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Facebook – Neil Booth

The Upside-Down Kingdom

Preached 24 December 2000 at Bolton St James, Bradford.

It is early June, and the figs are ripening on the trees. In the shade of one large fig tree, a traveller sits on his mule and looks across the dusty track to a square, single-roomed house, whitened by the sun. A solitary window is set high in the wall, a wooden door is slightly ajar, and a flight of steps leads up, on the outside of the end wall, to a flat roof on which there are pots of herbs, and clothes laid out to dry. It is a house just like the dozen or so others that spread themselves from here up the hillside; yet not like the others … If his information is correct. But it may not be. There have been so many false leads, so many disappointments.

The traveller is in his thirties. He is tall with light-ish hair and a beard, both trimmed short. A Greek perhaps? But not a Jew — certainly not a Jew — though this is a Jewish village, in the hill country of Galilee. So what is the traveller doing here?

As we watch, he dismounts from his mule and tethers it to the fig tree. Then he crosses the track and taps gently on the door before pushing it open further and venturing in. Before him, sitting cross-legged on the floor, kneading dough on a flat stone, is a woman. She is old — the traveller knows she is in her mid-eighties — but she is clearly still agile and strong, and as her head turns at the sound of the traveller’s steps, her eyes are bright and sharp in her wrinkled face. She holds him in her gaze for a long moment before saying to him, in the Aramaic tongue, “Peace be to you, stranger”.

Using the same language, and knowing somehow that his search is at an end, the traveller replies. “Peace be to you, mother,” he says, and the title comes easily to his lips, though the woman is not his mother. And then he tells her who he is. “My name is Luke,” he says. “I am … was … a physician. But in recent times I have travelled much of the world with Paul … You have heard of him, perhaps? Paul … who was Saul of Tarsus? … Together, in many lands, we have spread the news — the good news of … of your Son, Jesus — our Lord.”

The old woman nods her head but remains silent, so Luke continues. “Of course, I never met him … not here on earth. But I have met with those who did know him, and who followed him — Peter … Philip … Matthew  — and I have heard the stories they tell about him, so many stories. And his teachings. And I have read what has been written down. But I have come to you now because I need your help. I want, you see, to write a new account — the clearest and most accurate yet — of his life and teaching. An account which can be read and understood by Gentiles like me all over the world. But … only you can tell me the truth of how it all began.” He looks at her anxiously. “Please — will you tell me what I need to know?” And, sitting down beside the old woman on the hard, earth floor, Luke listens, wide-eyed, as Mary begins to tell out the things she has hidden in her heart for 70 years.

She tells him of her life in the village of Nazareth, of her betrothal to Joseph — a good man and gentle, older than she, and a carpenter by trade. She tells him of the night she was awakened by an angel, Gabriel — his very presence flooding her room with light. Of the unbelievable news he brought to her — that she had been chosen to give birth to the holy One of God. Of the news too that her kinswomen Elizabeth, long past the age of child-bearing, was also with child. She tells of the inner impulse that drove her to make the long, arduous journey south to visit Elizabeth. And of Elizabeth’s greeting when she arrived there: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

“Was that when you first knew for certain that it was all true?” asks Luke. “That you weren’t just imagining the whole thing?”

“It was,” says Mary. “And there was a great unlocking of my heart. As Elizabeth spoke, words began to bubble up inside of me. And I found myself saying things about the child within that I didn’t even know I knew.”

“Can you … can you remember any of them? “ asks Luke.

“Every one,” says Mary. “Every one. For I have repeated them, in my heart, a thousand times.”

“Then, please,” says Luke, hardly daring to ask. “May I write them down? That others like me who believe in your Son and follow him may remember them too?”

And Mary, the light from the window falling on her upturned face, lifts her hands again now as she had did as a young girl, all those years ago, and begins to say, almost to sing, the words we know as the Magnificat:

“My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour,
for he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed;
for he that is mighty hath magnified me, and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him throughout all generations.
He hath showed strength with his arm,
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
he hath put down the mighty from their seat,
and hath exalted the humble and meek;
he hath filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel,
as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.”

How easily  — thanks to the service of Evensong in the Book of Common Prayer — those words trip off the tongue of every Anglican. But what I ask myself this morning, and what I ask you is this: Have we ever really listened to them? Have we ever really taken on board the amazing things they say?

There are three parts to the Magnificat — to that song as I’ve imagined Mary might have repeated it to Luke. The first part is about God and Mary, and beautiful as it is, I propose to say little about it this morning. In it, in short, Mary says this: “God has taken me, a nobody, and made me a Somebody. I’ll go down in history because of what God’s doing to me; and for that I’ll  praise his name.”

The last bit is about God and Israel, and I propose to say little about that either. In it, again in short, Mary says: “In doing what he’s doing through me, God is making good his ancient promises to his chosen people.”

But what I do want to say something about is the middle part. And that’s about God and the world and what the coming of Jesus means so far as the world is concerned. Listen to it again:

He hath showed strength with his arm,
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
he hath put down the mighty from their seat,
and hath exalted the humble and meek;
he hath filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he hath sent empty away.

Now if we can once get behind the beauty of the language there, and its familiarity, I think we shall see that, far from being the “tidings of comfort and joy” we usually associate with Christmas, these are tidings of discomfort, upheaval, and disaster — at least so far as one sector of society is concerned. Read them aright, give them their plain meaning, and Mary’s words proclaim nothing less than global revolution — a complete and total reversal of world values, world hierarchies and world order. And the targets that God has lined up in sights are, she says, the proud, the mighty and the rich.

