Preparation: The Magnificat

Magnificat © Jan L. Richardson.

Mary’s Preparation

A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church

November 27, 2011

Rev. Julie Emery

Texts: 1 Samuel 2:1-10, Luke 1: 46-55, “Annunciation” by Denise Levertov

***

Annunciation

By Denise Levertov

‘Hail, space for the uncontained God’
From the Agathistos Hymn, Greece, VIc

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book;

always the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
courage.
The engendering Spirit

did not enter her without consent.

God waited.

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
uncomprehending.
More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
only asked
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
perceiving instantly
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.

1 Samuel: 2:1-10

Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God.

My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.

“There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.

Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth;

for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.

The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.

Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.

The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.

The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.

The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.

He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap,

to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.

For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’S, and on them he has set the world.

“He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;

for not by might does one prevail.

The LORD! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven.

The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king,

and exalt the power of his anointed.”

***

Today marks the first Sunday in Advent, the first Sunday of the liturgical Church calendar, as Reverend Crawford noted last week. A new year, a new beginning. Advent, which means “coming” is a time for us to ponder the coming of Christ into our midst, to consider what it means to have a God named Emmanuel, a God-with-us. To reflect on what it means to believe in a God incarnate, who has broken into, who continues to break into our world to change and renew it.

This year, we will be spending our advent with the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, the one who bears God from her darkened womb, who ushers the One who is light into this darkened world.  Mary has been for centuries a person of interest and intrigue, a character who has both drawn us in and sent us forth.

As New Testament scholar Beverly Gaventa notes: “In paintings and poetry, with song and sculpture…women and men have pondered the mystery of Mary, the mother of Jesus of Nazareth.”  Alongside of those that have gone before, we will hear this advent season the music and ponder the art of Mary – in worship and adult education, in prayer and proclamation.

The range of interpretations and introspections on Mary are great and diverse in theology and interest, they capture both love and repulsion; she has won the hearts and minds of Roman Catholics, but Protestants are still wary of her prominence in our tradition.  We do not worship Mary, do not pray to her for help, there is no “Hail Mary full of Grace” prayer in our liturgical repertoire.  Nonetheless, it is clear that Mary, Mary , has long proved herself worthy of our time and reflection.

As a mother, I find myself drawn in by the mere physical nature of her Advent waiting and anticipation. The slow unfurling of the child in her womb that mirrors our own expectations and longings for hope, life, renewal. Her willingness to submit to God’s calling causes me to ponder and question my own callings, the ways in which I submit to God’s will and the ways in which I fight it tooth and nail.  Mary’s story as the mother of Jesus is also conflicting and riddled with pain, as Jesus grows to reject her mothering ways.  And so we find ourselves joining her in pondering all these things in our hearts.

As we turn more specifically Mary’s song, it is easy to hear that Mary’s hymn finds roots in her tradition and the story of the people of Israel.  Today we hear alongside of Mary the song of Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel.  If you do not remember the story, Hannah is the beloved but barren first wife of Elkanah, who has spent years praying fervently for God to open her womb and look upon her with favor. As if her barrenness wasn’t enough to bring her sorrow; Elkanah’s second wife, Peninnah, who produced many children, would taunt her daily for her inability to procreate.

As the story goes, Hannah prays at the temple for the Lord to open her womb, and promises to dedicate the child given to her to the Lord’s service if her prayer is granted. The child she God grants is Samuel, and Samuel becomes a prophet, the one who lifts up Saul and then David as King over Israel.

The song we hear today is the culmination of Hannah’s story. It is her response to answered prayer. She sings at the dedication of Samuel to the Lord at the temple. She sings in thanksgiving for God’s blessings upon her.  She sings of God’s providence and mercy.

Her words begin, “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.”

Hannah begins from her own life and experience; out of her own joy she rejoices.  But Hannah’s words do not stop there: “The bows of the mighty are broken,” she says, “but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.”

Hannah sings of reversals; she sings of God’s justice for ALL not just for herself. She sings of the barren who bears now seven children, but she also sings of the hungry who now are filled, the mighty who have been brought low.  She moves from her own story of hope and claims God’s providence for the world.

Israel’s fortunes, like Hannah’s, she seems to say, can be reversed.  And if this is so, what else can be transformed and made new?

