We’ve come to another Christmas season, and most of the trees are up and decorated. Carols echo from speakers in every store. Lights adorn the houses in the neighborhoods. Cute creches decorate yards and mantles. Wish lists have been drawn up by children, and parents frantically shop to fulfill their dreams.
Christmas is a time of warm feelings and happy memories. A comfortable time. A cozy time. A reassuring time.
From the White House to the state capitols, from the high-end stores of the Galleria—brands like Neiman Marcus, Louis Vuitton, and Tiffany – to every neighborhood Wal-Mart and Dollar Tree. The message everywhere is one of comfort and joy.
But not in the Bible.
The Christmas story in the Gospels is a contradiction to almost all we see around us. It is jarring. It is unsettling.
The Bible’s message is that the proclamation of the story of Christmas is good news to some – and a warning of judgment to others.
This dual message starts in the Gospel passage from Luke that we read moments ago (Luke 1:46-55).
Mary is told she will have a son. And that her cousin, Elizabeth, will also have a son.
Mary appears timid at first. Demure, like so many of our pictures of her.
Her words are few. She speaks only three times in the Infancy narratives of Luke.
When told the news she asks the angel, Luke 1:34, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
When the angel explains, she agrees, saying in verse 38, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
Mary then goes to visit her cousin, and when Elizabeth greets her with words of blessing, Mary lets go with this song of praise and prophecy:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
Yes, it’s a message of comfort—to the poor, to the humble, to the hungry, to those who fear God. But to the rich, the proud, and the mighty it is a message of rejection, of derision, and of judgment.
Mary’s message seems out of place today. It doesn’t fit with our image of the Christmas scene. It’s uncomfortable. Imagine a preacher reading these words next to the Christmas trees standing in the halls of power. Imagine a preacher proclaiming this text next to a Christmas display in Nieman Marcus. Or in the dining room of River Oaks Country Club. Or outside the doors of Second Baptist Church as people are leaving their annual Christmas circus with its dancers, acrobats and trapeze artists.
Mary proclaims that God, in making her the bearer of the Word, has shoved aside all that the world values. He has dismissed the haughty and the powerful and the proud and the rich and the lovers of glitter and glitz and entertainment. And he has instead picked this young woman, this humble daughter of Israel. A woman of patched clothes but solid faith. And he has filled her with the presence and power of God, while leaving them empty.
But this shouldn’t surprise us.
This is what the psalmist and the prophets promised.
Psalm 2, for example. A text sung each year at Jones Hall set to Handel’s music:
4 He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
6 “As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”
7 I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
9 You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
Mary’s song echoes the prophets of the Old Testament, and it foreshadows the work that Jesus will do in the chapters to come.
Let’s follow this theme as it is developed through Luke’s Gospel. Luke chapter 4.
When Jesus stands up in the synagogue of Nazareth for his first sermon, how does he articulate his mission?
Luke 4, starting with verse 18.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Good news to the poor. Liberty to the captive and to the oppressed, sight to those who are blind. Physical sight and spiritual sight. Sight to see things as they are. Sight to look at the world with God’s eyes. Sight to see what God values and respects and what God judges and disdains.
The synagogue faithful of Nazareth do not react as we might expect. They do not cheer the speaker of these words. They do not welcome his message. For it turns their world upside down. “Who are you, Joseph’s son, to talk this way to us?” And Luke says, “they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff.”
The rich and powerful of the world have no problem with a baby in a manger who says nothing, but simply looks cute and cuddly and appears to bless them, and reassure them. But they cannot abide a prophet who speaks of God’s judgment upon them, and their pride, and their self-sufficiency, and their self-delusion.
But God’s word isn’t meant to be comfort to them. It’s meant to be comfort to the poor, whom they have stepped upon. It’s meant to be good news to the hungry, who have had to gather crumbs from their tables. It’s meant to reassure those who feel abandoned and rejected, to let them know that God is with them.
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12. And here, it divides rich from poor, powerful from powerless, the mighty from the meek. It pronounces God’s blessings upon one, and judgment upon the other.
And Jesus goes on, two chapters later, to spell it out even more clearly: Luke 6, starting with verse 20.
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! 23 Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.
“Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
26 “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.
The popular Gospel today is the one that says wealth is a sign of God’s love and favor. Preached by pastors who drive fancy cars and live in mansions, they tell the poor that they are poor because they don’t believe God. “Believe God, and give me your money, and God will bless you. Buy my books and learn how to be rich, and God will bless you.”
Jesus never says that. He says instead to the rich young ruler in Luke 18.
“One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 23 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. 24 Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
Jesus never scolds the poor for being poor. He never accuses them of not having faith. He never asks them for money. Instead, he goes into their villages to live among them, without pillow and without bed. He goes to the sick to heal them, the poor to comfort them, the outcast to embrace them. He illustrates his mission with stories about a woman searching for a lost coin, a shepherd searching for a lost sheep, a father embracing a lost son. He lets those sit at his feet and embrace him who were looked down upon by the religious leaders of his day: women, lepers, Gentiles, even scandalous sinners. Jesus embraces those rejected by the world, and turns aside those favored by the world.
And so to you here today, this is not just a message of divisions drew then.
It’s a message of what is important to Jesus today.
If you are ashamed of things you’ve done, and tired from the load you carry – Jesus says, Come to me, and I will give you rest.
If you are embarrassed when you see what’s under your tree – Jesus says, I am in the manger.
If you are frustrated and worried and troubled by bills and by bosses …
By a system that sucks money and motivation from the poor …
By a system that’s biased against people of color and people with a past and people with struggles …
If you are angered and fearful of a world in which hate and bigotry and bias and fear-mongering are stirred up by hypocritical power-seeking politicians …
Then take heart and take comfort and take courage–
God’s kingdom is not just in the future, it is here, now. God’s kingdom is amongst us. God’s kingdom is revealed–in this baby whose conception Mary hailed as turning the world upside down.