Sunday, December 20, 2020

Sermon: "Expectations Defied: Jesus", Luke 1:46-55 (December 20, 2020)

(This is the fourth of five sermons in our Advent series about our expectations around the holiday season. The others can be found here, here, and here.)


This beautiful passage from Luke is known “The Magnificat”. It’s the song that Mary sings because she’s overcome with joy and gratitude at all the wonderful things God was doing through her. If you run in social circles that include a lot of clergy (like I do), it’s alternatively known as Mary’s preemptive response to the song, “Mary, Did You Know?” In this song, the singer asks, again, and again, whether Mary knew that Jesus wasn’t your average child, that he was more than just a baby. And in the Magnificat, Mary’s answer is, “…Duh. Of course I know this kid is special.” The lyricist may have thought that he was dropping a major bombshell on her, but Mary had already made it clear that she knew exactly what she was getting into from the very beginning. 

Actually, the Magnificat proves that Mary knew better than anyone else exactly who Jesus was. If anything, “Mary, Did You Know?” takes a rather limited view of Jesus’ life. It lists a
handful of miracles—walking on water, healing a blind man, calming the storm—and it talks about the fact that Jesus is divine. But it really doesn’t explain why any of this matters, aside from being really cool. It doesn’t seem to expect much more of Jesus than to be a god with some neat party tricks.

Mary, on the other hand, has her own bombshells to drop: she knew that Jesus would be far more than a divine magician. “Writer, did you know that my baby boy will turn away the wealthy? Writer, did you know that my baby boy can make the hungry healthy? Did you know that my baby boy will scatter men of pride? That the measure of his mercy is as deep as it is wide? Writer, did you know that my baby boy will lift up all the lowly? Writer, did you know that my baby boy will call the wretched holy? Did you know that my baby boy will pull kings from their thrones? That he’ll use the strength of heaven to help those who feel alone? Oh, writer, did you know?” Mary knows that Jesus will do far more than change a few individual lives; he’ll completely transform human society. She knows that figuring out his exact identity is less important than knowing what he’ll do for the world.

Here, I picture the lyricist blinking in surprise. “Er, honestly, no, I didn’t know all that…But I’m not sure I like it. That sounds kind of controversial, actually.” Mary’s version of the song would almost certainly be less popular than the contemporary one, because it turns so many of our expectations about Jesus on their heads. Her version is just as likely to provoke discomfort as it is a sense of wonder. Affirmative action for the lowly? Free food for the poor? No incentive for the job-creators? This doesn’t make any sense…is Mary a Socialist?

Like the lyricist of “Mary, Did You Know?”, many of us think that we already know what Jesus is all about. If someone were to ask us who Jesus is, most of us would probably find ourselves unintentionally summarizing all the same points the song makes: he’s divine, he’s our savior, and he performed a bunch of miracles during his life on earth. And this is all true, of course. But if our expectations of Jesus only extend as far as his identity and a few isolated miracles, we’re missing the point. Who Jesus IS is only part of the picture. The real marvel lies in what he does to transform the world—and that, of course, is something that only Mary seemed to know at first.

Humanity has a long history of misunderstanding Jesus’ role. Before Jesus, God’s people expected the Messiah to come in the form of a mighty ruler, a strong leader who would bring about world peace by wielding his power. Instead, they got an infant born to a Jewish family in an occupied province. So our expectations had to pivot. The post-Jesus understanding of the Messiah began to shift towards Jesus bringing peace through tranquility rather than might. Think of how all your favorite Christmas hymns describe him: “Holy infant, so tender and mild,” “Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes,” “Mild he lays his glory by,” “All is calm; all is bright.” We expect Jesus to bring a peace that’s serene and nonconfrontational, where everyone just kind of quietly gives up.

But Mary, in her prescient wisdom, insists that this just as dramatic a misunderstanding as the expectation of a monarchical messiah. Jesus may arrive in the form of a vulnerable baby, and he may seek peace by means other than violence, but his message is anything but passive. Mary seems to be one of the only people whose expectations for Jesus didn’t drastically underestimate him. Jesus is not just a divine figurehead, and the peace he brings isn’t about everyone “just getting along”. As his mother knew from the very beginning, Jesus is a revolutionary. He came to upend all of our expectations and to turn the world upside down.

In case we’re tempted to believe that Mary was being allegorical in her pronouncements or chalk it all up to a mother’s bias, Jesus himself affirms everything that she says in her repudiation of our expectations. Mary says that Jesus came to pull the powerful from their thrones; we cry, “Surely Jesus wouldn’t undermine the social order that gives shape to our culture!” But Jesus tells us to be servants of one another, saying, “The greatest shall become the least, and the least shall become the greatest.”[1] Mary says that Jesus will send the rich away empty-handed; we complain, “Surely Jesus wouldn’t begrudge someone what they’ve earned for themselves!” But Jesus tells us that excessive wealth gets in the way of our relationship with God, saying “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who’s rich to enter the kingdom of God.”[2] Mary says that Jesus will scatter the proud and the arrogant; we protest, “Surely Jesus wants us all to just get along!” But Jesus echoes the prophet Jeremiah in telling us that his message is divisive, saying, “I haven’t come to bring peace, but a sword.”[3] The lyrics of “Mary, Did You Know?” may be more universally palatable, but it seems that Mary’s understanding of Jesus was right on the nose.

These are hard truths. But they’re the teachings of the God we’ve chosen to follow. We don’t get to mold Jesus into the savior that we envision. We don’t get to squeeze and twist his message until it fits into the boxes that our own ambitions have allotted for him. If that were possible, don’t you think Mary would have done it? I’m sure she would have preferred that her son stick to the minor miracles mentioned in “Mary, Did You Know?”, healing a blind man here and there. THAT wouldn’t have gotten him into trouble. But Jesus wasn’t born to avoid trouble; he was born to cause it in God’s name. And so are we—and that’s why Mary rejoiced, even though she knew that she would have to one day give up her subversive son for the sake of the world. She knew what the stakes were, and she was willing to play her part because she knew that it would be worth it.

So as we prepare to celebrate the coming of God into the world, listen to Mary. Believe Mary. Because Mary knew, far better than any of us, what this event means for the world. It’s not a happy ending. It’s a revolutionary beginning. Jesus is going to come into the world and uproot every single one of our expectations, upending every part of our lives—especially those that we consider most inviolable. And that’s EXACTLY what we need.

Mary, did you know that your baby boy would turn the world upside down? Yes, yes she did…in fact, she helped. Let us all honor Mary’s legacy by causing holy trouble in God’s name. Amen.


[1] Matthew 23:11; Luke 9:48.
[2] Luke 18:25.
[3] Jeremiah 6:14; Matthew 10:34.

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