He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
-Luke 1:51-52 (NIV)
This year, as Christmas closes in, for the third time in American history the House of Representatives has voted to impeach a President. For the third time in our history, a President will stand trial in the Senate.
Like most Presidents, I suppose, this one has been polarizing. Presidents often inspire both blind love and irrational hatred, and arguably to a degree that far exceeds their actual importance. A presidency is best evaluated, probably, by historians who weren’t alive during its span. Whichever side of the aisle you fall on, though, and even if you don’t much care about politics, when a majority of the House votes to impeach it’s not a good day. It doesn’t seem like something either side should celebrate, even those who think the President is unfit for office. At best, an impeachment is a necessary but unpleasant duty. At worst, it’s a campaign tactic.
The fact that all this is happening before Christmas is reminding me, though, of what those of us who celebrate the significance of Christ’s birth actually believe. And maybe we need reminding. Because maybe we’re too quick to believe that it’s a President — or his downfall — that will ultimately ensure safety, security, and prosperity for ourselves and those we love.
After the angel Gabriel visits Mary, the gospel of Luke attributes a song to her. We usually call it the Magnificat, after the first word in the Latin Vulgate New Testament. In the song, Mary glorifies God and celebrates having been chosen to give birth to Jesus. But she also sings about one other thing, something that I think is especially appropriate this Christmas as the news talks impeachment and maybe we worry about the divided state of our country.
Mary believes that what God will do through the child she’s bringing into the world is the same brand of “mighty deeds” that he’s always done. And she lists those mighty deeds:
He has scattered those whose pride wells up from the arrogance of their hearts
He has brought down the powerful and lifted up those in humble circumstances
He has filled the hungry with good things and has sent the rich away empty
Between his mother and his Father, I guess it’s no surprise that Jesus made promises like, “the first will be last, and the last will be first,” or “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled,” or “those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Jesus’ conviction that the kingdom of God would overturn the values of every earthly kingdom was literally part of his DNA. It was baked into him from the womb.
What we’re saying when we glorify the Lord for the birth of Jesus is that none of the values upon which we human beings typically build kingdoms, and by which we defend them, are the ones that God cares about. More than that, we’re saying that the values of human kingdoms are more typically antithetical to his kingdom. Pride in accomplishment, belief in our own strength, the ideas that might makes right and that the wealthy are more important than the poor — human kingdoms from the dawn of time have existed on those principles. But God is continually acting in history to scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, lift up the humble, fill the hungry, and empty out and toss away those who flaunt and hoard their wealth.
I’m not saying that the impeachment of our current President is God’s work. Neither do I know that it’s not. What I am saying is that those of us who believe in Jesus believe that God will lift up and bring down rulers until Jesus returns. I’m saying that our hope doesn’t depend on a King, or even a President. I’m saying that no kingdom is free from God’s judgment or essential to our well-being — not even the American kingdom. I’m saying that maybe we should be concerned a little less this Christmas about the powerful playing their power games and more about embodying God’s care for those in humble position. I’m saying that the truly important things in the world aren’t happening in Washington, D.C., but in our churches, homes, offices, and neighborhoods — wherever people who believe in Jesus and are energized and led by his Spirit make good on his mom’s promise that he will fill the hungry with good things.
People turn to Presidents and Senators and Congressmen because they need hope. They need reassurance. They need to know that their voices matter and that they don’t have to be afraid and that, one day, they’ll have what’s missing from their lives. Well, God can and has used — and certainly still is using — those with political power to help people. But in the birth of Christ he told us that political power is just one tool that he uses, and that those he puts into power will also be taken down. God’s people are saved because God is merciful, and for no other reason.
And the form God’s mercy ultimately took was that of a baby in an animal shelter in a little town so far away from the important people and places that it was still called The City of David a thousand years after David sat on the throne.
The truly important things in the world — the things of ultimate significance and relevance to every person on earth — aren’t happening in Washington, D.C., this Christmas. Just like, on that night Bethlehem, they weren’t happening in Rome or Jerusalem. They were happening in Bethlehem, known only to a young working-class couple, her cousin and (somehow) her baby, a few shepherds, and group of astrologers from the East. Oh, and known to a numberless host of angels, and to a Father who was remembering to be merciful to his people.
And he still remembers, even today. Long after the impeachment trial is over, long after these events are known only in history books, his mercy will remain. And so will the hope that was born when his mercy and powerful Word was given flesh. When everything about this presidency — and America itself — is a distant memory, Jesus will still be giving birth to that hope in the hearts of men and women.
Look for what matters this Christmas. It won’t be what most everyone thinks it is.
Look for what matters, and be a part of it.
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