The Mighty Brought Low

A Sermon on Luke 1:39–56

“He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.” Those are Mary’s words in verse 52 of the text we just read. Does that sound like an accurate description of the world you live in? The mighty have been brought down from their thrones and the humble have been exalted? Is that why a new law has been passed that says men can marry men and women, women, a law which will most certainly be used to punish Christian schools and charities, and that will be used to exclude Christians from polite society? Is that why the mighty, the leaders of Iran, can put Christians in prison, even execute them, simply for sharing the Gospel with their fellow citizens? Is that why the Canadian government can put pastors in jail because they refused to cancel worship services because of Covid, or why the English government can put a Christian school teacher in jail because he refuses to refer to male and female students as the sex they’re not? Do any of these things sound to you like the mighty being brought down and the humble exalted?

When we look at the world, even simply at our own small place in it, we see wicked, powerful men triumphing over the powerless people of God on a daily basis. But nothing is new under the sun. Things were this way at the time of Christ’s birth as well, whether it be the evils of Roman officials, or even the half-Jewish king Herod, seen so clearly in his attempt to murder the promised Messiah in his cradle. And yet Mary confidently sings that the Lord “has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.”

How can she sing those words in a world so full of injustice, so full of the mighty triumphing over the humble? It’s a question that has always been on the lips of God’s people, from Job’s anguished cry: “Why do the wicked live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?” to the Psalmist’s confession in the 73rd Psalm: “For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.”

Why do the wicked prosper?

The answer is found in our text.

But the answer is not some abstract truth about God. It is not simply the fact that God will one day make everything right that sin has made wrong, as true as that is. No, my friends, the answer is a person. The answer is the Lord Jesus Christ, whose very reason for taking on flesh is set out for us in this wonderful song that Mary sings.

To give the context, Mary has previously been told by the angel Gabriel that she is to bear a son, who “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” To this son “the Lord God will give . . . the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (vv. 32–33). Mary is then told by Gabriel that her relative Elizabeth, who had previously been unable to bear a child, is also pregnant. When Mary hears this she high-tails it to the hill country, where Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah live.

Our text, verses 39–56 can be nicely broken up into two sections, verses 39–45, which records what happens when Mary greets Elizabeth, and the Spirit-inspired blessing Elizabeth pronounces upon Mary; and then verses 46–56, in which Mary blesses the Lord for the astounding grace he has shown to her. Those will be my two points: Mary’s blessing from the Lord, and Mary’s blessing of the Lord.

So, first, Mary’s blessing from the Lord. We may have difficulty, being so familiar with these texts, in recognizing just how staggering what we see here really is. But little infant John, still in Elizabeth’s womb, doesn’t share our difficulty. As soon as Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, right as she’s walking in the door, John leaps within Elizabeth’s womb. That doesn’t seem so unusual, perhaps. Babies kick and move and squirm and jump around all the time in their mothers’ wombs, right? Not like this they don’t. John, as Elizabeth says in verse 44 “leaped for joy.” In a way that is surely mysterious to us, the Holy Spirit was already at work on John’s heart. John may very well have been born again at that very moment. What a strange thing: born again before he was born the first time! Even if that is not the precise moment in which John is born again, he clearly has already been given the Holy Spirit. You don’t leap for joy in the presence of Christ in your unbelief, according to your dead heart of stone. You leap for joy in the presence of Christ because, by the miraculous working of the Holy Spirit you have come to know the savior and his salvation.

While this is not the main point of our text, what a great encouragement this is to all of us with children, to know that the Lord can cause our children to be born again even in the womb. Just like David said so many centuries before, who said of the Lord: “You are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts” (Psalm 22:9). It is entirely normal, though only because of God’s covenant grace, that our children would never know a day in which they did not know the Lord, that they’ve always trusted him, as far as they can remember. That is not always the case, but often it is. And it should be a great comfort to those of you who have lost children in the womb, or at an early age. Not only is it the case that God can save your children in the womb, but because of his covenant promise to be our God and the God of our children we have every biblical reason for confidence that he has indeed taken those children to be with himself.

As wonderful as this truth is, John is not the main player in this story. Elizabeth’s words are focused on the blessing that Mary has received from the Lord. Mary is blessed, and all the more, the fruit of her womb is blessed. She is blessed because of the child in her womb. Mary, as Gabriel told her (v. 30), has “found favor with God.” Not because she is sinless, not because of anything inherent in herself, but simply because of God’s grace. God chose her, of all the women in all of human history, to bear the very son of God in her womb. Older theologians called her the Theotokos, the God-bearer, which is exactly right. She bore God in her womb. Of course, it is the God-man, Jesus Christ, because God in his pure being as God could never be bound in such a way, but that does not lessen the wonder of it all: that God would take on true human flesh and be born of a woman, and of this particular woman.

No wonder Elizabeth says in verse 42 that Mary is “blessed among women.” Mary is supremely blessed among women. There is no woman, nor human being in fact, who has ever been blessed more.

Mary is blessed because she is the “mother of my [that is, Elizabeth’s] Lord” (v. 43). Think about that for a second. The Lord who made the universe, who upholds it by the word of his power; the Lord who spoke by the prophets, who is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. That Lord, YHWH himself, is in Mary’s womb. Why do we believe that Jesus is God? Because texts like this show it so clearly. The very Lord who promised Mary that she would have a child is the Lord in Mary’s womb.

