Galatians 4: 4-7 & Luke 1: 46-55
No – I’m not anticipating music suddenly striking up. This is not B-A-N-D. It is B-A-N-N-E-D! Banned!
What a strange word with which to begin a sermon! So, what is or was banned?
It’s all about the gospel reading we have just heard.
I know, that was the song of Mary, the Magnificat. Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mary who described herself as ‘the handmaid of the Lord’. Mary who pops up occasionally in the gospels, especially in Luke, and who is usually depicted as being meek and mild, and, as a woman, almost a shadow in the background.
For centuries the Magnificat has been part of the liturgy for evening prayer, or evensong. Many of us hear it sung or sing it or say it ourselves on a regular basis, but is it a case of familiarity breeding contempt, or do we really realise what the words are about?
Early in Luke’s gospel there are four hymns; Zechariah’s song which we call the Benedictus, the Gloria in Excelsis, the song of the angels, the Nunc Dimitis, the song of Simeon, and this one, Mary’s song, the Magnificat.
All of them reflect Jewish theology. Their words also link into the Christian community which was forming when Luke wrote his gospel.
So, Mary singing God’s praise is a link between the old covenant and the new. As, of course, is Mary herself.
The opening of the Magnificat is perhaps expected. It starts in the way that most of our services do; it begins with praise of God, and God’s enduring mercy and faithfulness.
But then . . .
He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
Imagine if you are a ruler and you hear those words. They would sound utterly shocking. The whole basis on which you rule is being challenged, even turned upside down.
You, as a ruler, can’t possibly have the plebs getting such subversive ideas. So, what do you do?
You ban these words from public places.
Yes, the Magnificat has been banned!
When the evangelical Anglican missionary Henry Martyn went out to Calcutta as chaplain to the East India Company in 1805, he was appalled to discover that the British authorities had banned the recitation of the Magnificat at Evensong!
The Magnificat was banned in Argentina after the Mothers of the Disappeared used it to call for nonviolent resistance to the ruling military junta in mid-1970s
And in the 1980s the government of Guatemala also banned public recitation of the Magnificat.
Those authorities recognised its revolutionary nature, but, I wonder, do we?
Globalisation and instant communication mean we are almost overwhelmed with news, so much of which is so shocking that I suspect too often we just close down, or switch off.
It is all too much to handle, so stories of the abuse of power just wash over us and the downtrodden continue to suffer.
The cult of personality encourages individualism; it is seen to be good to have, to want more, to aspire to being rich, and often the result is that while the rich get richer the poor get poorer.
And the ‘me first’ culture means most people are looking to their own needs before they think of their neighbour, let alone people in other parts of the world, or the greater good.
Looking at the prospects for Britain in the months ahead it is easy to see how people think this way.
But none of this is God’s way.
God’s way is to do what a 20th century hymn says, and turn the world upside down.
That’s why Jesus came.
Our reading from Galatians reminded us that Jesus came to set us free; to set us free from the ways of the world and from the burden of our own wrongdoings, so that we are no longer slaves to our consciences or slaves to the world’s rulers.
Through Jesus Christ we are children of God, freed to be citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.
But with the rights we are given as God’s people, so come too responsibilities.
As Christians we have the responsibility to look at the status quo in the light of the gospel message, and to challenge society’s norms where they do not match.
Jesus spells this out in different ways throughout the gospels. But it is his mother Mary who gives the first gospel signpost to how the kingdom of heaven on earth should be.
Mary is challenging us to be revolutionaries!
Who’d have thought it from the usual portrayals of Mary we see in our stained glass windows and Christmas cards?
Mary was visited by God in a special way, and given a unique role in God’s purpose. It is often said that God chose her because she was meek and submissive. The words Luke puts into Mary’s mouth clearly dispel that!
In the words of the Magnificat, Mary is celebrating all that God has done, and all that God is doing.
But God needs God’s people to work for the kingdom through the way they live their lives.
Mary certainly played her part in bringing the new covenant to fulfilment in Jesus Christ.
But are we playing our part in growing the kingdom?
Or is the Magnificat just too hard to live up to, so we blank out its call?
My soul glorifies the Lord
My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour!
For he has blessed me lavishly,
and makes me ready to respond.
He shatters my little world
and lets me be poor before him.
He takes from me all my plans
and gives me more
than I can hope for or ask.
He gives me opportunities,
and the ability to become free,
and to burst through my boundaries.
He gives me the strength to be daring,
to build on him alone,
for he shows himself
as the ever greater one in my life.
He has made known to me this:
it is in my being servant
that it becomes possible
for God’s kingdom to break through
in the here and now.
(Magnificat reflection English translation from German by Olga Warnke, I.B.V.M.)