December 23, 2018 – The Rev. Dr. Stephen Shaver

Year C, 4 Advent, Revised Common Lectionary
Micah 5:2-5a
Psalm 80:1-7
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

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“O higher than the cherubim, more glorious than the cherubim, lead their praises, Alleluia! Thou bearer of the eternal Word, most gracious, magnify the Lord, Alleluia!”

That’s from a hymn called “Ye watchers and ye holy ones.” We sing it a lot when the scriptures of the day talk about angels and saints. The verses imagine all the ranks of heaven joined to praise God. But one verse is dedicated just to one person, the one called “higher than the cherubim” and “more glorious than the cherubim,” the one who was the “bearer of the eternal Word.” It’s Mary, mother of God.

Now Episcopalians are all over the map in what part Mary plays in their spirituality. Some Episcopalians pray the rosary and the Hail Mary every day, while others are wary of what can feel to them a little too Roman Catholic, and some are just somewhere in between. Certainly the Episcopal Church hasn’t followed our Roman siblings in insisting that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life even after the birth of Jesus, or that she was conceived without original sin, or that she was assumed bodily into heaven when she died. But as that hymn shows, we are generally willing to honor her with a kind of first-among-equals status among all the saints. And for good reason. It was through Mary that the eternal Word of God took human flesh and blood. Her “yes” to God’s call—and her faithfulness before, during, and after Jesus’ earthly life—make her a central figure in God’s plan of salvation. Mother of God; higher than the cherubim; more glorious than the cherubim; not bad for a small-town Galilean teenager.

That’s what she was, of course. In her place and time, legally betrothed but not yet living with her fiancé means she might have been thirteen or fourteen. And brave—fiercely brave. We’ve seen too many images of Mary looking passive and pensive. Saying “yes” to the angel wasn’t an act of meekness and mildness. It was an act of reckless, wild courage. We easily miss the two little words “with haste” at the beginning of today’s gospel passage. Mary didn’t set out for her cousin’s house “with haste” because she was just so eager to see her for tea and cookies. She probably had to set out “with haste” because she had to get out of town before the evidence started to show. Even if the ancient penalty of stoning to death wasn’t necessarily enforced, the scandal would have been devastating. Even after she was married and raising a child with her husband, the stories probably still lingered.

Our gospel passage from Luke gives us the meeting of two great prophets in their own right, who will go on to raise a prophet and a Messiah, John the Baptist and Jesus. And these two great prophets, Elizabeth and Mary, are both people who would have seemed relatively unimportant. Both are women. One is too old to matter much in the eyes of the outside world. One is too young. They find each other and rejoice, and Mary’s tongue is loosened, and she’s inspired to compose one of the central texts of Christian prayer. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, who has looked with favor on my lowliness.”

It could almost be a motto for God’s way of working. God: looking with favor on lowliness, since 13 billion B.C. After all, when God decided to make a creature in the divine image, God reached down and scooped up a handful of mud. When God decided to choose a special people, God picked an enslaved nation doing hard labor in Egypt. And on and on, through the centuries. In our Old Testament reading today the prophet Micah tells God’s oppressed people to look for help not in a capital city like Jerusalem but in the little village of Bethlehem. And in our Epistle reading from the letter to the Hebrews, the author says that the one true sacrifice of all time took place not in the Temple but at an execution in an abandoned quarry outside town.[1]

God loves surprises. God loves to work where the world isn’t looking. God loves to work through those who seem powerless and anonymous. All God needs to work with is a handful of mud, or a group of oppressed people, or a young person or an old person with an open heart.

In these last days of Advent, in a world that seems so full of darkness, where the prominent and powerful seem to get their way while our planet and our poor languish in peril—God is still working. I know that’s true. It may not be in the places we think we’ll find it. It probably won’t be. It might be in the person you pass on the street on your way out today. It might be in you.

Tomorrow we will welcome the Christ Child. Today, with his holy Mother, we watch—and we wait. And, in the face of everything, we rejoice in God our Savior, who looks with favor, always, on the lowly.

[1] Some of the wording and ideas in this paragraph are drawn from a sermon by James Liggett, “A Pure Word of Hope and Joy” (December 21, 2003), https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/sermon/fourth-sunday-advent-2, and from a sermon by Richard Burden, “My Soul Magnifies the Lord” (December 19, 2015), https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/sermon/my-soul-magnifies-lord-advent-4-c-2015.