The Lord Humbles the Proud and Exalts the Lowly

The text for today is our Old Testament reading, the Song of Hannah, 1 Samuel 2:1-10, which has already been read.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The theme of our midweek Advent services is “My pride, my defeat.  God’s pride my deliverance.”  We’ve been talking about the dangerous sin of pride.  Pride tricks us into believing that we are self-sufficient and self-made, that we don’t need anybody or anything to make our own way—not even God.  But such an attitude keeps us from realizing our great need: Before God we are beggars; we must rely on His grace and mercy to save us. 

Pride is a dangerous sin that separates us from God, and in order to rid us of its grip God will go to extreme lengths.  As when King Nebuchadnezzar boasted of his mighty power and was driven out to live with the beasts of the field, his hair as long as eagle’s feathers and nails like bird claws.  Or when King Saul thought he could order the worship of God in his own way, and forfeited his throne and life, and endangered his eternal soul.  But kings aren’t the only ones prone to pride; we all are.  And to prove this, tonight we have story of two everyday, ordinary women. 

Every family has its problems, and the family of Elkanah, located in the hill country of Ephraim, was no exception.  The strain in this household was obvious.  Here were two wives, Hannah and Peninnah, competing for the love and attention of the same man.  And it seemed that Hannah was losing, for while Peninnah had children—sons and daughters, Hannah was barren—the Lord had closed up her womb.  This is a very distressing condition for most any woman, but was particularly bitter in a day and age in which a woman’s value in society was measured by the number of children she bore.

The worst times for Hannah were during the festivals.  Peninnah used such occasions to provoke her rival, even going so far as to exalt herself whenever Hannah went to the worship, as though fertility was proof that God favored her over Hannah.  It was depressing; not even Elkanah’s profession of undying love could fill the emptiness in Hannah’s life.  But there was One who understood.  And so Hannah took her need to the Lord in prayer.  The essence of Hannah’s prayer is found in two words in 1 Samuel 1:11: “remember me.” 

It’s a sad commentary on religious life in those times when the high priest doesn’t recognize fervent prayer, but assumes drunkenness instead.  But that’s what Eli did.  Hannah defended her honor: “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit.  I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.” 

Eli felt her reproof and dismissed her with a high priestly blessing.  “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to Him.”  Hannah left the sanctuary that day having handed everything over to God.  And her confidence was not misplaced—“The Lord remembered her.”  She conceived and bore a son and called him Samuel, meaning “God has heard.”

True to her vows, Hannah took her son to Shiloh and presented him to the Lord.  Then Hannah broke out in a song of praise and thanksgiving, a prayer.  The theme of Hannah’s song is the glory of the Lord who humbles the proud and exalts the lowly.  Verse 10 is particularly prophetic: “The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; He will give strength to His king and exalt the power of His Anointed.” 

Hannah prophesies the time when God would give His righteous judgments through His anointed king.  At that time, there was no king in Israel.  But Hannah’s son, Samuel would grow up and anoint Saul as the first king.  And when Saul’s pride brought about his defeat, Samuel would anoint David.  The words of Hannah’s song would ultimately be perfectly fulfilled in Jesus, the Anointed One.

Which takes us to another pair of otherwise ordinary women: Elizabeth and Mary.  Both women are “miracle moms.”  Elizabeth shouldn’t be pregnant since she’s been barren all her life and now is past the age of child-bearing.  But Mary’s pregnancy is even more miraculous, for she has not known a man.  She is a virgin.     

Mary greets Elizabeth.  And when Elizabeth hears the greeting of Mary, the baby leaps in her womb.  Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit exclaims with a loud cry: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  And why is it granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

Among women, Mary is especially blessed.  Why?  Because Mary is what every true Israelite woman aspired to be—the mother of the Messiah.  She is the counterpart to Eve, who heard the doubting word of the devil and was deceived.  Mary heard the Word of God through the angel, she believed, and she conceived.  Mary’s Child is the Promised Seed, the One who conquers death and devil by dying.  As Eve was to be the mother of all the living, so Mary is the mother of the One who is the Source and Savior of all life.  And if that doesn’t give you a few Advent goosebumps, I don’t know what will.

Mary is blessed because the Lord is present with her, full of grace and truth.  Furthermore, Mary is blessed because she believed—the Word gave her faith so that she might give birth to the Word Made Flesh.  And she is blessed because God is faithful and will fulfill His promise.  Add it all up, and you see a common theme: Mary is blessed because of the Child within her conceived by the Holy Spirit.

And what does Mary have to say for herself?  “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.  He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever” (Luke 1:46-55).

It’s quite a speech by an unwed teenage mother to be.  One might ignorantly decide that she must be a haughty young thing all stuck on herself.  But I doubt that you’ll hear anything so substantial from Chelsea or Janelle or any of the other teen moms on reality TV.  No, Mary speaks in the form of a psalm, much like the song Hannah sang when she brought her young son, Samuel, to the Lord’s house. 

Furthermore, listen to what Mary says: “All generations will call me blessed.”  What’s that mean?  Since she’s speaking Old Testament-style, let’s just take a look there.  How many blessed things last for all generations?  Well, the Lord’s name does (Exodus 3:15).  So does His will (Psalm 33:11).  So does His praise (Psalm 79:13), His faithfulness (Psalm 89:1), and His fame (Psalm 146:10).  So does His truth (Psalm 100:5), His absolution (Psalm 106:31), and His presence (1 Kings 8:12-13).  And Mary says that all generations will call her blessed?

It would be a haughty, prideful song indeed, except that Mary is singing about the Child inside her belly.  He is the Lord, the Son of God.  He is God’s truth, faithfulness, absolution, and presence with His people.  He brings salvation for Mary and the world—not by our works of pride, might, or wealth—but by His life, suffering, death, and resurrection.  That’s why all generations will look back and call Mary blessed: Because the Lord is present with her, full of grace and truth. 

Properly understood, the song of Mary is not about her at all.  She is simply the instrument that God uses to bring His Son into the world.  This is the great and mighty wonder at the heart of Christmas.  The Lord of the universe, the Word through whom all things were made, has a mother!  The infinite Almighty Son of God takes up residence in the finite confines of a mother’s womb. 

Jesus could have appeared suddenly out of nowhere, I suppose, as a fully grown man, much as the gods of the Greek myths were said to appear.  God can dwell among us any way He chooses.  But then there would be doubts: Is He fully human, or does He just appear to be that way?  Had not Jesus had a human mother we would forever doubt His humanity.  And then we would question whether He is our substitute under the Law, whether His death actually atones for our sin.

Had Jesus shown up as a 30-year-old man, He would have sidestepped some of the most difficult and painful parts of our human existence—the trauma of birth, the helplessness of infancy, the bumps and bruises of toddlerhood, the awkwardness of adolescence.  He would not have known what it’s like to be utterly dependent on father and mother and to live obediently under them. 

It had to be this way, for Jesus to literally be the Savior of all.  His human nature embraces all of our humanity, from the tiniest cluster of fetal cells in Mary’s womb to the dying breath of the Man on the cross.  Jesus embraces the fullness of our humanity with the fullness of His divinity.  God is Man and Man is God.  File that away for another week or so because that is true reason for the season.

But in the meanwhile, we’re still in Advent.  Like pregnant Mary, we are expectantly looking for the coming of the Lord.  And to help us properly prepare and focus we have Mary’s song of salvation, her Magnificat to the Lord who had done great things for her.  The Holy Spirit, by whom she conceived the Savior, put this song in Mary’s heart and upon her lips for your blessing and mine.

Her song begins: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”  Mary’s focus is on her Lord.  I find it fascinating that little is mentioned of Mary in the Gospels—virtually nothing at all after Jesus’ childhood, except for the wedding at Cana, the time when she thought her Son had lost His mind, and then at the cross.  Mary would not be pleased by all the attention that is given to her.  She magnifies the Lord, and would have us do the same. 

“All generations will call me blessed,” she says.  And so we do.  We bless her when we sing the song she sang, as we do at every Vespers.  We bless her for the mighty things God has done through her.  We bless her that God chose such a wonderful way to make His appearance in our world. 

