Joy: Christmas is Political

Luke 1:46-55

I have to tell you all that I have been looking forward to this day for three years. Each year the Narrative Lectionary, which is the weekly Bible reading plan that we follow, each year it focuses on one gospel for the season that runs from Christmas to Easter. And today we begin our study of the gospel of Luke, which is my favorite gospel. Of the four gospels, Luke has the most stories about women. Luke lifts up that people’s physical needs are deeply connected to their spiritual needs. It has a fantastic description of salvation, which you’ll hear about in a few weeks. And it has the best post-resurrection story. Luke has a lot of things that you will recognize, even if you aren’t super familiar with the Bible. Our Christmas Eve story comes from this gospel. This is the gospel that has the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Luke tells a great story. And I’m excited to spend the next several months exploring it with you. So let’s get started.

This is the week of Advent when we celebrate joy. When people associate characters with the Advent weeks, this is usually Mary’s week. That’s because near the beginning of the book of Luke Mary sings a song of joy that is going to set us off on the right foot for studying the rest of this gospel.

You all know Mary’s story. A poor girl (maybe even as young as 14), engaged to be married to a poor guy. A girl in the backwoods of the armpit of the Roman empire. A girl who has never known what it is to live in freedom because her country has been occupied for years. This young girl, this nobody, is visited by an angel who tells her that she is going to have a son who will be the eternal king of Israel, fulfilling the promise God made hundreds of years ago to King David to make David a dynasty. Rev. Beth Long-Higgins preached about that in October. 

Mary’s baby is not going to be created in the usual way. She will have a miraculous pregnancy. Mary receives this news and instead of freaking out or refusing to believe what she’s hearing or asking to have this privilege and responsibility deposited on someone else instead, she says, “Yes. Here I am, the servant of the Lord. I accept.”

And then she sings a song of joy. This is Luke chapter 1 verses 46 through 55. 

“My soul magnifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
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.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
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.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
    just as he promised our ancestors.”

Luke 1:46-55

This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

I often hear people say that they don’t want church to be political. The problem with that is that the gospel is political. Stay with me. The gospel is not partisan; you cannot perfectly track the values of God’s Kingdom to any of the political parties in this country or any other. Jesus cannot be co-opted by a political party. But you better believe his message was political. By political I mean relating to a system of governance that orders the lives of the people under its influence. 

At the time when Jesus was born the Roman emperor governed the world with an iron fist. Caesar Augustus was called the lord, the savior of the world, the son of god, and the prince of peace. He had many rulers underneath him who governed smaller areas on his behalf, like King Herod in Judea. When you have a tyrant at the top of a political system and that person was not democratically elected, they always have to be on the lookout for someone who might try to overthrow them, which happened many times with the Roman emperors.

This is why the prophecies about Jesus were so terrifying for King Herod. Jesus is introduced as the Son of the Most High who will receive the throne of King David, who will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and whose empire will never end. That’s a political message. That’s a direct challenge to the authority of the emperor. And Mary’s song challenges not only the authority of the emperor himself but the authority of the way all the systems work to maintain a status quo that only benefits the people at the top. 

What does Mary’s song say that God is up to? It says, “God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” This is what God has done in Israel’s past, what God is still doing, and what the people should expect that God will do through this baby named Jesus. There’s a system in place that dictates who gets authority and who gets ignored. The system guarantees that some people more than plenty while others have less than enough. To change those systems, we need revolution.

This is a political message. Yes, it’s a spiritual message but it’s also a political message. Because if all Jesus does is make people nicer, the status quo stays the same. The empire still wins. If the poor people keep getting the shaft and the rich people keep amassing more and more power, nothing has changed. Mary’s song is not talking about interior change; it’s not talking about changing hearts and souls. It’s talking about changing the way the world works. If all we expect is that following Jesus will make us nicer, then we have missed a HUGE part of what the Bible says God is doing. The message of Jesus is a message of systemic change.

As we read the book of Luke, you’re going to see this a lot. The political climate is front and center in this book. These reversals, like the powerful being brought down and the lowly being lifted up, they show up again and again. And like I said earlier, this book is very concerned with the sick, the hungry, the oppressed and the poor. It’s politics. It’s not American political parties, but it is real-time, flesh-and-blood, here-and-now, life-and-death issues. Jesus came to show us how to call out systems that choke the life out of people who live under them.

Christmas is political. For all of us who have bought in, literally bought in, to the version of Christmas that includes spending a lot of money on stuff, we are supporting the empire, we are blessing the status quo, we are making the rich people richer. And in our hearts we know that’s not how the world should be because this is also the season when we give extra to charity and take our kids to work at the free store so they see people who are less fortunate. Which is fine. Charity is fine. Within our current systems, charity is necessary. But the best way to keep Christmas is not to give to the poor. The best way to keep Christmas is to challenge the systems that keep people poor, and ask ourselves hard questions about how we are complicit in those systems.

I’ll tell you this is a hard sermon for me to preach. A couple nights ago I told Sam it was crap because who am I to stand up here and say these things? We just spent the last month completely obsessed with our new house while Family Promise has a waiting list a mile long. We have presents under our tree. I’m not spending all my time on political revolution. Honestly, the systems are so complicated that usually I have no idea where to start. Anyone else feel that? The problem with that is that if I only feel bad about how little I’m doing, I have missed the point of Jesus.

Here’s what I think we have to do. We have to just start where we are. Our family is buying fewer presents this year. This week I sent some emails to state representatives about a bill that will ban the sentence of life without parole for juvenile offenders. I added my name to a letter from pastors in support of a bill that would change the way drug crimes are sentenced in Ohio. Our church council committed funds to be one of the sponsors of a full page ad in the Columbus Dispatch identifying all the Open and Affirming churches in Central Ohio, so that LGBTQ folx know where they are welcome this Christmas season. And if any of that makes me feel that I’m better than someone else, then I have still missed the point of Jesus. 

The birth of Jesus is the birth of the revolution. Not a violent revolution. Never violence. But a revolution that values human life more than property. A revolution that notices who is at the margins and goes to bring them in. A revolution that causes us each to properly orient ourselves in the world by simultaneously not beating ourselves up AND not letting ourselves off the hook.

Christmas is the beginning of the revolution. Christmas means the world is actually going to be different. Jesus came to personally show us what is possible, to model for us how to opt out of the systems that try to control our lives. This world needs to change and God has inspired, empowered and equipped us to be part of changing it. 

But when we fail to do that, and we will fail, God still loves us. Because Jesus also modeled for us how God’s love is transformative. Trusting that we are fully loved and fully accepted exactly the way we are will transform us. And transformed people have the hope and peace and joy and love that are required to take on systems of injustice. That’s our amazing calling. No matter who we are, we all can be part of God’s plan to restore the world. When we fully get what God is doing, when we realize that we have an integral role to play in it, we will be filled with joy like Mary. Unless of course we are determined to hold on to our wealth and our power. In which case, God’s revolution is not going to feel very good to us. So instead, let’s offer those things to God. Let’s use our wealth and power— and there’s a lot of both in this congregation— let’s use whatever wealth and power we have to fuel God’s revolution. 

Christmas is political, and yes Christmas is spiritual. As we journey through Luke we will see just how Jesus’ revolution is both deeply political and deeply spiritual, and maybe we will decide those two things aren’t as separate as we think they are. For now, this morning, I invite you to be open to the idea that Christmas is political, that the message of Christmas is that the actual systems of the world must and can be changed, that God calls us not just to charity but to revolution. And that those are good tidings of great joy for all people. Amen.

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