Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sermon on the Magnificat by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

During a brief stint in London (1933 - 1935), Dietrich Bonhoeffer served two German-speaking congregations. As a record of that period of his ministry only sixteen manuscripts survive. Among them is a sermon from the Third Sunday of Advent, 17 December 1933, on the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). An excerpt, edited and translated by Edwin Robertson, from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Christmas Sermons, Zondervan 2005:

This song of Mary's is the oldest Advent hymn. It is the most passionate, most vehement, one might almost say, most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. It is not the gentle, sweet, dreamy Mary that we so often see portrayed in pictures, but the passionate, powerful, proud, enthusiastic Mary, who speaks here. None of the sweet, sugary, or childish tones that we find so often in our Christmas hymns, but a hard, strong, uncompromising song of bringing down rulers from their thrones and humbling the lords of this world, of God's power and of the powerlessness of men. These are the tones of the prophetic women of the Old Testament: Deborah, Judith, Miriam, coming alive in the mouth of Mary.

Mary, filled with the Spirit and prepared. Mary, the obedient handmaid, humbly accepting what is to happen to her, what the Spirit asks of her, to do with her as the Spirit will, speaks now by the Spirit of the coming of God into the world, of the Advent of Jesus Christ. She knows better than anyone what it means to wait for Christ. He is nearer to her than to anyone else. She awaits him as his mother. She knows about the mystery of his coming, of the Spirit who came to her, of the Almighty God who works his wonders. She experiences in her own body that God does wonderful things with the children of men, that his ways are not our ways, that he cannot be predicted by men, or circumscribed by their reasons and ideas, but that his way is beyond all understanding or explanations, both free and of his own will.

Where our reason is offended, where our nature rebels, where our piety creeps anxiously away, there, precisely there, God loves to be. There, he confuses the understanding of the clever. There he offends our nature, our piety. There he will dwell and no one can deny him. And now, only the humble can believe him, and rejoice that God is so free and so wonderful, that he works miracles when the children of men despair. He has made the lowly and humble to be lifted up. That is the wonder of wonders, that God loves the lowly: "God has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.

God in the "humble state" -- that is the revolutionary, the passionate word of Advent. First, Mary herself, the wife of a carpenter. We may say, the poor working man's wife, unnoticed by men -- but now, insignificant and in her humble state as we might see it, she is significant to God and appointed to be the mother of the Savior of the world. Not because of some remarkable human trait in her, not because of some great piety, not because of her modesty, not because of any particular virtue in her, but apart from any of these characteristics, only because God's gracious will is to love the humble and lowly, the insignificant. He chose to make them great. Mary, living in the faith of the Old Testament and hoping for her redeemer, this humble working man's wife becomes the mother of God. Christ the son of a poor working man's wife in the East End of London! Christ in the manger . . . God is not ashamed to be with those of humble state. He goes into the midst of it all, chooses one person to be his instrument, and does his miracle there, where one least expects it. He loves the lost, the forgotten, the insignificant, the outcasts, the weak, and the broken. Where men say, "lost," he says "found;" where men say "no," he says "yes." Where men look with indifference or superiority, he looks with burning love, such as nowhere else is to be found. Where men say, "contemptible!," God cries, "blessed." When we reach a point in our lives at which we are not only ashamed of ourselves, but believe God is ashamed of us too, when we feel so far from God, more than we have ever felt in our lives, than and precisely then, God is nearer to us than he has ever been. It is then that he breaks into our lives. It is then that he lets us know that feeling of despair is taken away from us, so that we may grasp the wonder of his love, his nearness to us, and his grace. "From now on all generations will call me blessed," says Mary. What does that mean? Mary, a maid of "humble state," called "blessed?" It can be no other than the miracle of God that he has astonishingly performed on her; Go has been "mindful of the humble state" of Mary and raised her up; God, coming into the world, seeks out, not the high and mighty, but the lowly; that we might see the glory and the mighty power of God making the down and out great. To call Mary "blessed" does not mean to build her an altar; but with her to pray to God, who is mindful of the lowly and chooses them, who has done great things -- holy is his name. To call Mary blessed is to know with her that God's "mercy extends to those who fear him," those who watch and consider his astonishing ways, who let his Spirit blow where it will, those who are obedient to him and with Mary, humbly say, "May it be to me as you have said."

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