The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached December 6, 2020*
Sermon Audio: A Weary World Rejoices (Luke 1:46-55)
46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
Cornelia was a brave, cheerful Dutch woman. Her father was a remarkable clockmaker, well-known throughout all of the Netherlands and Cornelia, being a single woman her whole life, not only lived with her father, but took up the trade of clockmaking herself. Cornelia and her father, Casper, were joined also by Betsie, Cornelia’s sister who ran the home while Casper and Corrie ran the clock shop below. Their home was filled with warmth, laughter, and love, but most of all it was marked by their deeply devout Christian faith, which led them to regularly read the Bible, pray, and apply these truths to every part of their life. They cared for the poor and the hungry, often opening their home to those were in need. Cornelia even ran a school for mentally handicapped children through their church. And, when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in WWII, they heroically worked to help and hide Jews from being deported to the concentration camps.
Profoundly influenced by the Darwinian notion of “survival of the fittest” and Nietzsche’s concept of the ubermensch, Nazi ideology had no concept of caring for the weak, the feeble, the downtrodden. Quite the opposite, they believed that it was through exterminating these lower classes that a more pure, resilient, and fit race would emerge to bring about the next thousand year empire. So, Jews, cripples, the mentally handicapped, homosexuals were systematically, efficiently, and ruthlessly expunged from the gene pool. To care for the weak was to choose to slow the process of evolution from happening and deny the German people from inheriting the burden of their terrible and glorious destiny. So, when Corrie, Casper, and Betsie ten Boom were discovered to be helping Jews, they were quickly arrested.
The three of them were separated and shipped off to a prison that housed conspirators working against the Reich. After months of solitary confinement, Corrie was summoned to an inspection by a German Lieutenant who promised Corrie help if she would give him information about the “work” she was been doing. Corrie eagerly told the Lieutenant about what she did for her community, carefully avoiding saying anything about her work to hide Jews, before launching into a spirited explanation of her school for children who are mentally handicapped. Corrie recounts the Lieutenant’s reaction in her memoir, The Hiding Place:
“What a waste of time and energy!” he exploded at last. “If you want converts, surely one normal person is worth all the half-wits in the world!”…true National-Socialist philosophy, I thought…And then to my own astonishment I heard my own voice saying boldly, “May I tell you the truth Lieutenant Rahms?… The truth, Sir…is that God’s viewpoint is sometimes different from ours—so different that we could not even guess at it unless He had given us a Book which tells us such things.” I knew it was madness to talk this way to a Nazi officer, but he said nothing so I plunged ahead. “In the Bible I learn that God values us not for our strength or our brains but simply because He has made us. Who knows, in His eyes a half-wit may be worth more than a watchmaker. Or—a lieutenant.” – The Hiding Place, “The Lieutenant”
Corrie’s courage in the face of peril is heartening. Where does courage like that come from? Certainly it comes from the help of the Spirit, whom we are told will give us words to speak when we are brought before authorities on account of our faith in Christ (Luke 12:11-12). But it also comes from the teaching of the “Book” that offers a “viewpoint” that is “different from ours.” In the Bible we find that what God values in men and women is very different than what the world values: God looks to the low, the despised, the humiliated, and opposes the proud. While we balk at the morals of Hitler and their murderous empire, our world still runs on value system that finds God’s upside-down kingdom baffling. While so many today say that they too care for the weak and disadvantaged, nevertheless we still love geniuses, superstars, entrepreneurs, billionaires, politicians and witty satirists who use their intellect to shame and embarrass others. We are infatuated with power, beauty, and pride. And in a day where we are told that the highest virtue one can attain is pride—pride in our true, “authentic” selves, focusing on loving and caring and embracing self—the idea that God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble is just as confounding.
In our text today we learn that it is the lowly, not the exalted, that God looks to; it is the powerful, not the weak, who should fear; and this should provide great joy for the weak and weary.
Structure of the Song
Mary’s famous song of praise bursts forth in response to her conversation with Elizabeth where Elizabeth confirms what Gabriel told Mary (Luke 1:39-45). Mary’s song is broken up into three parts: (1) How God has treated her, personally, (2) How God treats people in general, and (3) how God treats His covenant people. All of it centers on God and His actions in the world to exalt the lowly, to bring low the exalted, and to give great joy to His people.
