Sermon: Sisters are Singing it for Themselves

Luke 1: 39-55

A sermon preached by the Trevor Jamison at

Saint Andrew’s United Reformed Church, Monkseaton, September 19th 2021

 

And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.’ (1:46-47)

Mary ‘said’, but we treat these words as the opening of a song, the Magnificat. In many churches we’ll be belting out, Timothy Dudley-Smith’s ‘Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord’. Today, however, reading about the visit of Mary to her cousin, Elizabeth, two secular songs come to mind. The first comes from the 1980s, courtesy of Annie Lennox and David A. Stewart:

Sisters are doin’ it for themselves,
Standing on their own two feet,
And ringin’ their own bells, we say,
Sisters are doin’ it for themselves.

Intentionally or not, Luke is bringing women to the forefront of his gospel, and relegates the men to the background. Mary, he tells us, does it for herself, making a seventy-mile trip to a Judean hill town. There’s no mention of where she stayed enroute, or of any donkey for the journey. As for Joseph, as far as we can tell, he’s relegated to the role of stay-at-home fiancée.

As with Mary, so with Elizabeth. Luke describes Mary’s destination as ‘the house of Zechariah’ (1:40), but the man of the house has been silenced; struck dumb through lack of belief. Two women, two relatives, two songful sisters in solidarity, are singing it for themselves. In this meeting female voices don’t get drowned out by talkative males.

Elizabeth goes first, proclaiming a trio of blessings. Mary is blessed by her pregnancy, and her child-to-be is blessed. Then, Mary is blessed once more, on the basis of her belief that ‘there would a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ (1:45) Mary then responds with the better-known part in this duet: ‘my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.’ (1:46-48)

Mary’s song is part of a repertoire of sisterly singing, stretching both back and forwards across the generations. This Judean hill town duo are new members of a biblical choir, composed of women from former years. There are, for example, Miriam (and the women of her time) singing of God’s destruction of enemies, so that Israel might go free; Deborah, Israel’s judge, singing of the triumphs of the Lord; and, most notably, Hannah, exulting in the birth and life of her long-awaited child, Samuel, and concerning God, who ‘raises up the poor from the dust … lifts the needy from the ash heap.’ (1 Sam. 2:7)

Mary’s song, though, also brings us to my second secular song, this time from the 1960s. It was written by James Brown and Betty Jean Newsome, and notably performed by the former:

This is man’s world, this is man’s world,
But it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing,
Without a woman or a girl.

When Mary proclaims that God has looked favourably on her, in her lowly servant-like, slave-like situation, she knows whereof she sings. Of course, everyone looks humble compared with God, but some of us are forced to be more humble – more lowly – than others. In the world of the Old Testament; in the era of Elizabeth and Mary; and also, more recently in the 1960s and 1980s; and even today … it’s man’s world. It’s one where women are encouraged or expected to come second.

Things have changed for the better, of course, since Mary sang her song. At least, they have here in the country where this sermon is being preached. Sadly, you could not say the same for several other places in today’s world. But even here, in the UK, juts consider Christmas, now less than a week away. Think of the advertising, pushing you to deliver a perfect Christmas, whatever that might be. Consider the pressure to spend big on gifts, up to and beyond the point of indebtedness, including tugging on our heartstrings with the lie that “Christmas is for the children”. Just think of what it’s going to take to get Christmas dinner on the table, on time, and make everybody happy. And which family members are most likely to carry the greatest burden of expectation here? Step forward the women, especially the mothers.

You know, I suspect that when Luke, a first-century man in all likelihood, shared Mary’s song with us, he did not consider how its content might address the situation of women. If he had, I wonder if he would have included it. Maybe I’m doing Luke a disservice. If so, I apologise to him, and to any other man I might similarly misrepresent. I’m not suggesting that the Magnificat is only about women. Certainly, men can be proud in the thoughts of their hearts, and require a good scattering. Men can be powerful, occupying positions of power – the ‘thrones’ of our day – and in need of bringing down. They can be rich (according to Forbes nine of the ten richest people in the world in 2021 are men), and so just ripe for being sent away empty.

Men can also be dispossessed, weak, lowly and hungry, and therefore candidates for being lifted up and filled with good things. We know, though, that in any group where things are hard for men, in that same group they tend to be harder still for the women and others. Miriam gets remembered because she was the sister of Moses. Deborah is less famous than her flawed fellow judge, Samson. Hannah takes second place behind her son, Samuel. Elizabeth’s status was settled by being a ‘clergy-wife’. As for Mary, well for a man to father a child outside of marriage might be frowned upon, but for an unmarried woman to be pregnant and give birth to one …

Mary sings that ‘the Mighty One has done great things for me.’ (1:46) She then goes on to sing about what God has done for the proud, the powerful and the rich; for the lowly, the poor and he hungry. Don’t think, though, that Mary has stopped singing about herself. She probably was poor, and in an era when the agricultural economy was vulnerable to setbacks, might well have gone hungry at times. And certainly, she was lowly. As a woman of her class that was inescapable. So when she was singing that God lifts up the lowly, whether Luke knew it or not, whether Mary knew it or not, she was singing about God’s intention to lift up the women, and perhaps some of the men too.

Now there’s a thought to take into final days before Christmas this year. God lifts up those who are driven to distraction, who are driven into poverty, who are driven to despair by the demands of this season. And many or most of these people, like Mary and her singing sisters, are women. Consider that as you prepare to celebrate the arrival of God on earth, in the birth of a human being. And as for divine plans for the birth of a boy, well, of course, it would be for nothing, nothing, without a woman, without a lowly girl, lifted up, called Mary.

Almighty God,
Mary gave birth to a Son
Who offers salvation to the whole world.
May we, like Mary,
Both treasure him in our hearts
And bring him to others that we might all be lifted up;
Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

From ‘A Christian’s Prayer Book’, 1973 (altered)

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