This week's lectionary readings, instead of a Psalm, include what I like to call Mary's Song of Great Reversal. Caught up in the Spirit, she seems to understand the conception of the Messiah in her womb as the first act of God to establish justice through her son — he would scatter the proud and bring down rulers and send the rich away empty and he would also lift the humble and fill the hungry with good things.
O, for such a Christmas...and for such a Christmas people.
Here in South Africa, one of our leading newspapers recently published (read the story here) its yearly list of SA's richest people. It's interesting and depressing reading...there are no women anywhere near the top of the list, and, never mind who is the richest and who the poorest, it once again shows that the gap between rich and poor (whatever each of those terms mean to each of us)...the gap, the chasm, is getting bigger and that ought to concern us all, particularly we who are called by Christ's name (I have preached on this terrible gap, the Gini Co-efficient here). I touched on this subject a few weeks ago when I spoke about how we tame Jesus (read here) and I said: "Jesus is tamed when there is no more preaching about his sharp words against the rich." We don't always like to hear this, but this Sunday's readings make us look at the fact, that:
God's preference is for the poor
James, the brother of our Lord, reminds us:
Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? (James 2:5- 6).
Wealth and poverty are not necessarily spiritual issues. Many wealthy people are godly Christians and many poor people are unbelievers (in my ministry I have had the privilege of pastoring some of SA's most wealthy people and some of her poorest). But generally speaking, God has chosen poor people to populate His kingdom. Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matt. 19:23-24).
And so on this last Sunday in Advent we find ourselves, unsurprisingly, I hope, with Mary and her great song which just bursts from her when she visits her cousin Elizabeth for 3 months. I'm sure I needn't remind you that Mary was poor and that she probably went to her cousin's village to escape the shame that made her an outcast in her own village.
If my first point is that we as Christians need to have a very special place in our lives for the poor, then my second point is that we as protestant Christians, need to find more place in our hearts, for Mary.
Protestants have been known to ignore Mary, the mother of Jesus, in order to steer clear of Catholicism. For many, the fear of giving Mary too much honor has resulted in a failure to honor her at all. Mary is almost “controversial”, but, if we analyse everything the Scriptures tell us about Mary, we discover that Mary is an ordinary woman with an extraordinary lot to teach us, especially about discipleship, which as you know from my Advent Pastoral Letter, is what I sense God calling me to focus on in my remaining time here. Mary learned to follow this Messiah Jesus through the ordinary struggles that humans face; and we need to learn that afresh in 2014, don't we?
When we look for her, the real Mary always leads us to Jesus. When we extract Mary from the mire of controversy, we discover a woman of great courage and faith. This is apparent from our introduction to Mary when the angel Gabriel announces that she would conceive a child out of wedlock. Mary’s “may it be” response conveys her great faith, but even more, her profound courage. Her reception of God’s plan placed her at odds with Jewish law and society’s expectations. She would be a suspected adulteress and possibly subjected to a humiliating trial, depending on Joseph’s reaction. Furthermore,she knew that villagers would taunt and ostracize her son. He’d hear the accusation that he was an illegitimate child (in Hebrew, a mamzer, but more of that at Christmas) and that he would be prohibited from special assemblies (Deut. 23:2). She knew as well that Joseph’s reputation as an observant Jew would have been called into question. Yet, in spite of all the humiliation, suffering, and pain it would bring, Mary consented to God’s plan. Scot McKnight puts it like this, “Mary, in faith, began to carry a cross before Jesus was born. Mary began to suffer for the Messiah before the Messiah suffered”....she can teach us so much. Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) reveals the depth of her faith. In this song, her desire to see corrupt government and oppressive systems overturned by the justice of God is robustly expressed. Surely her song needs to be sung by us today in South Africa. Her song belongs on the shelf with songs of protest against unjust rulers. It is an ancient version of what Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika was in the 70’s and 80’s in South Africa, or We Shall Overcome in the 50’s and 60’s in the USA.
The Magnificat reveals Mary’s profound faith in God and belief that God’s Messiah would triumph over the powers of evil. Mary’s revolutionary faith reminds me of some of our heroes, Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Suzman, Helen Joseph, in a slightly different vein, Thuli Madonsela: people who fearlessly speak truth to power. Mary was such a woman.
Mary was also a woman of witness. She was the first person to tell the gospel story about Jesus to Elizabeth. Like a good mother, Mary treasured her son. And, no doubt, she shaped and influenced Jesus. But, over the course of her life, her understanding of the nature of the Messiah’s reign changed. She came to discover that Jesus neither acted like the Messiah they expected nor taught what Mary and his disciples expected. Mary’s first clue that her expectations needed adjustment came when she heard Simeon speak of how “the future king’s glory would come through sorrow and suffering”, that He would “be rejected and maligned and made a center of controversy". Because of this “a sword would pierce even her own soul” (Luke 2:34-35).
Over time, Mary grew in understanding. Through her experiences of Jesus as a boy at the Temple (Luke 2:41-51), the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11), and Jesus’ teaching on the new family of disciples taking precedence over his nuclear family (Matthew 12:46-50), Mary’s relationship to Jesus slowly shifted from mother to disciple. At Calvary, we find Mary standing at Jesus’ cross while her son was tortured before her very eyes. We often forget that Mary experienced the cross in a way that no other could. We remember, sometimes only romantically, what God did for us. But, the real Mary heard the thud of pounding nails and the sounds of piercing pain. Mary barely comprehended that it was for her that her son died. But she stood near the cross as an act of faithful allegiance to her son, and the real Mary embraced the real cross – as her son writhed on it. At the cross, Jesus affirmed Mary as mother and disciple (John 19:26-27).
By failing to give Mary proper honor, we lose a beautiful and inspiring example of faith, courage, devotion, and love. Like any good mother-son relationship, Mary had a positive influence on the spiritual formation of her son. Like a good witness of Jesus, Mary most likely influenced the shape of the Gospel narratives: There are good reasons for Luke to tell us that Mary spent significant time pondering the story of Jesus. There are good reasons for us to think that Mary not only pondered that story but also passed it on. We should not fear that an accurate portrayal of the biblical Mary will ever undermine our faith in Jesus. On the contrary, when we study Mary – the real Mary – we find that she points us to Jesus and gives us a wonderful example of faith!
Mary emerges from the pages of Scripture as a woman with the spiritual depth to believe an angel's bizarre message and the boldness to call for justice in an oppressive, unjust world. But like us, Mary had to struggle to understand God's way of working out his redemptive plan. She hadn't expected a Messiah who would die, hadn't anticipated that a sword would pierce her soul. Like us, she didn't have Jesus all figured out. But she grappled with reality, trusted God, and remained faithful to his call on her life.
May that both challenge us and give us hope.
For an excellent read on this subject,
and a source of inspiration for this sermon,
I strongly recommend