(Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11; Luke 1: 46b-55)
I readily confess to you this morning that I am a sucker for a good musical. And not just watching them, but actually being in them. You are looking at Linus in You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown in middle school (and yes, I did dance with the blanket). You’re looking at a bit player in Hello Dolly my high school sophomore year, Will Parker in Oklahoma! as a junior, and my senior year Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man – the latter requiring a high energy salesman who talked real fast. I have been told by some over the years that that last one was cheating because it didn’t require any actual acting on my part!
There’s just something powerful and emotive about a good musical, you know? The intersection of story and acting and song. Words alone can communicate, but only to a point. Put those words to music, though, and now you’re talking three-dimensional. You don’t even need to know the person on stage to feel what they’re experiencing – because you’re feeling it too.
So yes, I’m a sucker for musicals – even though I admit what my wife is quite fond of pointing out to me: that the whole notion of walking around and spontaneously bursting out in song is not just ridiculous, but downright annoying. And I can’t disagree with that. At no point have I ever felt the need, while stuck in Providence traffic or perusing the snack aisle at the grocery store, to suddenly start singing about the frustrations of rush-hour travel or the overwhelming joy of locating my favorite flavor of hummus.
That’s the rational person in me. But the romantic still loves musicals! And maybe that’s partly why I’m drawn to the gospel of Luke. For if contemporary biblical scholars are to be believed, this gospel has a musical quality to it. We find in its chapters four canticles, or hymns, that were likely used in some worship context in the early church. It’s no surprise, then, that over the years Luke has been referred to as “the singing gospel.”
And it is one of those canticles, those hymns, that makes its way to our third Sunday of Advent. We call it the Magnificat; the Latin taken straight from the song’s opening line: My soul magnifies the Lord. It is scriptural poetry at its finest, these verses; and it is no wonder that the likes of Mozart and Vivaldi and Bach, among others, have sought to put its words to score.
And like any good musical, it tells a story – or, rather, serves as the exclamation point to a story. It is the story of Mary, a teenage-girl living in Roman-ruled Palestine; who had come face-to-face with the unbelievable news that she was pregnant with God’s son, and that her relative Elizabeth was pregnant too. Both, in their own way, amazing miracles: Mary so young to have a child, Elizabeth so old.
So Mary travels to see Elizabeth. And it practically unfolds like a musical, as Luke tells it: Elizabeth sitting on her front porch stage left; Mary entering stage right. They see each other, Elizabeth waves and Mary calls out – Hello! And at that instant, Elizabeth’s arms embrace her abdomen, her face looking down in stunned amazement. Oh, Mary, Elizabeth exclaims, blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child of your womb. For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child inside me leapt for joy!
I love her song – a version of which we’ll sing in a bit. And I love this story. And it is obvious that Luke shares it with a particular purpose in mind – nothing, after all, finds its way into the gospels by accident. Our task as sojourners in faith is to figure out why these stories – and in this case, this song – is here for us to see.
And so we open our eyes and listen to the singing. And eventually we come to the realization, as Mary’s voice soars, that she is not just singing to herself or to Elizabeth. No, like any good musical, this song is meant for those in the audience, for those in the pews. For us! We are the ones who have been blessed, whose spirit rejoices, whom God has done great things for. We are all up on that stage, singing with the chorus and accompanied by the orchestra; the joyful intersection of words and music to share all we encounter in light of this astounding good news!
We who, as the song says, are “looked on with favor.” It’s a curious sort of phrase, is it not? It’s not something that’s part of our everyday lexicon. Looked on with favor. It’s interesting how different translations have rendered this over the years: For he took notice. For he regarded. For he has not turned from.
The Greek word here, epiblepo, literally means “to regard with partiality.” It’s the same word used later in Luke, in Chapter 9, when the frantic father brings his very sick son to Jesus and says, “Teacher, please look at my son!” He’s not asking Jesus to just look at him, is he? He’s not asking him to examine his son the way a doctor examines a patient. No, he wants Jesus to see beyond flesh and blood to something far deeper and meaningful, more than a boy and a sick body. The father wants Jesus to see him as he sees him – as his own son.
For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
What about this “lowliness of his servant” thing? Again, the Greek reveals to us not humility and servitude, but real poverty and a total lack of societal status. Mary, after all, is a teenager, pregnant without a husband; and in those days those two strikes would’ve been nearly impossible to overcome. And yet it is she, not a statistic, but a daughter and a mother-to-be of the highest caliber. It is she, the last person anyone would ever expect, who is epiblepo, “looked on with favor.”
