December 20, 2020
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Romans 16:25-27 and Luke 1:39-56
Pastor Michael Kirby tells an interesting story. Several years ago, someone began stealing the baby Jesus from the outdoor manger scenes in his Chicago neighborhood. No-one could explain why someone would steal baby Jesus. It turned out to be a prank, and the figurines were later found in a woman’s yard, 32 of them, sorted by size and type.
When they were found, many people coming to claim their figures tried to walk away with a “nicer” Jesus than the one they had. “They were trading up”, he said. “Everybody wanted the freshly painted, unfaded, nicer baby Jesus!”
That is what everyone wants – a new, clean, predictable Jesus. The defender of the status quo or at least One who is mild and meek. One who is not making any waves. One whose love is sweet, calm and never too challenging!
On this 4th Sunday of Advent, we are presented with a view of Jesus that is quite remarkable and undeniably challenging! And this view is straight from his mother’s lips.
After Mary’s visit from the angel, she sets out “with haste” for her relative, Elizabeth’s house. Something compels her to go quickly, eagerly. We do not know the reason why she is so eager. Maybe to shower her with congratulations, to marvel at the strangeness of it all. Perhaps she needed someone to talk to for her own situation was uncertain and precarious. Or maybe she just wanted to be with someone she trusted. When she enters and greets Elizabeth, the child in her womb leaps for joy! Mary’s words of greeting are barely out of her mouth before Elizabeth is shouting with utter delight, saying: “Blessed are you among women. Blessed is the child you carry! Blessed are you who believed!”
Let me remind you again that Mary was about 12-14 years old when she heard the news that she was with child. Her life, in the blink of an eye went from bad to worse. A marginalized person in her society, most likely very poor, certainly vulnerable and now pregnant without a husband, one would associate other emotions with Mary: fear, worried, desponded, depressed or surprised. But certainly not joy!
Imagine the setting: Two pregnant women in a modest home. One without a husband, the other’s husband struck dumb! Luke paints the weeks before the first Christmas in a very realistic and even somber way. If we did not know how this would end, it would have been a rather depressing, hopeless and sad picture.
The reality is that there are many millions of people in the world who are hopeless and worried, desponded and depressed. For many millions of people, the future is bleak, life is a struggle with nothing to be joyous about. Many people in the USA have been struggling with addiction problems, and physical and emotional abuse, with limited opportunities, with nothing to look forward to. I recently watched a report on mental health and the effects of what is called adverse childhood experiences (ACE). These might include neglect, abandonment, sexual and physical abuse, parent or sibling is treated violently or there is a parent with a mental illness. These events have profound psychological, physiological and sociological impacts and can have negative, lasting effects on health and well-being. In the USA one in 10 children has experienced three or more Adverse Childhood Experiences, placing them in a category of especially high risk. In five states, Arizona, Arkansas, Montana, New Mexico and Ohio, as many as one in seven children had experience three or more Adverse Childhood Experiences. We may not always be aware of or in proximity of those who are suffering. But suffering in our world is real.
To suffering people living in a real and broken world Luke brings a hopeful and joyous message!
Let’s be very clear: God is indeed at work in this world! You see, this young woman, in her uncertain and precarious situation, guided by God’s Spirit unexpectedly erupts into a song of Praise. The entire focus of her hymn of praise is on the Lord. This young woman is in essence saying: “God is about to turn the world around!” And because God is about to turn the world around, joy permeates everything. And in this most beautiful hymn we see the reason why this humble, young woman could find such exuberant joy in spite of her external situation.
“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 discovers that God is good and God’s goodness looks even upon those who are not remarkable! God’s goodness includes the poor and the insignificant, sinners and those who feel left behind. Mary is convinced that God has done great things for her. God is merciful to those who fear him. Fear in the OT is not to be afraid of God. It refers to those who are in awe of God, those who honor God and who know that God is Holy.
