Sermon: The Toughest Part

12.20.2015       Preaching Text: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” (Luke 1:46-47)

In my reading of current events over the last few weeks and months, one sentiment seems to rise to the fore: fear and anxiety. We live, I am told, in an increasingly anxious age. Terrorism, world disorder, racial strife, unrest in our cities, the overall loss of confidence in our governments to protect us – these are just some of the issues that have us reeling back on our collective heels.

One of the natural responses to such anxiety and fear is bad decision-making. When we feel threatened we are prone to opt for solutions that are fear-based rather than thought-filled and Spirit-centered.

Thus what strikes me most about Mary’s Magnificat is its exaltation and adoration – its wholesale fearlessness. When you stop and think about it, there’s nothing more challenging or difficult than praising God when we’re feeling anxious or afraid as surely she must have been.

We might be tempted to see the anxieties of our own age as somehow unique. We’re living it, after all. But on another level we know this to be utterly false. Ancient history is replete with war, barbarism, and gross injustice. Social disorder, racial strife, and political unrest are hardly unique to us moderns.

In fact, one might well argue that we’ve been mostly spared the worst of it. We live in relative peace, after all. Our borders separate us from two friendly nations and two expansive oceans. Most of us have been spared the kinds of cruelties and degradations much of our world has known all too well.

In Mary’s day things were not quite so easy. And they are about to get a lot tougher as she embarks on a very uncertain future, one that will throw her life into turmoil. She will give birth to a child who, she is told, will cause even the mighty to rise up.

Her response? The Magnificat, words of exaltation, adoration, and joy.

There is nothing in her words that denies impending danger and threats. Soon she will give birth, not in the comfort of her home, but in a dirty stable. Shortly thereafter she and Joseph will be forced to travel far from home, to Egypt, to escape the murderous threats of Herod who, having received word of the Messiah’s birth, orders the execution of all children under two years of age – just to be “on the safe side.”

But Mary’s heart is undaunted. She sings out her joy. She is humbled and blessed, overtaken with praise and thanksgiving. Her response is not fear or anxiety, as one might expect, but adoration.

The proper human response to news of Jesus’ birth, according to the biblical story, is adoration. Shortly thereafter the Three Kings arrive, representing the entire known world, bearing gifts of…adoration.

Yet such adoration can seem odd to us, if not elusive. Perhaps it’s because we’re conditioned to think that praise and adoration only make sense when things are going well. At the first sign of trouble, in other words, we are apt to take things into our own hands.

This is because, Christian rhetoric aside, we think and act as if we’re in charge. Worship and adoration are things we do on Sunday mornings, having little or nothing to do with the hard choices and difficult, hard-nosed challenges we face Monday through Saturday.

I am not suggesting, however, Christian quietism, that we do nothing, waiting for God to act. It’s more that our untrained instincts invariably lead us to think and act in ways that ignore or violate God’s will.

The truth is that we are mandated to act out our Christian calling in the here-and-now. We are urged to use all available tools, tools our Creator has given us and asked us to steward, both material and spiritual, to effect God’s reign of love and justice. The challenge is in using these tools in ways that honor and reflect God’s desire for creation.

Thus, a proper Christian life begins with adoration, even though adoration is perhaps the toughest part of life.

That’s because we’re born as anxious creatures due to the fact that we’re finite (not infinite). We also are born radically dependent on our Creator, and interdependent with all of life around us.

These inborn limitations leave us existentially anxious, and we simply can’t stand it. The gospel however offers a remedy. Its first prescription is that we first accept these limitations as not only God-given but perfectly natural, even good!

The gospel then invites us simply to accept the fact of our Creator’s love for us. Every single human problem, I would argue, is rooted in our resistance toward receiving the full measure of God’s love.

Which is to say that we’re not very good at accepting or receiving God’s grace. If we were, we would know that not only is God’s love sufficient, but by humbly receiving it we too can know the same simple exaltation and adoration expressed by Mary, no matter our outward life circumstances.

To this point, one of the world’s greatest theological truths is found in the Westminster Catechism, the Presbyterian Church’s historic statement of faith from 1647 which consists of a series of questions and answers.

The very first question is my personal favorite and captures the essence not only of what it means to be a Christian but a human being.

“What is the chief end of man?” we are asked. What is the meaning of life, in other words?

“Man’s chief end,” comes the answer, “is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”

Here is the very essence of life. Each of us, bar none, is created by God, for God. Our task, thus, is simply to glorify God and know the joy God intends. The not-so-subtle implication is that without such adoration our lives are seriously incomplete.

In adoration our soul finds its source (it is magnified), and simplicity is the result. In adoration we testify in faith that God loves us fully and completely, and that this love is sufficient for us to know joy and happiness.

Lacking this, we shall forever flail about trying to fill the empty, God-shaped hole with which we were born, cluttering up that yawning space with pail substitutes, mere idols that mimic the genuine security and well-being only God alone can grant.

Only when we find that peace within us, born of praise and adoration, can we hope to think and act in ways that promote the glory of God’s kingdom, offering life-affirming witness to our ever strife-torn world. Amen.