Lifting Up the Lowly

December 20, 2015     Luke 1:46-56

Rebecca DePoe


Last month, the teens and I worked through a unit of Sunday School lessons on justice. We spent some time thinking about what justice is. And how God’s justice is different from the world’s justice. For our last lesson in the unit, we discussed why God wants us to participate in God’s justice for the world. Towards the end of our lesson, one of the teens asked me, “It’s great that God wants us to help people, but couldn’t God just do it himself?” I didn’t have a great answer to this question. I think I mumbled something about the mysteries of God. Then I made up some excuse about it being time to clean up. I did not want to let this teen know that I did not have an answer to her really excellent question.

As I struggled with the question of why God wants us to participate in God’s justice for the world, I started reading The Dream is Freedom: Pauli Murray and American Democratic Faith by Sarah Azaransky for my church history class at the seminary. This term we’ve been reading the biographies of several influential Christians. Of all the biographies we read, this biography of an Episcopalian clergywoman was the one most concerned with justice. There is one line in her biography that summarizes her feelings about justice. She wrote:

I did not decide to come into the priesthood to advance the cause of women…I came because I had no other alternative…I fought Death, God, and my own articulated plans- but the Call would give me no peace until I made the decision. My interest in the cause of women is incidental but important because I cannot fulfill my own Call unless all women can fulfill theirs.[1]

Pauli Murray wrote these words in 1974. In 1974, Murray was a second year M.Div student at General Theological Seminary. A 63 year old second year M.Div student. Murray had spent her professional career fighting for justice as an activist, lawyer, and professor of law. She decided to quit her law career, and enroll in seminary because she believed that her call to be a prophetic witness needed to be lived out in the pulpit, not in the courtroom. See, Murray believed that to be an American was to live in a situation of already and not yet.[2] As a priest, Murray’s number one concern was to convince her congregation that they could participate in divine justice through prophetic witnessing.

The season of Advent is a period of time where the church sits with this that defined Murray’s professional life. We struggle to balance our desire for justice through prophetic witnessing with our need for order. In our Scripture passage for today, we have Mary’s Song of Praise, which is often called Mary’s Magnificat. Mary’s song is not necessary to the plot of Luke’s narrative but it serves an important theological function.[3] It emphasizes Mary’s faith in God’s desire for justice throughout human history.   

To recap Luke’s narrative up until this point, Mary has just found out that she will conceive the Son of God, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Even though she is unmarried. Even though she is a virgin. After learning that she will bear the Son of God, Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is also expecting. Expecting even though Elizabeth is getting on in years. Their meeting is a celebration of the fact that nothing is impossible with God.

But the Son’s incarnation is more than just a celebration of the fact that nothing is impossible with God. The Old Testament is full of stories of barren women who miraculously conceive as a result of finding favor with God. Think of women like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Hannah. Each of these women were barren. And God allowed them to conceive to demonstrate his power, and his plan for Israel. But the Son’s incarnation is different than the birth of Isaac, Jacob and Essau, Joseph, or Samuel. Because the Son of God is fully God and fully human.

In the Son’s incarnation, God became man. Yes, the incarnation is a celebration of the fact that nothing is impossible with God. But it is also a manifestation of God’s prophetic witness, where God promises to stand in solidarity with the poor, the widowed, and the oppressed. Even the most charitable reading of Gabriel’s announcement to Mary must admit that this is an unusual conception. An engaged virgin is going to bear the Son of God? When Mary starts to show signs of pregnancy, no one will believe that she is a virgin. When Mary delivers the baby, her fiancé might leave her destitute because she has brought shame upon his name. The Son of God might grow up poor, despised, and powerless. Why would God choose to have Mary be the mother of Jesus, if this would automatically strip Jesus of any social agency?

            Mary’s Song of Praise attempts to answer this question. Mary begins, “my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely from now on, all generations will call me blessed.” When Mary talks about the “lowliness of his servant” she’s talking about both her spiritual lowliness, and her social lowliness.  Mary doesn’t feel worthy of the call that God has placed on her life-to be the God-bearer- because she has not really done anything to earn this honor. Part of the miracle of the incarnation is that God chose to bestow honor on one of his faithful, but lowly servants.

Also, Mary is no queen of Egypt who can offer the Son of God wealth, a childhood free from want, and powerful friends and social connections. If Mary is to bear the Son of God, then the identity of the Son of God will forever bear the stigma associated with unwed mothers. The type of humanity Jesus will embody is not the humanity of princes of successful countries, but of lowly unwed mothers. For Luke, the fact that God chose Mary to be Jesus’ mother tells us something about God’s identity. It tells us that what God has done for Mary anticipates and models what God will do for the poor, the powerless, and the oppressed of the world.[4] In other words, what God has done for Mary, God will do for each one of us in Jesus Christ. The central theme of Mary’s Magnificat is the triumph of God’s purpose, for God’s people, everywhere.[5]

How we participate in the triumph of God’s purpose for God’s people was really important to Pauli Murray. Especially as she thought about what prophetic witness looked like in post-war America. In the 1960s, Murray wrote legislation to end discrimination on the basis of race and sex. As a seminary student in the 1970s, Murray identified the central problem in the church today as tension between its identity as a prophetic witness, and its desire for order.  She wrote, “But when the tension between prophecy and order is disrupted, polarization follows. In response to particularly strident prophetic calls, the church can become too concerned with order and too inflexible within its orthodoxy… too static to achieve self-reform and self-renewal.”[6] For Murray, the American church was stuck between the already but not yet because the church desired order more than prophetic witness. For example, Murray believed that when the church refused to take women seriously as theological students, it put its desire of maintaining the status quo above prophetic witnessing. This desire for order, according to Murray, usurped prophetic witness because it tried to impose human limits on how God can act in the world.

