Theme: A world turned upside down
Let us pray.
Most holy, Lord God, you come to us in many unexpected ways; help us see you in the unexpected and in the lowly and unimportant, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
You just never know who might get called for jury duty. Court officials in Birmingham, Alabama were surprised a few weeks ago when Jesus Christ showed up for jury duty. Now we have heard stories of people’s dogs or deceased relatives being called for jury duty, but Jesus Christ? Of course, court officials thought they were the butt of a practical joke.
But Jesus produced her driver’s license and she was indeed Jesus Christ. When her name was announced, other jurors laughed. Fifty-nine year old Jesus Christ was formerly known as Dorothy Lola Killingworth. She told an incredulous judge, Scott Vowell, that her name was changed in probate court.
Jurors are asked questions to ascertain their suitability for jury duty. But instead of answering the questions, Jesus responded by answering questions with questions. Sound familiar? Because of her behavior, Jesus was excused from jury duty because she was disruptive, even though she wanted to be on the jury. It was a criminal case.
You think that scene is absurd? So is the one from the gospel reading.
The coming of the messiah who will redeem Israel is not proclaimed by archangels, not by high priests, not by emperors, and not by ordained preachers. Rather, it is proclaimed by two pregnant, marginalized women – one poor, young and unwed, the other far too old to ever conceive a child. The church celebrates the birth of the Son of God not by theological reflection, but by laughter, singing, and astonishment.
After Mary agreed to carry God’s son, she went as fast as she could to an unnamed town in the Judean hill country. Mary was apparently a strong willed woman. We are not told how a pregnant woman made this journey all by herself. It could be that Mary wanted to avoid the criticism and harsh treatment that was going to be hers in her hometown due to her pregnancy.
When she arrived, she went straight into the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child in Elizabeth’s womb gave her the greatest kick she ever felt. In the ancient world, any activity in the womb was thought to be an omen from God. The destiny of the child or the purpose of God could be discerned from such activity. We are reminded of Esau and Jacob wrestling in the womb in Genesis. In Genesis 25:23, it is said that “the elder shall serve the younger.” That is Esau will serve Jacob. Here it is John the Baptist who will serve the younger, Jesus.
Then Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she loudly proclaimed, “No woman is more blest than you are and your baby is also so very blest. And why should I be so honored to have the mother of my Lord visit me? The moment I heard your voice, the baby within me leaped for joy. You are truly blessed, because you believed every word that God said would come true!”
Elizabeth makes it clear that Mary’s pregnancy is not shameful. Mary may have made this visit for encouragement. If so, she got it! Mary is a woman of great faith and courage, which is affirmed by the Holy Spirit through Elizabeth.
Mary is bursting with joy. She cannot contain herself. She gives a great acclamation of the greatness of God. She is bursting with joy, practically dancing in adulation. God has greatly blessed her. Through Mary, the salvation of humankind will be realized. Mary is unique. Mary is the God-bearer. But Mary is not special, because God shows blessings on all who worship God.
But those who think of themselves as special and above other people, God will bring them down. Non-Christians call this karma. Whether observed in the west or in the east of this world, people who show little or no regard for others are eventually brought down in some way or another. Even tyrants are knocked down and replaced with the humble. A good example is Nelson Mandela replacing an apartheid regime. The only trouble is that power often corrupts even the humble.
God looks out for those who cannot find enough food to eat. So, how does God do this? God does this by people who work at the Upper Room. God does this by people sponsoring poor children through organizations like Compassion. Why do people do these things? Because God moves their hearts.
God has a special relationship with Israel. The prophets saw a vision of Israel being a light to the world. But Israel failed to live up to this promise. So now God has thought the time is right for the messiah, the Son of God, to come into the world, reminding Israel of its responsibilities to the world. This is who Christians are: a people, as heirs of Israel, a new Israel, to proclaim God’s light, mercy, peace, and justice to a needy world.
Abraham is our ancestor. It was through Abraham and his descendants that God redeems the world. It is through Abraham’s descendants that the world is brought into unity as the family of God. This awesome responsibility falls on us as Christians.
Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months and then she returned home. Elizabeth reminds us of Hannah in 1 Samuel. Mary’s Magnificat is very similar to Hannah’s Song. When Mary refers to herself as lowly, the more accurate translation is oppressed. Mary saw herself as oppressed. It may mean that as an unmarried woman she was oppressed, which she certainly was.
In spite of this, God’s work of redemption comes through her. God’s mercy and justice will prevail by overthrowing the powerful and replacing them with peasants. The oppressed and exploited can live only when the proud and powerful are removed from office.
When God uses the mighty arm, we are reminded of God delivering Israel from bondage in Egypt to deliverance in a land flowing with milk and honey. Mary’s song sets the theme for the rest of Luke’s gospel. She sets the themes we will hear until next Advent. God covenanted with Israel to be a society of compassion and mercy.
By Christian tradition, this is the season of the Feast of Fools. It is a time when the world is turned upside down, enacting Mary’s Magnificat. In some places it was called Carnival. Max Harris gives us this description:
Throughout medieval and early modern Europe, Christmas was a time for festive reversals of status. As early as the ninth century, a mock patriarch was elected in Constantinople, burlesquing the Eucharist and riding through the city streets on an ass. And as late as (Holy) Innocents’ Day (28 December) 1685, in the Franciscan church of Antibes, lay brothers and servants “put on the vestments inside out, held the books upside down, . . . wore spectacles with rounds of orange peel instead of glasses, . . . . blew the ashes from the censers on each other’s face and hands, and instead of the proper liturgy chanted confused and inarticulate gibberish.”
Cross dressing, masking as animals, wafting foul-smelling incense, and electing burlesque bishops, popes, and patriarchs mocked conventional human pretentions. So did the introduction of an ass into the church, in commemoration of the holy family’s flight into Egypt, and the braying of the priest, choir, and congregation during mass.
Mary’s song is our Advent song. It gives us hope of a world where mercy and compassion are the laws of the land. How will we live out God’s model of mercy and compassion in our lives, in our church, in our society, and in the world?
We now pray: Gracious God and giver of all good gifts, give us the gift of light-heartedness, that we may not take ourselves too seriously; help us see ourselves when we are too puffed up and self-important, through the real Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
[The Associated Press contributed to this sermon.]
Text: Luke 1:39–45 (NRSV)
39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”