… he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
(Preached on Sunday, December 17, 2017)
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, …
What a beautiful piece of poetry! Its words and phrases build upon one another, rising in a gentle crescendo of praise and glory. It has inspired artists and saints; it has lifted the downtrodden and the crestfallen. It is a powerful climax to the crescendo which has been building during Advent.
For two weeks we have been hearing about the coming of God into our world and our lives and now Mary models for us an appropriate response to that good news: Joy – pure, unadulterated, spontaneous joy. What more appropriate response to God’s coming into a life could there be?
Well, part of the mystery of Christmas is that not everyone responded in that way. That was not King Herod’s response. The Keeper of the Inn, probably his wife and his customers, are not recorded as responding in this way. Later on, as Jesus began his public ministry, the priests, scribes and Pharisees did not respond in this manner. In fact, many people seemed unable to respond with joy and praise. Eventually enough people responded in other ways so that Jesus was executed. Why was it then that this young woman, most likely living in poverty, could so stunningly sing such a hymn of praise and glory to God? What was it that enabled Mary to be filled with such joy? More importantly, will we be able this Christmas to respond to God’s coming into our lives as did Mary? Or will we respond as many, many others did that night, who missed the miracle of God’s birth in an infant, lying in a manger?
Mary’s reaction is truly amazing. This was not really the best news which she received. This news had the possibility of totally destroying her life, quite possibly placing it in danger. Her society was not the permissive, tolerant society of the 21st century. There were very severe penalties for breaking sexual mores, some as severe as being stoned to death. Nor was it necessarily any easier for the people of her day to believe in a virgin birth than it is for us. Yet Mary never seems to worry about herself in all this. She never questions God in that respect, concerning her own safety and well-being. Her only question was “How can this be?” That was really more a question of mechanics than anything else.
Mary never asked for proof. She never tried to control God. She was open and willing to serve God and to accept God’s coming in whatever manner God chose. This was very important. Mary’s response was very important. For God needed Mary’s freely given “Yes” to God’s gracious invitation to become the Mother of Jesus. The mystery of incarnation could not have taken place without Mary’s wholehearted “Yes.” And that “Yes” could not have taken place without Mary’s unbounded trust in God. Not only did Mary rejoice in God, but God rejoiced in Mary. God rejoiced that “the designated time had come” because this woman of faith had enabled God to become one of us in Jesus.
We don’t often stop to think about it, but this whole event models for us the way God works in our lives. Remember, God does not work outside of our free will, our human ability to choose. God wants us to be able to freely respond to God’s entreaties of love, for only then is God’s love truly received and truly returned. If we are forced to respond, out of fear or guilt or coercion, or by being overpowered and ordered, then our response is not one of love. God is love and God loves us freely and seeks our freely given love in return. That is why Mary’s “Yes” was so important. Without it, Jesus could not have been born.
As I said earlier, not everyone was able to respond in this way. The religious leaders and Jewish rulers of the day could not do it. They had the program all figured out. They knew just what they needed from God and were certain that God would meet their expectations. They had their lives nicely organized and knew just which parts of their lives they controlled and in which parts they would allow god to be involved. The problem was, God did not come in a manner to meet their expectations. That is what Mary’s Magnificat proclaims. That this new life in and with God would manifest the surprising ways of God’s love.
In his pamphlet on the Magnificat, Martin Luther says that Mary speaks in her song of the six great works of God: mercy, breaking spiritual pride, putting down the mighty, exalting the lowly, filling the hungry, and sending the rich away empty.
It seems odd that sending the rich away empty is a work of God, until one looks closely at the work with the eyes of faith. Throughout the Bible, those who have much are always in some difficulty, if not dire straits. This is because self-sufficient people find it hard to admit their need, or to come to God knowing that in matters of salvation everyone is poor without God. Full hands, full stomachs, full spirits, cannot be filled. A full hand can receive nothing, and a full stomach cannot gorge without unpleasant consequences.
There is a story from the 13th century Franciscan tradition entitled True and Perfect Joy. In the story, Francis asks his friend Brother Leo to dictate a parable about the nature of joy. He proceeds to illustrate situations that might ordinarily be considered occasions for spiritual joy: all church officials are moved to join the Franciscan order; all nonbelievers are converted to the faith; miracles and healings take place. True joy consists in none of these, Francis insists. Instead, he paints a word-picture of himself returning home to the friary in the dead of winter, exhausted, cold, and miserable and knocking at the brothers’ door. He asks for entry but is not recognized and shut out. Attempting entrance again he is ridiculed and sent away. If in this situation he has patience and does not get upset, he claims, there is true joy.
The story suggests that true joy can be found in utter nakedness. Like the naked, cross-hung Jesus the saint so passionately loved and, in imitation of which he choreographed his ever gesture, Francis is the tale finds himself stripped of everything: physical comfort, shelter, recognition, community, identity itself. He has nothing. True joy, he says, consists in patient acceptance of his nakedness.
The crux of the matter is this: it is not that Francis was able to suppress all natural responses by some supreme effort of will or inner gymnastics that made him insensible to feelings. Rather, the point is that Francis no longer had anything to lose. Anger, fear, resentment and the like, as marvelously natural and healthy as they are for survival, are at root defensive mechanisms that guard our ego-identities. To the extent that we have no ego to defend, we are free. There is a radical freedom in having nothing to lose, nothing to protect, nothing to hide, nothing to gain. Spiritual nakedness, the ability not to cling to all that we find crucial to our fragilely constructed selves, is liberating. In it we find ourselves conformed to our saving God who, in losing all, found fullness of life.
This is probably why God chose Mary. As one of the poorest of the poor, she had nothing to lose by saying “yes” to God. In fact, she had a lot more to gain, for herself and for her people. The truth is, God could probably not have chosen some princess in a palace, because she would have been too full of the trappings of life to say “Yes.” That is why part of Mary’s vision of what God has done and is doing involves those chilling words about “sending the rich away empty.” She says this with no trace of accusation. She is simply stating a fact, describing what is true about faith.
What about us? The truth is we are not poor. We may not consider ourselves rich, but are we not full, satisfied, and comfortable? Do we really have any room in our lives for God this Christmas? The only way to get ready for God’s coming is by emptying out our too busy lives. The apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5 points the way to do this: “Pray without ceasing … do not despise the words of the prophets … do not quench the Spirit.” Prayer, scripture reading, and openness to God’s Spirit – these disciplines will help us empty out our hearts, our minds, and our too busy lives. Then we will be ready to rejoice in God our Savior.