Sermon: Turning Things Upside Down
Scripture: Luke 1:46-55
Date: December 27, 2015
Luke 1:46-55 (NIV)
46 And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
Merry Christmas! When I was wondering what I should share about today, the answer quickly became obvious—Christmas! And while that does narrow it down a bit, there’s still a lot to be said, perhaps too much for just one day. And so, as I reflected and prayed on this, today’s passage, Mary’s Song in the Gospel of Luke, kept coming to my mind. Now this passage, sometimes called The Magnificat, is usually an Advent reading, one that tells the story leading up to the birth of Jesus. But I believe it does much more than that. It is intended to prepare our hearts for the coming of a new way of being, a new way to live in the world, the way God has always intended, and the way Christ came to bring about. To show us how to live, and to remind us of what has always been God’s plan and intention and promise.
Here we are, just two days after Christmas, still dancing with excitement, wondering how it came and went so quickly. Many of us are still enjoying the memory of dinners with family and friends, stuffed until we can’t eat any more, and then saying, “Oh look! There’s pie!” We may be admiring the glitter of a gift, perhaps we still hear the echo of a Christmas concert ringing in our ear. Or maybe we are feeling the peace and satisfaction that comes from sharing Christ’s love by serving those in need during this season.
Of course, we know that not everyone’s Christmas looks like this. For some, while they try to “keep the Christ in Christmas,” this time is more a reminder of loneliness, or loss, or want, or need. They want to celebrate, they long to share Christ’s love, but the season in their life collides with this season, and it magnifies rather than eclipses or gives meaning to their struggle.
What does it mean? The Christ child has been born! God has come to us. Here, to Earth, in the form of a baby. Whether all our focus is on “getting through” the holiday, or on what we give or get, or on what we are missing, Christ has been born. Christ, God, became human and came to us. For what?
We can almost picture the scene, can’t we? Joseph, exhausted yet vigilant, watching over Mary and the baby while trying to make the stable the best place for them that he can; the shepherds, cautiously approaching, wondering if the message they received could be true, trusting, even as they wondered how it could possibly relate to them; Mary, resting but still aglow with the miracle of the baby, the miracle of God’s promise coming to pass through her; and all of them focused on the baby, the little one, wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a feeding trough.
What does it mean? This baby boy, so anticipated yet so unexpected, so real and yet so unlikely. This king who chose to avoid a palace, God who chose to become vulnerable and helpless.
The visit was hurriedly planned, and the journey was long and difficult. But finally, Mary arrives. And she is greeted, not just by her relative Elizabeth, but also by the baby Elizabeth carries, who leaps in Elizabeth’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice. Two women, one young and one old, each with child and each just as unlikely to be mothers at this time in their lives, yet, each called and blessed by God.
What does it mean? One carries the messenger, the other carries the Message. You know, many of us are so accustomed to this passage that we don’t really think about its absurdity. Mary, the young virgin, pregnant by the Holy Spirit with God’s own Son; Elizabeth, the old woman, childless until well past child-bearing years; the two women affirming what God is doing for them, through them, for the world. Charles Campbell, a professor at Duke Divinity School, puts it like this: “A young, pregnant Mary gives voice to a song for the ages, that invites us beyond our realistic expectations and our numb imaginations…her song announces the larger implications of the upside-down world God has inaugurated… Mary proclaims the promised, topsy-turvy future of God as an already-accomplished fact.” Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s prophesy is both personal and communal; it is immediate and comprehensive, a joyful response in an intimate moment, and a message for us all, one that tells us of God’s plan and God’s faithfulness.
What does it mean, that this baby has been born? Do you believe that it is more than just good news, that it is scandalous news, that it is news that turns the world upside-down?
This is the message of the Bible, and it is the message Jesus came to show and to spread. And we hear this message throughout the Bible, don’t we, if we listen? In Genesis, God’s promise of a child comes true for Sarah in her old age, when even Sarah had given up, making her the mother of God’s people. In First Samuel, Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, shares a prayer that celebrates not just the reversal of her barrenness, but also how God will reverse the fortunes of the weak, the poor, and the powerless. In Exodus, we hear Moses’ and Aaron’s sister, the prophet Miriam, celebrating God’s victory over the Egyptians at the Red Sea, the former slaves triumphant in their escape from the mighty Egyptian army. All examples of how God chooses the weak, the unlikely, the impossible, to bring about his plan.