The Lowly Exalted
Mary emphasizes God’s desire to show His favor on the humble and lowly. Mary opens the song, ““My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant,” (Luke 1:46-48), and then later explains in verse 52, “He…has exalted those of humble estate.” The word for “humble estate” (ταπείνωσιν) refers to a state of humiliation that comes from poverty (James 1:9-10) or a low social status (Rom 12:16). It is used to describe the lowly state of our earthly bodies compared with the heavenly body we will inherit (Phil 3:21), and the humiliation Christ experienced when He was denied justice by being wrongfully put to death (Acts 8:33). It is a word that is used for those who are on the bottom of the ladder, the nameless, faceless nobodies that the great ones of our day pass by without a thought: the cashier clerk, housemaids, servers, immigrants, and homeless.
But, with that, it also refers to a kind of unpretentiousness, gentleness that is radically “others” focused; what we call “humility.” James tells us that, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble,” James 4:6. Jesus Himself describes His own heart this way: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls,” Matt 11:29. “Lowly” is the same word for “humble.” What is Jesus saying? He is saying that He is not overly “puffed up” on his own puffed-up ego; He isn’t too important for you. He doesn’t have somewhere else to be, He isn’t checking his watch as you talk to Him. His heart is gentle and lowly. He is not haughty and arrogant.
So, which of these meanings of “humble estate” does Mary refer to here in her song? Is she talking about her economic and social situation, or her humility? I think she is likely referring to both. It is possible for the poor and hungry to still be in the grips of pride, to be hardened by arrogance. I’ve met homeless men and women who wore their difficult life like a badge of pride, believing that it showed how resilient and strong they were. But, on the whole, usually the wealthier and more powerful you are the more you are prone to a proud, self-sufficiency. You don’t need help, you can go it alone because, in the words of Flannery O’Connor, you’ve, “always had a little of everything, and the God-given wit to use it right.” And this makes it really difficult for you to see any need—even for God.
God may seem like a nice counselor to consult from time to time, or a helpful spiritual supplement to fortify your life with so you feel better about yourself—but He is not your Savior, not your Lord, not your one boon of hope that is holding you up and without Him everything else in life would dissolve like soap before the fire. No, you have your comfortable home, respectable career, exciting weekend adventures with your family and a thickly padded retirement awaiting you. Without the Lord in your life, there would be a certain sadness, but nothing fundamentally lost. It is no wonder that Jesus explains that it is easier for a camel to shrink down to the size of a sewing thread and pass through a needle than for a rich man to enter into heaven (Mark 10:25) and no wonder that the Bible often speaks about wealth more like a danger and curse than anything else (Luke 6:24; James 1:9-11; 2:5; 5:1-6; 1 Tim 6:9).
It is much harder, on the other hand, for the poor to be under this delusion. They don’t have the liquor of wealth to intoxicate them. So their hearts are sobered to see their inability, their need, their helplessness. And this prepares their heart to see their more profound state: their poverty before God. Jesus explains: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Matt 5:3. What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? It is to realize your spiritual bankruptcy before God, to see your total need in the same way that someone who is economically poor realizes their financial need. But it is most often those who have gone through serious financial poverty who are more willing to see their spiritual poverty.
This is why Christianity has always flourished among the poor and the downtrodden. James teaches us that God has specially chosen the poor, “Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?” James 2:5. Again, this isn’t because being poor inherently makes you righteous or more holy than wealthy people—it is only to say that those in the low places are often quicker to realize their true need than those in the high places. And it is these people, those of humble estate that are going to be exalted.
Application: few of us are ‘poor.’ What are we to do with this?
