Title: "Trading Places"
Pastor: Dr. William S. Barnes
Scripture: Luke 1:26-38; 46-56
I have often said that if you want a simple way to understand what Jesus taught about how we should live, all you need to do is take most of the values of the world and turn them upside down. The weakest are the strongest. The foolish are actually wise. The last are the first. The persecuted are the blessed. Those who give receive. Those who are poor are rich. And so on it goes.
The ones you should eat dinner with are the ones who would be kept out by the "No shoes, No shirt, No service" sign in the window. The one you should throw the party for is the one who snubbed his nose at you and arrogantly did his own thing. The one who should be first on your prayer list is the one who wouldn't speak to you if you were the last person on earth.
The mother of the Messiah is not a queen in a palace, but a common girl in a country town. And when she speaks of the God who inexplicably has chosen her to be the mother of Salvation, she testifies to his upside down, place-trading kingdom:
He throws the powerful out of their high-falutin easy chairs.
And replaces them with the lowly.
He has given the hungry reserved seats at Ruth's Chris Steak House.
And told the rich to take a hike.
This surprising witness of Mary is just the prelude to what her son will do when he starts to teach about God's will. Dr. Donald Kraybill a sociologist and Mennonite minister writes,
Again and again in parable, sermon, and act, Jesus startles us. Things in the Gospels are literally upside down. Good Guys turn out to be Bad Guys. Those we expect to receive the reward get a spanking instead. Those who think they are headed for heaven land in hell. Things are reversed. Paradox, irony, and surprise permeate the teachings of Jesus. They flip our expectations upside down. The least are the greatest. The immoral receive forgiveness and blessing. Adults become like children. The religious miss the heavenly banquet. The pious receive curses. Things aren't like we think they should be. We're baffled and perplexed. Amazed, we step back. Should we laugh or should we cry? Again and again, turning our world upside down, the kingdom surprises us.The Upside Down Kingdom p. 23-24
If we are to take Jesus seriously, a whole lot of place trading should be taking place in our kingdom building work. But first we have to trade the way we think for the way Jesus thinks. As Paul writes to the Philippians, "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…" (Philippians 2:5) In other words, stop thinking like the world. The world has it upside down. Jesus is the one who has it right side up.
In right side up thinking, there are a lot of places that need trading.
We need to trade ladder climbing for ladder holding
We need to trade banquet seating for basin serving.
We need to trade holding over for passing over.
We need to trade cross wearing for cross bearing.
I suppose the most obvious place that calls out for a trade is the top rung of the ladder. From the time we are old enough to understand how life works we are encouraged to climb the ladder of so-called success. We need to keep moving up. Higher paying job, larger house, flashier car. And we'd better have an extension ladder with several sections, because there just seems to be no end to the heights to be climbed.
This week the staff set up the Christmas angel tree in the Rotunda and there was a large step ladder beside it. I noticed that a wayward balloon was bumping against the ceiling of the welcome hall and I sent Shrell Chamberlain our Associate Director of Children's Ministries up the ladder to snag the balloon. He said he was afraid of heights. I said I was too, so since I was the boss, he was going to go up there and I was going to hold the ladder. And of course as he went up the first few steps I had to shake the ladder!
As he went higher, however, I stopped my playing and got serious about my holding. He actually stopped one step lower than he needed to and couldn't reach the balloon, so I had to encourage him to take one more step in order to get it, and I told him I would hold him OK. That was enough for him to grab it and bring it down. This seemingly insignificant balloon catching errand was enough to remind me of the importance of ladder holding.
Life isn't always about climbing the ladder; it is also about holding it for others to climb. I think this is what Jesus was getting at when he said that the last shall be first and the first shall be last; that the greatest among us are the least. Kingdom living isn't about climbing over others to get to the top rung of the ladder; it is about figuring out how to hold ladders so that those who have very little chance of ever making it very high can climb higher than they think.