These are the voices of the marginalized and powerless, speaking to God’s power in their lives and in the world, voices that continue in Luke’s Gospel and elsewhere in the New Testament, giving voice to God’s plan to turn things upside down. Rueben Job, beloved and recently-deceased United Methodist Bishop, author, and leader in Upper Room ministries, asked a question we may all be wondering, a question we may be reluctant to ask ourselves: “How did [Mary’s Song] make others feel? Angry, confused, embarrassed, surprised, curious, frightened…all of these feelings? This is a message of radical revolution, and the [most outrageous part might be] the youthful confidence that God can be trusted to keep promises. Where did a mere child get the wisdom and the faith to bear witness to God’s trustworthiness so boldly? God’s promise seems no less preposterous today. Turn the values of this world upside down? Rich become weak, poor become strong? Each of us is chosen to be God’s special witness to God’s promise of love and justice? It does seem like a preposterous promise, until we listen carefully to the Advent story, observe the life of Jesus, and listen to the Spirit’s voice today. But then we see that the promise is for us. The responsibility to tell the story is ours. And yes, the blessing and honor come to all whose lives point to Jesus Christ and God’s revolutionary purpose in the world.”
The sad thing, though, is that many will choose to ignore this part of the message. It is a wonderful and amazing message, but it is a difficult message. It is not the message the world sends us, either. And it, well, it turns our expectations and perhaps even our longings upside down. Max Lucado, in his book God Came Near, says, “God came to Earth, to us, as a helpless baby. He embodied the message. Did you notice the miracle? God goes to those who listen.” We know who was not listening, too, don’t we? Herod, the people bustling about in Bethlehem, perhaps even the people in Joseph and Mary’s own hometown, and probably many others. Most of them were not evil; they were just going about their lives, but they were too busy and distracted to listen for God.
Who was listening then? The lowly, the marginalized, and the outsiders. Mary, a young, unmarried woman who in that culture and time may have been considered little more than property, she listened. Joseph, a carpenter, honorable but poor, willing to endure the snickers and knowing looks of his family and neighbors, he listened. The shepherds, the lowest of the low, the smelliest of the smelly, the least and poorest, they listened. The Wise Men, rich and learned, but religious and cultural outsiders, they listened. These are the ones who listened, and they are the ones whose stories we lift up in scripture. Here we encounter God’s embarrassing and threatening challenge to good order. Here we come face to face with the upside-down world inaugurated by the incarnation of Jesus, the topsy-turvy news of the Gospel.
Who else listened? In Jesus’ time here on earth, he encountered many people. Many sought answers to their deepest needs, but far fewer were willing to listen to the message, were willing to risk trusting God. Jesus said let go of the things that distract you from God; remove the things you have constructed but that keep you from what your heart truly desires.
This may be a new term for some, but there is what is sometimes referred to as a “myth of scarcity” in our world. This myth is a story that we have heard throughout our lives, and it is a story that has existed since ancient times. This story says that there is not enough, and so we must acquire more. This story says that even if it is at the expense of others, we must get more because otherwise we will miss out. This story says that if we have more, we are somehow better or stronger or more deserving. This story says that we can depend on ourselves.
If we are willing to listen to Jesus, though, we will hear that this story is not true. It sounds right, and so it is believed over and over throughout history, but it just doesn’t play out that way. Living by this story brings emptiness, and anxiety, and anger, and fear. And God knows this. God has been telling us that we need to turn our expectations upside-down. Jesus came to show us this, that the way to God is not through the message of the world, the message that distracts and frustrates us.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus certainly turns things upside down, doesn’t he? Blessed are the hopeless? Blessed are those who are mourning? Blessed are the meek? The persecuted? Some translations use the word, “happy.” Happy? Yes, happy. Blessed. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are merciful. Happy are the peacemakers, the pure in heart, the ones who are reviled because their lives reflect Christ.
Zacchaeus and the Rich Young Ruler both sought answers from Christ. Zacchaeus, the rich tax collector who wanted to know more about Jesus, but who climbed into a tree to see him rather than approach him directly. The Rich Young Ruler, who had earthly wealth but desired assurance of his salvation. Zacchaeus, who humbly accepted Christ’s invitation, who then understood that his greed was unnecessary, whose life became full when he was willing to let go. The Rich Young Ruler, so sure he had it all together and just wanted to hear it from Jesus, who grieved when he heard what he lacked. Jesus did not chastise either person for being rich. He was concerned about what was blocking their path to him, to life, to God. And we know which of these people we admire, don’t we? One was willing to listen to Jesus and turn his world upside-down. And the other? Jesus looked at him in love, but the man went away sad.
