Saturday, May 16, 2009

He has put down the mighty from their seats...?

Luke 1: 46-55 "The Magnificat": Preached at St Mark's, on the 17th of May 09 - at the baptism of Oscar Carruthers-Clark

We've been living through really difficult times lately, haven't we? There have been wars going on all around the planet - Sri Lanka, the Congo, Iraq, and of course Afghanistan. In a thousand cities, we've seen small acts of violence too: even on our own streets in Portsmouth, we've seen a number of examples of citizens getting their heads kicked in by roaming bands of feral teenagers.

We've also been living through the collapse of our banking system - with something like half of the UK's banks being brought into public ownership. And we've heard about the massive, obscene, bonuses paid to senior bank officials who presided over these collapses.

And now, we've got the MP's expenses row - proof of what we've often suspected; that some members of parliament have got their snouts in the trough. What no-one seems to have noticed, incidentally, is that the information that is still being published every day by the Telegraph was itself obtained illegally - by the Telegraph purchasing a stolen document. And, it seems, no-one seems to notice that many of the public who are now so outraged by these MPs are, themselves, quite capable of fiddling a tax return here, or stealing a little paper or pens from their offices.

So its all around us, isn't it? Violence, war, greed, fraud and theft. It would be very tempting to think that the end of the world must be nigh. Perhaps I'll make myself up one of those sandwich boards, and walk up and down North End high street, with "The End is Nigh" on my back!

It might be even more challenging to ask ourselves what kind of world we are bringing the next generation of human beings into. What about little Oscar, here to be baptised? A world of violence, war, greed, fraud and theft - to say nothing of global warming. Are we doing the right thing by bringing children into this kind of world? Is the human world, as we know it, about to end - burnt up in the fire of its own greed and corruption and violence? there another story? As we heard just now, in the Bible reading, when Mary received the news that she was to bring God's saviour into the world, her immediate response was to sing a song. In her song, she goes on to sing about the wonderful things that the Lord has done, and will do, to the proud, and the arrogant, and the mighty.

She says, "He has stretched out his mighty arm, and scattered the proud with all their plans. He has brought down mighty kings from their thrones, and lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty hands."

Mary's song gives us an entirely different perspective on the world - God's perspective. She sings of a God who deals with the proud and the greedy and the powerful. Interestingly, she sings in the past tense - she is singing about what God has already done, as well as looking to the future.

And well she might...

The Hebrew Scriptures - what we call the Old Testament - are a story about exactly how God deals with the proud and the mighty. The story starts with Adam and Eve, who were too proud to listen to a very simple command... 'don't touch' - and decided that they knew better than God. The result - they are thrown out of the Garden of Eden. Next comes the story of the Flood, in which God decides to wipe from the face of the earth all those whose hearts had become devoted to wickedness. Moving on, there comes the Tower of Babel - built by a people who wanted to reach the stars, to become like God... who are then cast down, and confused by God. These are ancient legends - ancient stories designed to make us reflect on our own lives, our own attitudes.

Sometime later, in somewhat more reliable part of Jewish history, we find a story of the Israelites, who have been enslaved by the Egyptians - forced into slave labour to build the cities and pyramids of Egypt. God hears the cry of the oppressed, and leads his people to freedom in the promised land. But only a few generations later, we find that the 'oppressed' have become the 'oppressor'. The Bible tells us how King David's son Solomon used slaves to build his own palace and a temple for the Lord. Once again, no-one seems to have learned the lessons of God. The slave becomes the slave-owner. The oppressed becomes the oppressor.

Prophets consistently warned the leaders of Israel that what they were doing was contrary to God's ways. They cried out in vain for justice, and generosity - the sharing of resources, help for the poor, welcome for the stranger. But the mighty leaders of Israel would not listen. And so, another great 'tearing down of the mighty from their seats' took place. Around 500 years before Jesus, the leaders of Israel were carried off into slavery again - to Babylon (in modern-day Iraq). It's from that period of history that we get the song 'By the rivers of Babylon' - made famous by 'Boney M'. Its a song of lament - a song of wailing and sadness. "By the rivers of Babylon we and wept when we remembered Zion" (the name of the mountain on which Jerusalem is built). "How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" (see Psalm 137).

