Luke 1:39-55

The Risk of Birth, Christmas, 1973 by Madeleine L’Engle

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn-
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by the comet the sky is torn-
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

Love still takes the risk of birth.
Mary takes the risk of birth.
Mary takes the risk to speak of what this birth will do.

The Magnificat, Mary’s song in our passage from this morning, is one of the earliest pieces of liturgy of the Christian church, used in worship since the 6th century. It is the oldest Advent hymn; it is the longest set of words spoken by a woman in the New Testament. It might even sound familiar, depending on how much you’ve memorized the Psalms – and even before that, the song of Hannah from 1 Samuel 2. Mary’s words are not new but instead, the Magnificat is a beautifully woven together tapestry of already-spoken biblical verses and thus, a retelling of God’s promise and of God’s deepest desire for us.

Beyond Mary’s words, it is hard to get the familiar image of her out of my head: of a sweet, tender, passive girl, wearing blue, hair covered, looking meek and mild. The long lineage of artistic renderings aid in this tempered imagining of Mary – time and time again, the mother of Jesus is made to look innocent and holy, with a body that bows low and kneels in reverence and of a voice that sings in delight in a perfectly-pitched soprano.

But if you’ve ever met a young teenage girl, or been one yourself, your imagining of Mary might widen a bit. Better yet, if you’ve ever told a young teenage girl to be quiet or to keep her thoughts to herself, your understanding of Mary will certainly expand.

See – Mary lived in a time, in a place, with a people, who believed her voice was worthless. Mary not only found no room at the inn but she found no room in society – Mary was among the lowest of the low. Engaged to a common workingman, she was now a pregnant, unmarried teenage girl who faced the chance of being stoned to death for her perceived sin. Stripped of agency by every person around her, we hear in this miraculous reversal that she – she of all people – is now charged with the greatest agency yet known on earth. Mary – Mary – is the one called to bring the Good News: that the incarnation of God on earth – of Immanuel – was finally coming and such inauguration would turn everything upside down.

Meek? Mild? Try subversive. Try strong.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this of Mary’s song: "It is the most passionate, most vehement, one might almost say, most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung…None of the sweet, sugary, or childish tones that we find so often in our Christmas hymns, but a hard, strong, uncompromising song of bringing down rulers from their thrones and humbling lords of this world, of God’s power and of the powerlessness of men." (12/17/1933, My Soul Praises the Lord sermon)

Mary singing this song – God 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 – Mary of little worth, of miniscule importance to those around her…Mary is the one charged and inspired to sing a lyrical reminder of utmost significance: the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the Prince of peace, is being ushered in "not among those who operate the old order; rather (this beginning) emerges among the victims of the old order." (Brueggemann, Prophetic Imagination, 103) In a season of heightened everything, we must remember what Mary did and what Mary sang: the world is about to turn and it doesn’t look like you think it will look.

In Mary’s time, God’s people knew generational oppression, violence swept the land, hatred rolled off the tongue, fear captured the hearts of all. The need for a different way of life cried from every corner of creation. Something had to change. Something had to be done.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Oppression. Violence. Hatred. Fear. Something has to change. Something must be done.

Mary’s Magnificat is a song of Good News back then and Good News now. But, I’ll admit that it is not the easiest news to hear. Mary sings with confidence that this birth, this child she carries, will not maintain everything as it is. No more status quo. No more keeping calm and carrying on. No more images of sweet, golden-fleeced baby Jesus but instead – but instead, of a Savior who is coming to turn the world upside down – to bind up the brokenhearted, to lift up the lowly, to fill the hungry, to bring down the systems that thwart the kingdom of God.

