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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

December 17, 2017, 3rd Sunday of Advent

 What God Wants

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11;John 1:6-8, 19-28

            A couple of years ago, Connie and I were walking in the park, and one of our young adults was running the trail, and recognized us.  “Todd,” he said, “Taylor Swift is right behind me!”  Sure enough, in a few minutes we met her walking past us.  (She walks just like the rest of us walk!)  If you are fan of popular music, or interested in the music business, you noted this fall that Taylor Swift dipped her toe into the water of popular opinion once again.  Folks who have never really tried to put themselves out on the line for something have no idea how risky it is to do what musicians and actors do for a living.  She came out with her new album called, Reputation, and sure enough it had record sales once again.  There is only one other recording artist who has ever had an album that sold more than Taylor Swift, and it is a woman as well, so popular that she goes by a single name, Adele.  I find that very interesting, and am thinking about it this morning because we are looking at one of the most well-known songs found anywhere, or sung anywhere, in the world.  We call it Mary’s Song, and we also know it by the first word in Latin that comes through the words of the text in Luke, simply The Magnificat.  What is really interesting, along the theme of women who sing powerful songs, is that this is not the only song sung by women in the Bible that came at crucial times in God’s business with God’s people.  It is one of four songs sung by women in the Bible that changed the world.

            The first is found in Exodus 15.  It is a little poetic couplet about the Exodus.  Most people think it is one of the oldest poetic couplets found in the Bible, and it is called the Song of Miriam.  The second one comes from the fifth chapter of the Book of Judges, and it takes the name of one of Israel’s greatest judges, Deborah.  It recounts in often lurid detail how God defeated and destroyed His enemies.  It is called the Song of Deborah.  The third one comes from 1 Samuel 2.  Remember Hannah, who we are told was barren, who wept repeatedly before the Lord and begged God that He would give to her a child?  She promised: “God, if you give me a child, I will give him back to you.”  And God gave Hannah that child, a boy she named Samuel, a name which means “Asked of the Lord.”  Hannah was so overwhelmed that she sang a song of praise to God.  A song that many Biblical scholars say could well have been the inspiration for Mary’s song, because the two echo one another as they sing their praise to God.  Truth to tell, Mary’s song echoes throughout the entire Old Testament of Israel, because Mary’s song, recorded in Luke, has “perfect pitch” for the songs that are on the heart of God Himself. 

            Like this morning’s passage in Psalm 61, a so-called Song of Zion, a song that sings, when Jerusalem lays in utter ruin, about the restoration and the renewal by God of Zion, the city of our God.  Very interestingly, we today have our attention once again riveted upon that City of Jerusalem.  But both Isaiah’s Song of Zion’s restoration and Mary’s Magnificat begin in worship.  You heard how Isaiah began: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted.”  These words in Isaiah 61 are the very words that Jesus opened the scroll to read in Luke 4, when Jesus returned to Nazareth, to His hometown and hometown synagogue.  This beautiful vision by Isaiah is a vision of healing and hope for a broken people who find themselves in exile.  There are to be two powerful signs of God’s restoration of the people.  First, Isaiah says, will be the repair of their ruined cities.  Second, there will be shoots, or a garden, where righteousness will spring up in Israel before all the nations of the world.

            As I was reading the text, I was thinking of the “green roof” that sits atop our own Music City Center.  Have you seen it or read about it?  There is a veritable garden that sits atop the green roof of the Music City Center!  It reminds me of the dynamism that is Nashville, Tennessee today, and it also makes me remember, that in the midst of all this dynamic growth, I hope it does more than make a blessed few of us extremely wealthy or wealthier than we are, because if that is all that it does, and it fails to make us better people, more devoted to goodness and to justice and to peace, we will, as a city, have squandered a grand, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  Here is what God says through the prophet Isaiah: “I love justice; I hate robbery and wrong-doing.”  I want to say we are fools if we ignore God’s passionate concern for these things.  They are the things that God cares about most.  

            Let us return to Mary, as she too, just like the prophet Isaiah, begins to sing her song in an act of worship.  “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”  To magnify something is to make it clearer and easier to see than it otherwise would be.  It is not to make God larger; God is large already!  Here is the secret power of Mary’s lowly song: Mary sees God with utter clarity, and she sees herself for who she really is – a lowly servant, literally, in the Greek, a “humble slave” of the Lord.  In her song Mary sees with a vivid clarity the greatness of God, and she sings about God first and foremost, and only then, about herself.  To see God, really to see God clearly, is also to see yourself more honestly and more truthfully.  It is why saints and truly wise people are always humble.  John Calvin said, “The full sum of wisdom consists of two things: the knowledge of God, and the knowledge of ourselves.  Which comes first, it is impossible for us to know.”  

