(This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020 in response to the Psalm and Gospel Readings – both from Luke. They were the Annunciation and the Magnificat. You can find the full service on the church website – ststephenlc.org)
If you were going to have someone pitch an idea or product, who would you use to do that? Who would be the best spokesperson that you could think of? Some of the most famous spokespeople include the following: There’s George Foreman. He sold lots of those grills. Remember Richard Simmons “Sweating to the Oldies?” There’s Billy Mays – he sold practically everything, but he’s probably known best for selling OxyClean. Maybe you’d prefer Flo from Progressive? Or take a step back in time and hire Clara, who was best known for uttering the phrase “Where’s the beef?”
So many really good spokespeople to choose from. But, you probably wouldn’t choose a homeless guy or an unwed pregnant teenage mother though, would you? I mean, what kind of credibility is there with people who don’t seem to have their act together? Think of the stereotypes that go along with a homeless guy and an unwed teenage mother. Maybe irresponsible, lazy, careless, crazy, dirty. Certainly not well spoken, and absolutely not presentable to pitch anything to anyone else. They seem like figures most people would turn away from, rather than listen intently to. They don’t seem like the visionary types who are presenting ideas or anything really that we would want to buy into.
Except, that’s who God’s spokespeople are. We’ve heard their pitch all Advent long, with the last sales pitch coming today. Throughout Advent we heard John the Baptist – make no mistake, he’s a homeless guy who yells at people who come out to him in the wilderness, eating whatever he can find, and wearing clothes that are let’s just say not brand name. His message is simple – get ready, the Messiah is coming. Prepare the way – in the world and in our hearts – for the Messiah. That’s his pitch to anyone who would listen.
And today we hear from Mary – a unwed pregnant teenager. Someone who has even less standing than John the Baptist did primarily because she’s a young female, unwed, and pregnant. No one would be listening to her – why would they? She has not in a position of power in her society, much less has any influence over anyone – no bull horn, no platform on which to stand and shout out her message. A nobody by the world’s standards.
What’s God doing here anyway using a homeless guy and an unwed teenage pregnant girl as the primary spokespeople?
I recently read the book “Trouble I’ve Seen” by Drew Hart. He sums up the idea really well when he wrote the following, “The entire biblical narrative reveals a God who chooses to move and work most forcefully in the cracks, margins, and edges of society. It is to the poor, the foreigners, the widows, and the rejected that God’s kingdom appears. We learn from that vantage point that it is not Pharaoh, nor Nebuchadnezzar, nor Caesar, nor the president, nor wealthy men…who move history along.”
Dr. Hart went on further, saying, “Even in the church, we have been tempted to keep our eyes fixed on the powerful. No, it is the crucified Christ – the one crushed by worldly power – through whom we understand that God’s mission takes place most decisively on the axis of vulnerability.”
And this makes a ton of sense actually. God’s message is not like any message the world has ever offered. The world offers something mediocre and tries to pass it off as something great. For a limited time only, you can have this super-duper thing that will change your life. Only you know that’s not true. The pictures will be airbrushed. The people all look like models, not your neighbors and loved ones. And everyone is smiling for the cameras as if life is just perfect now that they have whatever is being sold to them.
The world and its spokespeople are more interested in scapegoating and blaming people. There are enemies that need to be named and attacked. There are excuses that need to be come up with for why things are not right in the world. And there is plenty of false hope to be sold to people wrapped up in whatever or whoever the fad messiah is at the moment.
But God’s message is different. God doesn’t need a glamorous spokesperson with incredible sales gimmicks attached to their message – a message that you know deep down is just not true because you’ve heard it all before, and the promise of these messages is never as good as it is being sold as.
Rather, God’s message is powerful. It is a message that literally changes lives and communities and the world.
But maybe we don’t actually believe that. Maybe we’re just fine to settle for a tame mediocre Jesus and a shackled God who is pretty abstract and says nice non-controversial things. Who maintains things as they are and never actually encounters anyone or impacts our lives.
But that’s not what we hear in Scripture – ever. That’s some kind of twisted religion that society wants to sell us as faith. Because if God is impotent, then we can put our trust and faith in other things as our hope in salvation – things like money, or power, or might, or politics, or anything else for that matter.
But when we hear the Annunciation and Mary’s response in the Magnificat, the Psalm that we heard today, we hear a very different story. A far different message and vision. This is God encountering us, all of us together. This is God who does something incredible. This is God seeing what the world has become and painting a vision of what it will be. Far different than what we experience right now. And we are invited to participate in this holy vision. If that doesn’t excite us, then I’m not sure what will frankly.
It should give us a boost when we hear that those on the margins will be lifted up. It should give us a shot of energy to hear that that the proud will be scattered, that the mighty will be cast down from their thrones, while the lowly are lifted up. It should give us satisfaction to hear that the hungry will be filled and that those who exploit others will be sent away empty.
The great thing about this is that this is not some kind of “as seen on TV” sales pitch for an over- priced, over-hyped item that may or may not work. Rather this is what is happening. As a reflection from Luther Seminary wrote about the Magnificat this week, “The verbs Mary speaks in the Magnificat are in the past tense, as though the deeds mentioned have already been accomplished. But the point is made: the deeds are certain and will be carried out. Those with power and riches will be judged; the lowly and the hungry will have places of honor and abundance.”