What does all of this mean; the song Mary sings, on this third Sunday of Advent? What does it mean to look at someone the way God looks at Mary; looking with favor on the lowliness of a servant?
Many of you know that, this past May, our session approved our church’s participation in The Acts 16:5 Initiative – a presbytery effort to equip churches for revitalization in their vision and their mission. One of the components of this initiative are biannual workshops with Stan Ott, national director of Acts 16:5. And in our very first meetings with Stan, he talked with us about something he referred to as “people eyes.” This is how he described it:
People eyes are the eyes of Jesus for the people. It is the capacity to focus on the one in the midst of the many. They see those hurting and comfort them, they see those who desire to grow spiritually and nurture them. People eyes are eyes that see people the way God sees them. (from the Acts 16:5 Leadership Manual, pg. 17)
Stan went on to talk about how churches in the midst of real transformation and revitalization are not churches that just come up with some fancy new program or ministry that suddenly starts attracting folks. That’s not the way it works. New initiatives are great and necessary, but they amount to very little if the people they’re directed at don’t get the sense first that the church cares about them and wants to get to know them. Let me put it another way: the most critical component of a growing, vibrant church are church members who, first and foremost, express genuine care and compassion and concern to new people, seeing them the way God sees them. Seeing all of the church with “people eyes.”
Not, as Stan likes to say, “buddy eyes,” where people only see and gravitate toward their buddies. Or “program eyes,” where people only see their favorite church program or event and only come to church for that program or event. Only “people eyes” can help a church live fully into its vision and calling. Which makes plenty of sense, right? Because those kind of eyes are the eyes of God, looking with favor on Mary, on all of us.
What if we chose this Advent and Christmas to sing this kind of song instead? To look at the world around us with eyes that are so dramatically different from everyone else’s? Epiblepo, the eyes of God for the people! God looking with favor on the lowly – a teenaged mother, a husband-to-be, surrounded in a stable by barnyard animals and third-shift shepherds……
God looking with favor on the businessperson with the corner office in the high-rise, who is trying desperately to close a huge account by year’s end, even though it’s meant many nights and weekends away from family and home…
God looking with favor on the high school student who is already getting peppered with questions about what college they’re going to and what job they’re preparing for; questions they have absolutely no answer for…..
God looking with favor on the woman who lost her loved one a year ago, just as the Christmas trees arrived on street corner lots; and now that those trees are back she once again has to reconcile the joy of the season with a heart still grieving…
God looking with favor on the young man walking down city streets, noticing the suspicious looks from others, and knowing it comes from something he has no control over: that the color of his skin happens to be darker than theirs….
God looking with favor on the one who, despite all the good they’ve done and all they’ve accomplished, never feels that they’re good enough, for others or for themselves; and while it’s nice to get compliments and affirmations it also feels like another rung added to the ladder they must continually climb…
God looking with favor on the person who is tired, just plain tired of putting on the facades and smiles and answering everyone’s “how are you” with the obligatory “fine,” when if she answered their question truthfully, they would learn that she is not fine, has not been fine for a while, in fact…..
God looking with favor on all of them, on all of us; because in the midst of our lowly state, in the presence of our human brokenness that never fully heals, we are truly dumbfounded and awestruck when faced with the blinding brilliance of a loving God.
Which is why Mary’s song jumps out of the pages of our bibles and into our hearts; and like a good musical it inspires us to wonder: can we sing this song ourselves? Can we truly own it as ours? And not just here, in this sacred space – that’s the easy part. No, the real question is, can we sing this song elsewhere? Can we sing it in our living rooms, in our corner offices, in our classrooms, out on Providence Road and on the streets of Uptown? Can we belt out its melody in the ER waiting room and the Hospice home and the memorial garden? Can we sing it on the steps of the Capitol Building and in Ferguson, Brooklyn, Berkeley?
Can we sing this song of cosmic joy, of light and love and hope and peace, looking at everyone around us with the same people eyes that God once looked upon Mary with?
I think that’s what this “singing gospel” wants us to do! In fact, I love the way Luke ends his musical. The very last chapter. There is Jesus with his friends, breaking bread and then lifted into heaven. And the very last verse of the whole gospel says, And they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God.
Want to guess what the Greek for “praising” and “blessing” means? Singing! And they are still singing, my friends. Can’t you hear them? Won’t you join in?
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!