Continuing Christ's ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing in his birthplace
“For he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.”
“And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; 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 empty.”
The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be always with you!
The Virgin Mary is one of the most influential figures in our Christian tradition. Her example, humility, and sacrificial obedience are indeed inspiring! And today’s text opens our eyes to an important aspect of Mary: while we often focus on her faith and obedience to God, today we also encounter her deep understanding of who God is. Today we are introduced to Mary the theologian – and it is my prayer that we allow her to teach us through her wisdom and insight.
Mary spoke those words in times of crisis. We can summarize Mary’s times as follows:
The land was then a place of turmoil. Her people were occupied and oppressed. The Empire was strong and active. The people of the land of Palestine tried to revolt many times to gain their freedom; but were always subdued. The Empire was ruthless. It defined the reality people experienced.
The land was also a place of strong religiosity. Religion was everything and everywhere. And there were always discussions about the right worship; tradition; interpretation – and it was assumed that if we get religion right, we will be out of trouble. This created an environment of religious pride, self- righteousness and control of the other.
The land was a place of expectations. The people of the land were expecting that God will interfere with our world and make it a better place; that he would return to Jerusalem and establish his kingdom; a kingdom that will stand against all other kingdoms and empires. The Messiah will be here any time, and he will deliver his people, and bring judgment against the enemies of the people of God. He will bring justice and peace. This is what the people expected at least.
And Luke wrote his Gospel to tell us the time of waiting has come into an end. This is clear in the introduction to his Gospel. The Kingdom is here! God has visited us in Jesus, and today’s words from Mary open our eyes into the nature of this kingdom, and the nature of the God of this kingdom.
Today I want to ask a simple question: who benefits from this divine visitation – according to Mary? And who is judged and challenged? When we look at the text we will discover that Mary’s message is simple: The Kingdom of God is: Good News to those who fear God, those of humble estate, and the hungry; it is Bad News to the Proud, the mighty, and the rich.
Mary drew this conclusion from her own example! God’s visit to her becomes the paradigm through which Mary understood God and the way he deals with humanity. A young woman? A virgin? From Nazareth? Probably poor; not the most well-known family; not from the line of kings or even religious leaders. A “nobody” by the world’s definition, becomes one of the most important figures in history! As such she cries: for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
Indeed, the whole Christmas narrative is full of such interesting choices – choices we would not have made ourselves!
Consider the timing: in the days of political turmoil; occupation; religious extremism; ruthless baby killing rules; and a proud empire.
Then consider the elements of the narrative: Bethlehem; an average family from Nazareth; a refugee family; a cave; Shepherds.
All of this should tell us something about the kingdom the Gospels are presenting to us as “Good News!” What we have is a radical reversal – God will turn the table upside down! God is here… but it does not look like what we have expected it to be.
Mary continues: “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts… he has brought down the mighty from their thrones… and the rich he has sent away empty”. Those who put their trust in their might, richness, their own wisdom, and even their own religious traditions and self-righteousness — for all them, the birth of Christ is bad news.
She further says: “And his mercy is for those who fear him… he has exalted those of humble estate… he has filled the hungry with good things”. To those who wait in hope; who put their trust in God; who humble themselves before God —- the birth of Christ is good news.
This is a liberating truth… if we accept it! It liberates us from our pride; it liberates us from our lust towards power; it liberates from our dependence on our own merit and wealth. Finding our worth in God is liberating!
Furthermore, we are reminded today that humility is a prerequisite to receiving the grace of God; it is needed so that we can accept the Gospel as indeed good and liberating news. This is why for the poor – the Gospel is good news!
The poor, and indeed the oppressed and those who suffer from injustice – they realize that they need redemption and that the world in its current structures needs redemption and correction. The poor do not need to be reminded that they should not put their security in “things” because they do not have “things!” They have no choice but to put their trust in God! They are not threatened by a God who asks for total allegiance.
And this is what we encounter in the song of Mary. “For he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.” For Mary – this was good and liberating news.
When we look at the Middle East today, we will realize that Mary’s time is not so much different than ours – especially in Palestine. We have the influence of an empire, occupation, tension, despair and strong religiosity. We still have the same arguments – that if we get religion right, things will be better!
People are expecting… and waiting… and wondering: Has God forgotten us?
Can the gospel be good and liberating news today? For the people of Palestine, The Middle East, or anywhere in the world? The answer has to be “yes”, but if, and only if, we accept this eternal truth, that God is looking for the humble heart; for meekness; for total dependence on him. Only when we accept the biblical truth that the kingdom of God is here; it has arrived, but it is a different kind of kingdom.
What Mary celebrates in her song, is radically different than that of the empire or that of religion. Jesus said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… Blessed are the Meek, for they shall inherit the Land… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice, for they shall be satisfied”. The poor in spirit, those who thirst for justice, the meek – the powerless; those who are humble – empowered by truth and love – receive the Gospel as good news. May this be true to all of us this Christmas eve.
Munther Isaac, Dec 24, 2018. Preached at Christmas Lutheran Church, Bethlehem.