The Tumbling Angel
A Sermon by Bill McDonald from Luke 1:26-56
Twisting, turning, tumbling, everything upside down. The first time I rode the Vortex at King’s Island, I thought I had arrived in roller coaster heaven. You sit two by two as the safety bar locks you into the seat and at the first drop everything you knew about gravity and spatial orientation just disappears. Your body is lifted inches off the seat as you rocket along the tracks at 55mph and are sent into loops and corkscrews that invert you six times. Upside down six times at 55 mph. It is thrilling and fun and wonderful, but I don’t advise riding it just after lunch. Fun to have everything turned upside down.
Except it becomes much trickier when we are talking about power being uprooted and overturned. In the seventh grade I had what I would generously refer to as a matchstick physique. I could turn sideways and stick out my tongue and look exactly like a zipper. It is amazing how someone so skinny could make such a great target. But I did; I was a bully-magnet. Everyone figured they could whip me. One kid, pudgy and with his own social struggles, decided that hitting me could make his life more tolerable somehow. So he did—every day. It got to the point that I got nauseous each morning before school. My buddies urged me to just hit him back and predicted that he would crumble. But the phrase, “What if he didn’t,” kept echoing in my logical mind. I only recall his last name, Burns, but one day on the playground he slapped me across the head again and it was one too many times. I whirled and put the full force of my 99 pounds behind a right cross that caught him squarely…in the fleshy fat of his shoulder. I wasn’t about to hit him in the face, figuring in that split-second that with a shoulder shot he was likely to be less angry as he pounded me into the ground. But the most startling thing happened. He started to cry. In a nanosecond my whole world was reversed, tumbled upside down. I was no longer the victim. I had vanquished the bully with one blow. I was elated. Until the next day when I realized that something had gone wrong. Because when I saw Burns, I hit him again, for no reason. Every time I saw Burns, I hit him. The more pitiful he became, the more I hit him and the worse I began to feel about myself. I was no longer afraid to go to school, but I was afraid that I had unleashed something inside myself that I couldn’t take back. I had become the bully. It was not what the angel or Mary or God had in mind in Mary’ song.
Tricky thing, this turning the world upside down, this tumbling of the powers that be. We humans have to be careful with it. There are dangers in it of creating a new crop of bullies or descending into anarchy or a loss of the protection that privilege has provided us. We ought to tread carefully around this power-toppling of world societies. And yet there is nothing but justice in it if it is God who does the toppling!
Gabriel, the angel brings news that overturns societal mores and Mary’s own plans for her life. She is to bear a child who will become the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ. Young as she is, from the most humble social strata, not even married yet, she will birth Jesus our Lord. Mary responds, sensibly I thought, “How can this be??” Gabriel tells her, “Aw, this is nothing. You should have been there at creation when the Big Boss swirled the universe like finger paints into….” Well, that’s what I think Gabriel might have said. The scripture tells us instead that he informed Mary about her aged, barren relative, Elizabeth, being already six months pregnant. And then he shoots the zinger, the message that we all need so desperately to hear in this world that can suck the hope right out of you: “For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Mary just can’t wait to hike to Elizabeth’s village and tell her the news and perhaps check out the angel’s story. When she walks through the door, the baby inside Elizabeth’s womb leaps with joy. This baby is John the Baptist who recognizes even then the presence of his Lord. And in the first of many reversals, Elizabeth proclaims of Mary, “blessed are you among women.” The lowly handmaiden will be called blessed by all generations to come. Songs will be written in her name, Ave Maria’s to this one who to this point in her life had been obscure, insignificant, invisible to the world around her. And Mary breaks out into a song, a song we call the Magnificat because that is the first word in the Latin translation, (Magníficat ánima mea Dóminum; my soul doth magnify the Lord), a song that speaks of reversals to come. Fred Craddock writes, “What God has done for Mary anticipates and models what God will do for the poor, the powerless and the oppressed of the world.” “The Mighty One has done great things for me and holy is his name…he has scattered the proud…brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly…filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” Mary is so sure of what God is going to do with this corrupt old world that she sings in the past tense as if it were already an accomplished fact.
Now, we can shake our heads and mutter, “It’s a good thing Mary can’t see the shape our world is in today, here 2000 years later.” Or we can start singing our songs of hope in the past tense! Certain that God’s plans will be accomplished. After all, to quote an angel a lot older than 2000 years, nothing will ever be impossible with God. Look at this sacred story: virgins give birth, barren old women get pregnant, the proud are scattered, the powerful are dethroned, the lowly are lifted up, the hungry are filled. If that can be true, who are we to say that humankind is doomed? Who are we to say that war will always be the ace card? Who are we to say that force and firepower will always rule the earth? John Lennon may have sung, “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” But peace has more than a chance! It’s a sure thing, it is a cosmic certainty, it is the past tense prophecy of the Lord’s mother, it is the cannot-be-denied will of God.
So this Christmas let God turn your thought patterns and your expectations upside down. Let God reverse your worldview and topple from their seats of power all the things that have imprisoned and oppressed you, that have embittered and depressed you. Let God send your world tumbling and feel the joy and the liberation. Rejoice in the sense that finally all will be made right and put in proper order.
Oh, we’ll have to work at it a little. We will need to get tumbled some ourselves in order to get our priorities in the correct order. We will have to train ourselves to remember what comes first. I offer you an image of what we have come to in this frustrating world. Have you ever sat down and put on your shoes only to discover that you hadn’t yet put on your pants? I tended to do this when I was dressing out for a volleyball game. I had my shorts on, then I start slipping on all my paraphernalia (early in our marriage Julie used to tell me when I went out to play sports, “Have fun; I hope you win.” Later she began saying, “Have fun, don’t hurt anything!”). I would put on knee braces on both knees and knee pads, then lace up and tie up an ankle brace, then slip on my tennis shoes and pull the laces tight and double knot them. After all that bending over and tugging, I was usually already exhausted. Then, only then, I would look over at the chair nearby and there were my pants, which of course should have gone on before my shoes and ankle brace because they weren’t the fancy zip-leg type. So now I had two choices: start taking off the shoes and ankle brace, or try to slip the pants over them all. Guess what I would usually do. I knew before I started that the pants wouldn’t fit over the big rubber-soled tennis shoes, but it was just too much to think about starting that whole procedure over again. So I would try anyway. Tug and pull. The pants fabric would stretch to the point of splitting and the pants cuff would hang up over the heel of the shoe. Finally I would give up, only to discover that now the pants were stuck on the shoe and wouldn’t go on or come off. Stuck—that’s where we are very often in this world. Stuck in the ways things have always been. Stuck in the patterns that lead us nowhere. But, ah, if only we can get all things in their proper order, priorities they call them. Our lives are happier, fuller, more satisfying if we start with God. God our first priority, God our first thought, God our highest principle, God our greatest allegiance. With God first all things fall, tumble, into place. May your world find this sacred order this Christmas, even if it means turning everything upside down.