Ted Grimsrud—April 9, 2021
A number of years ago in some South American country, so the story goes, there was a white wall on the side of a grocery store where the face of Jesus suddenly appeared after a thunderstorm. Hundreds of people came to pray to the image of Jesus and some of the sick went away cured. But then, a few days later, there was another thunderstorm, and this Jesus figure was revealed to actually be just a picture of Willie Nelson—there had been a poster of Willie on the wall that had been painted over some time before and the rain had washed the paint off. Now Willie’s pretty cool, but it was the picture of Jesus that brought the crowds. People do pay attention to Jesus.
With this post, I want to continue further reflections on why we pay attention to Jesus, what about his message brings us good news. I suggested in my first post in this series that many elements of the popular interest in Jesus in our society and actually around the world do contain quite a bit of wisdom. The motivations that fuel paying attention to Jesus for many people (Christian and non) often flow out of a desire to embrace life, to live compassionately, and to impact the world for the better.
I hope in these posts to look more closely at the actual gospel story of Jesus, maybe in part to challenge, deepen, and correct the popular impulses—but I think, also, to confirm and affirm those impulses.
Jesus and the Bible’s songs
Our first step in approaching Jesus, I think, should be to situate him in the broader biblical story. Now we could do this in various ways—a barrage of historical facts, a litany of prophesies, or finding biblical groundings for the doctrines and creeds of Christendom. I want to take a different approach, though. Let’s look quickly at a few of the Bible’s songs—words of poetry, words of singing. Now, we will see, I think—as we should expect—when we look at songs, we look at a form of communication notable for its vulnerability, its emphasis on emotion, on intuition, on hope, and on longing.
Let’s begin by thinking a bit about what songs do. How do songs work? Why do we sing songs? Why do we listen to songs? I will note four biblical songs, three from the Old Testament, one from the gospel of Luke. As you read them, think about what songs do.
First, the song Moses led after God brought the people through the Red Sea to freedom in the Exodus:
I will sing unto the Lord, who has triumphed gloriously; throwing horse and rider into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my might, the Lord has become my salvation; I will praise my God. In your steadfast love, O Lord, you led the people whom you redeemed; you guided them by your strength to your holy abode. By the might of your arm, our enemies became still as a stone until your people, O Lord, passed by. You brought us to the place, O Lord, that you made your abode. (Exod 15:1-3,13-18)
Several generations later, we learn of Hannah, the mother of the great prophet and judge, Samuel, who led Israel through many problems. Hannah had suffered greatly because of her inability to bear a child—until God gave her this son. So she rejoices in the Lord’s blessing:
There is no Rock like our God. By the Lord, 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 Lord raises up the poor from the dust, lifting the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. God will guard the feet of the faithful, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth and give strength to God’s anointed. (2 Sam 2:1-10)
The history of the Hebrew people in the promised land ends with the destruction visited by the Babylonian empire—judgment the prophets see being due to the failure of the people to follow God’s will for their community. However, after the destruction come songs of hope, songs now collected in the book of Isaiah. Here is one:
The Lord called me before I was born. He made my mouth like a sharp sword. And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” But I said, “I have labored in vain; I spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the Lord and my reward with my God.” [The Lord offers life.] And now the Lord says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up [only] the tribes of Jacob and to restore [only] the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isa 49:1-6)
The fourth song comes from youthful Mary, as reported in the gospel of Luke. She responds to the calling she has received to give birth to Israel’s Messiah:
My soul proclaims your greatness, and my spirit rejoices in you, God my Savior. For you have looked with favor upon your lowly servant. For you have done great things for me. You have shown strength with your arm, you have scattered the proud in their conceit, you have deposed the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. You have filled the hungry with good things, while you have sent the rich away empty. You have come to the aid of Israel, your servant, mindful of your mercy—the promise you made to our ancestors—to Sarah and Abraham and their descendants forever. (Luke 1:46-55)
I would say, in a nutshell, that we pay attention to Jesus because he helps us know a God who gives us cause to sing and provides us with songs—just as God provided for Moses, Hannah, Isaiah’s servant, and Mary. We believe that Jesus and his songs touch our humanity and our hopes. We believe that Jesus shares our sorrows and aspirations. He enhances our lives—and helps up to enhance others’ lives. We believe Jesus validates our humanity. These songs I have listed (and many others) help give us a sense of what will be going on with Jesus’s life. All these songs find voice at points of particular vulnerability in the larger biblical story. The songs arise out of needs and out of needs being met.
Singing God’s presence
Moses’ song follows the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. The promise to Abraham had almost ended under the Pharaoh’s heavy thumb. Hannah’s song came out of her own vulnerability due her inability to have children. But it was also a time of the vulnerability for Israel. They had just suffered a terrible civil war and were under threat from feared enemies, the Philistines. The servant song in Isaiah arose at the end of Israel’s time in exile following Babylon’s crushing of their nation. And Mary sings in the midst of Rome’s domination over Israel—a few months afterwards, she is forced to head to Bethlehem due to the Empire’s required census. Plus, who could be more vulnerable in that world than a young woman, pregnant and not yet married?
So, the stage is set. Jesus enters the world amidst songs of anxiety—and celebration that God is present at these points of fragility. God indeed has several times kept the song going, but the song always remains under duress and threat. We too often look at the Bible’s various moments of deliverance in a triumphalistic way. Our God is the God of victory, the God who takes care of the bad guys, the God who makes a path straight and clear right to paradise….But the story doesn’t really work that way. It’s like, sure, God does deliver at these moments, but the moments continue to be necessary. The need for deliverance seems a constant. The actual path is one of constant challenge. The empowerment that the songs give continues to be necessary. And how do these songs empower? Not with legions of horses and chariots nor with legions of sword-wielding angels.
Mainly, what the songs do as the story moves forward is prepare the singer and the listener to see—to see God’s mercy, to see some light in dark times, and to see paths through the troubles. The songs ready those who hear them to embrace life. We hear of God as present. We draw encouragement and direction from that presence.
At each moment of threat and vulnerability—the Hebrews enslaved, Hannah unable to bear a child, the nation in rubble and in exile, and the young Mary with child in a community whose identity with God stands under siege to the greatest empire the world has ever known—we find a song, a celebration that God remains involved and keeps the promise alive. The song began back in the creation story with God calling humanity to fruitfulness and blessing. After struggle begins with Adam and Eve, this calling is restated in the promise to Abraham and Sarah. Their children will be a people who will spread the blessing of God to all the families of the earth.
Each of the songs we’ve read signal movement away from despair, non-being, and passivity. Each song signals movement toward solidarity, hope, active blessing, and participation in God’s work. Each of these songs, also, in its context reminds us that the deliverance is never complete or perfect. In each moment there is new life but also on-going vulnerability. The songs tell us not to expect perfection but to expect sustenance. We are given enough to keep us going.
Following the exodus, the people struggle for a generation in the wilderness. Following Hannah giving birth to Samuel, and his powerful work in Israel, the nation heads to years under increasingly corrupt kings. After Israel is restored following the Babylonian catastrophe, the people live on the edge of survival for hundreds of years. And so it will be with Jesus. He doesn’t create heaven on earth. He doesn’t bring about a decisive and final deliverance. No. He provides a measure of healing. He keeps the song alive. He moves the story along and gives resources for those who come after also to keep the story going.
Mary’s song shows us what will come with Jesus
Mary’s song draws on the traditions of Israel—these other songs and a lot of other elements of the story. And Mary’s song points ahead. Mary’s song helps us see what Jesus will be about. Mary’s song prepares us to understand better why we should pay attention to Jesus.
We should pay attention to Jesus because in him, God “scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” In Jesus, God “brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly.” In a nutshell, if we listen to this part of Mary’s song and join our voices, we will, as the T-shirts and bumper stickers say, “question authority!”
Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other practitioners of active nonviolence speak of a key moment in resistance to domination systems. This is the moment: Simply come to realize that people in power can be questioned. To question authority breaks the spell. We who pay attention to Jesus believe such people can be questioned and their authority can be resisted because of what Mary says about God—God brings down the powerful from their thrones.
