Saturday, December 10, 2011

God’s Action Plan

Luke 1:46-55
Advent 3
December 11, 2011
William G. Carter

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
  for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
       Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
  for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
  His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
  He has shown strength with his arm;
       he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
  he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
  He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
  according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

    This is the song of somebody who has been lifted up. She was low to the ground and there she was met with Holy Favor. She was diminished by insignificance until God did great things for her. That truth is the center of gravity for this song. “I was down and then God blessed me.” “My soul magnifies the Lord, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”

     Tradition places these words on the lips of a young peasant girl. She is having a conversation with an old woman, a relative of hers. The old woman is named Elizabeth and she is six months into a surprising pregnancy. The young woman is Mary and her surprising pregnancy has just been announced.

     Elizabeth reminds us of ancient Sarah, the mother of Israel, who was decreed to be barren and now long past the days of child bearing. Her impending birth reminds us of the kind of God that we have. Barrenness is not a deal breaker with God. God is so creative that God can birth just about anywhere, regardless of human circumstances.

     And those are also the circumstances for young Mary. She has not been with a man, yet new life begins within her. God announces this news through a messenger angel, hinting at the importance of Mary’s child and who he will become. Her child Jesus will be a royal child. His very real human birth will originate from the mysterious power of God. This is going to happen, ready of not. It will occur as an unexpected gift.

     So Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord!” Her words have resounded so frequently through the ages that the church has lost track of how many times these lyrics have been set to music. Mary sings to the Lord – but mostly she sings of the Lord. After the opening phrase, God becomes the subject of every line. Mary’s experience of blessing opens her heart to the greatness of the One who is doing the blessing. And she sings three truths: God is merciful and strong, God readjusts the power structures of this world, and God has a helpful memory.

     God is merciful and strong. I suppose we can say anything we want about God, but Mary sings of what she knows. Mary is discovered by the Lord; in her insignificance, she is now called “blessed.” God has not cast her off, but considered her, counted her, taken her seriously – and this is how she knows God’s mercy.

     Yet in the next breath, she calls God “the Mighty One” and declares great things have been done for her. The angel had revealed who her child will become. The child in Elizabeth’s womb does a little dance when Mary walks into the room. The awesome power of God is shown in the creation of a child.

     When Mary sings, she holds together both attributes: God’s mercy and God’s strength. She will not separate them, as so many of us do. She does not say, for instance, that God’s love is shrunken down until it fits cozily in our hearts. Nor does she point to the tornado and announce it as the wild forces of God.

     No, she declares that God comes with compassion, with tenderness, with grace and affirmation. If we look beneath the hard surface, we can find a kindness latent in everything that God does. There is a good will at work in the world, a hidden benevolence to reclaim and improve a beloved world.

     Want to know what God comes with power and strength? It may not be in the tornado, but rather in the volunteers who come to help in the middle of the storm, supporting the afflicted, delivering blankets and fresh water, rebuilding the waterlogged lives. God’s deepest authority is revealed in the widest possible kindness.

     For Mary, mercy and strength are announced in her imminent child. The baby’s impact appears first in his innocence, then in his weakness, and ultimately in the hearts of those who revere him. Not everybody will understand this – they will look for God in the big, booming Voice, or in the magnificent miracle, or the thundering commandment. But that’s not where God can usually be found.

     People go looking for God in something spectacular and other-worldly, in something that lifts them off this planet – when the truth of Christmas is that God comes down onto this planet and hides here among a young peasant girl and her family. The holy power of God infuses the every-day. It is holy strength through every-day mercy. God is merciful and strong.

     And if that’s true, it means that God readjusts the power structures of this world. If the power of God is shown best in the mercy of God, then the power of the Gospel is shown in the mercy that people show to one another. God commands us to be our brothers’ keepers, our sisters’ guardians. We are taught to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. The only thing we hear, however, is that part about loving ourselves, and the whole thing goes haywire.

     Did they hear what Mary sings? She sings how “God has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts.” That is, there are a lot self-important people who think they are better than everybody else, and they sit around imagining how to get the advantage over the people around them. We see this all the time, don’t we?

