On the second Sunday of Advent in Charlotte, a great winter storm kept most of our church members at home. Those of us who did find our way into the sanctuary were in decidedly casual mode. My sermon dealt with an interpretation of “Mary’s Song” from Luke 1:46-55.
God has shown strength with God’s arm, and has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty (verses 51-53).
Because the worship crowd was small and the setting more relaxed, I invited some “talk back” on the topic of my sermon. Always a dangerous thing for a preacher!
“The Church often ‘spiritualizes’ the text – which really means divorcing the otherwise obvious challenge from any practical reality.”
During the sermon, I had explained that Mary’s song was not a reference to some long-forgotten moment in history, some act of God with Old Testament proportion. No. Mary is speaking to us. In the here and the now.
My words prompted a member to comment that he had never heard Mary’s song as a text of social justice – an actual call to challenge the social structure, the economic narrative, the political reality. He had always heard the text “spiritualized.” It was poetry, or metaphor, or maybe a vision of how things ought to be, how they will be – you know, in heaven.
It’s an all-too-common reaction to scripture. When the message gets difficult (as it frequently does), the Church often “spiritualizes” the text, which really means divorcing the otherwise obvious challenge from any practical reality. That way, we can say we believe it, love it, quote it, sing it – but not let it affect our personal comfort or challenge the status quo of church or society.
As various scholars have noted over the years, the Church is always confronted with the challenge: What to do with Jesus? Worship him or serve with him? Deify his sacrifice or honor his death by giving our own lives away in service? Spiritualize his way or invite his way to change ourselves and our world?
Another listener had tuned in via our Facebook Live “broadcast.” (I started worship staring at about 30 intrepid attenders but speaking to my co-pastor Amy’s iPhone: “… and we welcome our ‘viewing audience’ as well!”) After worship, the listener messaged me: “So, when has God actually ‘shown strength… scattering the proud… bringing down the powerful… lifting up the lowly…’ etc.?” I can always trust someone in the congregation, whether in the pew or online, to ask the hard questions.
My answer is that the prophets of faith have always pointed us to God’s work in history, to the rise and fall of nations and rulers, to the mystery of providence in the great cataclysms and in the crawling, tragically slow pursuit of the “kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” Of course, these “movements of God” will be scoffed at by skeptics, even doubted by many thoughtful believers. History, as they say, is always written by the winners – so “history” is always a matter of perspective.
“That subversive message of ‘strength through weakness’ is always a hard sell.”
Those same prophets have also reminded us of the work of God through the “losers” – the outcasts, the outsiders, the poor, the weak – the “wounded healers,” not the mighty warriors. (We celebrate a birth in a cattle stall, not a palace. We celebrate the “victory” of crucifixion, not conquest.) But this message is also hard to swallow – as much for the Church as for the rest – because people, all people, are susceptible to the temptation to control, to the abuse of power, to the accommodation of ideology to ego and theology to theocracy. That subversive message of “strength through weakness” is always a hard sell.
Maybe the best answer is that just as we are waiting, watching and wondering what God has been doing, so is God. That skeptical question – “So, where is God?” – is age old. We all answer it in our own way. Some answer in rejection, by walking away; others answer in affirmation, by embracing and engaging the question, even amidst the doubts.
As G.K. Chesterton said, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” Mary’s song can be made into a pleasing little Christmas carol, a sentimental melody set to the way things have always been, the way things will be in the “by and by.” But maybe the song really is a subversive message of social change, a vision for a new world order.
I guess it depends on how we have been conditioned to hear the song – and how bold we are to sing it.
Related Advent commentary:
David Jordan | This Advent let’s reclaim the power of prophecy
Molly Marshall | The dim hope of Advent