Passage: Luke 1:46–1:55
God lifts up the low but brings down the proud.
Is the cup half full or half empty? It depends, right? It depends on how you look at it. Do you focus on what is in the cup or do you focus on what isn’t in the cup? Do you focus on what’s there or what’s missing?
I don’t know the origins of this question, but it’s powerful because we instantly understand it. Are you a pessimist or an optimist? Your attitude about your situation, a person, or your circumstances depends on how you see them. It depends on your perspective. Are you seeing them as half full or half empty?
For me, I tend to see things as half empty. I tend to see what’s missing. I see what needs to be improved. I see weaknesses and areas of growth. I tend to overlook the good things that are there. I can tend to focus on what I disagree with rather than on what I agree with. I have to consciously remember to affirm, appreciate, celebrate, and enjoy what is already there.
How about you? Are you a glass half empty or a glass half full kind of person?
There are deeper questions to be asked. Who filled the cup? Did you fill the cup on your own? Or did someone fill it for you? Did you deserve for it to be filled or was it a gift you didn’t deserve?
Today we are beginning a mini series leading up to Christmas Eve called The First Christmas Carols. Every year, we sing these beautiful songs called Christmas carols about the birth of Jesus and its significance. Many are very old. Hark the Herald Angels was written by John Wesley in 1739. Joy to the World was written by Isaac Watts in 1719. While old, they are far from being the first songs sung about Jesus’ birth. In the first two chapters of The Gospel According to Luke, there are three songs sung about Jesus’ birth. It’s almost like a musical. You are reading the story and then the characters burst out into song. For the next two weeks we will look at the ones sung by people and on Christmas Eve we will look at the one sung by the angels of heaven.
Today we are taking a close look at the song sung by Jesus’ mom, Mary, in Luke chapter 1 verses 46 through 55. Mary’s story is quite amazing. Mary was probably about 16 years old when she sang this song. We are told in verse 27 that she was betrothed to a man named Joseph. “Betrothal” was a bit different than engagement for us. This marriage was probably arranged by their parents with Mary and Joseph’s consent. But betrothal meant they hadn’t yet had a wedding ceremony after which they would consummate their marriage in the marriage bed and begin living together. Joseph and Mary both lived in the backcountry town of Nazareth. In other words, these two are not elite, well-known people of society. Joseph was a carpenter, a blue-collar worker.
But Mary is chosen by God for an amazing task: to give birth to Jesus, the Son of God, the King of kings who will reign forever. She will give birth to the Messiah, the one for whom her people have been waiting for hundreds of years. The one about whom the prophets prophesied in prophecies like we heard about last week in Micah 5. And she is the one he will call “mommy”!
Mary then went to visit her older relative, Elizabeth, in the hill country of Judah. From Nazareth, this was between 80 and 100 miles and would have taken three or four days. When she arrives both women rejoice at what God is doing in Mary’s life. Then Mary bursts out in this song of praise to God. There are many echoes from the Old Testament in this song. As Mary went on her journey from Nazarath to the hill country of Judah, she perhaps pondered what God was doing in her life and composed this song in her head.
The major theme of this song is our Big Idea for today and it is this: God lifts up the low but brings down the proud. God lifts up the low but brings down the proud.
As we look at this song, we are going to learn an important lesson about how Mary sees the glass and how the proud see the glass and what difference that makes.
There are many ways to break apart Mary’s song, but we are going to look at it in two parts. Verses 46 through 50 focus on how God has worked in Mary’s life. Verse 51 through 55 focus on how God works in everyone’s life.
How God Has Worked in Mary’s Life (1:46-50)
Mary begins by saying:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, (Luke 1:46a-47)
The word “magnify” literally means “to enlarge” or “to make great” like how a magnifying glass enlarges whatever is under it. In this religious sense, it often means “to praise or to glorify”. Mary is magnifying the Lord, meaning she is making much of him. She is putting the spotlight on him. She is putting him on the big screen. Maybe you’ve seen a play or a stage performance when everyone is bowing for the audience, but then the performers back up to put the focus on the director behind the scenes. All the focus gets put on that one person, the spotlight is on them, and everyone is clapping for them. That’s what Mary is doing. Sure, she has this role to play, but she doesn’t want the spotlight. God is the star of the show.
The other way for her to say it in the second line is that her spirit rejoices in God her Savior. She is filled with joy. She is rejoicing in God. God has chosen her for the role of giving birth to the Messiah who will bring salvation, but Mary is not the Savior. God is the Savior, including hers.
The way you make God look great is to rejoice in him. The way you put God on the big screen in your life and put the spotlight on him is to rejoice in him as your Savior.
She gives the reason for magnifying God and rejoicing in him starting in verse 48:
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. (Luke 1:48a)
To “look on” someone in this sense means to show special concern and loving care for them. Elizabeth said something similar in verse 25 when she said the Lord had looked on her to take away her reproach among her people by allowing her to become pregnant. In Elizabeth’s case, God looked on her barrenness and enabled her to get pregnant. In Mary’s case, God looked on her humble estate. What does this mean?
