Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
She’s been given a fascinating makeover over the years, hasn’t she? Mary, I mean. Preached, painted, portrayed in books and on screen as docile and domesticated, meek and mild. A mostly passive incubator for the Holy-Spirit-conceived baby Jesus. We tend to focus on her acceptance of that role with her famous reply to the angel Gabriel: “here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.” And then we allow her to go strangely silent.
Silent? Mary? You have to skip over a whole lot of verses in Luke 1 to come away thinking this young woman has gone speechless. You heard the rest of what she said, right? Seems to me she’s singing a protest song! She’s calling for a revolution! While each of my girls and I enjoyed dressing up to try to look like Mary in Christmas pageants when we were younger, the greater gift by far to young women everywhere – and to us all - is the gift of Mary’s words. Luke is unafraid to let her have her say.
Even that famous “here am I” response puts her in the company of biblical prophets like Moses and Samuel and Isaiah who responded to their calls from God the same way. And when she sings her song in Luke 1 she makes clear that the mission she’s accepted isn’t just about her. She’s honored to have been chosen to play such an important role in God’s story, and certainly that leads her to rejoice – a poor, young woman whom from now on all generations would call blessed! But she knows that even this is only the beginning of the amazing good news to come.
How did Mary know what to sing? It didn’t come out of nowhere. She’d been raised in a Jewish home and she knew what was important to the God she worshipped. Again, her “here am I” reply cues us to expect prophetic words and sure enough, as Mary tells of a God who brings down the powerful from their thrones (Luke 1:52), we hear echoes of the prophet Amos who was all about calling the wealthy and powerful to account, especially those who oppressed the poor, and crushed the needy. (Amos 4:1) And when Mary sings about God’s strength to scatter the proud and lift up the lowly (Luke 1:52-53) we hear echoes of Isaiah’s message of God judging with righteousness the poor and deciding with equity for the meek of the earth. (Isaiah 11:4) Mary declares God’s great “mercy … from generation to generation” (Luke 1:50) and in the background we might even sense the prophet Micah promising good things coming in God’s future, a time when everyone could “sit under their own vines, and under their own fig trees, and no one should make them afraid.” (Micah 4:4) Mary clearly knows that her pregnancy isn’t just any pregnancy. The world is about to turn with the birth of her son.
So Mary sings… She sings of tremendous role reversals, when the proud and powerful will be brought low, and the poor and lowly raised up. She sings of the hungry being filled with good things and of the rich being sent away empty-handed. The birth of her son will be such good news for those who struggle and suffer, for those who can barely scrape a meal together, for those with whom polite society would never deign to share a table. Notice: no sooner has she celebrated her own good news than Mary looks around her to see how many others can benefit from God’s promises.
It’s not hard to think of places where Mary’s words would be received as tremendously good news today. In refugee settlements and detention centers or among those weathering another night of torrential downpours in a tent along I-5. With those serving absurdly unjust prison sentences, out of all proportion to anything they’ve ever done wrong. In families making painful choices between critical medical care and a roof over their heads. We hear Mary sing of those who are lowly, those who are hungry, and sadly we know how many of our fellow children of God long for the good news she proclaims.
So as we enter the Advent season it’s important that we notice the kind of good news Mary sings about here. Or to put it another way, whose good news it is.
It may not be received as good news by those best cushioned and protected by wealth, or by those who are in other ways powerful and privileged. The good news of which Mary sings certainly won’t be welcomed by oppressors or abusers or by those stepping on others to get ahead. And to be fair, it may not even sound like great news to any of us who are relatively comfy. There’s a reason we’ve silenced Mary’s strong voice over the years. It stands to reason that those who benefit most from the status quo might prefer she remain speechless.
Remember, Mary sings of a God who scatters the proud, brings down the powerful from their thrones, and lifts up the lowly, a God who fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. Her song can make us feel a little uneasy, we who are warm and cozy, we who have safe homes and plenty to eat. No need to upset the social balance on our account, God, thanks all the same. Whether our particular privilege comes from the whiteness of our skin or from generational wealth, whether we’ve benefitted from an elite education or we live in a relatively upscale neighborhood, are you absolutely sure, Mary, that we need a revolution?
If you feel a little unsettled by Mary’s song, fear not, for we’ll have occasion in the new year to work our way through more of Luke’s gospel and we’ll find people in positions of comfort and privilege for whom Jesus brought good news too. There is ample room in God’s kingdom for everyone. But – spoiler alert – there’s often a catch. The kingdom of God Jesus preaches and teaches, like the kingdom of God his mother Mary sang about before his birth - it tends to be good news for the rich who give away their riches, and for the powerful who find ways to cede or share power.
Meanwhile for the marginalized, the powerless, the poor, the song of revolution Mary sings here in Luke 1 is good news through and through. The first will be last and the last will be first. The people most often considered disposable? They’re the ones who’ll end up on top. What’s more, according to Matthew’s gospel, all of us will one day be judged by the way we’ve treated those society deems least and last (Matthew 25). This is why the Rev. James Forbes famously argues “nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.”
And who gets to announce this great reversal of fortunes as the curtain rises on the gospel of Luke? A newly pregnant teenager… who in nine months would find herself scrambling to find shelter as she went into labor … who a couple years later would be forced to flee her homeland with her husband and young child when King Herod gave his awful order (Matthew 2:16-18). A brown-skinned female refugee desperate to escape a tyrant who – in a classic tyrant move – channels his fear into acts of exclusion and violence.
In such a world as that… in such a world as this … whose good news do we need to hear? Mary’s good news. And look out, world, ‘cause that girl can sing!