Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“God Lifts Up the Lowly” (Luke 1:52)
December 23, 2018
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
You are ten years old and in fifth grade. It is crisp fall Saturday afternoon in Northern Virginia. You arrive at a soccer field for a game against your biggest rival, a team with a bunch of kids you know from school, including a few notorious bullies. You have recently started going to church so the fact that you literally hate the other team makes you feel a little guilty, but not that guilty. There is a kid on your team named Tommy. Tommy wears very thick glasses and his dirty blonde hair is an unkempt mess, cowlicks in all directions. Tommy has a form of cerebral palsy that has affected his left arm, which is smaller than his right arm and always bent at the elbow, his hand hanging limp. His arm and hand swing back and forth as he runs. Tommy has never scored a goal, and thinks he never will.
For years Tommy has had this disability. For years Tommy has been teased because of it, even though of course he can’t help it, and today is no exception. As your team warms up on your side of the field, you and Tommy are passing a ball back and forth when the goalie on the other team begins taunting Tommy, holding his left arm and hand just like Tommy’s and shouting insults at him. Tommy’s face turns red, and you say to him, “Shake it off, Tommy.” Tommy won’t make eye contact (he never makes eye contact) and replies, “I’m tired of shaking it off.”
The game is heated, lots of dirty plays, lots of “talking smack.” Late in the game it is tied 2 – 2, and the other team has a goal kick. Their obnoxious goalie, who has been taunting Tommy the whole game, sets the ball down for the goal kick, and while walking backwards holds his left arm up in continued mockery of Tommy, then runs forward and kicks the ball…and yes, the ball happens to go right toward Tommy. Without even thinking about it, Tommy, his left arm swinging limp, swings his right leg at the ball, and completes a perfect half volley (when you kick the ball the split second it bounces off the ground, like a dropkick in football). You watch the goalie stare in horror at the ball Tommy has just kicked as it sails over his head and right under the crossbar for a spectacular goal.
Your team erupts. Your sideline erupts. Tommy is jumping up and down in joy his left arm flinging around. When the game ends a few minutes later, you have defeated your arch rivals 3 – 2 thanks to Tommy’s amazing goal. Your team surrounds Tommy and he is beaming with joy and he is no longer avoiding eye contact. The next week at school everyone passing Tommy in the halls, except the members of the other team of course, give kudos to Tommy, who is holding up his head for the first time that you can remember. One day at lunch that week he tells you that goal was one of the best moments of his life. And as you look back on it forty years later you realize it was one of the best moments of your life too.
On this Fourth Sunday of Advent the gospel passage includes one of the high water marks of scripture, a psalm of praise spoken by someone else who, like Tommy, was lowly, Mary. Mary was pregnant with the Son of God, but of course had been insulted and mocked for being pregnant out of wedlock. Mary was from a poor family in a poor town called Nazareth. And yet God had given grace to Mary, and Mary knew it. In a psalm of praise known as the Magnificat she begins, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant” (Luke 1:46-48). God had looked with favor, or you could say God had given grace, to the lowliness of Mary—and in response she praised God. Later in the Magnificat, Mary proclaims that God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52).
The gospel is good news for the lowly, because as Mary proclaimed, God indeed has “lifted up the lowly”—and God still does.
The Greek word translated “lowly” in this passage could also be translated as “humble” or “downcast” (like someone who never makes eye contact). God does not give a self-help book to the lowly, or tell the lowly to shake it off. Instead, God gives grace to the lowly. Instead, God lifts up the lowly.
What Mary describes in the Magnificat as God bringing down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly is a recurring theme in scripture. In the Old Testament God brought down the pharaoh of Egypt and lifted up lowly Israel out of four centuries of slavery. Later God brought down King Saul and lifted up a lowly and rejected shepherd named David to the throne of Israel.
Along these lines, twice in the New Testament we read that God opposes the proud and gives grace to the lowly, or humble. In his epistle James writes “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6) and in his first epistle Peter echoes this and takes is a step further, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you (or lift you up) in due time” (1 Peter 5:5). The Greek word for “humble” in both those verses is the same word translated “lowly” in today’s gospel passage. God gives grace to the humble. God lifts up the lowly.
