From the Phraseological to the Real


Luke 1:39-56
39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
46 And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. 50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”
56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a name that many Christians today are at least familiar with as many theologians have lifted this man up as a symbol of both intellect and faithfulness, even faithfulness to the point of death. Bonhoeffer grew up in an affluent German family, attending the best schools and spending his summers in his parents’ mountain cottage. He enjoyed the finest things in life, fancy clothes, nice homes, and fine music. And he also produced high-level academic work, completing his first (of two) doctorates in theology at the age of 21.

One of Bonhoeffer’s best-known books, which we commonly call The Cost of Discipleship – though a more accurate translation of the original German title would simply be Discipleship – was published when Bonhoeffer was only 31-years-old, during the rise of the Nazi party. In this book, Bonhoeffer offers his interpretation of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and a critique of what he calls “cheap grace,” or grace that costs us nothing. Bonhoeffer holds in tension the idea that grace is a free gift from God with the teachings from Jesus to follow him, an act that may cost you everything. If you are looking for a challenging read, The Cost of Discipleship is worth the cost of the book, and then some!

It was also during this time that Bonhoeffer began working with a church movement known as the Confessing Church, holding underground meetings and even seminary courses, training pastors to resist the Nazi movement. Eventually, Bonhoeffer was exiled from Germany, later arrested, forced into a concentration camp, and executed for high treason against the Nazi party, all before his 40th birthday.

When you study Bonhoeffer’s life, you find that he underwent a significant change moving from a privileged upbringing to leading secret classes in basements to imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp. Bonhoeffer’s diary reveal that his year of study abroad in the United States between his 1st and 2nd doctorate programs in Europe forced him to see the world differently. Bonhoeffer had heard of poverty, but he had never experienced it or even seen it first-hand.

While studying in New York, this rich German befriended an African American man from Harlem. Bonhoeffer was invited by Frank Fisher to join him in worship at a historically black church in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States, Harlem, NY. Soon, Bonhoeffer was teaching Sunday school and even got the chance to preach. Bonhoeffer not only witnessed poverty in post-recession Harlem, but also so the effects of racism. He writes about a time when he and Frank Fisher went for lunch together in a Manhattan restaurant and they were refused a seat.

It was among the poor and marginalized people of Harlem that Bonhoeffer experienced a change. Yes, before this experience, he was a brilliant theologian. And his theology didn’t really change during this time. But his theology became real. In Bonhoeffer’s words, he was “turning from the phraseological to the real.” Turing from just studying words, to living out these words.

Our text for this morning, the last Sunday before Christmas, is one that I am sure you are familiar with. The first chapter of Luke is filled with birth announcements and songs and today’s passage is consistent with that trend. Both Elizabeth and Mary have received messages that they will give birth to boys. Of course, there are some problems with this as Elizabeth is getting up there in age and Mary, well, let’s just say that she had not yet known a man, biblically speaking. These pregnancies were not completely natural, they were a gift from God through the Holy Spirit. And Luke even reminds us of this when he says that the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaped for joy when Mary arrived, for Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And Elizabeth states that Mary will be blessed because she has believed that God would fulfill his promises to her.

What is Mary’s response to being called blessed? She thinks to herself, “Yes, I guess that I am,” and she sings.

If you were able to join us last Sunday, you heard me say that there are several reasons for singing in the church. We sing to offer praises to God, but we also sing when things aren’t going so well. We sing in times of joy and we sing in times of sorrow. We sing to thank God for what he has done, and we sing because we believe that God will continue to be active in this world and will do something about the problems of this world.

For which reason is Mary singing? I believe both

I assume that Mary is offering praises to God because God has chosen her to be the mother of Jesus. Look at verses 46b-48a, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.”

Praise God! He has remembered a humble servant like me. Like Mary, a poor, common, and we cannot forget, an unmarried woman.

But Mary was also filled with uncertainty. One of the possible reasons for why she was there with her cousin Elizabeth and stayed there for three months is because she was afraid of what might happen to her back home. When word got out that she was pregnant and that it was not Joseph, her betrothed husband’s baby, she could be put to death.

Mary was young, maybe only about 13 years old, but she was not naïve. She knew that the world was not perfect. Look at the song of Mary. She speaks in a tone that we might call a “realized eschatology,” saying that God has done these things: He has scattered the proud, brought down the powerful rulers, lifted up the humble, filled the poor and hungry, while sending away the rich empty. Mary sings because of what God has done, and she sings because of what God will do.

I hear in Mary’s song a hope for an evening or leveling of things. The high shall be made lower, the low shall be made higher. And I think that Mary was right to expect these things, because this is among the things that Jesus did in his time on earth. Remember that Mary was filled with the Holy Spirit, so she wasn’t just shooting off at the mouth. She had some knowledge of what was to come. I think of three areas that Jesus brought a leveling effect to the people: spiritually, economically, and socially.

Spiritually: When I think of the spiritual elite of the first century, my mind always goes to the Pharisees. The Pharisees memorized large portions of the Bible, they kept the Laws of the Torah without failure, and even made up a few extra laws to go with the Laws that God gave Moses. The Pharisees are said to have prayed long, extensive prayers. Our Bible even tells us at times the Pharisees would pray out loud, thanking God that they were not like certain other groups of people who were not as pious or religiously devoted.

There were plenty of people in Jesus’ day who were not especially committed to their religious roots of Judaism. Prostitutes and sinner, gluttons and drunkards are often noted in the New Testament, and they were also the target of the Pharisees.

Within the area of spirituality, Jesus brought the high a little lower, and the lowly a little bit higher. When he heard the Pharisees saying things with authority and power, lacking any kind of humility, Jesus would often pose a challenging question, just to remind the Pharisees that everything wasn’t as clear as they might want it to be. Would you get your sheep out of a pit if it fell in on the Sabbath? Which is easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” or “Stand up and walk?” Jesus also brought the lowly prostitutes and sinners to a higher level, simply by sitting with them, talking, and loving them as human beings, even if he did not approve of their actions.

Jesus leveled the playing field economically as well. The rich, the powerful people were often a point of criticism for Jesus. He told the Rich Young Ruler to sell all that he had and give the money to the poor. Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven. He lifted the poor by saying that the last shall be first in God’s kingdom, and he gave an example of a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus. The low are lifted and the powerful are made a little bit lower.

And finally, Jesus brought a leveling effect to people socially. Aside from those who were rejected because of their sins, like the prostitutes, there were also those who were rejected because of other uncontrollable conditions, like leprosy. This separation was commanded by the Old Testament, so I don’t want to be too hard on the people who kept their distance from people with this skin disorder. They were simply trying to be faithful. There were also people like the tax collectors, who were social outcasts because of their affiliation with the Roman government. Even though the tax collectors weren’t doing anything illegal, they were rejected by the Jews because they worked for the enemy, and got rich doing so!

How did Jesus bring a leveling effect to these social outcasts? By breaking all of the social norms. He touched the leper. He ate with the tax collector. Jesus even took it one step further by inviting himself over to the house of a tax collector named Zacchaeus to dine with him. To dine with someone, especially to enter their home, was a sign that you accepted that person and saw them as an equal. And by breaking these social norms, Jesus rejected the social power that the social elite held over the social rejects.

But I want you to notice something, lest I be misunderstood. Jesus didn’t simply swap the places of the Pharisee and the prostitute. The Pharisee wasn’t made low and the prostitute placed in a lofty position. That wouldn’t be any better. Instead, Jesus put them all on the same level. He ate with the prostitutes and, when they would have him, the Pharisees. Jesus validated each of them as human beings, and placed them all on the same level. He loved them all just the same; he gave his life for them all just the same.

So why did I begin today with the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Because Bonhoeffer shows us what it means to move from the phraseological to the real.

Again, Bonhoeffer had his theology worked out pretty well before he traveled to the United States and before he ever worshipped in Harlem. But it was in Harlem that he learned what it meant to put those concepts into action.

We know that Jesus humbles the proud and lifts up the marginalized. We know that Jesus loves everyone equally, and we know that we must do the same. The challenge is to move from the phraseological to the real. And today I want to thank you all for helping me to begin to make that turn.

For years I’ve said that we need to do more about the poverty in our own community, but I have done little to actually make a difference. I’ve been to the Valley Mission before, helping with afterschool tutoring and delivering food, but I’ve never interacted with residents as much as I did last Sunday. I know I can do more, but those of us that have been engaging with this community know that it is one thing to speak about ending poverty and actually spending time with the kinds of people that Jesus spent time with.

Some are addicts. Some are handicapped. Some are drunkards. Some are sinners. And I’ve been a little too pharisaical myself over the last 35 years.

Jesus came to lift the oppressed and lower the proud. I need to remember that I am called to do the same thing. But not only to remember it, but to actually do it. To turn from the phraseological to the real.


About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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