Magnify: A Sermon on Mary & Elizabeth


A Sermon for Old West Boston

Advent Four: Sunday Dec 23, 2018

Luke 1:39–55

IMG_3760She noticed that he moved the paper closer, then further. Closer, then further, trying to find the just right spot. When she looked out from the pulpit, she could no longer see Bart’s eyes looking back at her from the fourth pew on the left. All she saw was the paper pressed against Bart’s nose, then held out at arm’s length. So, first they change the size of the font.  12 point was too small, so they bumped it up to 14, and then 18, then 24 so the bulletin was 32 pages long.  Next he found a magnifying lens, head bent down and hovering over the page. Then they decided to project the words up on a screen, which worked for a few years until his eyes dimmed further still. Finally, when the fog lay permanently over Bart’s eyes, there he sat in the fourth pew on the left, he sat without a paper bulletin, without his magnifying glass, without the projection screen. He sat and he worshiped God, those words having carved grooves into his soul, words so familiar he no longer needed a bulletin, or needed a hymnal at all.  He just sang. Let us pray…

I got my first magnifying glass for $1.99 from the Denville Smoke Shop & Card Store after reading books about the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. It wasn’t a particularly powerful magnifying glass, designed more for old people doing crossword puzzles, but good enough for a girl detective in suburban New Jersey. I could peer up close to footprints on the pavement, check for smudged fingerprints on windowpanes. I could spy into the tiniest crack in the floorboard to pull out an unknown fiber with my tweezers.  There was always that kid in every neighborhood who wanted to use my magnifying glass to try and start a fire. Clunky, black plastic rim and thick cool glass, a magnifying glass opened up whole new worlds of Creation- ant colonies and root balls and entire ecosystems in a puddle of water.  Look one way, and the small becomes large. Look in the opposite direction and the large becomes small.

My soul magnifiesthe Lord, Mary says. Magnifies. Some other translations read “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord” but I much prefer magnify. It’s a verb we don’t use often, it stands out.  There’s enough meat on these bones to chew on. What does it mean to magnify? The original Greek verb is μεγαλύνω, \{meg-al-oo’-no}. You hear that prefix- mega, to make big, like mega-phone, megapixel, megahertz, mega millions – to multiply by a million. In America where Christmas has become so totally domesticated, it’s easy to miss how counter-cultural this holy day is. In Christmas, God magnifies the lowly, the small, the rejected.  In Advent, God gets in small, and works in miniature to paint the cosmic redemption of humanity. In a culture that didn’t hear women’s voices outside the domestic sphere, much less travel on their own, we get a whole passage of scripture with just women’s voices.  Here, we zoom in tight to see how God works.

IMG_3761We slip into Elizabeth and Zachariah’s house with Mary.  Finally alone, these women speak honestly about what is happening in their lives. I feel that kinship of slipping into a women’s bathroom with a girlfriend, ostensibly to use the toilet, but really to find enough space to say what’s true.  In the kinship of a protected space, in the sisterhood of the marginalized, Mary and Elizabeth find enough room to sing.

And they need this space to make sense of what’s going on! The God of their ancestors, the God who freed the enslaved and led them out of Egypt, the God of kings and prophets and nations, this God woke up one Tuesday morning and decided to become human, and chose to be born of Mary.

So Mary begins to sing her praise of this God. A God who sees up close, hi-def, holding a magnifying mirror to our lives. A God who knows even the number of hairs on your head, a God who knows the freckles on your cheeks, who sees the bruise hidden under your long sleeves during the heat of summer, a God who knows your despair of your sleepless nights, of the cold comfort in the bottom of the bottle of bourbon that never quite heals. A God who knows even the strange inhospitality of human bodies hosting unwelcome diseases. A God acquainted with our long nights of desolation. A God who sees your scars, and bears scars on God’s body too.  This is Mary’s God, a God so invested in humanity as to become human. Creator of all Creation becomes a helpless child.   The Large has become Small. The All-Mighty becomes dependent.

In Mary, God is magnifying that which culture has disparaged, a foreigner, a teenager, a woman, an uneducated immigrant in occupied territory. In the Greek Orthodox tradition, Mary is known as the “theotokos” or the God-bearer. This is how God chose to enter the world, in the most disparaged, most culturally insignificant person, so that all the hidden, disparaged, insignificant details of our messy human lives could be made holy too.

