When we meet in person, we share our joys and concerns with each other. If you have prayer requests to share, you can add them to the comments on this post. When you are ready, use this prayer to get started.
Heavenly Father, this morning we pause to remember your goodness. We feel so needy oftentimes, and we do have needs. But help us to remember today that our deepest needs cannot be met through our own work or by our own strength, but only by your grace and what you have done in Christ. Especially during this season, we remember that you have filled us with good things, and today we choose to focus on what we have in you and not on what we lack.
We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ, our savior. Amen.
Today's lesson is on Luke 1:46-55.
Politicians and musicians today often elevate themselves. Maybe they always did, but now they seem to brag blatantly and unapologetically. They love to hear their own names spoken in the news or in their own songs, and they often talk about their lavish lifestyles and show off their wealth.
But there was a time not long ago when that kind of talk would have been considered rude and even pathetic. For some, even today, it is much better to understand that, if we have a lot of wealth or success, it is because God has given us the ability to attain those things and to know that wealth and success they carry with them the responsibility to use our gifts wisely.
It better to realize that all of it is fleeting and, like our health and life itself, it will not last forever. It is better to understand that there are much deeper and more important aspects to life, such as our spiritual purpose and our connection to God. And when we have that — along with enough to sustain our lives each day — we truly have riches that will last. And that gives us joy and a reason to sing songs of praise.
Of the two gospels that include the story of Jesus’s birth — Matthew and Luke — Luke tells the story more from the perspective of Mary, a young and powerless maiden. In fact, Luke’s emphasis is constantly on those who are poor or powerless and how Jesus’s life impacts them and elevates them.
In Luke 4, for example, Jesus lays out his mission statement in a brief sermon in which he quotes Isaiah. He says that he has been anointed to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, the restoration of sight to the blind and freedom for the oppressed. In his sermon in chapter 6, he says the poor are blessed (not the poor “in spirit”) because the kingdom of God belongs to them. In chapter 8, he heals a poor woman who had a bleeding condition for 12 years, which would have meant her inability to make a living and her exclusion from society. In chapter 18, he tells a rich ruler that, to inherit eternal life, he must sell all of his possessions and give the money to the poor. But the man cannot do it because his money was more important to him and therefore was an idol. The list could go on.
Just before our passage for today, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and proclaims that she is “highly favored.” He says, even though she is a virgin, she will become pregnant and will have a son who would be called “the Son of the Most High” and would someday rule as king. Although Mary questions how this will happen, she submits to God’s will.
Then Mary visits her relative Elizabeth, and she blesses Mary because Mary believed God’s promise. Mary responds with a statement that is our lesson for today. It is really a song similar in theme to the prayer of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. In that prayer, Hannah also rejoices in God’s power and God’s care for the poor.
Worshipping the Almighty (verses 46-50)
Mary begins her song by saying that her soul — that invisible essence of a person that continues even beyond death — glorifies the Lord. She is basing her praise on her belief that God’s promise is true, supported only by the angel’s message and Elizabeth’s blessing. Mary cannot know at this point how God will work through the child. All she understands right now is that she, a humble woman, has been chosen for an important part of God’s plan. And that fact alone makes this a moment worthy of praising and thanking God.
Next Mary gives the explicit reason for her praise. God has seen her humble place and still regards her with great favor. Mary is a young, unmarried and pregnant woman at this point. She comes from a little-regarded city and is part of a people that has historically lived under foreign rule. In fact, they are under Roman rule right now. In short, Mary is among the most insignificant people of the world.
And yet, Mary is humble and obedient and available to whatever God calls her to do. That attitude of humility is a requirement for all people who want to be able to hear God’s call. And when they do, God promises to lift them up and to give them grace. (James 4:6)
Mary says that future generations will call her blessed, not because of what she accomplished but because of what God accomplished through her. Throughout scripture, God accomplishes great things through people who are willing to trust God and to do what God calls them to do, despite their seeming lack of power. We think of Joshua, David, Ruth and Mary, to name a few.
As the lives of these biblical figures attest, as well as the many saints we ourselves have known, in every generation God works through those who regard him with awe and who follow his commands.
The Work of the Almighty (verses 51-55)
Using anthropomorphic language, Mary sings of how God has always acted to lift up the lowly and to put down the proud. God’s so-called “arms” are strong. God is mighty, and God knows the pride we hold even in our innermost selves.
Pride is often called the greatest sin because it elevates the person to the position that only God should have. All of us can suffer from this sin, but it especially tempting for those who have power or wealth or gifts that seem to raise them above others, at least in the minds of many.
But God eventually gets the final word. Eventually all of these gifts fade away, and as we get older they become less important. Only then, if ever, do some see the folly of their thinking.
And yet, the same God that brings down prideful rulers also cares for the poor and recognizes the value of a humble person who is willing and obedient. Mary experienced that truth first-hand, and so she sang God’s praises.
Mary’s song says that God “has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.“ What does she mean by that? Is that always true? People still experience hunger and poverty today. So the “good things” are not necessarily always food and physical things.
Maybe she is referring to things that are even more satisfying ultimately.
One blogger writes this: “Mary’s theology impresses me. Without twelve years of school, Bible college, or seminary, she expresses profound truths. I am especially drawn to her words: ‘he has filled the hungry with good things.’ A quick look at the original language tells me that the hungry could also be translated 'the needy.’ That’s me. And good things mean ‘pleasant, useful, upright, and pleasurable’ things. I want those too.
“In other words, Mary teaches me anew that my God is good, and he gives to me that which benefits me, even if it also brings pain. Mary’s ‘good thing’ brought about the cross. What was painful for her produced the best of all good things—the salvation of the world.”
The Sunday school lesson notes that this is a warning for the rich who turn away from the needy and hungry and focus only on accumulating wealth. God’s kingdom does not make room for such selfish and prideful people. It also asserts that the song looks forward to a day when the hungry will be filled and will hunger no more.
Mary’s song ends with a reference to God’s care for Israel over the course of history. Despite pain and trials and even the people’s disobedience, God is ultimately merciful to his servant Israel, and God never forgets his covenant. This moment is another step in that salvation history.
The song’s conclusion invites its audience to imagine the scope of God’s work of salvation and the resulting blessing for all people. Though Mary was considered lowly in the world’s regard, God would use her to give birth to the Christ, the actual send through whom salvation came.
On special occasions like birthdays, anniversaries and holidays, we may take a moment to consider our blessings and achievements. However, this practice runs the risk of becoming an opportunity for self-exaltation; we might make God’s gifts sound like something we achieved by our own strength.
Today’s scripture reminds us of the futility of self-exaltation. God will choose whom he wants to work through, regardless of the world’s perception of that person. Further, today’s scripture also warns of what can happen when people are driven by pride and selfish desires. God will inevitably humble people who exalt themselves. If we seek salvation through our power, wealth or acclaim, God will remove us from those positions.
Self-exaltation will not lead to salvation. In fact, it will lead a person to emptiness and an existence without God’s salvation. We have a choice.
Mighty God, just as you worked in your people throughout history, we ask that you do a mighty work in us. Show us how we might better proclaim your salvation. Fill us with humility so that we can be attentive to you. In the name of Jesus. Amen.
This week's benediction is from the New King James Version.
Next week's lesson will be on 2 Chronicles 7:12-22.
We are a small, rural Presbyterian church in southwestern Pennsylvania.