Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Time is Now.

"And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down.  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  Then he began to say to them, 'Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing'." (Luke 4: 20-21 NRSV)

In chapter twenty of "We Make the Road by Walking," Brian McLaren takes us into the early days of Jesus' public ministry in Galilee.  Of particular interest is his visit to his hometown synagogue of Nazareth.  McLaren offers a challenge in this story, and I'll present that challenge to you as well.

At a particular point in the Jewish Sabbath ritual, men are allowed to read from a particular scripture and offer comment on it, much like Christians today are used to hearing a pastor or priest give a sermon or homily.  Imagine sitting in the synagogue in Nazareth that day.  Jesus himself would be a familiar site, after all he had grown up in your town.  He'd probably read and offered comment in the synagogue before as well.  Let's say you've enjoyed what Jesus has had to say, so you settle in and look forward to it.

Jesus asks for, and receives the scroll from the prophet Isaiah.  He begins to read and then gets to the part which we today know as the first verses of Isaiah 61: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free."

We love verses like that today, don't we?  Certainly the people in the synagogue that day probably did as well.  As McLaren mentions, these kinds of verses give us hope that someday somebody will come along and really set things right.  This would have been especially meaningful back then as the people were living under Roman rule and oppression.  They were looking for that Messiah who could come and toss out the Romans and set things right, someday, they believed, he would come.

McLaren suggests that message could very well have been what the men in the synagogue were expecting to hear from Jesus that day. Someday, perhaps someday soon, the Messiah will come and set things right.  Are we as Christians in the same boat?  I think many of us are.  How many times have each of us sat in church over the years and listened to somebody read verses like these, maybe out of Revelation, and talk about how wonderful it will be when Jesus returns in glory and sets everything right?  I bet most of us have, multiple times.  These messages give us hope, hope for a better tomorrow.

But then Jesus goes in a totally different direction.  He says: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." Wait now, what did he say?  He's not promising a better tomorrow, he's suggesting something better....today.  He's not suggesting that there will be some glorious afterlife with streets paved with gold, he's suggesting something that's happening....now.

There was some excitement in this.  Perhaps this man was a new prophet, could he, just maybe, be the promised Messiah?  And hey look, that's Joseph's son!  He's one of our own!  This man proclaiming this bold new message is one of us, from Nazareth, how awesome IS THAT?

But then thinks get ugly.  Jesus resorts to two stories from the Old Testament prophets Elijah and Elisha, about how they went outside their own people to do some of their deeds, and how displeased some were back then.  You and the other folks are starting to get confused, and as his point starts to dawn on you, you start to get mad.  This guy isn't preaching some new thing just for you, but he's talking about others, outsiders!  This good news is meant for us, not for all of those sinners, rule breakers, and the OTHERS.  This guy is a heretic!

At that point, you and your buddies, in a fit of righteous, or shall we say self-righteous, anger, drive Jesus from the synagogue and corner him on a nearby cliff, where you're ready to give him the old heave-ho. 

That's pretty scary stuff.  However, Jesus holds out long enough and is eventually able to pass through the crowd without harm and continue his ministry, a ministry that would be marked by the calling of dirty fishermen and tax collectors, a ministry that would heal those with the most untouchable diseases, a ministry that would exalt adultresses and prostitutes over the "righteous" religious folks of the day, a ministry that would turn the world on its head even centuries later.

McLaren challenges us first to think about this kind of a situation today.  Imagine if some very charismatic guy, or girl, popped up on the all the cable news networks and started to say:  "The time is NOW! This is the time for bringing about the kingdom of God. This is the time for ending violence and oppression.  This is the time to treat the poor with dignity and make sure everyone has a place at the table.  This is the time to expand the blessings of modern medical care to everyone no matter their ability to pay for it.  This is the time for peace, justice, and reconciliation."

Moreover, this message is for EVERYBODY!  This light, this new life of service and sacrifice, of peace and understanding isn't just for Christians or people we think follow all the rules.  The life, the light of all people is for everyone regardless of creed.  This life is for everyone regardless of gender. No more are there to be things that people are excluded from because of gender.  This life is for everyone, no matter their skin color.  Now is the time for prejudice to cease, especially prejudice in the name of religion.  This life is for everyone, straight, gay, lesbian, or transgender.  No longer are we to discriminate against people because of who they love.  All are God's children, made in his image, and engraved upon the palm of his hand.

Well, how would you feel about taking part in that message?  Not just the parts you agree with, mind you, all of it.  Love all, serve all.  Would you be one that would join in and be a disciple of this person, or would you be one of those who would be more interested in tossing this individual off of the proverbial cliff?  We've seen the attitudes toward Pope Francis with some of these very things. It's not always pleasant, and there are things listed above that I'm sure he won't even touch, such as gender issues.

McLaren quite startlingly argues that many Christians today would seem to be in the camp that's ready to throw Christ off of a cliff, and it can be over any of those issues listed above.  In our culture poor people are looked upon as inferior.  Many of us still lean on ancient bits of the Bible in order to continue to justify legal discrimination against LGBTQ individuals.  Many of our most important positions in our workplaces, governments, and faiths remain closed to women. 

As I've commented on several times before, the inclusiveness of Christ has been totally lost in many of our churches.  It's one of the main reasons why, years ago, I left church. Fortunately through people like Pastor Gary and organizations like the United Methodist Church, I've finally found a place that not only accepts and loves me, but welcomes and loves everybody with the open arms of Christ.  A place where you don't even have to be a Christian to partake in the Supper of the Lord.  

I firmly believe that the table of Christ, the banquet of love is set and open for all.  It is unfortunate that as the poor, the outcast, the women, the gay people, and even people of other faiths and no faith sometimes come to that table, the Christians, the "righteous," turn their noses in the air as Christ welcomes all to his table of peace, justice, and love.

Words like McLaren's have challenged me, and comforted me,  Not only are all of these welcome at the table of Christ, but so am I, despite my shortcomings and failures, which are many.  You are welcome at this table too, at anytime, free of judgement under the grace of Christ given for all.  If people judge you, come to me.  I will not.  I will be happy to chat with anyone regarding faith and the love of Christ.

The time is now.  Will you join me, will you join Christ and proclaim peace, love and justice for all?  The more of us that do that, the more of us that gather around the table and break bread together, the better our lives and our world can become.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Prayer Room 1/11/15: Baptism of the Lord Sunday

"There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28 NRSV)

The verse listed above from Paul's letter to the Galatians is, to me anyway, one of the most powerful verses in the Bible. He's breaking the down the largest barriers of his age: Jew vs Gentile, slave vs free, male vs female.  For Paul, when Christ comes into the picture, those walls are torn down so that the light of Christ shines on all in equal measure. "You are one in Christ Jesus."

This last week was tough on the world scene.  It seems like every time I sit down to write one of these that there's some other horrible thing that's happened.  Last week it was the terrorist attacks in Paris and subsequent hunt for the killers.  That got all the news.  Let's also not forget that in Nigeria, Boko Haram militants slaughtered over 2,000 innocent men, women, and children.  That didn't get as much play here in the states.

But why? It's an easy question to answer.  French journalists working in an office are "us."  Poor people in the third world are "them."  We're nowhere near as concerned with what happens to them as opposed to what happens to us.  A massacre in a village in Africa seems a world away, while an attack on a French magazine office has us wondering if that kind of a thing could happen in our hometown.

The "us vs them" thinking comes even more into play when we look at Christians, or shall we say "western societies" vs Islam.  It was appalling to see "Kill All Muslims" trend on twitter for several hours last week.  Yesterday a certain American news outlet claimed that President Obama is going to alter the first amendment to fit Islamic law. The same outlet peddled an opinion that the City of Birmingham, in England, was now a Muslim enclave where non-Muslims are not welcome and will not go. They eventually apologized for that one, but it's clear that once again the fear machine has revved up to full volume as people seek to lay blame.  It doesn't matter that a Muslim employee at the Jewish kosher market that was attacked hid people in the meat locker and then snuck out to give police valuable info about the building and the situation inside.  That got little to no airplay.

The fear, and the "us vs them" thinking clearly goes against the Unity that Paul wishes for us to have in Christ, but it's not all bad news.  Yesterday millions of people marched in a rally in France to say that they weren't afraid of terrorism, and the President of France clearly drew a line between regular Muslims and the fundamentalists who perpetrate these actions.  It seems that despite the media hype and the raw rage of social media, most people still have their heads on straight about this.  

My prayer for the upcoming week is that it stays that way, and that it improves.  At some point, if humanity can come to conclusion that we're all in this together no matter gender, age, race, creed, social status or anything else, then we could really make some strides in this world.  Is that a tall order?  Absolutely.  Is it worth advocating for anyway?  Absolutely.  Please join me in keeping the victims of these incidents in your thoughts or prayers this coming week, and our world as well, that we can continue to try to realize that what unites us is bigger than what divides us.

