"Past and Future Tense" - Sermon on Luke 1:46-54 - by Pastor Joe Ellis - December 26, 2021
I’ve preached on this passage once before. As I was preparing this, I reread what I wrote eight years ago and I came across something funny. Michelle had just given birth to David, so pregnancy was fresh on my mind. When we had had an ultrasound earlier, the technician said that the baby was “a real mover.” I remember being so excited — “surely this must be a sign that my child will be an Olympic Athlete.” Then I read Mary’s story, and I imagined how deflating it would be to run into pregnant Mary after we’d had the ultrasound: “Guess what, my child’s a real mover,” and Mary says, “My child will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” I think that would be deflating. I told that joke 8 years ago, and I still think it is funny.
The reason why I’m telling you this is because it underscores the simple truth that Mary was the first disciple of Jesus — which started pre-conception. I don’t often think of her in this way, as a disciple. Yet she became Jesus’ disciple when Gabriel said to her: “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” From that moment on, she dedicated herself to following what she would conceive. This can be difficult to wrap our minds around — the notion of being a disciple of your unborn child. It’s strange to imagine being someone’s disciple before that someone is born — but the Bible does strange things with time.
The future has a way of breaking into the past, and long since past has a way of walking around in the present. That’s what we see going on in Mary’s Song. We discover the long past and future history racing backward and forwards through time to embrace in Mary’s Song. Mary’s Song teaches how we, as disciples of Jesus, are to relate to time. I’m a bit nervous to preach about time, because whenever you watch a movie or a book where time is a central plot device, you know it’s going to get weird. “Time travel really can mess with your head,” to quote one time travelling movie. So here’s hoping this sermon doesn’t get too weird. But even if it does — Christians are meant to be weird — not least because the way we relate to the past and the future are entirely shaped by what God has done in and through Jesus Christ.
Let’s first focus in on the long past breaking into the present. Mary’s Song can be very intimidating to preach — the reason is that as you begin to study her song, you begin learning that there is an incredible range of scripture references for each line in Mary’s Song. It is staggering what a student of Scripture Mary was— she weaves multiple references from the Pentateuch, the prophets, Wisdom literature, inter-testamental literature all together into the 18 lines of her song. In doing so, Mary transforms herself before our eyes — in her song, Mary identifies herself with the Old Testament women who were at one point barren, yearning for the birth of a child— Mary becomes one of these women like Leah or Hannah. In the book of Genesis, Leah rejoices after she gave birth saying “the Lord has regarded my low estate.” In a later story in 1 Samuel, a barren woman named Hannah, prayed Leah’s words, “O Lord of Hosts, look on the low estate of your handmaiden.” Now we find these words on Mary’s lips. When Hannah gave birth to Samuel, she also sang a mighty song — “The Lord makes poor and he makes rich; He reduces to lowliness and He lifts up. He lifts the needy from the earth, and from the dung heap, He raises up the poor to seat them with the mighty, making them inherit a throne of glory.” You’ll undoubtedly recognize many of these word’s in Mary’s song — The voices of these women become Mary’s voice and they join together in song. The stories of God’s people from the long and distant past suddenly reach into the present and find new life. Characters long dead reappear, as new generations proclaim the past works of God manifest in the present. Mary joins the ranks of these women whose pregnancy becomes a sign of human impossibility which only the power of God can overcome. That’s the heart of Mary’s Song — she joins the ranks of the people of God long dead who sang and declared that God’s power overcomes all human impossibility.
Mary’s Song also echoes the story of the Exodus, where God’s people found themselves in the impossibility of slavery. The Warrior God broke through that impossibility and liberated the nation. Mary’s Song draws from Deuteronomy, Leviticus, the prophets and the Psalms to proclaim that God’s past acts of salvation are breaking forth powerfully into the present. A New Exodus is at hand. A New Liberation. Human impossibility will once again mercifully be overcome through the power of God’s mighty hand. God will do so through Jesus, the Son of David.
The Son of David — here again we find another character of old stepping powerfully into the present. The Son of David is coming. In her song, Mary is pregnant with expectation of his coming — her song weaves in so many of the Psalms of David and about David — all to anticipate the coming of God’s anointed King who will come to rescue the people of God in fulfillment of his promises of old – his covenants.
With this, we find Mary again bringing forth another ancient promise — of course, God’s promise to Abraham. That Abraham will be a blessing to the nations and that all people of the world will be blessed through Abraham’s offspring. This is simply a whirlwind sampling of passages that find their way into Mary’s Song — yet from this sampling we can see how in so many ways the past mysteriously steps into the present. Characters of Scripture, Promises of the past, suddenly become present in a way that is unimaginable and wondrous.
