By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
December 13, 2020
Luke 1:46–55 (ESV)
46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; 52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
As we approach Christmas, we remember the familiar stories and songs. We have memories of past celebrations and parties with family and friends. We have so much invested in this holiday, but how much of it really centers on our faith?
I am not saying that our celebrations are not good by any means. I love the celebrations, and to be honest I think we need to give ourselves excuses to celebrate more often. Celebration is a healthy spiritual disciple when we keep them in the proper perspective. What I mean is that while we celebrate do, we keep the story in focus. Do we take the time to contemplate the awe of the story, as well as the sacrifice?
Today we read the song or prayer that has become known as the Magnificat. This is Mary’s song of praise that she recites to her relative Elizabeth, who happens to be the mother of John the Baptist.
When the angel visited Mary, one of the signs that was provided to her was that her relative Elizabeth was with child even in her old age. Mary had known Elizabeth and it was well known that she had not had a child. Children in ancient cultures were especially important, it might be the most important aspect of ancient families. Today we might consider that statement to be offensive in some degrees, but we must keep in mind the environment of the culture.
In ancient cultures life was much different than today. There are some similarities but overall life was more dangerous and physical. Culture developed around the family because the family was the community. It was the family that provided security. It was the family that provided the means of life. It was the family that cared for the young, the sick, and the elderly. There were no other options except the family especially in rural agricultural areas.
We can look at the Old Testament laws devoted to family and consider them to be patriarchal but I encourage you to look at these from the perspective of survival instead of power. Most of the laws were put in place to protect the integrity of the family and to ensure that all involved would have their basic need provided for. Some of these laws when read from our current cultural context seem outrageous. I would never follow them, but I am looking at the law from our current context. Why do I bring this up, why is it important? The laws surrounding marriage and the family are right in the center of the Christmas story.
Elizabeth was barren for most of her adult life. In ancient times this was one of the worst situations for a woman to face, because the family needed children. In ancient cultures there was not social security, Medicare, or nursing homes these social programs we have today were all provided through the children bore to the family. People did not work for a couple of decades and retire, instead they took on their family’s trade, they worked with their family in the fields or various skilled labor, and when they could no longer work, they relied on the generosity of their children to provide for their basic needs. This usually worked out because families lived in multigenerational homes. It was not uncommon for grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, children, and cousins to all live in a collective structure sharing a common cooking space. There would usually be rooms for the nuclear family units, but most would live in a complex that housed extended family.
When Elizabeth was found to be barren, she could not contribute to the next generation. This had the potential of causing hardship to them in their old age as well as to their closer relatives. Others would have to work more to provide for them. The ability to bear a child was important to those ancient cultures, and it was the leading cause of divorce. I agree that it is harsh, but we must remember that they had much more to consider. It is not just your future but also the future of the extended family, the future of your business, and your farm. Without children the future becomes bleak, and pressures from outside become even greater.
The thing is Zachariah did not divorce his wife Elizabeth. He and his family loved this woman to such a degree that they embraced the challenge of life without children together. They may have felt the burden but they decided that they were better with Elizabeth than without. This was a great burden to carry, and it took eminence faith in all involved. They all had to trust that God would provide for their needs in the present and the future. When Mary was told that Elizabeth was with child in her advanced years, it was a sign that God was providing just as they had hoped. It also told Mary that the child that she was proclaimed to bear would be as God said it would be.
Let us now look at Mary for a moment. It is often difficult for us to really grasp the story fully. So much has changed in the dynamics of families since ancient times. Mary was a young, betrothed girl. Tradition tells us that she would have been just over the age of twelve. In our minds she was a child, not a woman, and again we need to understand that the cultural dynamics differ. Women married at younger ages than they do today, and men were usually older. This occurred because men needed to prove that they could provide for their future wife, and women were younger generally to ensure that they would be able to bear children.
Mary is told that she, a young girl just becoming a woman in a biological sense, that she is going to bear a child. I want you to close your eyes and just imagine that scene for a moment. We are talking not of a senior in high school, but a seventh grader. She was just beginning to learn what it means to be a woman at this point. How do you explain to a child the concepts of having a child, and how do you explain that she is going to have one when everything you would have said involves a husband and wife?
Imagine, this child sitting there talking to an angel. Imagine the confusion and the fear that would be coursing through her. And this is serious business. There are strict guidelines in the Torah for family life. It is a serious offense for a betrothed woman to be found with child before the marriage. Without getting into detail, the wedding feast and celebration continued until the marriage was consummated. In many cases there was a tent that the couple would go into for this and the entire family was waiting outside while the couple enjoyed their first moments alone. And this time could be tense. If it could be proven that the woman was not a virgin the family would be required to pay the groom’s family and the marriage would be ended immediately. And if there was a wrongful accusation then the groom’s family would be required to pay double what the bride’s family would have paid and the marriage could never end in divorce, even if there were other circumstances that would arise. That whole idea is something that is foreign to me, something that I could not imagine in today’s culture, but it was the reality of that day. But there is more to the law. Adultery was a capital offense in ancient Israel, meaning not only would there be financial burdens for the family but people could lose their lives.
