“He Got It From His Mama”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
December 23, 2018: Advent 4
My brothers and sisters in Christ, here we are, just a few steps away from Bethlehem. It has been a wonderful Advent, and I am grateful that I have been able to take this journey with you. I said on the first Sunday of Advent that something like the birth of a child cannot catch us off guard, especially not the birth of the Son of God. Jesus is coming and the time we have spent together this season has made us fully ready to receive God’s greatest gift in the manger in Bethlehem.
But before we turn our eyes and hearts to Bethlehem, we pause for a moment today to listen to Mary sing. No song, in the Bible or on Broadway, is quite as startling as the one young Mary sings after meeting up with her pregnant older cousin Elizabeth. C.S. Lewis famously labeled this a ‘terrible song.’ He labeled it a terrible song because the lyrics shake the foundations of all we know. The fact that they emanate from the mouth of such a young girl is stunning to the imagination. It is like those times on TV or in movies where a very young child delivers a chilling indictment or offers a spine-tingling prophecy of some kind. The same words coming from the mouth of an adult or older person would be biting, but they are utterly scathing when spoken by one of such youth and innocence. Mary’s song is not just the song of an excited pregnant teen, but one that shows a deep and life-altering awareness of what God has done and is going to do.
In this first part of Luke’s sprawling gospel, Mary has been swept up into cosmic events much bigger and far grander than her status would normally allow. An angel of the Lord has come to her with shocking news that by the power of the Holy Spirit she will give birth to a son. The angel then makes another shocking announcement that Mary’s much, much older cousin Elizabeth is also going to bear a son. After some time, Mary makes a visit to Elizabeth. As soon as Mary comes physically near to Elizabeth, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb jumps for joy. The child in Elizabeth’s womb is, of course, John the Baptist, who will herald the coming of Jesus. Elizabeth sings to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”
Mary’s response is to sing back. Mary’s song is her way of putting into words all the things she has learned about God in these cosmic events. Mary’s song is her way of putting into words the way God operates.
Mary is aware of her humble status in her time and culture. She was property as much as anything, belonging first to her father and then later to her husband. She didn’t belong to a famous family. She hadn’t grown up in a big city. She had absolutely no prospects whatsoever of making a mark in the world or to ever be remembered beyond a generation or so. Yet, miraculously, God had visited her with news and so much power from the Holy Spirit that it would take the rest of her mortal days to understand it all.
That reversal of circumstances, that lifting up of the lowly, that exaltation of the humble, showed Mary that this is how God works. Mary probably also remembered the Bible stories from her growing-up years of all the ways God had done similar things throughout history. She probably remembered Abraham and Sarah desperate yearning for a child and how God not only gave them a child but chose them as the place where the covenant would begin. She probably remembered how God was always in favor of the younger children. She probably remembered the stuttering Moses and the vulnerable Ruth and David and Bathsheba who experienced the death of a child. She probably also remembered how God chose Israel, the small and weak, and not the mighty Babylon as the chosen nation.
She probably remembered all of this and then connected the dots to the child growing in her womb. This child was so important that Elizabeth called him, “My Lord.” Mary was bearing in her body Elizabeth’s Lord. She was bearing the Savior of the nations. Her. Little Mary. Mary meek and mild. As she pondered all this and treasured all these things in her heart, she probably connected a few more dots, too. “What happened to me,’ Mary sang, ‘is a sign of what will happen to the whole universe one day.” And while this is good news to Mary and the folks who find themselves in complicated places like Mary, it is not good news to everyone. For those who fancy themselves as captains of industry and masters of the universe, Mary’s song spells disaster. For those who have enough money to cause others to kowtow to them in one spectacle after another, Mary’s song is one of calamity. For anyone who finds in their wealth and power their only comfort in life and death, Mary proclaims that they will be on the losing side of history. It might not be today; it might not be tomorrow. But in God’s time, it will be done.
Mary’s song foreshadows something Jesus will say in the golden years of his ministry. Jesus beckons the disciples to follow his way by saying, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life.” Was Jesus anti-wealth? No. Was Jesus anti-money. Not entirely. Was Jesus inviting all of his followers, past and present, to be totally destitute? No. But, Jesus said, if your money stands in the way of you faithfully following me, get rid of it. If, Jesus said, your place and power in society stands in the way of you faithfully following me, step down and bow out. If, Jesus said, you trust your bank account or your title or your power more than me, it has to go.
Mary’s song also laid the groundwork for the conflict and arguments Jesus had with the religious and civil authorities of his day. Mary sings, “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” God’s kingdom is a direct and intentional challenge to the kingdoms of this world that think they have the authority and power of God. The church leaders of Jesus’ day, and the politicians, too, thought they had the corner on truth, the corner on morality and righteousness, the corner on justice and right and wrong. Turns out, though, all of them, from the halls of the government to the halls of the temple, were utterly corrupt and self-interested. This is why Jesus was constantly in conflict with them. It wasn’t about doing things on the sabbath, and it wasn’t about Jesus preaching and teaching without their approval. The conflicts were about power—the temple leaders and the politicians wanted it. They wanted it, but Jesus reminded them over and over that it did not belong to them. Not now, not ever.
