But this year is different. Things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be in such a painful way, that things as they are will not do. It is not good enough.
The reality of the Sandy Hook killings is starting to sink in. Parents and siblings will gather around the Christmas tree and feel the absence of a loved one before they even notice the gifts under the tree.
Many of us refuse to sit still and accept this as the status quo. Assault weapon bans and more rigorous licensing standards for all firearms are on the table. Perhaps even more importantly, we are renewing our conversation about how to weave into our social fabric those who live with mental disease and mental handicaps.
When we see that things are not right and feel the horror and injustice of it, we want to do something. We want to set things right. And conversations about firearms and mental health care are an important part of what we can do. But even as we begin to make some progress in our social structure, we will begin to experience the limits of what we can actually do.
We will never be able to compensate for the violence these children and teachers have endured. In our frail, mortal hands the lives that these shooting victims might have had can be nothing more than lost dreams and unmet hopes. The bereaved have holes in their hearts that even our best intentions and most successful social engineering will never fill. In a word, we can never compensate for what has happened.
At this moment of powerlessness–what today’s Scripture calls lowliness–we begin to catch a glimpse of why we need a savior.
Mary’s song celebrates God as Savior, her personal but never private savior. The baby she carries in her womb is the means by which God saves his people. Saves us. Following Jesus involves relying upon him and placing our hopes in him as our savior.
The Magnificat teaches us about salvation, and some aspects of Mary’s lesson to us might surprise you. We will look at three aspects of salvation by addressing the following three questions:
What is salvation?
How does God save us?
Who is saved?
Setting Things Right
So, let’s begin with the first question. What is salvation?
From the start let’s be clear that salvation is God’s work. It is not a human achievement.
God saves us by setting things right that we cannot set right for ourselves. He transforms the deep logic or the DNA of the world in such a way that heals the wounds of the past and provides a reckoning for the wrongs of the past. Salvation delivers us from suffering and injustice by bringing us to a state of wholeness and shalom.
Many Christians labor under a misconception about salvation. It goes something like this. When we die, our immortal souls depart the body. God decides which immortal souls will dwell in paradise and which will endure eternal torment. God’s saving work is reduced to deciding who’s soul will go to heaven and who’s soul will go to hell.
This view of salvation misses the Christian mark on a number of counts. First, Jesus teaches the resurrection, not the immortality of the disembodied soul. When Jesus emerged from the empty tomb, he was a whole human being: mind, body, and spirit. He was not merely resuscitated. God raised him through death to a whole new kind of life beyond sorrow and suffering once and for all.
In keeping with the resurrection of Jesus, God’s saving work restores and glorifies the entire creation. God does not pluck souls out of the creation and transport them to a better place. As we see in Revelation, he transforms the creation we see and touch and feel and taste and hear into a new heaven and a new earth. All broken hearts are healed and broken relationships restored. Everyone who got a raw deal in their earthly pilgrimage will be vindicated and those who wept will laugh forever with unquenchable joy.
But life after this life does not occur in a holding tank for disembodied spirits. Revelation gives us the image of the New Jerusalem descending from heaven to dwell in the midst of the new heaven and the new earth. In other words, the consolation and the justice we seek today is a foretaste of the eternal order that God inaugurates in Jesus’ birth and will complete when Jesus returns.
Listen to how Mary talks about it. “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53)
She celebrates that God is at work eradicating misery and injustice from this world, not merely preparing an escape pod for a select few (or even for everybody). Salvation is about transformation, not relocation.
At this juncture we should reiterate that salvation is God’s work.
God’s salvation is already at work around us in feeding the hungry, dismantling unjust social structures, housing the homeless, visiting the sick, and liberating the captive. In other words, our works of mercy and insistence upon justice reflect God’s final salvation. But our highest achievements are always only partial, temporary, and incomplete. Only God will bring final, complete, and eternal joy and peace, healing and justice.
And this brings us to our second question. How does God save us?
An Inside Job
Mary sings about God’s salvation that “He has shown the strength of his arm.” (Luke 1:51) We struggle to find evidence of God’s saving strength precisely because our eye and our heart have been trained to look for the wrong things in the wrong places.
Films, television, and video games have conditioned us to expect dramatic action when we’re talking about strength: martial arts fight sequences, shootouts, car chases, and massive explosions. God’s might doesn’t manifest itself in these ways.
God’s saving work begins in the hidden quiet of Mary’s womb. The virgin birth is at once the power of mystery and humility. God becomes a human being by some miraculous means that we do not comprehend.
And while some modern minds struggle with the scientific contradiction of a virgin birth, the real stunner is the simple fact that God chooses to dwell in a human womb. The creator of galaxies and black holes and dark matter and emus and penguins and the Higgs boson takes up residence in the dark, cramped, vulnerable, dependent space within which every common human being begins our fragile, tender life. God forsakes the glory of the heavenly throne room for the one place where every human being is perfectly equal.
And in the story of Mary’s visitation to her cousin Elizabeth, we see that even the fetal Jesus is shaking things up in a way that few can experience. The baby John the Baptist leaps in Elizabeth’s womb. And so it is with God’s salvation of the world: changing the world in ways few can recognize in humble anonymity.
On Christmas eve, we will hear again the story of the Infant King born in the lowly manger. God comes to dwell in the messiness–in the dirt and the straw and the dung–of our everyday lives. From the midst of the ordinary God births the extraordinary, the supernatural dwells within and transforms the natural. And for most of us most of the time much of life looks ordinary, hardly worth noticing.
Just the other day I heard the story of Golden Retrievers brought to Sandy Hook Elementary School. All the children lay on the floor, petting and stroking the dogs. One little girl talked to the dog as she stroked his fur. Her mother broke into tears. Her daughter had not uttered a word since the shooting. To some, a child is simply talking to a dog. For those with eyes to see and ears to ear, God’s saving power is at work.
God’s saving power is at work on the cross and in the empty tomb. Some could see only defeat and misery on the cross. The empty tomb was a trick, a hoax to some. And yet for those with discerning hearts, God’s saving power brings forgiveness and new life.
God saves through Jesus. And this brings us to our final question. Who does God, who does Jesus, save?
Mary sings the answer. “He has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” (Luke 1:48) Jesus saves the lowly.
Mary is lowly in social station. She is poor. She is a young woman–hardly more than a girl–in a world that gives women no status. But she is lowly of heart as well as material condition. She acknowledges her powerlessness.
Mary understands that things–people and society and her very own heart–are not the way they’re supposed to be. And she is lowly enough–humble enough, meek enough–to admit that she cannot make things right on her own.
Powerlessness can lead to despair or resentment. In Mary’s case, lowliness gives rise to hope because she believes in God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth.
You see, Mary understands that Jesus has not come to see if we measure up to God’s infinite standards. Of course we don’t. No one, nothing does. Everything is upside down. He is not here to state the obvious. He has come to turn things right side up.
But he will not turn us right side up so long as we insist that we can see things as they really are, that we are just fine the way we are, or that we can fix things all on our own.
God does not save those who insist on saving themselves. He saves the lowly, those who need a Savior.
This sermon was preached at Christ Church, St. Joseph, Louisiana.