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The World Turned Upside Down

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So it goes with so many parts of our lives. We think the birth of Jesus upended the old order, yet we still struggle with issues of pride and greed and occupation and exploitation.

Today’s texts – Isaiah 35: 1-10 and Luke 1: 46-55

Pastor Phil
Pastor Phil

Let’s combine four very different scenes from history this morning and then carry them all into our own day.

The first reading we heard today was from the great Jewish prophet Isaiah.

The Jewish people had lived under occupation – a common condition. They lived in exile in Babylon. Yet in this reading, there is hope and joy.

Out of the desert of their existence the wilderness will rejoice. Waters will spring up from the desert. They will walk on the Holy Way. Their enemies will face divine retribution. The world will be turned upside down.

marys-songThen we heard Mary’s song, that beautiful anthem as the pregnant, unmarried teen goes to seek refuge for a while with her cousin, Elizabeth. Remember, the land is occupied once again, this time by the Romans.

“In the depths of who I am, I rejoice in God, my savior,” Mary says.

It’s a God who has shown strength. “He has scattered those with arrogant hearts and proud inclinations. He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.”

Or, in other words, the world has been turned upside down with the imminent arrival of Jesus.

Mary’s song echoes a song in the ancient Hebrew scriptures.

hannah-praying-2Hannah was one of the two wives of Elkanah – yes, family values were a little different in those times. The other wife was Peninnah. As the first book of Samuel explains at the very beginning, “Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.” And Peninnah never let Hannah forget that.

In due time, Hannah conceived and gave birth to Samuel after promising to give that child to the temple, to the priest. And so she did. And as she gave Samuel over to God, she sang, “My heart exults in the Lord, my strength is exalted in God.”

Sound familiar?

But there’s more that Hannah sings:

“Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.

“The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.

“The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.

Or, you might say, the world has been turned upside down.

Let’s jump across a few millennia to the late 1700s, when the land along the eastern seaboard of the U.S. is divided into colonies occupied by Great Britain.

In the hit musical Hamilton, there’s a scene towards the end of the first act where the revolutionary forces defeat the British at Yorktown. Early in the scene, Alexander Hamilton, who had come to the colonies from the British West Indies, and the Marquis de Lafayette, the French military officer who came to aid the revolutionary forces – slap hands and say “Immigrants – we get the job done.”

yorktownThen the battle of Yorktown plays out on the stage in musical fashion, ending with a white flag of surrender waved by a British soldier.

Lafayette says, “We lower our guns as he frantically waves a white handerchief.”

Another soldier says, “And just like that, it’s over. We tend to our wounded, we count our dead.”

And then John Laurens says, “Black and white soldiers alike wonder if this really means freedom.”

Laurens was from South Carolina. His father, Henry Laurens, was one of the biggest slave traders of the era. But John Laurens took a different view. He once wrote: “We have sunk the Africans & their descendants below the Standard of Humanity, and almost render’d them incapable of that Blessing which equal Heaven bestow’d upon us all.”

The younger Laurens joined the Continental Army and became a close aide to George Washington, along with Hamilton and Lafayette. He promoted the idea of arming slaves and granting them freedom in return for their service, an idea the Continental Congress approved in 1779. He set out to recruit some 3,000 slaves to the army.

He was at the battle of Yorktown, as were some black soldiers, although not the ones under his command. Still, that line – “Black and white soldiers alike wonder if this really means freedom” – is loaded with meaning.

So is George Washington’s response – “Not yet.”

It all goes by in an instant. The celebration of American independence begins with what Hamilton describes as a drinking song – “the world turned upside down.”

It actually was a drinking song of the retreating British soldiers. Their world had been turned upside down. But composer Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote new music to go with the lyrics and gave the song to the victorious colonists.

Let’s take a moment to watch that scene.

We know that turning the world upside down is not easy. And when it happens, if we are the beneficiaries, we might like to sing along with Hannah or Mary – although you have to note that for both of them, there was disorientation involved in that overturning. Hannah was giving up her child. Mary was heading into an uncertain future.

You might sing “The world turned upside down,” like the Continental Army with joy and anticipation. Or you might sing it like the defeated British army, wondering what would happen to you now.

We know that feeling when our world is turned upside down, whether by an illness or a job loss or the outcome of an election. It does not need to be the most recent election nor is that feeling limited to one side or the other.

Keep in mind that in 1860 when Abraham Lincoln was elected president, the world was turned upside down. The Southern states were so angry they seceded from the Union.

lincoln-emancipation-proclamationKeep in mind that in 1963, when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the world was turned upside down again, for both slave owners and the slaves themselves. Now, at last, they had an answer to John Laurens’ question in Hamilton: “Black and white soldiers alike wonder if this really means freedom.”

But the world turned upside down kept turning. One of the things that I draw out of these four stories is precisely that.

We may like the phrase that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice, but we know the bending process is not smooth.

Consider the story of Lafayette, one of the heroes of the American Revolution. He went back to France where he worked with Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen – a fundamental document for the French Revolution.

But that revolution went off track and Lafayette was forced to flee the nation by the radicals and ultimately imprisoned for five years in Austria. Later he came back to serve in another iteration of the government.

So it goes with so many parts of our lives. We think the birth of Jesus upended the old order, yet we still struggle with issues of pride and greed and occupation and exploitation.

We think that the Emancipation Proclamation brought freedom to the slaves 80 years after the end of the Revolutionary War, but we still struggle with that original sin of racism in our nation.

It’s not just in societal things.

We think we have overcome the cancer only to have another ailment occur. We think we have stabilized our finances only to have a car go kaput and send us back into debt.

Our world keeps getting turned upside down and it does not always lead to us glorifying the Lord and rejoicing in God our savior. We search for that elusive good news.

Let me suggest that the readings we heard today from Isaiah and from Luke are readings of hope, but not readings of a settled life.

After Isaiah’s beautiful vision, the Jews were still in exile in Babylon.

After Mary’s powerful song, she gives birth in a stable and then has to flee to Egypt to protect Jesus from the wrath of Herod.

Yet within all of this, Hannah, Isaiah, Mary, the victorious colonists keep moving forward, keep trusting that after this difficult time, this sense of being in the desert, there will be highway there, a Holy way to follow without lions or predators, a road we can walk along as we sing, a place where happiness and joy will overwhelm us – at least for this moment.

As we head towards Christmas, we are on a road like that.

Yes, today the roads are a bit treacherous, not just outside the doors here but in the wider world.

Yes, the days are getting shorter and the darkness seems to be closing in.

But somewhere out there, we know the light will overcome the darkness, Gods’ love will sneak into the world once again, people will be so touched by that love that they will share what they have with one another and we will sing as if we were angels.

The world turned upside down.

It’s a scary prospect, it’s a hopeful prospect. It give us a chance to help shape the world that will emerge. And we can do that with God’s grace and our support for one another.

There’s a beautiful song for this season, so let’s join together singing the first two verses of #128, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”