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Sermon Briefs Luke 1:39-45 (46-55)

Barbara Brown Taylor's Advent sermon Magnificat1 sings with the joy of promises kept and hopes fulfilled through faithful waiting.
The waiting of Advent, she says, has more to do with God's waiting for us to believe and trust in him than with our waiting for God to come, for the good news of the gospel is that "God does not stand at a distance, waiting for us to come to him. He has instead come all the way to us."2
We, on our part, are also accustomed to waiting, especially at Christmas. There are times, however, when waiting is difficult for us, and it is here that Mary the mother of God offers us much. She is "a champion waiter" who anticipated nothing less than "a radical, never before, never to be repeated experience of the power of the living God."3
Noting the young Mary's likely fears--fears about marriage and leaving home, about everyone's responses and all the explaining she will have to do--Taylor says these fears pale in comparison to the news brought by an angel: "news that would have set a grown woman to trembling...Mary wonders if she can bear it, if she can bear a son, a son by God."4 Recounting the angel's earlier visit to Mary, Taylor marvels that Mary could have responded as confidently as she did. Her answer of perfect trust to God's messenger, however, did not free her from anxiety and fear.
Taylor suggests that Mary is unprepared for Elizabeth's response of wholehearted greeting and unprecedented blessing. "What? Mary can hardly believe her ears! Has the angel been here, too? How does Elizabeth know? And if she knows, why isn't she troubled about it as well? Can't she see what a mess this is going to be? ...Then Mary's stomach does another flip, and she feels a song coming on. That is one of the effects total acceptance has on the soul, you see--your foot starts tapping and mere words will not suffice--you want music--a saxophone, a brass band, an entire symphony to accompany your outpouring of gladness. In just such a frame of mind, Mary opens her mouth and begins to sing...What Hannah, what Elizabeth and Mary all have in common, what allows each of them to sing in harmony, is that they know they have received God's blessing. Each of them has carried that blessing around in her body, kicking and growing until no one who looks at her can miss it."5
Mary, who is blessed by God in her low estate, is a good companion in our waiting. No matter how low and difficult our own estate may be, Taylor concludes, "When we allow God to be born in us there is no telling, no telling at all, what will come out."6
Joseph G. Donders also preached a joyous sermon on this text. In An Angelic Order: Rejoice7 he identifies some obligations that accompany Christmas--heavy obligations to feel happy and joyful even if you are not. Smiles, joy, laughter, and generous kindness are expected from children and adults alike. Everyone labors to fulfill their Christmas obligations. There are many errands to run, presents to buy, cards to write and send, phone calls to make and a host of other tasks to complete always with a smile on your face and a song in your heart. Happiness belongs to the seasons of Advent and Christmas whether or not you are happy.8
It all began with Gabriel, Donders says, when he spoke "the first ever Christmas card" and told Mary to rejoice.9 There is no indication, however, that Mary was happy when she received this command. Not only this but her burdens increased in her home, in her relationships with family and loved ones, in her community. Still, despite her feelings to the contrary she trusted the angel's message and believed in God's promise to her. For four months Mary lived under the strain of believing God's promise of blessing while not feeling blessed.10 But then her aunt Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, confirmed God's blessing at work in her life, and Mary found the burden of obligation lifted. Finally "Mary obeys the command to rejoice; she suddenly bursts out in joy; all the spiritual fireworks that had been hidden in her exploded, because now she knew: he was recognized, and she was recognized."11 The joy of Christmas comes in our shared recognition of God's presence in our midst and God's love for us and for the world.
In his sermon The Joyful Justice of God,12 Craig M. Watts carefully considers the revolutionary lyrics of Mary's protest song which declares a new world order of justice and well-being for the poor and oppressed. Watts then asks, "What difference could be made by one adolescent girl from among a vanquishedpeople?"13 All the difference in the world, for "the loving might of God in embryonic state...would burst upon the world in the form of Jesus Christ."14 Jesus came to challenge and overcome every form of unrighteousness and injustice. He lived among us embodying the standard of the kingdom to come. All who follow Jesus will likewise find themselves embodying the future he offers. In the present this means working joyfully for justice.15
In his sermon Whose Child is This?,16 Patrick R. Bruns recalls an anxious moment in a crowded mall at Christmas time. A lost child was screaming frantically for her parents. Attempts to comfort the child were fruitless and only heightened the girl's fear. Concerned bystanders were asking, "Whose child is this?" when the father stepped through the crowd and received his daughter with open arms, tears on his own face. Everyone knew whose child this was. Their feelings of relief, joy, and thanksgiving were not unlike those shared between Mary and Elizabeth and experienced by all who recognize Jesus as God's child.17
Robert A. Bryant
1. Barbara Brown Taylor, "Magnificat," sermon in Mixed Blessings (Atlanta: Susan Hunter Publishing, 1986), pp. 21-24. 2. Ibid., p. 22. 3. Ibid. 4. Ibid. 5. Ibid., p. 23. 6. Ibid., p. 24. 7. Joseph G. Donders, "An Angelic Order: Rejoice," sermon in Jesus, The Way (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1979), pp. 21-25. 8. Ibid., pp. 21-22. 9. Ibid., p. 22. 10. Ibid., p. 23. 11. Ibid., p. 24. 12. Craig M. Watts, "The Joyful Justice of God," Preaching, December-December, 1993, pp. 8-10. 13. Ibid., p. 8. 14. Ibid. 15. Ibid., p. 10. 16. Patrick R. Bruns, "Whose Child is This?," Preaching, December-December, 1993, pp. 24-26. 17. Ibid., pp. 25-26.