Are you having a great day? Is this a great church? Is the company you work for going “from good to great”? Was the Great Gatsby really so great? Do we need to make America great again? Do you know someone who is great with child? Did you sing, “Great is thy faithfulness” What does that even mean?
In our culture, as in many through history, great is often used in three ways. First, it is a vague modifier. Like “very” or “really,” great can convey a general and strong positivity: “I saw a great movie.” “He’s a great guy.” “Have a great day.” Great can also indicate skill: a great soccer player, a great teacher.
And third, great is often used to denote power, rank or strength. Muhammed Ali was Greatest, with a capital G, for his achievement as a boxer and more. “The Great and Powerful Oz” is not to be messed with.
Great is a great word! But we need to be very clear that when the scriptures use the word great, they are talking about something else. Greatness for us, as people of God, looks different.
On this 3rd Sunday of Advent, we actually have two gospel readings — the one Ken just read regarding John the Baptist, and the one we sung earlier – “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” the Magnificat, which is the song of Mary from Luke’s gospel. Taken together, these stories offer a short course on a biblical understanding of greatness.
Let’s start with Mary. After saying yes to the frightful invitation of an angel, and risking complete disgrace and banishment for pregnancy before marriage, Mary does another amazing thing: she travels — on her own, presumably, to visit her cousin. And there she opens her mouth and praises God. Note that she in the house of Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah, who is a priest – usually the one to open his mouth in worship. But it is not Zechariah who praises God, because God took his voice away temporarily for his unbelief.
So it is this lowly young woman who proclaims the greatness of the Lord. Another translation of “proclaim the greatness of” is magnify. My soul magnifies the Lord.
In the original Greek, “the Lord” is the direct object of the transitive verb “magnify.” Grammatically, this verse suggests that God is an object that is affected by Mary’s action. Mary magnifies – an active verb – and God is magnified as a result (Mark Davis, http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/).
She magnifies God by becoming part of the promises of God (Davis). And what are those promises? Bringing good news to the poor, lifting up the lowly, releasing the captives, sending the rich away empty. Mary has already entered into this work by saying yes — and through Mary, God is made great. Through Mary, God’s loving-kindness is magnified. Through Mary’s choices, the arc of history bends toward justice. Greatness results from partnership with God.
Note that the verbs in Mary’s song are in the past tense. She is already in relationship with the God of Israel, and so, as all prophet’s do, she is not so much predicting the future, but announcing what is already true.
The kind of greatness that Mary proclaims doesn’t sit well with the powers and principalities of the world, in her time or in any time. It threatens the Pax Romana and challenges the secular understanding of greatness, which celebrates economic status, superficial beauty, military might, and celebrity.
This secular understanding of greatness is embodied in King Herod and his family. He has the Roman legion behind him. He has a fancy palace. He has his dead brother’s wife and daughter. He snaps his finger and the room fills with people to celebrate his birthday. The system as it is works for Herod. It is easy for him to reinforce the beliefs of the day that those who are poor deserve it; those who are blind or lame are cursed by God for their moral failings. Herod is a study in unexamined privilege.
The vision of Isaiah coming true – the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them – this is not good news to those caught up in a secular understanding of greatness. It’s a scandal.
So Jesus’s ‘medical miracle’ stories are better understood as ‘resistance’ stories. The people of that day would have assumed the lame, the deaf and the poor are cursed by God for good reasons. Jesus, in curing the illnesses, is re-describing them.The healings carry an implied criticism of the conditions that have allowed such things to exist. By performing these works, Jesus proclaims that the lame, blind, poor, etc. are not cursed by God, but beloved by God. Further, the cause of their problems are not God’s wrath, but something else, something human and connected to a lack of human care. To make those claims by healing, etc., would be a cause for scandal.
As Mark Davis points out, they are signs of resistance to a system that insists on marginalizing people or making some people sick to protect others.
Greatness as God invites it is hard work. John – the greatest of the prophets – finds himself in prison. Others will, too. Sometimes the prison is real, and sometimes it’s the prison of doubt — Is Jesus the one? Is it true that there is more than what I know and see now? Can I use past tense verbs, like Mary, when so much seems so far off in the future.
On this third Sunday in Advent, the call to us is this: Magnify God. In the dark night, proclaim the greatness of the Lord. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from prison in another dark time, put it this way:
Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger; whoever remains lowly and lets God alone be high: whoever looks at the child in the manger and sees the glory of God precisely in his lowliness.
This is why children tell the Christmas story here, every year, on the fourth Sunday of Advent.Not because they are cute (although they are!) but because they have the least power. When they miss notes or forget lines, they are great. When their costumes are just OK, or their parents block your view with their video-camera, it is a great pageant. Whenever we are fully human and vulnerable, things are great.
Have a great week. Magnify God as we near the winter solstice. Magnify God as we mark International Human Rights Day. Magnify God as you consider how you will celebrate Christmas this year. Magnify God who lifts up the lowly, who does more than we can ask or imagine. Be great for God.