Sunday, December 6, 2009



First of Three Sermons on the “Christmas Carols” of the Early Church

© copyright 2009 Robert J. Elder

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Luke 1:39-56

My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

Last week we started the Advent season of expectation by remembering the beginning of the story of Jesus’ mother Mary, as she received the word from the angel Gabriel about her pregnancy and its result. We shared Psalm 25 as the scriptural song for the day to get the Advent singing underway, because now, today and the next two Sundays, we will be reading and seeking understanding from three New Testaments songs in Luke that surround the story of Mary’s expectation and Jesus’ birth.

The first song, the one we read today, is the well-known Song of Mary, often referred to by the first word of the passage in the Latin version, Magnificat, which means magnifies, or in my literal way of thinking, enlarges. Luke places the Magnificat during Mary’s visit to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth, who carries in her womb John, who will grow to become the Baptizer. It is no accident that it bears a striking resemblance to the Song Hannah sang a thousand years before Jesus, recorded in I Samuel. [1]

The second song, which we will share next week is the less-well-known Song of Zechariah, also referred to by a Latin word that appears as the first word of that passage, Benedictus, or blessing. Zechariah sang this song when his son, John was presented for circumcision and the traditional naming ceremony.

The third song we will share on the Sunday before Christmas will be the song of Simeon, which also carries a traditional Latin title from the first words of the passage in the Latin translation, Nunc Dimittis, which means something like, Now you are dismissing. The infant Jesus was presented at the Temple, as John had been, and old Simeon realized a promise of God had been kept and he burst into song.


I’ve been thinking large this week, because of our lesson for today, the Magnificat of Mary. The more I have thought about it, everywhere I look, I have found things that remind me of our lesson, such as these reading glasses which I used to wear mostly to read the footnotes in my Bible but which I now use to read almost anything. (By the way, it seems that printers are using tinier fonts as the years go by — I wonder who comes in here every so often and replaces my old easy-to-read Bible with these smaller print versions...). From those glasses to the pocket binoculars I carry to football games, wherever I look I see reminders of the opening words of Mary’s song.

Magnification, it turns out, is everywhere we look, from the Hubble telescope in outer space to the tiny contact lenses some folks wear to enhance their vision. When Mary went to see Elizabeth and commiserate with her about her own pregnancy, she ultimately burst into song, a song that has come to be known over the centuries by that first word of the passage as it occurs in the Latin translation: “Magnificat.”

“My soul magnifies the Lord,” said Mary. And during the season of Advent, with the culture all around us screaming about Christmas, most of us are in such a hurry to run by these little stories on our way to get to the manger and the shepherds and the before-Christmas sales and the singing choruses of angels, that we hardly stop to take notice of such a word. Magnify. How is it that Mary came to believe that she could magnify God? Isn’t God already as magnified as God is going to be? Here, the merest teenage girl from a backwater town in ancient Palestine had the temerity to declare that she would magnify the Lord. Is this only hubris? How did she come into possession of such confidence?

The original language of the Gospel is Greek, and the Greek word for “magnify” is much like our English word, with much the same meaning. Its prefix is mega, and as we might suspect from English words that begin with those four letters, it means to make great, to enlarge, to magnify, to extol. Think of the ways we use words with that prefix today: megastar, megahit, megabyte, megalomania, megalopolis, megaphone, megaton, megadose. In each case, we communicate the idea that something very big is involved. In its Latin root, the prefix transforms from mega- to magni-, which adds another whole list of concepts for bigness to our English language: magnanimous, magnificent, magnitude, and — of course — magnify and magnification.

I remember when I was a young boy, we used to use a magnifying glass sometimes to burn a hole through a piece of paper. In fact, as a Boy Scout growing up in the midwest — where there was plenty of sun — many of us carried a small magnifying glass in our bag of essential gear, since it could come in handy for lighting a fire when matches were not available. Think about that magnifying glass for a minute, now. Though it doesn’t really make the light source — the sun— bigger, what it does do is focus the sun’s essence, bring the brightness of the sun to bear in a tiny spot so that its essence can have an even more powerful effect than our normal everyday experience would allow. A piece of paper, left in even a bright sun all day will still not burst into flames. But in just a few seconds, the rays of the sun, focused by a magnifying glass into a tiny area, will bring terrific heat onto a small spot to the degree that it will begin to burn.

The magnifying glass does not make the sun bigger or more effective, it just increases the effect of the greatness that was there all along. Something that magnifies, like a magnifying glass, is not magnificent in itself, in fact it can be quite humble. But the thing magnified is brought to our attention in many cases in such a way that we wonder how we could have missed its presence and its impact before.

“I will magnify the Lord,” Mary said. What does it mean? I think it means at least this: Mary’s magnification of God does not increase God’s size, does not expand God’s care. Mary’s magnification works like a little magnifying glass that costs less than $5. Little, humble, limited as it is, it has the capacity to bring the greatness of the sun to bear, to magnify it, so that it can have tremendous impact where before its impact was unknown. Mary’s willingness to be the bearer of the Messiah meant that a humble, peasant girl from the backwaters of rural Palestine could serve to help make God’s magnificence known across the world. God’s desire to save, to love, to bring us into relationship was made more visible because of this humble girl.

We need to ask what there is in our own lives just now that needs magnification? Are there any ways in which our witness needs to be expanded? Could we magnify our hearts, expand our decision to care beyond where we are today? It is not just Mary who is capable of bearing the Christ. We carry Christ with us wherever we are. It is a scary thought to recognize in the humility of Mary the power of God to reach right down into even our own small part of society’s pecking order and use us wherever we are. God may want to use you, may be hoping and working his will so that you will be in a position to magnify him in places where his work and will have not been seen. In fact, I am confident that he is doing just that this very day.

Here is one last story about magnification. A couple of years ago a friend came to me to ask about gifting a portion of his life’s accumulation of assets to the church. Now, there are ways to make this happen so that my friend could continue to receive income from those assets during his lifetime, and his heirs will be able to do the same, then after that, a portion would go to support the ministries of the church. I remember saying I sincerely hoped that the final bequest to the church of these funds would not be for a long long time, long after I have retired and other hands had taken hold of the rudder of that church. But some time, some day, another magnification would be set to happen, hidden in the fabric of one individual’s decision to be a magnifier, to help provide a way for more people to know how gracious our God is. The fact is, there are many things in the church in which we sit which are here because of the anonymous generosity of others who wanted to magnify God — from the table around which we gather every Sunday and on some Sundaysn for a celebration of the Lord’s Supper; as a thanks to the church for the social ministries to them that had improved the conditions of their lives in this country, to the baptismal font, to the piano, you all could identify many more.

There are many ways, large and small, to magnify the Lord. The most important way is the giving over of ourselves to the work that God needs done in this time and place.

As with the spectacular case of humble Mary, God is in search of souls who will magnify the Lord this Christmas and beyond Christmas. What a privilege it is to be one through whom another person can see a little more of the greatness of God. We might take a moment in this coming week to ask ourselves, who has been God’s magnifier for you? Can you name names in your own mind? I know I can. I think of my youth pastor, Bill, my seminary mentor, George, my High School English teachers who taught me to love words and the power of words, Mrs. Lanier and Mrs. Ball. Once we have known someone who has magnified the Lord’s presence for us, we rarely forget them. And moreover, we are led to ask for whom could we be a magnifier? Can you name a name in your mind? If we resolve to begin to be that magnifier for another, the truth will be as Mary experienced it, that our spirits will rejoice, and we will know in a deep and secure way that we have been touched by the blessing of our Magnificent God.

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] I Samuel 2:1-10.