We are to live with this same expectation. The expectation that the God of Jesus Christ will continue to break into our present reality with stories of old, those ancient promises. Generation after generation, the people of God from all over the world have meditated on Mary’s Words in this way — consider that those now old words she sang in her song will always break into the present. These Words that speak of God scattering the proud in heart, of God bringing down rulers from their thrones, of God lifting up the humble, of God filling the hungry with good things, of God sending the rich away empty. One by one, each generation has anticipated this Word of God to break into the present in dangerous places.
For example, a generation of poor and downtrodden Christians in India found Mary’s Words shaping their understanding of their present, and as a result colonial British rulers prohibited Mary’s song from being sung in churches throughout India. Something about the oppressed masses singing about God toppling governments made them nervous. The biblical past always breaks forward into the present.
In the 1980s, oppressed people in Guatemala held onto Mary’s Song about God’s love for the poor and humble. And so the Guatemalan government banned public recitation of Mary’s words. Mary’s Word birthed hope in the poor, the hungry and the humble.
Around the same time in Argentina, some children were abducted by the Argentine Military. The Mothers of those children appeared in the centre of Buenos Aires, with Mary’s Song scrawled on posters of protest. In fact, these Mothers specifically identified themselves with Mary — and Mary’s Song was outlawed, but hope was conceived.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man martyred in Nazi Germany, said, “The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings.…This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”
The song is about human impossibility, weakness and frailty, and the power of God overcoming that impossibility. Our brothers and sisters who have gone before us challenge us to consider anew how the stories of the past will once again break forth into our present reality.
Now let’s shift to the future. God’s future also breaks backwards into the present. I want you to notice something — In verses 51 to 55 of Mary’s Song, it is all past tense. Mary says, “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; 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. He has helped his servant Israel.” — Notice that Mary is saying all these things in the past tense. It is hard to imagine God accomplishing all these things through Jesus as an embryo hanging out in Mary’s womb. Yet Mary’s Song is celebrating what God has accomplished through Jesus. What God has already accomplished through Jesus! For us, it would make most sense to hear Mary’s Song after Christ was crucified, resurrected and exalted — then we can more easily hear her song alongside other similar hymns that you’ll find in the New Testament: Like in Revelation, “Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” In some ways, Mary’s song fits better at the end of time rather than the middle. Mary sings as though Christ’s reign is already complete and full, that he has already taken his seat upon the throne, when in fact Jesus is still is a little baby inside her womb. Why doesn’t she speak in the future tense? — God will bring down rulers from their thrones. He will lift up the humble. Why does her song sing as though all these things have already happened? The reason is that God’s future is sure. God’s future is so sure we may speak as though it has already happened. Scholars call this form of past tense the Prophetic Aorist — you are prophetically declaring God’s work in the future as though it has already happened. That is the conviction with which Mary is singing here.
So, with the embryo of Jesus, salvation has already come. Salvation is here. That is the way we are called to live. We can often live as though the final reign of Christ will never happen, as though Jesus will never return. What if we followed Mary’s lead and lived as though our future with God has already happened? As though God’s certain future had already broken through into the present.
What if we live our lives asking: “In light of all that I know to be true about the future Kingdom of God coming in all its fullness — how should I live in the present?” How do we live our lives like this? We become a disciple like the first disciple Mary who had both a loose grip on time and a deep imagination for Scripture — we anticipate that the past and future stories of how God relates to His people will continue to turn up in our present lives. In order for this to happen, you have to recognize God’s story line — to do so, we need to follow Mary’s lead who so deeply immersed herself in the contemplation of Scripture. When she faithfully approached Scripture, she did not do so as one studying for a Bible knowledge exam in order to whip out the appropriate proof-text and win the debate. She deeply meditated on the stories of God and her people so that they became a part of her. She brought her imagination to bear on Scripture in order to understand what God was doing in the present. Her imagination was so rich with the stories of God’s people that she found herself to be another Leah, another Hannah. Her imagination was so full of God’s future promises, that she spoke as though the coming Kingdom had already happened — even when Christ was still in her womb, even before Christ preached “the Kingdom of God is near”. Let us follow her lead as we also meditate on Scripture in our daily life. Like Mary, let us become pregnant with God’s word, full with the expectation that God will bring the past and future into our present and we’ll see both playing out before our eyes. In this way, we also will be written into the story — the story of God overcoming human impossibility through his mighty arm.