Our scripture reading this morning is one of the greatest passages in the Bible. It is Mary's hymn or more commonly called "The Magnificat" in which the mother of our Lord praises God for the promise of redeeming his people through a poor, young peasant girl. Mary occupies a special place in the Church, having been the subject of more prayers and devotion, of more prose and poetry and art than any other woman. Yet, apart from the account of the birth of Jesus, the gospels really give us very little information about her. She plays virtually no role in her son’s ministry and is even seen at times trying to talk him out of it, encouraging him to return home and assume his rightful role as the head of the family. Apart from bringing Jesus into the world and then raising him for the first part of his life, she appears little more than a minor figure in the whole gospel drama. However, without her great humility and deep faith, it’s hard for us to see how Jesus could ever have become the Savior he was.
Previously, the angel Gabriel had announced to Mary she would receive a sign that she’d conceive a child by the Holy Spirit. Her elderly cousin Elizabeth was already in her sixth month of pregnancy with the child who would later become John the Baptist. Mary journeys from her home in Nazareth to Hebron where she would care for her cousin for the next three months until Elizabeth gave birth. But when Mary arrives, Elizabeth feels the child in her womb leap for joy and, in some mysterious way, knows that Mary is bearing the long-awaited Messiah. She cries out, "Who am I, that the mother of my Lord should visit me?"
Overwhelmed by this announcement, Mary's soul overflows with joy and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, she delivers one of the great masterpieces of ancient poetry- a song of praise celebrating what God has done for her. She looks back over history--as far back as Abraham--and sees how each generation had led up to this very moment. She also looks forward into the future to a time when all people would call her "blessed" (or fortunate) for the child she would bring into this world. Israel's Messiah was on his way, and God was about to appear on earth and in the flesh.
Of course, one can’t help but ask, “What does God see in Mary that qualifies HER to be the mother of his son which he fails to see in any other young maiden? What does MARY possess which so many others DON’T?” At first thought, my answer would be EVERYTHING, that she must have possessed all the attributes and qualifications needed to serve as the perfect mother to this child. As I imagine it, many centuries had come and gone since God first promised to send his people a Deliverer, a Messiah. Day after day, year after year, God had been on the lookout- scouring the highways and byways of Judea looking for just such a young girl to appear on the scene so he could anoint her with this supreme privilege. And I’m sure his search was made all the more difficult by the demanding standards he required, for WHOEVER was chosen, that person would most certainly have to embody the highest and noblest of human attributes and virtues. She would have to be the humblest, the gentlest, the wisest, the most beautiful and holy girl in all of Israel as only someone with such qualities as THESE could ever be worthy enough to bring God’s only-begotten into the world.
But then one day, God happened to stumble upon a young maiden named Mary. Struck by her innocent and pious demeanor, he was intrigued enough to take a closer look. As he listened to her speak, as he observed her manner and upright character, God knew in an INSTANT that THIS was to be the one, that in this extraordinarily attractive, this utterly elegant and virginal young girl he had finally found the one person in all of Israel WORTHY enough to receive this high honor. Israel would now have to wait no longer as their Messiah would soon be on the way- at least that’s how Mary’s call makes most sense to ME! After all, who could blame God for wanting the perfect young mother to bring his perfect young son into the world- RIGHT?
But then again, God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. What might make perfect sense to us often makes NO sense in GOD’S scheme of things. You see, if we are to trust what the gospel account says here and take Mary at her word, then the idea that God chose HER because she possessed all the right qualities where so many others hadn’t, that she more perfectly embodied all those values and ideals he was looking for, couldn’t be FURTHER from the truth. What Luke shows us is that Mary is filled with awe and wonderment PRECISELY BECAUSE she knows she has absolutely NOTHING that makes her special and with her song--her “Magnificat”--she ADMITS as much. In fact, she declares herself the UNLIKELIEST of persons to be chosen for just such a privilege, and as a result, she becomes for us the personification of the word "grace"- grace being "undeserved favor" from God.
Now in light of Mary being the recipient of God’s grace, let me replay for you how Mary’s call may have REALLY taken place. Upon receiving the news that SHE among all the young women in the world had been chosen to be the bearer of the Son of God, she doesn’t think to herself, “Well God, it’s about time. What took you so long to finally find me.” Rather, her first impulse is “God, there has to be some kind of MISTAKE here! After all, I don’t have ANY of the attributes or qualities that would make me an acceptable mother to your son. To begin with, I’m just so plain-looking, maybe what some might even call ‘a little bit ugly.’ No one wanted to take ME to the Senior Prom last year. I wasn’t voted “most likely to succeed” in my class. In fact, I barely made passing grades! I would often cut out of study hall and head straight to the girls room in order to sneak a cigarette for myself. At times, when my parents thought I was asleep in my bed, I would sneak out my bedroom window to hook up with friends and spend the rest of the night partying. And if you’re looking for someone who’s RELIGIOUS, there AGAIN I don’t fit the bill. I’ve never received pins for perfect Sunday School attendance. Rather, I HATED church and sometimes skipped it ENTIRELY to hang out at the local soda shop instead. Don’t you understand Lord that you’ve made a big mistake here- I’m not exactly what you would call ‘Mother of God’ material! You want someone like ANNIE who always wanted to be a nun, or BETTY who earned a full scholarship to Yale, or perhaps SALLY who was a cheerleader and the Homecoming Queen in high school. You don’t want someone who is as plain or as poor, as crude or as coarse as myself- not for the Mother of GOD you don’t!”
