Seminarian Bryan Stecker, Vicar
+ In the Name of Jesus +
It’s common for modern religions to think of God as distant- as way out there. Almost as someone who looks down as a conscientious observe- merely spectating our lives. But Christianity tells us something much different. This Sunday is known as “the visitation.” We celebrate the fact that in the person of Jesus, God visits us. He is not distant, He is close and personal.
In our Gospel reading Mary, who is pregnant with the Son of God, visits Elizabeth. Immediately Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and she praises the fact that God has come. Likewise, John the Baptist (who is in her belly), jumps for joy at the fact that God has come to fulfill God’s promises.
Mary then responds by praising God for His miraculous and merciful work. This hymn of Mary’s is known as the magnificat, and it is part of our own liturgy. Here, Mary praises God’s work and eloquently sings about what the presence of God works in her life, the life of Israel, and in our lives today.
In Mary’s song she praises God’s Holiness: namely, that He restores justice and grants Mercy. But notice that this restoration of God’s order is two-fold. First, God tears down what is evil, prideful, and oppressive, while sending the rich away. Second, He raises up the humble, and the oppressed, feeding the hungry. Both are equally important, and both are part of God’s salvific work. Both are accomplished when God comes to us. God tears down, and he raises up.
So what is Mary saying here? Is she saying that if you are rich God will cut you down, but if you are poor then God will give you mercy? Of course not. God doesn’t judge according to mere economic status. Something else is going on here, something deeper.
Verse 50, gives us the important distinction relating to God’s mercy. Mary sings, “His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation.” The distinction is that God shows mercy on those who fear Him, and brings low those who do not. Verses 51-53 then describe what a lack of fear of God produces; which is namely, “self-idolatry” and then injustice.
See, a lack of fear of God is a 1st commandment issue. Luther explains in his explanation of the 1st commandment in the Large Catechism that all of the other commandments are contingent upon the 1st commandment. “Have no other God’s before me.” Luther accurately explains that if we truly Fear, love, and trust in God then we will naturally love our neighbor as ourselves, obey our parents, love and honor our spouse, not steal or covet and so on. But when the 1st commandment goes, everything else goes with it. The truth is- a lack of fear of God leads to tyranny, and oppression, and selfishness, and all sorts of discord and disarray that we see in this world.
And this is the root of sin. Adam and Eve put their will above God’s, breaking the 1st commandment. And because of this we now see all of the pain and oppression and hatred and dissension which plagues our world. The strong prey on the weak, and millions and millions are mercilessly mistreated. This all flows from a breaking of the first commandment.
And this is why Mary’s Magnificat is two-fold. God’s justice means that He overthrows what is evil in the world, but also that He raises up those who fear God. God’s presence, His visitation, means that He has come to enact this restoration, and this is why Mary rejoices in Her God and savior.
Now our Epistle reading gives us a wonderful description of what Christ’s visitation and restoration does in our lives. Namely, He brings a newfound unity and peace. Paul is here describing the Marks of a true Christian. He says “Let love be genuine, love one another with brotherly affection, outdo one another with showing honor, contribute to the needs of the saints and show hospitality, live in harmony with one another.” Paul is describing the Christian life and He is essentially saying, “live in the fear of God, and thus in humility.” And as C.S Lewis says, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”
Everything in Paul’s description of a Christian life exemplifies selflessness and thinking of others first. Notice that this is exactly contradictory to the “self-idolatry” which God tears down. Jesus visits us in order to restore His creation. Rather than oppression, power struggles, and bitter competition; God works love, unity, harmony, and care for the less fortunate.
But who exemplifies this Christian life fully?
The answer is our savior, the one visiting. He embodies Paul’s description. And this is why Mary sings, “My spirit rejoices in God my savior.” Mary is rejoicing in the Son of God who is not distant, but who has become in incarnate in the Virgin Mary. Who visits the world in order to save it.
And this is the ultimate reversal. Mary praises God that He brings down the haughty and proud, while elevating the poor and oppressed. But for this reversal to happen, God first has to take part in the great reversal. In fact, He has to embody it.
In order to bring down the mighty from their thrones, to scatter the proud and the corrupt God has to get to the root of the problem. And the root of the problem isn’t merely corrupt kings or greedy/selfish men. The root of the problem goes deeper. All of sin and disorder comes from a lack of fear of God. But all turning away from God is due to the tempter, the true prince of darkness- Satan himself. When God brings down the mighty and the oppressor this means that He brings down evil himself. He must overthrow Satan and all who are bound to Him in Sin.
But here’s the problem. You are bound to Satan and to Sin. You have been tempted and corrupted by him- the whole world has. All that oppression and evil- you take part in it. You take part in it because Satan has worked hard to oppress you with temptation, hatred, and all sorts of evil devices. If God merely overthrows what is evil, then He overthrows you and me as well.
And this is why God’s justice is two-fold. Evil, Satan, corruption- it has to be destroyed. But mercy has to take place, or else all of God’s creation is destroyed- you are destroyed. But then how? The answer is Jesus. It’s Immanuel- God with us.
See, the ultimate reversal first takes place with God. God, who is mighty and powerful above all else., who alone deserves praise, and who is the highest-- becomes the lowest. He becomes a lowly man born in a manger. Then Christ becomes the lowest of all. He gives up His power and He dies for the sins of the world. But it is through this act of becoming the lowest, that he is exalted to the highest, as He is exalted in His resurrection, freeing us from our bondage to sin, death, and the devil. In this act He both destroys evil, and gives mercy and redemption to you.
C.S Lewis eloquently put it this way:
“In the Christian story God descends to re-ascend. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity . . . down to the very roots and sea-bed of the Nature He has created...
But He goes down to come up again and bring the ruined world up with Him...
…One may think of a diver, first reducing himself to nakedness, then glancing in mid-air, then gone with a splash, vanished, rushing down through green and warm water into black and cold water, down through increasing pressure into the death-like region of ooze and slime and old decay; then up again, back to colour and light, his lungs almost bursting, till suddenly he breaks surface again, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing that he went down to recover. He and it are both coloured now that they have come up into the light: down below, where it lay colourless in the dark, he lost his colour, too.”
This is who God is, and this is how he works Justice. God comes down and takes the punishment for your sins, and by doing so He frees you from their weight and from the grasp of the devil. And in doing so, he tears Satan down, putting a final end to injustice.
This is what God’s presence works. This is what happens when God visits you. He dives down into this world, right to the lowliest and darkest place- he comes straight to you. And then he picks you up in his arms at your baptism- and calls you His. And as He swims upwards towards that final home –with you in His arms- and He strengthens you against the dark world through His word and sacraments. He is always here- carrying you onwards. He Is always with you, because that is the sole reason He came
And at the last you will break up out of the darkness of this world- carried by Him who descended for you. And you will say “I have come home at last! And then all the pains of this world will pass out of time and thought, and before you will lay heaven- where all shall be right. And all shall be right- this is what God’s gracious visitation accomplishes. Amen.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit +