Sermon preached by Fr Daniel Trott
on Friday 1st June 2018 (The Visit of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth)
Zephaniah 3.14–18; Psalm 113; Romans 12.9–16; Luke 1.39–56
When do you rejoice? And what about? When you wake up in the morning and the sun is shining? When you hear you have a new grandchild? When Crystal Palace win a game? When you find you’ve dropped an inch on the waist?
All sorts of things make us happy and lead us to rejoice – sometimes, perhaps, even to give thanks to God. But in church we often forget to thank God for the good things in our lives – instead limiting ourselves to thanking God for the redemption of the world in Jesus Christ and other, intangible, ‘spiritual’ things. Some churches have a tradition of asking people to the front each Sunday to give thanks for the good things that happened to them in the previous week. When I was on placement in Manchester, a friend told me about a woman who’d lost her favourite trousers, and prayed about it, and then they’d miraculously turned up in her wardrobe. She duly thanked God in church the following Sunday. Now, that example obviously raises all sorts of questions, but the principle behind it is good: we should thank God for the good things that happen to us in our everyday lives.
The Jews of the Old Testament didn’t make the distinction between the spiritual and the non-spiritual that we tend to. In our first reading we heard the prophet Zephaniah telling the people of Israel to rejoice that God has turned away their enemies and that God will give them victory in their battles with other nations. In our psalm we praised God for raising the poor from the dust and lifting the needy from the ashes, and for giving children to a woman who had thought she was infertile.
The first Christians were Jews, and they continued to praise God in this way. Many scholars think that the three canticles that appear in the first two chapters of the Gospel according to Luke – known by their Latin titles as the Magnificat, the Benedictus, and the Nunc dimittis – are adaptations of early Jewish-Christian hymns, which Luke has put on the lips of characters in his story. The texts are mosaics of Old Testament quotations, which early Jewish Christians composed to express the salvation they experienced in Jesus, God’s Messiah.
In the Magnificat, which Mary says in today’s gospel reading, God is praised for having ‘scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts’, for having ‘brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly’, and for having ‘filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty’. These early Christians experienced real change in the real world, or at least the possibility of it, as a result of what God had done in Christ – lives transformed in all ways, not just in some fuzzy spiritual dimension.
And Luke puts this hymn on the lips of Mary. Why?
You might remember a passage later in Luke’s Gospel (11.27–28) when a woman in the crowd says to Jesus, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you.’ Jesus replies, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!’
For Luke, Mary’s significance doesn’t lie in the fact that she physically bore Jesus – she is not to be venerated because of who her son is, much as people might venerate the mother of a pop singer, an actor, or the Duchess of Sussex. Although Elizabeth begins by saying, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,’ she concludes with ‘Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ We might well consider Mary blessed because she bore Jesus, but, far more importantly, she is blessed because she responded to God, because she became a disciple.
And in putting the Magnificat in her mouth, Luke shows Mary doing what every disciple should do – rejoicing and praising God for his salvation. Mary is the first disciple presented to us in Luke’s Gospel, and she is a model disciple. She hears God’s call and responds to it, and then she sings about God, proclaiming the good news.
On the feast of the Annunciation a month and a half ago, we remembered Mary’s acceptance of God’s call, and we prayed that we might answer God’s call faithfully, as she did. But that is only the first step of discipleship. The second is more challenging. On this feast of the Visitation, we remember that Mary did not merely accept God’s call, but she also rejoiced and praised God openly for what he had done. Our discipleship shouldn’t be a private affair. Let’s thank God for what he’s done for us and let’s be known as a people who rejoice, singing with Mary of God’s salvation.