We bless Mary for her servanthood, for her faith that said “yes,” that bowed humbly before the Word of God even when it didn’t make sense, and said, “Let it be to me according to your word.”  We bless her because she is the mother of our Lord.  If we lose Mary, we lose the Incarnation of the Son of God, for the One whom we call both Lord and God has a mother, just as you and I have mothers.

We bless Mary because she stands at the end of a long line of blessed and chosen mothers, from Eve, to Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth, down the line through all the mothers of Israel, who carried the Promised Seed from one generation to the next, until the fullness of time came, when God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under Law, to redeem those under the Law.

We bless Mary, but we must not worship her.  She would be offended and irritated by such misguided adoration.  Her name is not holy.  She did not earn her honor as the mother of our Lord; it was given to her.  God’s name is holy.  The Child whom she carried, who bears the name of God in human flesh, the Child whose name Jesus means “Yahweh is salvation,” His name is holy.

With her song, Mary also teaches us the proper fear of the Lord: “His mercy is on those who fear Him, from generation to generation.”  What does fear have to do with Christmas?  Jesus in a manger is safe, cute, cuddly—there is nothing to fear there.  The shepherds were afraid of the angels, not the baby. 

But don’t be deceived by His humble state.  Even in the womb, this Child has the power to create and destroy.  He is the arm of God extended to us, the arm that can kill and make alive, that throws down and picks up.  He scatters the proud in their arrogance.  He brings down rulers from their thrones.    

Just think of the sight of Saddam Hussein being pulled out of his spider hole eight years ago yesterday—all scruffy and unshaven and dirty.  This once proud and boastful king of modern Babylon didn’t learn very well from his ancient predecessor, Nebuchadnezzar.  It never goes well for any king or president, who arrogantly boasts of his accomplishments as though he were the driving force.

With the strength of His arm, the Lord topples the thrones of this world—Pharaoh in Egypt, Sihon of the Amorites, Og of Bashan, Tiglath-Pileser in Assyria, Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, Alexander the Great, the Caesars of Rome, Hitler, and Gorbachev.  One day He will sweep His arm and every throne under heaven, including our own nation, will crumble under the weight.

With the strength of His arm, the Lord sweeps away the riches of the rich.  He takes away our property, position, and honor.  He strips away our pride.  He crushes our egos.  He opens the floodgates to earthquakes and floods and fires, plagues and famines, disasters and diseases.  He takes away our life, our goods, our fame and fortune, our family.  He utterly devastates every idolatry in us by the strength of His arm—the pride of our hearts, the will to gain power and control others, the lust for fortune and fame.  Oh yes, the arm of the Lord is to be feared.

And yet it is also an arm of mercy.  To those who fear Him, who have heard the death sentence of the Law and tremble before Him, the Lord extends that arm of mercy.  He gives to the empty, to those who offer nothing, to the beggars, to the little ones of faith, the poor, the meek, the lowly, the least, the lost, the dead. 

The Lord humbles the proud and exalts the lowly.    

With His arm outstretched, God swore an oath to the patriarchs.  He promised descendants as numerous as the grains of sand on the seashore, and an inheritance that would never pass away.  By His right arm He brought the children of Jacob out of Egypt and gave them a land.  By His right arm, God reached down to us and embraced our humanity in all of its sin and misery and death. 

But the strength of His arm is hidden under weakness—a virgin’s womb, a borrowed tomb, a manger bed, a cross of dread.  When He appears most weak and lowly, He is most Savior for you. 

Indeed, this is true for you even now as our Christ comes to you in His Word and Sacraments.  With the Word of God plain, ordinary water is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of new birth in the Holy Spirit.  Under the bread and the wine of His Supper, you receive the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.  Through an ordinary man—His called and ordained servant—Christ speaks His Absolution to you, a repentant sinner. 

To the eyes of the world, these all appear weak and lowly; but in them, you have salvation and eternal life.  In these means of grace, the arm of the Lord reaches out to you, bringing you this blessed Good News: You are forgiven for all of your sins.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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