God's Power: A sermon based on Luke 1:39-56
(Slide 1) Today we are resuming our Vision Series. Over the last several Sundays, we’ve been reflecting on our vision statements as a church. This Sunday and next we will be reflecting on the last two vision statements that revolve around our mission of Making Christ known. The week before we reflected on stewarding our gifts such as time, money and talents in service to God and community. Next week we’ll reflect on the statement, “We seek to reach out and enfold the lost.” This week we’ll reflect on the statement, “We minister locally and globally.” I feel that we got a little tired with this vision statement. It sort of feels like a catch all statement that doesn’t really give us much direction for anything. We minister locally and globally is pretty much the same as saying, “We don’t really know where we’re supposed to minister.” This could be a really helpful statement if humans ever colonize another planet. If someone proposed to the church council that we minister on Mars, we could point to this statement and say, “Sorry, that’s beyond the scope of our ministry.” Maybe I’m being too hard on this vision statement. But, as a general rule of thumb, I don’t think that vision statement are helpful that can only be fulfilled by God Himself. (Slide 2) Don’t you think this vision statement would make a bit more sense if we changed it to, “God ministers locally and globally.” Of course, and we get to join in. So, maybe we’d find a bit more direction our own vision as a church if we asked, “how does God minister locally and globally?” I think Mary’s song helps answer that question. When we can see that, maybe we can then ask how we can join in the task.
I’d like to make one more observation about this statement before we begin reflecting on the Magnificat, the song of Mary that we just heard. The statement “God ministers locally and globally,” as well as the statement “We minister locally and globally,” both have to do with power. Whatever we want to say the word minister means, being able to minister to someone implies a certain amount of power. That’s why the Prime Minister is a referred to as a minister, and his cabinet members are referred to as ministers. Its impossible to minister to someone if you have no power. Ministering to a hungry person means that you have some power to alleviate their hunger. That’s why, God being all powerful means that he is the only one who is able to fulfill this vision statement of ministering locally and globally. (Slide 3) So, what if this vision statement said, “God uses his power locally and globally,” and then we can talk about in what ways God uses his power. With that groundwork laid, let’s hear what Mary has to tell us all this through her song, the Magnificat. And as we do so, let’s start out with this question, in her Song, what does Mary say about how God uses his power?
Let’s begin with remembering the context of this passage. Mary has been recently visited by the angel Gabriel who has informed Mary that she will give birth to a Son, called Jesus, who will be called Son of the Most High.” Mary responds obediently, saying “I am the Lord’s servant, May your word to me be fulfilled.” Armed with this news she heads to the hill country of Judea where she visits her relative Elizabeth. Elizabeth was barren and also had been visited by Gabriel, who said that she will give birth to a son. The son was later known as John the Baptist. When Mary walks into Elizabeth’s house, John the unborn baptist leaps for joy in the presence of his cousin Jesus, the saviour of the world. Elizabeth then says, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her, and then Mary bursts into song!”
Mary’s song is an ode to how God uses his power locally and globally. Listen to her: (Slide 4) “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” This is how God ministers locally and globally: God scatters the proud. He brings down rulers from their thrones. He sends the rich away empty. If our church included a vision statement about brining down rulers from their thrones, we might enjoy a little more surveillance from the Prime Minister, and perhaps the Minister of National Defence. How seriously do you think that we should take Mary’s song about God? Is it just figurative, poetic language? Would you be surprised to hear that some governments don’t think so? During the British rule of India, Indian Christians were banned from sining the Magnificat in church. In the 1980s, Mary’s song gave hope to oppressed Guatemalans, who began to hope a better government might be possible. So the Guatemalan government banned public recitation of this song. In same period in Argentina, children were disappearing during the Dirty War, abducted by Argentinas military government. So the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of grandmother activists, placed Mary’s words on posters throughout the capital plaza. Any public display of Mary’s song was declared to be illegal. These governments understood Mary’s song all too well, and they were scared. They were guilty of oppressing the powerless. They understood that Mary’s song was about God using His power to take away the power of powerful people who used their power to hurt the powerless.
