(A sermon based on Luke 1:46b-55 for the 3rd Sunday of Advent 2014)
Something’s not right.
The rich keep getting richer while the poor keep getting poorer. Every three years the Federal Reserve conducts a Survey of Consumer Finances; the most recent survey in 2013 revealed that the average pre-tax income for those Americans in the top 10% in terms of wealth rose by 10% from 2010-2013 while the average pre-tax income for Americans in the bottom 40% declined. The study reveals that in America no one is getting richer except for the rich.
In the United States in 2013, 45.3 million people (14.5 percent) were in poverty while 14.7 million (19.9 percent) children under the age of 18 were in poverty. 49.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households, including 33.3 million adults and 15.8 million children; households with children reported food insecurity at a significantly higher rate than those without children, 20 percent compared to 12 percent.
Here in 2014, 225 years after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, 140 years after the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and 50 years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act, we still, as recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and other places have shown, struggle with issues of power and justice and race.
I know that some of you are thinking that that’s just the way it is and some things will never change. But as the prophet Bruce Hornsby sang, “Ah, don’t you believe it!”
Besides, while I am concerned about the situations that I have described, what’s really on my heart today is the way that we who profess to follow Christ and to be citizens of the kingdom of God think about—or don’t think about, and respond to—or don’t respond to, those situations, especially when we consider what Jesus’ coming into this world was all about. And what Jesus’ coming into the world was all about is what today’s scripture is all about.
Let’s set the narrative context. A priest named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, who were both childless and along in years, were expecting a child; that child would turn out to be John the Baptizer. Elizabeth’s kinswoman Mary—young, poor, unmarried, and probably very, very frightened—had been told by the angel Gabriel that she was going to have a baby whom she would name Jesus and who would be the Messiah. Mary had left her hometown of Nazareth and gone to visit Elizabeth. When Mary said “Hello” to Elizabeth, the baby in Elizabeth’s belly leaped for joy. There’s a Hebrew Bible story about Isaac’s wife Rebekah experiencing a lot of excess movement during her pregnancy and the Lord told her that it was because the twins inside her—who were upon making their debut named Jacob and Esau—were two nations struggling together. They were really going to shake things up during their lives and even beyond their time on Earth [See Fred B. Craddock, “Luke,” Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox, 1990), p. 29 for the comparison, although he makes different points with it]. Well, John and his cousin Jesus were together going to shake things up, too—in fact, they were going to turn things upside down.
Upon hearing Elizabeth’s report of John’s prenatal jumping jacks and receiving further words of blessing from her, Mary burst into song (or at least poetry): “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” She praised God for reaching down to her in her humility and blessing her in such a tremendous way.
As her praise continued, however, she stopped just praising and went to meddling: “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Those are the realities that God was bringing about through her, Mary proclaimed.
It’s interesting how Mary phrases her words; she speaks as if those things—the bringing down of the powerful, the lifting up of the lowly, the filling of the hungry, and the emptying of the rich—have already happened. It’s also interesting how we hear her words; we hear her saying that those are things that are going to happen one of these days when Jesus returns and the kingdom comes in its fullness. It’s also interesting what we would expect her to mean if she is going to insist on saying such things; we would expect her to mean that they would happen in the near future because of the baby she was about to have.
The truth is that all three perspectives are accurate in their own way; such a reversal is what God has always been up to, it is what God was up to in the Christ Child who would grow up to be the Jesus who died on the cross and rose from the tomb, and it is what God will be up to when Jesus comes back.
But since that’s what God is up to, isn’t it what we should be up to, also?
Shouldn’t we be more interested in giving than we are in receiving?
Shouldn’t we be more concerned about meeting the basic needs of the poor than we are about preserving the advantages of the rich?
Shouldn’t we seek service rather than power and shouldn’t we stand in solidarity with the humble rather than with the powerful?
Weren’t those God’s agenda items in sending his Son Jesus into the world as Mary laid them out in her subversive song? Won’t those be God’s agenda items when Jesus returns? Then doesn’t it stand to reason that they are God’s agenda items now? And if we are God’s people, if we are the Body of Christ in the world today, doesn’t it stand to reason that those should be our agenda items, too? The day is coming when all that Mary laid out as the agenda that God would carry out through her baby will indeed and in fact come to pass. Should we not be living that agenda out right here and right now?
As Clyde Fant said,
The way of Jesus does turn the world upside down. But that’s only because it was standing on its head in the first place. God has not arbitrarily ruled one way of life to be right and another wrong. God has revealed through the gospel the way things are. Under the reign of God, power and tyranny, greed and cruelty are deposed, and the weak, the old, the ill, the poor, the child, the woman, and the foreigner are no longer beneath dignity but favored in the eyes of God [Clyde Fant, The Misunderstood Jesus: 10 Lost Keys to Life (Macon: Peake Road, 1996), p. 11].
Jesus was a rebel; he set out to overturn the structures and to reverse the priorities of the people among whom he lived, talked, and served. Jesus was such a rebel that his mother could speak before he even came out of her womb of how he would turn things upside down.
My title is the same as the title of a song by the prophet Jackson Browne. In that song he says,
We guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why they are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus.
Unfortunately, the church may be one of the places where it is most dangerous to talk the way that Mary talked—and to talk and live in the way that Jesus talked and lived.
May it not be so here!
Maybe it’s time we took our chances on the side of Mary and on the side of her son—God’s Son—the Rebel Jesus.
Maybe it’s time we started living in and working for the kind of world that God is in the process of bringing about in Jesus …