A Magnifying Church
Rev. Ed Searcy
University Hill United Church : Sun, December 24, 2006
It is the fourth Sunday of Advent. It is the one year in seven when it is also Christmas Eve. This morning we are still waiting. Tonight we mark the holy birth. If we are not careful we may find that we are getting ahead of ourselves. But the text will not allow us to get to Christmas yet. It sets us back in Mary’s first trimester. Luke picks up the story at the moment that Gabriel has announced that Mary will conceive and bear a child. Then he writes: “In those days”. In those days immediately after the conception of the Messiah. It is early - very early - in her pregnancy when Mary visits her old, old cousin Elizabeth in the Judean hill country. The first evidence that the angel’s announcement is the truth comes when Elizabeth - now in her six month - feels unborn baby John leaping in her womb as Mary, who is not showing yet, arrives. Then Elizabeth, overflowing with the Holy Spirit, shouts out blessings, amazed at her impossibly good fortune. Our nativity scenes need a second building. In addition to a stable they need a Judean peasant’s home, where Mary spends three months with cousin Elizabeth, pondering what is happening to her and preparing for the birth of the Messiah. That is what we do here this morning. We ponder what is happening to us as we prepare for the arrival of the Messiah. There is not much time. But there is enough time. Mary is in her first trimester. She wonders about the tiny human that has just begun to form within her womb. She hears the startling announcement of the angel Gabriel and the incredible blessing of her cousin Elizabeth. Then she bursts into a song. It is the most famous song in the history of Christianity. It is the song that is traditionally sung by the church at every evensong on every day of the year. It is the first and greatest advent song. Yet it is largely unknown in our generation and denomination. Ask longstanding members of the United Church to recite the lyrics of Christmas carols and they can likely offer quite a few first verses by memory. Invite the lyrics of Christmas songs from the secular realm and you can surely add many more by heart. But ask for even a few lines of Mary’s song and, well, most of us will be struck dumb. It is not a good situation. It is a serious problem. It is a problem because Mary’s song teaches the church how to prepare for the arrival of Jesus Christ. Without her song fixed in our shared memory we might easily forget to be a magnifying church. Magnifying .That’s what Mary’s song is and does. It is the “Magnificat”. It’s title comes from the song’s first word in Latin which means: “Magnify”. Mary sings: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Mary has an almost infinitesimal child in her womb. It is the Messiah, the Saviour, the Lord. He is hidden, invisible, insignificant among the powers and principalities of the world. Mary understands that this is all that God needs in order to save the world. She does not wonder at how this tiny beginning could possible result in the redemption of the world, the forgiveness of sin, the reconciliation of God and humankind. Instead, her soul magnifies the Lord. It is as if Mary’s soul is like a great magnifying glass that focuses on the little fetus and enlarges the significance of this child to universal proportions. It is what a church that knows Mary’s song will also do in this pregnant season of waiting for the Lord. We will be a magnifying church. Too often the church in the modern age has been known for reducing the meaning of God. We have been shy about making claims for what God is up to in Jesus Christ. We have minimized rather than magnified, in order to be seen as thoughtful and rational and practical. In the process we have made it harder for our neighbours and our children and our grandchildren to see what God is doing in Jesus. Our minimizing has reduced our expectations for God. Minimizing God is not what the church is for. The church is meant to magnify the Lord. It is the reason that the Magnificat deserves to be known by heart, by rote, by memory, by us. The Magnificat teaches us to enlarge the arena of God’s activity. It invites the church to magnify what Jesus means for the world. Mary does not simply call Jesus a great teacher. She does not just sing that he will do wonderful things. The Magnificat magnifies the importance of the tiny unborn child to extraordinary dimensions. It magnifies the power of God's future to such a degree that it breaks in upon the present. Mary teaches the church to sing the future in the present tense. She knows that once the Messiah has been conceived - and before he has been born - the long promised future is already here. Do you grasp what she is saying? Mary sings that the breakthrough of Easter Sunday has already occurred even though her pregnancy will be a long Holy Saturday of waiting. She has no evidence, no proof, no miracles to point to that confirm her bold claims. Yet she does not hold back. She knows that the long promised future is already here, even if no one else can see it. Mary magnifies the Lord, singing that “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.” She knows that the proud still think that they pull all the strings and are in control of their own future. She is under no illusion that the powerful have suddenly resigned their positions of authority and prestige or quit any and all corruption. Mary is herself one of the lowly and hungry. There has not been any outward change in her social status or location. She is still thought of by her neighbours as lowly and hungry. Yet Mary sings that the great upside-down kingdom of God has already arrived. All it takes is the conception of the Christ-child for this gospel future to be real, here and now. This is always how it is for the church when its singing is accompanied by Mary. When Mary sings along the church finds its true voice. Then we sing the impossible good news that in Jesus Christ all who know what it is to be held down, shut out, ignored, abused, forgotten or silenced are lifted up, let in, attended to, healed, remembered and invited to speak. Mary’s song is considered foolishness by the philosophers and political scientists and pragmatists and realists. It is full of hyperbole. It exaggerates. It is outlandish. It magnifies the scope of God’s action in Jesus Christ to cosmic dimensions. Precisely. Mary’s song intends to enlarge the imagination of the church. It is not a news report. It is a poem. It is a portrait of God’s future that is now inevitable because it has been conceived in the mind of God and in the womb of Mary. This is how we will prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ. We will magnify the Lord. We will not minimize the power of God to heal and save and reconcile. We will enlarge our hope for the lost and the least and the last. We will live knowing that the resurrection power of Easter newness is at work long before we can feel it kicking or see its birth or point to its flesh and blood reality. With faith that is the size of a mustard seed - with faith that is the size of a baby at the moment of conception - the church magnifies the extraordinary power of God to move mountains and to save souls. To save even a soul like yours. To redeem even a life like mine. Even here. Even now. May your soul magnify the Lord and your spirit rejoice in God our Saviour. Amen.