Saturday, December 15, 2018

“What We Can Learn from Mary, the Mother of Jesus”

            This Sunday, December 16th, I will be preaching during an alternative “preview worship” for a new service that we will launch in 2019.  The service will be held in the Family Life Center (gym) at Christ United Methodist Church. 

            For this proclamation, I will be reflecting on Mary’s “Magnificat” from Luke 1:46-55.  In Luke the story of Jesus’ birth begins with the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would conceive and give birth to the long-awaited Messiah; she is to name him, Jesus.  After the angel departs, Mary decides to visit her relative Elizabeth and share the great news.  Elizabeth, herself, is also pregnant with her own son, who will grow up to be John the Baptist.

            When Mary enters her home, Elizabeth’s child leaps within her womb and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, blesses Mary and prophesies that her child is the long-awaited Messiah.  The “Magnificat” is Mary’s response to the blessing and prophesy of Elizabeth.  This passage is traditionally called the “Magnificat” because in Latin the first word in the passage is “magnify”—or “magnificat" in Latin.

            A careful reading of Mary’s Magnificat suggests that we can divide it into three distinct parts.  In my proclamation, I will suggest that each part holds a valuable lesson for contemporary Christians.  The first lesson concerns the importance of gratitude for all that God gives to us.  Here’s the passage:

And Mary said,
‘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.  (Luke 1:46-49)

Mary begins in gratitude.  Her soul magnifies the Lord and rejoices in God because God has favored her and done great things for her.  Over my life as a follower of Christ, I have discovered that I need to be very intentional in cultivating gratitude towards God.  I find that I get so busy and wrapped up in my activities and concerns that I sometimes forget to be grateful?  So, I have to be disciplined in my devotional life to include time for gratitude.  I suspect that I am not alone among Christians.

            The second lesson is that God will bring about a great reversal, leading to mercy and justice for the poor and marginalized: 

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. (Luke 1:50-53)

            Mary proclaims God’s love and mercy for those who are faithful.  Further, she prophesies a great reversal, in which God will bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly.  God will fill the hungry with good things, while sending the rich away empty.  Note that Mary is go confident God will perform these deeds in the future that she uses the past tense!  God has promised and God will deliver!  For Mary this prophesy is a certainty.

            To demonstrate this great reversal in the proclamation, I will show a video clip from the movie, Les Misérables. In the scene I have chosen, Jean Valjean, who is very poor and hungry, steals silver from the Cathedral.  The police apprehend Valjean and return him to the Bishop.  They tell the Bishop that Valjean claims he was given the silver and thus did not steal it.  Although Valjean has stolen the silver, the Bishop confirms his story, telling the authorities that he did give the silver to Valjean and then reminding Valjean that he forgot two silver candlesticks.  So, the police release Valjean.  After they leave, the Bishop tells Valjean to take the silver and make something worthwhile out of his life.  This exactly what Valjean does.  The gift of the silver leads to a great reversal in his life.

            We might well ask why God initiates such great reversals.  Why, for instance, does Mary predict that God will fill the hungry with good things, while sending the rich away empty?  Does God not love the rich?  We know that God loves all people, rich and poor.  And, we know that God seeks to enter into loving relationships with all people, rich and poor.  The answer is that God fills the hungry with good things because they are hungry and have nothing, while God sends the rich away empty because they already plenty for themselves. 

God loves rich and poor equally.  However, to love two persons equally does not mean we treat them equally.  Even though a father may love both of his children equally, he is going to provide a sick child with extra care and attention because that child is suffering.  Similarly, we can say that God makes a preferential option for the poor because they are the ones who are suffering.  Further, as disciples of Christ, we are called by God to care for those on the margins of our society, who are powerless, poor, hungry, homeless, sick, and in need of medical care.  Ministries of mercy to those who suffer is fundamental to Christian discipleship.  Similarly, ministries of justice, in which we seek to disrupt and change systems that are unjust and exploitive is fundamental to Christian discipleship.

The third lesson from Mary is that God remains faithful.  She says:

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. (Luke 1:54-55)

Mary concludes by proclaiming God’s faithfulness.  The Hebrew scriptures tell story after story of how the Hebrew people are unfaithful and disobedient to God.  Again and again, the Old Testament prophets condemn the people of Israel for their disobedience and call upon them to repent and remain faithful to God.  Time after time, God forgives the people and welcomes them back into a loving relationship.  God remains faithful. 

            Down through the ages, trusting in God’s faithfulness has always been difficult for human persons.  It seems as though it’s part of human nature to prefer trusting in ourselves and our own resources. This difficulty may be greatly exacerbated in post-modern societies where we struggle to reconcile faith and science.  There appear to be a great many “Christian agnostics,” who verbally claim to be faithful Christians, even though their actions belie their faith claims. Yet, part of Christian discipleship involves trusting in God rather than ourselves.

In summary, Mary’s Magnificat provides three vital lessons for living as faithful Christian disciples:

1.       Cultivate an attitude of gratitude towards God for what God has already given us.
2.       Work for mercy for those in need, such as those who are hungry, homeless, or in need of healthcare, etc.  Also work for justice for those who are exploited and oppressed.
3.      Learn to trust in God’s love and faithfulness.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, December 16th.  You may wish to join our “preview” alternative service at 9:45, where I will reflect on what we can learn from Mary’s “Magnificat.”  In addition, you are welcome to attend our 8:30 am and 11:00 am services, where this week our children and youth will present their 2019 Christmas program.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

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