Weekly Seeds: To She Who Believed

Sunday, December 19, 2021
Fourth Sunday of Advent

Focus Theme:
To She Who Believed

Focus Prayer:
Glorious God, who comes with favor and mercy, we rejoice in you. Shine upon us, restore your creation, and make us holy. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Luke 1:39–45 (46–55)
39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

All readings for this Sunday:
Micah 5:2–5a
Luke 1:46b–55 or Psalm 80:1–7
Hebrews 10:5–10
Luke 1:39–45 (46–55)

Focus Questions:
1. What makes you leap (in body or spirit) for joy?
2. How do you recognize the movement of the Holy Spirit within you?
3. What promises has God fulfilled that you have witnessed?
4. What is your song of praise? Write it.
5. Who needs to hear it (your song of praise)? How can you share it?

By Cheryl Lindsay

Prophets reveal the movement, will, and promise of God in circumstances, relationships, and creation history. As Jocelyn McWhirter notes, “A biblical prophet starts his or her career when the Lord comes to the prophet, perhaps through the Holy Spirit or in a vision. The prophet then speaks God’s word to the people.” Mary and Elizabeth aren’t the first female prophets we encounter in the Bible. They follow in the tradition of Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah–names we know–as well as those we do not. While their placement in redemptive history remains prominent, we don’t often refer to them that way. We consider them mothers of prophets but fail to acknowledge that the prophetic lineage that John the Baptist and even Jesus received was an inheritance gifted to them through their mothers.

The relationship between these two prophets is noteworthy. They are related by both blood and purpose and their joint prophecy, found within this text, amplifies their centrality in this story. Their encounter comes immediately after Mary has consented to being Jesus’ mother. The angel had revealed to her that Elizabeth was also pregnant. Elizabeth is Mary’s first stop. She leaves town in order to meet with Elizabeth. It’s not her betrothed that she seeks out; it’s her kin that she most ardently desires to share in this news.

Who is the first person you share your life with? That’s who Elizabeth was to Mary. Perhaps, that was based on these particular circumstances. Maybe, they enjoyed a close relationship before this blessing tethers their lives together in a new way. Mary might have wanted to speak to someone who would have understood and believed in all the extraordinary details of her experience. Elizabeth, after all, had her own extraordinary situation unfolding:

When Mary journeys to Elizabeth, they join forces. In contrast to mute Zechariah, women deliver the first speeches of consequence. By concealing herself, Elizabeth occupies the social margin but transforms it into creative space by playing a prophet’s role. She blesses Mary and Mary’s child, and affirms her own place in God’s eyes in something greater than themselves. Mary adds the antiphonal voice of another prophet from the margins. She identifies with the low social class and affirms God’s power to bless. This takes the shape of God’s “class conversion.” Against powerful thrones (implicating imperial systems), God manifests mercy to generations of those who have inadequate access to the earth’s resources. Her references to Abrahamic promises also supplement Gabriel’s allusions to David’s commonwealth (1:46–55). (Robert L. Brawley)

Mary doesn’t have to recount anything because the Holy Spirit does the explaining. At six months pregnant, Elizabeth would have felt her baby move before. This time is different:

Even Elizabeth’s future son honors Mary, leaping at the sound of the visitor’s greeting….Elizabeth gives it meaning: “As the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leaped for joy” (v. 44). Before John is himself the source of delight (at his birth [v. 58], fulfilling the promise of v. 14), he rejoices in the presence of the Lord’s mother. On cue, Elizabeth pronounces a double blessing: both Mary and the child she carries are blessed (v. 42). (John T. Carroll)

Mary receives the blessing first. Elizabeth’s words acknowledge Jesus but she predominantly extols Mary. Elizabeth doesn’t worship Mary, but she also doesn’t limit Mary’s participation to being only a vessel used to bring Jesus into the world. Mary herself is blessed in stature, purpose, and faith. Elizabeth recognizes Mary as both the one given the choice to participate in God’s plan and the one who responded to the invitation to act in faith.

Elizabeth’s joy inspires Mary to join with her own voice. In doing so, she deflects the honor that she receives from her cousin to the Mighty One. But, this is more than a song of personal gratitude for a generous God. “The Magnificat is the great New Testament song of liberation–personal and social, moral and economic–a revolutionary document of intense conflict and victory.” (Jane D. Schaberg and Sharon H. Ringe) Mary’s excitement stems from her belief that God is about to do something spectacular through her to fulfill the long-held promises made in covenant to God’s people.

