The Upside Down Kingdom

Luke 1: 39-55 / Third Sunday in Advent / December 11, 2011/Norman B. Bendroth

E. Stanley Jones, a famous Methodist preacher and missionary of two generations ago, said that Mary’s magnificent is “the most revolutionary document in the world.” I believe it is. Every line of this hymn placed by Dr. Luke on Mary’s lips after the announcement that she was carrying God’s Messiah, is a line from another place in scripture, whether a Psalm, a canticle or another song of God’s deliverance. Scripture scholars think that these may have been actual hymns that the early Jewish-Christian community sang when they gathered for worship and Luke appropriated them because they served the purpose of announcing God’s coming kingdom so perfectly.

So what does Mary sing? This is no lullaby.  The words thunder forth like a battle cry: “He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones; and the rich he has sent empty away.” Not too sweet a Christmas carol, I think.  It’s a song about someone low going up, someone up high being brought low.  You won’t hear women singing like this except in Tehran, or Darfur, or Afghanistan, or Egypt.

“Music hath power to soothe the savage beast,” says Shakespeare.  True.  But it also hath power to release, cut loose, pull down, rise up.  Why does Mary sing? Notice how personal her experience of God is.  “My soul magnifies the lord,” “My spirit rejoices in God My savior,” “The mighty one has done great things for me.”  That is the way it is with God and us. God has done great things for us. Stop, pause, and hold your breath and listen to that one sentence: “The Lord God has done great things for me.” Underline those words. Highlight those words.

Mary’s God is not a cosmic muffin–some mysterious, indefinable, benevolent force in the universe.  Mary’s God is real and palpable and active; a God you can sink your teeth into.  Her God was “The mighty one” who “does great things.” Mary’s God is the Holy One.  The holy God is wholly other, unlike anything the human imagination can spin out.

Yet in this holiness Mary found the mercy of God and a God who is deeply personal.  “His mercy is for those who fear (respect, reverence) him” (v.50).  The idea here is that of God’s “gracious faithfulness.”  It’s the promise-keeping side of God.  Look at Mary’s descriptions of God’s action.  “He has shown strength…”  “He has scattered the proud…”  “He has brought down the powerful…”  “He has filled the hungry…”  “He has sent the rich away…” Notice, these are all in the past tense.  How can that be?  She has just received Gabriel’s message that she will bear a son who will be Savior of the world?  How can she speak as if these things have already happened when Jews are under the oppression of the Romans, when Herod rules with cruel authority, and when the hungry beg in the streets?  These things aren’t true!

What is true is that Mary is so certain that God will keep these promises that she can speak of them as already having been accomplished.  She sings of the kind of God we serve: The Mighty One, the Holy One, the One whose mercy is so certain that we can speak of God’s promises as good as done.  When people get hold of this vision of our reigning, merciful God it causes revolutions!

In her song she tells of her Savior who has “looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” Lowliness. The Greek behind our English word is not talking simply about humility, but about poverty. Mary is poor — dirt poor. She is poor and pregnant and unmarried. She is in a mess. But she sings! Why? Because Luke knows — from the vantage of the end — that this lowly one, this wretched one, this woman, God raises her up. Mary, despised and rejected, is favored by God and will bring the Messiah to birth. And so, she sings.

What is more, Mary sings not just a solo Aria about her own destiny, but a freedom song on behalf of all the faithful poor in the land. She sings a song of freedom for all who, in their poverty and their wretchedness, still believe that God will make a way where there is no way.

Like John the Baptist, Mary prophesies deliverance; she prophesies about a way that is coming in the wilderness of injustice. She sings of a God who “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts”; who “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly”; who “has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” She exults in the God of Abraham; she exalts the God of Jesus Christ. Here at the beginning, Mary rejoices in God’s destiny — for her, and for a world turned upside down.

In recent years we have seen the “proud scattered” and the “powerful brought down from their thrones,” haven’t we? The executives of AIG, Lehman Brothers, Citigroup, and a host of Wall St. firms, were pleased to lend money to mortgage companies making “subprime” home loans to consumers with sketchy credit and often in a vulnerable state by high pressure sales people who too frequently left their ethics at the door. Other companies bundled these risky loans into “mortgage backed securities” and bonds and in turn sold them to others. Then when the housing bubble burst and the house of cards came tumbling down, after making billions by preying on the weak, they wanted, and got, a bailout. The trouble is not only have the mighty fallen, but they have taken everyone else with them.

