So Elizabeth, my oldest daughter, turned eight yesterday. And a couple weeks ago during Advent, one morning as she was getting ready for school, we were listening to Christmas music together and I asked her, “Elizabeth, what do you think was going through Mary’s mind as she held Jesus in her arms for the first time. This was God who had become human, and Mary was holding him. What was she thinking?”
And Elizabeth looked at me and did her arms like this, and she said, “Crazy.”
And I think she is right. And one of the neat things about the story of Jesus’s birth is that the Bible actually tells us at least a little bit of what Mary was thinking. Back before she wrapped Jesus in swaddling clothes, before she rode into Bethlehem on Friday night, earlier in her pregnancy, Luke tells us that she visited her cousin Elizabeth, who at the time was six months pregnant with John the Baptist. And when Mary got to her house, as soon as Mary knocked on the door, the baby John the Baptist leaped for joy inside Elizabeth’s womb, and Elizabeth then blessed Mary, and Mary then then sang a song.
And that song is what we find in verses 46–55. And there are two themes in this song that I want us to see this morning — these are two things that were on Mary’s mind, and two things that we need to be reminded of. The first, very simply, is that Jesus came by promise. And then the second, is that God does things upside-down. So what we are going to do now is look closer at these themes and then close with some application for how this changes the way we live.
So let’s start with the first theme, that we see in verses 54–55. It’s that:
1. Jesus Came by Promise
“He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
Mary understands that the birth of Jesus goes back to God’s promise to Abraham and the entire nation of Israel. She saw her situation in light of what God had said thousands of years earlier.
Way back, when the world was younger, God came to a man named Abram, a pagan who lived in ancient Mesopotamia, and God told him he was going to bless him, and make him into a mighty nation, and give him a special place to live, and through his offspring bless the entire world (Gen. 12:1–3). There was no more reason for God to say these words to Abram than for him to say these words to someone like you or me. It was unexplainable except for God’s sovereign grace. God comes to Abram by grace and just promises him this.
And the story of how God makes good on that promise, through all the ups and downs of fallen humanity, is basically the entire Old Testament. Which goes kind of like this . . . (this is the Old Testament in about three minutes).
The Old Testament in Three Minutes
Abram became Abraham, which means “father of a multitude,” and after him there was Isaac, and then Jacob and his twelve sons. And Jacob’s name was changed to Israel (which would become the national name) and of Israel’s sons there was Joseph and then the several twists and turns that brought his family to Egypt, and then his family multiplied in number there, and the new Pharaoh didn’t like that so he enslaved the people of Israel, and they endured years of back-breaking labor, but continued to grow in number in spite of it. And then there was Moses, the one called by God to set his people free from slavery. And with Moses came the plagues and the people escaped from Pharaoh and God split the Red Sea in two, and they were scot-free — except for their own hearts. See, the people grumbled, about the water, about the food, about the leaders, about the God who had freed them. And so God gave them the law—which was meant to show the people what it looks like for God to be their God and they his people. But before that was even put into effect, they were off worshiping a golden calf, singing and dancing and sacrificing to a statue. And the whole thing almost ended right then and there, and it might would had if Moses had not prayed, and reminded God what he already knew, that his promise to Abraham was on the verge of being destroyed. And so God gave mercy, and after the law there was the long journey to the Promised Land that God swore to Abraham. Then Moses died and Joshua took the mantle of leadership, and God continued to do amazing things. It was the Jordan River next, split in two. And then there were the conquests — when Israel took the land that God had promised them. But then there was the cycle of sin and judgment and repentance was put on repeat until the people demanded a king, and God gave them one. And of these kings there was the best king, David, who began as a simple boy from Bethlehem, but who God himself had chosen and given a promise reminiscent of the one to Abraham—a promise of offspring and blessing.
This promise was of a son whose reign would never end—a son of David but a king better than David, a ruler called the Anointed One — Messiah in Hebrew, Christos in Greek, or as we say in English, the Christ.
And we keep our eyes peeled at this part in the story. Who is this son, this Christ? Would it be David’s son Solomon? No, it was not Solomon, nor the son after him, nor the son after him. The kingdom was then divided and more kings came one after another, and all of them, good or bad, had one thing in common: they all died. And the people’s wickedness worsened to the point that God had to bring judgment, and he did. Jerusalem was sacked by Babylon and the people were carried into a second slavery. But God sent prophets to warn them, to warn Israel and warn Judah, and they also told them that things would not always be this way, that one day God was going to make it all right, that he was going to send that son of David, and that he was going to rescue his people once and for all. But that was the future.
Judgment was in the air, the people were dispossessed, they were ruled by one foreign power after another until it all brings us to around 4BC, when the Romans were in charge, and we come to a little stable in the town of Bethlehem and Mary has a son, and they name him Jesus.
Jesus came by promise, you see. All of this history. All of this background. All of these promises and the times when God made a way when there was no way. All of that was behind and leading to the birth of Jesus. And that’s why Mary says as she sang in verse 54: “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
So going through Mary’s mind was that Jesus came my promise.
So there’s that. That is the first point.
There is the promise of Jesus in the action-packed suspense of Israel’s history and all of that ushers us to a cold night in the little town of Bethlehem when every room in every motel was full, so God was born as a baby inside of a barn. So now, we’re at the second point, and this is most of our time. It’s that . . . .
2. God Does Things Upside-Down
This is the second theme of Mary’s song. Look at verses 51–53:
 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.
Verses 52–53 really show us the contrast. Here’s the obvious: we would expect that the mighty stay on their thrones. We would expect for them to continue to use their power and get what they want. And we would expect the humble — which is a polite word for riff-raff — we would expect them to stay in their slums, to keep punching the clock at their jobs, to let their cars break down again and fix them again, to do their own shopping with as many coupons as they can find. That’s what we would expect. Stay there, be that.
We would expect the rich to eat the best food and drink the nicest wine. We would expect them to never have a need. And we would expect the hungry to stay hungry, to pinch their pennies, to split a burger on date night instead of going to Fogo de Chao. To just be simple: stay there, be that.
That is what we expect, but that’s not what God does. Instead, God exalts the humble. The lowliest become the greatest, the last become the first, the poor become the rich. The little people of this world, the down-and-outs . . . the shopping cart caddies at Target and the late night gas station cashiers, they inherit the world.
That is how God does things, he does them upside-down to what the rest of us think. And we see this, of course, right in our faces when the king of kings is born in a stable. And we see this even more so, later in the story, when the king of kings is crucified as a criminal. It’s not what you ever expect. God does things upside-down.
And this truth about God, this reality of his ways, changes the way we live. And what I want to do now is give you three practical ways how. This is all application, and it’s the rest of the sermon. I just want to take this second theme, and try to bring it down here. God does things upside-down, and that means . . .
1. If you want to live, you’ve got to die.
Or in other words, if you want to live you’ve got to love, and love, if it’s real, is never easy. In fact, love in its truest form is a kind of dying, it’s a sacrifice — it’s when you find your joy not in what you have but in the good that your beloved receives when you give.
There is always a cost to love. That is the first thing to establish here. When we are loving others, we are paying something. We are spending something. So there is always a loss to ourselves.
And for us to really love, it means that we have to consider the good of our beloved to be better than our own good if we would keep back the loss. Love is when we find our joy not in holding onto what we might lose, but in seeing our beloved happy because of what we lose.
This is upside-down to how the world thinks. We are engrained to be self-protective. We are told over and over again for each to get their own, to look out for number one, and if we ever venture out in risks, it must only pay dividends to me personally. To risk for others, to put your neck on the line for someone else, to give of yourself for someone else’s good and be happy in that — that does not make sense. It doesn’t. This has baffled people for centuries. It baffled people when Jesus said things like, “For whoever would save his life will lose it” (Mark 8:35), and it baffled people the other night at Christmas party at a neighbor’s house.
Melissa and I were at this party and we’re all standing and moving from one conversation to the next, catching up and being cordial. And somehow the conversation got on foster care. Some of you know, Melissa and I are in the process of becoming a foster parents for infants in need of care. It’s common knowledge that we have an orphan crisis in the Twin Cities. That was talked a lot about a couple months ago, and long before, and especially during that time, Melissa sensed God’s call to foster newborns. So that is happening. We are in that process. And Melissa was sharing this with a neighbor at this Christmas party, and the neighbor, bless her heart, replied, “Well, good! Now you can at least make some money while you stay at home.”
It was an awkward moment. But see, that is the category. What good is in this for me? She assumed, bless her heart, that the only way something like that makes sense for my wife is because of something she gets from it. It makes no sense to her that someone would look at these children — this baby whose mother is addicted to crystal meth — it makes no sense that someone would look at that baby and think: my joy in knowing you are safe, whatever that costs me, is better than my joy in keeping back that cost. It means that what gives me more joy than uninterrupted sleep is knowing that a baby without a mother will be taken care of tonight.
That is love. And that’s how you really live. All the other stuff that people call really living, all the stuff people call living it up, it’s just frills, man. It’s cheap.
God turns things upside-down and that means that if you want to live, really live, you’ve got to die. If you want to live, you’ve got to love. And there are a thousand different ways that might look in your life.
