A Sermon for Sunday, December 15, 2019. Emory Presbyterian Church. The Third Sunday of Advent. Psalm 146:1-7 and Luke 1:46-55.
A clergy friend of mine often says that in times of hopelessness and despair, we must “fight back with beauty.”
When parts of the world and people’s lives are being destroyed, we must always carve out space to create something beautiful—something filled with peace, joy, love and hope. And while a response that addresses a particular injustice is the most beneficial, any and all expressions of beauty are valuable in countering the general ugliness we observe these days.
One of the most long enduring expressions of beauty has been music. Singing songs of adoration, praise, thanksgiving, contrition and lament are one of the core aspects of faith. We long to tell and sing the story of the God who is present among us. The Burt Family Carols, offered today by the Chancel Choir and Collegium Vocale, are wonderful testimonies to the good news of God’s light and grace.
Then there is the Bible itself. The scriptures—which we hold close to our hearts for they tell of the relationship between God and humanity and what it means to hold onto hope in the midst of great hardship—are bursting with stories of people who sing as a way of understanding what God is doing in their lives. An entire book is devoted to songs: The Psalms. And the first three chapters of The Gospel of Luke read like an epic Broadway musical.
Mary—pregnant with the Christ child—sings of God’s goodness, power and might after greeting her cousin Elizabeth, who will soon give birth to John—the prophetic wilderness preacher that urges the people to prepare for the coming of the Lord and who baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River. The priest Zechariah, husband of Elizabeth, sings praise and gratitude to God at John’s birth. The angels sing of God’s peace and goodwill when they share with the shepherds the news of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. And the faithful old Simeon sings a song of goodbye upon seeing the Christ child presented in the temple, assured that he can die peacefully knowing that God’s promise to Israel had been kept.
All of this singing and melodic proclamation of God’s sovereignty that manifests itself as a defenseless infant occurs, by the way, during Roman occupation and the tyrannical rule of King Herod of Judea. For the people of the Bible, singing is an act of resistance against powerful and corrupt rulers and systems that harm God’s creation. And this act of resistance has been practiced throughout history to subvert those who ignore God’s ways by lording their power over others.
When African slaves in the U.S. sang spirituals, they were both praising God and protesting the slave owners who denied them dignity and freedom. During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, black leaders and activists sang protest songs like “We Shall Overcome,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and “We Shall Not Be Moved.” And for several months preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall in East Germany in 1989, three hundred thousand protestors in Leipzig gathered on Monday evenings by candlelight around St. Nikolai Church—the church where J.S. Bach composed several of his Christmas cantatas—to sing songs of protest, justice and hope. Later, someone asked one of the officers of the East German secret police why they didn’t crush the protest, the officer replied, “We had no contingency plan for song.”
Singing as an act of resistance is even portrayed in some of the most beloved stories of the Advent-Christmas season. Like Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas when all of the Who’s down in Whoville gather outside on Christmas morning to cheerfully sing, in spite of all their decorations and presents being taken by the mean ole Grinch. Or A Charlie Brown Christmas where the Peanuts gang fixes up Charlie Brown’s droopy little tree and then belts out, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” to signify that the meaning of Christmas is not about commercialism. Or It’s A Wonderful Life when the community of Bedford Falls floods the home of George Bailey to replenish the $8,000 that went missing from Bailey Brothers’ Building & Loan and breaks out singing, “Auld Lang Syne,” thwarting the dastardly efforts of the ruthless Mr. Potter who wants to ruin George and keep the town in servitude.
Believe it or not, tidings of great joy are not received well by many of those holding seats of power whether they be a Roman Emperor, King Herod, a slave owner, a segregationist, a Grinch, board members of greedy corporation or a Potter. They feel threatened by the hope that comes from a child. They feel frightened by the songs that remind them their days are numbered and their power will be no more.
Mary, who is thought to have been a teenager herself, knows that the child she is to bear, Emmanuel-God-with-us, will end all oppression and tyranny. And so, she sings her song to affirm the truth that resides within her:
“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.”
Mary, being a devout young Jewish woman, evokes the song of the psalmist, which she has probably heard since she was barely old enough to walk:
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God, …
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. …
The Lord watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow. …
Mary’s song is so intimate, forceful, prophetic and full of conviction that it’s obvious she has witnessed up close the systematic oppression and violence of the Empire, and still believes deep down in her soul that God will not abandon her or the people. In the 2018 Advent Devotional book, I Am Mary, Rev. Carol Howard Merritt, imagines what Mary might have experienced in the days she carried Christ in her womb to inspire such a song of resistance. Merritt writes:
In the hill country, we were much closer to Jerusalem. More Roman soldiers guarded the streets, and I wasn’t used to so many proud men surrounding me. As we walked, they sneered at us, looking at us with contempt, reminding us that we were beneath them. They worked as a unit, sharing a goal of making sure that our people could no longer flourish.
The soldiers terrorized us. They regularly stripped men naked, nailed them to trees, and lined our streets with their dying bodies. We averted our eyes from the crosses but could still hear the flies buzzing and see the vultures circling. After the crucified men died, a foul stench rose up from their flesh until we could no longer ignore it. The rotting skin reminded us that sedition would not be tolerated.
My hand moved protectively over my stomach. His body would always be in danger. He would always be threatened, I felt. And yet, hope also kicked inside of me. Hope that these men would no longer work as one vengeful and oppressive unit, but would be scattered. Their kingdom would fall, for my son would bring liberation.
Mary knew that in despite of the horrors around her, the world wouldn’t be like this forever. Mary knew the world would be a turning, as the 1990 hymn Canticle of the Turning beautifully depicts: 
From the halls of power to the fortress tower, not a
stone will be left on stone. Let the king beware for your
justice tears ev’ry tyrant from his throne. The
hungry poor shall weep no more, for the
food they can never earn; There are tables spread, ev’ry
mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn.
Mary knew the plan and believed with a fervent hope that God’s justice and love would change everything. The Rev. Dr. Judith Jones, in a commentary on today’s gospel reading, notes that:
Mary sings about the God who saves not just souls, but embodied people. The God she celebrates is not content merely to point people toward heaven; God’s redemptive work begins here on earth. God fills the hungry not only with hope, but with food. Rather than being satisfied with comforting the lowly, Mary’s Lord lifts them up, granting them dignity and honor, a seat at the table and a voice in the conversation. At the same time, God shows strength by disrupting the world’s power structures, dethroning rulers, and humbling the mighty. …
Both in Mary’s song and in Jesus’ ministry we see the God who loves us as we are but does not leave us as we are. …When God empties the rich of their excess and fills the hungry with good things, the result is not social reversal — with the powerless and the powerful changing places — as much as it is social leveling. The rich and powerful are stripped of their arrogance and taught to love their neighbors as they love themselves.
Thus, God provides for the poor and honors the humiliated. When the arrogant are scattered and the powerful brought down, then every person has access to enough of the world’s resources, and no one has too much. Every person is treated with dignity and respect, and no one uses power to harm.
Mary’s song magnifies the Savior who loves the whole world with a love that makes creation whole.
Mary’s song magnifies the Savior who loves the whole world with a love that makes creation whole. Wow.
Do you feel inspired by Mary’s song in your heart and soul this season? Are you ready to join your voice to hers and so many other marginalized and oppressed who sing out to God?
Because, my beloved, the message of Mary’s song is a hope and a promise worth singing about each and every day as the world is about to turn.
 I Am Mary by Carol Howard Merritt, Chalice Press. 2018.
 Canticle of the Turning, Hymn 100 in Glory to God Presbyterian Hymnal