Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
20th of December, 2020
I know that this year has been different because here we are at the Fourth Sunday of Advent and I am not yet completely over Christmas carols. Usually by this time in December I have heard so many carols at Christmas events or while shopping that the thought of hearing another one drives me batty. But this year there have been few Christmas parties, and shopping has been a matter of deciding beforehand, walking in, and walking out, and so I am not my usual ‘Bah! Humbug!’ self.
I may not be as glutted with ‘Christmas’ as usual, but this fourth Sunday of Advent remains my favourite day in the whole Christmas season. The rest of the world may celebrate the birth of the baby who was laid in a manger because there was no room for him and his family in the inn, usually in ways that make it a cute story suitable for children. It’s only in churches that we hear Mary singing the Magnificat, her song of liberation that describes God’s astonishing over-turning of power and privilege. It’s the Magnificat, and all that it implies, that reveals to us what Christmas truly means and it’s on this Fourth Sunday of Advent that we celebrate it.
We only have a short snippet of story today. Mary is told by the angel Gabriel that she is to bear the Son of the Most High and in response she sings a song of astounding prophecy. In between, the part of the story that we don’t hear, Mary goes to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who’s also become pregnant through the astonishing intervention of God. When Mary enters Elizabeth’s house and greets her, John the Baptist leaps in Elizabeth’s womb, and Elizabeth welcomes Mary with words inspired by the Holy Spirit. It’s in response to this greeting that Mary proclaims the Magnificat.
In that ordinary house were four prophets; two mothers; and two sons. Elizabeth was an old woman, and her son would end the old age of the prophets. Mary was a young woman, and her son would usher in the new age of the kingdom of God among us. In adulthood, John described himself as unworthy to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals. In the womb he already acknowledged Jesus’ greatness. John and Jesus’ lives and ministry were ahead of them, but Elizabeth and Mary’s time is already here, in this meeting.
Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, showed amazing prophetic insight. Mary simply greeted her, and Elizabeth already knew that Mary was pregnant, chosen by God, and that Mary’s child would be even greater than her own astonishing son. Now Mary also shows herself to be a prophet. Her response to Elizabeth’s greeting is to sing, and she sings in the Magnificat of things already done: God had scattered the proud, brought down the powerful, lifted up the lowly, filled up the hungry. Yet Mary was singing in a country under Roman occupation. The proud and powerful seemed to be very much in control.
Mary recognised what prophets and saints and martyrs have demonstrated throughout the ages. The powers of injustice might seem to be strong, but the power of God is always stronger. As the angel Gabriel tells Mary, ‘nothing will be impossible with God’. I do not know whether I warned you when I became minister here that you were going to hear a lot from two twentieth-century martyrs, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr? Here is Martin Luther King on the subject, preaching on Jude 24, ‘Now unto him who is able to keep you from falling’:
God is able to conquer the evils of history. His control is never usurped. If at times we despair because of the relatively short progress being made in ending racial discrimination and if we become disappointed because of the undue cautiousness of the federal government, let us gain new heart in the fact that God is able. In our sometimes difficult and often lonesome walk up freedom’s road, we do not walk alone. God walks with us … The forces of evil may temporarily conquer truth, but truth will ultimately conquer its conqueror. Our God is able.
Mary prophesies. She is so certain, so open to the coming justice of God, that she can sing about it as though it had already happened. She is able to see that in the approaching birth of Jesus, God’s promise for the future was already coming true. In Jesus’ birth, as in Jesus’ death and resurrection, God is defeating death and hopelessness. Mary sings, ‘The Mighty One has done great things for me’ and in the great things that God has done for Mary, we see the great things that God had done, is doing, and will continue to do, for the entire world.
In Mary’s song, the world as we know it is overturned. We can see this in the story itself, in all the amazing prophecy that comes from two women and an unborn child. The old woman who was barren and the young one who is now pregnant despite being unmarried are inspired by the Holy Spirit. Mary’s song sings of the over-turning of the power structures of this world, and the encounter between Elizabeth and Mary shows us an example of that overturning in action, in which the lowly, the barren and the young, women, peasants, people under occupation, are lifted up. What God has done for Elizabeth and Mary anticipates what God is going to do for all the lowly, the hungry, the poor and the powerless. Mary’s song assures us that this will happen, because it has already happened to her.
When Jesus begins his ministry by reading in the synagogue in Nazareth he does so by reading the words of Isaiah that we heard last week: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed to me bring good news to the poor’. Jesus’ words echo those of his mother in her song; we can imagine that Jesus’ ministry comes not just from his Father, who anointed him to bring good news, but from his mother, who as a young girl overshadowed by the Holy Spirit was already singing with joy of God’s justice.
As I wrote today’s reflection, I heard that 60 asylum seekers and refugees who had been brought to Australia under the Medevac legislation, and held in the Mantra Hotel ever since, had been moved to another place of detention. Some of these people have been held in immigration detention for seven years. Many of them have been found to be refugees. New Zealand has offered to resettle them. Human rights’ organisations like Amnesty and the UNHCR have written reports saying that what the Australian government is doing breaches international law. The Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea found that the detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island was unlawful, because unlike Australia PNG has constitutional human rights protections. There is absolutely no reason for these men still to be held in detention – and yet they are. For years churches and community organisations have been protesting the immigration detention of asylum seekers and refugees, and asking the government to release them. It would be easy for us to lose heart. But today Mary reminds us why we must keep fighting. It is because we know that God has shown strength with his arm; has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; has brought down the powerful from their thrones; has lifted up the lowly; has filled the hungry with good things; has sent the rich away empty. And so we keep fighting on God’s side.
This is the message of Christmas, that with the birth of Jesus we see the beginning of a new world of justice. With the birth of God to an obscure family in a land under occupation we see the inauguration of God’s reign of love and peace. Martin Luther King Jr said that, ‘History is the story of evil forces that advance with seemingly irresistible power only to be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice’. Christmas is a time for our souls to magnify the Lord and our spirits to rejoice in God our Saviour. With Mary we are called to sing with hope, trusting in God’s justice and love, and sharing our hope, peace, joy, and love with the world. Let us do that this Christmas. Amen.
 Martin Luther King Jr, A Gift of Love (2012), p. 108.
 A Gift of Love, p. 106.