Advent 4 B: Look Up to God And Down on None

The Gospel Lesson for this Sunday is the Annunciation: Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that, though a virgin, she will bear the Son of the Most High God, the Messiah of the lineage of King David (Luke 1:26-38).

The Psalm that we get to echo in our worship is Mary’s response to Elizabeth, in the form of a poetic hymn of praise to God, the kind common in the time of Judah’s Second Temple period. This particular hymn is commonly called by the Latin name, Magnificat. In response to Elizabeth’s praise of Mary in the preceding verses, the Virgin handmaid praises her  God. She does this because she has believed that this God has already acted, and will continue to act to fulfill his promise to lift her up and bless her. She has believed that nothing God speaks is is impossible (Luke 1:46-55).

Let us, for this moment, focus our attention on the Magnificat; and on its central idea: The Lord 51… has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly…

The late, great New Testament scholar, Raymond E. Brown, shares with us a few important insights about the “proud,” in his book, The Birth of the Messiah.”

The proud look down on others because they do not look up to God, and so in the Bible the proud are constantly presented as God’s enemies (Isa 13:11).

in the imagination of their hearts. The reasoning power is localized in the heart (1 Chr 29:18), and so it can be the seat of pride: “The pride of your heart has deceived you” (Obadiah 3)

That reference of Isaiah 13:11 goes like this:

11          I will punish the world for its evil,

and the wicked for their iniquity;

I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant,

and lay low the insolence of tyrants.

This is but one of many references in Isaiah and the Jewish Bible in general that highlights the foundational sin of pride. And note, God promises the punishment of the whole world for the iniquity or guilt of the prideful, arrogant, wicked ones. This seems unfair until you stop and realize how infectious pride can be—how a prideful imagination can spawn disinformation that acts like the most potent virus, causing people to turn from virtue to iniquity.

Today the United States leads the world in the numbers of people who deny facts and embrace lies and conspiracy theories. Much ink has been laid down to try to explain why so many Americans choose to believe our wasteful lifestyles are in no way contributing to climate change, people aren’t dying of Covid-19 because their neighbors refuse to wear masks, and Donald Trump was denied a fantastic reelection vote because of massive fraud. Some say it’s because the working class has been forgotten, and people are full of resentment and seeking “disruption” and the downfall of all the information elites. But, why then are so many of the privileged classes choosing to believe all this disinformation?

It’s because there is a very well-funded industry of lies out there: think tanks, media conglomerates, social media activists, political action committees, have all been formed and formed by an imagination of pride.

And at the top level there are the Captains of the Proud. These would be described biblically as those who, in their hearts, have an imagination that has been distorted, and, in turn, deceives themselves and many, many others. They then form a habit of  looking down on others because they don’t look up to God.

What would we say about a leader who has boasted that he has never asked God for forgiveness? What would we say about a leader who invented his own “family motto” that reads, “Never Concede?”

There will always be working class people who have things to resent. The only question is, what will we do about this? Will we choose to look to God so that we do not look down on them or mislead them, or exploit them as our “base” to win elections? Will we actually care for them?

To care we must be “lowly.” We must model ourselves on Mary, the handmaid of the Lord.

If we take to heart the way Mark’s Gospel portrays the mother of Jesus (he doesn’t seem to know her name), we will understand that accepting that her Son was the messianic Son of God was not easy. Mark tells us that early on in Jesus ministry is mother and her other children seem to want to protect him. They may well have thought, like others, that Jesus was a bit out of his mind (Mark 3:19-35).

But Luke takes note of this one central and essential quality that helped Mary be there when the chips were down. When Jesus had died, and then rose from the dead to appear to his bewildered disciples—and when it came time for believers to start living as though God had made great promises to us all—Mary was there.

The reason? She was lowly, not prideful. She defined herself as a slave of God. She looked up to God so that she could look down on no other person.

Lord, give us leaders like that, in our nation, in our churches, in our neighborhoods, and in our families. Grant it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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