Sunday, December 20, 2009

Good News for the Humble -- An Advent Sermon

    LUKE 1:39-55

    When Alex Rodriguez signed his ten-year 252-million-dollar contract with the Texas Rangers a number of years ago, baseball fans were scandalized. They wondered – who could be worth that kind of money?  While no baseball player has caught up to him yet, several are nipping at his heels, and his salary doesn’t even compare to what Tiger Woods brought in with his winnings and endorsements – at least prior to his recent scandals, or  Oprah gets from her empire, or the typical Bank CEO receives in compensation.

    If you’re like me, it’s kind of hard to grasp the magnitude of this kind of money.    What do you do with that much money?   How many homes and cars do you actually need?

   Andy Rooney asked just this question in his 60 Minutes commentary last Sunday evening.  Pointing to the recently released Fortune 400 list of richest Americans, he opined: 

    I’ve often wondered at what point spending money no longer is any fun for a rich person.
In other words, when is enough, enough?  I must confess, I’ve not reached that point where I can say that I have everything I want!  But still!

    This morning we near the conclusion of our Advent journey and the text before us turns our world upside down.  As we listen to Mary’s prophetic song of praise, we learn that God has different priorities than the world has.

I.  A Song for the Ages

    Our gospel text is one of the great texts of Scripture. It has inspired works of art, poetry, and music.  Traditionally we know it by its Latin title, the Magnificat.  So beautiful is the poetry that we might forget that the one who gives voice to this prophetic word is a young woman – probably still in her early teens and likely poor.  Not only that, but she is quite unexpectedly pregnant.

    The passage begins with Mary, having been visited by an Angel bearing news about the blessing that would come with her pregnancy, hurrying off to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who lives in the Judean hill country.   We’re not told why Mary would do this,  but if you read this passage carefully, you discover that this isn’t just a meeting of cousins, this is a meeting of prophets, both of whom happen to be pregnant.  One woman is quite young and unmarried.  The other is older, and typically beyond childbearing years.  Both of these women see themselves as blessed by God.
    First we hear from Elizabeth, whose child leaps in her womb.  Moved by the Spirit to speak a word of blessing, she pronounces Mary blessed to be the bearer of her Lord and Savior.  And Mary, for her part, breaks out in song, giving thanks that God would bless her, despite her own life circumstances.  Maybe that’s why she visited Elizabeth.  She needed a word of confirmation.  Fred Craddock helpfully summarizes the message of Mary’s song:  

    She sees God's grace and goodness toward her as but a single instance of the way of God is 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

Yes, this God we worship does the unexpected and tends to turn things upside down. 

    There is a danger in preaching this text.  It’s easy to take it with such seriousness that we preachers break out into a harangue, berating the congregation for wasting money on presents and trips.  Here we are, having maxed out our credit cards to buy gifts for family and friends, and the last thing we need is a sermon to make us feel guilty, because we didn’t sell everything and give it to the poor in response to Mary’s prophetic Word.

    I wasn’t intending to preach that kind of sermon, but it’s easy for that kind of message to slip out as we focus on the God who turns things upside down.  Charles Campbell suggested that if we take the message with too much seriousness, our presentation of it can become  “sourly prophetic and angry.”  And that’s not the message we need to hear this morning, as we come to bask in the light of the candle of God’s love.  What we need to hear instead is the message of the feast of the holy fool, a feast inspired by this hymn during the middle ages.2

    Think for a moment of St. Francis.  He was rich and yet he gave up everything, but in doing so he didn’t become dour and solemn.  No, he experienced great joy – just as Mary experienced great joy in her calling.

II.  Turning the Tables on the Proud

    I don’t know how each of us should hear the message of this hymn.  In part that’s because we come to the text from different vantage points.  But what I hear in it is that the God we worship and serve has a tendency of turning things upside down.  It’s not that God is just mysterious.  God tends to act contrary to our socially defined expectations.

    Our culture keeps saying to us that God is on the side of the strong, the mighty, and the proud.  This is a sentiment that we often hear on the lips of the winning Super Bowl quarterback:   “I want to thank God for helping us win this game!”  Indeed, athletes sometimes have some of the most interesting views of God and of Jesus.  They often want to see Jesus as the big winner – and therefore their inspiration.  Consider this baffling picture of Jesus provided by a former NFL lineman: 

    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.
As you can tell the person who made this comment played a few years ago, because today’s defensive tackles tend to be around 300 pounds and run as fast as a running back.  But the point of this is simple:   If Jesus is worth serving then he must be a winner, and a winner must be a  “manly man.” 

  This, however, isn’t the picture that Mary paints.  In her picture, God is the one who has  "looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,"  and who scatters the rich and the powerful, even as he lifts up downtrodden.  In choosing Mary, God had chosen the one who would bear Emmanuel – God With Us – from among the poor and the marginalized of society.  It’s good to remember, as we celebrate this Advent and Christmas season that  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.   No, Jesus didn’t come into the world with all the trappings of power and wealth; instead he was born into poverty and insignificance.

III.  Lifting up the Marginalized 

    Now, I don’t think we should idealize poverty.  It’s not something we should normally seek out, indeed, it’s not something that I’ve sought out, although I know that there are those who are called by God to live with great simplicity so that they can be in ministry with those who are in deepest need.  And I don’t want to give the impression that unless we’re poor, God won’t love us. I don’t think that’s true.  But, this song does remind us that God will bless those whom society fails to bless.  It reminds us that power and might and money aren’t necessarily signs of divine blessing, nor does poverty mean that one is not loved by God. 

    When I hear Mary’s song, I think of people like Mother Teresa and the recently sainted Fr. Damian of Molokai.  I find it interesting that both of these figures, who have recently been honored by the Catholic Church – one as a saint and the other beatified, which is a step beneath sainthood – gave their lives to ministries serving lepers.  In fact, Fr. Damian contracted the disease and died a leper. 

    When we re-gather on Thursday evening for our Christmas Eve service, we’ll hear a continuation of this story.  We’ll hear the message that on the day the Savior was born, the angels proclaimed the message of his birth not to kings but to shepherds.  Then, if we continue reading the story, as he matured into adulthood, we discover that Jesus spent his time ministering among 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 of society, they we’re standing in judgment over him, deciding how best to get rid of him. 

While this might not be the kind of message that would stir the hearts of most mothers it led Mary to "magnify the Lord."  As we continue our journey through Advent to Bethlehem’s stable, may we view the world through the eyes of Mary.  And may we give thanks to the God who  turns the world upside down by filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty.  And as we hear this message, may we ask God to reveal to us, how we, who have been blessed with every good and perfect gift, might be a blessing.

1. Fred Craddock, et. al., Preaching through the Christian Year C, Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), 22.

2. Charles L. Campbell, in Feasting on the Word, Year C, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds., (Louisville: WJK, 2009), 1:97.

3. Norm Evans quoted in Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Thought I Knew, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 19. 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
Advent 4
December 20, 2009

No comments: