This morning we’ve heard the songs of two women who share a name in their own language, though separated by the early translators of the Bible. Miriam and Mary, also separated by centuries of history, but singing from the overflow of the same joy in their hearts at the working of the same God in human history to save God’s people, and extend the rule and reign of justice, peace, and love. This morning, as we come to the end of Advent and get closer to Christmas, I’d like us to think about the stories of these two women and what led them to sing in this way. To explore the similarities and differences, and to ponder what their stories and songs might have to say to our stories and songs.
So what do we know about Miriam? We know from this passage that she is a prophet, and that she is Aaron’s sister. We know from elsewhere in Exodus that Aaron is Moses’ brother, so that makes Miriam – Moses’ sister. Miriam is there, right at the beginning of Moses’ story. At the time of Moses’ birth the oppression of the Egyptians on the Hebrew people had reached terrible proportions. The Pharaoh was so concerned about the immigrant crisis that he had ordered the murder of the male children of the Hebrews – he commanded that every male child should be thrown into the Nile.
When Jochabed gave birth to Moses, she knew that there was a death sentence against him, so she hid him for three months, but when she could hide him no longer she put him in a basket, covered with tar, and floated it in the Nile, among the reeds. Her daughter, Miriam, was left to keep watch over her little brother. The Pharaoh’s daughter came to the river to wash and found the basket, with the baby. Little Miriam springs up and suggests that a nurse be found for the baby, and fetches her mother. And so the baby Moses is saved, through the river, and Miriam watches it all from the bank.
The years pass and Miriam watches as Moses grows into a young man, and the oppression of the Egyptians continues. One day Moses disappears, having killed an Egyptian who was beating up one of the Hebrew slaves. Miriam is still in Egypt as the years pass, one Pharaoh dies and another is crowned, the slavery of the people is heavy on them. As it says in Exodus, “The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out.” This is what Miriam was living through as Moses was shepherding in the hills of Midian.
At last, God sends Moses back to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and lead the people out of slavery and into a land that had been promised to Abraham. Moses was eighty years old when he returned to Egypt. Miriam was older than him, probably getting on for ninety. She had lived as a slave for ninety years. Then she saw something that she had waited all her life for. She saw the Egyptians defeated and the people of God walking free.
But then they come to water again, this time the Red Sea. And the Egyptians have changed their minds, they want their slaves back and are coming fast. What are the people going to do? Drown? Be trampled by chariots? No, Moses reaches out his staff, God parts the waters and the people walk through on dry land. As they reach safety and the army of Egypt tries to follow, the waters return and the danger is swept away. Eighty years on, Miriam watches it all from the bank, and this time she sings. She sings of the God who saves, of the God who defeats the enemies of God’s people, of God who is glorious and higher than can be imagined.
From this glorious victory, and celebration of God’s rescue the people head off into the desert, heading for the promised land. On the way there is a bit of a family dispute. Aaron and Miriam take against Moses’ wife, because she is not a Hebrew. You would have thought that years of being oppressed for being of the wrong race would have taught them to be a bit more open-minded, but no, they start speaking against Moses. God is not best pleased about this and rebukes and punishes them, before restoring them to the fellowship. Shortly after this Miriam dies and is buried in the desert, well before the people reach the promised land.
They do eventually get there, though, and under Joshua’s leadership they enter and start to take their inheritance. They are lead by a series of Judges, and then Kings, some of whom are good, some of whom are not. Some of the time they follow God and are faithful to the God who loves them and rescued them, much of the time they are unfaithful and disobedient. In the end they are exiled from their land, because of their unfaithfulness.
A remnant return to Jerusalem from that exile, humbled and poor, they return to rebuild the temple and to restore the worship of God to the promised land. That was four hundred years ago. For four hundred years the people of God have been waiting for the Messiah, the chosen one, to come and deliver them, to lead them into greatness again, to fulfil the promises of God.
Mary is brought up with this hope, this expectation, this longing. She is one of an oppressed people whose land is occupied by enemy troops, the Romans. She’s heard the stories of old, of the rescue of God, she’s learnt the old songs, Miriam’s song of triumph. And then, one day, probably as a teenager, she receives a visit, an unexpected visit, an angelic visit. She is going to have a baby. Perhaps not the best of news for an unmarried fifteen year old who had never been with a man, and who was going to have some explaining to do to her parents and fiancee. So, perhaps not surprisingly she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth who is also expecting her first child. There is so much joy when they meet that there is more song.
