A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on December 23, 2012.
Fourth Sunday in Advent
Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-55
If you are familiar at all with Jesus’ ministry, and the message he brought to the people whom he encountered, then you are aware of how subversive he really was. You may not have thought of it in that light, but think about it… We know that he hobnobbed with sinners, not with the righteous or influential or wealthy. In the beatitudes, the opening of his Sermon on the Mount, he speaks of divine reversal… blessed are those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are meek, who hunger and thirst, and so on. It was a central message of just about everything he had to say.
We are aware of what he said, that the first shall be last and the last first. Even the prayer he taught us, that we repeat every Sunday by memory and thus give little thought to what we are really saying when we do so, is revolutionary. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Do you know what that really means?! If you did, you might never want to say it ever again.
Jesus did and said this kind of stuff all the time – just all the time – and everywhere he went. We know all that.
But have you ever wondered where he got these outlandish ideas? There is no evidence that Jesus went to rabbinical school. And even if he had, he certainly would not have been taught these things because the rabbis represented – or certainly cozyed up to – the religious establishment. The religious establishment, in his day, had come to be entrenched with the ruling government, namely the Romans. If Jesus had come to seminary saying such things as, “You have heard that it was said (referring to the ancient Jewish law) but I say to you…” why, he would have been expelled – if not stoned! – before he could say “Merry Christmas.”
And he certainly didn’t hear it in the local synagogue.
Have you ever wondered why there are Baptist churches everywhere? You go out into the hills and hollers of any state, especially in the South, and you’ll find them in every nook or corner… small, clapboard buildings with rough pews, out-of-tune pianos and hand-me-down hymnals. There are so many Baptist churches because Baptists never demanded an educated clergy, not like the Presbyterians and in most cases even the Methodists. Some Baptist preachers, back in the day, had to learn how to read after getting a calling from God so they could then proclaim the gospel. The Baptists outnumber all the other non-Catholic denominations because we never demanded that our ministers have theological educations, and that provided the opportunity for churches to pop up anywhere and everywhere.
It was the same, pretty much, in Jesus’ day and time. He evidently attended a small synagogue where, chances are, worship was led by lay people, not theologically-trained rabbis.
Jesus grew up in Nazareth, about eighty or so miles north of Jerusalem. There wasn’t much to distinguish Nazareth, which is why, when Philip told his friend Nathanael that he had met the Messiah and he had come from Nazareth, Nathanael didn’t believe him. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asked. That’s the kind of reputation Jesus’ hometown had in that territory… and for good reason.
It was basically a little hole in the wall… literally. Most of the homes, if you could call them that, in Nazareth were hewn out of the limestone caves that marked that part of Judah. Chances are, Jesus grew up in a cave dwelling himself. And there were only about four or five hundred people in town, max. There was no commerce there. Those who worked generally did so in nearby Sepphoris. About the only thing Nazareth had going for it was a nice spring from which the people drew their water.
Needless to say, because Nazareth was such a dinky little town, they didn’t have a temple. Temples were for the larger metropolitan areas. Nazareth had only a synagogue, and they were fortunate to have that. In truth, it was probably more like a storefront church.
And because the synagogues were led by lay people and not educated or trained clergy, the level of theological training available to the people of Nazareth could not have run very deep. The reaction of his hometown folk to Jesus, when he came back and spoke of himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, proves that (Luke 4). Once he started spouting off his view of things, son of Nazareth or not, they were ready to throw him off a cliff!
“Isn’t he Jesus the carpenter, the son of Joseph and Mary?” they started asking themselves. “And don’t we know his brothers and sisters… James and Jude and all them? Who does he think he is, and why is he saying these things?”
What things? Revolutionary things, that’s what. Subversive things. Things that could get him in real trouble, if he’s not careful. And that’s another thing. Jesus was anything but careful… about what he did and when it came to what he said. In fact, Jesus proved himself to be a revolutionary right off the bat, right out of the chute.
Where in the world did he get such ideas?
I have a theory about that. In addition to his keen ability to perceive the whisperings of God’s Spirit in his mind and heart – not to mention his ear – I believe Jesus received the essence of his theological training right at home from his mother Mary. And I believe the passage we read earlier from Luke’s gospel bears this out.
Listen to it again in the context of these subversive words. Speaking of God, Mary says…
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 (1:51-53).