Okay, the second application, because God turns things upside down —
2. If you want to boast, you’ve got to embrace your shame.
Look, we all want to boast, one way or another. We want to experience greatness, to have meaning, to be significant, to matter in some way. We all want that. We want something to rally behind, to hold up. We want to base our lives around something wonderful, we want to be confident in something glorious. And before you can truly do that, or actually, simultaneous to truly doing that, you must also embrace your shame.
Here’s what I mean: the most boast-worthy thing in the universe is the victory of God in Jesus dying on the cross and being raised from the dead to save sinners. All of our attempts to find meaning in life outside of this great victory of God is just spinning our wheels. The glory of God in the gospel of Jesus is the glory we long for. That is the something wonderful we want to boast in and rally behind and hold up and celebrate.
And at the same time, right in the middle of this victory, even when God declares us righteous, there is the truth we all know — it’s that left to ourselves we are guilty. See, central to God’s glorious salvation is the fact that we, you and me, need saving. If we want to be saved from our sin it starts with knowing that we are sinners. And unless we can accept that, unless we accept that our boasting in what is truly great means also embracing our shame, unless we can accept that then we are boasting in something different from the victory of God.
Because the victory of God tells us both. When Jesus died on the cross God is saying to us: “You are wrong” and “you are loved.” God tells us we’re wrong, that the wages of sin is death, that rebellion means judgment, that our rescue required the cursed death of his Son. God tells us that in the cross. And God tells us we’re loved, that even while we were sinners, Jesus died for us, that while we were unrighteous, Jesus suffered in our place, that though we were destined for wrath, Jesus has welcomed us into glory. As Tim Keller has put it: “The cross of Jesus tells us we’re far worse than we ever imagined, and far more loved than we could ever dream.”
Both parts come together, and for us really understand his love, to boast in his victory, we also boast in our own emptiness. We, in one sense, hold up our shame — who we used to be, who we might have been — and we wrap it in God’s transforming grace and we say THAT. THAT!
THAT IS MY ONLY HOPE — WHAT JESUS DID THAT FOR ME.
And this is where we land. We don’t wallow in the shame. We see it. We acknowledge it. And it makes us cling all the more to the cross. The cross — what Jesus did! — that is my confidence. That is what I’ll rally behind and celebrate.
And you can see it — this is upside-down. We are boasting in a man’s execution. You are boasting in someone else being the hero of your story. And Paul went as far as to say,
“But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6:14)
Nothing else matters, Paul says, but that. That! God does things upside-down, if you want to boast, you’ve got to embrace your shame.
And this brings us to final point of application. It’s that God does things upside-down so . . .
3. If you want God, stop where you are.
That is what Paul says. Romans 4:4–5,
“Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”
In other words, if you want to be forgiven, if you want to be declared righteous, if you want to be reconciled into a relationship with God, stop working for it. Stop your efforts to be good enough, to be spiritual enough, to be thought decent by God and others. If you want God, stop trying to work your way to him, and instead rest in the gift of his salvation. This is upside-down.
Every other religion in the world says something different. Every man-made religion is built on the human instinct that there is a separation between us and God, — between us and transcendence, or Ultimate Reality (whatever they might say). There is a separation, a gulf, that needs bridging. Humans must get back to God. And in every other religion humans get back to God by working their way to him, by climbing the stairs, by exerting our best efforts — whether that means total submission to Allah or cognitive exercises that try to hear the sound of one hand clapping. Every other religion is humans doing something to reach God. And then the gospel comes and says: Stop what your doing, God has reached you.
Jesus came, born in a stable of all places, and he lived in our shoes. He experienced all that we have, except worse. And as an innocent man, perfect in every way, he went to the cross in our place and he died for us. He was punished for our sins, and in exchange, he gives us his righteousness. And if you will take it, if you will have him, you must stop where you are and just say okay. If you will have what you most need and desire, you must receive it as a gift, because there is no other way. You cannot earn it.
God does things upside-down to how the we all think, and if you will come to him, you must come to him upside-down.
And that’s really the way to say it. I think that’s how Mary would put it. There is an urge in me to say, No no no. God is doing it right-side up, everything else is upside-down. But I think that sugarcoats it and misses the point. The point is that God does it differently. He does it strangely, and if we are going to come to him and be who he calls us to be, we will have to come to him strangely too. We’ll have to see the world through his eyes, when living means dying, when glory requires shame, when salvation says to stop.
And that brings us to the Table.
This is the moment in the service when we remember God’s salvation, that before we came to Jesus, he came to us. When we remember that we didn’t work for his broken body and shed blood, but that he gave it to us. And we sit here, that’s all. We sit here and receive this gift and say amen.
If you are here today and Jesus is your only hope, if you have stopped trying to work your way to God and instead you have received the gift of himself, we invite you to eat and drink with us.