Sermon: “The Lord Has Lifted Up the Lowly” (December 20, 2015)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Lord Has Lifted Up the Lowly” (Luke 1:52)
December 20, 2015
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In the December 2015 edition of National Geographic the cover story features none other than the ubiquitous Virgin Mary as Maureen Orth writes:

Mary is everywhere: Marigolds are named for her. Hail Mary passes save football games. The image in Mexico of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the most reproduced female likenesses ever. Mary draws millions each year to shrines such as Fatima, in Portugal, and Knock, in Ireland, sustaining religious tourism estimated to be worth billions of dollars a year and providing thousands of jobs. She inspired the creation of many great works of art and architecture… She is spiritual confidante of billions of people, no matter how isolated or forgotten (36).

Every year on the fourth Sunday of Advent Mary is featured in the gospel lesson. In today’s passage Luke recounts what occurred when Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus, visited Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist: “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb” (Luke 1:41). Luke then adds that at that moment “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb…why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?’” (Luke 1:41-43).

Mary responds with what would become one of the most beautiful passages in all of scripture, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). Today I am focusing on just one phrase from the Magnificat: “(The Lord) has lifted up the lowly” (1:52).

The Lord has lifted up the lowly. This is a recurring theme in scripture, as the psalmist writes, “You, O Lord, are…the one who lifts up my head” (Psalm 3:3) and “The Lord lifts up the downtrodden” (Psalm 147:6).

While recently watching the poignant ESPN documentary series 30 for 30 I was moved by an example of what it looks like when a person who is in a lowly place is lifted up. The episode “Four Falls of Buffalo” portrays the amazing run in the early 1990’s when the Buffalo Bills reached the Super Bowl four consecutive times, the only team ever to do that, only to lose each and every time.

The first of these four Super Bowl appearances was in Super Bowl XXV on January 27, 1991. Buffalo was trailing the New York Giants 20-19 with just seconds left in the game. Buffalo Bills placekicker Scott Norwood walked onto the field to attempt a Super Bowl winning 47 yard field goal. “It’s always what you envision as a kicker,” Scott recalled, “nothing but positive thoughts…I went into it with a certainty that if given that chance, if it came down to it, that I would be successful, and there was no doubt in my mind.”

The kick had plenty of distance but was wide right—Bills lose, Giants win, game over. The Giants players are jumping around and shouting in elation, while the Bills are shocked and silent. Scott bends over in disbelief, and then begins to pace the field utterly downcast, as teammates patted him on the back and spoke words of reassurance to him. While footage of this is shown Scott speaks in a voice over:

I expected a very exciting, positive result but it quickly turned to the other end of the spectrum and it was really quite an emotional flip-flop…The magnitude of it now seeping on top of me, the sorrow and disappointment of letting down teammates that were on the field of battle with you. I get choked up thinking about it, putting myself back in that situation.

But the very next day, a sunny and frigid Monday in Buffalo, something unexpected happened. In front of city hall in downtown Buffalo a huge crowd of fans, thousands and thousands of fans, were packed together cheering and welcoming their beloved Bills home. “What I really wanted to do was just remain behind the scenes,” Scott said, “but there was a chant that intensified.”

Guess what thousands of Buffalo Bills fans were chanting in that moment? “We want Scott! We want Scott! We want Scott!” So Scott Norwood reluctantly steps to the podium and the crowd erupts in cheers for him. While wiping tears from his face, Norwood tells the crowd, “You know, we’re struggling with this right now— you know I am—but I know I’ve never felt more loved than right now.”

“(The Lord) has lifted up the lowly,” Mary said. And yes, this is what Mary personally experienced but it also points to what the son she would bear, Jesus Christ, would do for the lowly—as we sing in the beautiful hymn “Once in Royal David’s City”:

Once in royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed
Where a mother laid her baby in a manger for his bed
Mary was that mother mild, Jesus Christ her little child

He came down to earth from heaven who is God and Lord of all
And his shelter was a stable, and his cradle was a stall
With the poor, the scorned, the lowly lived on earth our Savior holy
(Hymn 102 in The Hymnal 1982)

As our Savior holy lived on earth with the lowly, he lifted up the lowly again and again. He lifted up the discouraged with the good news of the gospel. He lifted up lepers with his healing hands. He lifted up the rejected with acceptance. He lifted up sinners with words of absolution. He lifted up dead Lazarus with words of life.

And Jesus knew that he himself would become the lowly who would be lifted up, as he told a Pharisee named Nicodemus on a rooftop one night—“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15)—and as he told a crowd in Jerusalem the week of his passion—“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).

And on Good Friday that is exactly what happened. A crowd had gathered, thousands and thousands, and as Jesus stood before Pilate in that moment there was a chant that intensified—“Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!” And shortly thereafter Jesus was lifted up on the cross—and Mary was there.

Scripture is silent about how much Mary understood about what was happening when she was pregnant with the Son of God, although Luke tells us that after the shepherds visited to pay homage to the newborn Jesus and told her of the angels in heaven proclaiming Jesus as “a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” that Mary “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:11, 19).

In his powerful song “Mary, Did You Know?” Mark Lowry puts it this way:

Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy would one day walk on water?
Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your Baby Boy has come to make you new? This Child that you delivered will soon deliver you.

Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy will calm the storm with His hand?
Did you know that your Baby Boy has walked where angels trod? When you kissed your little Baby you kissed the face of God?

Mary did you know the blind will see, the deaf will hear
The dead will live again, the lame will leap
The dumb will speak the praises of The Lamb?

Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your Baby Boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?
The sleeping Child you’re holding is the Great, I Am

Regardless of what Mary knew, she was at the foot of the cross as Jesus died a lowly death in order to lift up all the lowly of the world.

And after Jesus’ lowly death on the cross, God the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit lifted up his beloved Son from the tomb on Easter morning. Indeed, the crucified Jesus has delivered you, and the Risen Jesus will make you new.

This means that in your life where you are lowly, where you feel “isolated or forgotten,” or where, like Scott Norwood, you expected “a very exciting, positive result but it quickly turned to the other end of the spectrum,” you have never been more loved by God than you are right now.

The Lord has lifted up the lowly—and always will—that is the good news of the gospel.

Amen.