Hold the magnifying glass one way, and the large becomes small. Look in the opposite direction and the small becomes large.  In choosing this way to enter the world, God magnifies the Mary. In her song, Mary magnifies God.  Look at Luke 3:46, Mary says “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Mary isn’t singing a song of self-promotion, but a testimony to her God. The object of the magnification is God. And as Mary testifies to the power of her God, she tells a story of what God does-

God who knocks rulers from their thrones, God who fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty, God who scatters the proud in the conceit of their hearts. Mary tells the story of a God who across time has raised up the lowly and brought down the mighty.  The object of Mary’s song is God. She sings to proclaim the greatness of God. The Good News here is good, joyful even.

But sometimes, in our good respectable New England ways, we can take good news and make it a footnote. We can take good news and keep it quiet for fear of being prideful or boasting. We can take good news and hide it under a bushel basket. I’ve long heard of Old West, this scrappy, resourceful experiment in worship and service you have in the chaos of the city. I’ve heard of your Monday meals and dreams to make this amazing space something that gets used all week for the benefit of your neighbors. I’ve heard of your commitment to radical inclusivity of all God’s children.  You have a great story, a story worth telling, a story worth proclaiming to a world of people who feel alienated and disparaged. Maybe it’s time for you to sing a little more loudly, to tell your story a little more often, to take this good news and tell it beyond the people you already know.  Now, Mary’s sing is not self-promotion. The object of her praise is not herself but her God. Magnify is different than promote.  This is not about taking ads out in the paper or on Facebook. Advent invites us to magnify what God is up to in our lives, turn the magnification glass inward and outward. God who sees the details, the particulars, invites us to magnify what God is up to in our lives outwards.

How do we learn to magnify? We learn by watching others. We listen to Elizabeth so that we can magnify like Mary. It’s no accident that Mary’s song comes after Elizabeth’s praise. Elizabeth, Mary’s older relative, models how to magnify the Lord. She tells the story of what God is up to in her life. How God is so powerful and the goodness so joyful as to make the child in her womb leap with joy.  It’s a cross generational experiment here. Of listening in two directions, turning that magnifying glass back and forth.   And as you begin to tell your story, to try out your voice, you will learn from others, others you read, others you listen to here in church. You will watch how others stretch and use their voices to magnify the Lord, and you will try out your voices too.

How do we learn to magnify the Lord? We learn by watching others. Mary isn’t just making up this song on command, she’s singing a familiar song. Mary is singing a version of Hannah’s song from 1 Samuel.

It’s a remix, a mash-up, a hymn so familiar that when the moment is right, Mary reaches back and pulls out a song. It’s scriptural karaoke. These are a people soaked in the scriptures of the Hebrew bible, and so when the moment overwhelms, they turn to what they know. This is why we sing and learn Scripture, so that when we do not have the worlds, we can lean on the words of those who came before us. Mary knew Hannah’s hymn, so that when the moment arose, she broke into song.  We sing so the melody gets stuck in us, so the words carve groves through our souls.

Some of us have learned to be too small, to make ourselves, to tell our stories quietly if we tell them at all. Some of us have taken up too much space, shouting over other voices. Some of us who found serenity in 12-step programs have learned to be right-sized, not too big and not too small.  What’s fascinating about the Mary’s song is that she’s proclaiming loudly. Look at verse 48, “ for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” That seems like a pretty strong sense of self. From now on all generations will call me blessed. To magnify God does not mean to shrink yourself small to make God big. God needs us right-sized to magnify God.

Look at verse 42, Elizabeth exclaimed with a loud cry. Women and poor folk and queer folk and people of color have learned to be demure, to speak quietly, or not speak at all. In her loud voice, her out-door voice, Elizabeth exclaims in verse 42. “This phrase in Greek means to shout as though one is using a mega-phone, literally a “big” or “mega” voice. This is how Elizabeth speaks a prophetic word to Mary, and so to us — in her outdoor voice.”Teach our children to use our indoor and our outdoor voices. Mary teaches us to use our outdoor voice to proclaim the greatness of our God.

You know this as you teach your children. Its not that our outdoor voice is wrong and our indoor voice is right, it’s about learning when to use which voice in which place. Mary and Elizabeth show us, when proclaiming what God is up to in our lives, it’s ok, necessary even, to use our outdoor voices.

For something so big, something so wonderful as this, we use our outdoor voices to magnify the Lord. Because what was disparaged has been lifted up. The lens has turned, and Mary is honored, rather than reviled; remembered, rather than forgotten;  named, rather than unknown; so that we may be too. My soul magnifies the Lord. May yours this day and always. Amen.






Published by RevEverett

I'm a pastor in the United Church of Christ here in Boston. I serve as the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. Cycliss, seamstress, my book is "Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels." NJ by birth, MA by choice. Opinions are my own. Love abounds.

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