Advent 4: Luke 1:46-55
I didn’t grow up in the church. As a teenager my faith was incubated in the Jesus movement of the early 70s, culminating in several trips down the aisle to follow Christ. It took me awhile to learn that the gospel is bigger than personal salvation. And yet if this passage is any indication, it is certainly not less. In the first stanza of the Magnificat Mary sings: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior … all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me …” The use of the first person singular pronoun indicates a very personal experience of salvation.
Entering a world remarkably like our own, marked by political upheaval, economic uncertainty, and religious conflict, the God who acts in Jesus Christ, notes Charles Talbert, “did not go to the top (to Caesar or Pilate) to get things changed; nor … to the left (to the Zealots),” much less to the religious right (to the Pharisees, or the Sadducees). No, God made a beeline for the bottom. God went to the poor, to the oppressed, to the outcasts, beginning with a teenage peasant slave-girl from the boondocks of Nazareth, a nobody from Nowheresville we know simply as Mary. But Mary is also evidence that God goes to the center, straight to the heart, offering forgiveness and deliverance, and seeking to reign there as Savior and Lord. Blessed are you, Mary, and blessed are you and I, for responding personally.
Still, the fact remains: The gospel is bigger than personal salvation. God is interested in saving more than what Anne Lamott calls “my tiny princess self.” God’s agenda is nothing less than the complete reversal of cultural values, the total transformation of the structures of society. The second stanza of the Magnificat proclaims the massive scope of the gospel when it affirms that God “…has scattered the proud in the imagination 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.” In Jesus Christ God sets in motion a revolution where the politico-socio-economic tables are turned. Salvation is comprehensive, covering the whole waterfront of human need.
Now, read verses 51-53 over again, slowly, noticing the refrain: “He has … he has … he has… .” Which raises the question: He has? We’ve seen this use of the past tense before in Luke’s advent passages, as a way of expressing profound confidence in what God is up to. That which is promised is as good as done. Still we wait and hope for the tables to be turned — even as the income of the top 1 percent of Americans rose 157% in the last 10 years, while that of the middle income families rose 10 percent, and the income of people in the bottom fifth fell slightly. Even as upwards of 46 million Americans lack health care insurance. Even as across the globe over a billion people live on a dollar a day, and 15 million African kids have lost one or both parents, orphaned by AIDS, and those living in the land where Mary first proclaimed these triumphant words cry out in distress: “There is no work. There is no money. There is no peace. There is no hope.” We continue to long for the world that Mary imagined.
Yet even as we wait in hope we must not be naive about the danger we face.
In his brief introduction to George Orwell’s classic novel, Animal Farm, Malcolm Muggeridge first explains that the book “is about power, and what happens when [power] gets transferred from traditional to avid revolutionary hands,” and then claims that Orwell’s theme was not taken from Marx or Rousseau or any of the other revolutionary fathers, but from Mary’s Magnificat. Orwell “was concerned to show how, when the mighty are put down from their seats and the humble and meek [are] exalted, they too, soon become mighty in their turn and fit to be put down.” But he wasn’t the first: “John Wesley, likewise, noted in his Journal that his converts, being made by virtue of their conversion honest, abstemious and industrious, soon become rich, and then all the work was to do again.” Cotton Mather expressed the same concern centuries before: “Religion has begotten prosperity and the daughter has eaten the mother.”
The danger, simply put, is that the oppressed become the oppressors. So the revolution must continue. Which is to say, Mary’s Magnificat functions not only as a profound call to hope, but also as a call to humility, a call to repentance, demanding that the idols of my pride of position, and relative power and prosperity be continually dethroned. The challenge every day is to stay on the right side of the revolution, to be about what God is up to in the world.
In his book, Beyond Duty, Tim Dearborn introduces us to Simon Ibrahim, a follower of Jesus living in Cairo, Egypt, a city of roughly 20 million people where the vast majority are stuck in grinding poverty. One day Simon asked his garbage collector, an outcast at the bottom of society if there ever was one, whether he had ever heard of Jesus. Well, no he hadn’t. That conversation led to a budding friendship, and the garbage collector’s eventual conversion to Christ. Some time later Simon Ibrahim started a little church among the growing group of converted garbage collectors, called The Coptic Orthodox Church of St. Simon the Tanner (tanning being another despised profession in that part of the world). And now, because the gospel is bigger than personal salvation, years later this church among the outcast and marginalized garbage collectors is famous for its health clinics, schools, vocational training programs, and advocacy efforts for a fair wage for the workers. Clear signs of the very same kingdom Mary proclaimed emerged out of the refuse of Cairo.
The revolution continues … from the bottom up, and the center out.
Heidi Husted Armstrong recently completed a term of service as Christian Impact Director at World Vision US, after serving as pastor/head of staff for ten years at Columbia Church in Vancouver, Wash.