In the Lutheran tradition the saints are example for us of living the Christian life. This sermon asks the question: what is Mary’s witness for us? And the answer this sermon meditates on is Mary’s example for us of Devotion. Mary was devoted to her son. Mary wish us to be devoted to her son. That is clearly the biblical Mary. That also appears to me to be the Mary of the various apparitions and religious experience. Mary wishes us, whatever our station, to be devoted from our heart to her son. As the body of Christ in this world, if not as fully as Mary did, we carry Christ to the world. And that requires understanding devotion. And Mary is the saint that teaches us clearly.
The day was the feast day of the Nativity of John the Baptist. The Gospel text is Zechariah’s song which is what the Baptist’s father said after his tongue was loosed. And what a good portion of that song amounts to is a job description of a prophet. What this sermon does is compare that description with the modern popular conception of a prophet. It then moves on to why one of those is just as important for us today as it was for ancient Israel. It then ends with a recent example of prophetic work according to the Baptist’s model. The world would like us to dismiss or make silly the prophet, the biblical definition is our daily bread.
An unfortunate circumstance of the reformation has been the tendency to look for things that say “not catholic”. One of the big ones is how Protestant’s tend to treat Mary. The first generation (i.e. Luther) didn’t have this problem. They went on as they had before. Mary just wasn’t an issue. She only became an issue in my historical understanding as later Protestants and Catholics made things that were not dogma prior into dogma. And it is a crying shame, because the Biblical Mary has a lot to tell us how to live the life of faith in her son. This sermon is an attempt to hear the annunciation story (advent 4) as original Jews and Gentiles/Pagans might have heard it, and then to to apply that to us moderns. I don’t think we are as far away as we might think. Mary’s faith and Mary’s wisdom are wonderful examples in contrast to our demands for signs and worldly wisdom. I’d invite you to give Mary a fresh look.
Worship Note: I’ve left in a bunch more music that normal. Our choir piece from this morning in is. The gorgeous hymn “The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came” is in. And I left in “Once in Royal David’s City” and the organ postlude.
Luke tells us a couple of things at the start of his gospel. One is the format, he’s telling a specific type of history, a diagasis which the dictionary defines as an orderly narrative. The second thing he tells us is that the eyewitnesses have delivered these stories to him and he’s compiling them. (Luke 1:1-4). It is not provable, but it has long been the supposition that Mary herself was the source for Luke’s first four chapters. (If you look closely at Acts there is probably even a time when Luke with Paul is in Jerusalem at the same time as Mary with John.) The repetition of the phrase “and his mother treasured up these things in her heart” is often taken as the textual signal of the source.
As with most saints, their reality is more interesting and human that the sanitized stories the church often tells. I think that goes in spades with Mary. Mary often gets transformed, like Jesus, into this meek and mild creature. That isn’t the story she tells, or the psalm she sings. These are full throated paeans of joy from someone who has had their dreams of conventional happiness shattered, but replaced with joy in the presence of God and his plan. And that is what this sermon attempts to explore, the source of joy in contrast to happiness. It winds through Dickens as an example of a surprising juxtaposition, but keeps Mary front and center. Joy in the presence of God.
Music Note: I’ve left in our opening hymn, Hark the Glad Sound LSB 349. This is one of the hymns I want at my funeral. The gates of brass before him burst, the iron fetters yield. Sin, death and the power of the devil give way before Christ. I’ve also left in one of the Magnificats or Songs of Mary that we sang today. Mary’s psalm has inspired some of the great hymns of the church as well as the standard chants in Vespers (West) or Matins (East). My Soul Rejoices LSB 933 is a modern text dating from 1991 paired with an older beautiful tune reflecting a little of the plain chant tradition. (I understand the need of publishing houses and hymn writers to have copyright, but it sure makes the sharing of the hymn experience difficult. I almost makes one favor older songs just because they are public domain.) I think both of these reflect the joy of the day even in the midst of Advent waiting and watchfulness.
We moved the Lectionary Readings up a week. Normally Advent 3 is John the Baptist 2, but our kid’s program is Advent 4, and skipping Mary for JB the sequel isn’t right.
This sermon starts out with the observation on the recent year of Bible movies and how they really just miss the boat. When you cast Batman and Maximus the Gladiator you are after action and conflict. Not that Bible stories are absent that, but for the faithful what appears like a leading man or woman is anything but. They are held in the divine passive. By faith God acts through them.
This is tied to the beatitude blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. That is the beatitude that is probably the most despised by the world. The only thing the meek get is abuse. Yet the bible puts forward Moses as the meekest man on the face of the earth (not a role for Christian Bale) and then you get Mary – most highly favored lady, in the words of the hymn The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came. It is meekness that makes way for God to act. And God acted in a might way through Mary bringing about the salvation of the world through the incarnation.
The application I tie this to is our general busy-ness, especially at Christmas. We are constantly casting ourselves as the action hero, not a meek role, and that casting leads to conflict. Mary response is not to jump into action but to ponder or to discern the greeting. And this greeting is not a dead letter, but echoes to another highly favored lady, the church. You have found grace. The Lord is with you. Rejoice, o daughter of Zion.