The following is a sermon based on Luke 1:46-55. I’m aware there are many non-Christian readers of this site, and a sermon is probably not your cup of tea. Given what’s going on in the world, however, I’ll hope you take the time to read today’s post. What we see identified as “Christianity” in the news often has little to do with the actual teachings of Jesus or the words of the New Testament.
In the Luke 1:46-55 Mary praises the LORD. Her song of praise comes after she’s greeted by her cousin, Elizabeth – who was herself pregnant with the child who would grow up to become John the Baptist.1 When Elizabeth exalts in Mary’s arrival, and acknowledges the impact it had even on her unborn child, Mary can’t help but break out into praise. As she does so she becomes lost in the greatness of the LORD’s mercy.
Why is that? It has to do with who Mary was. We don’t think about it much but she could have been as young as thirteen years old, but even for many other reasons she was the epitome of low. She was part of a conquered people. She was a woman, and she’d been found to be pregnant before her betrothal period was completed2. As far as the social ladder went, she was near the bottom. And yet, she was able to look ahead and see how her low estate would one day be turned from scorn to praise. People would, for generations to come, call her “blessed”.
As we read Mary’s exaltation, in many ways she becomes a representative of all Israel. Her people were, after all, a nation brought low. In their low estate they were waiting for the LORD to “see” and move on their behalf. They could long this way, in spite of their long suffering, because they were also a people with the memory of the great things the LORD had done to deliver them in the past. This memory is what prompted them to hope for the LORD to move mightily in the future.
Mary’s story, from the time the angel announced the impending birth of her son to the moment Elizabeth confirms the child’s powerful destiny, was a confirmation of this hope. God had worked mightily in the past, and God was working mightily in the present. God was working wonders which would change the course of human history. And it was happening through a lowly pregnant teenager. The sheer thought of this caught Mary up in wonder, and led her to exalt in the LORD’s justice.
If the choice of Mary to bear the Son of God was any indication, the world was about to be turned on its head. In God’s justice the proud and powerful would soon be brought low. Those who were haughty in their hearts and enjoyed lording over other people would be humbled. Those who were rich and didn’t care if others went hungry, were going understand what it meant to be empty-handed. This was God’s justice, and it was about to break into the world.
In contrast, the poor were going to be filled. The “have nots” would finally be satisfied, and filled with “good things.” The promises to Abraham and his ancestors, given centuries before, would be fulfilled at last.
It’s interesting to read this passage as this country stands on the precipice of the 2016 presidential election. Mary praises the LORD from a position of weakness. She is, in fact, powerless against the world which has rigged the game against both herself and her people. In her prayer of praise the only one who has power is the LORD. It is the LORD’s hand which has done “great things.” It is the LORD’s hand which brings the haughty low and the lowly to life. It is only by the LORD’s hands the ancient promises to Abraham will be fulfilled. For the only power which matters, is the LORD’s.
But somewhere along the line Christians in this country became convinced it was a good idea to exchange the call to be a moral conscience for the strength of temporal power. Christians from all over the theological and political spectrum began to believe it wasn’t enough for Jesus’ followers to impact the conscience of those who wielded power, we had to strive to be the people in power. And if we couldn’t obtain power for ourselves we had to be attached to those who did so. Over the past decades we’ve seen Christians, from both the political left and right, strive to make certain they were as near the throne as possible. Why? So they could make certain their agenda was heard. Immigration, gun rights, gay marriage, financial reform, and public education only scratch the surface of the issues which drive Christians to the halls of power – and often times we are as divided on these issues as the rest of the country.
But, as Mary’s prayer shows us, worldly power will inevitably fail. Injustice will eventually crumbled into it’s own rot. The truth is this, whatever political angle we come from, worldly power is not worth the price paid to obtain it. Power in this world is always a compromise between the common good, human greed, and the fear of “the other.” We see this play out in corruption trials here in the United States, the Brexit vote in Great Britain, the fear and mistrust of refugees, war, rebellion, and religious upheaval. All these things spring from the same desire – the will to power3.
But no worldly power, well intentioned as it might be, can bring about the mercy, justice, and peace of the Kingdom of God. And anytime Jesus’ followers pursue such ends we are trading down. Let’s listen to Mary, and remember that God’s strength is borne into this world through weakness. Let’s embrace that weakness, and in our powerless state present the moral presence of peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, and self-control – the very fruit of the Spirit the Apostle Paul envisioned for Jesus’ followers.
If we live this way we probably never will gain power in this world, but the influence of a humble4 spiritual and moral authority may have a more far-reaching impact than we can possibly know. For in the weakness of love the Kingdom of God, firmly established in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, breaks into this world. Amen.
- There’s a whole lot going on in the first chapter of Luke. It gives the impression God was doing something NEW. ↩
- Women didn’t have much societal freedom in the world of the New Testament. Mary’s pregnancy would have been a scandal. ↩
- Currently it is most prominently spoken in the USA with the mantra, “Make America great again.” The will to power is always a function of evil. ↩
- People in the USA tend to combine “power” and “authority” into one homogenized mixture. In truth, the two are actually quite different. Real authority is earned through the demonstration of wisdom and is dependent on the respect of others. Real authority can only be used gently. ↩