The first time she appeared on the T.V. show “Britain’s Got Talent”, when she came out on the stage the judges looked down, stifling their giggles. People in the audience weren’t so kind; they laughed out loud. The sight of this woman was so ridiculous that everyone assumed it was a gag. She was well past her prime, verging on downright old, very plain looking in the face, and dumpy in the body. Dressed like a bag lady, the only thing missing was the bag. Nobody took her seriously. Until she started singing. All of a sudden, from this very unlikely source, you heard the voice of an angel. By the time Susan Boyle finished “I Dreamed a Dream”, those who had been laughing at her were crying. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Everyone who heard her learned that when you judge another person based on outward appearances, you’d better be prepared to be wrong. Sometimes, the person from whom you expect the least will surprise you with something astonishing.
That same kind of astonishment certainly proves to be true for Mary’s song in Luke’s gospel. It often gets lost on us because we’ve heard it so many times before. But if we can imagine hearing it for the first time, this is not the song you would expect from the lips of a poor girl, barely a teenager, whose whole world has just fallen apart. You would expect her to blubber like a baby, or maybe to cry out to God for deliverance. But you would never expect her to sing these amazing words of power and strength.
The occasion that prompted Mary’s song is a meeting between two women. Both of them were pregnant with a child who was announced by an angel. But beyond that, their similarities end.
Elizabeth has waited her whole life for a child. She’s been barren and she and her husband are past the age of expecting one. She stands in the line of other mothers we know in the Bible who were also barren: Sarah, Rachel, Hannah. All of them ended up becoming great matriarchs of Israel’s faith. Elizabeth is thrilled to be counted among them. After all these years of hoping and praying for a child, now, in her old age, the impossible has happened. She is overjoyed!
This is not the case with Mary. She hasn't waited her whole life for a child like Elizabeth has. She's just a young woman, a teenager, and she's not even married yet. She hasn’t been dreaming about a baby; she's been dreaming about her wedding day. Pregnancy is the last thing she expects, or even wants. God comes into her life and turns everything upside down. There is no precedent for this. It’s distressing.
Luke tells us that Mary was in a hurry when she left Nazareth and headed for the hills. And it’s no wonder. She is pregnant and unwed. She has disgraced her family and her fiancée. No one wants to have a thing to do with her. A woman in Mary’s position might well have been stoned to death, or maybe even burned. She has to get away. So she runs.
Now, Mary has a relative who lives outside of town, and that’s where she decides to take refuge. But how will her cousin Elizabeth greet her? Will she judge her? Will she scold her? Will she send her away? Mary has no idea what’s coming but she’s bracing herself for the worst.
Elizabeth’s greeting is not what Mary expected at all. As soon as Mary enters her house, the child Elizabeth is carrying does a back flip in her tummy. And then the Holy Spirit takes over. Elizabeth says 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? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Can you imagine how relieved Mary is to hear these words? Elizabeth understands. She gets it. Mary’s going to be all right. If there had been any doubt in her mind about what is happening to her, Elizabeth confirms it for her. This isn’t just her imagination. Yes, God truly is doing an amazing thing through her.
Mary desperately needed to hear Elizabeth gushing with joy at the sight of her. For Mary hadn’t been barren like Elizabeth and all those familiar women from Israel’s past. This is uncharted territory. God is doing something he hasn’t done before. Old, barren Elizabeth and her child may be the culmination of God’s past faithfulness, but Mary and her child are God’s future. Mary is the beginning of a whole new work of God. God is starting over again. The child inside her is the new Israel, the new humanity.
Mary is so filled with the love of God that she can’t contain it all; it spills out in a song. If you tend to think of her as a sweet, submissive little woman, you need to pay attention. Because this song ain’t no lullaby, folks.
It’s known as the Magnificat and it’s been sung in monasteries and churches all over the world for a couple thousand years. But it’s also been a controversial song, and if you’re really listening, you’ll understand why. This is radical stuff! There have been times and situations where it couldn’t be sung publicly because of its dangerous content. Back when India was under British rule, the Anglican bishop, William Temple, warned missionaries not to read the Magnificat in worship because it was so inflammatory that it might ignite a revolution!
Mary’s song begins innocently enough. It’s a song of praise to the God who has chosen her for this amazing task.
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.
Mary exults the God who would choose someone so unexpected, someone so lowly in worldly standing, for so great a mission. In a culture where women are regarded as inferior creatures, God chose her to be a partner in his new creation. She sings about the way God is working in her life, in particular. He takes lowly, little her and lifts her up to greatness. But then she moves from the particular to the universal. As God has been with her, so God will be with all people.
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.”
Mary knows this isn’t all about her. She’s a part of something much larger than herself. God is up to so much more. All of history is opening up. Everything is changing. We call it the great reversal. It’s a common theme in the Scriptures and refers to the way God will make things right. This is the way things are when God has his way with us. This is the way things are in that reality Jesus inaugurates and names The Kingdom of God. It’s a place where the mountains are brought down low, and valleys are filled and the rough places made straight. It’s a place where the captives are set free, the blind see, and the lame walk. It’s the place Mary sings about where God scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, where the powerful are brought down from their thrones, the lowly are lifted up, the hungry are filled, and the rich are sent away empty.
Now, does this sound like the sort of thing a poor young woman would sing when it looks like her life is about to go down the toilet? It certainly doesn’t sound like any Christmas song we might hear sung on the radio these days. But it was the very first Christmas song. And it teaches us that God doesn’t do what seems to be logical from our perspective. God turns everything upside down.
If you think you have God all figured out, you’d better expect to be surprised. If you think you’re right, you’d better get over it. Cuz you’re in for a fall. Hear Mary’s song and be reminded that wherever there are powerless people whose situations are defined by the world as impossible, God is at work!