Magnify the Lord (updated)

Sermon for Sunday, December 19, 2021 || Advent 4C || Luke 1:39-55

Last week we talked about the beautiful promise that “The Lord is near.” This week, let’s take that a step further and talk about how God invites us to make God’s nearness known, keying in on a special word in Mary’s song, which I’ll get to in a moment. But first, when I was in college, I never had time to watch TV or play sports or go on wild spur-of-the-moment car trips. I was too busy singing. The University Choir rehearsed four times a week and sang every Sunday morning during the church service. When I joined freshman year, I could barely piece two correctly pitched notes together, but the choir director, God bless him, would take anyone who was willing, including me. Four years and hundreds upon hundreds of hours of singing later, my voice managed to match pitch most of the time, and hey, it didn’t sound too bad.

The choir spent more time on one particular song than any other, a song that has found a special place in my heart. We sang the song once a month at the service of Choral Evensong, and every month we sang a different arrangement. But each arrangement had the same words, and those words always began with “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.”

These are the opening lines of Mary’s song, the Magnificat. We always sang them with the Elizabethan translation (with all the doths and haths) because the best musical versions are set to the old text. I must have sung 20 or 25 different settings during my time at Sewanee, and with each one, the verb of that opening line nestled deeper into my heart. “My soul doth magnify the Lord.”

It’s that word magnify that gets me. The word in the original Greek is great. Megaluno. Mega = big! Let’s dwell with magnification for a moment. What happens when you use a magnifying glass, like a microscope? Say we are back in freshman biology lab and the instructor passes around a tray of slides. You and I (you all are my lab partner for this illustration, by the way)…You and I take one of the slides. Next you take our pipette and squeeze one tiny drop of clear liquid onto the slide. We hold the slide up to the light and squint. We see nothing but a bit of water on glass.

But then I place the small pane of glass underneath the microscope, and you put your eye to the lens. You click into place the scope marked “30x magnification” and fiddle with the focus dial.  And what was a moment ago just a drop of clear liquid is now a squirming mass of single-celled organisms, each dancing and stroking its way through the ocean that is the single drop of water. How could we miss so much life happening in miniature? How could we ever think the drop of water was simply empty, clear liquid?

When we magnify things in biology lab, we notice things that are always there, but are too small to see. We reorient our view so that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking only the visible is real. The same thing happens when we enter the reality of Mary’s song. “My soul doth magnify the Lord.” Now, God’s not microscopic, so that’s where our metaphor breaks down. But God is always there – remember, “The Lord is near.” And if there’s one constant of human nature it’s that constant things, things that are always there, never moving, never changing – these things tend to become invisible over time. 

God, strangely enough, built this into our biology. Our lizard brains are hardwired to notice things that move and change because they could be threats. But there’s more to life than the biological reactions of fighting, freezing, and fleeing. And that’s why God gave us not just biology, but spirituality too. “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my savior.” 

Our spiritual lives keep us on the lookout for God’s constant presence. We take that lens from the microscope and wear it as glasses. We practice seeing and celebrating God’s presence wherever we go. And we recognize the truth that God is moving in every situation, moving all of creation back into right relationship with God. And that’s what the rest of Mary’s song is about.

The Gospel writer, Luke, is a bit sneaky here. He places the thesis statement of the entire Gospel on Mary’s lips as she is singing about her soul magnifying God’s presence. This thesis statement is that God is doing something new in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But this new thing is still linked to what God has been doing forever: lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things and toppling prideful oppressors and showing mercy and, above all, fulfilling God’s promises. In Jesus, God’s presence takes on flesh and blood in a new way, and when we follow Jesus, we recognize the deep truth that nothing can separate us from the love of God. This truth of God’s love liberates us to be people of love instead of fear, to be people of justice instead of supremacy, to be people of peace in a world weary of war.

We might be tempted to think that Mary’s song is calling on God to turn the world upside-down. But this song actually calls on God to turn the world that is already upside-down rightside up. That’s Luke’s thesis. That’s God’s mission. That’s Jesus’ life, as he lives out his mother’s words. And that’s our lives, as we magnify the Lord, as our spirits rejoice in God our savior.

I invite you, in these few days left before we travel with Mary to Bethlehem, to bring this idea of magnification to God in prayer. Or perhaps speak about it with a trusted friend. How does God call you to magnify God’s presence in your own life or the life of the community? Where do you believe God’s presence to be but perhaps it needs a little magnification? What does your soul tell you about how you can bear witness to God’s presence in this world? How is your spirit rejoicing right now?

Next weekend, when you kneel at the manger and gaze into the face of the infant Jesus, offer him the fruits of this prayerful reflection. And together our souls will magnify the Lord.

Photo by Michael Longmire on Unsplash.

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