Normally, we hear this passage in Advent. It prompts images of the gift of God that coincides nicely with our gifts at Christmas. The gift of God in the person of Christ, however, is not limited to one short period in the Christian year – it is ongoing 24/7, 365, year after year. It is the gift that keeps on giving no matter the season.
In return we are meant, as Christians, to be a gift to the world – again, not just at Christmastime, but in all times. This is not a passage for one season, but one for all seasons. Even though we tend to reserve Christmas for the anticipation of the coming Messiah, that too is a constant expectation.
So, this morning, we’re going to continue to wait, while listening again to the song of Mary. Read Luke 1:46-55.
If you were here last week you heard Pastor Jenna [Rev Jenna Zirbel] paint word pictures of this reading. “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” Contrary to some thoughts that God turned the social order upside down by becoming incarnate in the person of a lowly child born to a poor unmarried mother in a cow stall, Pastor Jenna gave us a little different image to ponder.
The traditional view of this and many other Bible passages is that this event was good news for the poor – and bad news for the rich. Good news for the oppressed – and bad news for the powerful. Good news for the homeless and hungry – and bad news for the comfortable and well-fed.
Do you ever feel like that? Do you ever feel like the church preaches that it’s wrong to be wealthy or powerful or well-fed? Do you ever feel defensive – like you should feel guilty – because you have security and savings to fall back on?
Pastor Jenna gave us a different view last week – a view, by the way, that fits the scriptures much better than the traditional view. She said, “Picture this – the rich and powerful brought down to have their feet on the ground, and the lowly raised up to stand at the same place.” And where do they meet? Eye to eye, face to face, person to person, child of God to child of God.
But how can this be? The passage clearly talks about bringing down the powerful, the rich and the well-fed. The scripture clearly says that those who have material wealth, prestige, comfort will be judged by God according to the promises made to Sarah and Abraham. Well, if you’ll bear with me, I’d like to give you a more literal translation from the original Greek scriptures.
I will try to interpret from the point of view of 1st century Hebrews and Greeks, rather than translate it directly into the concepts of the twenty-first century. It may be a little awkward for our modern ears, but listen carefully. Hear Mary’s song again:
My soul holds the Lord God in high honor,
and my spirit is joyful because of God my Deliverer,
because God has looked with caring on the humiliation of God’s servant.
See! From now on all generations will consider me fortunate;
because the Powerful One has caused great things for me, and God’s name is Holy,
and God’s mercy is upon generation to generation who revere God.
God has done power by God’s arm; God has scattered those who are arrogant as well as their heart’s intentions.
God has taken down those who dominate from their thrones, and raised up the humble;
God has satisfied with good things those who hunger, and sent away empty-handed those who are growing richer.
The differences may seem slight, but they are none-the-less significant. The way it appears in scriptures is that those who are powerful, are rulers or leaders, or are rich are being judged as bad. And those who are lowly, poor and hungry are judged good.
In reality, however, it isn’t about who we are, but what we harbor in our minds and how we are treated or treat others. Those to whom this gift of God is insignificant are those who are arrogant and have arrogant thoughts and actions, those who dominate and use other people, those who continue to grow rich at the expense of others.
In short, the gift is meaningless to the people who wouldn’t pay attention, anyway, because they think they are in control. This gift of God is significant for those who are humble as well as those who are humiliated, those who hunger as well as those who are hungry. It’s all about attitude.
The difference to the hearers of these words is important.
It is not uncommon for those who are wealthy, successful by the world’s standards, and powerful to disregard this and similar messages. Some have even omitted them entirely from their belief in the Bible and opted instead to concentrate on a Gospel of Prosperity. This isn’t some extreme, cult-like theology that lurks in the corners of only the elite circles, but one that pervades much of religiosity in the U.S. today. It is based on a radical belief in deserved prosperity.
