Scripture Readings: Psalm 146:5-10, Luke 1:46-55
Who said this? "My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God . . . The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor . . . The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed." (1 Sam. 2:1,7-8, 10)
In the book of 1 Samuel, which is set in the time that Saul became the first king of Israel, just before 1000 BCE, we read that Hannah, the second wife of Elkanah, was childless. But her prayers to the LORD at the shrine in Shiloh were finally answered. She became pregnant and gave birth to a boy she named Samuel. And when Samuel was weaned, Hannah gave him to the priests of Shiloh to be raised as a Nazarite — as one anointed and dedicated to the service of God. (1 Samuel 1)
Mary's song of praise is based on Hannah's. Mary praises God for the special child she is about to bear — a child who also will be anointed and dedicated to the service of God. Mary's God, we hear in her song, is the God of Hannah and Samuel, the "Mighty One" who "has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; [the God who] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away." (Lk. 1:49, 52-53)
This vision of the LORD is reaffirmed throughout the Hebrew scriptures. Psalm 146 praises the LORD, "who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry." The psalmist proclaims that: "The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous." (Ps. 146:7-8)
This is the heart of the good news that is proclaimed by the church. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus begins his ministry by reading from scripture in the synagogue in Nazareth on the sabbath. He unrolls the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and then reads the first two verses of chapter 61: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Is. 61:1-2)
We read these words of praise and hope, and we come together to worship the God we know through this tradition of faith. But we do so in a world where few of the poor are lifted up from the ashes, where many remain hungry and are not filled with good things, where the rich are not sent away, and where often the oppressed do not receive justice. From Hannah to Mary to our time, it would seem that "the hopes and fears of all the years" have not been met — not in the birth of Jesus, not in his death and resurrection, not in the two millennia that the church has had to fulfill its calling.
Years ago, I began my prayers with the words, "Almighty God." But I no longer speak of God this way. When I think of the universe and of life and love, I am filled with wonder, and I call God "Creator." But I reject the image of God as an almighty ruler over history. Moreover, I resist religious teachings that counsel submission to a King of kings, and Lord of lords, who will rule forever. This way of reading Mary's song has long been used by men to justify their rule over "their" women, and it is a recipe for warfare and cruelty in the name of all that is holy. I reject the idea that we are called to serve the Lord of Hosts, which literally means the "Lord of Armies."
Instead, I put my trust in the God of the Christian story. This God is like a woman, who gives birth, and in doing so suffers not only with pain, but with the knowledge that the life she has created will be full of suffering. This God is born in a stable, in a village, to poor parents, amidst people who are oppressed by their rulers. This God is crucified by those who have won power over the earth through warfare. This God is raised from the dead in the life of the church that refuses to give up hope despite suffering, despite death, despite the darkness of every time.
Sometimes I ask myself, how can we have faith in such a God? How can we hope for a peace that has not come and does not seem possible? I share the doubts and the anger of those who find too much suffering in the world to believe in God. Yet, I continue to preach and teach about the love of God and the hope we share in Christ.
Why do I persevere? Because the story of God in Christ is the best story I know. I am who I am because of this story of faith, and so I continue to teach and preach, always aware that I am not worthy of this calling.
Despite my doubts, despite my despair, despite the darkness that threatens to overwhelm my spirit and our time, I trust in the God of Hannah and Samuel, the God of the psalmist, the God of Mary and Jesus — Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit. Amen!