Dear Christ, Prince of Peace:

We find, once again, that our world has been scarred by the worst kind of violence.
We offer up those who have died, that they may be at peace.
We offer up friends and family who are left behind, that they somehow find healing.
We even offer up those who commit these acts, that their hearts might be turned from hate.
We offer up our world to you, as we seek to find the best way to end this violence and be together.
We offer up ourselves to you, that we may recognize and void our own prejudices.

May your Spirit of peace, justice, and unity prevail as we pray the prayer you taught us:

Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever.


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Book Review: "God is in the Manger" by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

"God is in the Manger" by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, compiled and edited by Jana Riess, published 2010 by Westminster John Knox Press.

Just to be clear right from the get-go, this isn't a book written for this purpose by Dietrich Bonhoeffer during his lifetime.  It's a compilation of various reflections, sermons, and thoughts about Advent and Christmas that have been gathered from his papers and letters.  However, that shouldn't dissuade you from checking this out.  It's a wonderful compilation, and I think the great man himself would be very happy with the way it turned out.  The book lets Bonhoeffer speak for himself on the subject with little, if any, extra interpretation added.  Much of it is from the period when Bonhoeffer was in prison in Berlin, and that context gives many of the letters and reflections quite a powerful setting.

The first part of the book is dedicated to the Advent season.  As are most Advent devotionals, the book is geared around four themes, one for each candle around the Advent wreath.  These four themes are: Waiting, Mystery, Redemption, and Incarnation.  This book actually jived pretty well with the study we were doing for Advent at church, and I thought it was really on point.

The first week's theme, "waiting," centers around the action that is most familiar to us at Advent, which is of course waiting, waiting in expectancy and hope.  Not only do the readings reflect on our waiting, but God's waiting as well, his waiting to send his son, and his waiting to see the fruits of Christ's mission brought forward.  The second week, "mystery" focuses on the great mystery of why all of this was done for us, and what it all means.  Bonhoeffer describes this mystery not as an unknown, but as something we know to a certain extent and strive to learn more and more about. Some of the most powerful reflections were from this second week.

The third week tackles the topic of redemption: just what is it that Christ has done for us?  In this theme, the manger certainly foreshadows the cross as the life of Christ is looked at as a whole.  Some folks who haven't spent any time reading in Bonhoeffer's original writings might get a little bogged down here, as some of it is pretty heavy, theologically speaking, but the overall thrust is that the baby in the manger becomes Christ on the Cross, which is good news for us in the final analysis.

The final week of Advent focuses on the Incarnation itself: what a powerful thing it is for creator of the stars, the sky, the land, the sea, and all within it to become one of his own frail creatures just to save us from ourselves. For me this has always been the most powerful aspect of Christmas, and I was not disappointed in what Bonhoeffer had to say about it.

The last part of the book contains devotions for the 12 days of Christmas and one for Epiphany itself. These devotions focus largely on how we should respond to the gift of Christmas and dealing with what we have in front of us.  Contained in this section are some of Bonhoeffer's final letters, and they really help to put things in perspective.

This book was a top notch Advent study, and as I mentioned earlier, I really like the way they put it together.  The same group has another Bonhoeffer compilation for Lent that is out, and I'm seriously considering it getting it as well.  I wouldn't even say that you have to know a lot about Bonhoeffer to really get something out of this book.  There's something for everyone and it can really help folks to have a meaningful Advent and Christmas season.  I know it certainly helped me.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Prayer Room, 1/4/15: Epiphany Sunday

And then the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." (Revelation 21:5 NRSV)

How many times in the past few days have you heard someone mention "New Year's Resolutions?" How many "New Year, New You" sales have you seen advertised on television and in stores?  It's big business as the calendar changes over from December to January and we add to our count of years.

It's probably for the better anyway.  Think about what we go through, and what often put ourselves through, during the holiday period.  We eat too much, we spend too much, we sit around too much, some folks drink too much, and then you add on the stress of running around to do shopping as well as time with family friends, time that we all want to be perfect but often ends up creating more tension than peace.  So it's really no big mystery why so many of us look at the start of the new calendar year, and the end of the holiday season, as a chance to start over and to get back on track.

