Turning the World Upside Down

Sermon on Luke 1:39-55 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest

In 1943, a young cowboy named Curly stepped out onto a Broadway stage and changed American musical theater forever.  Oklahoma! was a love story set at the turn of the century in Oklahoma territory, just before it became a state.  It was revolutionary because it told a consistent story throughout the musical.  Prior to the release of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s masterpiece, the story behind a musical was secondary to the singing and dancing.  The earliest musicals tended to be simple variety shows like Ziegfeld’s Follies or shows about putting on shows like 42nd Street.  In these early musicals, the songs were generally unrelated to the story.  oklahomaMusicalBut after Curly stepped out on stage and sang that there was a bright golden haze on the meadow, the expectation changed.  Songs in musicals were now critical plot points: they gave the characters opportunities to confess their love for one another or describe their diabolical schemes to the audience.  After Oklahoma! songs in musicals were not just devices to keep the audience interested, they became central elements of the story.  The songs in musicals became vehicles not only to advance the plot, but also to articulate the message intended by the composer and the lyricist.  Oklahoma! was the first Broadway musical to abide by the notion that if you have something to say, you may as well sing.

It seems that our reading from Luke’s gospel fits into this Broadway tradition.  After being astonished by the angel Gabriel’s announcement, Mary hurries off to visit her cousin Elizabeth.  We’d already met Elizabeth when she miraculously conceived even though she was thought to be barren, and when she greets her cousin, the child in her womb leaps for joy.  Elizabeth begins exuberantly and effusively telling Mary how excited she is about all of the extraordinary things that have been happening in their lives.  It’s a classic musical setup: two characters who know each other but haven’t yet been on stage together.the-visitation1  We almost expect Mary to say, “I feel a song coming on!” as the music rises to a crescendo.  And sure enough, the first words out of Mary’s mouth in this scene are a song of praise to God: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”  We can imagine the thunderous applause Mary would receive as the curtain fell and the scenery changed.  And as in all musicals written after Oklahoma! Mary’s song is a vehicle for the broader message of Luke’s gospel.  Mary has been told that the child she is bringing into the world will be great, will be called the Son of the Most High, and will be given the throne of his ancestor David.  In other words, Mary knows that this pregnancy is a big deal.  Mary knows that her motherly role is crucial to God’s plan of salvation and redemption for the entire world.  In many ways, the Song of Mary represents a summary of Luke’s gospel; it is a proclamation that God is going to do a new thing in the world.

The Song of Mary is a song about God’s faithfulness to God’s people.  Notice that it begins with Mary singing about God’s faithfulness throughout history, the fact that God has kept God’s promises: “he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” “the Mighty One has done great things for me,” and “his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.”  After singing this, Mary goes on to sing about those things that God has done that demonstrate God’s faithfulness: “he 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.”  Finally, Mary tells us that all of this happened in accordance with the promise God made to our ancestors and stemmed from God’s willingness to help God’s people.  There are a few interesting things to notice about Mary’s song.  It refers to God as Savior, the first time this word is used in the New Testament.  Now when we hear the word “Savior,” our first inclination is to think of our ultimate salvation, something that occurs down the road when we die.  But notice that all of God’s saving action in this song happens within history.  This is even grammatically evident: “he has scattered the proud,” “he has brought down the powerful,” “he has filled the hungry.”  These are not pie in the sky dreams; these are things that have happened in the past and will continue to happen in God’s future. I think the most important thing for us to notice about Mary’s song is that it is political, not in the sense that it’s partisan, but in the sense that it encourages us to examine and sometimes to change the way things are done right now.  Ultimately, this song is about the fact that God has turned the world upside down and will continue to turn the world upside down through this holy child born of Mary.

As many of you know, we survived the end of the world this past Friday.  I was fairly confident that the world wouldn’t end, but I’ll admit that I didn’t type out this sermon until yesterday just in case.  As it turns out, the Mayans never predicted the end of the world; December 21st was simply the end of a 5000-year

This is neither Mayan nor a calendar.  Discuss.
This is neither Mayan nor a calendar. Discuss.

era.  Nevertheless, thousands of people, including more than a few Christians, were thoroughly prepared for the possibility of the world ending.  Some prepared by building bunkers and stockpiling food while others tried to live life to the fullest in anticipation of their annihilation.  All of them withdrew from this world, convinced either that it wouldn’t exist or that human society would collapse.  I think this is the attitude of many to the end of the world; they think that this world will simply evaporate, that there’s no need for us to make this world a better place.  But this is not the Christian story.  We believe in a God who came among us to renew this world through Jesus Christ.  We believe in a God who loves this world and its people, and wants salvation for us right here and right now.  The Song of Mary insists that God is faithful to this world, that God came among us to transform this world, and that we have the opportunity to participate in God’s work of transformation.  This means that as we look on the problems facing us, we cannot throw up our hands and claim that there is nothing we can do.  We must examine the challenges that face us, confident that God has given us grace to transform those challenges into opportunities.

One of the profound challenges facing us as a nation is the issue of gun violence, brought so tragically to the forefront of our minds just last week.  If we trust in the God to whom Mary sang, we must not be complacent.  We cannot imagine that there is nothing to do about this issue.  We must instead ask ourselves difficult questions.  We must ask how we can provide mental health resources for those who need them most.  We must ask whether increased security in our schools will protect our children from violent acts.  We must ask whether the glorification of violence that occurs in video games and movies is sending the wrong message to our children.  And yes, we must ask ourselves whether a hunting rifle in a gun cabinet or a pistol in the bedside drawer can really be compared with an assault weapon equipped with a thirty round clip.  We must ask whether we as Christians can tolerate the existence and availability of weapons that aren’t used for hunting, sport shooting, or self-defense, but whose sole purpose is to take human life.  When we have gone through this discernment, we must be courageous to advocate for change, to participate in God’s work of transformation.

magnificatWe believe in a God who is bringing down the powerful, scattering the proud, and filling the hungry with good things.  In these final days leading up to Christmas, we must remember that God did not come into the world to condemn us, but to renew us, to transform us, and to save us.  It is when we come to this realization that we can truly sing with Mary about our God who is turning the world upside down.

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