Jane Anne Ferguson, noted pastor and storyteller, says, “the myth of scarcity has been pervasive…[but] God’s lyric of abundance asserts that in the hand of the generative, generous God, scarcity is not true. The Magnificat bears witness to [God’s abundance, a message] that is prevalent throughout scripture. The people of God are tempted time and again to live by the myth of scarcity and must hear anew God’s lyric of abundance. [The message] is not just for the physically poor, but also for those…who have to rely in utter confidence upon God. Living in stark contrast to this were not merely the rich but [also] those who showed no need for God through pride and self-sufficiency. Mary has proclaimed that she is willing to rely utterly on God. Mary is the first disciple of the gospel that Jesus will proclaim through his life, death, and resurrection. Her discipleship empowers her to magnify the good news, the gospel, of God’s abundance.”
This story, Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, is so familiar that we can miss its power, can’t we? Can we trust God enough to see what is enough, to see God? Can we remove the things that prevent us from listening to God?
One day last week, a staff person here at church came up to me and said, “Christmas has come. Christmas is here.” At first I wasn’t sure what they meant, that perhaps a nice Christmas gift had arrived, or that maybe they were just excited about Christmas. But I could see from the intense emotion in their eyes that there was more to the story. Some of you have heard what happened. I knew this person had been trying to get some work things wrapped up, and they had been over in the Life Center lobby for a minute checking on something. While they were there, a woman came in, asking how to find our God’s Pantry. Now, if you’re around here much at all during the week, you know this happens all the time. People come to any one of the doors, looking for the Pantry, and usually you give some brief directions and they say thank you and hurry on. This time, though, was different. After this staff person gave the directions, they could tell that the woman hesitated. Rather than hurry back to their remaining tasks, the staff person paused. And then the woman, who was obviously nervous and unsure, asked, “How do you do it? How does it work?” So the staffer explained, step by step, how it worked. Those of you here who have served in the Pantry have explained this process many times. You go the door when it is unlocked, you take a number, when your number is called someone will help you get your food, and so on. After the staffer finished explaining, the woman hesitated, and then she tentatively asked, “How do I pay for it?” The staffer gently explained that there was no charge, that the food was provided by the Pantry and by the donations of people here in the church. And then tears started streaming down the woman’s face as she said, “Thank you. There’s no food in my house at all.” To the person who told me this story, Christmas had come. The meaning of Christmas was clear.
Now, is every guest to the Pantry so grateful? No. Most are, but not all, and it’s easy to become frustrated in those situations. But then, if we’re willing to be honest with ourselves, we aren’t always grateful either, are we? We think it’s all ours, that we deserve it, or that we need more, or newer, or bigger, or faster, and we can get caught up in that scramble. But occasionally we are grateful, truly grateful. Sometimes we have tears of gratitude. And sometimes we take the time to listen. Perhaps, in those times, we get a glimpse of what God sees.
You know, God is not opposed to wealth; it’s both more than that, and simpler than that. God is opposed to anything that stands in the way of our relationship with him. God knows that the ways of this world, the values of this world, drive us to one of two extremes: either we are considered successful under our own power, or we are considered hopeless and worthless. The world leaves little middle ground, but God says this is false. What we have, what we achieve has some meaning, but it does not define us. What we lose, what we do not have, has some meaning, but it does not define us. And one is not worthy and the other unworthy; neither is inherently bad or evil. The evil comes when it separates us from God. And God knows the allure of the lies of the world. God knows that the pressure, the desire to achieve and acquire, the desire for power and control, distract us. To us, letting go of that looks like a world turned upside down. But the ones who hear God are the ones who have time to listen, who take time to listen. Mary listened, and she had the eyes of faith to see that this great reversal is actually the power of God to turn the world right side up.
Again, from his book, God Came Near, Lucado writes, “God goes to those who have time to hear him—so on this cloudless night he went to simple shepherds…Those who missed His Majesty’s arrival that night missed it not because of evil acts or malice; no, they missed it because they simply weren’t looking. Little has changed in the last two thousand year, has it?…The only thing more absurd than the gift is our stubborn unwillingness to receive it.”
He goes on to say, “Christianity is summed up as seeing Jesus and imitating Jesus.” The message is so counter-intuitive, so counter-cultural. And it sounds good in theory, but surely God didn’t really mean it, right? But the Bible is so consistently clear. God favors those the world may not see or value. God speaks to those who listen. What does God need to do to get our attention? Are we listening? Are we doing what Jesus said to do? Can we release our death grip on the things of this world long enough to see what is enough? Can we see that what seems upside down is actually God turning the world right-side up?
Christ has come! The Christ child has been born! How can our souls glorify the Lord? What did the baby Jesus come to earth for? We know the answers, don’t we? Christ came to show us how to live, and he came to remind us of what has always been God’s plan and intention and promise. As people who anticipate and celebrate the birth of Christ every year, we don’t need to be afraid. We can, and we must, embrace and epitomize God’s upside-down plan and put our trust in God alone.
May it be so. Amen.