Chris Appleby Ministries

Chris Appleby Ministries


 The World Turned Upside Down   Audio

Luke 1:46-56

Our image of the first Christmas is so sanitised, isn’t it? We imagine a young woman, dressed in a pearly white robe with a blue veil over her head, riding a lovely little donkey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. When they get there the inn is full but the kindly innkeeper cleans out the stable and sets them up there with a manger filled with fresh hay and nice clean swaddling clothes for the baby Jesus. It’s all so wonderful, isn’t it?! 

And so far from the truth!

The truth is that Mary was in disgrace: pregnant without first being married! The penalty for such a thing could have been death. Joseph had decided not to mention that he wasn’t the father so he was probably in disgrace as well, though possibly not quite to the same degree, being a man. 

Added to all that was the enormous pressure she must have felt after the angel visited her and told her who this child was that she was bearing. That may well have caused a double concern: first, how do you handle the responsibility of raising a child who’s the Son of God and the heir to the throne of David? That’s bad enough, but second, what’s Herod going to think about that? He isn’t going to just roll over and give up his power, is he?

So how does Mary handle all this?

Well, she does two things that we should all do when we’re faced with a life crisis. First she talks to someone who might understand.  In her case it’s her older cousin, Elizabeth, whom she’s just been told is also with child, so she goes to visit her. And then when she gets there she does what we might call a theological reflection. Of course this is nothing new. If you think back to your reading of the Old Testament you’ll find a number of examples of reflections by women who’ve experienced God at work in their lives: the song of Miriam after the crossing of the Red Sea; the song of Deborah after the defeat of Sisera in Judges 5; and most significantly the song of Hannah after the birth of Samuel.

Mary comes to her much older cousin, who by contrast is rejoicing at the prospect of a son after such a long time of waiting,        and as they meet, John the Baptist leaps in his mother’s womb as though he feels the presence of the Messiah whose coming he’s on his way to announce. Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit and cries out a blessing on Mary and perhaps on herself as well: “45Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

And in response, from Mary’s lips comes this long theological reflection on this event of which she’s now at the centre. And she doesn’t pull any punches does she?

There’s quite a contrast here to the sorts of messages we typically hear around the Christmas season. The message we’re most likely to hear is one of kindness to others, peace on earth. You may have read that the city of Jakarta is hosting a series of local Christmas carol events this year in the hope that they’ll bring joy to the city. You may tune in to Carols by candlelight on Tuesday night to hear songs centred on a mythical being who uses reindeer to get around. Do you know the joke about the four stages of life? You believe in Santa Claus, you don’t believe in Santa Claus, you become Santa Claus, you look like Santa Claus.

It’s so superficial – a bit like our sanitising of the images of Christmas. But what Mary reflects on is far from superficial. She focuses on what God has done in history and the huge change that about to happen with the birth of this child that she’s carrying.

v51: He’s performed mighty deeds with his arm, is how the NIV puts it. God has worked in history and he’s about to do even more through this child who’s about to be born. Mary takes in the whole sweep of history, past present and future in this recounting of the mighty works of God. And look at the words she uses to express it: He’s shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud; he’s brought down the powerful; he’s lifted up the lowly; he’s filled the hungry with good things; he’s sent the rich away empty; he’s helped his servant Israel. And though those phrases are in a past tense there’s a sense in which they’re also a statement of what is about to happen, even more decisively, with the coming of God’s Messiah. It’s as though Jesus’ coming makes everything else a given; completed already.

This is the fulfilment, as she says, of God’s promise to their ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever. What promise was that? It was the promise to bless all the families of the earth through Abraham’s offspring.

God is about to do something that will turn the world upside down and through which all the families on earth, every person, will be blessed. This is revolutionary stuff.

Now revolutions are nothing new for us are they? We live in a world shaped by revolutions. You only have to think about the last 100 years and you’ll realise just how many countries have been turned upside down in that short time by revolution: think of Russia, Spain, China, Cuba, Iran, Indonesia, Chile, various places in central America and Africa; and what was the aim of those revolutions? In most cases it was to seek an end to injustice, tyranny, corruption, the power of the few over the many; to turn the power structures upside down.

But what do we see in our world a hundred years later? We see those revolutionary governments reverting to autocracies, totalitarian regimes ruled by virtual dictators. We see the weak still powerless to control their lives, injustice still rife, rulers seeking lifetime rule just like the kings and emperors before them.

But this revolution that Jesus brings is totally different, even if some of the results do align with the aims of those political revolutions.

 First it begins with Mary: a nobody. See what she says: “8for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” God has taken Mary’s humble state and raised her up, blessed her so that all generations will recognise her new status in God’s eyes. Here we see in one individual what God has done through the gospel for all people. James says: "Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?" (James 2:5 NRSV). Paul reminds the Christians in Corinth: “26not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” The wonder of the gospel is that Jesus has come to call all people, rich and poor to follow him; that the humble are lifted up, the poor made rich, the unrighteous made righteous, the insignificant raised to the status of God’s sons and daughters. And so Mary continues, “50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.”