If you don’t believe that this might be a truer account of Mary’s call, then look at the text itself and listen to her own words. Mary responds to her honor by exclaiming, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded THE LOW ESTATE OF HIS HANDMAIDEN. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed (or fortunate).” Astounded by the thought that SHE has been chosen to bear the Messiah into the world, she is essentially asking herself here, "Why ME?" "Why not someone with more WEALTH or more BEAUTY or more MANNERS or more EDUCATION? What do I have that qualifies ME to become the Mother of God?" She doesn’t say that all persons would speak all manner of good of her, praise her virtues, exalt her virginity or humility, or sing of what she has done, for she has done nothing and she KNOWS it. The bottom line is that Mary was not granted the honor of bringing God’s only begotten Son into the world because God recognized that she was the most beautiful or saintliest or humblest maiden in all Judea. Doubtless, there were MANY young women throughout the region who were far MORE beautiful, far MORE virtuous, far MORE devout and humble than herself. Rather, God chose her for no other reason than his own good pleasure and to once again prove to us that there is no quality IN US nor is there any good work accomplished BY US which can in the slightest earn God’s love or admiration. What makes grace "grace" is that it is all completely undeserved by undeserving individuals- and Mary UNDERSTANDS this. God has chosen her to help in the salvation of the world and for this, she can claim no honor for herself- she knows it must all go to God! She can only acknowledge her own unworthiness and nothingness which God regarded, not because of any merit in her but solely by virtue of his grace. As Luther says, when we elevate Mary by ascribing greater merit and worthiness to her, we end up lowering the grace of God and diminishing the truth of the Magnificat.
In other words, by transforming Mary into some model of perfection and hence God’s reason for choosing her in the first place, we discover that rather than “undeserved favor” as grace is traditionally defined, it is actually favor that becomes “EARNED” or “DESERVED”- the very OPPOSITE of grace! But if in her we see one who was common at best, someone who went through life with two left feet and struggled at everything she undertook, we then find OURSELVES marveling in wonderment even as Mary HERSELF did. When we realize that there IS no mistake here, that God’s intention from the BEGINNING was to find someone of average means and limited abilities, then we can’t help but marvel every bit as SHE did. Only THEN will we discover the meaning of “grace” and learn how God is a God of the poor, a God of the mediocre, a God of the ordinary, a God of everyone who has ever under-performed in life. In other words, we then understand that our God is the God of persons JUST LIKE OURSELVES.
I repeat, if we declare that God blessed Mary because she was INDEED special, that she was perhaps MORE humble, MORE virtuous, MORE comely, and MORE loving than any other young girl in the land, then we completely miss the meaning of Mary's song and take grace out of the whole equation. The reality is that if God could show such great love to someone so desperately poor, so obviously common, and so clearly unpromising as Mary was in HER life, then God can choose to show a SIMILAR preference to US, to persons who are no LESS poor and no LESS common and no LESS promising such as OURSELVES. And God DOES evidence such a love for he has reached down and tapped US to become his children; God has elected US to enter into his kingdom where we may enjoy his presence for all eternity. WE have been incorporated into God’s family and are henceforth assured that nothing--NO NOTHING!--will ever separate us from either his presence or his love- and not because we have EARNED such an honor but because for WHATEVER reason, GOD JUST LOVES US! The fact is that by God’s grace and grace ALONE, we, who are not qualified by the WORLD’S standards, become EMINENTLY qualified by GOD’S standards. I repeat, Mary was NOT special or deserving of the honor of bringing God's Son into the world and yet, God chose her ANYWAY and THAT is what grace is all about.
As MARY was overcome with an overwhelming sense of humility and unworthiness at the news of having received such an unexpected and undeserved honor, OUR response to the grace WE have received in our OWN lives cannot be any LESS dramatic. If we truly understand what it is that Christ has done for us, how by his death and resurrection, we have been reconciled to God, incorporated into his holy family, had our hearts transformed into Christ’s new home, and then given the promise that he will accompany us every step of the way in this life as well as the next--then like Mary, how can WE not feel overcome with wonder and humble devotion OURSELVES. Unless our hearts are made of stone, it can’t help but draw forth praise and thanksgiving from our OWN lips. It MUST elicit from us our OWN song, our OWN “Magnificat” so that, like Mary, we TOO find ourselves singing: "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of us, his children” and "he that is mighty hath done to me great things." When we are aware of God’s grace in our lives, only THEN will all our arrogance and pretense and pride be finally stripped from us; only THEN will we be able to praise God with open and humble hearts for we now know that he does not reject but rather REGARDS poor and lowly persons everywhere just like ourselves. Mary’s song teaches us that though there are others in this world much humbler and more virtuous, much wiser and far more beautiful, WE are the ones who have been "blessed" with the knowledge of God's saving love through Jesus Christ. EACH OF US is a child of God, EACH OF US has become a member of his kingdom for no other reason than that God first loved us and if THAT doesn't overwhelm us, if that doesn’t put a song in our OWN hearts this morning, then believe me, NOTHING ever will! Amen and amen.