Sunday, December 23, 2018. Rev. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-55
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From the beginning of the Bible to the end, one regular and consistent theme is that God is found in a peculiar way among the little ones of the earth, among the poor and the rejected and the disenfranchised. A relentless theme of Scripture is that the little ones of the earth have a special place in God’s heart and in God’s kingdom, and so when God calls forth Israel and the church upon the earth to embody and bear witness to the character of the divine, God expects those communities of faith to share God’s commitment to the little ones. During our own days of polarization and government shutdown and disorientation in our society and world, God’s consistent focus on the well-being of the poor can provide us with a kind of North Star to guide our thinking and acting.
When Jesus begins his public ministry in the Gospel of Luke, he reads Isaiah 61 and announces that the Spirit of God has anointed him to preach … what? To preach good news to the poor. Out of the four gospels, Luke’s Gospel – the lectionary gospel for the next year – is arguably the one that takes the most intense interest in issues of economics. Money and the welfare of the little ones matters to all four of the gospels, but Luke takes it up a notch.
And there is no place that these things are so clear as in Mary’s Magnificat. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” It is no surprise that the lectionary assigns the Magnificat to be read on this final Sunday of Advent, as the church is breathlessly waiting for the birth of the newborn king, the one who will redeem us and save us and set us free. Mary, a teenage girl engaged to Joseph but not yet married, has become pregnant, which would put her at risk of at least social ostracism if not outright violence for bringing shame upon herself and her kin. So she has run to be with her aging relative Elizabeth, who has herself become pregnant with her own child, who would become John the Baptist. Elizabeth does not scorn or shame Mary. She – and the child in her womb – rejoices, and she pronounces a three-fold blessing upon Mary.
And when Elizabeth blesses her, Mary heart and voice are unleashed, and she sings out. And what we notice is that her song is not some sweet, soft lullaby. It is a mighty song about the re-ordering of society. “The Mighty One has done great things for me,” Mary says. “His mercy is for those who fear him; 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.”
How about that. We thought we were just coming to church to get ready to open presents in a couple of days, and we open up our Bibles and out tumbles a revolution.
Turns out that Mary’s Magnificat has a charged history of attracting attention. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that the Magnificat is “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung.” It is said that during the time of British rule in India, the government prohibited the Magnificat from being sung in church because of the explosiveness of its lyrics. When British rule ended there, Mahatma Gandhi asked that the Magnificat be read in places where the British flag was being lowered. In Guatemala in the 1980s the government banned any public recitation of the Magnificat, because the song was creating too much of a stir among the poor of the country. And in Argentina during the 1970s and 80s, the military dictatorship there outlawed any public display of the Magnificat, because the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose children had disappeared under the rule of the junta, began to write the words of the Magnificat on posters in the capital plaza. Who knew that Scripture could get you in so much trouble? These words have the power to turn our world upside down. Their proclamation of Jesus’ upside-down kingdom is not necessarily received as good news by those who want their kingdoms to stay the way they are right now.
About 13 or 14 years ago, I flew into Dulles Airport and was driving back to DC. As I drove along the Dulles Access Road, I realized that I had not seen any cars driving the other direction in a while. For a moment I thought that was just odd, until I began to see, first, a motorcycle with flashing lights, followed by a police car with flashing lights, followed by a series of Suburbans with flashing lights. Because I am quick, I began to think something was going on… Then I saw a long black limousine with flags on the front and the rear of the car pass by, followed by another series of Suburbans, police cars, and motorcycles.
I don’t know who the dignitary was in the limo. But it was clear that it was someone very important. Someone for whom the authorities shut down entire roads, to permit the person to make their way without disruption.
Shortly after that, I was in a Bible study and we were reading a text where Jesus says, “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” And I began to wonder what that dignitary’s going to think when they find themselves entering the kingdom, and they are told they need to go to the back of the line, because there are homeless folks and prostitutes and undocumented immigrants who are in front of them. Would the dignitary be shocked? Would they be offended? Would they think, “Don’t you know who I am?” Or would it be possible for them to smile, to rejoice and give thanks that God’s kingdom is ordered in such a way, and would they wish that they had done more to organize our society in that way?
Friends, God’s kingdom is an upside-down kingdom. God’s kingdom is organized differently than the kingdoms of the world. This week we are awaiting the birth of the Messiah, who is the Agent through whom the kingdom of God draws near. The Messiah for whom we are waiting is the child of Mary, who sang about God’s action in the world to bring an end to economic structures that are exploitative and unjust. Mary is singing about good news for the poor, which is precisely what God’s Spirit anointed her son Jesus to preach.
We should not romanticize the poor or the life of poverty, because the poor also sin and fall short of the glory of God, and are in need of the grace of God. The ground at the foot of the cross is level, and all people – poor and rich – are invited to join in the feast at the communion table. But we should not miss the recognition that God’s kingdom has socio-economic implications, and wherever some do not have enough food to eat, do not have homes to live in, do not have reliable health care, do not have safe streets to walk, and are not treated with dignity, all of our lives are impoverished. When those things happen, people will live in fear and alienation and hostility towards each other, which we may notice is pretty much the way things are today.
The good news of God’s kingdom is good news for the poor, which is ultimately good news for everyone, which is why the angels told the shepherds keeping watch in their fields that they were bringing good news of great joy for all the people, not just for some. Because of God, the little ones of the earth are strong, because of God, the little ones of the earth will be secure, and because of God, the little ones of the earth do not need to be afraid.
Friends, as we prepare to make room for Christ in our church and in our lives, where do you see God bringing about God’s upside-down kingdom in our community? Where do you see God bringing good news to the poor, bringing down the powerful and raising up the lowly, or in the poetic language of Isaiah 40, lifting up the valleys and making low the mountains and hills? And when you think about your own life in the next year, what is one new thing that you can do, one practice that you can take up, in the new year to practice solidarity with the poor, with the little ones in our community? Our soul magnifies the Lord, and our spirit rejoices in God our Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Amen.
 Many thanks to D.L. Mayfield for sharing her thoughts on Mary’s Magnificat in this week’s Washington Post at https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2018/12/20/marys-magnificat-bible-is-revolutionary-so-evangelicals-silence-it/?utm_term=.6aa148b48467