He has lifted up the lowly

Adapted from an Advent sermon preached by Piers Northam at St Mary-at-Latton.

On this fourth Sunday of Advent we’ve just lit the fourth candle in our Advent Ring – saving the central, white candle for Christmas when we will light it to acknowledge the birth of the Christ-child, the Light of the World. 

Each week through Advent, as we’ve lit the four smaller candles, we’ve remembered figures from Scripture who have pointed to God and to the coming Messiah.  In the first week, we gave thanks for the Patriarchs (the likes of Abraham and Moses) who long ago answered calls from God and drew the people to him.  In the second week it was the Prophets, who point us to God but who also warn us of things to come, who call us to account and have visions and messages for us.  Last week it was the turn of John the Baptist – the voice in the wilderness calling people to prepare the way for the coming Messiah.  And this week it is Mary herself – the God-bearer – who will bring Christ into the world.

As I was thinking about these candles, it struck me that the first two tell us about where we have come from – the heritage that we have in the Patriarchs and the Prophets – whilst the second two, in the persons of John and Mary, point us how we should be. 

John proclaimed the Good News, called people to repent – to turn around so as to come closer to God – and, more than anything else, he pointed to Jesus; led people to Jesus.  Think of this morning’s story of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth: even before he was born, John was pointing towards Jesus, for didn’t his mother Elizabeth came to understand the importance of the child that Mary was carrying because John leapt in her womb?  And of course we are called to follow John’s example: to share the Good News, to turn ourselves to God and to point people to Jesus…

And then we see Mary, the expectant mother who carried Jesus inside her, filled with the Holy Spirit and speaking prophetically in her great song, the Magnificat.           

But this story is also about two ordinary women called by God to extraordinary things – chosen by God to help play out his plan.  Elizabeth and Zechariah, like Abraham and Sarah so many centuries before, were childless, but in their advancing years, God gives them the surprising gift of a son who is destined for important things.

And then he sends Gabriel to Mary and, in the words of a poem by Denise Levertov,

‘God waited.
She was free to accept or refuse, choice integral to humanness.’  [1]

Mary has the choice – and has sufficient faith and trust in God to say yes.  But for me, the fact that Mary, whilst clearly exceptional, is an ordinary human being – that she’s not some immaculate, semi-divine super-woman – is really important: because it says so much about the way that God involves himself in our lives. God chooses a simple, young girl to be the mother of his Son; to bear God in her womb.  As Mary herself says: ‘The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.’ [2]

She affirms that in his Holiness God can do great things for us.  She may be talking of herself, yet what she proclaims can be true for everyone who engages with God.  The Mighty One can do great things for us – and I would want to add that he can do great things, through us…  Mary’s experience is one of working with God so that together they can bring Jesus into the world.  And we see a similar approach in the way that Jesus later entrusts his mission to that motley band of friends and followers: women, tax collectors, fishermen and the like whom he gathers around himself; and how that mission, in turn, is entrusted to us.

Mary’s song begins by telling us how the Mighty Lord has brought blessing on her life, but then she goes on – in the vein of the prophets – to tell us about the nature of God and of his topsy-turvy vision for the world. And this is the radical stuff; the counter-intuitive stuff that normal society wouldn’t recognise as she talks of the values of the Kingdom:
– She speaks of God’s mercy to those who fear him; for those who see their need of God. 
– She speaks of his faithfulness down the generations. 
– She speaks of how he lifts up the lowly, the poor, the dispossessed; the humble and meek – her message is Good News for all those on the margins; those who are excluded and side-lined; but her words are also a warning for those who misuse worldly power; who are proud and rich.  To all those who turn a blind eye to the poverty and struggle that surrounds us.
– She speaks of how he feeds the hungry with good things; and is concerned for those who need protection – this is where his heart is…
– And finally, she speaks of how he keeps his long-held promises; promises made to the people of Israel, but which, in Jesus apply to all humanity…

These powerful, radical words are spoken by a young woman in first century Palestine – not your classic mouthpiece.  I’m guessing that such words, spoken by a young, poor Middle Eastern woman today, wouldn’t get much exposure on the world stage.  Our society seems more set on condemning such people to live in refugee camps or letting them drown in the Channel than listening to what they might have to tell us.  Yet even if they aren’t saying such things in so many words, doesn’t the simple fact that so many live in such fear and misery on our very borders and hidden in our societies shout the message loud and clear?

Mary’s words resonate as an urgent warning:

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… [3]

Her words put me in mind of those words from Isaiah which Jesus reads out in the synagogue and which we have taken as our inspiration for the Good News Project here at Latton:

‘The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
    to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and release to the prisoners’ [4]

This is the promise held in the Christ-child, but also in those who follow him.  These words hold the same challenge to question the values of society and to turn things around.  Powerful stuff…

There’s a danger at Christmas that Mary becomes this sweet, but rather meek, mute, Christmas card figure – all pretty and adoring and dressed in blue; but this morning we see her, filled with the Holy Spirit, proclaiming radical, dangerous, political words… 

This is anything but chocolate-box.  Mary is being both prophet and God-bearer; radical in her speech as she is nurturing in her motherhood. And we need these uncomfortable words to challenge us out of our complacency; to bring us up short and stop us coasting along on autopilot; to help us see beyond our own lives to where God’s concerns lie. 

Mary experienced the mystery of the Incarnation – God becoming human in Jesus – in the most intimate and physical of ways.  But we are each of us called to be God-bearers.  To carry God within ourselves; allowing him to shape our view of the world; giving us the courage to stand up, like Mary, and speak truth to power; to sing her prophetic and radical song and to shine with the light of Christ, so that, with him, we can bring God’s values and vision to bear in the world.

That’s the real challenge – the living gift at the heart of Christmas.

Piers Northam
19 December 2021

[1] Annunciation – Denise Levertov

[2] Luke 1:49

[3] Luke 1:51-52

[4] Isaiah 61:1

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