Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 12, 2021 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Judges 13:2-7+Psalm 115:9-15+1 John 3:1-3+Luke 1:46-56

There was a church fight on Twitter last week. No, it wasn’t the typical evangelical vs. progressive argument that is so much of our public discourse these days. No, this was a debate among people like us. Episcopalians, also known as #WAT, or weird Anglican Twitter. Seriously. And they were arguing about the Magnificat, that Mary manifesto we just heard. Yes, there are people on Twitter and on Facebook who got really exercised about this. And that, my friends, is why it is called weird Anglican Twitter.

Well, what were they arguing about? Whose work is it to cast down the mighty, lift up the lowly, send the rich away empty? Is it God’s work? Or is it ours? The text says

God has shown

God has scattered

God has brought down

God has filled

God has helped (Luke 1:51-54)

So, this means it’s God’s work, right? We don’t get to decide who gets cast down or sent away. At least, that’s one argument.

But we know that the work of feeding and comforting and being kind to our neighbors and creating just systems is our work. And isn’t that what Mary is talking about here?

In this in-between time of Advent, when we await the birth and the second coming, Mary steps in with a prophetic word shared (as far as we know) only with her relative and co-conspirator Elizabeth. It is hard to tell from the way this is customarily translated, that all of these things that Mary says are going to happen have, in fact, already happened. Past tense.

Whereas we read

God has scattered the arrogant in the intent of their hearts,

and

God has brought down the powerful from their thrones.

these common translations of the verbs in the perfect tense, implying that these are things that started in the past and continue now, overshadow the fact that in the Greek, it’s just plain old past tense. It is a done deal.

God looked.

God did great things for me.

Showed strength.

Scattered the arrogant.

Brought down the powerful.

Lifted up.

Filled the hungry.

Sent the rich away empty.

Helped Israel.

But wait, you say. These things still haven’t come to pass. In this prophetic vision, salvation is assured for all time in the person of a not-yet-born savior.

Back when my son was studying acting at NYU, he would animatedly tell us about new things he learned, including using us as guinea pigs, trying out things like Sanford Meisner’s “as-if” technique with us. An “as if,” is when an actor is thoroughly responding to the scene in a wholly authentic way, as if it is real.  Meisner said, “Acting is the ability to behave absolutely truthfully under the imaginary circumstances.”[1] It is the art of making real what is not.

Well, if this salvation that comes in the incarnation, of God in human flesh, is not yet fulfilled, then maybe our role is to act as if it has come, and where we see a gap between God’s vision for this world and the reality of what is, then we do what we can to make it so. For a follower of Jesus, that is the vocation.

In our reading from Judges this morning, an unnamed messenger from God speaks to an unnamed woman from Zorah of the tribe of Dan, a region that bordered the territory of the Philistines. In the other annunciation episodes we read – Sarah and Hannah in particular – the promise of pregnancy does not come directly to them from God. The messengers tell Abraham that Sarah will bear a child, and the old priest Eli tells Hannah that her barrenness will end. And yet, this woman who is not even named gets a word directly from God’s messenger that she will have a son. This son turns out to be Samson, one of the last judges of Israel.

Now, this unnamed woman was not Mary, and Samson was not Jesus, but in pairing these stories, Wil Gafney helps us to imagine, to read as if Samson’s mother was an active participant in deliverance of the people of Israel, an active player in God’s work. Just as Mary was.

I don’t think we need to have debates about whose work the prophetic pronouncements of the Magnificat belong to. God has done the work. The plan of salvation is clear. But the time is not yet fulfilled. We are not powerless spectators in all of this. St. Augustine said that we should pray as though everything depends on God and work as if everything depends on us. In the rabbinic text Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Tarfon wrote, “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither or you at liberty to neglect it.”[2]

This is what the Magnificat of Mary invites us into, living as if God’s done deal is really done…until it is.


[1] https://themeisnertechniquestudio.com/meisner-technique/

[2] https://www.sefaria.org/Pirkei_Avot.3.1?lang=bi

ASEPSermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 12, 2021 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas