The Gentle Revolution.

December 22, 2012

(Micah 5, 2-5a; Luke 1 39 – 55) (Advent 4 Year C)

Windsock-Visitation.McGrath

Today on the last Sunday of Advent, as we light the fourth of the Advent candles, our thoughts turn to Mary, the mother of Jesus; and this year, our readings remind us also of the role of another mother, Elizabeth, in preparing the Way for the coming of God’s Kingdom.

Both of them were mothers of prophets who preached about the coming Kingdom of God, and urged people to respond to that coming by changing the way they lived. Both of them must have had a significant influence on the thinking and actions of the children they raised. Both of them are heralds of the Kingdom. Elizabeth, we are told, had her child in her old age, Mary had hers as a young woman.

I wonder how you picture Mary? Most of the pictures and statues of her show her as very imagesMaryyoung, very pretty, dressed in blue or white, with her eyes either cast down to the ground, or raised to heaven, sitting or praying, cradling her baby or her dead son. She is portrayed as a passive participant in the drama of salvation. That’s the way she has been portrayed in a lot of Christian literature too, starting with the gospel of John, which shows her as the perfect disciple, following her son without question.

Walking MadonnaIn complete contrast is the statue of her by Dame Elizabeth Frink, known as the Walking Madonna. This is the description of it by Elspeth Moncrieff: This is no conventional, modest Madonna lurking in the security of a Cathedral alcove. She strides with singleness of purpose oblivious to the distractions of those around her. There is an integrity in her gaze, a sense of purpose and iron strength in her gaunt frame. Most importantly, she has turned her back on the sanctuary and security of the Cathedral; choosing instead to stride out into the town to meet the world full on and grapple with the fundamental condition of mankind.

This is a mature Mary, who has been touched and changed by the experiences of motherhood and the Crucifixion. This is an active Mary. This is the Mary that Luke presents us with, who questions the angel who announces she is to bear the Saviour and challenges Jesus about his disappearance in the Temple; she is the one who ponders the events of his life in her heart, and is included by Jesus among those who hear the word of God and do it (Luke 8.21) This is the Mary who speaks the words of the Magnificat, proclaiming the coming of her son as the fulfilment of the Old Testament hopes and prophecies, the inaugurator and executor of God’s decisive intervention to transform the world. This is Mary, the gentle revolutionary.

It is sometimes difficult for us to hear the radical message of the Magnificat, especially when it is so often set to beautiful music, and frequently sung by a small choirboy. Perhaps we might appreciate its revolutionary message better if we sang it in the modern version by Fred Kaan, especially when one of the tunes you can sing it to is “O Tannenbaum’ also known as “The Red Flag”

Sing we a song of high revolt;
Make great the Lord, his name exalt:
Sing we the song that Mary sang
Of God at war with human wrong.
Sing we of him who deeply cares
And still with us our burden bears;
He, who with strength the proud disowns,
Brings down the mighty from their thrones.

By him the poor are lifted up:
He satisfies with bread and cup
The hungry folk of many lands;
The rich are left with empty hands.
He calls us to revolt and fight
With him for what is just and right
To sing and live Magnificat
In crowded street and council flat

This is the call to change our ways represented by the Mary who turns her back on the safety of traditional religion and strides out into the messiness of the world, just as her son did, and just as Elizabeth’s son did.

The Magnificat proclaims a religious revolution: that God has chosen a woman to be the vehicle which inaugurates his decisive revelation to the world, and a young, unmarried mother at that. As the prophets have proclaimed, but reality has rarely echoed, God’s favour is shown not to those who hold high positions in the religious hierarchy, nor to members of a Chosen People, nor to those who keep themselves pure and untouched by the world but to those who hear and obey his commands, whatever their background and circumstances.

It proclaims a social revolution: that the proud, those who think themselves better than other people, will be brought down, and the humble, the despised and the outcast will be seen as the true recipients of God’s favour.

It proclaims a political revolution: that the powerful will be defeated and the oppressed will be freed and given fullness of life. It proclaims an economic revolution, that the hungry will be fed, and those who are rich now will feel what it is like to go short.

