Behold Sermon 4
December 17, 2017
So, my favorite Broadway musical of all time is Les Mis. Based on the novel by Victor Hugo, it follows the life and trials of an ex-convict named Jean Valjean – from his imprisonment for stealing bread to his ultimate redemption during the 1832 June rebellion in Paris. Among the supporting characters is a poor working girl named Fantine, whose sole drive is to provide for her young daughter Cosette. One day, her supervisor at the factory finds out she is an unwed mother. And Fantine is fired. With nowhere else to turn, and desperate to make ends meet, she becomes a prostitute. In turn, selling her hair and then her front teeth to buy clothes for Cosette.
If you are familiar with the story, you know that there is this scene where Fantine sings a song about her troubles and despair. It is called I Dreamed a Dream. In our video clip this morning it is performed by Anne Hathaway. She plays Fantine in the latest version of the movie. Take a look. (VIDEO). “But the tigers come at night. With their voices soft as thunder. As they tear your hope apart. As they turn your dream to shame.” Feel the despair and the brokenness in those words.
Now compare that song to another song I also brought along this morning. This one also sung by a young woman who has seen hardship. Like Fantine, Mary has her share of struggles. But unlike Fantine, Mary sings words of joy and thankfulness. Why? Why does one have words of hope, while the other contains words of despair? Let’s see if we can find out as we read Mary’s Magnificat – which is Latin for magnify. It is found in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. Starting in verse 46. It goes like this.
“And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” Luke 1:46 – 56
God has sent the angel Gabriel to Mary. She has found favor with God. And she will give birth to a son. His name will be Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. He will reign on the throne of his ancestor David. And his kingdom will have no end. Mary of course, is more than a little curious as to how this will take place. Not to mention, more than a little anxious about telling Joseph. Surprise! I’m pregnant! And God’s the daddy! Gabriel tells her – God’s Spirit is going to come upon you. And God’s power will rest on you. And Mary says, I am the Lord’s servant. May your word be fulfilled in me!
After the angel leaves, Mary hurries off to her cousin’s house. Hurry being relative to that time and place. Elizabeth lives 90 miles away. Depending on your preferred mode of transportation – foot or donkey – 90 miles would take 3 to 5 days. That sounds ridiculously slow in this modern day of Chevy’s and BMW’s. Though there are some days sitting in I-4 traffic when I’m convinced a donkey would be quicker. Anyway, Mary goes to Elizabeth’s house. And when Elizabeth sees Mary, she is filled with the Holy Spirit. And she proclaims Mary to be blessed and Mary’s child to be blessed. In response, Mary breaks out in song and she sings about two things in particular.
First, Mary sings a song of gratitude. “And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
David Brooks is an op-ed writer for the New York Times. In July of 2015 he wrote an article about gratitude. In it he talks about expectations. Specifically, Brooks says that gratitude happens when some kindness exceeds expectations. For example, when he stays at fancy hotels he says he gets grumpy when he has to go crawling around looking for an outlet. Or if he can’t figure out how to work the shower controls. Because he expects to be catered to at a fancy hotel. On the other hand, when he stays in budget hotels he is always pleasantly surprised, grateful even, to find a coffee machine in the room or a waffle maker in the lobby. Because he doesn’t expect them. Gratitude, says Brooks, is a sort of laughter of the heart that comes about after some surprising kindness.
He goes on to say that while most people are grateful some of the time, some people are thankful almost of the time. The difference is the latter’s ability to manage their anticipations. They learn to take nothing for granted. They understand they have been given far more than they paid for. And that they are much richer than they deserve. That their families, schools and workplace put far more into them than they give back (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/28/opinion/david-brooks-the-structure-of-gratitude.html).
We see this kind of gratitude in Mary’s song. In particular, we see this in her use of the word FOR. “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, FOR or BECAUSE he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.” Mary clearly sees God’s kindness in her life. She recognizes that she has been given much. Her singing flows out of the goodness she has received. And we see gratitude in the way Mary describes her own situation. “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his SERVANT. Actually, in the Greek, Mary describes herself as something lower than a servant. The word she uses is doulos. It means bond-servant. A bond-servant is a slave who is owned or bound to his or her master. As opposed to a servant who is hired help and is free to go elsewhere. Mary does not have an expectation of God’s blessing in her life.
And just in case we might miss the point, Mary throws in the word – BEHOLD! We talked about this last week. And the Greek word idou. Idou means LOOK! Or PAY ATTENTION! Or if you are really hip – YO! Idou is found throughout the Christmas story. We first encountered it three weeks ago when the angel came to Joseph. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream…Matthew 1:20. And then last week when Gabriel paid a visit to Mary. And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant[f] of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And it shows up again today in verse 48. The English Standard Version is closer to the original Greek here. It reads – For BEHOLD, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. Mary wants others to know that God has exceeded her expectations. She has been given far more than she deserves. And she is grateful.
I ask you this morning – Are you grateful? Do you recognize God’s blessing in your life this Christmas? Are you taking his goodness for granted? Are you grateful for the alarm going off at the start of the day? It means you are alive. Are you grateful for that ever-replenishing pile of laundry? It means you have clothes to wear. How about the taxes you pay? Taxes mean you are employed. The parking spot at the end of the parking lot? You have means of transportation and the ability to walk. In what ways has God blessed you? Or have you come to take His goodness for granted? How has God blessed you?
