Based on Luke 1:39-56
What are your favorite songs? Everybody has some. Which are the songs that give you energy, bring a smile to your face, and pick you up? You listen to them on your iPod, or in your car or at home and you just feel better? U2’s Beautiful Day or Cee Lo’s Bright Lights, Bigger City lift me up. Or which songs move you in a different way? Which songs resonate with your feelings of sadness or doubt or fear? Which songs sit with you and cry, mourn, or question? The Beatles’ Yesterday does that for me. And then, which songs help you to express frustration or anger? The ones that give you permission to express the deepest, fullest anger in your soul? Zero by the Smashing Pumpkins in on my anger playlist.
What are your happy, energetic songs? Your sad ones? Your angry ones?
Songs are powerful. This time of year, we don’t have to remind ourselves of that, do we? I think there is no season more prone to nostalgia, memories, and emotions than this one. And songs are a big part of it, right? Some Christmas songs are just silly and fun.
Yes, we sing Jingle Bells [before the tire blows out], and Rudolph, and Frosty the Snowman, and the Hanukkah Song…oh wait—that’s…not…well, it’s one of MY favorite silly/fun songs for this time of year, anyway. Thanks, Adam. All kidding aside, there are also songs we listen to and sing that are not silly or just plain fun. Some songs can lift us up and other songs allow us to be honest about our sadness or our anger. One mistake that we make as U.S. Christians is that we more often than not go for the silly and superficial music this holiday season. Don’t get me wrong—I love to laugh and to be silly. And I do it a LOT. But honestly, we often avoid the deeper, more honest songs that speak to the realities of our world and our lives. The songs that challenge us; the songs that move us to action.
The songs of lament; the songs of justice.
All during Advent we have been walking through the story of Luke’s Gospel. So it is appropriate for us to talk about songs, because Luke contains a lot of songs. This shouldn’t be a surprise for us, because Luke likes to tell its story with the stories of the Ancient Israelites in mind. In other words, while we equate Luke with only the story of Jesus of Nazareth, Luke actually echoes the stories of characters like Moses, Miriam, Hannah, Deborah, and David. All of them sang. Their songs told stories. So do the songs of Luke’s characters: Zechariah, Simeon, the angels, and of course, Mary.
A reminder about the Gospels and how they tell the story of Jesus’ birth. Contrary to what we may remember, the birth of Jesus is barely mentioned in the Bible. Only 2 Gospels–Luke and Matthew–talk about this event, and in drastically different ways. Luke’s focus is on the Hebrew Scriptures, specifically the prophets like Isaiah and Micah. Luke is honed in on God’s justice and love lifting up the lowly—those whose voices are often silenced. So it’s no surprise, then, that we find Luke’s story mostly about women. Of course, in the time and culture of the 1st and 2nd Century, women certainly did not enjoy many freedoms. In fact, the Bible we have leaves out much of what women might have said or experienced. So it’s rare that we get such a closer view of women’s perspective like we do in Luke.
Like the Ancient Israelite’s story of Ruth and Naomi, in Luke we find two women who share a special friendship. Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah, as we know, were older and could not have children. Luke spends an entire chapter telling their story for a reason. Elizabeth and Zechariah’s story parallels Mary and Joseph’s. You see, eventually, an angel visits Zechariah making a startling announcement that seems impossible; then, a mute Zechariah and a shocked Elizabeth deal with the reality of an unexpected pregnancy. This new kid, according to the angel with a name [Gabriel], will be like the prophet Elijah and bring the Israelites back to their homeland. Wow! But in spite of this amazing news, Elizabeth finds it necessary to remind everyone that up to this point, she’s been disgraced in her own community. Luke wants us to understand that Elizabeth was isolated. She felt worthless. But God via some Gabriel-angel told her something different.
Well, apparently this Gabriel was busy, because the angel made it over to Nazareth to visit Elizabeth’s relative, Miriam, who we call Mary. A similar announcement takes place. Mary is going to have a kid. Just one problem: she has a guy she likes who happens to be a descendent of King David [which is good], but they actually aren’t married. So getting pregnant maybe doesn’t sound so great at this point.
I love Luke’s rendering of the story. Mary is troubled at the news. Well, that’s an understatement!
Like Elizabeth’s kid-to-be, John, Mary’s son will also be a leader. Not just any leader—the next king to take over David’s empty throne. But Mary was less concerned with all that political jargon. Like Elizabeth, it was more about practicality. No, Mary wasn’t older like Elizabeth, but she did not know a man yet. That’s what the Greek text actually says. I’m not going to go into the tiresome debate about the word virgin, because I just don’t think it’s important in the story. What matters is that Mary and Joseph are not together in the way that would be acceptable in society. Remember, these are parallel stories. So Elizabeth was disgraced by her community for being old, female, and infertile. Mary would be disgraced also for being pregnant without a proper marriage commitment. Seems like they can’t win, right?
