Karl Barth, the most prominent theologian of the most violent century of recorded human history (let us hope that our current century doesn’t take that honor from the twentieth century), was concerned about the church becoming too churchy. Most congregations in the 1950s & 60s were attempting to isolate their worship services from what was happening in the world around them. Then as today, violence was being fostered by our government officials. There was hatred, racism, and unnecessary poverty on the rise in our community. But the wisdom from most denominational leaders was, and is today, “Mind your own business and you’ll grow as a church.” In contrast, Barth says, “The Pastor and the Faithful should not deceive themselves into thinking that they are a religious society, which has to do with certain themes; they live in the world. We still need… the Bible and the Newspaper” [in our worship].
But you don’t care what Karl Barth says. Do you care what Mary, the young girl chosen to give birth to the son of God in our world says? She could have turned inward and focused on her personal feelings about the miracle of Christ's birth. She could have forgotten the violence and class warfare of her nation. Mary did not expect to give birth to Jesus in a vacuum. She has this clear insight; Immanuel, God with us, breathes the same fetid air that we do.
So, she sings a song of warning and a prayer to God. She sings a song that shows her hope that God will not restrain his son or keep the activities of this special child isolated within a pristine bubble of religion. She sings:
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.
The world that Jesus came into had a religious problem set in a social context which should sound familiar. Israel's religious leaders, along with those who were wealthy, work together to form the local level of government. So, while the Romans owned the region and the family of Herod sat on the throne, it was the local priest, the wealthy landowner, and the Sanhedrin (seventy rich men) in Jerusalem, that had the greatest influence on how the widow in your village was treated, or who could be considered outcast and why. Even though they were not kings, the nation's religious leaders had great power. They could remind the people of God’s love for justice and the poor. They could read in public the words of Isaiah and the other prophets, where the foundation for a compassionate society is laid out. But instead, most religious leaders then spoke about lesser things; kosher laws, and the formulas surrounding a good temple sacrifice. Those entrusted with God’s word, divided their time between brown-nosing the secular rulers and blaming the poor for their poverty.
Jesus came at Christmastime to a world where religion no longer served the people. Mary sang her hope of a different order. What about today? We live in a time of social upheaval and political polarization of equal magnitude to that of the first century. We hear of wars around the planet fueled by causes that we haven’t taken the time to understand. We have conceded to social media the moral high ground that the ancient Sanhedrin in Jerusalem once occupied, and they have filled our cellphones with Russian trolls and spammy bots. We now find it reasonable for political leaders to lie all the time, and yet be very religious. In our news feeds and newspapers, we turn past the stories of children dying of thirst at our border, in order to read our horoscopes. Then after a week of this, we come to worship expecting to enjoy an hour of further isolation from reality and God's plan for a compassionate world.
We need to really hear what Mary sang:
"My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
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.