ONE WORSHP SUNDAY 11:00 December 19, 2021
ONE WORSHIP SUNDAY — DECEMBER 19, 2021 AT 11:00 AM
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“Remember the Song” ∙ Luke 1:39-45
Sometimes I wish I could have a soundtrack of the Bible. There are instruments referred to in the Scripture that we don’t use today, that would be interesting to hear. There are sections of the Bible where we hear about angels, and other creatures singing praises to God in heaven, and I wonder, “What did that sound like?” There are many other sections of poetry, like in the Psalms where we still have the words and we know the poems may have actually been sung in ancient worship or other contexts, but we don’t have the melodies and harmonies that would have gone with them. Were they soft and gentle? Were they loud and raucous? Were they used to comfort and calm the people or were they also used to rally resistance when all seemed to be lost?
One of these pieces of poetry comes from the Gospel of Luke that we heard from today. It is sometimes called the Magnificat because of the beginning of the piece where Mary says, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” The Scripture simply states that Mary says this prophetic statement, but many traditions believe she may have also sung it. And if she did sing it, what was she singing about?
It starts off very personal. She is singing about how God has blessed her with this child, so her spirit rejoices in God who is her savior and has done great things for her. She wants to call God’s name holy and magnify and give praise to God because even though she is just a lowly peasant girl, God has favored her.
But then the song quickly turns to the broader community. It says that God’s mercy is for anyone from one generation to the next that respects God. Then it talks about how God will up-end the prevailing power structures and flip-flop the disparity between the haves and the have nots, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty.
I think it is in some ways ironic that we read this passage during Advent as we lead up to Christmas which is one of the times of the year when our culture focuses so much on consumerism. It is a time of the year where we spend a lot of money buying things and we are often jealous of those who are more rich than us because they can buy better things. Because of this, and because many of us are in a more comfortable position in society in general, I think we often miss the radical nature of Mary’s song. We tend to focus only on the first part of the song and the romanticized picture of this faithful girl individually accepting her blessing because she is doing what God told her to do.
By focusing on Mary as a saintly idealized individual, however, we can miss out on the revolutionary reversal about which she is proclaiming and prophesying. She is literally talking about the overthrowing of tyrants and rise of the humble poor while God sends the rich away empty. You don’t think that may have ruffled some feathers of certain nobles or rulers or comfortable religious leaders who may have caught word of this song? What do you think King Herod would have thought as he heard such words? Do you think he would have felt annoyed, angered, threatened to hear lyrics of God overthrowing the powerful?
Let’s not forget where Mary came from. She was from an insignificant village whose few struggling families were most likely subsistence farmers or day laborers for wealthier folks in the nearby city. They barely scraped by and were constantly harassed to pay more taxes by the Roman soldiers and their own people who collaborated with the Roman occupiers. She was from the region of Galilee which was a hotbed of rebellion against the Roman empire. Her song may have been rising then, out of a spirit of resistance as she is gripped with the revelation that the God of the universe has chosen someone like her, a poor peasant girl, to bring God’s saving messiah into the world.
Biblical scholar Rolf Jacobson calls Mary’s song a radical protest song. The kind of song that the enslaved Israelites might have sung in Egypt. The kind of song you might have heard on the lips of the exiled Judeans in Babylon. The kind of song that has been sung by countless people of faith through the ages in resistance, in defiance of empires, slavers, terrorists, invaders, and the like.
We don’t know whether or not Mary made up the words to her song on the spot or not, but there is a good chance she was drawing upon an ancient tradition of resistance songs from her Jewish faith. There is a good chance she was remembering the songs of her ancestors who had experienced a moment of mercy and felt God’s favor with them over and against the forces that would oppress them.
Perhaps she was remembering the song of Miriam where Miriam sings about God overthrowing the military might of Egypt after crossing the Red Sea. She sings:
[The Lord] has trumped gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed;
you guided them by your strength to your holy abode. (Exodus 15:1bc, 13)
Or, Mary could have been remembering Hannah’s song who did not think she would ever have children, but when she is blessed with a child she sings:
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
The Lord raises up the poor from the dust
God lifts the needy from the ash heap
To make them sit with the princes. (1 Samuel 2:4-5, 8-9)
Mary could have even been drawing upon the Psalms like in Psalm 146 where it says:
The Lord sets prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
upholds the orphan and the widow. (146:7-9b)
Songs and the stories they remember have long been used by people over the centuries to hold onto their identity and to connect them to each other and the strength that their spirituality can bring. Another time in history when we see this was in the communities of the slaves brought to the US in the 1600s to 1800s. The slaves from Africa ended up learning about the Biblical stories as they were influenced by the European and American Christian culture. Although the Bible was used to oppress them in many ways, they also came to see themselves in many of the Biblical stories, and they came to believe that God could also hear their cry, like God did when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. They incorporated these stories into songs that they then used in acts of resistance against their slave owners.
A movie about the life of Harriet Tubman demonstrates what this may have looked like. Early on in the movie, Harriet comes to the conclusion that she needs to try to escape. She sings a song about when Pharoah’s chariot comes, she is going to flee to the promised land. Her family and friends respond how they will “meet her in the morning” and then they sing, “Farewell O farewell.” The slaveowner comes through their midst wondering what is going on. He ends up just walking away because he thinks they are simply singing a random song. However, Harriet’s friends know what the song means. It means Harriet is going to escape and is saying goodbye to them. So they sing back “Farewell.”
Later on in the movie Harriet gets the nickname “Moses” because she goes back to the south to help more slaves escape. Word gets around that she uses an old spiritual song to signal to the slaves that she is there to help them. She will sneak up on a plantation and start singing in the woods, “Go Down Moses, way down in Egypt land, Tell ol’ Pharoah, let my people go.” Those that wanted to try and escape would then take off and follow Harriet to freedom. In this practical way as well as through the act of worship in churches and secret camp meetings, remembering the ancient stories became an act of resistance and a source of spiritual strength for the slaves in the south. The songs gave them hope that just as God had done great things in the past, God would do them again. Just as God had set people free before, God would do it again. That true freedom might not be quite there yet for all of them, but it was coming.
This is the truth that we focus on during Advent as well—that freedom from sin has come and is still coming. We believe that Christ has come as the child in the manger, but we wait, prepare, and anticipate him coming again. We believe that the reign of God has arrived, and yet when we look around at the world, we know there is still so much hurt and violence, sorrow and turmoil, and we plead in prayer that God’s reign would come more fully.
At the center of our plea is also the recognition that Jesus came and is coming not just for us, but for the whole community. Mary’s song will not allow us to think of individual salvation apart from Jesus turning the power structures of the world on their head. Her song may begin focusing on the reversal of her own situation, but it cannot be separated from the second part of the song that focuses on systems of power being reversed as well.
We may not have the full soundtrack to the Bible. We may not know what the ancient instruments were like or what melodies were created, but we do have the lyrics to the songs. Those lyrics tell us that even though we might think we are just plain and lowly people, the God of the universe has called us blessed. God wants to favor us with the message of Savior sent to remind us that we are loved—sent to redeem us and free us from our sins. Those lyrics also tell us that this good news is not just for us alone as individuals. It is for all people and it is a call to up-end the systems that would oppress—a call to resist the powers that would put down. It is a call to trust that one day God will scatter the proud and fill the hungry with good things. It is a call to trust that the lowly will be lifted up and we too can be a part of that process as long as we can keep remembering the songs of salvation. Amen.
-Pastor Erik Goehner