The Magnificat has Mary declare that God has shown mercy to those who fear Him, but has scattered the proud. Indeed, ‘He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away hungry’ (see Luke 2:46-56). Humanly speaking, faith is located in the human heart and soul, but it has political implications. Mary’s language reminds us of the destruction of earthly kingdoms as set out in Daniel 2. Through the gospel the sinner enters the kingdom of God, but this proves to be a threat to all of earth’s proud empires. 

            What is the relationship then between a private faith and its public expression? Mary’s song is spiritual, but it has political implications. We enter the kingdom of Christ through repentance and faith in Him who is the King, but we do not stop there. William Wilberforce, for example, is often remembered as the politician – he spent 45 years in the House of Commons – who led the battle against the slave trade in the British Empire. 

            Yet first and foremost he was a believer in Christ. He often applied the tax collector’s prayer to himself: ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner’ (Luke 18:13). His corrupt heart shocked him when he was secretly glad that his wife Barbara once was suffering from tooth-ache, and not him. In sorrow, he pleaded that God would renew his defiled heart. He learnt Psalm 119 off by heart, finding it ‘a great comfort’ as he walked from Hyde Park while reciting it to himself. He knew a number of Paul’s epistles off by heart, and rejoiced in his Sunday prayers and meditations as precious to his soul in his busy life. Famously, he would prepare what he called ‘launchers’ in order to steer conversations in the direction of Christ. 

            Translating this private faith into a coherent public and political faith is not straightforward. Even faithful Josiah got it badly wrong when he lost his life by taking on Neco of Egypt about 609 B.C. (2 Chron.35:20-27). Christians can sign up for all sorts of worldly causes, contending that they are helping to ‘save the planet’ or building bridges with those who are only using them as those whom Lenin called ‘useful idiots’. The hard-nosed Charles Colson – one of President Nixon’s henchmen in the Watergate scandal – recalled of visitors to the White House: ‘none were more compliant than the religious leaders’. Showmanship was too alluring to many of them.

            Our equilibrium is easily lost. To escape cynicism, we embrace naivety, and then reverse the process. Social righteousness can become a substitute for social righteousness rather than an expression of it. The Bible then loses its sharpness as the Word of God. Apologising for a generation’s past sins is not quite on par with repenting for one’s own. Nor does crusading for one cause or another excuse tackling what the Bible clearly condemns as sin which is an offence to our Maker. In the public arena there are obvious ‘deal breakers’. After all, John the Baptist confronted Herod Antipas for his sexual sins. Hosting a conference on global warming would not have atoned for that. 

The coming of heaven’s king puts all earthly kings and premiers in the shade. They will pass, and their kingdoms and regimes will pass, but the kingdom of Christ will be presented to the Father and will last forever, without sin, without misery, and without death. That is what Mary saw, with increasing clarity through her life. Wilberforce saw the same thing. The message of the incarnation is not to be reduced to a baby in a manger, but to embrace the Teacher, the Healer, the Saviour, and finally the Lord not just of the Church but of the whole universe.  

                                                                        With warm regards in Christ,

                                                            Peter  Barnes

Rev. Dr Peter Barnes, Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia