Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

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Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Fourth Sunday in Advent

Fourth Sunday in Advent (C)
December 20, 2009
Text: Luke 1:39-56

This morning St. Mary sings to us of the way God deals with humanity. He does not judge according to human wisdom. He judges according to divine wisdom, which is foolishness to the natural mind of man. Our God regards the lowly, the despised, the destitute, and bestows His most gracious blessings upon them, though they be entirely undeserving of such kindness. That is, in fact, the definition of the word “grace”: God’s undeserved kindness and love. Thus God does great things for the weak and undeserving, for sinners, only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in them. At the same time, notice what He does with the proud, the mighty, the exalted, those who are of high estate in human estimation: He scatters them, He brings them down from their thrones, He sends them away empty. What are we to make of all of this? This is what is known in theology as the “Great Reversal,” and Jesus speaks of it often in the Gospels. “So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matt. 20:16; ESV).

We see the Great Reversal being worked in our Gospel lesson this morning, in the account of the visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, both of them miraculously pregnant, miraculous because Mary is a virgin and Elizabeth is well beyond child-bearing age. We see the Great Reversal being worked in these two unlikely women being chosen, purely by God’s gracious appointment, to bear the last of the great Old Testament prophets, St. John the Baptist, and our Savior, Jesus Christ. Even in terms of these women’s relationship to one another, we see the Great Reversal at work. Elizabeth, as the older, wiser, wife of a priest, should receive all the praise and honor from this poor teenage unwed mother. And certainly Mary does honor Elizabeth, but so also the reverse is true, for as soon as Mary greets Elizabeth, the unborn John the Baptist leaps in his mother’s womb, and as if using Elizabeth as his mouthpiece, his mother declares, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42-43).

But why the Great Reversal? Why this great honor for the virgin Mary? It is not, as has been falsely taught for centuries in the Christian Church, that Mary is any less a sinner than you are or I am. God does not bestow this grace upon Mary, that she should be Mother of God, based on any merit or worthiness within her. She does not earn this honor by her virtue or by any super good works. It is not the case, as has been falsely taught, that Mary was born sinless. God does not even choose Mary because she is so humble, although she certainly is that. The whole cause of this great honor bestowed on Mary, that she should bear the Savior, and of all generations calling her blessed, is the unmerited favor of God, His grace, and His grace alone. Mary confesses as much in her song: Why does her soul magnify the Lord and her spirit rejoice in God? Because He is her Savior, and because He has looked upon the “humble estate” of His servant (vv. 46-48). A better translation here for “humble estate” might be “lowly state.” God bestows this great honor of bearing the Savior, not upon the daughter of a king, or the daughter of the high priest, or some rich kid, but on this poor, lowly girl from Nazareth. Pure grace. That’s all it can be. Because there is absolutely nothing in Mary, even from a human perspective, that makes her qualified to be the virgin Mother of our Lord, other than God’s decision.

Again, Mary confesses her “low estate,” and it is upon that basis that she prophesies: “all generations will call me blessed” (v. 48). “They will not be praising me personally,” says Mary, “or anything within me, but God alone, for His great grace to me, and for His great grace to the whole world through my Son Jesus Christ.” And so Mary directs us in her song to the great things God does for lowly sinners. His mercy is for those who fear Him, which is to say, revere Him alone as God, and this mercy is for generation to generation (v. 50). He shows strength with His arm by scattering the proud in the imagination of their hearts, bringing down the mighty from their thrones, and exalting those of low degree (vv. 51-52). That is to say, He does not regard the kings and presidents, celebrities and those otherwise considered influential in the eyes of men. He leaves them in their own folly if they forsake Him. He regards those who believe in Him, acknowledging their utter sinfulness, unworthiness, and helplessness, relying on Him alone for salvation and help in time of need. He fills the hungry with good things, which is to say, to all who look to Him alone for their good, He will not forsake them, but the rich He sends away empty, which is to say, to all who look to themselves and their riches, their own talents and abilities, to provide for their needs, He will take away even what they have (v. 53). And it is true. It could happen to them in this life. It will happen in the life to come, when the despised sinners who believe in Mary’s Son, our Lord Christ, go into heaven, and the worldly-wise, unable to purchase their salvation, are cast into hell.