Mary praises God and bursts out in joy at the salvation of God. Despite the difficult circumstances she is grateful to God and celebrates the power and majesty, strength and glory of God who does great things for individuals. The God who lifts up the humble, overturns rulers, feeds the hungry, sends away the rich, remembers promises and keeps them.
Time passes and the son is born. Thirty years later Jesus bursts out into his public ministry, calls together a band of followers and goes off teaching, preaching, healing, and feeding people. There are family tensions in this as well. Mary and Jesus’ brothers don’t always get it and at one stage even fear that he’s gone mad. They try and bring him home, only to hear him say, “Who is my mother, who are my brothers.” But in the end they are reconciled, Mary accompanies Jesus on much of his ministry, and is there at the end as Jesus, with infinite kindness, looks down from the cross and commits Mary into his friend, John’s care. Mary is there to discover the empty tomb, to see her son restored to life through the waters of death, restored to life so that everyone who believes may enter the promised land of life in all its fulness, with Jesus, forever.
Miriam’s song and Mary’s song. One sung towards the end of a life, one sung towards the beginning of a life. Both sung by women who knew oppression, but lived with hope. Both sung in praise of the God who saves, who acts, who is mighty on behalf of the weak. I wonder where their songs echo in your heart.
I wonder if some of us who have been Christians for a while sometimes lose heart. Maybe we feel like we saw God do something good a long time ago, as Miriam saw Moses being rescued as a young girl, but since then it feels like God has gone missing. Life has been hard, maybe our children and grandchildren haven’t followed us in our faith. It’s been a long time and still we feel like we’re in captivity. Perhaps from Miriam’s song we can take hope. In the end Miriam did see the rescue of God’s people, she did she life emerging from the water again, and it caused her to sing. Now Miriam didn’t see the fulfilment of the rescue, she didn’t enter the promised Land, she didn’t cross the Jordan. We don’t always see everything that we want to see, but it seems to me that as we trust God, and choose to praise God for what we have seen then we find new hope and joy.
Maybe we recognise Mary’s song. We’re younger, we’re excited about the prospect of life ahead of us. We’re a bit afraid of the responsibility, the grown up-ness of it all. I remember a year or so after Liz and I got married talking to a friend of ours, also recently married, who asked me, “When do you think it stops feeling like we’re playing at being grown ups?” I don’t know about you, but I still feel like that sometimes. It might be only recently that we’ve said “yes” to God, and we’re not sure what it’s all going to entail. It could be quite an adventure, but you’re a bit apprehensive about what other people might say, particularly your family. Perhaps from Mary’s song we can take hope. God is on our side, and will not let go. God knows our humble state, and is in the business of blessing and of keeping promises. That is what God is like.
I also wonder if these songs have something to say to us as a church about our singing. Sometimes in churches music and songs can become a source of bitterness and disunity. This is a shame as these are gifts given to us by God as a means of praise and worship. It seems to me that the example of these two songs break down the divides between generations and styles of music.
Mary’s song is one that is based on an older song, the song of Hannah. This is a teenager who draws on the old, traditional hymns of her faith, knows them intimately and uses them to express her deepest heart feelings. And of course, over the centuries Mary’s song has been set to many different tunes and settings, all of them an expression of the creativity of that time, and all of them, at some stage, both a song that is familiar and “a song we don’t know”.
Miriam’s song, one of the oldest pieces of Hebrew poetry recorded, led by a ninety year old, is a two line chorus that would have been sung repeatedly by the women dancing around with tambourines. Just picture it for a minute.
The most important thing about both songs is that they are both absolutely and totally focussed on God. And the most important thing about the singers is that they are both absolutely and totally focussed on God. I count myself fortunate that I don’t have strong musical dislikes. I love belting out old hymns, I find chanted Psalms engaging, and I enjoy learning new songs so that I can express my worship of God in new ways.
At All Saints we aim to have a mixture of different styles of worship, to suit a variety of tastes. There is an ongoing conversation about where the balance in that mixture is, but the reality is that it is never going to satisfy everyone all the time. I know some of us find band led worship difficult, and others of us find organ music oppressive. I haven’t had to struggle with this myself, but in conversation with those who have, and have come to a place of being reconciled to it, the key has been choosing to worship God from the heart, choosing to focus on God absolutely and totally, just as Mary and Miriam did. As we do this, so we find that other things fade away, and we can whole heartedly sing, with Mary and Miriam, “My soul doth magnify the Lord.”