All this, Mary proclaims, is the fulfilment of everything that God promised, through the prophets of  the Old Testament, to those who love and obey him.

Why do we not often hear this revolutionary message?

Perhaps because the Church through the ages has tended to turn this into the proclamation of a spiritual revolution, the exaltation of the spiritually poor, and humble; but it has not lived even that revolution. Once the Christian faith became the state religion of the Roman Empire, and the dominant faith in Europe and Northern Asia, and the lands they colonised, most people in the church reverted to the previous status quo, serving and associating with the rich, the powerful, the wealthy, and reversing the values of the Kingdom. Most used the weapons of the old order to support secular rulers, and to enforce conformity with one interpretation of the faith. The institutional church sidelined the quiet revolution, and forsook the teachings of the gentle revolutionaries who proclaim the values of the Kingdom of Heaven.

I don’t believe the Magnificat and the Gospel of Luke are just speaking about a spiritual revolution; nor that the reversal of the old order is just something that will come after death, or at the end of time. I believe it is speaking about a change that Jesus urged his followers to work for in the 1st century; that he and John the Baptist  urged the people who came to hear him to put into practice, challenging the rich, the powerful, the soldiers and the tax collectors to repent and change their ways, working for change through peaceful means. I believe it was a revolution that Jesus lived, as he  touched the unclean, women, lepers and the sick, as he associated with those outside genteel society, and as he allowed himself to be abused and killed, rather than physically resisting violence.

I believe the Magnificat is speaking about a gentle revolution that the Church should be proclaiming and living today, and that the yearly observation of Advent reminds us about.

It is a reminder that our Christmas is not like the world’s Christmas. It is not an escape from the world of poverty and violence and conflict, it is a commitment to do something about it, in Jesus’s name. It is not about tradition or about buying and getting, it is about change, and giving away possessions and privilege. It is not about getting away from struggle, it is about struggling in the right way to change the way people see the world, about leading people to ‘repent’ in the proper Biblical meaning of the word, and about seeing the world through God’s eyes.

Today Christians often complain, especially in the USA, that there’s a ‘War on Christmas’. But I give you the words of a minister who recently wrote that he would sign up to support the War on Christmas because: I’d make the argument that the dominant face of Christianity, as it is seen on television and promoted through news programming, is itself far from what Christianity is supposed to be. It is a sort-of white-washed, sanitized version of Christianity that every year presents an increasingly cleaned up version of the Christmas story to the viewing public.

You see, the baby we remember this time of year was not part of the dominant culture the way the religion he started now is. The religious stories that were told in those days were told under the shadow of the dominant culture. They were stories of oppression and hardships, stories of overcoming unthinkable odds, stories of hope for a people living in times and cultural positions that, quite frankly felt hopeless.

But today, our stories are told from places and positions of power. Today, Christianity is the dominant culture. So, instead of story of a olive skinned middle-eastern, unwed, pregnant mother, who was seen as little more than property, giving birth to what the world would surely see as an illegitimate child who was wrapped in what rags they could find and placed in a smelly, flea-infested feeding trough in the midst of a dark musky smelling animal stall, we end up with a clean, white-skinned European woman giving birth to a glowing baby wrapped in impossibly white swaddling clothes and laid to rest in a manger that looks more like a crib than a trough, in the midst of a barn that is more kept and clean than many of our houses.

So, “War on Christmas?” Sure, sign me up. I’m pretty sure I’d prefer the elimination of what our modern “celebration” has become to the increasingly white-washed version we hear every year.

The Christmas story has been hijacked by a dominant culture. Places of power and positions of prestige have warped the comeuppance sensibilities of the original Christmas story. 

God’s vision of liberating the oppressed, the downtrodden, has been slowly replaced year after year with a story that no longer brings fear to the Powers that Be, but rather supports the big business agendas of profit and mass consumerism.