On May 7, 2015 one of my favorite actors, Denzel Washington, gave a moving commencement speech at Dillard University in New Orleans. He spoke about his personally experiencing how God lifts up the lowly:
Everything that you think you see in me, everything that I’ve accomplished, everything that you think I have, and I have a few things, everything that I have is by the grace of God. Understand that. It’s a gift. March 27, 1975 was forty years ago. I was flunking out of college. I had a 1.7 grade point average. I hope none of you can relate. I was sitting in my mother’s beauty parlor and I’m looking in the mirror and I see behind me this woman under a dryer and she was looking at me. And she said, “Somebody give me a pen, I have a prophecy.” March 27, 1975. She said, “Boy, you are gonna travel the world and speak to millions of people.” Now mind you, I had flunked out of college, I’m thinking about joining the army, I didn’t know what I was going to do. She’s telling me I’m gonna travel the world and speak to millions of people. Well, I have traveled the world, and I have spoken to millions of people…and God has kept me humble. I didn’t always stick with him but he always stuck with me.
He later adds, “Finally, I pray that you put your slippers way under the bed tonight, so that when you wake up in the morning, you have to get on your knees to reach them, and while you’re down there, say ‘Thank you for grace.’”
When Mary proclaimed that God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly,” she was not just speaking about herself, but for all the lowly in the world. The truth is we are all lowly in one way or another. And yet even when we don’t always stick with God, God always sticks with us.
Even if externally we may appear successful, internally we may be experiencing something quite different. For example, in her 2014 book Yes Please comedienne and television producer Amy Poehler vulnerably writes about how hard we can be on ourselves, especially when it comes to our appearance:
I hate how I look. That is the mantra we repeat over and over again. Sometimes we whisper it quietly and other times we shout it out loud in front of a mirror. I hate how I look. I hate how my face looks my body looks I am too fat or too skinny or too tall or too wide or my legs are stupid and my face is too smiley or my teeth are dumb and my nose is serious and my stomach is being so lame… You are six or twelve or fifteen and you look in the mirror and you hear a voice so awful and mean it takes your breath away. It tells you that you are fat and ugly and you don’t deserve love. And the scary part is the demon is your own voice. But it doesn’t sound like you. It sounds like a strangled and seductive version of you. Think Darth Vader or an angry Lauren Bacall…The bad news is it never goes away (15-16).
But even if that demon voice never goes away, there is Someone Else who also never goes away, the God of grace who lifts up the lowly, who assures you that even if you don’t think you deserve love, you still are loved—that regardless of what you think of your appearance, regardless of whether or not you have an arm hanging limp by your side, you are loved by God, you are lifted up by God.
“God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” That statement of Mary is also a powerful summary of the gospel. Except with the gospel, Jesus, who is omnipotent, all-powerful, was not brought down from his throne in heaven by someone else, but rather willingly stepped down from it of his own volition. In Jesus Christ, the God of all grace, humbled himself and became incarnate on your behalf. Scripture tells us that Jesus Christ, “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” and “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8). Jesus literally said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy hardens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble (or “lowly”—same word Mary used) in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29, italics added). The God who gives grace to the humble literally humbled himself for you.
Moreover, the God who gives grace to the humble is the same God who lifts up the lowly, and the same God who was literally lifted up on the cross for you. Jesus himself proclaimed, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).
Jesus allowed himself to be lifted up on the cross in order to lift up all the lowly of the world.
That is what happened on Good Friday, when Jesus was lifted on the cross to atone for the sins of the world, taking the lowliest position in order to lift up all the lowly in the world, to make eye contact with all the lowly in the world and say, “You are loved, you are forgiven, you are lifted up. You will travel the world. You will speak to millions of people. You will score spectacular goals over those who have made fun of you for things you cannot help.”
And on Easter morning God the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit lifted Jesus up out of the grave and “exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:9).
Scripture tells us Jesus humbled himself and “was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). In other words, Jesus died on the cross for you and Jesus was raised from the dead for you.
Jesus became lowly in order to lift up all the lowly of the world.
And even now God lifts up the lowly—that is the good news of the gospel.
In response we can kneel and pray, “Thank you for grace.”