December 23, 2012

My soul magnifies the Lord

Passage: Micah 5:2-5a, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-55

And Mary* said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 4and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 48for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.


According to Environment Canada’s senior climatologist David Phillips, a septillion snowflakes fall on Canada each year. So what’s a septillion? It’s a one followed by 24 zeroes.  To put a septillion in perspective, the universe is said to be about 14 billion light years.  If you expressed that distance in kilometers the resulting number would be 13% of one septillion kilometers. It’s a lot of snowflakes.

Scientists tell us that there is a most amazing phenomenon called “quantum entanglement.” If two particles of energy are kept in close proximity to each other for a long time, they form a relationship, a kind of bond that defies the imagination. The connection between these two particles is so strong that if you take one particle to a laboratory in Toronto and remove the other one to a lab in Vancouver, whatever you do to the particle in Toronto will instantly happen to the one in Vancouver, too. Einstein called it “spooky.”

In September of this year scientists announced their finding that the human genome is packed with at least four million gene switches that reside in bits of DNA that once were dismissed as “junk” but that turn out to play critical roles in controlling how cells, organs and other tissues behave. The discovery, considered a major medical and scientific breakthrough, has enormous implications for human health because many complex diseases appear to be caused by tiny changes in hundreds of gene switches.

Each of these forgoing items describing wonders of our world has a magnitude that amazes.  Upon hearing these is your first inclination that God must be amazing?  Does the wonder of such things that stretches the limits of our comprehension naturally lead people to reflect that God is good?  Does such discovery make you get up and want to give Christmas gifts?  Do you decorate your homes for what is now loosely described as “the holidays” because of the marvel of “quantum entanglement”?  Do you attend parties at this time of year to celebrate the falling of a septillion snowflakes?  Does all the increased giving to charities throughout December occur because a certain genome switches fire up according to some embedded twelve-month cycle?

In the Advent sermons this year we have been exploring the magnitude of Christmas.  “My soul magnifies the Lord”, said a teenaged Mary.  What is the source of her utter amazement with God?  In all that is happening to her, what is it that causes her to exclaim of the magnificence of God?  If you were in her shoes would your inclination be to rejoice that God is good?

1.  Mary is often treated as naive to the nth degree; a simple girl with a lot to learn about the ways of the world.  Many theologians treat her as mere prop in Luke’s story.  She could not have been bright enough to have uttered this song of praise to God; this is the author Luke putting these words into Mary’s mouth as he tells the story, many say.  But the problem with such re-reading is that these theologians are reading their own story onto Luke.  This rereading says more about the theologians than anything about Mary or Luke.

The picture Mary paints of human nature is anything but naive, as we shall see.  Her grasp, as a teenager, that the promise held out by the pursuit of prestige, power, or wealth is an allusion speaks of a young woman whose savvy surpasses many who claim maturity and competence with the ways of the world.  Her grasp of the scripture is extensive; each of the strophes of her song arises from the lines or imagery of the older testament.  Mary is a young person who takes her walk with God seriously; it was not uncommon that such people knew extensive portions of the Bible from memory.

It is clear in her mind that the one whom she carries in her womb is the son of the God.  You can hear it in Elizabeth’s response.  Mary greets her; that is she tells Elizabeth all that has happened to her—about the angel, his message, her pregnancy.  Elizabeth responds with sheer delight and utter astonishment that “the mother of my Lord comes to me.”  What both of these women are convinced of is that the Lord whom the universe cannot contain is somehow contained in Mary’s womb.  The very one who laid out the expanses of the universe is a human embryo inside her body.

What people think about Mary’s convictions with respect to her pregnancy is another matter; a matter that does not alter Mary’s testimony.  The great Reformation theologian John Calvin—he was not a friend of the Catholic Church’s veneration of Mary—said that “we allow Mary the greatest honour when we gladly receive her instruction and conform to her teaching and precepts.”

When Mary exclaims that “from now on all generations will call me blessed” she is not making a claim about any personal spiritual superiority.  Her claim that people will call her blessed is because of God; “the Mighty one has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”  Imagine what it was like, as the magnitude of what was happening forged its reality over her imagination; she had become the mother of her Lord.  Mary is the mother of our Saviour Jesus Christ forever.

The focus of her song is not, however, on being mother to him.  The focus of her song is “my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”  She knows that her Saviour has come to her.  The magnitude of Mary’s experience is for every believer who owns Jesus Christ by faith.  The magnificence is that my Saviour has come to dwell in me.  We are his forever.  God who is great enough to embrace the universe is amazingly close enough to enter our hearts. The Lord whom the universe cannot contain is somehow contained in the believer’s heart.

2. Mary’s grasp of human nature is anything but naive.  She rejoices in her Saviour because in his coming “he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” (Luke 1:51)  "Heart" has to do with thinking, willing, feeling and discerning.  In addition, "heart" means identity, who we really are underneath all cloaks, disguises and social conventions. The "thoughts of our heart" is our fashioning a deity of our own making, a god after our own image and likeness, which deity we follow zealously. Through the prophet Isaiah God says, "I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations (thoughts)." (Isaiah 65:2) Isaiah knows that first we disdain the Holy One of Israel and his claim upon us; then we fabricate whatever deity will legitimate and satisfy our craving, whether we crave wealth or recognition or ascendancy or anything else.

