(Originally preached at AFUMC on 12/20/2015)
Advent 4C Scriptures: Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:47-55; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45
39 Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands. 40 She entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 With a loud voice she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. 43 Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. 45 Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.”
46 Mary said,
“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
47 In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
48 He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
49 because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
50 He shows mercy to everyone,
from one generation to the next,
who honors him as God.
51 He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
52 He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed.
54 He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
remembering his mercy,
55 just as he promised to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.” (Luke 1:39-55)
So we finally get a Christmas-y story this week! Is anyone else happy about that? We’ve been going through the season of Advent for the last four weeks, and most of the Scriptures and stories I’ve talked about haven’t been very Christmas-y. The first week I talked about the second coming of Christ, the last two weeks I talked about John the Baptist, all talking about something called God’s good future coming at us, and how Advent is a season where we actively anticipate that good future.
All those Scriptures and stories are assigned by the lectionary each week, so I didn’t really have any choice since I’d already decided to limit my preaching to the texts assigned by the lectionary each Sunday. So I was getting kind of tired of it myself-when am I going to get to preach about Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the shepherds, all of that stuff? But this week, we finally get part of the Christmas story, right?
Maybe you’ve had some of these same thoughts. Everything else in our culture tells us that this is the Christmas season, we need to put up our trees and lights, buy presents, listen to Christmas music. But then you come to church, and your preacher keeps going on about how it’s Advent, it’s not Christmas yet. So maybe you’re ready to hear these stories too. One last plug for Christmas Eve-that’s exactly what we’ll be doing at 2pm this Thursday, hearing the stories and prophecies of Jesus’ birth.
But I hope that you noticed in the Scriptures read and in the Magnificat, Mary’s song, that we all read together earlier in the service (if you’re reading this blog, check out the second half of the Scripture above, under “The Magnificat” to see what I’m talking about-great stuff), that this story is only Christmas-y in the fact that it’s part of Jesus’ birth story. The emotions and sentiments communicated are not very Christmas-y. This is not a warm, fuzzy nostalgic story. This does not talk about the most wonderful time of the year, right? So let’s see what that’s all about.
I’d like all of you to look at the second inside page of your bulletins, where it says “Core Message.” I was wondering, could we all read what comes after that together? “In God’s good future, status, fortune, power, and expectations are all reversed.”
That’s an important word this week. Reverse, reversed, the Great Reversal. This concept of reversal is what I want to spend some time talking about. Because that’s a big theme of this passage, we can see this pretty easily in this story and its context, right?
The story does require a bit of context. Elizabeth, the woman who Mary visits, was the mother of John the Baptist, who we talked about the last two weeks. She also had a miraculous pregnancy with John, a baby in her old age. Six months into that pregnancy, the angel Gabriel comes to Mary and tells her that she’s going to have the Son of God. Now realize where Mary is in her society-she’s a woman in a very patriarchal society-in that time, women always had to “belong” to a man-father, husband, brother, even son; she was young and unmarried, wasn’t seen as a full adult, so no one would listen to her or think she had much worth; and she was from Nazareth, a small rural village in the middle of nowhere that no one of any importance would care or think about. And now, with Gabriel’s announcement, she becomes an unmarried teenage mother, with all of the stigma attached to that. Imagine your reaction if you found out that Lauren, my fiancé, was pregnant, and imagine what you would think if I said that it was the Holy Spirit’s doing, we didn’t make any bad decisions. That’s the kind of thing Mary was dealing with. Now remember our theme of reversal today. Let’s see what happens with all of this.
So in our story today, Mary comes to Elizabeth, and when she comes in, the baby who would become John the Baptist jumped or kicked in Elizabeth’s stomach. You who are mothers, remember the first time you felt your child kick or move around in your stomach-that’s what happened to Elizabeth when Mary came in.
And when this happened, Elizabeth starts praising God and blessing Mary, saying “Happy, or blessed, is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.
So now, Mary, the poor, scared, rejected, lowly, unwed teenage mother is blessed to the highest heavens by this elderly woman who tells her that her fortune, her status will be reversed.
And then, in response to all of that, Mary sings the Magnificat, that beautiful piece we all read together earlier in the service. It’s in this song that we see most clearly this theme of reversal that’s been hinted at throughout this whole story; in this song, it’s completely drawn out. You can look at the song in your bulletin insert again to see what I’m talking about. But my favorite part is this: the powerful are pulled down from their thrones, and the lowly are lifted up. The hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty-handed.
The Great Reversal-this is what happens at Jesus’ birth. This is what God did and is still doing in the birth of Jesus-reversing the low status of his servants, reversing the bad fortune of the poor and the outcast, reversing the power structures of the world so that the 1% no longer oppress the 99%. And God is reversing everyone’s expectations of how God is supposed to work, right? God didn’t go to the capital city of Jerusalem, the seat of power and religious influence in that area, right? God didn’t come to a man, who was the privileged gender in that society, and still is in our society. God didn’t come to the rich, God didn’t come to the politically or economically powerful. God sent his Son first to the outcast, the lonely, the poor, and the oppressed.
Why did this reversal happen? Because the old ways and current ways of doing things in the world do not save us. How this world works is actually not working. God needs to do things in a new way if salvation and change and redemption are going to be effective, because the old ways are simply not working. Reversal is needed.