Mary is certainly “blessed among women.” And she is blessed in believing what the Lord has spoken to her. Mary is saved by faith alone, in Christ alone, just like everyone else: “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

Mary is blessed by the Lord. But Mary also blesses the Lord, which is our second point. It is here that we really arrive at the central theme of our passage.

Mary’s song in verses 46–55 rightfully takes its place among the glorious psalms of the Old Testament. It lifts our hearts and minds up into heaven, to the sublime goodness and majesty of our God. It’s traditionally called “The Magnificat,” which is the Latin translation of the verb “magnifies” in verse 46. And why does Mary magnify the Lord (the Lord in her womb), and why does her spirit rejoice in God, her Savior?

She begins to tell us in verse 48: because “he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.” “Humble” here is another way of referring to the “lowly,” or “weak and powerless,” who entrust their lives, their whole existence, to God alone. They know they have no helper apart from the Lord. Because they trust in God they are willing to suffer the loss of all things and consider them rubbish that they might be found in Christ (Phil 3:8).

That’s not to say that Mary isn’t also not arrogant, but that’s not the main point here. The contrast is between humble, believing Mary, whom no one in the world would see as exalted, and those who have all the levers of earthly power at their disposal. “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; [He] chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” That’s how Paul puts in 1 Corinthians 1:28. This isn’t about Mary. Even though she says that “from now on all generations will call me blessed” (v. 48), she knows this isn’t ultimately about her.

God’s power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:19), though it is not weakness in itself that is praiseworthy. In the midst of human weakness the almighty power of God shines out all the clearer and he receives all the glory. Mary’s song shines a spotlight on God’s strength: “he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (v. 49). “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (vv. 51–52)

Which brings us back to where we first began: how can we, seeing what we see in the world, join our voices with Mary’s, even saying that “he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (v. 53)? Does that correspond with reality? Is Christianity just a bunch of wishful thinking, or even worse, a pie-in-the-sky delusion? Not at all.

But to see this we have to understand the true nature of the kingdom of God, something that Mary has come to know and cherish deep in her bones. When Mary confesses that God “has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” she is not stating a generic truth about God: he is powerful, he always defeats his enemies, and so on. No, she is confessing what God is going to do through the birth of that baby in her own womb.

He is truly going to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty. How can this be? It is true, because if you have Christ, you have everything, and if you do not have Christ, you have nothing. As Jesus will say in his own ministry: “For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Mark 4:25). The Kingdom of God is all or nothing. The powerful in this age do not understand this. If they did “they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:8). They seek power, and wealth, and luxury, for their own sakes, and they receive their reward. But Jesus Christ came into this world that we might have life, and have it abundantly, have it eternally.

“His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (v. 50). Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the covenant promises of God stretching all the way back to that first word of the Gospel in Genesis 3:15: “he shall bruise [the serpent’s] head,” even as the serpent bruises his heel. God “has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever” (vv. 54–55). The covenant promises to Adam, to Noah, to Abraham, to Israel, to David, through the prophets… all of them are “yes and amen” in Jesus Christ (2 Cor 1:20). Who is the Lord’s servant that Mary sings of in verse 54? It is Israel. But how does the Lord help Israel? By sending the true and faithful Israelite, a new Israel in fact, the Lord Jesus Christ. By sending him to live a perfect life, to die an atoning death for sinners, by raising him from the dead and seating him at his own right hand.

Perhaps as you listened to Mary’s song you were reminded of the beatitudes (Matt 5:3, 5):

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. . . . Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

The poor in spirit are not those who are financially poor. There is no automatic blessing in the kingdom of God for having a small bank account. No, the poor in spirit are the poor we constantly encounter in the Psalms, and they are the humble Mary sings about. They are the meek of the beatitudes. They are God’s people who humbly entrust themselves to him and seek their help, protection, and good from him. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt 5:6), Jesus says. “He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (v. 53) Mary cries out.

It is, therefore, only in Christ’s giving of himself at the cross that the door to this eternal blessing has been opened for us. The poor, the humble, the hungry and thirsty, are those who fill themselves with Christ and all the riches of salvation that are found in him alone. It is they, it is us, it is you, who know that the mighty and the rich of this world, if they do not have Christ, have nothing, absolutely nothing. This requires us to walk by faith, and not by sight, but only for a little while more. The day is quickly dawning. Christ will return and the tables will be turned once and for all. On that day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord of all. We will then see with our very eyes how once-and-for-all the Lord “has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.”

In the meantime we will face many temptations to wonder whether God has forgotten about us when the wicked seem to triumph. We will face the temptation to turn from following Christ because the world, and not the Lord, seems so clearly to offer us all that we could desire. We will grow weary, at times, because we cannot gain for ourselves what the wicked so easily gain, and we will grow tired of the shame that comes from refusing to live our lives according to the ways of the world, from refusing to compromise on what God requires of us in his word.

In those moments let us remember Paul’s words in Romans 1: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame” (Rom 10:11; Isa 28:16). If you trust in Christ, you will not be put to shame in the end; your hope will not have been misplaced, no matter the seeming triumph and prosperity of wicked, mighty men in this age.

Therefore, going out this morning, let Mary’s song be in your hearts and on your lips: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.”

*Image Credit: Pexels

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Ben C. Dunson is Founding and Contributing Editor of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.