To whom does God’s mercy extend? Is it to those who obey his commands? Is it to those who are the spiritual ones, the religious ones, the ones trained in spiritual techniques? Is it even to those who belong to his chosen people? No. Again here’s the amazing thing about the gospel. Here’s the order of things being turned upside down. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. God’s mercy is freely poured out on all who fear him; that is, on all who recognise him for who he is, who put their faith in him; on all who trust him to do what he promises: to forgive their sins when they turn to him in repentance; to give them eternal life. And this gift of forgiveness and eternal life, this blessing and mercy extends to all people in every generation.

But not only has God’s extended his mercy to everyone, he’s done it in a way that upsets all our expectation of status. Can I throw in here that there’s a challenge for us in all this. Too often we Christians have the same expectations of status and worth as the rest of our community, but listen to how God thinks about status.

She says he’s scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. These are those people who are legends in their own minds; those who think they have life sown up; who are self-satisfied; who feel like they’ve made it, who have a sense of entitlement. These are those who tell themselves that they’ve lived a good enough life. That God must be satisfied with them, as though God were an accountant who jotted up a balance sheet to work out whether we were in the black or the red at the end of our lives. But in reality life isn’t that simple. The writer of Ecclesiastes, possibly King Solomon, wrote this: (Eccl 2:4-11 NRSV) “I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; 5I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. … 10Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”

So, “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” In the end all our efforts come to nought. In the end it’s all vanity and a chasing after wind. You see, what God desires isn’t that we live more productive lives, even more holy lives than someone else. It doesn’t help us that we’re more educated, more cultured, even more biblically literate than someone else. What God cares about is that we fear him; that we have faith in him.

If the great success of those human revolutions over the past three hundred years has been the overthrowing of kings and emperors, Jesus’ revolution will be even more successful: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” In Jesus Christ the world order is overturned. Kings who think they’re there by divine right had better be careful. The coming of Jesus changes things. There’s a new Kingdom in place. In God’s kingdom it’s the lowly who are lifted up, who become the greatest in the kingdom: nobodies like Mary and Joseph. Kings and rulers who expect total devotion from their subjects are going to get a shock. The citizens of God’s Kingdom, while they may be good earthly citizens, have a higher call on their loyalty.

It’s said that when India began moving to self-rule William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury, warned the Christians there not to include the Magnificat, this song of Mary’s, in their services, because of its revolutionary character.

There may come a time in Australia when we have to consider where our primary loyalty lies. Does it lie with God or with our government? Does it lie with God or with the community around us? A poll by the Barna Research Group in America, some years ago, found that only 37% of adults considered the birth of Jesus to be the most important aspect of Christmas. 44% of respondents said family time was the most important part of the Christmas celebration. 3% said presents or parties were the most important part of Christmas. The same percentage said the best thing about Christmas was getting a paid holiday. I imagine that percentage might have been even higher here in Australia. But ask yourself, where do your priorities lie?

Finally “He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” No more lobster dinners for politicians and big businessmen. I mean that’s what we expect isn’t it? That the rich will have whatever they desire and that the poor will struggle on with whatever they can scrounge. If you’re poor, it’s your part in life to be hungry. But not any more. God is turning this upside down. From now on it’s the poor who will be filled with good things and the rich who’ll go away empty handed. Mary can see this coming into shape in the way she and Elizabeth have been given the richest bounty in the world: to bear the Son of God and the prophet who’d announce his coming. A young woman, some would say “too young” and a late middle aged woman: “past her prime” they’d say.

But from now on, as Jesus points out in the sermon on the mount, the hungry, those who realise their own need, and who yearn for spiritual food, will be filled, while the rich, those who are self-satisfied and proud, will miss out. Note, by the way, that this isn’t necessarily a condemnation of those who are rich per se. We have to read these three verses together. The rich here are paralleled with the proud, and the powerful. What matters is the attitude that goes with the riches. It’s those who are self-satisfied, who think their riches gives them power and authority, or who think they’ve got it made, who will go away empty. Why? Perhaps because they won’t bother to ask. They’re too proud to ask God for help, so they won’t get it.

But anyone who comes to Jesus Christ, no matter who they are, will receive heavenly riches. Anyone who comes to Jesus Christ in faith will be lifted up. Anyone who trusts in him enough to ask will receive mercy and forgiveness.

Mary finishes her song by reminding us that the coming of Jesus Christ was the fulfilment of God’s promises. Here is the source of our confidence in God’s promises to us. We can see that he’s fulfilled his promises to Abraham and his descendants by sending his Son to be the Messiah and Saviour of his people. So that gives us confidence now that God will fulfil his promise to take us to be with him forever if we’re among those who fear him, who follow him.

Let me finish with a poem by Malcolm Guite:

The Visitation

Here is a meeting made of hidden joys

Of lightenings cloistered in a narrow place

From quiet hearts the sudden flame of praise

And in the womb the quickening kick of grace.

Two women on the very edge of things

Unnoticed and unknown to men of power

But in their flesh the hidden Spirit sings

And in their lives the buds of blessing flower.

And Mary stands with all we call ‘too young’,

Elizabeth with all called ‘past their prime’

They sing today for all the great unsung

Women who turned eternity to time

Favoured of heaven, outcast on the earth

Prophets who bring the best in us to birth.


Malcolm Guite

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