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 Preaching Luke 1:46b-55


It’s bedtime for the nine-year-old boy and, after his prayers, he has one last question for the day, “Dad, what is praise?”

Surprised by the question, but undaunted, the father responds, “If you go to a standard dictionary you get things like, praise is the ‘act of expressing warm approval or admiration of something or someone.’” The look on his face says that this response doesn’t sound right.

“I’m guessing that you’re asking about the word at church.” Yes. “Warm approval and admiration won’t really do, will it, when we’re praising God.” No.

Praise is bigger than that. It is a theme that pervades the whole of Scripture. It is a word that some nine-year-olds need. Sometimes things happen, and we simply need to let the praise out. It’s not always a welcome-thing that has happened, but it’s clearly a God-thing and praise is that which wells up within us.

Words that help point to the meaning of praise, are “to bless, “ “to exalt, “ “to glorify,” “to magnify, “ “to thank, “and to “confess.” To praise God is to call attention to God’s glory, from a place deep in one’s soul and spirit. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

I used to work with a friend in a congregational ministry, and we developed some standard ways of expressing our surprise and joy when one of those beautiful moments in ministry would unfold before our eyes. We’d say, “Isn’t that just like Jesus!,” or “Look at the Gospel happening there!” It was shared recognition of God’s goodness in action and often it would sneak up and surprise us. Often it messed with people’s plans and usually some form of reconciliation and justice-making would result. Praise God.

Perhaps on the Third Sunday of Advent the preacher can bend the arc of the sermon towards praise. In order to do this, something beyond everyday language is needed; poetry, metaphor, symbol, and song. Charles Bartow has rightly said of the worshipping church that, “We sing even because we truly know more than we can say,” and of preachers, “we cannot measure up to the task of putting it all in straightforward prose.”1 Preaching can lead us to the things that are beyond saying, beyond thinking, beyond value, to the liminal points where we can see and experience the very things that are “beyond.”

Mary has been visited by the present but hidden God, and it is revealed that this God has done something in her lifeliterally within herand as this news sinks in, she breaks into a song of praise. Sometimes only song will do.

Mary had something happen. Mary had been visited by the angel Gabriel. She has heard the proclamation, she has received the promise, she has moved forward trusting this promise, and she has gone to tell someone, in this case, her cousin Elizabeth. Out comes this song of praise, the Magnificat. Mary’s hymn of response to what God has done, what God is doing, and what God will do. So she sings, and this Song of Mary becomes liturgical prayer and praise, one of the most-used part of Scripture in the centuries of Christian worship.

Why? What is going on in Mary’s Song? Why is it, and should it be, our song too?

First, because what God has done for Mary, God has done for us too. Preachers can glean from exegetical, theological, and pastoral reflections plenty of great material for preaching this lesson. Yet, the preacher has the opportunity to break away from everyday cognitive language into modes of speech that have the capacity to evoke a real sense that God is speaking in the present.

This is to move away from the crucial but insufficient language of declaration, announcement, information, explanation and saying-something-about-a topic, and into the language of reception, communion, narrative, symbol, and finally, saying-something-directly-to-someone. More, and strangely, the sounds and images of the sermon can resonate in such a way that they are taken up by God for Christ’s own speech. The hidden but present God addresses the people. It is possible, not guaranteed, that the word spoken in the sermon can be recognized and received as the Word of God, Christ himself, speaking into the ears and lives of the listeners using the preacher’s sounds as the medium.

What are the things in life that bring about the deep desire to call attention to God’s glory? Let those words and images resonate in sermon preparation. It will be worth the time spent dreaming up a list of responses to that question. As I listen to the sermon on Advent 3, I would like the preacher to help us to see how God does for us what God did for Mary. What are the many ways God has done great things for me? Being a middle-aged man, it is not likely to be the birth of a child (even though nothing will be impossible with God!), but what does it look like when people like me, and people unlike me, are led to sing their own Magnificat because of what God has done? What does it sound like when we sing it together?

This is important to hear because the message of this “word” turns things completely upside down, and if you’re not at the bottom of things (as Mary was), it will take some time and some faith to see this action of God as a praise-worthy development. Mary’s Song sticks in the throat of anyone on or near a throneeven a throne of our own making. Listen to what God has done. What is your song? Mary’s Song shapes our understanding of God’s action; she leads us to praise. The preacher has the opportunity to do the same.

Todd Townshend

Notes
1.  Charles Bartow, God’s Human Speech: a Practical Theology of Proclamation, (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1997), 24.

 

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See Tom Steagald's Preaching Journal! Tom is the Pastor at Lafayette Street United Methodist Church in Shelby, NC, and adjunct professor at Hood Theological Seminary (AME, Zion) in Salisbury, NC. Tom has just published Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus (Upper Room). Previous titles include Praying for Dear Life and Every Disciple's Journey, both from NavPress. He is a frequent contributor to Feasting on the Word, The Abingdon Preaching Annual, and other preaching resources. Tom's journal will detail each week's work to "discover" the sermon to be preached at Lafayette Street. Follow FestHomiletics on Twitter 

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