Jesus got it from his Mama. Everything that Jesus did, from teaching and preaching in the synagogues to healing diseases and exorcising demons in every place he went, Jesus got it from his Mama. Like me, you probably grew up hearing that Jesus was a carpenter. You probably have an image in your mind of Jesus sanding and hammering away in his workshop, stopping for just a moment to brush his golden locks aside to the wipe the sweat from his brow. As beautiful as that picture might be, it is nowhere to be found in the Scriptures. At times the gospel writers call Jesus a builder, which we have interpreted to mean that he was a carpenter, but Jesus was a builder of a different sort. Jesus came to build God’s kingdom, to lay foundations of God’s love and mercy on which the whole world could be built. Jesus came to reorder the social sphere and to set us free from our love of money, power, and fear. Jesus came to announce and enact God’s never-ending reign of justice and peace. When we listen again to Mary’s song today we quickly realize that there was no one else who had more of an impact on Jesus’ ministry than his Mama.
Mary took no passive role in raising her son. She certainly did not take her culture’s posture of maid and cook and nurse, while Jesus’ dad taught him all he needed to know. And by God’s grace, Mary motherly love and wisdom rains down on us all these many years later, pointing us in hope to what God has done and to what God has promised to do.
I can remember hearing Mary’s song in church during Advent as a child and as a young adult. We studied Mary’s song in seminary and I have been blessed over the years to meet several composers who have set Mary’s song to music. But it was not until Advent in 2012 that Mary’s song really started to mean something to me. You’ll remember that it was on December 14, 2012, that Adam Lanza broke through the doors of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, fatally shooting 20 children between six and seven years old, as well as six adults and staff members. We learned later that before driving to the school, Lanza had shot and killed his mother at their Newtown home. As first responders began to swarm Sandy Hook Elementary School, Lanza fatally shot and killed himself. It was a Friday and I watched this all unfold on the news as I got my hair cut for Christmas.
The death of a child, for any reason or in any circumstance, is reason enough to pack up the whole faith thing and head home. There is nothing more crushing to the soul and spirit than to imagine all of the potential, all of the ingenuity and intelligence, all of the love and innocence that was lost with those precious children. Sometimes this question comes across as flippant, but what if one of those children was destined to cure cancer or Parkinson’s disease or diabetes. What did the parents of those children do with the Christmas presents that were, no doubt, wrapped and ready under the tree. How about the college funds that were started when they were born? Each of those lives began with profound hope and wonder, and in an instant that hope and wonder was dashed to pieces.
As Sunday dawned just a few days after this terrible and senseless tragedy, it was Mary’s song that we heard as the New Testament lesson. Little by little, as I heard Mary’s song that day, God’s comfort began to put the broken pieces of my heart back together. Mary sings of a world which will one day be turned upside down according to God’s good will. As we sorted through our outrage and grief and fear after Newtown, we were reminded by the song of a young girl that God’s intent is not this. In Mary’s song we remember that she will one day be crushed by the death of her own son, but that she will not be abandoned by God or by the community God has placed at her side. Mary’s song, and Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection, is God’s definitive statement that while there might be pain and suffering and senseless violence now, it will pass away and God will reign.
This was the heart of Jesus’ message—things look bad and kinds rough right now, but God still reigns and the world is about to turn. This very message of hope can lay in our hearts and guide everything we say and do, if we let it. Jesus got it from his Mama, and we can, too. My brothers and sisters in Christ, just as Mary was no passive mother, our God is no passive God, either. Mary’s song testifies to that. God is deeply intimate with who we are and what we experience and how the events of life can twist and perplex us. God says clearly, over and over, that the things that hurt us, the things that take away our life, the things that bring us face to face with powers of hell, these are not the ultimate authority, they are not the ultimate power, they are not ultimately how things will be. God’s kingdom will be, and it comes to us in the form of a baby, weak and vulnerable, who will grow up to teach us how to love and be loved. That grown up expression of God’s love will stretch out his arms on the cross to encircle the world in love. And after three days he’ll get back up and get to work turning the world around.
Look, it might be hard to see it right now. Actually, it might be impossible to see it right now. But God is still on throne; Jesus still reigns; Mary is still singing. And we can sing too, in hope, because God has remembered his mercy and will keep good on the promises made to our ancestors. This saving word that our forebears heard is the promise which holds us fast, until the spear and rod can be crushed by God, who is turning the world around. Come, O come, let us adore him. Amen.