Micah 5:2-5a ; Luke 1:47-55
“Grace” is one of those words that says it all, when it comes to the Christian faith, Like “Love,” or “hope,” or “joy,” or “peace,” and above all like “Jesus the Christ.” Yet these words do almost too good a job saying it all; we can easily forget each of these words and the faith they stand for are endlessly rich and complex. Just talking about “grace” doesn’t work if we have a thin, one dimensional idea of grace.
Picture it this way. “Grace” acts like a window through which we peer in at the many-roomed mansion that is our Christian faith. This mansion of ours is a place of wisdom and power, a home where we are welcomed and can explore; a place where we can learn and grow up, like any home. This Advent we’ve been pausing to look through this window of grace, frosty with the mid-winter chill; to peer in at the foyer of our house of faith, where the Christmas tree is set up and decorated, and the stockings are hung, ready to welcome us and the infant Christ; and we are almost ready to step inside into the warmth and join the feast of Christmas.
As we have peered through this window of grace, the most obvious picture we get of our Christian faith is as a place where God welcomes everyone into the new beginning we talked about two weeks ago, receiving us with forgiveness and a clean slate. It turns out that that window of grace was in fact on the front door, which is always unlocked but which God, on Christmas morning in particular, flings wide open, inviting all inside. And when we enter by grace, that grace of welcome cheers us, makes us thankful, like we talked about last week, and works in us to welcome others as they enter this joyful house. All this is so basic to who we are, and expressed in the UCC slogan we adopted into our Mission Statement: “Wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
We have been peering in this widow and preparing ourselves to receive this joyful welcome—partly by reminding ourselves just how cold it is out here! But like any window, grace affords us a clear view of only some parts of this great mansion of faith. There are many rooms we can’t see easily through this window, although by grace we can enter in and begin to explore—which is essentially what we do throughout the liturgical year, season by season; we explore the many rooms of our Christian faith. And we learn and do different things in these many rooms.
For instance, we get a different view into this mansion today from Micah, one of the earlier prophets, during whose lifetime the northern part of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians. Micah’s prophesies are not evidently full of grace; there’s a lot about God judging Israel by letting the Assyrians conquer them. But there’s also a hope for restoration, which is featured in our passage. So we recognize grace in that. But with Micah, it’s like we snuck around the back of the mansion and peered through a high window that’s almost out of our view: the window that Israel used to watch for the coming of another king like David. In our reading, Micah is peering out that window, looking for one who will come from David’s hometown of Bethlehem, one who will restore the security and power of Israel. When he comes, “[Israel] shall live secure, for now he [the king] shall be great to the ends of the earth, and he shall be the one of peace.” What Micah is looking for in this house is security and power, the kind of thing that only a strong king can give. If you keep on reading, he says in the next passage, in effect, ‘And if those nasty Assyrians come looking for trouble, we’ll wallop ‘em!” So when he says this king “shall be the one of peace,” he probably means that the king will defeat our enemies.
Even though we Christians have long appropriated Micah’s words to describe the one we wait for in Advent, we are often quick to point out that Jesus isn’t that kind of king, which is true. Maybe Micah is looking for the wrong person and the wrong goods inside this mansion. Jesus isn’t a warrior king! But before we scold him and click our tongues (tsk tsk), we should ask ourselves: are we any more consistent? How many of us are looking for the same thing as Micah: peace through security, peace through making our enemies sorry, peace through power and intimidation. Of course we are; it’s almost inevitable in the world we live in. But when we light that peace candle, are we even looking to Christ to bring peace in some very different way, in his utterly unique way of being King? Are we peering anxiously inside this mansion to find real peace, world peace? Aren’t we more often than not looking in a very different neighborhood for peace among nations—looking to the great halls of power and American might, and the palace of some Strong Man? Micah at least pinned his hopes on God’s house. We divide our hopes and commitments, devoting some, probably a lot, to worldly power, which deals ‘with the real world,’ and then we come to visit the mansion of God as if it were a charming rustic cottage where one can pop in for a peaceful little getaway, before going back downtown to get what we really want: power, security.
Well, by grace God still lets us in. But maybe after popping through the door of grace, and receiving a lovely greeting and welcome, we should stay awhile, and look around a little. Maybe we’ll find some other rooms in this mansion that are rather surprising (surprises are part of Christmas), and that may just offer us what we thought we could only find across town in the great halls of worldly power.
Mary’s magnificat, as it’s traditionally called, comes as one of those surprises. We still get to it through the door of grace. Mary, remember, was greeted by Gabriel with words that literally mean, “Grace to you! O Graced-one!” She’s then told, “You have found favor (charis, grace) with God.” Today we read Mary’s Magnificat, as we call it. This is Mary’s big number, her show-stopping aria, or soul-bearing anthem, to speak more in a pop vernacular. What do we expect Mary to sing about? Well, we have this image, don’t we, of Mary “meek and mild,” as one song puts it. Perhaps that comes from her response to Gabriel, “Here am I, a handmaid of the Lord.” That sounds so feminine, doesn’t it? (Leaving aside associations with “The Handmaid’s Tale.”) We think of Mary as a good traditional girl; paintings and images of Mary make her look quiet and submissive, the archetype of a mother who is there to serve Gabriel and then serve her son the king. It doesn’t help that Luke gives us no background on Mary; he tells us more about Elizabeth. So we don’t know what struggles Mary has faced, except we can assume that the premarital pregnancy was awkward to say the least.