            Listen to what Mary says about God in her song: “The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is His name.”  This is why we venerate Mary.  She humbled herself before the Lord, and she said “yes” to God when the Lord called her to give birth to God’s only Son.  This song of Mary’s is bad news for people who are powerful, and have no regard for the powerless.  This song is bad news for people who are rich, and have no concern for the poor.  This song of Mary is bad news for everyone who is proud of themselves and arrogant about their blessings.  This song of Mary is bad news for rich people who care not at all for the poor, and for people who have no regard for justice and love, because Christmas is not about the love of power.  Christmas is all about the power of love.  If the Bible tells us anything, it tells us this: God is playing the long game, and the long game is finally about love, and about justice, about doing what is right, and about peace and joy.  And Mary knows this.  

            My dear friend Beverly Gaventa teaches New Testament at Baylor University.  Beverly is one of the most noted Protestant scholars on Mary.  Beverly calls Mary, “The First Disciple.”  She notes that even before Jesus is born into the world, Mary worships Jesus in humility and sees herself for what she is, the servant, or the slave of the Lord.  Mary reminds me that it is a powerful and a beautiful thing to know who you are and to know who you are not.  If I could wish for all of us one gift this Christmas, it would be this wisdom of self-understanding, a wisdom that always humbles us so that God can use us, so that God can raise us up.  Jesus said it and I believe it with all my heart: “Those who exalt themselves shall be humbled, and those who humble themselves, shall be exalted.”

            Note one more thing about Mary’s song: Mary sings it before Jesus is ever born, as He is growing inside of her womb.  That is why the Church has referred to Mary by a Greek word, Theotokos, which means the “God-bearer.”  But Mary uses all past tense verbs in her song as she envisions the future that her yet-to-be-born Son Jesus is going to bring.  Did you hear what she says?  “He has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their heart.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones.  He has lifted up the lowly, and He has filled the hungry with good things.”  Mary’s song is a visionary song, it is all about the future, yet she speaks of it in the past tense, as if it is already accomplished, already a fait accompli.  I think she is saying, “If God promises this, it’s as good as done.  You can count on it and live as if it has already happened.”  That is another reason why I love this song of Mary’s, because I love her trust in God’s strength, and I love her incredible unconquerable hope.  And I want to trust just as Mary does in God’s power to make things right, truly right in this world.

            Rob Bell is an enormously popular theologian, who used to be an enormously popular pastor, until he wrote a bestselling book called, Love Wins.  Afterwards, his church decided they did not want him to be their pastor anymore.  (I hope this stimulates you to read something Rob Bell has written!)  In his book, Love Wins, here is a question Rob Bell asks: “Does God get what God wants?”  Remember, I said earlier, God is playing the long game, and God is banking on love.  God is all about investing everything in the power of love, and God is never about the love of power.  God is all about humility and gentleness; never about ego and self-centeredness, or greed and human arrogance.  I know that what Mary thinks is exactly what Rob Bell thinks as well.  The question is this: “Does God get what God wants?”  Mary believes “yes,” God gets what God wants.  History is heading inexorably in the direction of God, and if you back anyone other than the God of the Bible, you are doomed to failure.  I believe what Mary believes, that God gets what God wants, and in her song we see what God wants.  God wants justice in the world; God wants peace in the world; God wants love in the world; God wants kindness in the world; God wants compassion in this world.  And God wants human beings to respect each other and to honor each other wherever we may find ourselves.

            One of my heroes in American history is Dwight David Eisenhower, a humble man from incredibly humble beginnings, who against the greatest of odds, became the most powerful man in the world.  Read about the things Eisenhower wrote during the last years of his presidency, and then the last years of his life, and you might be surprised at what you read.  He said, “I like to think that people want peace more than people want governments.  In fact, they want peace so badly that one of these days governments better get out of the way, and let them have what they long for.”  God wants peace; God wants justice; God wants people to respect one another.  God wants for us to be kind, and merciful and generous, just as God is in Jesus Christ, God-in-human-flesh.  I want to invest my life in the things that God really wants.  How about you?


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