While a complete accounting of the ways in which the crisis has been disproportionately imposed on working class Americans is beyond the scope of this sermon, it is worth noting a few results. The length of unemployment is the highest on record, and for the first time since statistics have been kept, an unemployed person is more likely to drop out of the labor force entirely than to get a job. Student debt is around 1 trillion dollars, and the average student debt is around $23,000, an increase of about 50% in a decade. According to the housing data firm CoreLogic, in 2010, about 10.9 million households, or 22 percent of all mortgaged homes, held underwater mortgages (i.e. owned houses whose values were below that at which they were bought). At the same time, corporate profits as a percentage of GDP, which saw a sharp decline in 2008, has recovered to reach near historical heights in 2011.

What might Mary say about some of these and other glaring contradictions in our nation today? We are first in gross domestic product; first in the number of billionaires in the world; first in health expenditures; first in military technology; first in defense expenditures; and first in military weapons exports. Yet we have the highest relative child poverty; the highest birth rates among teens (ages 15 to 19); we are last in protecting children against gun violence; we have the highest number of persons incarcerated; and we are the country with the widest gap between the rich and the poor. If we just compare Black child well-being with other nations, 62 countries have lower infant mortality rates including Sri Lanka; more than 100 nations have lower rates of low birthweight infants including Algeria, Botswana and Panama.

High finance and public policy are complex and I can’t pretend to know much about either, but one thing I do know is my Bible. You know what Isaiah said to the legislators of his day when they did rigged legislation to favor the well-off over the low income? “Woe to you legislators of infamous laws…who refuse justice to the unfortunate, who cheat the poor among my people of their rights, who make widows their prey and rob the orphan” (Isaiah 10:1-2, Jerusalem Bible). The Bible is not simplistic about poverty, nor does it glorify it, but can’t we all agree that it is a moral disgrace to take food from the mouths of hungry children to increase the luxuries of those feasting at a table already over-flowing with plenty?

As I read the scriptures for this week, it seems to me that God takes sides in these matters, and not just about wealth. These biblical texts are so uncompromising that it is tempting to “spiritualize” them, to talk about being “poor in spirit,” in order to soften them. Instead, I think we should take them at face value as a declaration that the advent of God’s kingdom subverts our ordinary ways of doing political and socio-economic business. It declares the radical nature of God’s upside down kingdom.

So can we sing Mary’s song? Could it break out this Advent in Winchester? Within the Washington beltway? On Beacon Hill? In Middlesex county? On Wall Street and Newbury Street? Or on Palm Springs lush lawns or Telluride’s slopes? Or will the Magnificat truly be sung only in the barrios and the ghettos, in Appalachia or the Mississippi delta? Guess it depends on which choir you sing with.

For those of us who are pretty comfortable by the world’s standards, Mary’s song sticks in our throats. It sure sticks in mine. I am not in a very good position to sing with Mary. By the world’s standards, I am so rich, so comfortable and so healthy, I can even fool myself into thinking I do not need God — certainly not Mary’s God! I am just not that needy, or so I think. But Mary just keeps singing, ranging high on her scales of praise, soaring in her expectant and revolutionary libretto, because God has reached so unexpectedly down to where the least and the lowly still struggle for life.

Can Mary’s God truly be our Lord and our God — the God who overturns the way the world works, who elects the least and the last to bring in the kingdom, whose judgment in every sense will save the poor, the wronged and the oppressed? Can the God who is going to knock the powerful off their peacock thrones, their stock exchange seats, their professional chairs, and their benches of judgment really be our God? Can we really praise this God — Mary’s God?

In all honesty I am not sure. The Advent gospel is more pointed than any of our Christmas carols. So pointed it sticks in my throat. If I am going to sing with Mary, I will need her help. She will have to take the lead.

And yet, here is hope — even for the likes of us. If Mary sings this Advent, perhaps we will finally know that every song of the future apart from hers is simply off key. But if Mary’s song is the real deal, then there is hope and her God and our God will bring us the future she imagined. This indeed is the point of Advent: God’s upside down kingdom has arrived! So sing it again, Mary. Sing to us of your God. Sing on, Mary; sing on, till your song at last becomes ours. Sing, till all the world hears you and makes your lines its own. And when your son returns with his angels in power, may we join them and you and the whole company of heaven in singing, “Glory to God in the highest!” Glory to the God of Mary, the woman whose freeing son, and whose freedom song, will yet be our own.

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