According to the story, we know that an angel visited Joseph as well. Joseph was warned in a dream what was happening with his future wife, and he initially took it hard. His first response was to file for divorce. This was well within his rights because for a betrothed woman to be pregnant without his knowledge points to infidelity, but we also see something interesting. We are told that he wants to divorce her quietly. This means that he believed the story to some degree. He knew and loved Mary and did not believe that she would have been unfaithful, so he did not want to publicly denounce the marriage because that would only lead to one end. Mary would have been publicly humiliated, her family would have been forced to pay Joseph a fee of fifty shekels, and Mary would have been stoned to death.
All of this is weighing on the shoulders of these families. Everyone involved is carrying a portion of this burden and it is a burden because their community would not be aware of what God was doing and could only observe what had transpired through observation. Elizabeth endured a life of being baren and then in her advanced years she finds herself pregnant. Mary a mere child just learning what it means to be a woman, is told she is going to bear a son even though she has not been married. Joseph knows that there will be questions, and he struggles with accepting the situation. But what is the response?
Mary sings a song of praise. I want us all to close our eyes once again and think about the fear and the uncertainty that Mary would be facing in this moment. She has just been told that she was pregnant, and she rushes to Elizabeth. Anyone in her family or Joseph’s could in any moment call for a trial yet she sings.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And 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 thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
Mary, a child, at that moment is facing a situation she did not desire. She is facing a trial she did not ask for. Her future, once filled with hope, is now filled with some uncertainty. But even in that uncertainty she clings to the even greater hope. She does not focus on the things beyond her control, instead she focuses on what God can do.
My soul magnifies the Lord. The soul is the complete human life according to Dallas Willard. It is everything we are and the community around us. When Mary begins this song she says, my soul magnifies. She is professing in her mind and bodily actions that she will follow God no matter what life may bring her way. And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. If the soul is our totality of existence, the spirit is the core of who we are. Mary states that her spirit rejoices in God her savior. This points to an intimacy and knowledge of God that goes beyond religion. She knows that God is working in and through her and that He is with her every step of the way.
And the second sentence is what blows my mind. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed. This child, this twelve-year-old little girl, understands that she will face some of the harshest ridicule a human will ever have to endure. She might even face death for the life God has called her to, yet she knows that if things proceed as God has promised she will have participated in the greatest story ever told and everyone in all of history will find hope and inspiration in her life.
We all face trials in our life. When we face these trials, we have a choice to make. We can grumble or we can praise. We can focus on the discomfort that we currently experience or we can look beyond into what might be if we boldly proceed through life in faith.
This is what advent is about. It is to remind us of the trails we experience and the hope that comes to those that endure to the end.
As I have reflected this week on my life, this is what I have seen. In all the years that I remember there has not been one Christmas that I have not had joy. I have lived forty-one years. In those years I know that there have been financial hardships where members of my family did not know how they were going to make it through the year. Yet in that time of hardship there was still joy. Even during the years where the pangs of grief due to the loss of my sister were still new, there was joy. We had joy because there is hope in Christ. The struggles we face right now will pass and God can and will use that struggle for greater good. Because of that hope we can say with Mary, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” We can say with the Psalmist, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
Mary sings with her relative Elizabeth; they sing because they know that God is good. They know that God is working to bring about the salvation of their people and the entire world. And they know that they are a part of that plan. Mary sings as she faces an uncertain future, because she knows that God will through her faith bring glory to Himself. She sings because she knows that God knows her name, and her spirit rejoices in that. She sings.
As we face our struggles, and the uncertainties of our lives, how will we respond? When we face the anxieties of an uncertain future and a path forward that seems to be shrouded in fog, how will we proceed? When we experience stresses at work, at home, even within our ministry and within our community how will we respond? Mary sang, will you sing with her? Mary rejoiced; will you rejoice with her? There is nothing in our lives that God cannot redeem. There is nothing in our lives that God cannot use as a starting point of something magnificent. Will we have the faith to trust that God will do great things for us and his holy name. As we enter this time of communion in the manner of Friends, let us focus on Mary and her song. Let us embrace the passion and courage of this little girl who gave birth to Emmanuel. Let us honor Mary and so many like her, willing to sacrifice their lives for the name and honor of God.