“Humble estate” refers to Mary’s social and economic status. She is not rich or powerful. She lives in a rural town. She isn’t high class. She is betrothed to a carpenter. She isn’t anyone special in the world’s eyes.
Mary also calls herself God’s servant. When the angel, Gabriel, brought the message to Mary, her final response was, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). She sees herself as God’s servant.
But what is it that God has changed for Mary? The next part of verse 48 tells us:
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; (Luke 1:48)
Mary is God’s servant for a glorious purpose: she will give birth to the one called Son of the Most High, who will sit on the throne of his father David and who will have a kingdom with no end (Luke 1:32-33), who will be the Son of God (Luke 1:35).
But she sees herself as the most unlikely of people to be chosen for her service. In God choosing her, he is reversing her status in the world: “from now on all generations will call me blessed.” She is a nobody who is becoming somebody who will be known for the rest of human history.
It's amazing that what Mary says here comes true. This was written 2,000 years ago. At this point, Jesus isn't even a bump on her belly. And she is telling her relative that all generations will call her blessed? We take it for granted today that we talk about the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. But with vibrant faith, Mary believed what God was going to do. Think about this: what else did Mary do to be famous? She didn't preach any great sermons. She didn't go out and perform miracles. She didn't die a spectacular death. She was a mom. That’s what she’s famous for. But she’s the most famous mom in human history.
How has this happened? She continues in verse 49:
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name. (Luke 1:49)
This is a song of praise about God’s greatness. God looked on Mary’s humble estate and exalted her. He has done great things for her. She magnifies God and rejoices in him. All generations will call her blessed not because of something she has done but because of what God has done. He has done great things for her. “Holy is his name” means “holy is his person”. Holy means “unique, set apart”. For God to be holy means there is none like him. He is totally unique, unlike any other. This is continuing to magnify him. She is saying, “There is no one else like this who would take ‘little old me’ and make me into the one to give birth to the Messiah so that everyone knows my name. Only God would do that.”
Verse 50 summarizes:
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation. (Luke 1:50)
This verse names what Mary has been shown: mercy. The Greek word here for mercy is the word used to translate the Hebrew word “hesed” which has a deep and rich meaning. It speaks of God’s compassionate, loyal love that leads him to act on behalf of those in dire need with whom he is in relationship. In this case, he acted on Mary’s behalf.
This verse also names those who receive mercy: those who fear him. We have seen that Mary’s attitude and posture toward God is someone who trusts and worships him. She is the right kind of person for this task.
What does God’s mercy do for people who fear him? God’s mercy exalts nobodies to a place of honor. And this isn't just for Mary; it’s for any who fear him. What God did for Mary, he will do far anyone who fears him.
Our Big Idea for today is this: God lifts up the low but brings down the proud. We see Mary marveling at how God would take her from the low position she was in and lift up her to where she is.
When Mary looks at her glass, she is overwhelmed by how much God has poured in. And because of that joy is pouring out of her. She has nothing to offer God. She has nothing with which to impress God. She is a low income, low social class, no-name teenager living in an insignificant town. But what does God do? He chooses her. He looked on her humble estate. He did great things for her. His mercy is for her. All generations will call her blessed. There’s no God like him.
That’s what God is doing through bringing Jesus into Mary’s life. Is our story any different? What do we have to offer God? We have nothing with which to impress God and we have nothing to offer God. Standing before him, we are in a humble estate. The glass is empty without him. But what does he do for us when we turn to Jesus and let him into our lives? He takes us out of our spiritual poverty and he makes us spiritually rich. He forgives us of all our sin, he adopts us as his beloved children, he makes us heirs in his family. And he promised that we will inherit a new creation.
I wonder how you think about your relationship with God. I wonder how you think about what he has called you to. Do you stand before him speechless that he would do such great things for you? Does your jaw drop? Do you ever pinch yourself to see if you are dreaming?
We should be thinking: “I am blessed beyond my wildest dreams. I don’t deserve what I have. What an amazing God I serve. There is none like him. No one is this great.” We should be gushing about him.
It hadn’t happened yet for her. It didn’t even happen in full in her lifetime. But what faith did it take? Can you let your heart be full of what God has spoken to you? Can you let that seed birth joy in you like Mary had because you know the tree it will become?
God will work this way in the whole world, not just in Mary’s life. Mary has been looking forward to the future. She sees how future generations will call her blessed. In the rest of the song, Mary looks into the future and paints of picture of how what God will do. In doing so, she tells us how God works in everyone’s life.
How God Works in Everyone’s Life (1:51-55)
Let’s read verses 51 through 53 to start:
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty. (Luke 1:51-53)
These verses expand on the theme of reversal. Mary has focused on how God has exalted her from her humble estate. She is a specific example of someone who is humble that God exalted. Now she includes how God interacts with those who are not humble: the proud.
