At the end of the Cold War someone found a book from the 18th century buried in some papers in East Berlin. The book was about 100 pages long, and it was filled with symbols and words that no one could translate. The book was in a code so unbreakable that it had lasted for almost 300 years without being cracked. That is, until a few months ago.
The book is known as the Copiale Cipher, and it was finally translated by three scientists—one from the States and two from Sweden. As it turns out it was the manual for a secret society in Germany. It described their rituals and practices, and also their fascination with ophthalmology and eye surgery. Strange club.
The story of how they broke the code is interesting, and it reminds us of how hard it can be sometimes to understand what God is trying to teach us in the Scriptures. That’s not the issue in today’s text.
And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
I’ve said before here that Mary is one of my favorite people in the Bible. She’s a young single pregnant teenager in a culture that wasn’t all that forgiving. But she’s been told by an angel that she’s carrying God’s child, and she responds with such faith and courage that it’s hard not to admire her.
Let’s remember just how courageous Mary is being at this point.
God calls all kinds of people to do his work, and most of them respond with excuses or try to get out of it. Abraham says he’s too old, and so does Sarah. Moses suggests to God that he made a mistake, and recommends that God try his brother. Jonah flat out runs away. God calls him to a task and he turns around and does a 100-yard dash…that is, until a fish gets him to come back.
Jesus—even Jesus, when he is in the garden of Gethsemane—even Jesus asks if God can come up with some kind of a Plan B.
Mary, though, somehow gets it and is willing to hear God’s call no matter what. Remember what she says to the angel just a few verses before our text:
“I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”
Mary’s full response comes in the form of an outburst of praise. “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” she says. What we have after that is a song where Mary shows how deeply and completely she has absorbed God’s plan, even if she might have been terrified.
Mary didn’t misunderstand.
Mary didn’t try to haggle with God.
Mary didn’t have to decode God’s call in order to know what to do.
Mary understood God’s call on her life, and she responded by singing his praises.
We learn some things about God in Mary’s song:
First, God calls people to come to him in faith: “His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.”
Second, we see God’s sovereignty: “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.”
Third, God nourishes us for the calling he has given us: “He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” That’s not just a slam on the rich. God is calling out anyone who thinks they don’t need him—that they can take care of themselves apart from God. Mary describes a great feast that is open to anyone who admits their need for God.
And finally, in Mary’s song we see the fulfillment of God’s promises and the foundation for the promises to come: “He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” If God could be trusted then, then we can trust him now.
I like that there is an image of a meal here, which shouldn’t really be a surprise if you know me. I like the picture of a feast for anyone willing to trust God more than they trust their own power or money. This meal is where we’re filled with “good things,” with God’s mercy and forgiveness, with his salvation and Holy Spirit.
When the group of scholars cracked that 18th-century cipher, they were quick to say that it was their ingenuity and not fancy technology that got the job done. “This is something humans did, not something computers did,” they said.
What we celebrate during this season isn’t anything humans did. We celebrate God reaching down to all of us with the gift of his son—the gift of a way back to living the lives we were meant to live all along.
When we come to the Table we remember something crucial and life-changing that we were not able to do on our own. The sacrifice of Jesus is what we’re called to remember as we take the bread and the cup. It’s a sacrifice we can’t make for ourselves.
Mary helps us understand that. As we come to the Table this morning I invite you to say a prayer of thanks that a teen-aged girl in the first century was wise enough and brave enough to hear God’s call and say: “May it be to me as you have said.”
My prayer is that we can all show that kind of faith this Advent season. Let’s pray.