My sermon from our May Festival earlier this week with readings from Acts 1:12-14 and Luke 1:39-56. It was a service with great blessings, where I had the opportunity to witness mutual flourishing at its best:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.
My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.
For he has looked with favour on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
There is such depth of emotion in these words. They have become written on my heart as I sing them daily in prayer. The sentiment of Mary here is truly beautiful. Yet nowhere else can we better see the paradox of blessedness than in her life. To Mary was granted the blessing of being the mother of God incarnate. The double-edged sword of blessing was also to pierce her heart…some day she would see her son hanging on a cross. And still, as our Acts reading shows us, Mary remains dedicated to prayer. Faithful to the end. Her example is quite a challenge to us as women and men of faith. How often do our souls proclaim the greatness of the Lord?
This prayerful exchange between two women is both prayer-filled and prophetic. Elizabeth recognises, as we do, that Mary has been blessed richly, indeed that she is the most blessed woman. There is no jealousy in her words, just an acknowledgment of the awesomeness of God and how Mary has found great favour in the sight of God. The absence of the broken human spirit which leads to jealousy and envy, which is so often present, is the first proclamation of the greatness of the Lord in our gospel reading.
We also see Elizabeth acknowledging Mary’s faith – how she is even more blessed because she believed. Was Elizabeth speaking from her own situation perhaps? The sequencing of events is a little unclear in this first chapter of Luke. We know that Elizabeth was also pregnant because her child leapt in the womb at Mary’s greeting. What we do not know is whether Zechariah had been visited by the angel, Gabriel, and had become mute yet. We also do not know, if that is the case, whether Elizabeth knew that Zechariah had become mute because he had questioned what the angel had said.
These details perhaps do not matter; what is evident is that Elizabeth has an understanding of blessing which relates to both being chosen by God and having the faith to trust that…even when what one has been chosen for seems unlikely, or even completely socially unacceptable.
Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s realisation and recognition is prayerful and prophetic. The first thing she does is point right back to God – acknowledging that this is about God and not about her. Her humility is just beautiful.
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the
lowliness of his servant.
She moves on to consider that generations to come will call her blessed – this is such a huge blessing, it will not easily be forgotten. Equally though, future generations will not remember Mary for being Mary; they will remember her as one who was most profoundly blessed by God. That humble focus on God is a beautiful example for each of us to follow in our Christian lives and ministries.
The next part of Mary’s words seem incredibly prophetic. God’s mercy is for those who fear God. Despite how society seems to be organised, the proud, the mighty or the rich will not have the last word. Indeed, through the Messiah, God is about to overthrow all of these. It is the lowly who will receive God’s mercy. There is also a revolutionary note about feeding the hungry and sending the rich away empty; this counters ancient societal values where the rich would be taken care of and the poor sent away empty handed. I wonder whether we can claim that those societal values, which are of ancient origin, are no longer present today?
Mary speaks of God turning human attitudes and orders of society upside down. She is wonderfully aware of God’s subversive sense of justice – her knowledge and acknowledgement of this can only have been inspired by God. As you will see from looking around St Andrew’s, we are fortunate enough to be hosting some of the Methodist Modern Art Collection at the moment. There are some truly phenomenal pieces. I have been drawn to the Dalit Madonna by Jyoti Sahi. What I am most interested in with this painting is how humbly Mary, the Queen of Heaven, has been depicted. This image resonates with the humility which seeps off the page of our gospel reading. Equally, within such humility, there seems to be a profound proclamation from the soul of the artist, of the greatness of the Lord.
The Dalit Madonna seems to have a mark of stigmata on her right hand, perhaps reminding us of the inevitability of pain and suffering. Even, or perhaps especially Mary as the mother of God, bears the inevitable marks of suffering caused by the human condition of brokenness. Yet within the relationship of Jesus and Mary, we see the necessity of that suffering to create life and hope. Equally, as Mary gazes at the God-child, everything about her body language seems to point to Christ. She is in awe. She has captured the wonder of the meaning of life; that is of humanity and our relationship with divinity. As Mary gazes on Jesus here, we too are drawn in. Equally when we seize the sacrament of now, when we gaze on God in the everyday, others are drawn in. I am sure, if you spend time gazing at the Dalit Madonna, you will receive equally wonderful revelations of the living God whom we worship.
I invite you to do so after this celebration service, and think about how your soul will proclaim the greatness of the Lord over the coming week. So, how is all of this relevant for us today? Mary’s faith and words are a beautiful blueprint for Christian life and ministry; first on hearing God, however unlikely it seems, we are to trust and respond willingly and with humility:
let it be with me according to your word.
Our response should glorify God, not ourselves. In all that we do, we need to point back to God. Our place in the world, as Christian disciples with an incarnational ministry is surely to enable encounters with God. Those encounters are more likely to occur when we, with humility, give way to ourselves and allow space for God to work through us, just as Mary did. Mary also reminds us that we ought to fear God, that we ought not allow pride and conceit into our hearts, that lusting after power will not bring us any closer to God, but rather drive a rift between us and God.
Living like Mary has revolutionary, subversive potential as we seek to point back to God, acknowledging the merciful heart of God, and our brokenness before God as we humbly step out in faith to do what God requires of us. Let your soul proclaim the greatness of the Lord!