Verse 51 starts by saying:
51 He has shown strength with his arm; (Luke 1:51a)
God’s might worked on Mary’s behalf. But in verse 51, God’s strength is used to scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. The proud are opposed to God at the core of their being: their hearts. From their heart flow intentions, thoughts, plans, and actions that are in opposition to God. But God scatters them. This is a common image of defeat. Psalm 89:10 says: “you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.” Imagine an army of prideful humanity lined up in opposition, but God scatters them. Their plans do not come to pass. What they devise in their hearts is thwarted.
Verses 52-53 get more specific about the proud Mary has in mind. The proud are the powerful and rich. The powerful will be brought down from their thrones. The rich will be sent away empty. On the other hand, those of humble estate will be exalted and the hungry will be filled with good things.
Does God hate rich people and love poor people? Will poor people automatically be saved? Is there no hope for the rich and powerful? The backdrop for these actions is what Mary said in verse 50: his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. His strength acts on behalf of those who fear him and it acts against those who are prideful.
God opposes the proud and that includes the prideful poor. Poor people can be proud too. God exalts the humble and that includes the humble rich. The poor who refuse to turn to God will not find their status reversed. Mary is the example for how to respond to God if you are in a humble estate. Even the rich who humble themselves will find that God exalts them.
When will these actions take place? The Bible makes clear that these actions are typical of how God works: he exalts the humble but opposes the proud. So in one sense, it’s already happening. It’s a principle of wisdom that pride people fall.
But we do see that people like Mary have already been exalted from their humble estate. All generations already call her blessed. Those who put their faith in Christ now in one sense are already exalted in union with Jesus. But these actions are also future for when Jesus returns. Jesus will bring them to final completion in the future when he exalts all those who have trusted in him and he brings down all those who have rejected him.
Mary concludes with a focus on Israel. Verses 54 and 55 say:
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” (Luke 1:54-55)
God has helped Israel his servant just like he looked on the humble estate of Mary his servant. The reason that he helps Israel is in remembrance of his mercy. It’s not as if he forgot about it for a time but then remembered. “Remember” is a covenant word; it’s a commitment word. This means God is keeping his commitment to them. This is the same kind of mercy he showed to Mary and those who fear him: acting on their behalf in their dire need.
Verse 55 tells us God is acting in accordance with what he spoke to their fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever. Mary reaches back into ancient times when God first made a covenant with her ancestor Abraham. God is now fulfilling those promises. God is working now in Mary’s life and on behalf of the people of Israel in fulfillment of promises he spoke 2,000 years earlier.
Our Big Idea for today is this: God lifts up the low but brings down the proud.
If you read the Bible from cover to cover, you will see that God is always dealing with people who are of humble estate. God makes a habit of choosing to work with people who are unimpressive. Abraham was unimpressive. His son, Jacob, was unimpressive. David was an unimpressive choice for king. The people of Israel were unimpressive. All throughout the Bible, God works in the lives of people who don’t have anything to offer him. They come empty-handed. The world would pass them by. But they fear God and he does mighty things for them and his mercy is for them. Mary’s song is a preview of how God is going to work through Jesus - his life, death, resurrection, and return.
Mary is rejoicing in God. So what’s the key to her joy? It’s how she sees herself and how she sees God.
How does Mary see herself? She sees herself as someone who is poor and needy before God, but who has been tremendously blessed by God. She sees herself as God’s servant, ready to do his will. She doesn’t see God as her servant who is supposed to be ready to do her will. She doesn’t see herself as impressive.
What is Mary’s view of God? God is powerful and has used his power to do mighty things for her. God is merciful and has acted on her behalf. God has done something for her that she didn’t deserve - there’s nothing impressive about her that would make God pick her. God has exalted her. God is faithful to his promises. Mary is impressed with God and not with herself.
Is this the view of yourself and of God that you have? The easy way to tell is whether you are magnifying the Lord and rejoicing in God your Savior like she is. So if you aren’t, why aren’t you? What blocks joy in our lives? What blocks us from magnifying the Lord? Pride does.
What is a prideful person’s view of themselves? Prideful people say, “I’m independent and I’m deserving.” If you think you are independent, it means you think you are self-sufficient. What you have, you have worked for. You take care of yourself. You rely on yourself. If you are deserving, you feel entitled. You deserve what you have or you deserve more.
What is a prideful person’s view of God? Since they are living independent, they aren’t dependent on God. They are self-sufficient and relying on themselves. They aren’t looking to God. They don’t think they need God. Since they think they are deserving, God owes them to them when he does for them. They are entitled to it. God is more their servant.
So a proud person who is rich and powerful may look at their glass and think, “I got myself here on my own and I deserve what I got.” They might walk around with a sense of entitlement. A proud person may look at their glass and think it’s all up to them to take care of themselves because nobody will and they might be bitter toward God and everyone else because they deserve more. Both have a big view of themselves and a small view of God.
The more we see how much God has given the greater our joy in him will be. In order to do that, we have to see ourselves as poor and needy before God.