our times of trouble? When Christ dwells inside us He brings us together just like he did for Mary and Elizabeth, and how he brought together the German and English soldiers. Are any of you this Christmas dug in deep in your trenches, refusing to forgive a loved one, or unable to let Jesus lift you up and help you? Do you need to be Jesus to others this Christmas, sharing your abundant blessings with those who have very little? I believe there is a true song of joy waiting to be born in all of us. Not a joyful song to be sung which we don’t mean, but a song of joy that through faith believes in God’s goodness amongst our very real trials and suffering. God delights to lift you up, and he sings his song of joy over you as his precious child.
Finally I wish to leave you with this image. As part of the Aaronic blessing that a pastor will often conclude a service with, we often hear the words: ‘The Lord look upon you with favour and give you peace’. Translating the Hebrew into less fluent English the words actually say: ‘The Lord lift up his face toward you, and put in you, peace. In this image God is below you and he is lifting you high above him exactly like a parent lifting up their little child with joy.(gesture) What’s more is that he puts inside us his peace, his joy, and it is not from ourselves; it is from the Christ child who dwells inside us. Under your dark times and circumstances he lets his joy bubble up from within you, because he is mighty to save you when you need him. We can praise him this Christmas and mean what we sing, because Christ has come to us to heal and save us hidden under the last thing we’d expect: a helpless baby born in an animal shed, who produces joy in those who are His. Amen.
Luke 1: 39-56
39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil his promises to her!”
46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered the arrogant thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has pulled down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”
56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.
The text in Luke brings out a major theme of hidden sources of joy that can bubble up even in difficult circumstances. It can be tempting to pretend that all is well at Christmas time because it feels too hard to share with others the struggles that are really going on. What is God teaching me about the front I can put on at times? What things can encourage me to be real and honest with my brothers and sisters in Christ? How can I help others feel comfortable to share their struggles this Christmas in order for God to lift them up and give them his joy?
In verse 51 God ‘scatters (or winnows) the arrogant thoughts of their hearts’. It is an amazing image! God lifts us up in the air like wheat so the Holy Spirit can blow away the chaff of our arrogance, selfishness and pride. What are some of areas that I feel God is currently winnowing out of my life? As part of that process, are there things that I want to confess to God to receive his forgiveness and renewal? (Pray and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal the specific things that God wants to deal with).
Mary is a female slave with little or no prospects yet God has come down to her and lifted her up. Mary’s song is so full of thanksgiving and praise because God has done something amazing in her current circumstances. What things has God done in my life (either big or small) that has helped me become more thankful? (Reflect/share and pray these)
Having read how Mary responded to what God had done for her, what do I feel God is inspiring me to ask him for? Do I desire for a more humble heart? Or do I want a less prideful and stubborn heart that seeks to solve my own problems without Jesus? (Pray and ask God for wisdom to discern this issue)
Lord, I can often feel it is too hard to be honest about what is going on in my life at Christmas time. Help me to sing a true song of thanks as I worship you with all my faults and weaknesses. Thank you that you get your hands dirty and lift me up and cleanse me through your Word and the forgiveness you offer in Holy Communion. Let your Holy Spirit grow a humble heart in me and I thank you that you are already winnowing away my pride and selfishness. Let the song of my life be real, thankful, genuine and full of the joy that only you can give. In Jesus name I pray. Amen.