     There are people who scheme about getting bigger Christmas gifts for cheaper prices and push their fellow shoppers out of the way. There are those who connive to climb higher than those around them, and they don’t care who they step on as they scramble to get ahead. There are those who get fat by grabbing more food than they can eat, and the Thanksgiving leftovers that they finally just threw away would have provided five meals for a hungry family.

     But Mary sings about the kind of God that we have. “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,” she says, “and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

     It reminds me of that line from David Letterman, the day after the soldiers found Saddam Hussein hiding in a hole in Iraq. He said, “Oh, how the mighty have fallen! One minute you’re the president of a country; the next, you’re being checked for fleas on Fox News.” Does anybody doubt the justice of that? There comes a point when being a good neighbor for one another becomes more important than stomping on the weak and plundering those who are already poor. God’s power is shown in God’s compassion. The power of God’s Gospel is shown in the compassion of God’s people.

     This is the revolution that Mary’s Son will come to ignite. It is a revolution of love, a revolution of fairness. The hungry are filled. The hoarders are dismissed. The love that God has for every single one of his children means that every single one of God’s children has a place at his Table. If we are talking about democracy, that means everybody gets an equal voice (even the people in the Dunmore cemetery). Even on the Animal Farm, some critters are not more equal than the others. Each one is loved with the same infinite love that God has for you -- or her -- or him.

     If we take God seriously, it means that human power is going to reshuffle once in a while. If this brings more people to the Table, it is a blessed benevolence. If it increases compassion, it is a sign that God remembers us.

     That’s the third thing Mary sings, you know: God keeps remembering us, and God’s memory is helpful. The promises that God once made are kept fresh and vital. If we draw on the strength and mercy of our Savior, we discover how God keeps answering his own promises. We learn all over again where God is staying busy.

     There is a story making the rounds these days about Julio Diaz. Have you heard it? Julio is a 31-year-old social worker. He commutes an hour each day on the subway to the Bronx, and he likes to get off one stop early so he can eat at his favorite diner.

     One night last month, Julio stepped off the Number 6 train and onto an empty platform. A teenage boy approached him, pulled a knife, and said, “Give me your wallet.” Diaz gave him his wallet and said, “Here you go.”

     As the kid turned away, Diaz spoke up, “Wait a minute. You forgot something. If you’re going to rob people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.” The robber looked at his victim, as if to say, “What gives?” He said, “Why are you doing this?”

     Julio said, “If you’re willing to rish your freedom for a few bucks, I guess you really need the money. All I wanted to do was get dinner, and if you want to join me, you’re more than welcome.” He thought the kid just needed some help.

     So he and the teen went into the diner and sat in a booth. The manager said, “Hey Julio!” The dishwashers looked out and waved. The waiters smiled and nodded. The kid said, “You know everybody. Do you own the place?”

     Julio said, “I just come in here a lot.” The kid said, “But you’re even nice to the dishwashers.”

     Diaz said, “Well, yeah. Haven’t you been taught to be nice to everybody?” “Sure,” said the teen, “but I didn’t think anybody actually did it.”

     Julio took a sip of coffee and said, “So what do you want out of life?” The teen didn’t answer, just made a sad face.

     Then the bill arrived, and Julio said, “Look, you’re going to have to pay for this bill because you have all my money. I can’t pay for dinner. If you give my wallet back, I’ll gladly treat you.” The teen didn’t even think about it, just handed back the wallet. Diaz paid the bill … and then gave the kid a twenty dollar bill.

     The kid said, “What’s this for?” Julio said, “I’d like to exchange it for your knife.” The teen handed it over. Then they stepped outside and went their different ways.

     When Diaz got home that evening, he told his mother what happened. She said, “If someone asked you for the time, you would give them your watch.”

     Maybe so. He said, “I figure, if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It’s as simple as that in this complicated world.”[1]

     Listen: when Mary’s Child is born, his cradle song will begin a quiet revolution. His mother sings of great power expressed in mercy. She knows that this power of mercy will knock the high and mighty off their thrones and lift up those of low degree. And she remembers that this is how God keeps remembering all of us – that God keeps calling us to treat one another right, so that nobody demands other people’s money nor lets the neighbors go without a hot meal.

     It is a quiet revolution. It’s going to turn this tired world upside down. Selfishness will be subverted, to the glory of God.

(c) William G. Carter

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