And for someone who is in power – by the standards of the world – this Magnificat does not sound like Good News. I am middle class. I have clean water and a safe place to live. I have a full-time job and benefits and a pension. I have the freedom to marry, to vote, to get an education. I am white. I am American. I am Christian. I have degrees from snobby higher educational institutions. I have food to eat whenever I want it and I waste no time worrying about where I will sleep at night. A reversal of all this – when I think of what Mary is actually singing, it makes me…it makes me a bit nervous for this incarnation. For this inauguration of a new world order.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, a violent military dictatorship ruled Argentina. It was a time called the Dirty War, named for the countless human rights violations that took place. A most disturbing constant during this time was the abduction of older children, teenagers, young adults – taken from their homes, taken by the military, and made "missing." Many were murdered, many more detained. It is thought that up to 30,000 Argentines were captured at this time.

A group of mothers began to gather, calling themselves the "Mothers of the Plazo de Mayo." They sought answers and fought for the safe return of their beloved offspring, fought for something to change. Their actions culminated in a most unexpected way: they wrote the words of the Magnificat and posted them in the capital plaza.

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.

Soon after these holy, ancient words were written and displayed, the Argentine government banned the public recitation and public display of Mary’s words. The canticle of the turning turned out to be too much of a promise for those in power, too much of a threat to everything as it was, too much of an uproar, too much – one might say – of God’s reign here on earth.

But try as hard as they might – or as we might – God’s promise of salvation – of the unexpected, divinely disruptive, chaotic, courageous, Christ-with-us promise cannot be silenced. It pour out in every corner of creation – in those places where the darkness seems too dark for the light of the world to shine, in those places where death’s dark shadow fills our hearts with ceaseless grief, in those places where violence rips apart communities and families and whole countries, in those places where words fly off tongues and seem to ignite fear with the most frightening of flames – the promise of Christ’s birth, of God coming to earth thousands of years ago and yet still coming today – this promise cannot be silenced. Mary’s words – though generations ago – are still sung and still sung with the moxie of Mary’s first recitation.

Right before Thanksgiving, I went with a team of Westminster friends to Haiti. This was our first mission trip down there as a church but this wasn’t my first mission trip. I’ve seen poverty, desolation, sickness, and death. I knew what to expect. But nonetheless, I tried to keep an open heart, an open mind for the Spirit to surprise me, especially as we set-up our clinic and pharmacy and patients lined up with illnesses complex and common.

It would be easy for me to tell you story after story about our time – about how the Holy Spirit kindled in me a new love for God’s people. It would be easy for any of our missionaries to tell you their own stories. Stories of caring for gravely malnourished children, of counseling whole families through medical issues, of making friends with our translators, of worshipping with sisters and brothers in Christ, of meeting the elementary-aged students that a handful of us support by paying a large portion of their school tuition, of driving through Port-au-Prince and seeing how every single street still bears the mark of the earthquake. Stories of poverty more abject than you can imagine. Of resources stripped. Of a deep, deep need for something to be done.

But those stories – while harrowing and true – are but a glimpse of what captured my heart while in Haiti and but a glimpse of what I think is the most important: when we went down to Haiti, our mission was not to bring a new song of salvation. The Haitian people – and really, all people – don’t need a new song. The most perfect one has already been sung:
God is with us – and it is Jesus, not us, who will lift up the lowly; he will fill the hungry with good things.

It’s a song that cannot be silenced and trying to keep silent is not an option. The song will be sung regardless of what we do. It always has been.

So, instead, it seems that our mission in Haiti was to join in a song long-sung by the Haitian people, long-sung by the thousands who support them abroad, long-sung by the people who set-up the clinics before we even knew they existed, who treated the patients we saw, who brought clothing before we collected pillowcase dresses, long-sung by the faithful who believe in the Good News – that Jesus is Emmanuel – and we are not alone.

Over the next few years, our church hopes to build a relationship with Haiti Outreach Ministries. My hope is that you will sing-along with us and with the people who have sung such promise before us: the world is about to turn and that is Good, Good News.

It is news God knows we’ve always needed to hear. Thank God for those who are willing to sing it, even in the midst of chaos. Thank God for those who are willing to hear it, even at the risk of turning their world upside down.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by the comet the sky is torn-
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.