Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Genesis 48: 8 – 20, Psalm 67, Romans 11: 17 – 28

Magnificat! As a very young treble I loved that word – Magnificat! It sounded so …. exotic, grown-up, sophisticated. I didn’t need to know what it meant. It was enough to get my tongue around it and play with it. Inevitably Magnificat ended up as ‘magnificent cat’. We sang Magnificat each Sunday evening – not beautifully as tonight, no complicated arrangement of voices as tonight. But Chant A from the Parish Psalter – good old Anglican chant, complete with pointing and in four part harmony – six trebles, three lady altos (one of them my mother), two bases (one with hearing aids) and a sort-of tenor. We sang Magnificat and God was exalted.

Now, as I listen Sunday by Sunday, as I allow myself to be caught up in the praises of God at Evensong each week, I find myself turning again and again to the words. They must surely be one of the most radical political manifestoes ever written. Based as they are on the Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel, the Magnificat, known for centuries by the anglicised form of the first word of Mary’s Song in Latin, sets out to undermine the power structures of the world. It’s extra-ordinary really that it has not been banned.

The context of this piece of writing in Luke’s Gospel is a visit by a young woman to her older cousin. Having had that strange visitation from the angel Gabriel, with a message about being God’s favoured one and that, despite not being married, she, Mary, would have a baby whom she should call Jesus, Mary rushed off to share the news with her cousin Elizabeth. She too had news for Mary. Elizabeth, long considered barren, was carrying a son – the one to be called John the Baptiser.

This young woman – barely entered puberty, and the older woman – despised for being childless, met to compare notes. These two women, considered weak and ineffectual in their society, held within their wombs the seed of men who would change the world: John with his fiery challenge to the shallow worship of God, the hypocrisy of paying lip-service in worship while furthering their own nests at the expense of others; Jesus with his peripatetic wandering about the Galilean countryside, gathering together a motley crowd of supporters, healing a few people, casting out the odd demon, teaching provocatively and then slipping away before the authorities caught up with him.

It’s Luke the Evangelist who weaves together the threads into an incredible story, drawing deeply on the prophetic insights of his ancient people, their deep desire to be a free people in their own land, and their fierce belief that, for some strange reason, God had chosen an obscure people in a back-water nation to be the agent of liberation. With his Gospel story firmly in the setting of an occupied people, the puppet king Herod, appointed by the all-powerful Romans, running the country with a Mugabe-like arrogance, Luke offers several particular passages (in the form of canticles now sung or recited regularly in worship) which set out the agenda to be followed by Jesus.

The first is the Song of Mary, the Magnificat. In her song Mary sings the praises of God who has bothered to notice a young girl. Considered a nobody, an innocent and without power, not only is she noticed but she is to be the mother of Jesus, the Son of the Most High who will inherit the throne of David. (Luke 1: 32) This at a time when everyone knew that Augustus was the Emperor, and even “King” Herod only Caesar’s quizzling. As so often before, the message of Mary’s song is simple. God has not abandoned God’s people, the tables of power will be turned, the rich sent away empty, the mighty deposed even as the lowly are lifted high and the hungry fed. It is the dream of every struggling peasant.

The second is the Song of Zechariah, father of John the Baptiser and husband of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth. Like Mary, Zechariah blesses God who has raised up his people by sending them a saviour – one who would rescue them from their enemies. Then comes the Nunc Dimitis, the Song of the old man Simeon who, on taking the baby Jesus in his arms, sees something no one other than Mary has yet recognised. This baby, this vulnerable scrap of suckling humanity, is to be the light, not only of his own people, but that of the Gentiles – all the nations of the world. It is an extraordinarily bold, preposterous, claim. (Luke 2: 29 ff)

And then Luke turns to the prophet Isaiah. John the Baptiser, says Luke in Isaiah’s words, is “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.” (Luke 3: 4ff) And it is to Isaiah again that Luke turns when Jesus begins his public ministry by reading the inspiring words:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4: 18 – 19)

But it’s the Magnificat that is the starting point, and the Magnificat that we should come back to time and again in our own day and with our own issues. What does the Magnificat have to say to our world where a man drives into pedestrians in Barcelona, where a simple tweet could send the world spiralling into nuclear conflict as two egomaniacs face-off against each other, where Australians face bitter division in coming weeks over the definition of marriage, and the challenge to be hospitable to people other than themselves?

Beautiful music yes – but beautiful music carrying some of the most radical words and concepts ever written.

And Mary said,
‘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;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
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.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’ (Luke 1: 46 – 55)