But again, that’s the point Luke is making. Yes, society points the finger and judges, but God doesn’t really care. This atypical story moves on as God chooses to lift up these two women. Check this out: after the angel leaves Nazareth, there’s no man in Mary’s story. No one–no Joseph! Instead, Mary goes by herself to visit Elizabeth in the Judean town where she and Zechariah lived. Now let’s assess this. Nazareth in Galilee was about 70 miles from Judea. But keep in mind that Samaria was in the way and we know how Israelites and Samaritans felt about each other. So most likely, Mary traveled around 100 miles. What was going on her mind during that long trip? Probably she was afraid, nervous, upset, and unsure about the future. But she went with haste to see Elizabeth. For some reason, she felt that Elizabeth was the right person to tell.
When she arrives at their home, Elizabeth welcomes her. Actually, she embraces her. No doubt this made Mary feel better. Elizabeth didn’t scold her or ask her, “Where’s the ring?” or shoot judgmental glances at her. Elizabeth welcomed her. The story is redefining what society has taught. It doesn’t matter if Mary is unwed and pregnant. What matters to God is that both Mary and Elizabeth will participate in the passing on of Good News. John will preach it at the Jordan River. Jesus will preach and live it in Jerusalem and Galilee. And you and I must remember that this storyteller Luke knows about who these two babies will become. He’s writing a flashback story. It’s all making sense now. Of course, the God who stands with the oppressed, the God who lifts up the lowly will give these two women powerful roles to play. If both John and Jesus preached freedom for those enslaved, justice for those pushed down, and a place for the left out, doesn’t Elizabeth’s and Mary’s story resonate?
Well, just in case we STILL don’t get it because we’ve had too much eggnog and are fixated on manger scenes, Mary on a donkey, and the little drummer boy—Luke brings it home. And of course, Luke brings it home with music. The once-mute Zechariah sings. His song is joyful, but mixed with frustrations and years of sadness.
Blessed is God, but the wait has been long for us to be saved from those who hate us. We needed to be rescued from enemies. But God forgives sins and is tender in mercy, giving light to those who sit in darkness and even fear death. God gives peace.
And Mary’s song, often called the Magnificat, is of a similar tone. It could have been a typical Hebrew poem of old. It looks a lot like Hannah’s song. Mary sings:
My whole being lifts up my God, but only because God has helped me in my lowliness. I may not have been blessed before, but from now on, I will be. There is mercy for me and great strength in God’s arm which scatters the proud and the powerful. God lifts up those who are down, like me. God gives hungry people things to eat. Those who are too rich are empty.
Mary and Zechariah’s songs, and eventually the angelic songs amid shepherds, of Luke’s gospel in chapter two, voice music of joy mixed with pain. Not all the joy of the songs is reality. People go hungry. The proud keep their thrones. The greedy get more. The lowly are oppressed. People often feel empty, even when they try to be faithful. Sometimes we don’t feel so blessed. And yes, THIS is what the songs of Luke’s story have to teach us. We so often paint the Jesus birth story in the most sanitized, friendly, and nostalgic way possible. But this will leave us empty. For the story is much, much bigger than how we’ve wrapped it up for ourselves. Hear the songs of this story. And now, hear your own.
We all sing—whether in public or in private. Sometimes we sing aloud and sometimes we sing in our minds or in our hearts and only we can hear. But we need to sing all kinds of songs, not just the easy ones. We need to sing songs of lament to express our grief and fear, honoring these emotions and then eventually stripping them of their power over us so we don’t stay in our grief and depression; so we don’t learn how to hate. And we need to sing songs of joyful praise and thanksgiving so we feel a connection to each other and to the land and the good creation around us. And we need to sing songs of courage and hope when all around us is fearful, violent, and bleak.
We need to sing like this in order to live like this.
Mary and Zechariah don’t just sing, they start to live out what they sing. They name their hopes, fears, sadness, and promises. Mary’s song is sung in the past tense. According to her, these promises have already been fulfilled [even though they hadn’t]. So she’s stepping out into the world with more than hope. She is living and breathing this song. She’s agreeing to be a willing participant in the giving and telling of God’s mercy and love to all people. And her song becomes her story.
So sing, friends. Sing all the songs of your whole being. Don’t ignore them or suppress them. Sing.
Sometimes your songs of defiant love and acceptance will overwhelm the hateful words and actions in our world. So sing.
Sometimes your songs of honest doubt will completely heal someone who never felt she had permission to question God. So sing.
Sometimes your songs of thankfulness will remind another how special it is to just have food, and health, and people who love you, and not things. So sing.
And sometimes your songs will blend with many other songs, raising a voice of courage and unity to work for justice, peace, and acceptance for all So…sing!
And as you sing, step into this mercy and love of God that doesn’t push you down or call you names or leave you on the street or exclude you or applaud violence or offer simplistic answers or belittle your pain or ignore your challenges or judge your faults.
Step into that song; live it. Amen.
 Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005).