I don’t know about you, but to me this is such an important question – particularly at Christmas! What with all the Christmas parties and Christmas feasting and Christmas gifts, I find it so easy to take on an attitude of entitlement – which just destroys gratitude. For example, one of the things that I do each year, a little confession about me here, is to prepare a list of potential Christmas gifts I wish to receive. I type it up and I give it to Robyn. I want to spare her the grief she might experience over getting me the wrong gift. Last year, I made it simple. Right at the top of my list in bold print was a flat screen HD TV. It’s not like we are hurting for one. Only have about 7 in the house. But you never know what happen in the game while you are in the shower. What I got was two nice sweaters, a tie, a couple of books and a framed picture of our kids. It was all good. Especially since I got Robyn a flat screen HD TV for Christmas! How easy it is at Christmas to develop an edge of entitlement to all the stuff we should receive at Christmas, rather than sense of gratitude for all we have already been given.
Second, Mary’s song is a song of faith. “And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
The key word there is HAS. For he HAS been mindful of the humble state of his bond-servant. HAS as in already occurred! He HAS brought down rulers from their thrones and HAS lifted up the humble. He HAS filled the hungry with good things but HAS sent the rich away empty. Eight times Mary says that God HAS already done such and such.
And yet at the time Israel is living under the oppression of Rome. Swindled by tax collectors and suffering from tyrannical puppet kings like Herod, the Israelites are captives in a police state. Still Mary sings – He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever.” How can she sing that? Because she has faith! She believes that God’s is already at work accomplishing His purpose – even if she cannot see it clearly. The author of Hebrews says that faith is assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. Mary had that assurance. She was convinced that God would keep his promises. How else could she sing – verse 49 – the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name.
Several years ago, I came across a sermon that talked about the gap of time between Election Day and Inauguration Day. We elect our Presidents on the second Tuesday in November. But his or her presidency doesn’t officially begin until January 20th. That person has won. It’s in all the media. The whole country is preparing for a transition. He or she starts forming a cabinet. A new era has begun. But on the other hand, it hasn’t. There is a period of gestation between Election day and Inauguration Day.
In the same way, God’s reign on earth has begun. God’s Spirit is already at work. And yet God’s reign is not yet come into its fullness. We still struggle. We still wrestle with brokenness and loss and fear. There is still war and poverty and discrimination. But the day is coming when God’s will – WILL be done on earth as it is in heaven. And so, we sing Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the new born King. Peace on earth and mercy mild. God and sinner reconciled.
Maybe this Christmas you don’t feel very peaceful. Maybe this Christmas you feel far from God. Perhaps your heart is reeling from the loss of someone you love very much. Maybe you are overwhelmed with the consequences of some really poor choices you or others around you have made. I ask you this morning – do you believe that God can and God will bind up your wounds and heal your broken heart? Are you convinced that God can and God will overturn the damage of past decisions? Do you believe that God can restore your life to sanity? Do you have a Christmas faith? Mary’s song is a song of gratitude. And Mary’s song is a song of faith.
The other day I had the opportunity to view the theological epic – The Grinch Who Stole Christmas! Remember how at the end of the movie, the Grinch takes all of the Who’s presents and all of the Who’s lights? He even takes the last can of who hash. He hates those things. He can’t get past them and so he takes them and he packs all of it up on his sleigh. And he makes his little dog Max pull up to the top of mountain. And he waits there for all of Whoville to wake up and find Christmas gone and fallen apart.
But much to his surprise, on Christmas morning, the Who’s in Whoville still come out and gather in the town square – and the bells begin to ring. And they begin to sing another song. Do you remember their song? It went – wah hoo, wah hoo, wah hoo, wah hoo, Christmas time is here again! And it suddenly dawns upon the Grinch that Christmas is not about the presents or the lights or the trees or even about the roast beast. It’s not until the Grinch gets past all that stuff that he realizes that there is something greater about Christmas.
To me that greater is about gratitude for a love so great that God literally became flesh and moved into our neighborhood! The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14. And to me, that greater is about strengthening my faith in God’s future. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us. Ephesians 3:20
So, my challenge this week is to broaden your perspective. To get past, if you will, the surface, to the something greater. Specifically, set aside time in the next coming days to remind yourself of the bigger picture. It might be gathering with your loved ones near the tree and saying a prayer of thanks for the coming Savior. It might be setting aside time at the dinner table on Christmas day to read the first chapter of the Gospel of John. Reflect upon the meaning of God coming to take up residence among us. Or gather up some food and take to the local food pantry. Be a part of God’s work to fill up the hungry with good things.
The point is to prepare your heart for joy! That’s ultimately the difference I see in Mary’s song. Her heart rejoices in God her Savior! Fantine sings of hope torn apart and dreams turned to shame. She sings a lament. But Mary finds joy in God’s blessing! Do you want to find joy this Christmas? Regardless of your circumstances? Want to rejoice even though you cannot see the reign of God fully? Then sing a song of faith. And sing a song of gratitude.
Because the day is coming when the will of God WILL be done on earth as it is in heaven. The day IS COMING when God will overcome evil and death and sorrow and war and discrimination and suffering. His kingdom has begun.
So, I am going to sing.
How about you? How about you?