Eventually, their punishment over, God permits the descendants of those Jewish leaders to return home. But almost immediately, they show that they have not yet learned the lessons of God. They set about building strong walls, and then, in a horrific act of racist 'ethnic cleansing', the leaders, Nehemiah and Ezra, set about telling all Jews who have married foreign wives, that they must divorce them, and send them back to their tribes.

By the time of Jesus, the time when Mary sings her song, the Jewish people are under yet more punishment for not learning the ways of God. Along the way they have been occupied by Assyrians, and Greeks - and now its the Romans. Jesus arrives in the middle of Roman occupation - the occupation by a country which wants to force its ways of doing things onto another people. Sound familiar?

Over and over again, the Bible teaches us that God will not tolerate the proud and the mighty. Time and time again he 'puts down the mighty from their seats, and exalts the humble and meek'. We see the same pattern in more recent history. Napoleon - conqueror of Europe, self proclaimed Emperor...lived out his days in exile on a small island. Hitler, murderer of Jews, conqueror of Europe, shot himself in a bunker in Berlin. Saddam Hussein, mass murderer of Kurds, despotic dictator with palaces all over Iraq, hanged by a rope. "He has put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted the humble and meek". (Luke 1:52)

Are we seeing something similar going on today? Mighty banks have collapsed. The corruption of some MPs have been laid bare. The mighty are certainly being humbled. This seems to be a cyclical element of history... the mighty rise, come to power, become corrupt, and fall. There's an old saying that "evil sows the seeds of its own destruction" - and perhaps that is what is going on. Another saying comes from Jesus: 'a house built on sand, will collapse'. Certainly those mighty banking houses have collapsed. And even the mighty houses of parliament will not escape unchanged from the current scandal.

But there is another way. There is an alternative... an alternative that God has called humanity to throughout its history... an alternative that humankind has steadfastly ignored. In the words of the ancient prophet Micah: "[God] has showed you O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8).

Jesus picked up on this theme. The new Son of David - an entirely different son than Solomon had been - saw that acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God were the very essence of God's plan for the world. Imagining a judgment day, when evil-doers would be separated from the people of God, Jesus commends those who fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, gave clothes to the naked, visited the sick and imprisoned. (see Matthew 25:31-46)

Just imagine the esteem that bankers could be held in if their profits were used to feed the hungry, instead of lining their pockets. Just imagine the respect we would have for the House of Commons if all MPs acted as some indeed do..only claiming expenses for the real costs of representing us. Just imagine what the world would be like if teenagers who kick people's heads in were taught from an early age the power of love.

That, ultimately, is what we are inviting Oscar into today. In a few moments (yes, I've nearly finished!) Oscar's parents and godparents are going to be invited, on his behalf, to reject evil and all that obstructs God's love. They will be invited to repent of ways of living that separate us from God and one another. They will be invited to recognise Christ as Master - committing themselves to following his simple rules of Love. In short, they will be invited to induct Oscar into a new story, our Story, His Story. A story of mighty powers being overturned, and a story in which the humble and meek are lifted up, the hungry fed, and the rich sent empty away. It's an alternative vision of the world - a Godly vision. It's a way of living that embraces truth, and justice, and generosity and, in short, life. It's a way of live that is built on the solid rock of God's promises - not the shifting sands of consumerism and materialism.

It is, finally, a story about legacies. What legacy will those corrupt bankers and MPs and history's dictators leave behind them? What legacy will each of us leave behind. Do we want to be remembered for being self-centered, money-grabbing consumers... or do we want to be remembered for being people whose lives were filled up with the generosity of God. Do we want to be remembered for what we got, or what we gave? Do we want to be remembered for the people we ignored, or the people we helped? Because that is the Way of Christ. By yielding to the violence, and then overcoming it through the Resurrection - Jesus showed us that God's way will ultimately triumph. The mighty will be put down from their seat. Generosity will overcome greed. Life will overcome death.

Jesus himself was baptised - symbolically using water as a sign of washing away all the world's accretions, and of setting out on the Way of God. And now, we are going to invite Oscar to make the same journey - through baptism, we are going to invite him to come with us on the Way of Jesus, the way of God.

So, let's do it...!

No comments:

Post a Comment