**

Matt King is the complicated, flawed yet ultimately lovable lead character in a new movie out in the theaters called, The Descendants.  A lawyer and land baron in Hawaii, we meet Matt as he is in the midst of an Advent-like waiting. He is brokering a major sale of land that has been in his family for generations and is waiting for the opinions of family members spread throughout the Hawaiian islands, although ultimately the decision falls to him the sole trustree.  He is also waiting tragically for his estranged wife to awaken from a month-long coma, the result of a boating accident.

So he begins his story waiting, quietly, impatiently perhaps. But waiting. He waits for a hope that seems not to come, as time reveals dire news from doctors and painful information about his wife’s secrets. He waits for someone else to break in and fix things, as his daughters rebel and fall apart in the midst of the family crisis.  He waits – for something to change, for something to be fixed, for something…anything…to save him from himself.

Matt King’s story is in many ways familiar, his tragedy universal. Chicago pastor John Buchanan writes that he is particularly ready for Advent this year. “Perhaps,” he says, “it’s because recent world events have been so relentlessly grim: another fatal exchange of rocket fire between Israelis and Palestinians, a car bomb attack on American troops in Afghan­istan, more suicide bombs in Iraq, fragile economies in Europe and here at home, and presidential candidates outdoing one another in ignoring the critical issues of immigration, financial regulation and global warming. I need Advent.” he says.

We need Advent too.  It does seem harder this year, a friend reflected to me recently. The economy that continues to be strained, families and marriages continue to crumble, loved ones continue to get sick. Is it darker this year or is it just that the shadows seem to fall across our path a little too closely?

**

The words of Hannah and Mary speak our longing and our hope: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly”  “God raises up the poor from the dust, God lifts the needy from the ash heap.”

Mary’s song is thought by many scholars to be modeled after the song of Hannah and it’s not difficult to hear why. We hear the same personal language at the beginning of the hymn.  “My heart, My soul, my strength, my mouth…” The same movement from the personal to the universal nature of God’s salvation as they affirm that God has lifted the lowly and sent the rich away empty.

Hannah’s song is not the only place where we find similarly voiced hymns of rejoicing.  Miriam, the sister of Moses, sang of God’s deliverance in the book of Exodus; Deborah sang of God’s victory in the book of Judges.  These songs are the songs of the mothers of Israel.  They sing of new possibilities, new communities, new power arrangements.  They sing to remind us and remember the ways in which God is at work in their lives and the lives of their people.  God keeps God’s promises, and women sing.

Their words are not placed in the future, but instead the present tense. In the midst of their own stories and blessings they see the wider scope of God’s power and salvation. They speak of their own blessings, yes, and then they speak of politics and governments, they speak of justice and righteous indignation.  The stories of these women are not devoid of darkness: the stories of both Hannah and Mary reveal pain and tragedy, complications and sorrow.

But… they know and proclaim like John that the light shines through the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.

For both Hannah and Mary, what we notice, more than anything, is that God is the primary actor in their lives.  God is the one who breaks into the ordinary and mundane and speaks a new world of transformation and power.  God is the one who converts tragedy to rejoicing. God is the one who takes a barren women and makes her a matriarch of a great prophet; God is the One who takes a young not-yet-wife and makes her the one who ushers light into the world.

***

After Matt King experiences his own annunciation of sorts his passive waiting becomes an active preparation as he prepares to say goodbye, prepares to become a better father to his daughters, prepares to face down his demons, prepares to make decisions that reflect the person of honor he longs to be but has until yet failed to become.

And I wonder, how does one prepare for that? How does one prepare to be…better? To be…ready?

Denise Levertov’s poetic words ring true as she writes:

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
uncomprehending.

More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,

are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief…

**

Annunciations will come, says Levertov, how will we receive them?

Perhaps there is no way to prepare, really, but to say that when the moment comes we hope that we will respond with a wider view of the ways that God is at work in the world.

Perhaps we prepare going to God with everything in prayer, as Hannah did, or in being willing when those moments come, to risk it all and say yes: “Let it be with me according to thy word.”

Perhaps it is an understanding that with tragedy and pain can come also joy and salvation. Perhaps it is faith; that it is in the darkest moments that light can break through and shine with more power and glory than at any other time.

Perhaps, perhaps, there is nothing we can do to prepare, except to live our lives holding this profound truth in our hearts – that even for us there might be an astounding ministry that awaits, that even for us, even for us, God can make the impossible possible.

May our Advent waiting be a preparation for that one, holy, impossibly possible moment to break forth in song.

Amen.

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