I have long been inspired by the story of nonviolent resistance to the Nazis in the French village of LeChambon. This village sheltered thousands of Jews and smuggled many to safety and saved them from death camps. A turning point in the effort came right at the beginning. The school that was run by the church that led the resistance was told by the state to salute the nation’s flag as a statement of loyalty. The school refused—and got away with it. The idea was born that you could question authority. The message of Jesus took precedence over the message of the powers-that-be. And an amazing song of resistance and mercy was begun.
An impressive way that Jesus questioned authority was in his practice of healing and forgiving people despite the disapproval of the powers that be. His was a song that called down mercy. He bypassed the temple and directly offered forgiveness, and he bypassed the leaders who used the law to exclude when he healed and fed those in need. He insisted that the law is for people, not people for the law.
Jesus’s God sides with the vulnerable
A second reason we should pay attention to Jesus that we learn from Mary’s song—the first being that he questioned authority—is that Mary shows us that God sides with the lowly and the hungry. God shows the power of God’s mighty arm precisely in this: God’s power is the power that heals the sick, brings life to the dying, provides hope for the hopeless, and transforms the lives of those enslaved by oppressors.
Mary herself is a person on the margins. One of the amazing lessons from this story is that God speaks through girls—it could well be that Mary was barely a teenager. She certainly is notable for her lack of stature. She wouldn’t have been formally educated. She lived very much at the mercy of the powerful in her society. Interestingly, we get no hint of her bringing any resources at all to this task—nothing about her family, no skills or power that she might have had; nothing, that is, beyond her big heart, her trust in God’s mercy, and her willingness to invest herself in this calling God gives her.
Mary’s son enters the world surrounded by weak and vulnerable people. His early life is devoted to finding clarity about God’s priorities in the world—that God is a God who seeks healing. God is not a God of retribution, who can’t stand to be around sinful human beings. The God Jesus learns to embrace, in fact, seeks specifically to enter into life with sinful human beings and bring healing to our brokenness.
Let me mention one more reason why we should pay attention to the Jesus foreshadowed in Mary’s song. Mary’s song emphasizes emphatically that those who hear and join with this song have an identity and purpose. They may join with Mary’s son in blessing all the families of the earth. “Fear God from generation to generation”—that is, trust in God and understand yourselves as part of God’s chosen people.
This “chosenness” provides the basis for the identity and purpose of God’s people, those who “fear God.” Mary already makes it clear what the chosenness involves—to be “chosen” means to live in light of the “promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and his descendants forever” (1:55).
We must understand the meaning of this “chosenness” if we are to understand what Jesus is about. Jesus will show us what it means to live in light of God’s promise, what it means to be “chosen.” To be “chosen” means to accept the vocation of mercy, of forgiveness, of empowering the powerless, and of humanizing the dehumanized. Jesus’s vocation involves questioning authority, welcoming the excluded, and providing meaning and identity to all people who respond to God’s love with love of their own.
We pay attention to Jesus because he does sing down mercy. He invites us to listen to this song, to join in it, and to find our identity as people who know that when we love God with our whole hearts we open our hearts to love our neighbors. And, when we do love, we might help set off a chain reaction—love leading to love, mercy leading to mercy.
One of my favorite songs is called “Here Comes that Rainbow Again,” by Kris Kristofferson, one of our songwriters who helps us more than most to hear and connect with Jesus’s song. In this song Kristofferson sets the scene—a roadside café, the waitress is sweeping the floor and two truck drivers are drinking their coffee. Two “Okie kids” come in and look longingly at some candy. “How much are them candies?” Well, “how much have you got?” she asks. “We’ve only a penny between us.” Great, she says, “them’s two for a penny.”
After the kids leave, the truckers challenge the waitress, “them candies ain’t two for a penny.” “So, what’s it to you?” she replied. After some silence, the truckers leave. She calls after them, “Hey, you left too much money!” “So, what’s it to you?” they replied. The song ends with this line: “Ain’t it just like a human, here comes that rainbow again.”