Luke 1: 46-55 "The Magnificat". (See also this imaginative re-telling of the story)
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 just this week, while public services are being cut to millions of needy people, school budgets slashed, healthcare and social services slashed - the banks have announced that they are in profit again! And their Directors are once again receiving massive salaries and bonuses.
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. 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?
Or...is 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. What really fascinates me is that Mary 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.
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 has been laid bare. The mighty have certainly been 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'. Those who build their lives on the sand of money, wealth and power will find that their lives have no foundation.
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. Jesus taught 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).
Sometimes the old ones are the best...so let me remind you of the story of four people, whose names were Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody. It goes like this:
Once upon a time there was an important job to be done, and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got upset because it was Everybody's job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realised that Everybody wouldn't do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.
Isn't that so often the way? All of us can be great at recognising the importance of a task. But sometimes, we are all just a little bit guilty of leaving that task to other people. We all imagine that our lives are the busiest ones...and the surely everyone else has got more time than we have. And so we don't quite put our hand up to help, when help is needed. We assume that someone else will do it. Or we don't quite get our wallets out when our money is called for...because 'someone else will do it'.
Today...this day...this very day...people are dying in Pakistan. 14 million people have been displaced by a river that has swollen to over 18 miles wide in places. 1,600 people have already lost their lives - and many more will die as cholera, malnutrition and famine breaks out. What are we going to do about it? Are we going to let someone else worry about it...or are we going to do something ourselves?
Are we, in other words, going to grasp hold of Mary's message - and God's vision - that the humble and poor will be lifted up...in this case out of the flood waters? Are we willing to do our part as Jesus’ family to ‘fill the hungry with good things?’ Or, are we going to be content to let the wealthy, money-grabbing, mighty-in-their seats have their way once again. Because, let's not be in any doubt. Most people are not dying in Pakistan because of the flood. Most people are dying because they lived in houses made of mud, they didn't have the transport to get out of the way of the rising water, their relatives were too sick from lack of medical care to be able to move, and the Government was too weak, corrupt and under-funded to be able to respond. People are not dying because of water...they are dying because of their poverty.
So...at the end of the service today, there will be an opportunity to take some action. Get out those wallets and cheque-books - and lets see if we can't send a message from the Christians of North End...a message which says to the humble and poor of Pakistan that God does care about them...he cares enough to have sent and Angel to the Mother of our Lord, with a message for all mankind to hear.