Athletes, rock stars, and actors make the big bucks. When Alex Rodriguez signed a ten-year 252-million-dollar contract with the Texas Rangers five years ago, baseball fans were scandalized. No one has yet topped his contract, but they’re getting closer every year. Still, if you think that’s big, entertainers make even more. Don’t you find that kind of money hard to grasp? I wouldn’t have the slightest idea of how to spend that much money. Though it sure would buy a lot of books and the rooms and bookcases to put them in.
Although money isn’t everything, it does tell us what we value most. If athletes and entertainers are worth millions, then why are teachers, nurses, fire fighters, and police officers paid so little? Isn’t what they do more important to our daily lives?
Now that we’ve reached the end of our Advent journey, we’re ready to hear the Christmas message. But the real message of Christmas is quite different from the one our culture tells. Surprisingly enough, Christmas isn’t about raking in as many gifts as possible or making the biggest profit. Instead, it’s about grace, compassion, and humility. Blessed are the poor, Jesus said, for theirs is the kingdom of God (Luke 6:20). And to make sure we understand this truth, God chose an insignificant girl from Galilee to be the instrument of God’s redeeming grace.
THE CONTEXT: THE ANNUNCIATION
When Mary told Elizabeth about her pregnancy, she broke into song. That might not be totally surprising, but her song isn’t what we’d expect to come from an expectant mother, especially one who is living under a cloud of suspicion. Fred Craddock writes that:
She sees God's grace and goodness toward her as but a single instance of the way of God in the world. God blesses the poor and oppressed and hungry; and in the final eschatological reversal, God will bring down the proud and rich oppressors and exalt those who have been disenfranchised, disregarded, and dismissed.1
If we look at the world through Mary's eyes, then we’ll begin to see things the way God sees them. In her song, Mary declares that God will exalt the poor and the oppressed and God will bring down the rich and the proud.
GOD'S VIEW OF THE RICH AND THE PROUD
According Mary, God acts contrary to our expectations. We expect God to be on the side of the winners. Isn’t that what the winning quarterback at the Super Bowl always says? "I want to thank God for helping us win!" And why is "In God We Trust," our national motto? Isn’t it because we believe that God is on the side of the winners and we want to be winners too? Yes, and if God is a winner, then obviously Jesus must be a winner.
Philip Yancey says that some of the most interesting views of Jesus come from athletes. They like to imagine Jesus being the biggest winner of all. One former NFL lineman gives us this baffling picture of Jesus:
Christ would be the toughest guy who ever played this game . . . If he were alive today I would picture a six-foot six-inch 260 pound defensive tackle who would always make the big plays and would be hard to keep out of the backfield for offensive linemen like myself.2
Yes, Jesus must be a "manly man." But Mary, the mother of Jesus, paints a very different picture in her song. God, she declares, is the one who has "looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant."
There is strength in the arm of the Lord, but it’s a strength that scatters the rich and the powerful. God brings them down from their thrones and lifts up the lowly and the meek. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, sang a very similar song:
The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. (I Sam. 2:7-8).
By choosing Mary, God chose from among the poor the person who would bear "Emmanuel," "God With Us." God could have chosen a daughter of Herod or Caesar for this purpose, but God didn't. God could have broadcast the message from the roof tops, but God didn't. Jesus didn’t come into the world with all the trappings of power and wealth; instead he was born into poverty and insignificance. Perhaps this is the real scandal of the Christian faith!
GOD'S VIEW OF THE POOR AND POWERLESS
Mary sings about what theologians call "God's preferential option for the poor." This doesn't mean that poverty is God's ideal, but it does mean that God is especially concerned about people who live on the margins of society. Yes, God is concerned about the ones who so often fall through the cracks and are ignored by the powerful. Remember that on the day the savior was born shepherds and not kings attended to him. As an adult, Jesus ministered to the same kinds of people – fishermen, tax collectors, women of ill repute, the sick and the despised. The only time he had an audience with the movers and shakers, they we’re deciding how best to get rid of him. As Luke writes later in his Gospel Jesus defined his ministry in these words of Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. (Luke 4:18-19).
This is the message that caused Mary to "magnify the Lord."
Tonight we’ll return to this sanctuary to celebrate the birth of our savior. We’ll sing the songs of Christmas and we’ll share in the Lord’s meal. And as we celebrate Christmas at the Table we’ll remember the Lord who reconciles us to God and to one another by making all things new (2 Cor. 5:17). If we’re going to truly understand the message of Christmas, then we must understand what Mary understood. God has chosen to turn the world upside down so that everything might become new, and God has revealed himself in this Jesus who is born in a stable.
1. Fred Craddock, et. al., Preaching through the Christian Year C, Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), 22.
2.Norm Evans quoted in Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Thought I Knew, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 19.
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church
4th Sunday of Advent
December 24, 2006