19 December 2016

Homily for Advent 4 - Rorate Coeli

"Mercy Magnified"
Luke 1:39-56

Listen here.

She is “blessed among women” because she carried the very Son of God in her womb. This morning we focus on the song that Mary sang. It’s one of the song staples that the Church has sung for centuries. In this song—“the Magnificat”—we get to see how God’s mercy is magnified, not only for us and to us, but also in us and through us. In this song we get to see how God answers the prayer we prayed in our Collect—that He would help us by His might and use His grace and mercy to lift from us the sins that weigh us down.

The world could sure use mercy. The oil of mercy would certainly make the engine of life run more smoothly for every person on the planet. When a dictator rises to power and then subjects his people to his will by harsh means, there’s certainly a lack of mercy. When you’re driving west on Interstate 64 and you come to that ever-present bottle neck of cars between Hanley and I-170, you can see a certain lack of mercy. Everyone races to where they’re going, and get there the fastest, and so one driver hits the gas pedal to prevent that other driver from getting in front of him and slowing everyone down. But God’s ways are different.

When we listen to and sing the words of Mary’s song, we hear how God’s mercy was magnified for her and in her. Young Virgin Mary had just heard the words of the angel that she would bear and give birth to the Son of God Most High. She had traveled to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Then Elizabeth sang to her, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Then came Mary’s turn to sing. And notice, she does not sing of herself. She does not sing of her feelings about these magnificent words and events that have just taken place. No, the young Virgin sings of God. “My soul magnifies the Lord…my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

Not only does Mary sing of her God and Savior, but she also sings of His goodness. She sings of what God has done for her: “He has looked on the humble estate of His servant.” God loves to look upon the lowly, not just those in lowly circumstances, but especially those who humbly confess their sins, those who see their need for God’s mercy and compassion, those who are weighed down by their sins.

Martin Luther said that the Virgin Mary teaches us a twofold lesson. “First,” he said, “every one of us should pay attention to what God does for him rather than to all the works He does for others.” My, how we love to compare ourselves to other people! We do notice the great things God is doing for other people. Then we think that God is somehow cheating us, or not giving us our due. After all, friends at work always seem to have nicer clothes. The neighbor across the street always seems to  have a nicer car. Or a fellow Christian always seems to have a stronger, more vibrant faith—a faith that can endure trials and move mountains. But Mary teaches each of us to focus, not on ourselves, but on God and what He does for each of us. After all, He gives us Himself in the Virgin’s womb, in the manger, on the paths of Galilee, on the streets of Jerusalem, on the cross, and out of the empty tomb. Yes, your Lord and Savior gives Himself to you in your Baptism and in the Holy Supper. Your God is certainly merciful to you, just as He was for Mary.

And look how merciful our God is to little Elijah Mark. Here this little guy is brought forth in iniquity, in sin did his mother conceive him (Psalm 51:5), and yet the Lord swoops down and washes him clean. In this little washing the heavens open and rain down the mercy of God-in-the-Flesh, without any merit or worthiness in little Elijah, and certainly not by his own reason or senses.

Here’s the second lesson that Luther sees in Mary’s song: “In the second place, she teaches us that everyone should strive to be foremost in praising God by showing forth the works He has done to him, and then by praising Him for the works He has done to others.” Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a little friendly competition to outdo each other in thanking and praising God for what He has done for each of us? Wouldn’t it be great if in every little detail of life each one of us would pause and say, “Wow! Thank you, God, for…!” Wouldn’t it be great if you could praise God for those nicer clothes that He gave to your co-workers, or for that nicer car that He gave to your neighbor? Wouldn’t it be great to see God working in every little circumstance of life—even the less fortunate ones—and especially in the Gospel proclaimed and the Sacraments given out? It would be great. And that’s exactly how God works. When we celebrate the Incarnation and Birth of our Lord Jesus, we are celebrating this: God has shown His mercy and continues to show His mercy. When the Son of God takes on our human flesh, He is making all things whole and holy once again. “He who is mighty has done great things for me, holy is His name.”

So Mary teaches us to sing, “His mercy is for those who fear Him from generation to generation.” Here’s the heart of Mary’s song, as well as the heart of every Christian’s faith and life: God’s mercy is on you who fear Him. The Blessed Virgin knew that she could live and have life with God only by His great mercy. The ten lepers, infected with that skin-ravaging disease, knew that Jesus, Mary’s Son, could and would show divine mercy. So they cried out to Him for help and healing (Lk. 17:13). When the blind man sitting outside Jericho heard Jesus coming down the road, he cried out for the Son of David to have mercy on him (Lk. 18:38). Yes, God loves to have mercy on us sinners, on us who are infected with the leprosy of sin, on us who are blinded by our sinful desires.

Yes, God loves to show mercy. And He magnifies His mercy by focusing it and revealing it in His incarnate Son. In Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection we get to see that God is not a terrible Judge. Instead, He’s a loving Father who loves all of us weighed down by our sins. In the Word-made-Flesh we are freed from the burden of our self-centered, self-controlling desires. And just as Mary sang of God’s mercy while she was carrying the Son of God in her womb, we get to sing of God’s great mercy because the Son of God lives among us in His Church. Where else can you hear and sing of God’s mercy but in His one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church?

So, don’t try to be proud. After all, God “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” Proud, selfish desires are not becoming for you, people of God’s mercy. And don’t try to be high and mighty, because in Christ’s life, death and resurrection, God “has brought down the mighty from their thrones.” Even as a pre-born infant Jesus the Christ is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. He does not come to hob-nob with the powerful and the rich. Instead, He comes to exalt you who are lowly in your sins. He comes to fill you who hunger for His righteousness, His justice, His vindication. And while He may send the rich away empty, He fills you with the treasures of His goodness and mercy. Come to His Table and be filled!

As Mary teaches us by her example, let’s learn to live by and sing of God’s great mercy. Yes, each of us needs His mercy magnified on us. No doubt nerves get frayed from the shopping, from battling the traffic, from the winter weather, and from putting up with the selfish desires from other people as well as from within ourselves. We’re all tempted to resort to judgment. But remember the words of James (2:13): “Judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Yes, God shows you mercy so that you will also show mercy to people around you. Just as Mary proclaimed the greatness of God and His mercy, He wants you to do the same, especially as we celebrate His coming in the flesh. Amen.

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