Monday, 18 December 2017 00:00

"The Real Christmas Message" December 17, 2017

“The Real Christmas Message”

Luke 1:52-53

A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley

December 17, 2017

University Baptist Church

Minneapolis, MN

            We’ve spent the last few weeks looking at Mary’s Magnificat. It’s no simple song of joy. It’s a defiant song of resistance and hope. It’s subversive and liberating. It’s her political manifesto for ministry It’s no accident that it’s delivered at the home of temple priest who happens to be married to Mary’s aunt. It puts us all on notice at the start of Luke’s Gospel—this is not a person to be messed with. This movement that she is starting will come all the way into places of power and reverse the worst of our arrogance and self-aggrandizement. Channeling Hannah of old, she sings a song about bringing the mighty down from their thrones and lifting up those of low degree. This is the real Christmas message. It’s too often lost amidst the throngs at the mall, with their tinny songs sung over and over—almost all about what you can get, very little about what you can give. Once again, here are the words for today:

“God has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

            We think of Mary in the manger scene as demure and bedecked with a halo. We imagine her as the silent one who pondered things in her heart. But the Mary of the manger was the Mary who sang this radical song of deliverance. She’s not a woman to be minimized or spiritualized. This is not demure Mary. This is Mary the wonder woman, Mary the manifesto-maker. Mary the one who taught Jesus to be a radical. This is the Mary who longed for the reversal of not only fortunes but of priorities. Mary is no slouch. If she had been living in Minnesota, she might have played hockey. That’s largely why Jesus was such an effective revolutionary. What will Jackson be? Jackson. In old understanding this would be the son of Jack (otherwise known as John). Son of John and a hockey player. Hmmm.

            Another Jack of old was perhaps the first of many Baptists. He called upon us to repent of our sinful ways, our collusion with systems that made people rich at the expense of the poor. I imagine him and Jesus conspiring the nights away while their mothers did the same.

            Lindsay and Jon, I’m not suggesting that this is your fate, nor your son’s. But the question remains for us and all who will shape Jackson’s world, what kind of world will we give him? What kind of life? What songs might he even sing to his offspring a few decades from now? That’s a thought to ponder in our minds and hearts and keeps us awake.

            One must wonder what Jesus’ and John’s lullabies were be like. I imagine they might have held the Hebrew words y’shantinoke y’shan which the choir just sang and means “sleep, baby sleep.” But they might have also held a paraphrase of Mary’s Magnificat:

My soul cries out with a joyful shout that the God of my heart is great,
And my spirit sings of the wondrous things that you bring to the ones who wait.
You fixed your sight on the servant's plight, and my weakness you did not spurn,
So from east to west shall my name be blest. Could the world be about to turn?

Refrain:
My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.

From the halls of power to the fortress tower, not a stone will be left on stone.
Let the king beware for your justice tears ev'ry tyrant from his throne.
The hungry poor shall weep no more, for the food they can never earn;
There are tables spread, ev'ry mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn.

Refrain:
My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.

We sang this song in the MN state Capital several months ago when the legislature was arguing about the bi-annual budget. Clergy and other religious folks invoked the song of Mary to remind our elected officials of their commitments to turning the world right.

            God has brought down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up those of low degree. This is not a spiritual thing. It’s a pointedly political thing. The one who sang this song was suspect and so was her family. She had to flee to Egypt in the dead of night to escape a tyrannical king’s ethnic cleansing. We follow one who was a refugee. What would he say about the kings of today who send refugees away?

“God has put down the mighty from their thrones, exalted those of low degree, filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”

This is very good news to those who are not rich. It’s bad news for the rich. But remember who is singing it. The one singing it is an outcast who will shortly have to take a long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem while she’s extremely pregnant all to satisfy the whims of one of those mighty ones who sitteth upon a throne. Mary says that all of this pomp and circumstance and all of this worldly power is an illusion, like you’re living inside the Matrix. What is real is that God is in charge. God has already sided with the poor and the lowly. In due time, the powers of this world will implode just like it has with every empire. When the smoke clears, we will see that God will endure forever and ever.

