“I Saw God in Mary”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
December 22, 2019
University Baptist Church
Here we are in the fourth Sunday of Advent. In a little while, we’ll transform this sanctuary into its Christmas finery. Reds and greens will replace the Advent blue. We’ll finally sing some Christmas Carols on Christmas Eve, and we’ll get a chance to warm up a bit on that while we decorate. I understand that Ethan Doherty is even going to play organ for us while we decorate. But before we get there, we need to focus our attention on the characters in the story. We’ve already spent services focused on Elizabeth, Zechariah and Joseph. Today, it’s Mary’s turn. We’ll see if we see God at all in her story.
In her book Jesus Feminist, theologian Sarah Bessey—in reflecting on her own experience with childbirth—spoke of Mary and Jesus in this way:
"If more mothers were pastors or preachers, we would likely have a lot more sermons and books about the metaphors of pregnancy and birth connecting us to the story of God. I am rather tired of sports and war metaphors. If more mothers were pastors or preachers, perhaps the beautiful creche scenes of Christmas wouldn't be quite so immaculate. We wouldn't sing songs of babies who don't cry. And maybe we wouldn't mistake quiet for peace. As it is, we take on a properly antiseptic and churchy view of birth, arranged as high art to convey the seriousness and sacredness of the incarnation. It is as though the truth of birth is too secular for Emmanuel. Birth doesn't look like our concept of "holy" in its real state. So we think the first days of the God-with-us require the dignity afforded by our careful editing."
Mary is often depicted as quiet and demure in Christmas pageants. That’s probably because we imagine she’s exhausted, not only by the travails of childbirth, but because of the indignity of having to travel 80 miles on donkey-back in the last months of pregnancy. I can imagine each step of the donkey jamming an already small bladder against other organs and the long-expected Jesus in her womb. I imagine her swollen, sore, a little upset by the journey and glad to have a soft stable to rest after the journey. I imagine her at rest and relief on that first Christmas, but also anticipating that there will really be no rest for her or her son. Most mothers, and many fathers, are never far away from feeling what their children feel, wanting to protect them and knowing ultimately that they can’t.
The birth is found in the second chapter of Luke, but Mary’s advent voice comes from the first chapter of Luke. Once she realizes that she is pregnant and gets assurances from Elizabeth, she lets out a prophetic song that shows us she is no one to mess with (don’t mess with Momma bear), nor will her offspring be one to mess with.
She’s got her imagination working and she does not prophesy giving birth to a wise sage, but a revolutionary who will finally deal with the power imbalance of her day. Channeling Hannah of old, she is saying, “look out”. It’s no accident that Luke has the very first words of Jesus being from Isaiah’s prophecy. The one about the Spirit of God is upon me because God has called me to bring good news to the poor, the recovery of sight to the blind, to let the prisoners go free and to declare the acceptable year of God’s favor—that means the jubilee year, where all debts are forgiven, slaves set free and land being returned to its ancestral owners, not those who have profited from it by legal swindle. For this, Jesus is run out of town. Proving that he is his mother’s child. She too knew of being on the run because of her words, because of her willingness to teach her son right from wrong, good from evil.
The words of Jesus’ first sermon are a summary of the song of Mary.
Mary, have we seen God in her? Have we seen God in the Mary’s of our day?
Her Magnificat says that God has searched her own soul and magnified it. This is what a magnified soul does and says.
Here’s a poetic interpretation of the Magnificat as penned by Baptist Peace Fellowship editor and liturgical poet Katie Cook:
An Interpretation of Magnificat By Katie Cook:
My soul overflows with songs
of the enormity
My Spirit is full of joy
Because God will be my redemption;
God has looked around the world of assorted humans
and found a poor woman,
God has given that woman a noble, majestic quest--
to participate in the act of creation;
to bring a new life to humanity;
throughout history people will speak of this quest
What joy she must have felt!
God is holy and filled with power;
God has done wonderful things just for me;
I am overflowing with joyful words.
God does take care of those
who remember the original instructions;
God is sometimes overpowering
to confuse those
who think power is theirs,
who think they know what power is,
who think that people can be ranked according to worth.
Their own arrogance will cause them
to be scattered upon the earth.
God takes those in positions of earthly power
and watches them destroy their own structures,
and those things that they hoard;
they will be stripped of this earthly power,
and their toys of destruction and exclusion
will be useless.
Those who are now thought
to be of little worth
will be in power.
Thus the hungry will be fed at last,
and those who had been greedy
are sent away
without their material securities.
God never forgot the promises
made to Abraham and Sarah;
They have been kept
and will be forever.
Mary sings that her soul magnifies God. Her soul is expanded because she is aware of God’s presence within her. She looks at God with a magnifying glass. She sees God for who God is and at the same time notices something she never saw before. God recognized her. All generations will call her blessed because God noticed her in her status as an outcast—this unwed teenager from a hated area. This is where God chose to come and incarnate God’s self.
Mary was not transformed so much by her encounter with God. Rather, she was augmented. She was still the person she was, with her own stories, her own journey, her own soul. What happened, is that she for once became aware of her soul.
I encourage you today to hear her.
Hear again the cries of a mother in the throes of labor.
Hear again the cries of mothers who have lost their children to violence.
Hear again the cries of mothers fleeing their homeland because life with among unknown foreigners is safer than life among known countrymen.
Hear again the cries of children in the streets saying that our lives matter: Black lives, Native lives, Immigrants live matter. #Me too stories matter.
Hear again the cries that proclaim that we cannot rest until God’s vision of equality and justice reigns here on this earth.
How would Mary assess the state of our present world?
What lowly people would be raised up?
What rulers would be removed from their thrones?
How would she redistribute their wealth?
I submit that when we look at the Mary’s of the world, we look at God under a magnifying glass. This God lifts up the lowly, calls on people to embrace their dignity and proclaims a new day when the order will be changed.
Maybe we can see God in the Mary’s of the world. Those dismissed, those disrespected, those who are too angry or too insistent for decent company. Maybe God is in the forgotten Mary’s of the world. And maybe the Advent message is to pay attention to the Mary’s of the world. They might just have something to teach all of us.
-Kaitlin Hardy Shetler wrote a poem:
Sometimes I wonder
if Mary breastfed Jesus.
if she cried out when he bit her
or if she sobbed when he would not latch.
and sometimes I wonder
if this is all too vulgar
to ask in a church
full of men
without milk stains on their shirts
or coconut oil on their breasts
preaching from pulpits off limits to the Mother of God.
but then i think of feeding Jesus,
the expulsion of blood
and smell of sweat,
the salt of a mother’s tears
onto the soft head of the Salt of the Earth,
and i think,
if the vulgarity of birth is not
by men who carry power but not burden,
who carry privilege but not labor,
who carry authority but not submission,
then it should not be preached at all.
because the real scandal of the Birth of God
lies in the cracked nipples of a
14 year old
and not in the sermons of ministers
who say women
are too delicate
Today, I give thanks for Mary the mother and daughter of God who told the truth and set us free because of it. We thank God for Elizabeth, Zechariah, Joseph and finally Mary who told it like it is better than anyone. This season, she begs to be listened to. Not only listened to, but obeyed. For her soul magnifies God and in her we see God clearly.