Now the thing I love about this song of Mary’s is that the reversal it calls for is SO radical. She calls for the powerful to be thrown down from their thrones, not a slow improvement in the ethical behavior of the powerful. She calls for the rich to go away empty-handed and the hungry to be filled, not gradual trickle-down economics. She’s not pulling any punches here, she’s throwing caution to the wind and singing about these huge changes that God is making through this baby Jesus.
Now I think these ideas are given a more modern twist by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King had a lot of these themes from the Magnificat in his work and writing. Especially in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. Has anyone read this? If you haven’t, I strongly suggest that you do. Just Google the title, and you’ll be able to read it for free online (or read it here). It’s great-read it.
King’s work was all about this Great Reversal we’re talking about today. When he worked to desegregate the country and free the African-American people from the oppression of racism, segregation, prejudice and discrimination, he was doing what Mary sang about in that song-lifting up the lowly, the oppressed, the outcast.
So King wrote Letter from Birmingham Jail when he was imprisoned for his work with nonviolent protests and demonstrations to end segregation in Birmingham, AL. He wrote this letter to white clergy in the area when he heard that they were criticizing his actions and calling them “unwise and untimely.” They agreed with Dr. King’s goal of desegregation, but they disagreed with his method of direct action. They thought that Dr. King and the protesters should always wait for a better time, should not demand their freedom now, but should be more patient for it.
So King wrote this letter to show them the errors in their thinking. And there is so much more in this letter than what I’m sharing-again, you’ve got to read the whole thing, but here’s one part of it.
Dr. King said “We [meaning African-Americans] have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights.” Basically, don’t tell them to wait longer, they’ve waited long enough. That’s kind of like what God was doing in Jesus, wasn’t it? I can’t wait any longer for things to change, so I’m sending Jesus and I’m going to change things myself.
Dr. King saw that what society was doing wasn’t working, so something needed to change. Reversal was needed. The powerful and privileged needed to be brought down, and the lowly, outcast, and oppressed needed to be lifted up. This was the kind of salvation and freedom that Jesus brought at his birth. This is the same kind of thing that happened when God came to a poor, unmarried young woman in a backwater town and said that she would be the mother of God’s Son.
There are even more modern examples of this reversal. This is what all the protest movements around the world have been about. The poor and the oppressed and the outcast stand up and say “This isn’t right! This isn’t justice! This isn’t equality!”
It can be especially seen in the #blacklivesmatter movement. The black community in America couldn’t stand another life being taken by police and state violence, so they started a protest movement to change things. The creators of the #blacklivesmatter movement saw that the work we remember Dr. King and other activists doing is not at all complete. Racism, sexism, homophobia, prejudice, discrimination, a general fear of people who are different from us-they all still exist. None of that should exist.
So the #blacklivesmatter movement is simply doing what Mary did in her song today when she visited Elizabeth. They’re calling for the powerful to be pulled down from their thrones and the lowly to be lifted up. They’re calling for the hungry to be filled, for the rich to be sent away empty-handed. This is the reversal that God started to bring about in the birth of Jesus, and God’s continuing to bring it about in the world today.
This is one of the real, Biblical messages of Christmas. When his birth happened like it did, Jesus turned the world upside down and inside out, reversed status, fortune, power, and expectations. And this is the work we’re all called to as followers of Jesus Christ.
Now the amazing thing is that Alger First is already doing this work. Remember back this past summer with our Backpack Blessings Program. We saw a need, students from poor families wouldn’t have the school supplies they needed, so we saw a way to meet that need.
We have our monthly food pantry, the Commodities Distribution. We gave away over 100 boxes of food this past week. We have a history of Missions Conferences, sending missionaries and mission teams out to the world and to our community to help the poor, lonely, and outcast. And we’re building the Community Outreach Center. The work is nearing completion, and when it’s finished, we’re going to be able to be in such great ministry with the poor, outcast, and oppressed in our community.
All of these are ways to engage in the work of reversal that Mary called for. All of these are ways to lift up the poor, to relieve the oppressed, to give hope to the hopeless, to give light to those living in darkness. We see injustice, we see poverty, we see hunger, and we say “This isn’t right! This isn’t just! This isn’t equality! We can help!”
See, I think this is our call this Christmas. On Friday morning, we’re going to gather with our families, open presents; we’re going to be so excited about those really great gifts, and we’re going to try to act happy about those gifts we know we’re going to try to return on Saturday. And I hope that we find some level of joy and peace. But as we do that, remember that this work of reversal is not done. The world is still hurting and broken. There are oppressed people who need to be lifted up. There are powerful people who need to be pulled down. There are hungry people who need to be filled. As a church, we’re already doing some of this work of reversal. But we are called to do more.
Dream with me church. Imagine a world where the powerful do not get their power by stepping on those underneath them. Imagine a world where food is shared equitably so that everyone has enough. Imagine a world where our black and brown brothers and sisters don’t have to fear the violence of racism and women don’t have to fear the violence of sexism. Imagine a world where the scales are actually balanced and everyone is actually on an even playing field. The Great Reversal, brought about by Jesus’ birth, hoped for in God’s good future, pushes to make that a reality. We are called to work to make it so.