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"No Need for a Selfie: Mary's God-focus"

Dec.20, 2015 Lk.1:39-55


We live in a "selfie" society. When you're a tourist in a faraway place, it's no longer sufficient to get a picture of, say, the Taj Mahal - you have to get a picture of yourself in front of the Taj Mahal. Remember back in the dark ages, before devices had front-facing cameras? You actually had to ask somebody else to take your picture! Now, not only can we do-it-yourself with our smartphones, there are even "selfie sticks" custom made so it doesn't look the photo is growing out of the end of our arm.

In this past week's issue of our local paper The Citizen, the editorial cartoon caricatures Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne taking a selfie in front of a group of recently-arrived refugees. PM Trudeau says, "Just one more group selfie!" One of the refugees groans, "Haven't we suffered enough?"

I enjoy seeing other people's faces on social media, to a point. However the selfie CAN become an obsession. Our ego loves to be stroked, affirmed, to add up the "likes" on our self-portraits. A March 2014 infographic states that over 1 million selfies are taken every day; 34% of males state they retouch every selfie, compared to just 13% of females; according to Samsung, selfies make up 30% of the photos taken by those between the ages of 18-24. Our selfie culture risks sharing the fate of the fellow in the old Greek story of Narcissus, who one day saw his reflection in a pool of water as he was about to drink, became entranced by his own reflection, and eventually died there staring into the water. Pretty pathetic!

God in the Ten Commandments warned Israel against the making of "graven images" that might steal their attention away from Him. Ex 20:4-5a "You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God..." It is all too easy to start worshipping what we see in the mirror, and become preoccupied with the visual image we project to people, rather than more important matters of character and the heart.

Today we're learning from the story of Mary, just after she finds out from the angel Gabriel she's been chosen by God to supernaturally become the mother of Jesus. Now, speaking of idolatrous images, the church over the centuries has perhaps missed the point here. Go into many established Roman Catholic churches and you'll see somewhere an image of Mary, often the "Madonna and Child", and it's easy to see how a stereotype of Mary became emblazoned on the common adherent's mind so people even started praying to Mary, perhaps because they thought she had special privilege, perhaps because they found her more accessible than the lofty Trinity. But that leads to Mariolatry.

As we read Luke's account, we find that, in contrast to many young women (and, yes, men) of today, Mary is not preoccupied with her own image and looks: but rather with focusing on God, presenting a vivid portrait of her Almighty Saviour.


When taking a portrait, it helps to choose the right lens. If you use a wide-angle lens and take a picture of someone's face close-up, you risk exaggerating the nearest features (like their nose). It's much better if you can to use a telephoto lens and take the picture from some distance, so the proportions are more natural.

When we talk about God, it's important to zoom the right way. Mary begins, Lk 1:46f "And Mary said: "My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior..." The word "glorifies" translates a word that according to the lexicon means "make great, magnify, make conspicuous." Hence the traditional title for Mary's song, The Magnificat. But realize we're not talking about the way a MICROscope magnifies: it takes something small and makes it appear bigger than it really is. No, when you are trying to describe God, it's more like the way a TELEscope works: a telescope takes something that is WAY bigger than us - though far away - and brings it down to our size so we can see it and appreciate it. To "magnify" or "glorify" God as Mary does is to try to sample in human bite-sizable chunks aspects of His overwhelming goodness and beauty. God will always be too big to fit in your viewfinder! But He graciously accommodates Himself to begin to be appreciated by us limited mortals.


In ten verses, which no doubt became used as a hymn in the early church, Mary summarizes some of God's most excellent qualities in language that echoes concepts from the Old Testament. Some emphases occur 2 or 3 times. As this is the 4th Sunday in Advent, I'd like to draw parallels to the Apostle Paul's famous "Love Chapter" in 1 Corinthians 13, with four main headings, or - if you will - "Love in 4D".


In the traditional King James Version, 1Cor 13:7 reads that love/charity "Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things." In the NIV, love "always PROTECTS".

Mary says she's rejoicing in (v47) "God my Saviour"; note - even saintly Mary needed salvation, was a sinner like us, and needed to be redeemed by Jesus. A saviour is a rescuer or deliverer, someone who DOES a saving action. V 49 "For the Mighty One has DONE GREAT THINGS FOR me..." V51 "He has PERFORMED MIGHTY DEEDS with His arm..." V54 "He has HELPED His servant Israel..." Here the emphasis is on God's great power - not just in its awesome greatness - but harnessed, channeled, at the service of saving His precious people. A strong Saviour, a Helper. In John 14-16 Jesus would speak of a "Paraclete" or Helper, the Holy Spirit, who would be given to those who trust in Jesus. God delights to put His power to work in YOU! You glorify Him, make Him look good, as you operate in His strength, for His loving objectives.

So, love "bears" all things - lifts up, protects, saves, helps, shows a strong arm on behalf of those in need.


1Cor 13:4 "Love is patient, love is KIND..." What's it mean to be 'kind'? The Concise Oxford Dictionary describes it, "Of gentle or benevolent nature; friendly in one's conduct to; affectionate." There's a sense in which the greater person turns aside to assist one who is lesser or in difficulty, without at all being obligated or "beholden" to do so. They're not "supposed to" or "required to" lend assistance; but simply out of the kindness of their heart, they choose to.

Luke 1:48 Mary declares God "has been mindful of the humble state of His servant". The word "humble" automatically introduces the idea of lowliness, a differential, God the Supreme Ruler had no obligation to notice or promote someone like Mary, a maiden from a backwater town in the distant north of the country. NRSV has "He has looked with favour on the lowliness of His servant." No glamorous stars emerging from Rolls Royces and pausing for Hollywood photo-ops here! Again in v52f "He has lifted up the humble.He has filled the hungry with good things..."

