Merciful Reversals

Fourth Sunday of Advent
Luke 1:26–38, 46–55

From Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” to Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry,” from civil rights marchers singing “We Shall Overcome” and “Ain’t Nothin’ Gonna Turn Me Around” to 300,000 citizens of Leipzig singing hymns by candlelight to spark the Velvet Revolution, songs have long been an essential element of protest and resistance. Luke makes the point clearly in the first two chapters of his gospel, which feature no fewer than four songs. Zechariah sings his Benedictus at the birth of his son John the Baptizer; the angels sing Gloria to the shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem; Simeon sings the Nunc Dimittis after seeing the infant Jesus and recognizing him as the “consolation of Israel”; and here in chapter 1 Mary offers her Magnificat after being received with joy by her cousin Elizabeth.

In each case, the songs reflect a spirit of resistance or defiant hope, either in the words themselves or in the context in which they are sung. Zechariah praises God because …

… he has raised up a mighty savior for us
     in the house of his servant David …
[so] that we would be saved from our enemies
     and from the hand of all who hate us (Luke 1:69, 71).

The angels proclaim, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, / and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:14); the great surprise being that those whom God favors are the forgotten and marginalized, the dregs of society. Simeon’s song declares his willingness to die now that …

… my eyes have seen your salvation,
     which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
     and for glory to your people Israel (Luke 2:30–32).

He follows this up with the prediction that the child “is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed” (Luke 2:34–35).

But Mary’s Magnificat takes the cake. Her song most clearly and decisively proclaims that God’s choosing her to bear God’s son signals the coming of justice after long years of inequity and evil. The justice of God will be characterized by merciful reversals; foreshadowing her son’s declaration that “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Mark 10:31), Mary sings:

[God] has 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” (vv. 51–53).

The Magnificat has strong parallels with a number of songs or passages from the Hebrew Bible. The Song of Hannah comes to mind first. Mary’s song is clearly influenced by Hannah’s. The themes of reversal and vindication are prominent in both. Hannah feels vindicated because, after years of infertility, during which her husband’s other wife mocked and belittled her mercilessly, Hannah has finally borne a son, Samuel. She sings:

Talk no more so very proudly,
     let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
     and by him actions are weighed.…
The barren has borne seven,
     but she who has many children is forlorn (1 Samuel 2:3, 5).

Mary’s sense of vindication is less understandable, but for that reason all the more powerful. Whereas Hannah’s pregnancy put an end to her shame, Mary’s is the source of her shame. And so far nobody knows about it besides Elizabeth, the angel, and her. In a few months, however, she won’t be able to hide it, and her public shame will be accompanied in that patriarchal culture by a very real sense of danger, since the automatic (and plausible) assumption will be that she has had sexual relations outside of wedlock, the penalty for which could be severe.

But instead of bewailing her fate, or fretting over what might happen to her when she starts to show and blaming God for putting her in such a precarious position, Mary accepts in faith that her condition is a blessing and not a curse; that God is to be praised and not vilified. She sings:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor
     on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on
     all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
     and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
     from generation to generation (vv. 46–50).

This is someone who is taking the long view. Mary understands that she has been chosen by God for a crucial assignment. She also understands from the history of her people that being chosen is not necessarily a walk in the park. But it is an honor nonetheless—an honor she gladly and humbly accepts, with all the uncertainties and pain that will surely go along with it. Come to think of it, it may be that very quality of her character, that ability to see beyond the immediate difficulties and resolve to face them forthrightly for the sake of the long-range good, that leads God to choose her in the first place. One who can take on such a thankless, perilous task and still say, “The Mighty One has done great things for me,” is either utterly naïve or else of sterner stuff than most. I prefer the latter explanation.

In addition to the theme of vindication in both Mary’s and Hannah’s songs we have, as we saw earlier, the theme of merciful reversal. Mary says that God …

… 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.

Hannah is even more explicit:

The Lord kills and brings to life;
     he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
     he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
     he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
     and inherit a seat of honor (1 Sam 2:6–8).

We see the same themes, in almost identical language, in Psalm 113, which says:

[God] raises the poor from the dust,
     and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes,
     with the princes of his people.
He gives the barren woman a home,
     making her the joyous mother of children.
          Praise the Lord! (Ps 113:7–9).

In fact, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the message of God’s care for the widow and the orphan, the stranger and the poor, is pervasive, and so is the notion of reversal. Because God cares for these vulnerable ones, God’s people are supposed to care for them as well, as we see in, for example, this passage from Deuteronomy:

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deut 10:17–19).

If the people fail in this duty God is not above having the two groups switch places. The prophet Amos was famous, not for tiny chocolate-chip cookies, but for thunderous judgments against the rich who lived in luxury, building their wealth on the backs of the poor. He could also be pretty crude, as we see in this prophecy directed at the wealthy women in the kingdom of Israel:

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, “Bring something to drink!” The Lord God has sworn by his holiness: The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks (Amos 4:1–2).

In a time when we are witnessing the ascendancy of the Bizarro version of Robin Hood—stealing from the poor and giving to the rich—it would behoove us to take to heart Mary’s words in the Magnificat. In a time when many of our political leaders blame the poor for their poverty and conspire to take away all forms of government assistance, we would do well to remember what Moses said to the Israelites, what Amos said to the “cows” of Bashan, what Hannah and the psalmist sang about in their songs. In a time when we are assured that benefits given to corporations and the wealthy will “trickle down” to the rest of us in the form of better jobs and a higher standard of living, we might want to check out the scores, even hundreds of references in both Testaments of the Bible that implore, cajole, command us to provide for the needy simply and directly. In a world that encourages selfishness and greed, that seeks to isolate us from one another by fostering a fear of differences, let us choose instead the way of Jesus.

Those who follow that way seek to build bridges, not walls. They welcome the stranger. They operate on a principle of equality and mutual respect. They choose love because they believe in their hearts that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). They provide a challenge to the status quo by living in freedom, joy, and generosity rather than suspicion and miserliness. They understand that being chosen by God may cause them discomfort or suffering, but that it is still the greatest blessing anyone could ever receive. They rejoice in God’s goodness, trusting that God will keep the promises God has made to scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, lift up the needy from the ash heap and seat them with princes, and guard the feet of God’s faithful ones. Those who follow the way of Jesus find themselves in the society of the downtrodden—the shepherds, the weary father, the frightened mother giving birth in a cattle stall, the barren woman, the widow and orphan, the single parent, the refugee, the addict, the undocumented, the dreamer—and they thank God for the privilege of being in such blessed company.

As we prepare to welcome the Christ child into the world and into our hearts, let us sing our own version of Mary’s song of resistance and hope. Let us join hands with our brothers and sisters of every nation, race, creed, income bracket, and party affiliation. Let us pray for God’s merciful reversals in this world of injustice. Let us hope and work for the coming of the reign of God and the doing of God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. Let us choose the way of Jesus.

Robert TurnerComment