But Mary’s hymn reveals more clearly about the way God works in this world. And this is where Mary’s hymn challenges us who prefer a freshly painted, unfaded, nicer baby Jesus! Mary’s words about God’s work in and through Jesus show us that Jesus is not the defender of the status quo. His work is rather radical and controversial, and will certainly make waves.
God, in Jesus, shows his strength with his arm, he scatters the proud, he brings down the powerful from their thrones and he lifts up the lowly. Those who are hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty.
NT scholar Nielsen points out that God reverses relationships – the powerful are brought down because they use their power for their own selfish purposes. The same is true for those who are rich. Those who abuse their power or wealth, are brought down by God and are sent away empty.
Eduard Schweizer is correct when he writes that God’s work throughout the world has social consequences. We see this in the OT prophets already. The eyes of God do not see high and low as human eyes do. The hymn of Mary praises the equalizing work of God, who treats all alike!
Now, the problem with this message is not in understanding what the words mean. The meaning is very clear: The God of Abraham and Mary is the Savior who looks with favor on the lowliness of Mary. And when God looks favorably at people their lowliness is turned around. At the same time God brings down those who are arrogant and abuse their power and wealth.
This is Luke’s message.
Why does God look favorably at the lowly and fill those who are hungry? What is God’s guiding principle in dealing with people? And the most challenging aspect is, how will this guiding principle change our daily lives?
I have no doubt in my mind that God’s divine guiding principle is captured in four letters – LOVE. God’s love of people is inclusive. God’s love of humankind is somewhat different than the way we love. We love our own and we love those who are easy to love. On the other hand, God’s love is poured out on those who are not easy to love. God loves even those who are nothing in the world’s eyes! We see this in the OT and the NT. When we read the OT we consider Abraham, Jacob, David and for that matter Israel as a nation, as worthy of God’s love. We think of them as faithful, strong and even a holy people. And yet, when we think about where they came from, we see that God pours God’s love onto them when they were rather vulnerable and insignificant. Abraham was old, childless, without a country, a wanderer, and as good as dead as the Book of Hebrews describes him, when God made a covenant with him. It was only after God approached him that Abraham became a blessing to Israel, Christianity and Islam. Jacob, at his birth tried to do Esau in when he grabbed his heel to hold Esau back, so that Jacob could be the oldest. His name Jacob means something like heel-grabber, an idiom for deceptive behavior. David was the youngest and small of stature so much so that Samuel reminded us that “God looks at the heart and not the outward appearance”. And Israel of course were a vulnerable nation, who suffered greatly as prisoners of the Egyptians. Think about Elizabeth in the NT, the flaws of Peter, the history of Paul and you will see that God’s guiding principle is to love those who are awkward, somewhat odd, vulnerable, weak, old, and not the most confident or accomplished.
That is why God chose the lowly Mary, and why God fills the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty.
Now when we pause to think about it, this is exactly the reason why God loves us too: we too are vulnerable, scared, odd, anxious and uncertain. We try to convince others, and ourselves, that we are strong, nice, successful, popular and independent. But deep down we know that we don’t deserve God’s love. Thanks be to God that God loves especially those who are weak and miserable!
If God’s inclusive love is the divine guiding principle, how should we as people of faith respond to the fact that God loves us and fills us with good things? The answer is simple and clear – the implementation is challenging. The answer is that we should make God’s guiding principle of inclusive love our own. We should love those who are easy to love but we should also love those who are not easy to love. Let me remind you of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others” (Matt. 5:43-47).
These are challenging words to implement but, as God’s beloved we really don’t have a choice. We know that Jesus’ words were not universally accepted back then. They were met with resistance for they were viewed as dangerous!
We should never forget that the baby Jesus when he grew up, questioned the status quo and criticized the powerful. He was neither the defender of the status quo nor the One who was mild and meek. He was controversial as he made waves. He challenged conventional ideas! So much so that people wanted to silence him and get rid of him. Eventually they did get rid of him when they nailed him on a cross. And there on the cross, we see God’s guiding principle most clearly at work- he died for his love of us and other lowly, hungry, broken and sinful people. What will we do as a response to his love of us? Amen