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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

December 16, 2012, 3rd Sunday of Advent


The Characters of Christmas: Mary

Zechariah 9:9-10; Luke 1:39-56

             “Sandy Hook School…  1956...  Visitors Welcome.”  So reads the quaint sign outside the school in Newtown, Connecticut where our hearts have been broken once again by an act of senseless violence against a group of six educators and twenty defenseless first graders.  These acts of brutal killing of innocent people within our country have become too numerous, and we struggle as a nation to understand what on earth is happening in our midst.  I am of the opinion that any answer to the question “Why?” is not apt to yield a simple or neat answer.  The rise of mass acts of killing in recent years by lone gunmen is part of a complex set of issues that defy simple explanation.  As a community of faith who weekly pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven,” we need to be a people who pray for these folks who have sustained this tragedy, and pray and work for the healing and health of our nation.  We also need to be a community committed to peace, and especially to what Jesus called “the things that make for peace.”

             Connie and I went to see Lincoln a few weeks’ ago, and the movie Argo a week later.  Both movies were powerful and extremely well done.  They are both stories worth telling.  But at both films, while sitting through the previews, we were struck by the level of graphic violence used to promote future films.  It is clear that Hollywood operates on the assumption that violence sells in this culture.

             This is a season, dear friends, in which we need Christmas.  We need to sing the carols of the season, to absorb their beauty and truth, and to read the great Biblical texts that tell the Christmas story.  We need to find our bearings, and visit where peace is promised, where hope and healing find a home.  Christmas can be that place, and who better to focus on this morning than Mary, the Mother of God?

             In Rome and Greece a few summers ago on sabbatical, you could not help but to be struck by the enormous role that Mary plays in both churches, the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox communions.  Whole great churches are built to venerate Mary, and in some, the image of Mary is at least as prominent as that of Jesus.  In Greece, our guide even said, “Greeks developed a culture where we not only had Zeus, but we also had Athena alongside him.  So when we became a Christian nation, as the Church spread, it was only natural that we would find a female deity to place alongside our male God.”

             In the New Testament, though, Mary is found on a more moving, human scale, which for me, makes her an even more compelling figure.  Last week we focused upon Gabriel, who comes to Mary in the Annunciation and announces that she, though a virgin, will conceive and bear a son, “whose name will be great,” who “will sit upon David’s throne,” and whose kingdom will never end.  “How can this be?” asks Mary, who ponders what sort of greeting this might be.  Gabriel answers, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most High will overshadow you.”

             In a remarkable sermon from the history of the Church, Bernard of Clairvaux preached on this text.  He said that after the fall of our first parents, Adam and Eve, the world had been shrouded in darkness, under the dominion of death.  Now God seeks to enter the world anew.  And to do so, God knocks at Mary’s door.  God is love, of course, and Plato teaches that love is only love if it is freely chosen.  It can never be forced.  Mary is utterly free before God, and God has tied His power completely to Mary’s unenforceable “yes.”  So Bernard said that all heaven and earth stood still, holding its breath at the moment the question was posed to Mary.  “All creation waited….”  Bernard said it was the moment on which all human history would turn.  Would Mary say yes?  Or would her humility hold her back?  In a beautiful homiletical moment, Bernard pleads with her, “Just this once, do not be humble, but daring!”  And Mary says, “Let it be to me according to your word.”

             Bernard says the angels in heaven and God Himself rejoiced in this moment of free, humble, yet daring obedience, which he calls “the loftiest choice of human freedom ever made.”  Beverly Gaventa, Princeton Seminary’s renowned New Testament professor and widely regarded Protestant voice on Mary tellingly calls Mary “The first disciple.”  Mary obeys God’s word and trusts in Jesus even before He is born!

             And then Mary sings.  And what a song she offers!  If it is often compared by Biblical scholars to the Song of Hannah, it is because the language of Scripture was the language Mary knew best and could most fully trust.

             “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior….”  We call this song the “Magnificat” because this is the first word in the Latin text.  And just like Gabriel’s first word to Mary, it is a word of joyous praise.  And it is a word about God, and not first, or even most importantly, one about herself.

             Mary magnifies the Lord with her whole being.  She declares with delight the greatness of God.  Though Mary is likely only a teenager, she understands that all of life is about God, and that God is the source, the giver of that joy that fills her soul.  Mary in her praise does what we can do as well.  She escapes from the small, confining world of the self into the wide, wonderful world of God’s utter freedom and glory.

                       Some people never get this!  They never figure out that God is the mother lode of all our joy, that God is the wellspring from which every good and blessed gift flows.  So they make everything about themselves, taking the good things that come from God’s graciousness to us, but never tracing them back to their origin in God.  And you can do that with Christmas.  I went to a concert this week offered by a very skilled choir.  It was even billed as a Christmas concert.  The music was beautiful, and beautifully sung.  But it was all about them, about how music makes them feel, and about what Christmas means to them, about all the wonderful memories Christmas brings.  And you can turn Christmas into a warm, wonderful memory.  It can be nothing more than nostalgia and sentiment.  Many in fact do.  This is most of what you hear in shopping malls, in fact.  But Christmas is finally and fully not about some feeling or sentiment, but about God.  It is all about God, who “for us, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became truly human.”  This is the joy of Christmas, and Mary models it beautifully for us!

             “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior….”  Mary also has what Pope Benedict calls in his book, The Infancy Narratives of Jesus of Nazareth, the capacity for “great interiority.”  Three times in Luke we are told that Mary pondered things.  Mary is often depicted in stained glass windows as conceiving through her ear by the Word that comes from God through Gabriel.  She holds this word and the events in her heart, and ponders the overall significance of God’s message.  The Pope says, “In this way, Mary becomes an image of the Church as she considers the word of God, and tries to understand it in its entirety, and guards in her memory the things that have been given to her.”

            And here in this song we hear the power of the Gospel, the promise of what God will surely do, the meaning of who Jesus is and what Jesus will do.  Mary realizes that through Jesus, God will change everything, and through Jesus, God promises save us.  To know you need a savior requires humility.  It means knowing that you cannot save yourself.  “Jesus,” Mary says, will “scatter the proud in the imaginations of their hearts.”  Jesus will “bring down the powerful from their thrones.”  And Jesus will “lift up the lowly.”

             On this morning, as we speak of the lowly, I cannot help but to think about children.  I think about children everywhere, and especially the children in Newtown.  I sang it as a child, but I believe it still with all my heart.  “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.  Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

             Mary says this is sure to happen, indeed in her song, it has already happened.  All be verbs are in the past tense for Mary.  If God promises to do it, it is as good as done.  And all this will happen as was promised to Abraham.  Remember the promise to old man Abraham?  “Through your descendants, I will bless all the families of the earth.”

             This is the promise of the Scriptures, and the real meaning of Christmas.  And praise be to God for Mary, the first and eternal disciple, who sings of this.  With Mary, may we sing it as well!  “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”


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