What is God selling through the messages of a homeless man John the Baptist and an unwed pregnant teenager Mary? That the world is about to change. To actually improve. No more expecting mediocre, or exploitation, or oppression, or scapegoating, or blaming, or shaming, or guilting, or fighting over everything as if there isn’t enough to go around.
John the Baptist and Mary are sharing a message that is life changing not just for those on the margins, but for those in positions of power too. It’s a message that frees them also – frees them from hurting others and maintaining systems that hurt others. Because in hurting, exploiting, oppressing, and using power over those in the margins, these same people are also hurt, and exploited, and oppressed, and disempowered. No one ultimately benefits from these things. No one. This humanizes the lowly, the poor, and the outcast, as well as those who use power and wealth to exploit others. A message that helps us to see the humanity of each person, not just their lack of or abundance of possessions. A message that upends methods of violence that are used to control and force people. A message that fulfills the promises that God made long ago.
It is a message that is full of hope. A message that lays out a vision for what society can and should be – what God always intended it to be and what God is implementing now. A message that is invitational and full of abundance enough for all people to be satisfied. A message that is about wholeness and completeness.
What better spokespeople could there be for this message than a homeless guy and an unwed pregnant teenager? Because in them we see that their lives are literally changed. No, they aren’t what this world considers valuable or successful. Rather, they receive something far better – real life. Meaningful life. Peace. Joy. Wholeness. No wonder Mary sings her response. We hear everything we need to know in the beginning of her Magnificat – “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. You, the Almighty, have done great things for me and holy is your name.”
Can you hear the joy of that? Can you hear how her life is changed in an instant? Can you hear in the rest of Mary’s song the vision of what God is up to? And how it changes everything in incredible ways? Can you hear the hopefulness of how this is better for everyone? Listen to the words. Let them soak into you. Let them flow through you. And as they sink into the depths of your very heart and mind and soul, let them impact you and transform and change you. Let go and stop trying to hinder what God is doing in you.
I think one of the reasons why God has utilized the poor, the outcast, and those on the margins to be God’s spokespeople is because they have nothing left to lose. There’s nothing for them to hold onto in how their life is currently going. Nothing that they have makes them believe that they can save themselves if only they have the right product or attitude or work ethic. Those experiencing poverty and homelessness, those that are invisible and silent to society, and those that are on the margins spend most of their time, energy, and resources just trying to survive day-to-day. And it is exhausting. There is no sense of a future for those on the lowest end of society – any society at any time in history, just like John and Mary were. There is only today.
And so, when they hear a message that promises a radical transformation, not just for them, but for all people, that is Good News. Because it means that life is more than just survival. It means that the things in place that hold people down will end and are ending. It means that God cares so much about people on the margins, that God is willing to literally encounter us, and change the situation. It means that God isn’t interested in maintaining unjust systems or making excuses for people living in poverty or being homeless, or rejected. No, God has bigger plans than that. And we are invited to not only participate in those plans, but to share them as well.
We participate in that every time we feed someone who is hungry. Every time we pick up the phone and call someone who is lonely. Every time we hand someone a blanket or sleeping bag who is homeless. Every time we connect people to resources that can impact their lives. Every time we contact our legislators to advocate for policies that make people’s lives better. Every time we learn the names and stories of people who are different from ourselves. Every time we see how interconnected we are with those most different from ourselves and see that our salvation is tied up together. Every time we share what we have with those in need. Every time we work together to prevent people from falling into a place of need. Every time we refuse to settle for mediocre in this world because God never settles for that.
God is exceptional and has an exceptional vision for the world. It is already inaugurated. And It is unfolding. And later this week, we’ll hear about God literally encountering all of creation and changing everything. And that story happens on the margins of society. Because that’s where God is always going – to the margins – whether we are talking about the margins of society, or the margins of our own life. You know those areas that we want to make invisible and remain silent. That’s exactly where Jesus shows up. Because that’s where the change begins. And that is Good news.
And today, and throughout this Advent, we have been, and we are preparing ourselves, by listening to God’s unlikely spokespeople – a homeless guy and an unwed pregnant teenager. People who represent and speak with authenticity about what God’s unfolding kingdom is really about – Turning the world right side up. Opening us to be encountered by a God who will settle for nothing less than incredible abundance and hope and joy. Opening our hearts and our communities to being embraced by God’s love that transforms everything so that we can experience wholeness and completeness in our lives and in our communities. That is what the Good News is about. That is what John’s message has been all along. That is what Mary proclaims when she receives this good news. This is what we celebrate with the birth of Jesus.
Let us listen to these unlikely spokespeople of God. Take in their message. Let it flow through us. And let it come out of us in our words and actions. In our relationships and public expression of faith. God taps into what the world considers to be as unlikely spokespeople. That’s our calling too. But don’t worry. God gives us everything we need to represent God and God’s kingdom. And we’re already doing it. Amen.