The proud, the mighty and the rich. We might think of these as three separate groups but in Mary’s song they are not. They are just one group. They are what Frank Sinatra calls, in one of his songs, the “top of the heap”. They are the winners in the human race, the go-getters, the high-flyers, the finger-clickers, the movers and shakers. They are Hello! people, the OK! crowd. They are the stars, the celebrities, the chief executives, the big cheeses, the bosses. Not all of them, no, of course not; but that vast majority who, up there on the top of the heap, strut and posture and parade themselves for the benefit of the losers, the nobodies, the oiks, the plebs, the common herd. People full of themselves and their own abilities, proud of their power and authority, proud of their wealth and influence, proud of their fame and success, and utterly dismissive of the God without whom they would not even have air to breathe.

These are the people who, according to Mary’s song, God has made the targets of his particular displeasure. These are the people who God, as he takes on flesh in Mary’s womb and becomes the man Christ Jesus, singles out for “scattering”, for “putting down”, for “sending empty away”. But aren’t these the very people the world admires? Aren’t these the very people we often admire and sometimes envy and secretly wish we were like? Aren’t these the people we feel especially privileged even to cross paths with?

A few days ago, in the early evening, an old friend phoned us from Newton Aycliffe for a bit of a Christmas chat. But at the end she couldn’t resist saying, “Well, I really must stop talking and go and get ready. I’m off to party with Tony Blair at the constituency Christmas ‘do’ in an hour or so.” Sad, eh? But, hey, who am I to criticise Barbara. Once, in a state of high excitement, I telephoned Yvonne from London to tell her I’d just bumped into a stunning Jerry Hall in a restaurant in Covent Garden! And next to our fireplace, I keep a cherished photograph of me holding hands with my favourite diva, Leslie Garrett, at a dinner party in Oxfordshire. Oh dear! However much we may pretend not to be so, we are all fascinated by the high and mighty, the rich and famous, and we all tend to admire them, envy them, look up to them. Is it not so?

“Well yes,” says Mary. “But know this — that, in planting himself in me, in my womb, as a baby called Jesus, God has scattered the proud, has put down the mighty from their seats, and has sent the rich empty away. And moreover, “He has exalted the humble and meek, and he has filled the hungry with good things.”

The humble, the meek, the hungry. Again, not separate groups but one group. Those that lie under the “top of the heap” — the bottom of the pile. A couple of days ago we received our annual card and letter from Bradford Soup Run and, interestingly, those are just the sort of terms in which John Tempest describes the hungry and homeless of Bradford — people at the “foot of the heap” whom the Soup Run is committed to “filling with good things” all year round. But the point is this. In her song, Mary reminds us that the foot of the heap is that part of the human pile to which she herself belongs. “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour, for he hath regarded … what? … the lowliness of his handmaiden.”

The fact is that the birth of Christ marks the start of a revolution, and Mary knows that revolution has begun because it has begun with her. She is the first of the “humble and meek” to be taken from the bottom of the world’s pile and placed at the top of God’s glorious pile. And from now on that is going to be happening all the time. That is what she is singing about. Although now, as she sings it, she isn’t aware of it, within a few months kings will be kneeling before her infant son on the dirt floor of a peasant’s dwelling, while despised shepherds will have communed with the angels of highest heaven and will have been given first sight of the Saviour. “He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek”.

And so it will go on. A rich young ruler will go away sorrowful because he has great possessions but a lice-ridden, naked thief on a neighbouring cross will be given the first free ticket into Paradise because he has nothing. He will be given it by the crucified Christ, just by asking for it, and will sit down with him to eat at the heavenly banquet simply because God … “hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away”.

“Tell out, my soul, the greatness of his might!
Powers and dominions lay their glory by;
Proud hearts and stubborn wills are put to flight,
The hungry fed, the humble lifted high.”

That is how it will go on because that is the way things are in the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is what someone has called “an upside-down kingdom”. You may have seen a photograph in last night’s T & A of a lady called Gloria Spalding, sitting with her presents under the upside-down Christmas tree that she has hung from her ceiling in Maine in the USA. Well she’d feel at home in the kingdom of God because the kingdom of God is an upside-down kingdom. It cannot be otherwise because it has an upside down king. It has a king who was born in a stable and who was crowned with a crown of thorns and given a rough Roman cross for a throne. A king whose greatness lies in his being servant of all … who washes the feet of his followers. A king who stoops to conquer.

And that, I think, is what I need to be reminded of this morning. Not just that the one who will be born this night in Bethlehem is indeed an upside down king, but that I, you, all of us are called to be citizens of an upside down kingdom.
The Church of England is perhaps the hardest of all churches in which to recognise and retain our calling to be revolutionaries. It still stands for all that is solid and respectable and establishment. Our archbishops are still expected to don the ermine and sit easily alongside the proud and the mighty and the rich without rocking the ship of state. But for all that, woe betide us if we do not recognise and retain our revolutionary calling. Not to march on Westminster. Not to storm Buckingham Palace and force HRH to live in a council house on Thorpe Edge. But to be poor in spirit, to mourn, to be meek, to hunger and thirst after righteousness, to be merciful, to be pure in heart, to be peacemakers, to be persecuted for righteousness sake. To be “the blessed” who march to a different tune than that which the world marches to.

In short, to be true followers of our upside down king … Who will be born this night, not in some marbled palace but in a lowly cattle stall, not to some bejewelled and perfumed Queen, but to a simple, Jewish, peasant girl … A girl called Mary, who has again, this morning, sung to us her song.

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