It also happens to be a great time to look at your relationship with Christ, and with others, and see how you're doing.  We can use this time for a fresh start in our walk with God, and through that, a fresh start in our walk with others: our families, friends, and neighbors.  I wonder, as we've sat about thinking how we're gonna pay our Christmas bills and lose that extra weight, how many of us have thought about what God might have in store for us in the new year?

It can be an intimidating thought to ponder.  If we really strive to be open to his will and direction, there's no telling where that might take us.  Earlier this evening I read the beginning of the story of Abraham, where God tells him to pack up everything, leave the land of his family and culture, and venture into a strange and foreign land.  It is in doing this, taking this initial step of faith and trust, that begins a relationship and covenant with God, wherein Abraham's descendants will bring about a blessing to all the earth.

He had to be open though, he had to take the first step. Will you join me in trying to be more open to God this year, as scary as that might seem?  Remember that taking that first step into a new experience can lead to great growth and enrichment for ourselves and others we come into contact with!

Instead of the usual prayers I offer every Sunday, I invite you, if you are willing to try to be more open to God and new things in this new year, to join me in John Wesley's Covenant Prayer.  This is often used as a recommitment to God in the United Methodist Church during the first services of a new year.

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Prayer Room Special: Air Asia Flight

An Indonesian flight crew member participating in the search for Air Asia flight QZ8501. (Time.com)

I wasn't going to do a Prayer Room entry for this week.  I've been a bit under the weather and quite frankly a bit overwhelmed exiting the Christmas holidays.  However, I've been following the story of the missing Air Asia flight since late Sunday, and it's been heavy on my heart, so I wanted to say a few things and offer up a prayer for those involved.

I got home from work last night and turned on CNN as I got sat down to eat my dinner.  At about 11 o'clock they began reporting that searchers had come across a debris field in the area where they were searching for the Air Asia flight, which disappeared from radar on Sunday.  A short while later they were reporting that officials were 95% percent sure that the debris was associated with the plane, and that they had spotted several bodies as well.  This morning as I got up, the news had been confirmed. This was the remains of this aircraft and the souls on board.  My heart just sank.

It's really beyond my comprehension.  If I'm honest with you this raises the most serious question that I still have about God and religion: why?  Why was a disaster like this allowed to happen?  How can the lives of 162 people just be snuffed out like a candle?  There are no easy answers to this question. Hopefully the search crews will find the instruments used to record data and voices on the plane so that they'll be able to decipher the reasons behind it, but for the families of these folks, the overall question of "why?" will still remain.

I can't imagine being in their shoes. A few years back my wife's aunt was murdered, and that was tough.  The question of why was still there.  In that case, it was pretty much because the guy who did it felt like it.  I imagine that losing a loved one, or multiple loved ones, in an accident event like this is even tougher, and I encourage everyone to keep the families and friends of those who have passed in their prayers and thoughts over the coming days.

And let's not forget about the people who are doing the search and recovery either.  This kind of thing can be traumatic.  When I worked with a local forensics unit, I participated in the recovery of a body of a young man that was killed in a nasty car accident.  It was not pleasant.  Recovering human remains that have been in the water for any length of time at all is one of the most gruesome things imaginable.  It has sights, textures, and smells all it's own, and it's quite horrible.

Tragedies like this will never have that overall metaphysical "why" answered.  All we can do is keep those involved in our thoughts and prayers.  Please join me now and in the coming days in offering up these people, especially the families and friends, to the Christ whose words calm storms and raging seas.

Dear Christ,

When these events happen, it is only natural for us to ask "why?"
As developments unfold, please guide the searchers as they seek the answers to this question
And as they seek to recover the remains of those who have perished.

We lift up these people before you,
these people who are tasked with these difficult, but very necessary duties.
Be with them, give them strength and comfort as they seek to carry these duties out.

We lift up those who have passed from this earth in this incident.  
Give their souls rest and peace
and guide them lovingly into whatever transitions from this life into the next.

Most importantly we lift up families and friends of those who have died.
Their pain and grief are beyond measure at this time.
Comfort them, and lead them on the path that will eventually bring peace and some healing in time.

We ask all these things in your name, 
you who calmed the storm with a word and walked upon the waters of the sea
as we conclude with the prayer you taught us:

Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever.


"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." Matthew 5:4 (NRSV).

Book Review: Under Wraps, The Gift We Never Expected.

"Under Wraps: The Gift We Never Expected" is an all-church advent study by Jessica LaGrone, Andy Nixon, Rob Renfroe, and Ed Robb.  It was published in 2014 by Abingdon Press.

I'll readily admit that I'm tough person to please with an advent study. I've been through many, MANY of them over the years, and to me they're often a dime a dozen.  I did three different studies this year alone.  One I did for my personal devotions, one I did with my family, and this one, Under Wraps, we did as a church at Community United Methodist.  It was my second favorite of the three, though honestly it had a tough task to be as good as the Bonhoeffer one that I've been doing as personal devotion!

Generally speaking advent devotions are grouped into four themes, one per week between the start of advent and Christmas.  These correspond to the 4 candles in the Advent wreath.  Usually the themes are something along the line of love, peace, joy, and hope.  Most devotions take these four rather broad themes and stumble through the four weeks, putting out a lot of words without managing to say much at all.  Fortunately, "Under Wraps" is different.  The book is indeed grouped into 4 themes, but they're quite different.  They explore 4 attributes of the nature of God:  God is Expectant, God is Dangerous, God is Jealous, and God is Faithful.

The first chapter, God is Expectant, is by Jessica LaGrone.  This theme centers around the idea that we're not the only ones who wait expectantly during Advent.  Have you ever gotten a friend, relative, or spouse what you considered to be the perfect gift, something you just know they'll love?  That sense you have as you wait to see the reaction on the person's face when they open it is the same kind of expectation that God has as he waits for us to unwrap the perfect gift of his son, Jesus.  This gift was not cheap either, in fact it cost Jesus his life.

The second chapter, God is Dangerous, is by Ed Robb.  The word "dangerous" is not something we often associate with cute little baby Jesus sitting in all of our Nativity scenes at Christmas, but Christ, and therefore God, is dangerous.  Abraham was called out of his homeland to go into an entirely different land.  Moses was called back to Egypt, where he was wanted for murder, to confront the ruler of the land in order to free the Jewish people.  Most of the disciples suffered a martyr's death, and even in modern times, people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer have been executed for acting on their Christian beliefs.  God has big plans for his children, and sometimes, they call for sacrifice and danger.

The theme of the third chapter is God is Jealous by Andy Nixon.  He reflects on the state of what I call the "corporate Christmas" and talks about how God wants to be first in our lives, not just at Christmastime, but through the whole year as well.  This isn't jealousy in the form of a jilted lover. The Hebrew word in the Old Testament that is translated as "jealous" is qin'ah, which means warmth or heat.  It is evocative of the passion that God had for us and the passion that he wants us to have for him, and for each other.

The final, and perhaps most powerful chapter is by Rob Renfroe and centers on the idea that God is Faithful.  Pastor Renfroe talks about the difference between a contract and a covenant.  In a contract, the agreement can be nullified if one party does not fulfill it's end of the bargain.  However in a covenant, a wounded or unfulfilled party is still called upon to execute their end of things even if the other party does not.  Sometimes in life you want a contract.  When you build a house, you don't want to have to pay if the contractor only builds half of your house.  However in a marriage you want a covenant.  You make a vow for richer or poorer, for better or for worse, and you want your spouse to stand with you even when you fail.  God is a covenant God, and sticks by us even though we are far from perfect.  He sticks by us so much that he sent his only son, born in a manger at Christmas, to die on a cross for our own shortcomings.

All in all this wasn't my favorite Advent study, but it was a good one and was certainly both different from your run of the mill devotions and meaningful.  Some chapters were better than others, but I thought each author did a good job making their point.  There are also supplementary materials such as a leaders guide and a DVD available should your church decide to do this study.  Both were informative, even though some of the video was nearly a word for word rehash of the book.  If you're looking for a new Advent study to try out next year, this one would be a good place to start.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Magnificat and the Manger: The Subversiveness of Christmas

"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." Luke 1 51-53 (NRSV)

I've thought long and hard about what I wanted to say today, on Christmas Eve.  I thought about just putting some kind of innocuous fluff post out there about everybody being happy and joyful as we gather with friends and family.

But it didn't seem right to do that.

In fact, it would misrepresent what the Christmas story has come to mean for me.

Think back to a time before Christmas shopping was even a thing.  Think back to a time before conquerors bearing the standard of Christianity colonized the western world and destroyed many native cultures and populations.  Think back to a time before Constantine converted to Christianity and forever linked the faith of Christ on the cross to a global empire.