Whoa! You put those words into the mouth of a priest or rabbi, and you know what’s going to happen? They’re going to be stoned, that’s what. When you start talking about the powerful being brought down from their thrones and the masses of people being lifted up (a euphemism for revolution), when you say that the hungry will be fed (socialism! a dirty word for many even today) and the rich will be sent away empty (sounds like a fiscal cliff to me!), somebody’s going to take offense, and the chances are that that somebody is presently sitting on a throne of some kind some where, and is quite wealthy and powerful.
It could be argued, if you tend to look at such things from this kind of perspective, that in writing his gospel Luke put these words in Mary’s mouth after the fact… that she really didn’t say them at all, but that Luke looked back with years of hindsight on Jesus’ ministry and all that happened to him, and thought he would tell her story by attributing these words to her.
There are some who believe that, and on the surface of it, it could sound plausible, I suppose. I doubt there are many folk, if any, here today who have ever thought of that. You would prefer to take the scripture at face value. If Luke says Mary said these things, that’s good enough for you.
And that’s fine, because you know what? It really doesn’t matter. These words attributed to Mary are at the heart of what Jesus had to say, and that is important. If the gospels can be trusted at all – and if they can’t, then why are we even here today? – Jesus spent his entire ministry turning his world upside down. That which appears to be so, really isn’t, and that which seems not to be true is the way God wants it to be. Jesus learned that somewhere. I tend to think he got it from his mama Mary, and this song from the first chapter of Luke, I think, proves that.
It’s absurd really, that God would look with such favor on a young peasant girl like her, that generations to come – even to this very day – would call her blessed. It is absurd to think that God would scatter the proud and bring down the powerful from their thrones, that God would lift up the lowly and fill the hungry with good things while sending the rich away empty. It is the great reversal, that’s what it is… that the kingdom of God will come to bear on this earth, and that we who follow Jesus would reflect the values of the kingdom more than the world into which we were born. It is absurd to even consider that God has anything to do with any of this. Absolutely absurd.
Sadly, the absurdity of the Christmas story bypassed us a long time ago simply because we are so familiar with it. That and the fact that we’ve decorated the story with so many other trappings and legends, and have covered it up with all the mistletoe and holly.
One of my all-time favorite sermons – or at least sermon titles – is by John Killinger. He called it, “Everyone Ought to Have a Jewish Mama.”1 He borrows the phrase from the novelist, Philip Roth. Roth grew up with an over-protective mother who was not that different from all the other mothers he knew in their Yiddish community. She was an old-fashioned mother who hovered over her son from infancy until he was a grown man, reminding him all the while to do such things as change his underwear, eat his chicken soup (Jewish penicillin, don’t you know!), and wear his scarf in the wintertime. He was once asked if he ever resented her. “Everyone,” he said with obvious affection, “ought to have a Jewish mama.”
It is quite possible that Mary made Jesus change his underwear, eat chicken soup, and wear his scarf. She may have even tried to hover over him (remember the wedding at Cana?). But she obviously did more than that. She had a tremendous influence on her eldest son by embodying and professing this subversive, if not absurd, way of life and faith.
Did she, when her son was quite young, tell him fanciful stories of the visitation of the angel, and of how she and his father Joseph made the long and arduous journey to Bethlehem, only to find that all the accommodations were filled, so that they had to borrow a stable for his birthing room? Did she impress on him just how very difficult it was for them, but that they willingly made such sacrifices because they were convinced that God was using them in such a unique way? Did the stories and images Jesus used in his teaching find their source in the rich imagination of his mother Mary? When he was young, did she sing to him at night, not the usual maternal lullabies, but the songs that proclaimed…
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 (1:47-48a)?
Well, however Jesus heard it, heard it he did. And he believed it… with all his heart and mind and soul and strength. And we, you and I, who celebrate the birth of Mary’s baby have bought into it as well (we have, haven’t we?)… that God decided to “surrender himself to flesh and blood,”2 and become one of us that we might be more like God and the kingdom he has prepared for us. Absurd!
Absurd? Indeed. Upside down? Without a doubt. But if you would believe in such absurdity, know that it leads to the life – the eternal life – that reflects God’s purpose and kingdom. So let me ask you: what better time to believe that than right now?
Help us to believe, O Lord, but even more, to give ourselves unreservedly to your divine grace. And then find us faithful in serving you, as absurd as it may seem. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.
1December 8. 1980.
2Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1995), p. 151.