On Wednesday, an anonymous donor visited 2 different Walmart stores in Ohio and paid off customers' layaway orders to the tune of $106,000. A store manager commented, "[The customers' feel very blessed that someone has come in and done this.Most of them have multiple children, so it's giving them money to take care of other things." Such KINDNESS results in feeling BLESSED. As Mary notes in 1:48, "From now on all generations will call me blessed."


1Cor 13:4 begins, "Love is patient..." V5 "It is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs." RSV "it is not irritable or resentful." Patience doesn't instantly get on your case about things or shortfalls. Love doesn't "keep score", keep chalking up deficiencies on a tally sheet; it doesn't get irritable, ticked off easily. Love isn't resentful, nursing grudges, waiting to "get back" at someone who's hurt you. In short, love is MERCIFUL.

Mary sings in 1:50 "His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation." V54 "He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful [to Abraham and his descendants forever]..." The lexicon describes the Greek word translated here as "mercy" this way: "kindness or goodwill towards the miserable and the afflicted, joined with a desire to help them."

When have you been "merciful" toward someone lately? Have you "written off" the debt of someone who owed you something? Did you bite your tongue when someone spoke sharply to you or slandered you or said mean things about you?

I don't know if it fits better under the category of "kindness" or "mercy", but here's perhaps one instance. I had bought some things at a store in Stratford and was hurrying back toward the car where my father was waiting, before we went to lunch together. I was just about at the car when I heard a noise behind me and looked back. About 5 yards behind me, a middle-aged woman in a fur coat had collapsed on the sidewalk. I put down my parcels and rushed back to where she lay, as other bystanders gathered. Apparently one of her high heels had caught in an indentation on the sidewalk and made her stumble. After she collected her wits about her, she accepted my offer to help get up to a standing position. I was happy to be able to help; it feels good to do what's merciful and kind. I've been on the receiving end of other people's mercy much myself, and God's MUCH more - so it only makes sense to extend His mercy to others when we can.


Finally, there is an element of faithfulness to love, of trustworthiness, being truthful to one's commitments and one's promises. 1Cor 13:6-7 "Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres."

In the Old Testament, particularly in the book of Psalms, two of God's key attributes that frequently are paired together are "lovingkindness" (Heb.checed) and "faithfulness" (Heb.emeth). So as Mary recapitulates an ode to God's good loving qualities, it's not surprising that faithfulness or trustworthiness plays a role. Note that cousin Elizabeth comments in 1:45, "Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!" That's FAITH - believing that the angel's promise that she would supernaturally conceive and bear a son would come true. Remember Mary replied to Gabriel in 1:38, "let it be with me according to your word."

This emphasis on faithfulness or trustworthiness comes through in the very last phrase of Mary's melody. Lk 1:54f "He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers." God remembers His promise to Abraham, that He's going to bless all peoples on earth through his descendants (Genesis 12:3). And Mary senses that the something-very-special happening within her womb is a key piece of the fulfilment of what was said to the forefathers. "Even as" - in accord with, keeping with, in completion of the promise made to the patriarchs. God's promises are true; He is trustworthy; love "rejoices with the truth", always trusts.


A story in a Salvation Army magazine by Carol Ash, a mother of 4 adopted children who lives in Oshawa, reflects some of what we've been talking about: love's patience, kindness, mercy, strengthening the lowly. Carol recalls...

"One Christmas, my four children and I headed into the big city. We went to a mall and visited Santa. It was fun for the younger two and it was great to see the older two play along. I gave them a small treat, we did some shopping and had dinner out. I was hoping it was the beginning of a new family tradition for us.

"The day was going well--no major meltdowns and lots of photos by this camera-loving mom. But then we went into a store that had a large gumball-style vending machine. For $1, the kids could get a bouncy ball. I said no. Then my youngest son noticed the machine was broken, and found just over $2 in change. We looked for a store employee, as I wanted him to return the money, but, of course, they let him keep it. I knew this was going to be the end of a relatively calm day.

"He wanted to spend his new-found treasure right away. I agreed, providing he could find something for that amount of money. In this big city mall, it didn't happen. We left the mall to go look at the amazing Christmas displays in store windows. The other three walked ahead of us, embarrassed, as my youngest son screamed, angry he couldn't spend his money.

"I'm used to this, so I ignored the screaming and waited for the light to change so we could cross the street. One of the others called out, 'Is that a homeless person?' and pointed at a man sitting on a cardboard box on this cold day. I said yes, wishing the light would change.

"Then my youngest broke free of my grasp and ran over to the homeless man, holding out his treasure. I nodded to let him know it was okay. The man took it and thanked us, saying two dollars was enough for him to get some food.

"The light changed and I walked across that street with my head held high, fighting back tears. OK--I cried.

"My boy asked me if he did a good thing. I assured him he did a beautiful thing."

"Meltdown over, we looked at trees, elves and Santa, then headed home.

[Ms.Ash concludes] "Just when I wonder if I am doing anything right as a parent, one of my children does this. I often think that my son would have been the boy who offered Jesus his lunch in the story of the loaves and fishes."

Did that homeless person have any claim on that money? Not at all. Did Mary have any claim on God making her the mother of the Messiah? No. Do we have the slightest claim on God's great and magnificent mercy? Not in the least! Yet He delights in blessing those who come to Him in trusting faith - and blesses us with the beautiful gift of Himself. Let's pray.