 

Perhaps many of you would not go as far as Pastor Mark Sandlin; and the celebration of the traditional Christmas does give a lot of joy to families, and promote a good deal of charitable giving. But if the coming of Christ into the world is supposed to be a life changing experience, and if what we are celebrating is not just that Christ has come 2000 years ago, but also that Christ is coming now to change the world, we ought to open our ears and minds to hear the challenge of the words of the Magnificat anew, and ask ourselves how we can join Mary and Elizabeth and their sons to become God’s gentle revolutionaries to bring in his Kingdom afresh this Christmas.

Isaiah 11, 1-10; Matthew 3, 1-12.

In the time in which our Old Testament passage was written, there were three groups of people through whom God communicated with the Jewish nation.

 

The first were the monarchs, descended from David, the son of Jesse. By the time First Isaiah was writing, the high hopes raised by the reigns of David and Solomon had diminished, the early promise of the dynasty was unfulfilled. The kingdom had split into two, the Northern Kingdom was about to be destroyed by Assyria, and there had been a number of kings who ruled badly and served foreign gods as well as the one true God. The kings were supposed to defend the people from attack, and administer justice in God’s name, according to the laws set out in the Mosaic covenant. The later Jews also believed in another covenant, between God and the House of David, which promised that his house would rule for ever.

 

The second group were the priests, from the tribe of Levi, descendants of Aaron. Their task was to serve in the Temple, offering the daily sacrifices, and the sacrifices for sin and of thanksgiving, as set out in the covenant. They also offered prayers on behalf of the people and the nation, and,  initially, they were also responsible for teaching the people about the law of God. By the time of Isaiah, there was also  some disillusion with their role as mediators between God and his people, and some criticism of the cult. Later their role of explaining the law was taken over by the Scribes.

 

Some of the original prophets were associated with the temple, and were ‘seers’ using methods of divination to try to foresee what would happen; but the great prophets whose words are recorded in the Bible were those who spoke to the people as the messengers of God. Their Hebrew name comes from a root meaning ‘hollow’ or ‘open’, indicating they were completely open to be filled with God’s Spirit, and to offer warnings, rebukes and commentary on events as God’s mouthpieces.

 

Some  may have come from within the religious establishment, but some (such as Amos, the shepherd) were outsiders. All of them tended to end up as outsiders, because they frequently voiced criticism of the king and the cult as they recalled the people to the full implications of the Covenant. Some of them, as well as speaking and writing, acted out their messages, performing often bizarre actions to make their point. Many of the prophets suffered ridicule, persecution, abuse, and some were even killed, since their messages inevitably disturbed those who were in power, and sought to change the old ways of doing things. Their message was sometimes about the religious practices of Israel; but more often they criticised kings, judges and politicians, for acting unjustly, and oppressing the poor and the weak. Social justice was as important to them as ritual purity.

 

Our passage from Isaiah begins by looking at the reality of the moment – that the royal house of David is now so degraded that it is no more than a stump or a root. But then the prophet looks forward, to anticipate the reign of a new king, another descendant of David, who will fulfill the promise of the covenant. Like a prophet, he will be filled with the Spirit of God. He will rule not with physical force, but through the power of his words.

 

He will carry out the traditional roles of the king and administer justice without favour, giving justice equally to the poor and the rich. He will be both righteous and faithful.

 

This is a picture of an ideal monarch, one who follows so closely the will of God that the conditions of the Garden of Eden will be restored on the earth – traditional enemies in the animal kingdom such as the lion and the lamb will be reconciled, and even the snake, symbol of the Fall, will no longer injure human children. The benefits of this king’s rule will be enjoyed not just by his own people, but by the whole world.

 

No one king of the House of David ever lived up to this ideal – and the portrait of the ideal ruler came eventually to be applied to a heavenly Messiah who would be sent from God to save and rule his people – and Christian writers naturally applied the prophecy to Jesus, which is why we hear these Messianic passages from Isaiah during Advent and Christmas.

 

By the time of Jesus’ birth, it was felt that prophecy in Israel had ceased – but then along came John the Baptist! You can see him as the last of the Old Testament prophets, recalling people to the Covenant; or the first Christian prophet, preparing the way for the ministry of Jesus; but either way, he is a difficult character to understand, with a fairly unpalatable message for his people. If Luke’s account is to be believed, he came from a priestly family, but he rejected that vocation to become a prophet.

