Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Magnificat

Text: Luke 1:46-55.

Blessed is Mary—she will bear the one who will reverse the curse.

Blessed is the cosmos—the burden it now carries will be lifted because of the one who reverses the curse.

Blessed are we—we are invited to participate in the kingdom of God through which the curse is reversed.

The Magnificat is the praise of the God who reverses the fallenness of the world—makes the poor rich, the barren fruitful, the hungry filled, the oppressed liberated, and the lowly exalted. He sets the world back right—how it was intended to be.

Mary was on the low end of the social ladder. Engaged to a skilled laborer, she was young, poor, and rural girl. Her station in life was at the bottom of the social ladder. She was not from Brentwood, Green Hills or even Liberty Hills in Franklin. She is child of the lower working class, the working poor. Mary was one of those we overlook—the person who empties our trash at work, the one who cleans our houses, the shy person, the waitress at Waffle House. But her devotion, humility and piety noted by God.

And this blessing, well, is a blessing in disguise. It will not look like a blessing as people begin to react to her pregnancy and as Jesus grows up with a stigma attached to him. Mary must bear the shame of a child who came too soon after she was married. It is something no one talks about openly, but everyone whispers. Mary bears the shame of reproach, but the honor of bearing the King of Kings. Her humble obedience is, we might say, the first act of discipleship in the Gospel of Luke. Mary becomes the first disciple.

She submits to this journey because like all devout children of Israel at the time, she yearned for liberation, for the inbreaking of the kingdom of God. It was the hope of Israel, and it was Mary’s hope that God would again look at lowly Israel in her oppressive bondage and redeem her from her exile. Israel exiled even in her own land. And this moment—this conception—was the beginning of the end of that exile.

No wonder Mary magnifies God. No wonder she shouts hallelujah. No wonder she rejoices in God’s blessed work.

This is the vision of God as the lover of the lowly. God roots for the underdog. God is not impressed with what in impresses us: wealth, success in business, big house, luxury car. God overrules the judgments of the world in favor of the poor and oppressed. What the world values, God does not. What we strive for and want so badly we work ourselves and our families to death, God does not value. God takes the side of the oppressed. Indeed, God favors and blesses those who have nothing. It is not the wealthy who are blessed in this Magnificat, but rather it is the poor, needy and hungry who receive God’s attention because they receive little attention from humanity. They are overlooked and forgotten. But God chooses them.

But the focus on the Magnificat is not on who Mary is, but rather on what God does. God is the subject of these verbs. He is not only powerful, but merciful. He reverses the curse. Not only has God done this in the past, and given renewed evidence in this moment—the moment of Mary’s conception—but he will renew this commitment to his people as it is a promise to “all who fear him from generation to generation” (1:50).

Remember what is coming in Luke’s gospel. Jesus is laid in a cow trough. Jesus is visited by shepherds. Jesus touches a leper. Jesus eats at Matthew’s house. Jesus forgives a sinful woman as she kisses his feet. Jesus heals the outcast demonic, raises the dead son of a poor widow, and heals the servant of a Roman soldier.

This is the gospel story. It is what Mary announces. The time has come. The One has come. The world is going to change, and the goal of God will be accomplished. He will reverse the curse. He will raise the lowly. He will heal the sick. He will destroy death. The curse will be defeated and the reign of God will fully envelope this earth. The cosmos will be liberated from this bondage and our bodies will be redeemed. The One who comes dies with us but is raised for us. The curse is over.

But we still live in the midst of the fallenness. The lowly are not always exalted, children don’t always outlive their parents, the oppressed are still in bondage, and many are barren. We weep, groan and yearn for the day when the curse will be reversed; when the fullness of the kingdom of God will fully come and God will renovate his cosmos and lift up his people as co-rulers with him. We want the fullness of that liberation now! Maranatha is our cry, just as Mary and Israel cried for the redemption of Israel.

Mary sees in her own experience what is true for the people of God, and not just for her. How God has dealt with Mary is paradigmatic for how God will treat his people. Mary is not uniquely blessed—except, of course, that she alone bears the Christ child—for her blessing is but an instance of how God intrudes into life and reverses fallenness. It is an example of how God blesses us. We are also Jesus’ mother, brother, sister—all who do the will of God, who seek to be instruments of the kingdom, are Jesus’ family. “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the Word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21).

Only those who recognize their low estate can be authentically overwhelmed by the accommodation of God to our situation. Only when we see ourselves as blessed—as Mary was blessed—to participate in God’s redemptive project can we genuinely identify with Mary. Are we willing to stand with Mary who finds blessing in disguise, who finds blessing in her shame and who is willing to bear the shame for the sake of the kingdom of God?

So, today, we read, pray and sing the Magnificat. We stand in awe of God’s mighty act through Mary. We praise God for his redemptive work and stand with Mary as she magnifies God and rejoices in his salvation. We can look with Mary through the ages and see this hand of God in the life of Sarah, of Hannah, and in the life of David, of Daniel. God shows his redemptive hand and assures us that the future will be no different.

But today we should also stand with Mary and identify with her. We are the mother, brother and sisters of Jesus. We, too, are blessed. We are blessed to participate in the kingdom project. We have been invited and called into the story as people who walk with Jesus and follow him to do kingdom work. We must allow God to use us just as he used Mary.

Mary’s song, then, becomes a clarion call for realignment of the world. It is a cry for revolt. It is revolutionary. It will not be business as usual for the people of God. Rather, the kingdom is breaking in and everything will change. God has remembered his people and his people will be transformed into something new. Mary’s song is the annunciation of a new journey and we are invited to join it with her and experience the redemptive, transforming power of God. It is the declaration of the liberation, and our invitation to share in the journey toward the glorious freedom of the family of God.

Blessed is Mary—she will bear the one who will reverse the curse.

Blessed is the cosmos—the burden it now carries will be lifted because of the one who reverses the curse.

Blessed are we—we are invited to participate in the kingdom of God through which the curse is reversed.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Reflections on Come to the Table -- No. 1

I have often been asked, and was recently asked by a friend, to reflect on my book "Come to the Table"--what would have I said differently, what would I emphasize now, and what is my vision for the Supper in the contemporary church. So, I will take this month to offer some occasional reflections.

"If I had it MY way..."

My wish-list for restoring table in our churches. If I had control (which I don't, and which I don't want since the table should be communal rather than dictatorial), I would seek out #1, but if I can't do #1, then #2, and if not #2, then at least #3, and if not #3, then I can at least get away with #4, and no doubt #5. :-) But even if there is no change--nothing of what I would like to see--my heart can still rejoice in the living Christ at his table, even in the most traditional of services.

But here is "my way" (forgive me, Sinatra).

1. Restore the Meal! Nothing will invest the table of the Lord with tableness more than a meal--a meal in honor, in memory (remembering) and in thanskgiving for Jesus. The meal would restore the interaction and horizontal communion of the table. It can no longer be silent, solemn, but joyous and engaging. It is not a funerary memorial, but thanksgiving meal celebrating our salvation through the gospel (the death and resurrection of Jesus). But a meal is difficult with our architecture, and problematic for implementation for logistical reasons. Thus, I like the model of Acts 2 as perhaps one way of have the best of both worlds: general assembly in the temple for teaching/prayer/praise and then in the home for breaking bread/praise. I am not, however, advocating the loss of the Lord’s Supper in the general assembly in the contemporary church. It can be in both assembly and small groups. This might actually enrich our experience of the Supper.

2. Restore the Table! Get around a table, even if we only have bread and wine. The literal table will produce the atmosphere of table--interaction and communion. Gather around standing, or gather at the table sitting. It doesn't matter; at least we will not be looking at the back of each other's heads.

3. Restore the Communal Dimension! If we cannot gather around a table where the communal dimension will occur naturally, we can at least restore the communal dimension through corporate prayers, corporate reading of Scripture, congregational singing, encouraging people to prayer with each other, encouraging each other by verbal interaction, etc. as they eat. This can be partly accomplished by getting people out of their seats to commune. Invite people to come to the elements instead of bringing the elements to them. As people go to the elements, they will interact with each other—hugging, greeting, encouraging each other.

4. Restore the Mood! If nothing else, restore the joy of tableness to the Lord's Supper as a thanksgiving in the presence of the living Christ. This a heart-change and a paradigmn shift in the minds of people. This is where we must begin, of course. We need to teach a new vision of the table as one of joy rather than a funerary atmosphere that is wholly located in some kind of mere memorialism.

5. Restore the Vision! None of the above is possible without this--a renewed theological vision of the table as communal fellowship with the risen Christ. I recommend teaching...teaching...teaching...and experimentation....and different experiences in different settings....teaching, teaching, and did I say teaching, etc. The vision must change in order to fully implement 1-4, but even if 1-4 are never implemented, a renewed vision and theological understanding will enable people to experience the supper in significant ways, even if it is only hidden in their own heart. Even in the most traditional service, I can smile as my heart thinks about the living Christ in my presence and Joshua at my side.

How do we begin to implement some of these points?

In general, I would suggest....

....begin slowly--pray, teach, discuss

....begin small--little things, in small groups, in different settings than the pews

....stay inclusive--understand that there are multiple dimensions to the supper and multiple perspectives, utilize all perspectives and give voice to all persuasions.

....stay united--don't divide with what should unite, be sensitive to years of tradition and practice, understand how many find their piety in this moment and how central it is to them

….. progress toward the goal of experiencing God and each other at the table; this is the main thing—a communal experience of Jesus’ grace and love as we share that love and grace with each other.