I like the way Ken Sehested, one of the pastors of Circle of Mercy church in Asheville, NC puts it:

 

The song of Mary…is among the most subversive political texts ever uttered. There was a time, during the 1980s in Argentina’s “dirty little war” against political dissidents, that it was literally illegal to publish Mary’s song of praise…

        The context of Jesus’ birth was the Roman census which required Palestinian citizens to return to ancestral cities for registration. That’s why pregnant Mary and the shame-faced Joseph were on the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The census was a bitter reminder of Rome’s brutal system of taxation, a system which the Jewish Temple’s authorities collaborated in and profited from.

        The original nativity scene unfolded in a barnyard stall, the only emergency shelter available. Hygiene was not a factor. Jesus’ “swaddling clothes” were rags, and his “manger” (what a lovely word!) was an animal feeding trough filled with the remnants of grain mixed with cow slobber. Having been warned by visiting royal dignitaries from “the East” that a messiah was to (be born), King Herod ordered a slaughter of all male infants in the area; and the Magi themselves had to be smuggled out of town on back roads.

        It is hard, very hard, for me to imagine a “sweet baby Jesus, no crying he makes.” What I see is blood-soaking straw where Mary lay, probably wanting to die if not actually near death, and Joseph nearly beside himself both with paternal concern, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, wondering how in the world he was going to explain this illegitimate child to the family back home. And then because of the threat from Herod’s death squads, loading Mary and baby Jesus back on the donkey for a midnight escape through the desert to Egypt.

        This is the political debate in which we, who name ourselves as followers of Jesus, should be engaged. The manger’s revolt is not whether nativity scenes belong on courthouse lawns, or whether binge shopping should be of the “Christmas” kind or merely the “holiday” version. The revolt is against established economic agreements and traditional political arrangements. It was to shepherds, the lowest, grimiest labors, to whom the angels appears with the announcement of great tidings. And that annunciation of heavenly news will continue to trouble the Herods of our age. If we are to overhear this song of Mary, this singing of the angels, this announcement from highest heaven confronting the disorder of the world as we know it, we will need to be present on those midnight hillsides with grimy laborers, with teenage peasant girls, with any and all who have been systematically shut out of the empire’s arrangements of value and worth.

 

(From a sermon entitled “The Manger’s Revolt” Circle of Mercy • Asheville, NC • 21 December 2008 ©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org)

 

Thanks, Ken.

How can you tell if your empire is from God? The answer is in how the poor are treated. Most empires don’t regard the lowest estate of God’s handmaid and call them blessed. These empires will fall because the long moral arc of history bends toward justice.

In that day, the poor will have power, the rich will be sent away empty, the hungry will be fed, maybe even those of us who are blinded by our own self-interest might one day see the light. Mary has seen the light. She’s singing to us so that we’ll see it too.

At Christmas time, we focus on filling the hungry with good things. In fact, the focus on giving is one of the great aspects of the Christmas season. So we can embrace the first part of the 53rd verse. But the second part is harder. Do we really send the rich away empty? Do we intentionally send anyone away empty? What if some of us are rich? The recent tax vote seems to reverse this reversal. It seems to fill the rich with good things and send the poor away darn near empty. How can we embrace the revolutionary words of Mary?

I hope this Christmas, as you reflect on the gifts you have and the state of our world, you will consider again the implications and power of Mary’s voice. She hardly says anything else in scripture. What else is there to say, really?

Why not let our souls magnify God. Why not integrate Mary's voice into our own voice. If we do, we might see the world in a very different way, the way they saw it when God was smuggled in to the womb of Mary, an outsider with an insider’s perspective. That, after all, is the real Christmas message.

       
Though the nations rage from age to age, we remember who holds us fast:
God's mercy must deliver us from the conqueror's crushing grasp.
This saving word that our forebears heard is the promise which holds us bound,
'Til the spear and rod can be crushed by God, who is turning the world around.
My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.

(This and the other two verses from earlier in the sermon are from "Canticle of the Turning" -- Lyrics & Arr. by Rory Cooney (based on the Magnificat, Luke 46-55), Music: Irish Traditional, "Star of the County Down")