Luke 1:39-55 (click to display NIV text)
December 23, 2012 (Fourth Sunday in Advent)
Pastor Dwight A. Nelson
“My soul glorifies the Lord and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
The Christmas story includes the Song of Mary. What she sings is not often found in Christmas carols, and her voice is not heard in Christmas pageants. But her song guides us into the meaning of the birth of Jesus and beyond that to the heart of the Gospel.
“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” Why does Mary rejoice? She goes on to list the reasons for her joy. All the reasons that she mentions are future events, events expressing the justice and victory of God. They will take place in the future, and yet she speaks of them in the past tense, as if they have already taken place:
- “He has performed mighty deeds”
- “He has scattered those who are proud”
- “He has brought down rulers from their thrones”
- “He has lifted up the humble”
- “He has filled the hungry with good things”
- “He has sent the rich away empty”
None of that had been Mary’s experience. Caesar was still very much on the throne. The various rulers were corrupt and violent. The poor were poor and not well fed. The proud seemed to be in charge of both the religious and political life of Israel. The circumstances of Mary’s life did not fit her song. She waited in hope. But she believed so thoroughly in what God would do that she spoke about it as if it were already accomplished. Her life was shaped by the promises of God rather than by the circumstances of her surroundings.
Next we see that this passage is all about blessing and grace. Elizabeth, in every way the superior of Mary — the wife of a priest, an elder, living in Jerusalem, soon to be the mother of John the Baptist — rather than receiving words of blessing from Mary, speaks blessing to Mary. The honored one gives honor, the favored one speaks favor.
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear.”
“Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
Elizabeth the Superior changes roles with Mary because of grace. God is doing something new and decisive in the birth of Jesus. Elizabeth sees it and extends blessing.
Why does Elizabeth bless Mary? It is because Elizabeth sees in the birth of Jesus that the mercy of God will be extended, the humble will be lifted up, the hungry filled with good things and the rulers will be brought down. But how does this happen in Jesus? This is the Gospel that Luke writes. The lowly and the humble are lifted up by Jesus in his ministry.
- The shepherds, and not Caesar or Herod, hear the good news from the angels.
- Simeon in his old age, and not the High Priest, is able to hold the baby Jesus.
- During his ministry, Jesus blesses and heals the lowly and the marginalized, those separated from family and community.
- A man with a demon is set free.
- Simon’s mother-in-law is healed of a fever.
- Humble fishermen are directed to a great catch of fish.
- A leper is cleansed.
- A paralyzed man is given strength to walk.
- Levi the tax collector is chosen as one of the twelve.
- Zacchaeus receives Jesus in his home and repents, finding salvation.
- Jesus tells a story about a lost son, one who wandered into the far country and became destitute. This one is received back into his father’s house and the fattened calf is prepared for him.
- On the cross, Jesus speaks words to a repentant thief about being with him in Paradise.
In the Gospel, Luke shows us that the humble are lifted up, the repentant find mercy and the hungry are filled with good things. But what about the other parts of the song, the part about the rulers being cast down and the rich being sent empty away? Doesn’t Caesar stay on the throne? Don’t the proud continue to take advantage of the poor?
There are a few examples of justice coming to the powerful and rich who oppose God. We learn in chapter 12 of a rich fool who wants to build bigger barns to hold all his goods, but he is not rich towards God. His life is taken from him that very night. In chapter 16 we read of a rich man who steps over the poor Lazarus each day and never helps him. When they die their positions are reversed.
There is also a rich young ruler who comes searching for eternal life, but he goes away sad, because he cannot let go of his wealth to follow Jesus.
But the Gospel does not conclude with the defeat of Caesar and Herod. The Gospel ends with the cross and resurrection of Jesus. The reality is that Mary’s song does not lead immediately to a time of justice and an end to oppression. The first one to be cast down is in fact John the Baptist, because he speaks for the will of God. Jesus goes to his hometown of Nazareth to proclaim his mission. The people turn against him and try to kill him. The Gospel takes seriously the power of sin and willful rebellion against God. The Gospel moves through the rejection of God to the cross. It faces honestly the power of sin.
The Christmas Hymn “Joy to the World” by Isaac Watts moves in verse 3 to the heart of the meaning of joy in Christ:
“No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.”
Mary’s vision of blessing is that Jesus will deal with the problem of human sin. The problems we face in the world because of pride and the misuse of power and authority, and the corrupting influences of money and possessions are problems of sin. The issue in the tragedy and loss of life in Connecticut last week is that of human sin. One young man was responsible for what he did and stands before God accountable, but there are many issues surrounding that incident that point to sin. There are ways of thinking these days being promoted that devalue human life. There are video games that teach the taking of human life, and there are military assault weapons that are made available to the general public.
The problem of sin must be included in the discussion of what to do about the violence in our country. One of the Building Block questions in our Confirmation course asks, “What are the results of sin?” “The results of sin are broken relationships, a weakening of ability to obey God, and finally, eternal separation from him.”
I remember a lecture given by Chuck Wiberg in history class at North Park after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. He said the fabric of American society was being torn. I think that meant relationships of trust were breaking. Every time one of these tragedies occurs, relationships are broken, trust is lost. When that happens we grow weaker in our ability to obey God. This is what we need to talk about in the coming months. What is sin? What are its results? Where do we find a savior?
Jesus Christ is the savior from sin and its results. The hope found in Mary’s song only becomes a reality through the cross of Jesus. That is God’s answer to the human condition of sin. It is through faith in Christ that relationships with God and with one another are restored.
In Hebrews chapter 10 we read of Christ who came into the world, and he knew that God the Father did not desire sacrifices and burnt offerings. The mission of Christ on earth was not to reform a ritual or to ask people to be more religious or to give more money. Jesus understood that he came to do God’s will; he came to deal with the problem of sin. Through the sacrifice of Christ, through the cross, we are made holy. There is a change that takes place in us.
This is the blessing of Christmas. This is the heart of the song that Mary sings. There is a day of justice in the will of God. There is real peace brought to earth through Christ. The baby that was born to Mary, the one who will be called Jesus, the Son of the Most High, will receive the throne of his father David, and will give his life on the cross for the forgiveness of sin. In the cross the powers of evil are cast down. In the cross and resurrection the humble servant of God is lifted up. Jesus Christ is the Lord, the Savior who brings to us the victory of God.