Luke 1:39-56–Magnificat

Luke 1:39-56 (Joy)
December 16, 2018
Joanna Harader


Ryan, my husband, and I met over 25 years ago at a Baptist Conference Center in Green Lake Wisconsin. We had both just graduated high school—class of 1993 if you’re trying to do the math—and were on summer staff at Green Lake. It will come as no surprise that he was the cutest guy on staff and I (along with a few other young women, I might add) fell hard, fast.

I took every opportunity to see him: attending all the staff gatherings—even when they watched horror movies, which I hate; eating meals with friends at his house; taking off work to go to a Milwaukee Brewers game—and managing to sit in the back seat with him on the way there where I braided his long golden locks.

Eventually the two of us split off from the pack. We would go on long walks together, sit by the lake, talk into the wee hours of the night. Often Ryan would work until 9 or 10 at night, then we’d stay up walking and talking for hours. I would crawl into work exhausted in the mornings—once I nodded off for just a second while using a lit Bunsen burner. I feel like I should have a movie montage with “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” (UB40 version) playing in the background.

During that summer of 1993, Ryan was definitely the biggest thing in my life. Nothing else seemed as important—or even as real—as this new, wonderful relationship.

So, it may be obvious what this stroll down memory lane has to do with joy. But not quite so clear how it is connected to Mary and her song. It’s the beginning; the very first line of Mary’s song that led me down a winding path to think about that summer when Ryan and I met.

Mary’s song opens with these words: “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

I’ve long loved this feisty poem, but I took the opening for granted. “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Just another version of “Praise God;” “Hallowed be thy name;” “Glory to God in the highest.” Generic words of praise to introduce the more substantial part about feeding the hungry and throwing down tyrants.

But this week, the opening stuck in my head: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Magnifies. Makes bigger. Mary’s soul makes God the biggest thing in her life.

Of course, different versions of the Bible translate this line differently. The NIV says, “My soul glorifies the Lord.” Living Bible says, “How I praise the Lord.” But I was stuck on this idea of Mary magnifying God. So I got out my interlinear New Testament and my Greek lexicon to check out the original Greek. Turns out the verb used here means: “to enlarge, amplify, to manifest in an extraordinary degree.”

Isn’t that beautiful?
My soul enlarges God.
My soul amplifies God.
My soul manifests God in an extraordinary degree.

There are, of course, plenty of times when someone—or something—is amplified in our life. When we fall in love, for sure. And also when finals week is coming up. When we are planning a vacation. When we have a new baby. When we are moving to a new place. When we are looking for a job. When someone we love is terminally ill.

There are any number of circumstances in which some person or thing looms large. Most of our focus and energy goes toward them—towards studying, towards packing, towards talking to the doctors, towards watching the baby’s chest move gently up and down as she sleeps. For better or worse, at particular times in our lives, certain things are magnified—which makes everything else seem small in comparison.

So this year, reading Mary’s familiar song, I was stopped in my tracks by the first line. And I kept wondering: What does it mean to magnify God? What happens when God is the one who takes center stage, who receives our energy and attention, who makes everything else in our lives seem small by comparison? What does that look like?

Whatever it looks like, it seems to be connected to the next line of Mary’s song: “My spirit rejoices in God my savior.” Mary magnifies God and finds joy in God.

This joy Mary speaks—or sings—about is not a surface level, hakuna matata/don’t worry be happy, kind of emotion. Her joy is not a carefree, happy feeling. Mary’s circumstances here are less than ideal. She is an unwed pregnant teenager; probably physically exhausted, emotionally confused, and scared to death about her future. But she doesn’t magnify her own circumstances—her exhaustion, her confusion, her fear. She magnifies God in the midst of those circumstances, and her spirit rejoices. She magnifies God, and gains a perspective beyond her own specific situation.

Because magnifying God is not about focusing on some other-worldly reality. It can cause us to view this world more broadly; to consider the needs of other people beyond ourselves. This, I think, is how Mary magnifying God moves her into her prophetic proclamation:

God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

Do you notice anything strange about this statement?

“God has brought down. . . . God has filled.” . . . It’s in past tense. Mary has so magnified God, she has made God so large in her spirit, that she is able to see the work God is doing in the world as a completed reality. Even though there are still tyrants on their thrones and hungry people in the world, Mary is proclaiming the promises of God as if they have already happened. And she is not just focused on God’s promises for her in particular, but God’s promises for the world.

The Magnificat is a beautiful poem, establishing Mary’s important role in the story of salvation, evoking joy, and proclaiming God’s justice for the world. And it all starts with: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” It is when God is made bigger—when we “manifest God to an extraordinary degree”—that we can enter into joy. Not mere happiness that comes from favorable circumstances, but a joy like Mary’s that is present within us even when things aren’t going well; even when we don’t feel happy.

One of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor, in reflecting on the scripture we heard today, writes: “[J]oy seems almost irreverent in a world where so much is going wrong. Who can be joyful while babies starve and teenagers shoot each other and whole tribes of people try to wipe each other off the face of the earth . . . Only joy has never had very much to do with what is going on in the world at the time. That is what makes it different from happiness, or pleasure, or fun. All of those depend on positive conditions— good health, good job, happy family, lots of toys. The only condition for joy is the presence of God. Joy happens when God is present and people know it.”

Joy happens when people magnify God. When we pay attention to the overwhelming reality of God’s presence with us.

Joy happens AND justice happens. In Mary’s song, the joy leads into the justice. In our lives, the perspective we gain when we magnify God leads us to see the justice God desires in this world—that the lowly be lifted up and the hungry filled—and it leads us to act with God in the fulfilling of those promises.

Several people from Peace showed up at the County Commission meeting on Wednesday evening. Jill and Katie, along with over 20 other people from our community, shared their longing for justice in Douglas County—that our resources would not be used to build a bigger jail to incarcerate more people, but that we would work to end poverty, support those with mental illness, create more just and compassionate systems. People explained that jails tend to hurt the already marginalized; that they help keep money and power in the hands of the few at the expense of the most vulnerable.

I was tempted—very tempted—to go to the mic and read Mary’s song:

God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

I am sure that many people who spoke against the jail expansion on Wednesday did so from a purely secular perspective. They did not intend to magnify God in what they said. But for me, God was magnified with each voice that spoke out. And the despair I had felt as I listened to our community leaders talk about spending millions of dollars on incarceration turned to joy.

Not joy because I thought the county leaders were going to change their minds. Not joy because the system miraculously became more just and the captives were freed. But joy because instead of magnifying the injustice, the short-sightedness, my own frustration, I began to magnify God—I was reminded of the truth of God’s word and the hope we have in God’s promises. Each speaker who spoke was, for me, the voice of God.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to go into the next county commission meeting focused on God, with hope in my heart. There’s a good chance I will be grumpy and frustrated a gain. And the Spirit will have to give me another nudge—or push.

When Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she is in an extreme situation—unmarried, far from home, pregnant with the savior of the world.

My heady summer of falling in love was also an extreme situation—far from home, meeting new people, crushing on a really cute guy. While I still love Ryan very much, I no longer watch horror movies with him. And we generally go to sleep at a reasonable hour. The intensity—the magnification—has decreased a bit over the years.

And I imagine that was true for Mary as well. Could she have continued to magnify God with that same intensity her whole life? When she had to change Jesus’ dirty swaddling clothes, when she had to wake up in the middle of the night to feed him—again, when he went off on his own and she didn’t hear from him for days, weeks. Surely it wasn’t all magnifying and rejoicing.

Still, during this one difficult, stressful time, Mary was able to magnify God. To focus on God’s presence and let God loom so large in her life that her sprit rejoiced—despite her difficult circumstances.

And that is our challenge today. Maybe we can’t manage the full-throated song of praise that Mary sings at Elizabeth’s house. But can we magnify God? Even a little? Can we allow God to be just a little larger in our lives? Can we focus our hearts and our energy on the justice God is bringing? Can we let our spirits truly rejoice in God our savior?