I’ve got some questions for you:
Good King Wenceslas looked out 'on the Feast of Stephen'. When is the 'Feast of Stephen'?
What did the shepherds watch by night?
To whom did the Angels say 'The First Noel'?
What stood in 'Once in royal Davids city'?
Who travelled across 'Field and fountain, moor and mountain'?
According to the carol, how many ships came sailing in on Christmas Day?
'O tidings of comfort and joy' are lyrics taken from which carol?
What is the oldest Christmas Carol?
I’ll give you a hint....
E. Stanley Jones, the famous Methodist preacher and scholar, called the particular Christmas carol I'm speaking of "the most revolutionary document in the history of the world."
When William Temple was the Archbishop of Canterbury, he instructed missionaries to poverty-stricken India never to read the words of this Christmas song in public because it could incite riots in the streets.
I'm talking about the song titled " Magnificat,". The song we just sang so powerfully together as we sing forth the bible reading we’ve just read.
It is a piece of beautiful poetry that Luke’s gospel places on the lips of the unmarried teenage peasant girl Mary who just found out she is pregnant. The passage comes as part of the narrative when Mary goes to visit her older cousin Elizabeth who is also pregnant. The baby Elizabeth is carrying leaps in her womb when Mary arrives and Mary bursts into a song of praise.
At this time of year some of us can get all caught up in the story as if it actually happened some two thousand and sixteen years ago. We tell this story and imagine a young girl in the arms of her cousin and wonder how they would have been feeling at the time. We can get all nostalgic with the singing of Christmas carols – warm and fuzzy inside thinking about babies and animals and stables.
At this time of year others of us hear this story we can get caught up in wondering how a girl who is a virgin could get pregnant by the hand of an angel. Some say we have to have faith, others think it’s a load of rubbish, others try to work out some logical reasoning that could make it possible. Of cause, it’s not meant to be taken literally, it’s a story passed down through the oral tradition most likely coming into circulation after Jesus death and resurrection to provide a miraculous birth narrative to the one we call Messiah – as was the custom of the time. Every great leader needed a miraculous birth narrative!!
To be honest with you, I think that when we get caught up in either the nostalga or critique of the story we are missing the point. We are just singing the songs but forgetting to listen to the words.
Usually, when we hear the Magnificat, we fail to realize how radical and revolutionary the song really is. It is easy to be mesmerized by the music and tranquillized by the poetry.
"My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour 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.
When doing a bit of background reading in preparation for today, I discovered that every biblical scholar who has written about this passage uses the word “revolutionary” to describe the Magnificat.
- Geldenhese, a Dutch theologian, said that the Magificat “announces powerful revolutionary principles.”
- Murrow talks about the “revolutionary germ” found in the Magnificat.
- Barclay says that the Magificat is “a bombshell that people have read so often that they forget its “revolutionary terror when it takes the standards of the world and turns them upside down.”
- Martin Luther, says that the Magnificat “comforts the lowly and terrifies the rich.”
- Gilmore said that the Magnificat “fosters revolutionaries in our churches.”
A revolution means total change. Just think about the way computers have revolutionized the information industry. You can now push a button and you have millions of pieces of information available. Think of the industrial revolution in the 1760s. Machines began to do the work done previously by people. The world has been totally changed by revolutions.
The Magnificate sings of God’s revolution, it lays down the fundamental principles of the Christian revolution. By taking everything that is at the bottom and putting it at the top, God turn everything upside down. God revolutionizes the way we think, the way we act, and the way we live. Let’s listen again:
- The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name.
- His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
- He 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.
The poor are put on the top; the rich are put on the bottom. It is a revolution; God’s revolution. Mary sings of God’s compassion for the economically poor; and when God’s Spirit gets inside of Christians, we too have a renewed compassion and action for the poor. Our hearts are turned upside down.
Listen to the five important verbs used in this song to describe God’s attitude toward the poor:
- God respects the poor,
- God exalts the poor,
- God feeds the poor,
- God helps the poor,
- God remembers the poor.
This song is sung in the midst of a story about a slave girl, Mary, who is to become the mother of Jesus. God didn’t chose the beauty queen, God didn’t chose a mother who was a millionaire; God didn’t chose a bride with brains. God chose a little thirteen year old girl from a fourth world country, with dark skin and dark brown eyes and dark brown hair to be the mother of Jesus.
The Bible didn’t call her a handmaiden. The word, “handmaiden,” sounds so pretty. The Greek word is, “doulos,” which means slave or servant. Mary was a servant girl. This is God’s revolution.
I read in the paper on Saturday that one in four children in our world are living in counties afflicted by war or natural disaster. Almost half the world — over three billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day. At least 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day. We, my friends are amongst the wealthiest people in the world. No wonder our eyes glaze over when we hear Mary’s song. No wonder wealthy westerners are rejecting Christianity in droves.
The Magnificate is a prelude to the whole Christian gospel with its themes of revolution. God calls us to respects the poor, exalts the poor, cares for the poor, feeds the poor, remember the poor, help the poor.
It’s all the stuff that we heard about in the first set of readings from the book of Isaiah. The ancient prophet spoke at a time when his country was being invaded and his homeland under siege, just like the people of Syria are experiencing today. Isaiah shared his vision, not just for a restored humanity, but for a restored earth: The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. For there is one coming who will bring good news to poor people, release for prisoners of war, and freedom for those imprisoned
This week on the way home one day, I parked my car in Camberwell and walked up the street to get a few things from the supermarket, I walked past a young woman who looked to be in her 20’s sitting outside a café with a half empty bottle of coke on the table she was filling it with Spirits. I walked past and looked at her and realised what she was doing but kept on walking…
On the way back with my bag of food, I saw her get up from the table. Our eyes met and I spoke to her. I asked her if she was OK – I noticed you earlier filling up the coke bottle. Ahh she said ‘it’s really hard when you haven’t got any money. It’s hard to get a job and it’s hard to keep on going.’ We talked for a bit and she told me she’d been in prison, and that she used to be really, really bad, but now she was coming good. She said she’s not hurting anyone.’ I asked her if she was hurting herself. She said she doesn’t like herself very much these days. I asked if she has some support around her and she said she was with her parents and that she was just going home and we parted ways.
Yesterday my son went to a birthday party where everyone in his year level were invited. It was a great party – loads of food, great games, lovely people talking about overseas holidays. I chatted with some of the parents about the school one dad was complaining that the school was not flexible enough to let him pay his school fees in advance. He said he had some cash he wanted to do something with and he had to make a whole lot of phone calls to the school to work out how he could pay for the whole high school account up front in year 7.
We surely are in need of a revolution. We are in dire need of Jesus presence in the world turning everything upside down and inside out so we might experience the world differently.
It is possible to celebrate the festivals of the church, Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, and still not have God’s revolution occur inside of you. When God gets inside of you, God changes everything.
The big question for your life and mine this morning is: has God’s revolution occurred in your life? Have things been turned upside down. Is it possible for a shift to take place, so that your life now is dedicated to exalting the poor, regarding the poor, feeding the poor, helping the poor, remembering the poor. Shh… Has this revolution occurred in your life and mine? Amen.