December 19th, 2021 homily on Luke 1:39-55 by Pastor Galen Zook
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” – Luke 1:46-55
This morning I hope you’ll bear with me as I use my imagination to try to fill in some of the backstory of Mary and Elizabeth’s relationship, and how Mary came to visit Elizabeth and compose this rather revolutionary song soon after she received the news that she would be the mother of the Messiah. It is often said that Mary and Elizabeth were cousins, but the word used in this passage is a more generic word meaning “relative.” Their age difference leads me to believe that Mary would have thought of Elizabeth more as an aunt.
Mary and “Auntie Liz”
I imagine that Mary always thought of Elizabeth as her “fun aunt.” Feisty, and just a tad irreverent at times, Elizabeth (or “Auntie Liz” as she liked to be called) was able to spend all of her time doting on Mary and her siblings when they came to visit, since she had never had any children of her own.
Maybe it was the many years of friends and relatives tirelessly asking her when she and Zachariah were finally going to have children of their own, but Auntie Liz had gotten to that place in life where she really didn’t care what anyone else thought of her. Which made her all the more fun to be around.
I imagine that Mary and her family used to stay at Elizabeth and Zechariah’s house when they made their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Zachariah was a priest and served in a section of the temple where women and girls were not allowed to even enter let alone worship or lead. And so during those long days when he was serving in the temple and Mary’s father and brothers were there offering sacrifices and listening to the rabbi’s teach, Auntie Liz would take Mary and her sisters exploring all around the city of Jerusalem.
Everything was always an adventure with Auntie Liz! Elizabeth would take them to the bustling marketplaces, show them all of her favorite spots where Mary’s mother and her used to hide out when they were little girls. And then, when the sun started to dip below the horizon, Auntie Liz would lead them out of the city, and up the hill to Elizabeth and Zechariah’s home overlooking the city of Jerusalem.
Auntie Liz and Mary were both night owls, and sometimes after Mary’s younger siblings were all fast asleep, Mary would sneak out of the house and find her Auntie Liz sitting on the grassy hillside, snuggled under a blanket, staring up at the stars. Mary would nussle up next to her, and Auntie Liz would pull her close and cover her with her blanket. Sometimes they’d whisper quietly to each other, other times they’d just sit there in silence, enjoying the stillness of the night, thinking their own thoughts.
Mary loved the view of the city of Jerusalem from this hillside. From here she could see the temple. Even at night there were usually at least a few lamps burning in the temple’s outer courts. The temple was the most holy place for the Israelite people – It was thought to be the place where God lived, the place where heaven and earth met.
But right behind it, looming large and ominous, was the Antonio Fortress. Built by king Herod, presumably to protect the temple, it housed Roman guards, who from the walls of the fortress could easily peer down into the temple courts – a constant nagging reminder to the Jewish people that they were not free – they were living under Roman occupation. Not too far from the temple was Herod’s palace – complete with banquet halls, baths, and accommodations for hundreds of guests. “Ostentatious and gaudy in my opinion,” Auntie Liz used to say.
During those nights when Mary and Elizabeth were sitting there on that hillside overlooking Jerusalem, Mary used to imagine what it would be like if all of those gaudy, ostentatious fortresses and palaces weren’t there – or like the walls of Jericho in ancient times if they just suddenly came tumbling down, and only the temple in Jerusalem remained. Surely then her people would truly be free. Surely then all the peoples of the earth would come to know the one true God.
Sometimes in the midst of her imaginations she would begin to dream about God calling her to a special role or task – like the prophets and leaders of old. She knew it was absurd to think this way, since only men like her Uncle Zechariah were allowed to serve in the temple at that time, but she wondered what she would do if God were to call her, like the prophets of old – like Deborah in the time of the Judges, or Huldah during the time of King Josiah, to speak God’s words to the people. Would she be willing to say yes like those women of faith, no matter what God it was that God called her to? Would she say yes, no matter the consequences?
Her Auntie Liz was the only person in the world she ever dared to share these thoughts with. It was during one of those nights when they sat there on that hillside overlooking Jerusalem, while Mary’s siblings were fast asleep. Even though she couldn’t see her face in the dark, Mary knew her Auntie Liz was smiling. Not in a condescending or patronizing sort of way, but in a glowing sort of way. As if Elizabeth shared Mary’s same hopes and dreams. Elizabeth was always so encouraging towards Mary. Mary knew that as long as Elizabeth believed in her, with God’s help she could do anything. She knew that if and when God ever called her to do something special, she would say “yes,” no matter what.