 

His way of life was an acted parable: he lived in the desert and ate food from the wild, as did the people of Israel during the Exodus, when they found God again and entered into the Covenant. His dress recalled that of the first great prophet, Elijah.  He baptised people in the Jordan, a ritual which carried two messages. First, it was the rite through which Gentile converts entered Judaism, so he was saying that Jews could not rely on their birth to make them children of God: they had to repent and make a new start. Second, the Jewish nation passed through water to  escape slavery in Egypt and to take possession of the Promised Land: so, to be ready for the Kingdom of God which was coming, they needed to pass through water again.

John’s proclamation of the coming of God’s Kingdom was an disconcerting message for those  who were comfortable in the existing religious regime. His picture of how God would judge his people was far from reassuring: he used images of violence – the winnowing fork, the threshing floor and the fire. And, like Isaiah, John also looked forward to the arrival of a major figure, a servant of God endowed with the Spirit, who would separate out the righteous and punish the wicked.

 

Like the Old Testament prophets, John warned people that something new was about to erupt into their world, something that would disrupt all that was old and destructive in their religious, social and political lives. He warned them that they needed to make concrete decisions to re-order their lives in accordance with the rules of God’s Kingdom. He told them that they didn’t have much time to do this. He instructed them not to rely on their traditions, or their previous religious practices, or their birth, but only on God, his Spirit and his Anointed One to bring them salvation.

 

That is also his Advent message to us, as we prepare to welcome Jesus, God’s Messiah.

 

Our monarchs don’t really have much influence on our religious lives today, although the Queen is still Supreme Governor of the Church of England. That simply means that she opens new sessions of General Synod, speaks to the assembled delegates, rubber stamps the appointment of bishops and signs any church legislation that goes through Parliament. Some people want to get rid of even that slight involvement and disestablish the Church of England.

 

The priesthood disappeared from the Jewish religion with the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. Christianity, however, adopted priestly leadership, and was run exclusively by priests for most of its first 2000 years. The Church of England may now give the laity a voice through synods, but they are still outnumbered two to one by clergy representatives in the houses of priests and bishops. A religion run by priests tends to be traditional and conservative. This can bring stability and comfort in times of change – but can also lead to inertia and ossification.

 

And what of prophets? There has been no recognised role for prophets within the Christian Church since the time of Paul. But of course, there have been prophets, people who have spoken out in God’s name, criticised the church’s practices both ritual and social and urged it to return to the teachings of Jesus. Like the Old Testament prophets, like John the Baptist, many of them were persecuted, punished and killed by their monarchs and priests and their representatives. Some of them, however, were heard, and they became the great reformers of the Church, like the founders of monastic movements and leaders of the Reformation and social reform.

 

And do we need prophets in the church today? Not if we want a quiet life! Prophets are always disturbing and disruptive. They call us out of our comfort zone, and challenge us to listen anew to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

 

There are several voices claiming to be prophets within the church today, from very different parts of the theological spectrum. One such is a website run by fundamentalist Christians, which seems simply to be promoting hatred of Muslims, gays and women. Other groups see themselves as prophets, calling Anglican Christians back to what they claim is orthodox belief and practice. But from the other end of the theological spectrum, there are people who claim that attempts to define and impose orthodoxy will stifle the prophetic voice in the church; they would say the voice of prophecy is coming from those who want Christians to go back to the example and practice of Jesus Christ, rather than the written word, and include everyone within the covenant people.

 

 

But, as in Old Testament times, the voice of prophecy may sometimes come from outside the religious establishment. Those of my age will remember a Simon and Garfunkel song from the 1960s, which contained the line “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls”. John the Baptist spoke his prophecy from the wilderness, outside the limits of society. God is not confined to speaking through official channels; the word of the Lord may come to us from a place we don’t expect. We need the guidance of the Holy Spirit to discern the true from the false prophets.

 

As we prepare to welcome again the One who is both Prophet, Priest and King, may we always be alert to hear the words of the prophets, no matter how they come to us, no matter how disturbing they may be.