St. Mary tells us that God remembers His mercy, and that on this basis He has helped His servant Israel, which refers to the Jews from whom Christ comes (v. 54), and fulfilled His promise to Abraham and all who are his offspring by faith, which includes those from all nations who believe in Christ Jesus (v. 55). What she is saying here is that the fruit of her womb is nothing less than the fulfillment of the whole Old Testament. Elizabeth’s son John has come as the last prophet to prepare the way of the Lord. Mary’s Son Jesus is the Lord in the flesh. And this is the ultimate example of the Great Reversal. If we were to design the history of our salvation according to human wisdom, as every religion outside of Christianity does, what would that salvation look like? Undoubtedly God would come in great power and glory and annihilate the devil and the evil angels, and all those we consider the “worst sinners,” like Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden, with a tremendous show of His righteous wrath, and then He would set Himself up as King and rule all earthly politics and make everything right. There would be peace on earth, sustained by His bare power. There would be no hunger or poverty, for wealth would be evenly distributed. We would all serve and believe in this God and be saved by Him, because, after all, we’re not as bad as Hitler and bin Laden, and it would be obvious who is the one true God. It would be a matter of sight, not of faith, because seeing is believing. This is called the theology of glory, and it is a false theology, beloved.

How different is actual salvation history, determined by divine wisdom, which is foolishness to our fleshly minds. This is the theology of the cross, the Great Reversal. God works through what is weak and foolish and despised in the world to shame the strong, the wise, the idolized. God becomes one with man in the incarnation, the enfleshment, of the Son of God, the Son of Mary, Jesus of Nazareth. God comes down into this stinking, rotten, cesspool of humanity that we have created by our sin. He is conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of a poor virgin girl, born in the one horse town of Bethlehem, laid in a manger because there is no room for Him in the inn. As He grows, He learns the carpentry trade from His adopted father Joseph. Throughout His ministry He is rejected by the chief priests and the Jewish elite. He is surrounded by bumbling disciples, many of them simple fishermen. He eats with tax collectors and sinners. And then He is crucified as a criminal. He comes to a bloody end, one that the Scriptures call “cursed” (Deut. 21:22-23; Gal. 3:13). This is how God saves humanity and His fallen creation. He gives His Son into death. He gives His Son into the hands of the devil. He gives His Son into hell. For us. For you. For me. Jesus, the exalted Son of God, becomes lowly for our sake. And so Jesus is THE lowly One, THE One of low estate. He becomes so willingly, out of love for us, for our salvation. And what happens? After He suffers hell for us, as our substitute, after He dies on the cross as our substitute, after He is laid in our tomb, God raises Him from the dead! God seats Him at His own right hand to rule all things in heaven and on earth and under the earth for the good of His people! God exalts Him! Mary’s song is about the incarnation and death and resurrection of Christ! It’s all about Christ! Mary does not want praises for herself, and she certainly doesn’t want us to pray to her. She wants us to believe in her Son.

And beloved, by faith in her Son, the Great Reversal becomes no longer something we should fear, but great good news for us. In Christ Jesus, we sinners are exalted. The Great Reversal is very personal for you, for God says to you, “Poor sinner, I forgive you, I lift you up, I exalt you, I consider you my own dear child.” It happens at Baptism. It continues as we live our lives in this Baptism and faith. It happens as we are connected to Christ by immersion in His Word and participation in His body and blood at the Sacrament of the Altar. For every sinner here present who is of low estate, who knows they are a sinner, who knows they deserve nothing but God’s wrath and hell, who has been busy preparing the way of the Lord in repentance, trusting Jesus Christ alone for salvation, today our Lord says to you, “In my death you are exalted. Because I have suffered your punishment, you receive my reward.” This is all by grace, without any merit or worthiness in us. God has remembered His mercy. He has helped us. He has called us to be His own. And there is nothing left to do but take up the song with Mary: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-47). In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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