Christianity is not a religion that is basically an economic plan for the poor or one that excoriates the bourgeoise in favor of the working class. This is the failure of liberal Christianity. They assume that what the Bible teaches about the poor is limited to fiscal aid and economic relief plans. They fail to see that the reason the poor are highlighted is because their circumstances in life have opened up their hearts to realize their true plight—their spiritual poverty before a God who is rich in holiness—while the rich and famous of this world are blind to it. Financial circumstances are not the end goal, simply a means of either hindering or helping us see our spiritual state before God. The wealthy are in danger like the Laodiceans, “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked,” Rev 3:17. Wealth in the Bible often is attached to more than just finances, but was threaded into social standing, integrity, and favor from God. The Laodiceans (and us today) were seduced into assuming that their own comfortable position in life made them less dependent on the Lord and it blinded them from seeing their real dilemma.
As a child I grew up relatively ‘poor.’ We lived in trailer parks and manufactured homes when I was young and then bought an old, old home in Kennewick. I remember the surprise when I would go over to friend’s homes who lived in what felt like mansions and would always take notice when they had name-brand clothes and over-the-top snacks that my parents said we couldn’t afford. I remember the deep shame I would feel when these friends would then come over to my house and see our stained carpet, dated furniture, and off-brand cereal. It made me uncomfortable to know that this person saw what my life was like compared to their own, like the stark difference between our financial situation would make them want to stop being around me. This is how the poor typically feel around the wealthy, and it is worth thinking about how the Bible describes ourselves as poor, and God as rich (2 Cor 8:9).
What the Scriptures are teaching us is that the kind of stratification that we naturally feel among each other is but a dim shadow of what our state is before God. God is infinitely beyond us, but not just in material wealth, but in the wealth of His character, His holiness. We are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” We are “poor in spirit.” Our main dilemma isn’t how much money we have in our bank account or what our 401K’s look like. Our main dilemma is where we stand before this awesome God. But the poor in spirit are blessed, because, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich,” 2 Cor 8:9. Jesus left the “wealth” of heaven to become “poor”—meaning, Jesus’ holiness and righteousness did not keep Him away from us when He saw our wretchedness and sinfulness. Rather, He was compelled to come down, become a man, and become “poor”—Jesus took on our spiritual poverty, our sinfulness, on the cross. So, now, we who are poor can become rich—we can be clothed in the righteousness of Jesus. It doesn’t matter what your income in this room is, whether you make a six-figure salary or you are hovering around the poverty line, all of us have access to these heavenly riches in Christ. And these matter infinitely more than earthly riches.
The High Brought Down
“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,” Luke 1:50-53. Why is so much of Mary’s song aimed at the powerful in the world being brought down? Later on in Luke, Jesus is going to explicitly condemn the wealthy, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation,” Luke 6:24. And then Jesus warns,
“Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” 16 And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, 17 and he thought to himself, What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18 And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ 20 But God said to him, Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” – Luke 12:15-21
What did Jesus tell that parable? What’s wrong with building barns? Is this telling us that savings accounts and retirement plans are wicked?
No, I don’t think so. Jesus is warning of the seductive danger of assuming that “one’s life consists in the abundance of possessions.”
Wealth, power, popularity, beauty, a winning personality, education, etc. can seduce you into thinking this life is the life that really matters and you don’t need God. This is something we should all be warned of, lest God say to us: “Fool.” What we need is to realize our deep, deep need and total reliance upon God.
Mary realizes several things all at once: (1) her spiritual poverty, her lowliness, (2) God’s might, power, and glory, and (3) God bending all of that might, power, and glory towards exalting and loving her and all who fear God. This leads her to burst into rejoicing. The very fact that her response is in the form of a song is itself instructive: mere prose will not capture her delight in God. She reaches for poetry to form the words to exult God.
Mary explains, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” Luke 1:46-47. For the rest of the song God is the subject of all of the verbs (except vs. 48b, referring to the generations who will call Mary blessed). Mary is rejoicing in who God is and what He does. God is the subject of her praise and worship.
If you want to discern what in your life may be seducing you into a form of self-sufficiency and pride, what may pull your heart into a state that says, “I don’t really need God,” just ask yourself: what does your soul magnify? What does your spirit rejoice in? It could be wealth. It could be your intelligence. It could be your athletic ability or your body. It could be your own virtue and religiosity.
Friends, if rejoicing in the Lord feels really difficult now, could it be that your heart is actually set on magnifying something else?