Think back to a time when a young Jewish girl, having recently found out that she was expecting a baby in scandalous circumstances, took a trip into the country to stay with her cousin.  During this time the Jewish people, like many others, were under the thumb of the Roman empire.  They were looking for a messiah, a deliverer, a Christ.  They were looking for someone who would help them throw off Roman rule.  

It's also quite possible that Mary and her family didn't have much.  Certainly they didn't when compared to the Romans.  Her future husband was a carpenter, and while maybe that's not glorious, it was a skilled trade that should provide for her and her child.

Upon her arrival she finds that her cousin, an older woman thought barren, is expecting a baby as well.  As her cousin comes out to meet her she greets her with "Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?"  The cousin proceeds to tell the young woman that the baby in her womb leaped for joy at her presence.  This is probably confusing to this young girl, Mary.  How did her cousin Elizabeth know about all this?  One can imagine that they talked quite a bit about all of these things in the days after that!

With all this now done and understood, Mary, this young, Jewish peasant girl sings a song of praise that to my mind is unrivaled in Christian scripture.  I quote it in it's entirety: 

And Mary said:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant;
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.
For He who is mighty has done great things for me,
And holy is His name.
And His mercy is on those who fear Him
From generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
And exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent away empty.
He has helped His servant Israel,
In remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and to his seed forever.”

--Luke 1: 46-55 (NKJV)

I wonder, can you get more anti-establishment than this?  Here is this young girl talking about scattering the proud, throwing down mighty kings from their thrones, exalting the lowly of society, feeding the hungry, and turning the rich away empty handed.  When you think about it, it's quite startling.

Now think about this in context of today's well to do, pro-establishment, pro-money and extreme wealth version of Christianity.  How would this message really play today in age where poor people are frowned upon simply as lazy welfare takers and laws are passed in some locales that prevent feeding the homeless in public?  How would this message of raising the lowly and sending the rich away empty play to the crowds, the masses of people who still now, at 3 PM on Christmas Eve, are flocking to stores in search of those gadgets or those toys that we think we all really need?

My guess is that the message of Mary's song would be, and is, brushed aside like a pesky fly as we go our way in our empire-like religious establishment and participate in our corporate Christmas.

The First Christmas gets even more subversive, even more wild that that however.

Some months later, Mary is near giving birth and is in the town of Bethlehem with her husband, Joseph.  Joseph frantically seeks a room for them, someplace for them to stay, but is turned away.  It is an image that often pops up in the Bible, people unwittingly turning God, turning Christ away. Eventually they end up in a stable,  It may not have been a barn or stable in the sense that we see in our modern Nativity scenes.  Many houses in that time had a lower room where animals and livestock were kept.  Perhaps it was in a room like this.  Oral tradition in Bethlehem holds that it was in a cave like stable with animals around.

It is in these surroundings that Mary gives birth to her firstborn son.  She gives him the name Jesus, wraps him in a blanket, and lays him in a manger. I wonder if Mary and Joseph really grasped the moment, really realized what had just happened?

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it....And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth."
--John 1: 1-5, 14.

God had become a human being.  No really, God, you know, Creator of the Universe, the beginning and the end of all things, had left his throne and came to Earth, not as King born in the finest palace, but as a baby born to a young peasant couple and placed in a manger.  It wasn't the kings and princes of the empire that came to greet him, but a bunch of sheep herders who had been hanging out with their charges.  Is THAT any way for the King of the Universe to enter his creation?

Do we lose sight of that at Christmas?  Sure we do.  Despite the fact that there are multiple manger scenes in many neighborhoods, we often forget about the wonder, the mystery, of the Incarnation of the Creator of the stars of night in lowly human form.

What does that say to me, say to us as we celebrate Christmas?  We look around at our establishment and we're comfortable.  The plight of the poor and the oppressed doesn't seem to bother us most of the time as we go about our business.  But it was to these people, the poor couple living under imperial occupation, that Christ came into the world.  What does the story, what does Mary's song tell us about the way that we should look at our own world?

I leave you with some words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

"For the great and powerful of this world, there are only two places in which their courage fails them, of which they are afraid deep down in their souls, from which they shy away.  These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ.  No powerful person dares to approach the manger, and this even includes King Herod.  For this is where thrones shake, the mighty fall, the prominent parish, because God is with the lowly.  Here the rich come to nothing, because God is with the poor and hungry, but the rich and satisfied he sends away empty.  Before Mary, the maid, before the manger of Christ, before God in lowliness, the powerful come to naught; they have no right, no hope, they are judged."

--Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "God is in the Manger," pg 26.