It’s the last in the Advent series. Here’s the YouTube of the entire devotions and below you’ll find a text version of the message.
You will know how many of the Christmas carols have alternative words. As a child, I always found it amusing to sing
While shepherds washed their socks by night
They watched the BBC.
The angel of the Lord came down
And switched to ITV.
Then there’s the Basque Carol, with its poetic narrative of Mary and the Annunciation, every last line being ‘Most highly favoured lady’ but sung by many as ‘Most highly flavoured gravy.’
And it’s that carol which builds on an image of Mary that our reading today of her great song, the Magnificat, challenges. We sing,
Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head
It feeds into this popular image of Mary as a sweet, demure teenage girl.
Sure, she accepts the will of God, but Mary is no passive believer who finds it easy to trust God. Before she gets to that stage, she questions the angel, just as Zechariah did when the angel told him that his wife Elizabeth would fall pregnant at an advanced age.
And here, when Mary rushes off to see her cousin Elizabeth and sings her song, we get feisty Mary. We get Mary the Revolutionary. We get Mary who sings of the radical kingdom her Son will bring in.
So on this Fourth Sunday in Advent, when we celebrate the obedient faith of Mary, let’s join with her in celebrating the world-changing nature of the coming baby and his coming kingdom.
Various writers from William Barclay onwards have talked about the Magnificat as a moral revolution, a social revolution, and an economic revolution. I’m going to follow them.
Firstly, a moral revolution. Mary consistently extols the humble in her song. ‘He has been mindful of the humble state of his servant’ (verse 48) and ‘he … has lifted up the humble’ (verse 52).
Now while ‘humble’ here may mean a humble social position, it also takes in those of a humble attitude and spirit. In doing this, Jesus reverses the values of his day and the values of our world. It is not the proud, look-at-me-and-see-how-amazing-I-am types that are exalted in his kingdom, but the humble.
Perhaps we shall see this mostly clearly in Jesus’ adult life when James and John squabble to have the seats either side of him in his kingdom. It becomes the time when Jesus teaches that servanthood is the sign of greatness.
Jesus comes to bring in a kingdom where it’s not all about me-me-me but about God and then others coming first. It’s the old saying that JOY stands for Jesus, then Others, then You.
How might we do that at Christmas? One (admittedly large) Baptist church in the United States has a campaign every year at this time called ‘Giving to Christ at Christmas’. Their senior pastor writes,
Over the years, the gifts given through Giving to Christ at Christmas have allowed [us] to help rebuild orphanages, supply relief to hurricane survivors in North and Central America, provide safe houses for girls rescued from human trafficking, and help the poor and needy in our city.
We express some of this through food banks and clothes banks. But not everyone can be involved in those and indeed the Knaphill clothes bank can’t operate at present in the pandemic.
So it’s worth all of us asking, how are we demonstrating Jesus’ moral revolution of humility by living for him and for others before ourselves?
Secondly, a social revolution. This rather follows from the moral revolution. It’s linked to it, because in verse 52 when God has lifted up the humble, it is preceded by saying that ‘He has brought down rulers from their thrones.’
In earlier generations this could be seen quite dramatically when a sermon in the pulpit of certain churches on Sunday could lead to a Government minister’s resignation on Monday. These days not even a thundering media campaign can dislodge some of our political leaders when their moral recklessness is exposed. Instead, we put them in Downing Street or the White House.
But kingdom power is still at work, because what we may not be able to change by public campaigning due to the declining influence of the church in society we can still alter by the power of prayer. When I see the wickedness of the Chinese government towards Christians, Uyghur Muslims, and the people of Hong Kong among others, I pray that God will put President Xi and his cronies on a slippery slope, as Psalm 73 says. The kingdom of God still rises up against social evil, it’s just that sometimes it does so in a subversive way.
And not only that, in dethroning rulers it correspondingly lifts up others.
A Christmas carol that has become increasingly popular in recent years is ‘O holy night’. I chose a version of it for our video carol service that was published on Friday, and was pleased to find one that contained this verse:
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is Love and His gospel is Peace;
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
It’s French in origin, but when it was translated into English it became popular among American abolitionists. And even though the French poet who wrote the original words was an atheist and the American who translated it into English was a Unitarian, not a Christian, the words reflect the social revolution of the Magnificat. The early church understood this when it chose not necessarily to make its leaders solely from the educated, wealthy, and influential classes of society. Rather, some of the earliest bishops were slaves or former slaves.
Do we live out such a social revolution as Christians today?
Thirdly and finally, an economic revolution.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty. (Verse 53)
Two weeks ago, the BBC showed a piece about two ministers in Burnley, Pastor Mick and Father Alex, called Poverty and the Pandemic: Burnley’s Front Line.[i] There is an accompanying piece on the BBC website, entitled Burnley’s Pastor Mick – from dangerous drug dealer to lifesaver. It’s powerful, heart-breaking, and yet also uplifting coverage.
How so? Father Alex is the local Anglican priest, and Pastor Mick is from an organisation called Church On The Streets. He is a former drug dealer from a damaged background and a history of attempted murders, attempted suicide, and a wonderful conversion to Christ.
But in Burnley, a town of much deprivation, they have seen far worse damage from coronavirus than other places. As Pastor Mick tells the reporter,
“Politicians say that it’s a leveller, this coronavirus. It’s a lie, because if you’re poor you’ve got no chance.”
He and Father Alex pack boxes of food and other supplies for people, some of whom haven’t eaten at all. Mick takes volunteer NHS nurses with him to treat some medical conditions. He meets a woman with cancer who should have monthly blood tests but hasn’t had a test for six months due to the pandemic. Another woman confesses that her daughter has taken her own life. Others are short of basic household equipment, and Pastor Mick manages to find some for them. Another man is in debt to payday lenders, and over time Mick is helping him to get out of debt.
It is an utterly grim picture of life in Britain today. But it is uplifting, because here are Christians ‘filling the hungry with good things’. Pastor Mick says it is “the people of faith who are stepping in and making a massive difference”.
There is so much more I would like to relay to you of their stories, not least Pastor Mick’s account of meeting in adult life the man who began his descent into darkness through child sexual abuse.
But I’ll have to draw things to a conclusion here and just pose the question: this Advent, as we come so close to Christmas, are we being revolutionaries as Mary prophesied in the Magnificat? Are we part of a moral, social, and economic revolution in which God lifts up the poor and the humble and takes down the proud and the mighty?
Or are we just applying a religious veneer to our lives?
[i] The link takes you to the footage on iPlayer.