Jesus’ incarnation completely disrupted the order of the church. No one expected the Son of Man to be born of a complicated conception. But as Mary’s Song continues, we learn that prophetic witness has always been a part of the God’s identity. Mary sings:

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.[7]

Here we have an example of how the incarnation bears witness to the downward and upward movement of God. In the downward movement, God scatters the arrogant, pulls down the mighty, and sends the rich away empty.[8] In the upward movement, God exalts the lowly, fills the hungry, and takes the hand of Israel.[9] The downward and upward movement of God teaches us that God desires to be in relationship with the poor, the widowed, and the oppressed. So much so that he is willing to overthrow the unjust social structures that allow poverty and oppression to thrive.  

When we think about God overthrowing unjust social structures, our minds usually jump to the social message and ministry of Jesus on behalf of the oppressed and the poor. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus hung out with tax collectors, with women, and with leapers. If our minds don’t jump to the social message and ministry of Jesus, our minds probably jump to the cross, where Jesus underwent violence to prove his victory over unjust social structures. But what Mary’s trying to tell us in her song of praise is that the great eschatological reversal, where the lowly are raised and the lofty are brought low, does not start with Jesus’ death on the cross. Or even with Jesus’ ministry to social outcasts, it begins with Jesus’ incarnation.[10] In the incarnation, God is completely altering the trajectory of human history. The powerful and rich will change places with the lowly and the hungry. And this eschatological reversal has already begun; God’s choice of Mary is proof of it.[11]

If Pauli Murray had to pick a favorite Advent Scripture passage, I wonder if she might choose Mary’s Magnificat. Murray left a meaningful career as a professor of law because the law could not stand in solidarity with the poor, the widowed, and the oppressed the way that Jesus Christ can. Sure the law can help us define moral behavior, it can attempt to establish justice, it can even help us organize society, but it can never fully understand what it means to be human because the law is a theory, not a human being. The good news of Mary’s Magnificat is that God is about to become man, and his incarnation is about to restore justice in the world, in a way that no law ever can.

I agree with Murray that a real challenge facing the church today is the tension between the church’s identity as a prophetic witness, and its desire for order. Who has the time, or the energy, to fill the hungry with good things when there are church services to plan, cookies to bake, and houses to clean? There are only five more days until Christmas, after all. Plus, I think there is a real sense in our churches that we should leave the prophetic witnessing to the professionals. We feel so overwhelmed by the needs around us that we distance ourselves from that need. Confident that the pastors, police, social workers, and lawyers have things under control.

            But both Mary and Murray insisted that we cannot leave the prophetic witnessing to the professionals. Because God calls all of us to witness to the good news. That we worship a powerful God who stands in solidarity with the poor, the widowed, and the oppressed. That we worship a God who has found favor with us in our everyday acts of faithfulness. And that this good news matters a great deal in how we live our lives today.

As you put the finishing touches on your Christmas preparations, I invite you to reflect on  how God has found favor with you. And how that favor might be an invitation to participate in God’s justice for the world.   

If I could go back to that Sunday School class on justice, I would tell that teen that yes, God could just do justice on God’s own. But that is not the God we worship. Whose birth we anticipate. We worship a God who loves us so much that he wants to be in relationship with us. A relationship where we have choices, agency, and the ability to say no. And yes, a God who says yes to Mary. And to Murray. And to each one of us. And in response we say yes to God and God’s justice. This Advent, let us remember that God looked with favor upon the lowliness of his servant, because God wants to be in relationship with us, so that we might participate in God’s justice in the world.




[1]               Sarah Azaransky. “Jane Crow (1960s),” in The Dream is Freedom: Pauli Murray and American Democratic Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 86.

[2]               Azaransky, 119.

[3]               Francois Bovon, “The Magnificat,” Luke 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke: 1:1-9:50: Hermeneia- A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1971) 56.   

[4]               Fred Craddock, “Elizabeth and Mary Meet (1:39-56),” Luke: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990) 29.

[5]               Ibid.

[6]               Azaransky, “Murray Among the Theologians (1970s and 1980s),” 101.

[7]               (Luke 1:52-53, NRSV). 

[8]               Luke Timothy Johnson, “Mary Visits Elizabeth (1:39-56) Interpretation,” The Gospel of Luke: Sacra Pagina Series, Vol 3 (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991) 44.

[9]               Ibid.

[10]             Craddock, 30.

[11]             Ibid.