Benediction Online

Sunday, December 23, 2012


I don’t know about you but I can’t accurately remember what anyone said to me last week, let alone last year. So I find it highly unlikely that when the gospel of Luke was written the author knew exactly what Mary said after her cousin Elizabeth greeted her as the mother of her Lord. It’s much more likely that the song we call the Magnificat was written later and put into the mouth of Mary by the author.

In which case, it’s not just the spontaneously happy song of a pregnant woman, but an expression of what the writer, and the Christians he was writing for, thought Jesus was all about. This is important, because it gives us a sense of what those early Christians understood Jesus to mean. We can think of it as a hymn of the early church.

We call it the Magnificat because that is its first word in Latin – “my soul magnifies the Lord”. My soul magnifies – makes bigger, amplifies. Or as the writer of John’s gospel would say, “glorifies”. When we praise God we are not patting him on the back for a job well done, we are making him bigger, magnifying him in our hearts and minds. When we turn to God in praise our own concerns get smaller, we can lose ourselves in God –as John the Baptizer once said, “He must increase but I must decrease.” (John 3:30) As we worship we find that we are feeding and rejuvenating our own souls because praise is the fundamental energy of the universe

So the first movement of this hymn is praise and worship – for God “has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” This is not miserable sinner language – this is acknowledging that in comparison with God we are lowly. When put in the mouth of teenage unwed mother-to-be, it suggests that God looks with favor on those who the world considers worthless – and that is the direction the hymn is going – but here it is just saying that God looks with favor upon us even though we are mere mortals. I can’t think of a much better reason to praise and worship God than because she loves us unconditionally and extravagantly with all of our humanness – our faults, our limitations and our pride. It would be easy for her to write us off instead of wrapping each one of us around with love.

So when the hymn goes on to say “His mercy is for those who fear him” it can’t be using fear in the sense of being afraid. The God who delights in us does not want us to be living in fear. When the Bible talks about the fear of God it’s usually talking about keeping the law, which was the way faithful Jews showed their love for God. We think more about living holy lives – lives which are modeled on the way Jesus lived and on Christian teaching. The Common English Bible translates this verse He shows mercy to everyone…who honors him as God.”

Those of us who have enrolled in the reign of God, those of us who have found ourselves, like Job, face to face with the immensity of the divine, those of us who have fallen into the hands of the living God know God’s mercy in a way which is still foreign to those who have not yet turned towards him. So perhaps we can turn it around and say “Everyone who honors God knows his mercy.”

In the second movement of this great hymn, God changes the natural order of things. God reverses the structures that we are used to. God scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly; he feeds the poor and leaves the rich empty.

It’s a vision of hope and encouragement to those who are at the bottom of the pile. We may look at those who are doing well financially, those who get their way in the political processes of the world and think that God is favoring them – in fact we have a tendency to think that when things are going well God is blessing us – but in fact God’s view of things is exactly the opposite of ours. God lifts up the lowly, and feeds the poor.

If we take this seriously, then it is a call to us to do the same. We are called to be imitators of Christ, to live out his resurrected life in the world, continuing the healing of individuals and social structures that he started. We are called not just to feed the hungry but to change the social organization that makes some people very rich and leaves 20% of Americans wondering where there next meal is coming from. We are called to change the structures of society which allow mentally ill young men to live without effective treatment and to get their hands on weapons. We are called to change the structures of society which repay violence with violence, and argue that arming more people will lead to less guns being fired.

We’re not going to achieve this by sitting passively, hoping that something will happen. We are going to have to make phone calls and write letters. We are going to have to badger our elected representatives. It is easy for us to forget and move on to something else, but if we want real change we have to keep at it and not get discouraged.

For God does not get discouraged. The final movement of the hymn points to God’s faithfulness. God is faithful. We come and go. We pay attention and then forget, but God remembers God’s promises.

It’s almost Christmas, and we are ready (or not) to celebrate the great gift, the great coming of God amongst us. The coming of Christ is the ultimate sign of God’s love and faithfulness to us. God will never let us down.

But more important than sending our Christmas cards and emails, buying gifts for loved ones, decorating the house and baking the cookies – more important than all that is renewing our commitment to love and faithfulness. Let us take the hymn of Mary, the Magnificat to heart and live its message – turning to God in praise and then bringing God’s reign to this world.

The gift that God longs for is our love, expressed in service to each other and in a commitment to work for social justice.

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.
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.
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."


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