She tells us of proud people who are victimized by the thoughts of their heart—all of us.  Blinded by and in love with the gods of our own making we all alike fall short of the glory of God.  Yet Mary maintains this is good news, the uniquely good news of Christmas: God has scattered the proud!   To be sure, we have been judged; we have been found wanting. Yet this is not to say that God sweeps us away in his judgement. The Greek verb "to scatter" also means "to winnow".  To winnow grain is to toss a shovelful so that the wind carries away chaff but leaves behind the kernel, prized and soon to be put to use. In other words, God scatters us, the proud, inasmuch as he longs to save us and intends to use us. In getting rid of chaff he lays bare that heart which he can then renew in accord with his nature and kingdom, and then use ever after.

3. Mary also knows the pursuit of power to be corrupt.  In the coming of her Saviour she exclaims that God has "brought down the powerful from their thrones". But has he? Has God levelled those who strut? Has he crumbled those who tyrannize? In one sense it appears that God has done no such thing. Caesar Augustus was not deposed the day Jesus was born. No mighty ruler has been unseated just because the gospel was upheld.

And yet at a much deeper level the advent of Jesus Christ does mean that God has put down the mighty from their thrones. Herod wasn't paranoid when he raged that the Bethlehem child was a threat to his throne. After all, in the coming of Jesus Christ into our midst the world's only rightful ruler has appeared. Herod intuited correctly that the Christmas Gift would win to himself the loyalty of men and women who would never transfer that loyalty back to Herod. All political manipulators and ideologues and social engineers and "educational" programmers; in short, all who want to reshape society, even remake humankind, must know sooner or later that just because the world's rightful ruler has appeared and is now enthroned their authority has been exposed as mere posturing and their promises as mere wind.

Discerning Christians testify that those who think they can coerce or control have in fact been dethroned.  They have been dethroned in that no ruler or tyrant can tell Christians who they are (Christ alone does this); no ruler or tyrant can make Christians who they are (Christ alone does this)—which is to say, no ruler or tyrant can ever make Christians what they don't want to be. Corrie Ten Boom was as simple a Christian as one could find. (She was a fifty-year old unmarried daughter of a Dutch watchmaker who kept house for her father and sister). Yet Corrie Ten Boom defied Hitler by harbouring Jewish refugees in German-occupied Holland.  The moment she refused to admit any legitimacy to Hitler's rule; the moment she refused to conform to it—in that moment Hitler was dethroned.  Plainly the most coercive man in Europe was powerless in the face of a fifty-year old, unarmed woman. Yes, he could imprison her (and he did); but he could never tell her who she was; he could never make her who she was; and he could never make her what she didn't want to be. Any Christian who refuses to conform anywhere to the blustering and bullying of "the mighty" just because that Christian acknowledges the rulership of Christ alone; any such Christian testifies that God continues to dethrone.

4. Mary also knows that the pursuit of wealth or riches is an idol that destroys. "God has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty."

Who are the rich whom God has sent away empty?  Bashing the rich is fashionable nowadays. And of course those who like to bash the rich are quick to tell us who the rich are. The rich are always those who have more than the bashers. Such an attitude bespeaks only envy and resentment. The truth is, those whose "riches" are a spiritual threat aren't those who have money but rather those who are preoccupied with money—whether they have it or not.  Those who don't have it can be as absorbed by it as those who are awash in it.

What Mary knows is that the magnificence of her Saviour makes such preoccupations shrivel as the holy God looms before us in his awesome, all-consuming immensity. As this One looms before us the chaff we have been gorging is simply forgotten, and we become aware of a hunger we never knew.

Our Lord Jesus has promised that all who hunger for God and his righteousness are going to be filled.  All who crave the ultimate satisfaction of a relationship with God which can't be snatched away by economic downturn; all who finally hunger for this as they hunger for nothing else will be given that bread of life which profoundly satisfies yet never satiates. For this bread leaves us seeking none other yet always seeking more of him who is himself way and truth and life.

The rich who are sent empty away; they need not remain away. For as soon as they recognize their preoccupations as unworthy of someone who is created to be a child of God they too will hunger, will look to him who alone satisfies, and will be yet another fulfilment of Mary's Christmas cry.

5. It is a singular mark of God's kindness that the work of God's left hand assists the work of his right; to say the same thing differently, a mark of God's kindness that his right hand is stronger than his left, that mercy triumphs over judgement, that whatever wound he inflicts is only surgical repair for the sake of restoration to health. Having "put down", God now "exalts"; he exalts "those of low degree", the humble.

The humble, it must be noted, are not those who belittle themselves miserably and otherwise display abysmally weak self-image. (Crippling self-image isn't humility; it's illness.) Neither is "humility", so-called, a religious technique whereby we can get ourselves "exalted". And of course humility could never be the end-result of struggling to make ourselves humble, since the effort of making ourselves humble merely reinforces pride. Humility is self-forgetfulness, the self-forgetfulness that steals over us when we lose ourselves in something or someone who is bigger, richer, deeper.

This is the one Mary is magnifying; the one bigger, richer, deeper than anything the world has to offer.  He is in her womb.  God’s Christmas gift; a gift so grand we can’t create a celebration big enough to do him justice.