And so it was, that one day when an angel appeared to Mary out of the blue (when she was probably around 14 years old) and told Mary that God did indeed have a special role for her – that she was to be the mother of the Messiah – she knew there was one person she had to tell. One person in the whole world who, no matter what, would believe her. And the news that the angel shared with her – that her Auntie Liz was also expecting a child, even in her old age, well that just gave Mary just the reason that she needed to tell her family that she was going to go and stay with her Auntie Liz for a while.
Now, of course I don’t know if any of that is how it actually happened. But what I do know is that when Mary arrived at Elizabeth’s house, she was warmly welcomed by Elizabeth. And that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greetings, the child within her womb “leaped for joy” (Luke 1:44) and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaimed that Mary was blessed for believing that God had chosen to fulfill God’s promises through her.
In contrast, a fascinating part of the backstory that we do know is that when the angel had appeared to Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah – that priest and holy man of God who served in that special place in the temple where only Jewish men were allowed to go – he hadn’t believed it when the angel told him that his wife Elizabeth was going to bear a child in their old age. And because of his lack of belief, the angel had silenced Zechariah so that he wasn’t able to speak until the time when their baby would be born.
That means that throughout this whole passage – all 3 months while Mary stayed at Elizabeth and Zechariah’s house – Zechariah could not speak. He could only listen – and probably shake his head, and smile and nod as they talked, and laughed, and wept, and planned and shared their hopes and dreams with one another.
The content of Mary’s song – often referred to as the Magnificat – found here in Luke 1:46-55 – is fascinating. This week on Twitter someone describe this section of Luke chapter 1 as “two pregnant women celebrat[ing] their new motherhood by passionately discussing the coming overthrow of every earthly empire” (@KaitlynSchiess). And someone else pointed out that, “Mary isn’t some docile 25-year old, softly lit, with a halo behind her head. Honestly, she’s a bit more like Katniss from the ‘Hunger Games’; a little rough around the edges and ready to take her part in the revolution when called on.”
Because Mary’s song is all about God scattering the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, bringing the powerful down from their thrones, and lifting up the lowly (Luke 1:51-52). She sings about God filling the hungry with good things, and sending the rich away empty. This is indeed revolutionary talk! But it fits very much with what we know of the Jewish people living during this time in 1st century Palestine, who for so many years had been longing to be freed from Roman occupation.
God’s selection of Mary, a poor young girl from a poor family from the backwater area of northern Galilee, was an indication to Mary and to Elizabeth as well that indeed God was doing something mighty and powerful through them, and that through them and their children God indeed was upending the social order, by raising up the lowly. Perhaps God was indeed going to bring down the powerful from their thrones, and scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. Perhaps God was indeed going to use them to change the world as they knew it.
Revolution of Love
Someone has said that “If Mary’s response to her pregnancy is any indication we can imagine that Jesus grew up with protest songs as his lullabies, being taught about the need for revolution as he played in the yard, being encouraged to be fierce and stand up for what’s right.”
Mary’s song shows us that Mary was not content with the status quo. She was not satisfied with things the way they were. And she must have passed that along to her son, who indeed did start a revolution – although it was a revolution of love, not of hate. Of compassion, rather than vengeance.
Christ’s life, death, and resurrection did indeed upend the social order. Through his life he challenged the status quo, spoke truth to power, elevated the status of women, and included those on the margins of society. And ultimately Jesus’s revolution of love led him to willingly give his life by dying on the cross, freeing us from our bondage to sin and death, and reconciling the world to God.
Some think of Jesus as a failed revolutionary – they hear or read Mary’s Magnificat and think that she must have been mistaken. Even after Christ’s death the powerful still sat on thrones, many of the poor were still poor, the rich were still rich, the Hebrew people were still living under Roman occupation.
But what we so often fail to realize is that Christ’s revolution of love did not stop – but rather it continues to this day. We too are called to be a part of this revolution of love. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” When we follow in the path of Jesus, when we commit our lives to following him, we become – like Mary and Elizabeth – participants in the mighty work that God is continuing to do to this day. When we live in the way Jesus taught us to live, and love the way Jesus taught us to love, we carry on the revolution.
Unfortunately, many people in our world have been told that they cannot be bearers of the Good News. That they’re too young, or too old, they’re not the right gender, they don’t love the right people, they don’t have the right amount of education, they’re not the right socioeconomic status or don’t have the right personality, or giftedness to serve God.
But I think the story of Mary and Elizabeth shows us that God can indeed use each and every one of us – if we will only be willing to hope and believe, if only we will allow ourselves to not be satisfied with things the way they are, if only we will open ourselves up to be used by God in whatever way God sees fit.
May we, like Elizabeth, encourage and make space for those in our lives whom God has so clearly called to be bearers of the Good News. May we, like Mary and Elizabeth, join in Christ’s revolution of love, even as we long and wait for the day when Christ will return, when peace and justice will reign, when love will have the final word.