Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-56
4th Sunday of Advent
St Barbara’s; 19.12.2021
Rev Tulo Raistrick
What do you do when you receive good news, when you feel in a joyful, celebratory mood? Whether its the birth of a child or grandchild, or getting a good result in an exam, or getting the job you applied for, or your team winning unexpectedly and against the odds, how do you celebrate? Do you do a dance and a jig of delight? Do you shout and whoop? Do you pick up the phone and tell a friend? Do you go out for a meal at an expensive restaurant?
One of my happiest memories of my three years living in Soweto, South Africa, was the way good news was celebrated. There was much bad news that was endured everyday – the discrimination and racism people experienced, the grinding poverty, the state brutality, the many deaths – so when good news came along – the birth of a child, the local boy returned home after some time away, or on a larger scale the election of Nelson Mandela as president – people would not hold back in celebrating.
And the celebrations in my church tended to be led by the women, and in particular by one woman, Mendo Leklape, who had the most amazing voice. Spontaneously she would just start singing, clapping and dancing. The other women would soon be on their feet too, joining in, followed by the older men and then the younger men until the whole church was rocking. Led by Mendo, we would sing the same song for 10-15 minutes, sometimes varying or adding in new words to suit the occasion, sometimes adding in new harmonies. And then there would be those wonderfully distinctive African expressions of praise – the ululations of the women – spontaneous joy expressed in a way words alone couldn’t.
Well, that’s what we have here in our gospel reading, an eruption of praise, a spontaneous outburst of joy.
Like those women of Soweto, Mary had many reasons to worry and feel downcast. She was a young girl growing up in poverty in a country where foreign soldiers patrolled the streets and where local politicians abused the poor. And she was a young girl growing up in a small village of just 400-500 people, pregnant with a baby whose paternity was doubted and no doubt the cause of gossip and slander.
And yet when she receives good news, she knows how to celebrate. When she meets Elizabeth and discovers that what the angel Gabriel had said to her is true – that miraculously Elizabeth too would become pregnant in her old age – Mary explodes in praise. She hadn’t dreamt up the angel’s message, she hadn’t been foolish. As she saw Elizabeth, pregnant with child, here she had tangible proof that God’s Word was being fulfilled, being fulfilled in Elizabeth, and being fulfilled in her.
And so Mary bursts into song – a song known down the centuries by its first word in Latin “Magnificat” – an act of joyful worship, of exuberant thanksgiving.
There is so much for us to learn from Mary’s act of praise.
Firstly, that first line: “My soul magnifies the Lord”. To magnify means to make something bigger, but how is it possible to make God any bigger, greater, than He already is? How can we give him any more glory than he already has? We can’t. But what we can do, and what true worship enables us to do, is make God greater in our lives, to be more aware of and to acknowledge God’s presence and goodness in shaping us and the people and situations around us. When we have good news to celebrate, to recognise the goodness and mercy of God that pervades that good news, to name his presence.
That may be when looking out on a beautiful scene of nature or when listening to an inspiring piece of music; it may be when experiencing someone’s kindness or when hearing news that brings hope and happiness. To recognise God’s presence in the midst of that, to recognise the divine spark that makes it all possible, to recognise His Spirit at work bringing hope and healing and creativity and life into the world. To magnify God is to give him the praise that is due his name.
I wonder, what for you have been moments of celebration, of good news, in recent days? Just take a moment to give thanks to God once more – to magnify the Lord.
A second thing I draw from Mary’s wonderful song of praise is that worship holds the personal and communal, the individual and the national, together. For Mary, if God’s promises were being made true on a personal level (at the level of her and Elizabeth’s pregnancies), then God’s promises could also be trusted on a bigger level too (in terms of his promises to the people of Israel).
The God she can thank for his goodness and mercy to her will also be a God of goodness and mercy to his people and the world. Injustice will not last forever. The rich and powerful who exploit and abuse will be brought down; the poor and vulnerable will be lifted up. Mary’s taste of God’s personal goodness is a foretaste of God’s goodness on a global scale. The coming of Jesus will usher in the beginning of a new type of kingdom, one where the poor will be blessed, those who mourn will be comforted, the humble will be lifted up.
Our worship of God should be immensely personal – rightly we should praise God for what he does for us, just as Mary sings “the Mighty One has done great things for me” – but our worship should also be immensely political and communal – recognising God’s value of others and his purpose of transforming the world. It has been so good to hear this week of how a number of people in this congregation responded to Charlotte Jackson’s sermon last week, by giving generously to some of the needs in Willenhall that she spoke about. It is also so good to know of work people in our church are doing to bring about justice and equality for all, whether that is in the NHS, or in education, or in business, or in supporting campaigns of aid agencies like Tearfund, or in working alongside those struggling with debt through CAP’s work. Our worship should be personal. But it should also overflow into the communal. As we praise God for his goodness to us, so it should overflow into us being part of God’s goodness to others. I wonder, whether through our work, through our volunteering, through our relationships, through our prayers, how can we worship God in the way we relate to others, in the way we are part of his kingdom of justice and mercy, this week? Take a moment to think on that.
A third thing that struck me as I did some reading about Mary’s song this week was that her song may have been spontaneous, but it may not have been entirely original. She quite clearly had in mind Hannah’s song from the Old Testament, a song by the prophet Samuel’s mother, giving thanks to God for the baby that she thought she would never bear. As the joy bubbled up in Mary, these words came quite naturally to mind. But it is not just Hannah’s words. Mary’s song is full of other quotations – lines from the Psalms, Genesis, the book of Job. She takes these words and phrases and weaves them together into a new song, all her own.
The more we allow the words of Scripture to dwell in us – to read them, to contemplate them – the more they will bubble up inside of us when we need them. Whether its to express joy or sadness, hope or despair, the words of Scripture can give us a way of expressing ourselves when our own words just don’t feel enough. And if words of Scripture don’t come readily to mind, then allow the hymns and Christian songs we sing to play that role – to bubble up in us and provide the soundtrack of our praise.
For me, when I’m happy, when I’m joyful and celebrating, I still find the words of Mendo Leklape and the women of Soweto, the songs of God’s goodness and salvation, of his mercy and his praise, that we used to sing then, still bubble up in me 30 years on. I wonder, what for you are those songs? Let us allow the words of Scripture, and the hymns of the church, to become the soundtrack of our lives.
And one final thought. The person who provides us with this most wonderful, inspiring song, a song that has perhaps shaped Christian music and worship more than any other over the last two thousand years, was a peasant girl of probably no more than 13-14 years of age. Its an encouragement to never limit in our minds who God will choose to use or who we can learn from. It is yet another way in which God shows his greatness and shows the truth of Mary’s song – He will scatter the proud but raise up the lowly.
May these words be true for us today: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my saviour. Amen.