The Revolution Begins in Bethlehem
The story is told that when one of the kings of the Franks, who lived in Europe in the dark ages, first heard the story of the crucifixion of Jesus, he jumped to his feet, pulled out his sword, and cried out, ‘If only I and my Franks had been there, we would not have let them do that to Jesus!’
But of course, Jesus didn’t need their protection. He himself said that if he had wanted, he could have had access to the services of twelve legions of angels, who I’m sure would have been more than a match for the Roman troops and the temple guards. And if Jesus had been following the usual plan for changing the world, that’s exactly what he would have done – he would have called up the largest and most powerful army he could raise, and marched out at the head of them to do battle with the forces of evil, like Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. But Jesus didn’t do that, because he was starting a revolution much more far-reaching than any the world had ever seen before, and in that revolution the act of going to the cross was far more powerful than the act of fighting to avoid the cross. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the world has been turned upside down far more effectively than by any political or military leader.
And that’s the theme of our gospel reading for today. In Luke 1:46-55 Mary is describing the coming of the kingdom of God in revolutionary terms. She has just heard from the angel that she is to be the mother of the Messiah. She has gone to share the story with her older cousin Elizabeth, and has been greeted with a prophecy about the child in her womb and everything he will accomplish. In response, she sings this song about how God is going to bring about a revolution that will turn the world upside down.
What sort of world does Mary live in? In many ways, much the same sort of world as we live in today. It’s a world where most people don’t notice someone who’s ‘lowly’, a world where some are proud and some are humble, and the proud can usually push the humble around. It’s a world of ‘rich’ and ‘poor’, where the rich hoard greedily and the poor starve. It’s a world where God’s promise to help his people seems like a mockery because of the situation they are in. In Mary’s world the Herods and the Caesars are at the top of the social scale, living in luxury and using their power to run their kingdoms for their own benefit and that of their friends. At the bottom of the scale are the people Mary called ‘the lowly’, the ones who have no voice and no vote, whose contribution to the system is to pay their taxes and get nothing in return. And if we look around the world today and see the enormous differences in wealth and power between rich and poor, strong and weak, we have to ask ourselves “How much has changed in the last two thousand years? What happened to the revolution that Mary was talking about?”
Because Mary’s song does indeed talk about a revolution. In her view, the coming of the kingdom of God would level the differences between people. Actually, she went further than that – she saw God as giving the rich and the powerful their turn at learning what it was like to be poor and weak. Those with the power and wealth would be toppled from their high positions, and the lowly and weak would take their place. God would finally keep his promise to rescue his people from their suffering and oppression and bring peace and justice to the world.
What sort of world would this lead to? In Mary’s view, it would be a world where everyone, no matter how lowly, would be looked on with favour, just as in verse 48 she says that ‘God has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant’. Everyone would have enough to live on, but no one would have too much; as verse 53 says, ‘He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich empty away’. Instead of individual acquisition of wealth, we would emphasise community sharing and giving. Those in power would use their power for the good of all, not just themselves and their own families, friends, and political allies. This is the consistent message about the kingdom of God, not just in Mary’s song but all through the prophets and the teaching of Jesus. It’s what Jesus had in mind when he taught us to pray ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’.
But as Christians we might want to hesitate a bit at some of Mary’s words. She may have been a wise person, but in some ways she shared the common view of her generation; she thought that the way God would create this sort of an egalitarian society was by force. That’s how you stop the greedy and powerful from being greedy and powerful! So when she heard that her son was going to be the long-awaited Messiah, she assumed that’s how he would do it, and that’s why she misunderstood him later when he chose a different path.
Jesus, of course, saw things somewhat differently. To him, the heart of the human problem is not the gap between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless; these are the symptoms of the problem, not the problem itself. No, the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart that can create these conditions in the first place. Lasting change won’t be achieved by casting down one set of rulers and replacing them with another set who idealistically promise to govern for the benefit of all. ‘All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Over and over again we’ve seen revolutions in which the powerful are brought down from their thrones to be replaced by the lowly, who soon become the new powerful and quickly get a taste for it. The problem is the selfishness, self-centredness and rebellion in the hearts of sinful human beings – including me, I have to say. Do I want God’s kingdom to come if it means my standard of living has to go down? To be honest, no, I don’t - so I am part of the problem.
Jesus knew this, and so when he set out to bring in the kingdom of God, he chose a different route. Rather than appearing suddenly at the head of a heavenly army to sort things out, he chose to become a poor and vulnerable person himself. When he grew up, his work was not to form a military force to drive out oppressors and punish evil; rather, it was to teach people how to live together under the reign of God. You can of course find his teachings in the Gospels, and they challenge our way of life to the core because they’re all about love and non-violence, and caring for the poor and needy, and living a simple life, uncluttered with lots of possessions and focussing on the kingdom of God.
Jesus showed us by his life and teaching what it meant to live according to God’s way. But he also knew that our addiction to sin is what prevents us from following that way. And so he gave himself on the cross for us, so that we could be forgiven and reconciled to God. In his resurrection he showed us that good will indeed triumph over evil, and that love is stronger than hate. And he went on to send us the priceless gift of the Holy Spirit, who is working patiently in us, changing us from the inside out.
This is the ‘slow and messy’ way of changing the world. The quick and easy way – sending in the heavenly SWAT team and wiping out all the evildoers – might be more efficient, but the problem is that there’d be no one left to enjoy it, since all of us are evildoers. God’s world, unlike Mary’s, isn’t divided into good guys and bad guys. There’s good and bad in all of us, so we’d better be careful about praying for God’s judgement on evil.
And this, you see, is why the world is changing so slowly and why Mary’s revolution is a long time coming. It’s because people like me are stubborn about changing! God has chosen to respect our free will and work through us, and as long as I continue to be hooked on material prosperity and enjoying the inequalities of the present world order, then there are still going to be rich and poor, powerful and powerless. The challenge to me is to listen to the teaching of Jesus – to listen to the values that Mary expresses in her song – and to reshape my life accordingly.
The Advent season assures us that one day the Kingdom of God will come in all its fulness, and Mary’s vision will become a reality. While we wait for that day, we pray that God will work in our hearts and change us from self-centredness to God-centredness and from selfishness to love. And we do our best to create the kind of world, right now, where people acknowledge God as king and follow his loving rule of their own free will.
The revolution begins in Bethlehem. Coming to the manger and welcoming Christ into our lives is a revolutionary act. If we are faithful to the principles of the Jesus movement, it will lead to a world of justice, equality, and peace. But on the road to that revolution God will not violate our free will. How far the gospel revolution goes – at least until Jesus returns – is up to you and me.