So what would you expect if the Magnificat were a show-stopping number in a broadway musical? This is my version:
Oh this is what I always wanted,
A tiny little baby of my own,
Someone to love and cuddle,
I’ll never again feel all alone.
One day he’ll do great things,
Famed for all the battles he’s won
I just hope when he looks down from his throne,
He’ll see me and remember, he’s still my son.
Ah, so beautiful! That’s what we love—a pious mother who defers to and is fulfilled by her son.
But wait a minute, that’s not what we get at all. (You know that sounds you get when the needle gets dragged across the record; that’s the effect of reading the Magnificat.) Mary doesn’t mention Jesus or her child at all in this song. It’s all about what God has done for her. “He has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant”—now we could also translate lowliness as “humiliation,” and that makes a big difference. “Lowliness” implies that God favored Mary because she was so meek and mild; but I think in context it makes more sense that God is vindicating her humiliation stemming from her poverty, perhaps, or more likely her shunning for being an unwed mother (why else did she stay with her cousin for three months of her pregnancy?). ‘They shunned me at first, and called me a disgrace, but now all generations will call me blessed.” The God to whom Mary sings is not one who gives patient endurance to those who are wronged, but a savior, a vindicator, a Mighty One who does great things for me, for those who fear him, because Mary believed that God had the power to shake things up and set things right.
In what follows, Mary doesn’t sound like a quiet, passive, peasant girl with her hair demurely covered, as she’s always pictured (try doing an image search). She sounds like a badass revolutionary. “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 [same word here as “the lowliness of his servant,” so this is definitely about reversing the unjust order rather than rewarding patience and meekness].” Anticipating Jesus’ preaching blessings and woes in chapter 6, Mary continues: “He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” And yes, God has helped his servant Israel as he promised, but for Mary this is just a part God’s radical justice work—righting wrongs, reversing fortunes, overturning the established order.
Hail Mary, full of grace. We gender grace as feminine, and justice as masculine. Medieval Christians went to Mary for mercy and help, because they associated Jesus with the scary final judgment and God the Father with a harsh demand for perfection. So we assume Mary is grace-ful, like women are supposed to be; and we imagine justice is too manly for her. So it is we assume grace is the opposite of justice, like woman is to man. If we go to God for grace, we must have to go to some other god or some blowhard strongman for justice.
It is true that we need grace to correct our ideas of justice. Even Scripture sometimes presents us with a narrow, nationalist view of justice, like what we hear in Micah’s longing for another King David. The message of grace seeks to correct this kind of God-is-on-our-side thinking. God’s favor is not intended for one people and against all others. God loves everybody, so we say with some justice. This is the message of grace befitting the entryway, the Christmas-decorated foyer of God’s mansion, God’s house of salvation. And if you explore no farther in this house, if you don’t look around and get the plan of the whole house and wonder what it’s like to actually live here, you might like a caroler or a C-and-E Christian say, “Thanks, this was lovely, see you next time” and you’re out the door. (Don’t worry, I love welcoming our C-and-E folks for Christmas Eve. I’ll be good.) And that’s ok, grace doesn’t try to trap you inside, like some Hotel California. So you go on outside and maybe say to yourself, ‘Ah I like the warmth and peace of that house—it does give me peace in my soul, peace of mind. I’ll have to come back next year. But Ah! the night is cold, life is unfair; our enemies are bastards; so I’m going to swing by the State House and marvel at all the real power that’s keeping us safe and secure.’
If that’s you, then you missed wandering upstairs, and ducking into that low-lit room at the end of the hall where Mary is laying out her revolutionary plans on a table, and she’s arguing with Micah: “Defeating our enemies won’t bring us peace! The real enemy isn’t them over there, it’s not Assyria! The enemy is in our midst, when the proud humiliate the lowly; when those in power oppress those who are ruled; when people are going hungry because they are so poor, and the rich don’t lift a finger to help. Real peace comes whenever God overthrows all this injustice, just as God has always done, starting with Egypt. And by the way, Micah, God had nothing against Egypt—he had Joseph help Egypt, remember? It’s when started enslaving people that God fought against them.” And I imagine Mary being cheered on by others around the table: by Amos and Isaiah, by Miriam and steely Deborah. And I picture Jesus listening carefully in the corner, marveling at his mother.
Mary is full of grace, and that’s why she longs for justice. This house welcomes all, it wishes peace on all who enter, and it also invites you upstairs to get to work on justice so we can make that peace complete and lasting.