Down and Out to Up and In
Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today's Gospel reading shows us that our God is the One who takes those who are down and out, lifts them up, and puts them safely in His tender care.
The first people our Lord lifts up from being down and out are women. This is less obvious to us today, mostly because of Christianity's positive influence over the last 2000 years, but even now we recognize that women far more often than men are subject to abuse and abandonment. In the ancient world, women were even more vulnerable and often not well-treated. This was particularly true among pagans, but even among the Jews, women could be treated with disrespect and hung out to dry by men; some of the rabbis said that a man could divorce his wife for something as trivial as burning dinner. This is why Jesus upbraids them for their hardness of heart and divorce-mongering, and then He reiterates God's original design for marriage as the union of one man and one woman until death parts them.
In our text, we see God taking two women who were down and out and lifting them up into His gracious care and plans. Elizabeth had been barren into old age, down and out with no hope of bearing a child, and God overcame the brokenness of this creation and blessed her with the privilege of bearing John the Baptist, the herald of the Messiah. The Virgin Mary was just a teenage girl from the backwater town of Nazareth, and the Lord lifted her up to unprecedented and unrepeatable honor by placing the Messiah into her womb.
God's dealings with these women continued His pattern that He began in the Old Testament of dealing favorably with women. God had given Eve the promise that a Seed would eventually be born to a woman to crush the head of Satan and redeem mankind from sin. Abraham's wife Sarah was blessed in old age with a son who would father many nations and continue the line of the Messianic Seed. Hannah in her barrenness was gifted with a son, Samuel, who would be the Lord's prophet and anointer of kings, eventually anointing King David, who would continue the Messianic line as well.
Throughout the Bible, God shows that He doesn't want women left down and out but lifted up and taken into His gracious plans and purposes. He identifies Himself especially as the caretaker of the widow and the fatherless. But nothing shows His great love of women and motherhood like the conception of John in Elizabeth in her old age by natural means, and the miraculous conception of Jesus in Mary by the special work of the Holy Spirit. God uses these women as vessels of grace for His saving plan, to prepare the way for Jesus and to bring the Savior into the world.
And through this, the Lord also lifts up a second group of people who have so often been down and out: unborn babies, infants, and young children. No group is more vulnerable than the little ones. Throughout history, adults who have considered babies burdens and inconveniences have dealt with them horribly. There is nothing new under the sun. Legalized abortion today provides the indisputable fact that this country doesn't really provide justice for all. Each day thousands of little ones are put down and thrown out like trash.
But today's Gospel shows God's great love for the little ones, even in the womb! A most remarkable meeting occurs between John the Baptist and Jesus. At the sound of the Virgin Mother's voice, John the Baptist leaps for joy! Our gracious God shows through this that by the power of the Holy Spirit, even the unborn can possess faith, hope, love, and joy. What a comfort this is for all Christian mothers who carry babes in their womb—and what an even greater comfort this is for women who have lost babies to miscarriage or stillbirth. For the little Babe of Mary would grow up to die for the sins of all mankind, even for the unborn, and He sends His Holy Spirit to work through God's Word wherever and whenever it pleases Him. This means that our Lord can reach down from heaven and take even those who die before birth up and into His presence in heaven.
In our American Protestant context, this is often considered impossible, since faith is thought to require knowledge and understanding. But the Bible never speaks of an age when faith may first exist, nor is God's grace dependent on the strength of our bodies or our minds. This would have been easily understood by Mary, Elizabeth, and anyone who studies the Old Testament. In Psalm 71:6, the Psalmist prays to God: "Upon you I have leaned from before my birth; you are he who took me from my mother's womb." The Holy Spirit inspired David to write Psalm 22, which is what Jesus prays to His Father on the cross, and listen to these verses: "[My God,] you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother's breasts. On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother's womb you have been my God" (Psalm 22:9-10). So in our Christian lives, we should see our little children, even the unborn, as saved by God's grace alone through faith for the sake of Christ's redemption, just as we see in our text both John the Baptist and Jesus in the womb trusting in the Heavenly Father and rejoicing in His salvation.
The third group that God lifts up from being down and out are the hungry; in the Magnificat, Mary sings, "He hath filled the hungry with good things." We should not limit this to physical hunger. This also applies to the down and out who hunger for well-being, who labor in illness or disability or poverty. The Child born of Mary grew up to show that God loves those whom the world considers insignificant or cursed. Last Sunday we heard Jesus say, "The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them" (Matthew 11:5). Throughout His ministry, Jesus lifted up those who were down and out and brought them into wholeness. He did this to show that He was the Messiah and the bringer of the Gospel of salvation into the world. And He did this to show that His life, death, and resurrection would undo the effects of sin and overcome illness, suffering, death, and the grave.
"He hath filled the hungry with good things." Above all, this applies to those who hunger and thirst for God's righteousness, recognizing that by their sins they have poverty of spirit before God and cannot make any claims on Him. Yes, for our sins, we deserve nothing short of eternal poverty, eternal illness, eternal hunger, eternal punishment in hell. But at Christmas we rejoice in the news of the angels, "Unto us is born this day…a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." This Christ is the Bread of Life, who gave Himself into death for the life of the world, who on the cross offered His own body and blood up to the Father as the once and for all atonement for the sins of all mankind, who feeds us with the Bread that a man may eat and not die. This Christ is the Resurrection and the Life, who promises to all who believe in Him that even in death, they do not die but look forward to life at God's eternal banquet in heaven.
Nothing seems more down and out than death, when our bodies go down into the grave, out of breath, out of sight. But Jesus has filled us hungering ones with good things—He has satisfied our hunger for righteousness and salvation with His grace, mercy, and peace fed to us through the Gospel, Baptism, Absolution, and even with His true body and true blood in the Lord's Supper—which means that now we are lifted up from sin, death, and the grave, and we are lifted into a state of grace with the Father, into a Kingdom that has no end, into a salvation beyond anything we could ever ask or imagine.
The problem is, we don't feel like these things are true, do we? We still feel down and out, depressed, abused, sick, tired, disabled, in pain, in a world that is brutal and hostile. The devil doesn't quit for a moment, but continues to tempt us, accuse us, harass us, and plant seeds of doubt in our minds. That is why Mary's song, the Magnificat, doesn't try to magnify her own faith or teach us to do so, but she magnifies the Lord as He has revealed Himself in His Word, the Bible. She points to all the mercies that the Lord remembered for His people Israel, especially the fact that the Son of God now dwelled in her womb, coming to ransom captive Israel and redeem all mankind.
And what is comforting for us when we are down and out is that we can study God's Word and learn that this is the way it has always been for God's people, living by faith in God's promise and not basing their knowledge of God on their day to day experiences. Mary sings of the mercy God has shown to His people, "as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to His Seed forever." All that God's people have had to cling to is His Words of promise, and so often their experiences seemed to contradict God's promises. Abraham had to wait decades till hope seemed lost before he could receive his promised son, Isaac. The Israelites had the Egyptians in hot pursuit behind them and a sea in front of them, when God parted the Red Sea and led them through on dry ground. And the Messiah Himself cried out from the cross, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?"
Our God is the God of lost causes, the God of the down and out, because our God glories in suffering and the cross. This was the pattern for His beloved, only-begotten Son, and it is the pattern for all of us who take up our crosses each day, and enter into the Christ-like life of self-sacrifice and love toward others, the life of patiently receiving each day from the Lord exactly what we need, the life of faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave Himself for us. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.