Mary betrays faith in God’s holiness and mercy, strength and generosity, power and compassion. Her words express sentiments reminiscent of the song of Hannah, mother to the prophet Samuel:

God draws these lowly women into the center of divine activity. This theme inspires Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55, an echo of Hannah’s prayer in 1 Sam. 2:1-10. Each begins with a personal declaration of praise….Mary and Hannah praise God with heart and soul, body and spirit, because God has reversed their social circumstances. Hannah, a despised, childless woman, is now the proud mother of a son. “She who was barren has borne seven children,” she boasts (1 Sam 2:5). Likewise, Mary leaves the obscurity of Nazareth to mother the Messiah….Both women acknowledge that they are not the only ones whose lives are turned upside down. God is in the business of reversal. God brings down the rich and the powerful. God lifts up the hungry and the poor. (Jocelyn McWhirter)

When Hannah asked her God for a child, she committed his life to the Holy One’s service. Mary, on the other hand, is asked to mother the Child of God. She understands the significance of this moment and her place in it.

And, she delights in it. Because she believed in it. Her words of praise aren’t empty statements, they are full of hope and trust that God is faithful, God will act, and God fulfills promises. The world will change because of God’s plan, and she marvels that she gets to participate in it.

Advent is a season of anticipation and expectation. It includes remembrance, as does Mary’s expression of praise, but that remembering serves to declare who God is and what God will do in light of what God has done. She believes that liberation and redemption will come; that is her perspective on salvation–God saves creation by lifting up the lowly and through humbling the proud. She believes it, and that makes her glad.

Do we believe it? And to the extent that we believe in it, do we delight in anticipation of the fulfillment of promises of God our Liberator.

Both the oppressed and the oppressor need to be liberated from systems of oppression and ways of being that support them. The poor receive from the Holy One’s abundance, and the rich are released from hoarding and lack of trust in the Creator’s provision. The lowly and the powerful perceive their value as beloved of God rather than based on temporal and often arbitrary status. The hungry and the rich are seated at the same table and are made whole.

Some of us ignore the expectation this season offers because we’re afraid of what we’ll lose if these promises are fulfilled. We don’t want it to happen. We’re content with the status quo. We want to celebrate the humble baby born in modest conditions. We take comfort in how contained that birth seemed to be.

But Mary won’t let us. She knows what God has in store and is the only one who receives the honor and bears the burden of companioning with Jesus through every step of his earthly journey. She pushes him out into the world for his first breath; she pushes him out into the world for his first public act of ministry. She endures the pain of labor at his birth, and she endures the pain of his labor at his death.

During my study of worship, I had numerous colleagues who were Contemporary Christian artists. One expressed frustration that Christian radio stations limit the types of songs that they include in their playlists. They want the songs to be encouraging, avoid controversy (and justice), and emphasize the individual over community.

Clearly, they wouldn’t play Mary’s song.

Because Mary doesn’t diminish the gospel. She’s a prophet and displays the prophet’s commitment to truth–God’s truth–above all else. Yes, as an individual, she has been blessed but that blessing is in service of God’s plan for creation and in fulfillment of the covenantal promises made to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants.

Play Mary’s song. Rehearse it and let it resound in our hearts and our communities. Sing Mary’s song of liberation and justice, true peace and real hope, God’s abundance and everlasting love. Mary’s song offers the world God crafted at creation and that Jesus enters to redeem and restore. Mary’s song calls us away from what God has done for us individually to how we can participate in what the Sovereign One is doing cosmically. Mary’s song declares God’s goodness and proclaims God’s salvation to a world that needs intervention and disruption.

And, Mary’s song invites us to participate in the chorus and write our own verses as we receive the blessing of the ones–she, they, he–who believe.

Voices of People of African Descent:
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study. For the season of Advent 2021, these passages/pericopes were curated by Rev. Mark Koyama and Harriet Ward:
Then Creole stepped forward to remind them that what they were playing was the blues. He hit something in all of them, he hit something in me, myself, and the music tightened and deepened, apprehension began to beat the air. Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.
And this tale, according to that face, that body, those strong hands on those strings, has another aspect in every country, and a new depth in every generation. Listen, Creole seemed to be saying, listen. Now these are Sonny’s blues. He made the little black man on the drums know it, and the bright, brown man on the horn. Creole wasn’t trying any longer to get Sonny in the water. He was wishing him Godspeed. Then he stepped back, very slowly, filling the air with the immense suggestion that Sonny speak for himself.
Then they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seemed to say, amen. Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life.
From James Baldwin’s short story Sonny’s Blues

For further reflection:
I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.” ― Anne Frank
One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar.” ― Helen Keller
If I can see pain in your eyes then share with me your tears. If I can see joy in your eyes then share with me your smile.” ― Santosh Kalwar

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer and Editor (lindsayc@ucc.org), is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.