Many years ago, I heard this passage from Luke’s Gospel read from the pulpit of the African-American church where I have been a member for more than sixty years. It was the Sunday before Christmas, and our pastor chose to preach his sermon on these verses, which are commonly referred to as the “magnificat.” They record Mary’s response to the announcement that she will soon give birth to the long-awaited Messiah of Israel. She is stunned with this incredible news.
As the preacher read these verses in his loud and dignified manner and declared with authority that this coming Messiah would “bring down the mighty and exalt those of low degree,” and that “the rich would be sent away empty,” there were cries of affirmation from congregants across the sanctuary. Elderly African-American Christians who had been put down and humiliated and economically exploited by many of us in the white establishment seemed unable to contain themselves as they cried out, “Yes,” and “Thank you, Jesus.”
As a member of the mighty and the rich cohort called white middle-class America, I felt threatened by all of this. I always knew the scriptures needed to be interpreted through various contexts. But until that Sunday, I hadn’t realized that powerful people interpret scriptures one way and that disenfranchised people interpret them another way.
Over the years, through education and hard work, our church people have gradually become middle class. But I wonder if they still get out of the reading of scripture the truths grasped sixty years ago.
God, sanctify our imaginations so that we might be able to read the scriptures through the eyes of the poor and oppressed, because it was for them that you brought good news. Amen.
Isaiah anticipates a future time of total restoration. The desert will bloom, the blind will see, the lame will walk, and the people will return to Jerusalem with joy. Since ancient times, some have understood this as a description of the age of the Messiah. Luke records the song of Mary. After Elizabeth blesses her and her unborn child, Mary praises God for God’s strength, mercy, and generosity. In the epistle, James encourages his audience to be patient as they await the second coming of the Lord. In the same way, we wait for the birth of the Messiah during Advent. An uncertain John the Baptist sends a message to Jesus to ask if he is the promised Messiah. Jesus responds by affirming that he fulfills the messianic expectations in the prophets.
Read Isaiah 35:1-10. When has scripture strengthened you through personal or societal crises?
Read Luke 1:47-55. Those with power interpret scripture differently than those who are oppressed. How can you make room for perspectives other than your own as you interpret scripture?
Read James 5:7-10. When have you had to endure frustration with patience? How have you been strengthened by these experiences?
Read Matthew 11:2-11. What does it mean to you to be greater than John the Baptist?
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