These governments understood that Mary’s song was about God using His power to take away the power of powerful people who used their power to hurt the powerless. God scatters the proud. He brings down rulers from their thrones. He sends the rich away empty. How might these statements give us any direction in regards to how as Christians we might use the power that we possess? When we talk about ministering to people we can often focus in on helping those without power. But if we are going to follow God’s lead in how he uses his power, we’ll need to pray about how we can disempower those who abuse their power. This kind of thinking would fall under the heading of God’s justice. This is what organizations are about when they lobby to limit the Government’s power to sanction abortion. This is what organizations that help Christian lawyers legally prosecute sex traffickers overseas. This is what organizations are about when they hold corporations accountable for devastating the environment. This is what First Nation activists were fighting for in the truth and reconciliation commission. This is what artists are about when they use their art to bring awareness to injustice in the world. Justice. God uses his power so that those who abuse their power are brought to justice. We are called to join this work.
(Slide 5) God uses his power locally and globally. The flip side of this, of course, is that God uses his power to help the powerless. That’s the other side of Mary’s song. (Slide 6) That’s the side of Mary’s song that gives us hope. God lifts up the humble. God fills the hungry with good things. God users his power to help the powerless. (Slide 7) Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that “the song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings… (Slide 8) This song has none of the sweet nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.” That’s why those oppressed people of India, Guatemala and Argentina hung on to this song so ardently. This song held out the hope that Almighty God has heard their cries, will look upon their powerlessness, and come to their aid. (Slide 9) For this is what God does. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” God will help his people, no longer confined to the local geography of Israel, but he will use his his power to help people globally. He will use his power to help all who are oppressed, locally and globally. This kind of thinking would fall under the heading of God’s mercy. So, if we are going to follow God’s lead in how he uses his power, we’ll need to pray about how we can come alongside and empower those who have been broken and abused by those with power. That’s what social enterprises that give marginalized people skills for employment. That’s what loving enfolding relationships are about. That’s what helping someone find affordable housing is about. That’s what microloans are about, helping impoverished people develop credit. That’s what sharing with someone about the love and forgiveness of Jesus is about. That’s what making a quilt for someone who just needs a hug is about. This is about God’s mercy.
In all this we follow God’s lead. We use our power to disempower those who abuse their power. We use our power to come alongside those who are powerless. But what is power? And do we really have any power locally, or globally? In the grand scheme of things, it can be quite easy to view ourselves, not necessarily as helpless, but as powerless. It can be easy to struggle with the question, what power do I have to really make a difference? We’re a small church. What power do we have to really make a difference? (Slide 10) It could be tempting to leave ourselves entirely out of this vision statement. But before we do that, we need to remember what God counts as power. Do you remember how Mary’s song began? Do you remember who Mary is? (Slide 11) Mary begins by singing, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name.” Mary begins praising, glorifying the Lord, her Saviour, because the Lord has chosen her, out of all the powerful people, to be his humble servant. On any other scale, Mary would not have been seen as one with power to make a difference. She was the epitome of powerlessness. A poor, adolescent Jewish teenager, pregnant out of wedlock. Yet God’s power was shown through her weakness. God himself, became powerless, restricting Himself not only the form of a human, but a baby. God himself exercised his power by coming into the world in the infant Jesus, who probably couldn’t lift his own head before he was four months old. At the end of his life, Jesus again exercised his power, by becoming once again powerless to raise his head as His body slumped limp on the cross. Through this supreme display of powerlessness, Jesus was exalted, bringing forgiveness and life to those assaulted by the ultimate powers of sin and death.
Perhaps a recognition of our own powerlessness is a good place to start. Maybe an equally good place to start is recognizing that God can use our powerlessness for His glory, locally, and globally. God flexes his power through our weakness. Maybe displaying the power of God requires that we become weak.
So let’s put this all together. I’ve amended the vision statement to talk about how God uses his power globally and locally, as God is the only One who can fully exercise power globally and locally. God uses His power to bring down those who abuse their power, and to lift up those who are powerless. We’ve talked about how we are also called to serve in this way. Which means we might need to pray about how we can disempower those who abuse their power. We call that Justice. In the name breath, we also are invited to pray about how we can come alongside and empower those who have been broken and abused by the powerful. We call that mercy. And finally, we’ve talked about how God accomplishes mercy and justice through people like us. People who may seem powerless, but whomGod invites to bring His mercy and justice into a broken world. No doubt there is a vision statement for us somewhere in there. No doubt we’ll need to keep working on it, listening to how God is calling us to mercy and justice. We’ll be guided by Mary’s song. “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” This is the power of God.