In right side up thinking we need to trade banquet seating for basin serving. The thing Jesus was criticized the most for by his adversaries was his eating habits. His disciples didn't keep the cleanliness laws for hand-washing. They gathered food on the Sabbath. Jesus himself chose to willingly sit at tables to eat with the people no respectable rabbi or faithful Jew would be caught dead with. And whereas as prominent religious leaders they would have expected to be seated in the best places at a banquet, Jesus encouraged taking a lower seat (like taking a lower rung on the ladder.) In one of the most demonstrative models of servanthood in his ministry, Jesus left the banquet table at his last meal to take up the water basin to wash feet. The towel and the basin were the tools of the slave in the first century. Guests in a home with servants would have washed their hands and feet before a meal, then as they reclined to eat a slave would come to wash the filth of the streets off of their feet. Foot washing was among the lowest tasks of the time.
When Jesus and his disciples met for that last meal, there was no slave. They were common folks in a borrowed room. Perhaps they thought of it, but no one moved from his place to perform the servant act. Someone might take their place if they did. And so it was Jesus who left the banquet seat to take control of the basin service.
Kim and I attend charity events on a regular basis and at times I am aware of the demands persons make about seating, or the expectations they have. They want to be near the stage, or the dance floor, or up front, or near to the table of some important person. Sometimes for some people where they eat is actually more important to them than what they eat. In taking the basin service task Jesus said to the disciples, "What I am doing for you, you must do for each other." In other words, stop worrying about seating and start worrying about serving. And when we all take turns serving, the distinction between who is greatest and who is least ends. We all become servants to each other, and then surprisingly, simultaneously, the greatest in the kingdom.
In the right side up kingdom of God we need to trade holding over for passing over. I think the hardest challenge for any of us as believers who truly want to exemplify Jesus' life in our own is forgiveness. We find it so much easier to hold things over others rather than to pass things over. The irony is that the one we most negatively affect with our unwillingness to forgive is actually ourselves. We mistakenly think we hold power over others when we refuse to let something go, but actually the one who is held is the one who cannot forgive.
To forgive is to make yourself vulnerable. You can get hurt again and again. Jesus knew that. When Peter anticipated the vulnerability of forgiveness and asked if there were limits, perhaps seven times for the same thing was pretty generous, Jesus answered "Try seventy times seven," which was a way of saying there are no limits to forgiveness. Forgiveness turns your enemies into friends, and in a culture that still believes in holding grudges, assessing retaliation, and "getting even" that is a whole lot of upside down place trading!
From the cross Jesus, who had apparently already forgiven his tormentors, asked God to forgive them as well. It was consistent with his teaching ministry that clearly conveyed to his followers that if they expected God to forgive them for all the sins of their lives they needed to be forgiving others who had sinned against them. Even the Lord's Prayer seeks God's forgiveness for us as we forgive those who have done wrong to us. In the kingdom of God, we are called to trade holding things over the heads of others for passing over them to see every individual as a friend.
And we need to trade cross wearing for cross bearing. Jesus said that if we were to be his disciples we should take up our crosses and follow him. We wear crosses easier than we bear them. In fact even though he called us to carry and bear the burden of a cross we continually try to find ways to avoid them. We want discipleship to be easy, our burdens to be light, and the expectations for faithfulness pretty low. Not so. This man who was killed on the cross transformed it into a symbol of hope, not despair, an icon of commitment not defeat. But still its power is not in the wearing of it but in the bearing of it.
But all of that was still thirty-three years away when the young girl from Nazareth responded to God's gift of life in her. Yet in time, she would find herself at the bottom of a ladder when her son's lifeless body was taken down from the cross. She would offer herself as the Lord's servant. She would forgive those who spoke of her out-of-wedlock birth, and she would take up her own cross as a believer when her holy child was raised.
On this third week of Advent we have lighted the rose colored candle of love. It was Mary's love for God that opened her womb to the miraculous and opened her mind to the understanding of God's glorious plan for trading places. As a result, all generations have called her blessed, as she said. And she herself traded places as the ordinary girl from Nazareth became the extraordinarily faithful mother of Life.