We have just read about a young girl named Mary and have heard the song she sang about two thousand years ago. She sang this song when she realized that she was to be the mother of a child whom she would call Jesus.
We don’t know anything at all about Mary before she had her baby and we don’t know very much about her after she had her baby. For all we can tell, she was a young peasant girl – about thirteen or fourteen years old - in the small village of Nazareth. So let me tell you how it was in the little village of Nazareth and in the entire country of Israel about the time Jesus was born.
There were maybe about three or four hundred people in Nazareth at the time. Most of them were involved in agriculture in one way or another. There were a few who owned their own farms and there were many, many who worked those farms that belonged to others. And a few crafts people like woodworkers and potters. The families lived in small one or two room stone and mud houses clustered about an open courtyard. In that courtyard they had a shared space for cooking, grinding grain, and pressing grapes into wine. The floors were packed dirt, and the roofs were made of bundles of reeds tied together and covered over with mud. There was no sewer system. The people of Mary’s village ate mostly what they grew themselves – grain, olive oil, some fruit and a few vegetables and milk products from their sheep or goats. And maybe fish since they were not too far from the Sea of Galilee.
No matter how you looked at it, their lives were simple, and whether they ate or not depended on the rains and the weather and how the harvest was that year.
But there was also this: There was a great difference between the rich and the poor. There were a very few very wealthy people at the top of the pile. They were the ruling class and the large land owners. And there were a great many poor people at bottom of the pile. These were small farm owners and farm laborers and the people like woodworkers and potters. Below them even yet there were masses of the very poor – beggars and prostitutes and slaves. We have talked about this last week.
As you remember the entire country was under the rule of the Roman government some 2500 miles to the west and these farmers and farm workers and tradespeople were taxed. Heavily taxed, by the Romans. At harvest time there were tax collectors who showed up on threshing day to take their cut right then and there. And the tax collectors would be standing on the lakeshore as the fishermen were bringing in their catch of fish for the day – to claim what they thought was theirs. Because of these high taxes the farmers and the fishermen had to charge higher prices for the food they sold. And the poor people couldn’t afford to pay it and all over the country people were going hungry. People were going more and more into debt to the rich landowners at the top and finally they were losing their homes and land. The streets were full of people begging and many of them were disabled. The rich Romans and all of their buddies were getting richer and the people on the farms and in the villages were getting poorer and poorer. And they were powerless to do anything about it at all.
(You remember the prayer that Jesus taught us all: “Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts.”)
In the best of years there were only two levels of taxes: one to the Roman emperor all the way in Rome, and another to support the local Roman king or governor of that province. And that was hard enough. But then during Mary’s lifetime, King Herod started several massive grandiose building projects in nearby Caesarea and several other places. He lived a very luxurious lifestyle in his very luxurious palaces. The ruins are still being excavated today and they were impressive indeed. And guess who had to pay for those? The very poorest of the poor of course.
When they had any shred of hope in their weary souls they would remember the promises that God had made to their ancestors to love them and care for them. When they had any time from the dismal drudgery and poverty of their lives they would think about their ancestors and how God had saved them from slavery in Egypt 1200 years earlier. They thought back to the glory days of their nation a thousand years earlier when King David was king on his thrown in Jerusalem. He had been one of the richest and strongest and most powerful kings in all the world and when he was king the boundaries of the country were the widest they have ever been. They remembered King David’s majestic throne and the temple that his son Solomon had built for God. And they remembered how God had promised that one day a descendant of the great king David would sit on that throne in Jerusalem, in all his glory.
They remembered those promises that the prophets had made to them for hundreds and hundreds of years – that God would save them from their enemies. And somewhere, in their great pain and poverty, in a little corner of their hearts, they remembered and longed for the one who would come to save them.
So Mary sings her song. She sings about the power of God. She sings about her trust in God against these powerful, unethical people who are dragging her country into poverty. She remembers the promises that God has been making again and again, for centuries and centuries to her ancestors. She sings about how she adores God and is counting on God to do great things for her. She sings about how the powerful are going to be toppled from their thrones and the rich and the proud are going to be sent away in disgrace. She sings about how the lowly will be lifted up and the poor and the hungry are going to be filled with good things. She marvels that God is going to use such an ordinary young woman like herself, of all people, to make this happen.
But thirty years passed and it looked as though none of what she sang about had happened. Her son was born and he was surely the descendant of the great King David. He was surely very popular, and spent most of his time with those who were sick or disabled or poor and hungry. He antagonized the rich and powerful and he even antagonized the religious leaders and they were threatened by him and hated him. His loyal subjects surely wanted him as their king. And on his coronation day on Palm Sunday he rode into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey. Children were the ones who formed the procession in his honor. There wasn’t a horse and carriage or a trumpet or a royal dignitary anywhere in sight. And a few days later they killed him. The Romans and the religious leaders ganged up together and executed him. They pushed a thorny crown into his forehead until he bled, and they threw a silly royal purple robe over him. They nailed a mocking sign above his head that said “King of the Jews.” To remind everybody what happens to anybody who thinks he’d like to try to overthrow the Roman government. His mother Mary stood at the foot of his cross for six hours and watched him die. And her jubilant song about the powerful being toppled from their thrones and the rich and proud being sent away in disgrace and about how the lowly are going to be lifted up and the poor and the hungry are going to be filled with good things – her jubilant song ended in a wail as she watched her son die. Because the rich and powerful had not been toppled from their thrones and the only one who had cared about the poor and the hungry had just been executed.
Except that. Her son came back to life again. The rich and the powerful did not win. And he went back into heaven to rule the world. He sits in the glories of heaven beside his Father where he belongs and he rules the world with infinite love and great compassion.
After his resurrection and his ascension into heaven his women disciples and his men disciples sat together for fifty days, grieving. They read scripture together and prayed together and ate together day after day for fifty days and they tried to understand what had happened. His mother Mary was a part of that group. We know that for sure. And we are all but sure that she was present on that Pentecost Day. When that sorry little sad little dejected band of 120 people grew in one day to 3,000 – people from all over the world, who spoke every language. They spread the kingdom of Mary’s son to the farthest stretches of the world and to every language. They pray every day to this very day the prayer he taught us: “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 debts as we forgive our debtors. For thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”