He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High;

and the Lord God will give Him the throne of his father David;

and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever,

and His kingdom will have no end.[1]

As I heard the promises of God to Mary, read aloud during our church’s traditional Lessons and Carols service, I thought of the waiting Mary had to do, not only in preparation for the birth of the Son of God, but after his birth. As Mary and Joseph nurtured and raised Jesus – as he was “increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and people” – they were raising him in an utterly broken world. Despite Simeon’s proclamation in the temple that he had seen God’s salvation come and could now “depart in peace,” the world seemingly went on as it always had. The arrival of the baby was joyous, as the evangelists make clear. But the relative silence of the Gospels on the years that follow is a silence of brokenness and sin in the ordinary lives of apparently ordinary people.

Did Mary see her son suffer as he grew? Did their family have times of poverty and hunger? When Joseph died, did she wonder why the kingdom had not yet arrived? How painful and tragic it must have felt to raise the child that could restore hope and bring healing, while people suffered and died around her.

What sustained Mary during this waiting? God’s past faithfulness. While the angel’s promises point to the future, Mary’s well-known psalm of praise speaks as if the promises have already been fulfilled:

He has done mighty deeds with His arm; 

He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart.

He has brought down rulers from their thrones,

And has exalted those who were humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things;

And sent away the rich empty-handed.

He has given help to Israel His servant,

In remembrance of His mercy.[2]

 While these lines certainly display a speaking-of-the-future-as-if-it-were-past as a reflection of trust in God’s promises – a pattern set for Mary by the Psalms – they also do, in fact, state what is objectively true about the past. Throughout its history Israel had seen God topple those in power and elevate the humble faithful, even if the Lord sometimes tarried a bit. Most importantly, Israel had learned not to trust appearances: when their nation, or a particular king, seemed to be thriving and thus “blessed” by God, it was not necessarily so. Within two chapters of 1 Kings we see this apparent paradox in the legacy of Solomon. 1 Kings 10 lists Solomon’s wealth in terms of gold, horses, and chariots, and summarizes:

So King Solomon became greater than all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. All the earth was seeking the presence of Solomon, to hear his wisdom which God had put in his heart. They brought every man his gift, articles of silver and gold, garments, weapons, spices, horses, and mules, so much year by year.[3]

Surely this king is blessed by God! He is not only wealthy, but also wise and popular. Indeed, Scripture seems to imply that his wealth came in part because he was wise and therefore sought after. And that wisdom was given by God. Who could not connect the dots to see his wealth and status as God’s blessing on Solomon?

And yet…

Immediately following this long section describing Solomon’s wealth, we find the description of his idolatry (blamed in part on the women, of course!).

Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and did not follow the Lord fully, as David his father had done.[4]

Did God immediately strip him of his power and wealth because of the evil he was doing? Did God make an example out of him, so that others would not turn to idolatry? Did God punish the nation for the sins of their leader? No, not immediately. God delayed judgment until the next generation, taking most of the kingdom away from Solomon’s sons.

But there is another sign that all is not well with the kingdom in all its opulence, if we dig more deeply and allow for some subtlety in the biblical text. Even before we arrive at the description of Solomon’s idolatry, the lengthy account of his wealth should raise some red flags, if we remember what we have read in an earlier book.

1 Kings: Now Solomon gathered chariots and horsemen; and he had 1,400 chariots and 12,000 horsemen, and he stationed them in the chariot cities and with the king in Jerusalem.[5]

1 Samuel: [Samuel warning the people, who have requested a king]  This will be the procedure of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and place them for himself in his chariots and among his horsemen and they will run before his chariots. He will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and of fifties, and some to do his plowing and to reap his harvest and to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots….He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his servants. Then you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.[6]

The people asked for a king, and they got one. With the power and protection of a king came wealth and status for the nation, but the glitter and gold veiled the hidden cost: the exploitation of the vast majority of the people, and the idolatry of those in power. The wealth did not reflect God’s blessing. Indeed, quite the opposite. The wealth came as a direct result of the king’s exploitation of his own people, promising them protection while taking away their sons and daughters, land and flocks. Just as God (through Samuel) had warned them.

Mary too lived in a time of oppression and exploitation, only this time by a foreign power, instead of Israel’s own king. She did not place her hope in those political authorities, but God’s promise of His Son as King was a distinctly political promise. The wealthy and those in power would be toppled; the humble lifted up. This was good news, but difficult-to-receive good news for those who had wealth and power.

We are living what feels like a dark moment, at least for many of us in the U.S. Evil seems to prosper, the wealthy cover over their crimes, the powerful are protected. And our fellow Christians are complicit. My own tradition – evangelicalism – has gained a reputation for trading the vulnerable for the sake of a seat at the table. We have mistaken wealth and status for God’s blessing and a sign of God’s will being fulfilled. We ignore the sons and daughters being sacrificed for the sake of a king (or a senator). We accept the suffering of the vulnerable if it means the nation can achieve greatness, wealth, and fame.

Mary’s trust in God’s promises in the midst of an evil world offers us a word of hope and a word of repentance – for all:

Do not despair. Do not be deceived by appearances. Jesus is king and Lord, and he will duly topple the proud and powerful, as he blesses and protects the vulnerable.

Be converted. Conversion and repentance are daily tasks. Renounce any idols you’ve made – idols of ideologies, political parties, wealth, or power. Renounce these idols from whom you have sought protection against the evil in the world. Renounce these idols who inevitably require the sacrifice of the blood of the vulnerable. Humble yourself and place yourself on the side of the weak and despised of the world.

Peace to all.

[1] Luke 1:32-33

[2] Luke 1:51-54

[3] 1 Kings 10:23-25

[4] 1 Kings 11:6

[5] 1 Kings 10:26

[6] 1 Samuel 8:11-12, 17-18

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