The Fourth Sunday of Advent; Year C (12/20/2009)

The "Great" Reversal

Lessons:     Micah 5:2-5a     Luke 1:46b-55 (52) or Psalm 80:1-7 (7)     Hebrews 10:5-10     Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]

Prayer of the Day     Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. With your abundant grace and might, free us from the sin that binds us, that we may receive you in joy and serve you always, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Text

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would bee a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

[46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”]


St. Luke 1:39-45 [46-55] New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. 

My soul proclaims your greatness, O God, and my spirit rejoices in you, You have looked with love on your servant here, and blessed me all my life through. --------------- Marty Haugen: "Holden Evening Prayer" (©1990; G.I.A. Publications, Inc.)

As is the case with many congregations, the people of Saint Peter Lutheran Church have fallen in love with Marty Haugen’s “Holden Evening Prayer.” It is a lovely and moving rendition of one of the oldest worship settings in our church’s tradition: Vespers. This gathering for word and prayer was already well established as one of the daily offices by the Sixth Century (it is described in the Rule of St. Benedict; written about 530-43), and has its roots in even older rites. Haugen’s gentle, melodic treatment has renewed interest in this ancient service, which at one time had been all but abandoned by most Christian churches, except for occasional mid-week gatherings in Advent and Lent.

At the heart of Vespers is the second portion of this week’s appointed Gospel, known as “The Magnificat.” Its name comes from the first word of the Latin version, which introduces Mary’s[1] song of praise: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior.”

I have long been intrigued by how fond people are of this composition. To be sure, it is lovely, and the melody is soothing. The meeting between Mary and Elizabeth that occasions this song begins the story of Jesus’ birth, and so it summons up memories of Christmas celebrations for many of us. The first stanzas touch our hearts, as we are reminded of Mary’s joy, God’s favor, the blessedness of being chosen, the mercy God showers upon faithful people, and the strength of God’s arm.

After these opening volleys of praise, however, the Magnificat turns to the essential core of what Jesus will proclaim in his own preaching, and it is far from lovely and soothing:

The proud will be scattered. The powerful brought down from their thrones. The lowly lifted up. The hungry filled with good things. The rich sent away empty.

Reflecting on Hannah’s song (1st Samuel 2:1-10), and anticipating the first sermon of Jesus (Luke 4:18-19), these words call for a radical re-ordering of society. While the world might admire those who are famous, wealthy and powerful, God has a particular concern for those who are lowly, hungry and needy. Some have called it an expression of God’s “Great Reversal” – I wonder how many of us who are fortunate in this world actually think of this reversal as great.

This notion is close to the heart of our focus during the season of Advent: a season when we recall our own weakness; our own need for forgiveness; our own need for a Savior. During Advent, God is portrayed not as one who touches us and blesses us with prosperity and ease. God is portrayed as one who becomes our hope in the midst of our hopelessness; who becomes our strength in the midst of our weakness; who comes, as Jesus of Nazareth, to meet us at the foot of the cross. In our deepest need, God is there, working to reverse the pain and brokenness and injustice of this world, and blessing us in ways that the world might not even think of as blessing.

I plan to sing the Magnificat with my congregation tomorrow evening. I plan to enjoy Marty Haugen’s moving rendition of this ancient hymn. But this year, I also plan to sing with an open heart – anticipating that these ancient words can be a word of challenge to someone as fortunate and comfortable as me, as well as a word of comfort to me in my own times of distress.

May these words expand our experience of God’s presence in our lives. And may we be inspired to join our Lord, in being the vehicles through whom God works to bring justice and righteousness and hope to this broken world.

Amen.

David J. Risendal, Pastor

[1] Some ancient copies of St. Luke attribute this song to Elizabeth.

Exploring This Week’s Gospel:

  1. What caused Mary (the mother of Jesus) and Elizabeth (the mother of John) to break out in song?
  2. What do we learn about God, from the message of this canticle?
  3. How did John and Jesus fulfill the words of this prophetic message from their mothers?

Connecting with This Week’s Gospel:

  1. When have I experienced God’s comfort?
  2. When have I been challenged by God’s desire for justice?
  3. How will the Magnificat feel different to me the next time I sing it?