The high points of the Prosperity Theology are:
- non-Christian humans have the nature of Satan; only by “conversion” do they acquire the nature of God like true Christians;
- true Christians have the right to progress and prosper in all areas of life – non-Christians do not;
- blockages to prosperity come from the Devil who is the real reason for diseases, poverty and stagnation;
- Jesus has delegated all his power to Christians who are obliged to use this authority to destroy all things that seem evil to real Christians;
- God is bound by spiritual regulations which it is up to Christians to understand and exploit; revealed knowledge is a message from God’s Spirit directly into our spirit, and outsiders (those who not think like we do) do not have revealed knowledge.
In short, adherents of this theology are entitled to prosperity, authority and the classification as “true Christians”. Wealth, health and power are signs of God’s particular blessings for these true Christians. In the extreme, it is not unusual to hear messages about:
- the evil empire of Islam,
- capitalism being the Christian way,
- calamities and catastrophes being the rightly-deserved retribution of God on unrighteous people,
- a God-given authority to promote U.S. style democracy and capitalism,
- a just war against an infidel enemy to protect our own economic interests,
- people trying to escape grinding poverty being an economic threat to our own security.
Now, you also hear it in religious circles that are not particularly conservative:
- mission is often condescending as if given to someone inferior;
- secular gifts and/or wealth are often criteria for officers that control the business of the church;
- money, when given to churches, many times remains under the control of the giver by designating it to specific causes or uses, rather than being given for the general use of ministry;
- the wealthy are generally more deserving of respect, and their words heard more readily, than the poor;
- and leadership is given the deference that seems to indicate some special relationship with God.
The reality is that Prosperity Theology is alive and well in this country, and it infects almost all of our lives and churches. Whether Republican or Democrat, left or right – the candidate who spends the most money in a U.S. election campaign wins the election 94% of the time. Admittedly, the depth of the worship of money, power and the elite may be mitigated somewhat in some circles, but the idol is an idol just the same.
Without belaboring the point, most church decisions are made along dominant cultural lines:
- Churches conduct business where they get the best price – that is, most advantage.
- During a period of financial difficulty, the first expenses cut are usually mission, Christian education and ministry funds. Financial security and control are more important than ministry and mission.
- The current crisis for mainline churches is perceived as one of numbers and finances. Solution – ‘outreach’ that resembles a smorgasbord of consumer driven choices; and ‘stewardship’ and ‘discipleship’ programs that unmistakably aim to solve the practical problems rather than promote spiritual growth;
Now, just in case you think I’m picking on modern church life, let me tell you that, from these points of view, our culture is very, very similar to the culture in Mary’s time. The first century was also caught up in a Gospel of Prosperity. Profit, power, privilege, and position were the driving forces and they resulted in certain critical attitudes and actions of the religious and social hierarchy.
These attitudes – arrogance, seeking advantage, and greed – are those very attitudes that Mary decried in her song. They were also the primary attitudes that Jesus preached against in his ministry on earth.
So, what is the good news in the reading this morning?
The gift from God. The reality of Jesus bringing God’s message.
It’s not a judgment about who were are or what we have. It is, however, judgment of how we think, and act and live – about what we do with who we are and what we have. The gift is a vision of people of all kinds standing eye to eye and face to face.
It has often been said that the fervent hope of all people is to be known. When we stand face to face with someone different than ourselves, or one who lives differently than we do, we are perfectly lined up to know them and be known by them. Our gift is ourselves, and theirs is themselves.
The present we are waiting for at Christmas, but that is available year round, is for God to come amongst us incarnate in the person of Jesus – to stand face to face with each and every one of us – to know us and to love us. The present is God’s presence with us.
In response to God’s gift, perhaps our best gift in return would be to be present with those around us – present with those who are in need at this time – present with those who are rejected at this time – present with those who are not like us.
Let’s be eye to eye and face to face with those we would not ordinarily be present with – let’s know them, and let them know us. To know someone requires we set aside arrogance and self-interest, and to listen – listen to their stories, their dreams, their longings and their pain.
This year give the present of being present all year, as Christ is present for us.