This sermon was originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church in Fairfax Station, Virginia.
A common theme in many of the readings we have for the season of Advent is how Jesus comes to us in ways we don’t expect; how he defies our human ideas of what our Lord and King looks like. But while today’s Gospel lesson deals with Jesus defying human expectations, he doesn’t just defy expectations in the way that he has before— though he does come as a baby and not as a king in robes or in his full glory and power as God. Jesus’ coming in this text from the Gospel not only defies expectations of how he comes, it also defies expectations with regard to whom he comes.
When we think of how we expect a king to arrive, we expect him to come to dignitaries, heads of state, important people. He’d probably be met with an official delegation, perhaps a military fanfare, parades, and revues. He would get a special motorcade to zip him off to important meetings with important people, no time to stop. He’d be surrounded by security. He would be received by ambassadors or embassies, and he certainly wouldn’t think of going to visit the peasantry or lower-class civilians first. They’re not that important, they’re not movers and shakers. And depending on the kind of king we’re thinking of, he would treat those lower than himself with some degree of contempt, treating or thinking of those in the upper classes as “better” than those below. This is, after all, where the idea of the “aristocracy” comes from. Its Greek meaning is, “rule by the best.” Those of low-estate are generally not on a monarch’s visitation schedule, as they are not “best,” however you may want to define that.
But of course, the grand irony is that no one, not even any of our kings or queens or presidents, is truly good or the best or even worthy of a visit from this particular King. Nothing about Queen Elizabeth or President Trump or Chancellor Merkel or President Putin, leading lights of our modern global aristocracy, makes them worthy of him at all. Through Adam’s sin, the whole of humanity is undeserving of God’s love and attention. By making himself a god and trusting in his own judgment rather than listening to the One who made him, Adam cursed everyone to suffer sin and its effects, and we cannot free ourselves from it. It’s bred into us— as Luther puts it in his festival sermon for the conception of Mary, “In the same way that a man who looks Bohemian married to a Bohemian wife gives birth to sons and daughters that look Bohemian, with the same flesh as their parents, so we all are born in sin from our sinful parents.”1 We follow our first parents in their sin. Once perfect and in that right relationship where God did associate freely with mankind, thanks to Adam, the relationship is broken. Now, we are pretty good at destroying and misusing the world God made for us through pollution and mismanagement of resources, and we are especially good at destroying and misusing each other through war, slavery, abortion, and exploitation. We violate the law of God in every way imaginable, and so, as outlaws, we are undeserving of the love of our God, whose law demands that we live it perfectly. We don’t deserve a visit from our God and King. Rather, because of what we are and do, we deserve destruction.
Certainly, there was nothing terribly special or deserving about Mary, likely in her early teens, possibly orphaned if church tradition is correct. She was just a Jewish girl from a small town that was itself seen as a backwater, a place from which allegedly nothing and nobody worth anything comes from (John 1:46). She may have had ties to the House of David through her ancestors and Joseph, but that familial connection hadn’t meant much for several centuries. Few people would probably have taken much notice of her. There wasn’t much that was special or deserving about her cousin Elizabeth, either, even though she was the wife of a priest. Her lifelong infertility may have made her appear cursed and pitiable to others, though now pregnant with John, that image may have been changing. But in a world where other families had children but she could not for so many decades, there were surely whispers about Elizabeth, surely looks of suspicion or pity. And Mary and Elizabeth were just like the rest of us with respect to their humanity. Their social station was lowly, and with respect to the law, they were lowly as well. Both women were sinners in need of a savior. Both were inheritors of Adam’s sin and the curse.
And baby John, as yet unborn, had nothing inherently special about him apart from God’s stated plan for his life (though it was only known to Elizabeth and Zechariah). Roughly half of all babies born in the Roman Empire did not make it to the age of 10, so from the perspective of others, the cards were stacked against John. As a baby, he was vulnerable, another mouth to feed, likely to die from myriad diseases and accidents if he even managed to survive childbirth. Though a joy to his mother and family (as all babies are), first century Judean society would not have had a lot of hope for John’s survival or “viability.” As an infant, in the eyes of the world, John wasn’t worth much. Best not get too attached to ones like him. And like all babies, John was, like us, conceived in sin and would be born in it. Though so little, he still bore the curse of sin, and he, too, needed his Savior.
And this is where Jesus upends expectations. The King of Glory comes to these three lowly, undeserving people as a tiny baby in the womb, promised first to Mary his mother by the angel Gabriel and then conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. He comes to them, people who earthly kings would scarcely notice, both because of who they are and their station in life. What earthly king regards “the lowliness of his handmaiden?” What earthly potentate “exalts the lowly?” Jesus does not act as an earthly king, but he comes to these three undeserving people, first his mother, and then his cousins. And he comes to them in spite of the fact that they do not deserve him. In fact, he comes to them precisely because they do not deserve his coming. God in the flesh is coming to them because they need him— only he can end the curse of sin— and he gives them the faith to receive him. He gives it first to his mother, then by the Holy Spirit to the infant John who recognizes him and leaps, who filled with the Holy Spirit passes the Holy Spirit to his mother, Elizabeth, who cries out with joy and speaks those familiar words to Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how to me is this, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?…And happy is she who believed that there would be a completion of the things spoken to her by the Lord.” Mary deserved none of this, and yet by trusting what God had told her through Gabriel, she received her Lord and King in her womb. A lowly, undeserving woman, born just like you and me, has been given the gift of bearing the one by whom all things were made. She is the mother of her savior, and she and her family are given faith in him that will save them from the predation of sin, death, and hell.
Professor Norman Nagel (formerly at Concordia Seminary), one of my favorite preachers given his clarity and ability to cut to the heart of things, describes what happens at the visitation in this way in a sermon from 1971:
“Elizabeth agrees with Martin Luther in recognizing the greatest miracle in all this. There is the miracle of the angel’s message to Mary, the miracle that God should love us who waste and destroy His world, each other, and ourselves in rebellion and disobedience against Him. That God should love us so much that He joins us in our world to get under the burden of the misery we have made, as one of us, to free us, love us love’s way all the way to the bottom, and chooses a maiden, whom no one thought of any importance, to be His way to join and rescue us, born of a virgin. Then there is the most staggering miracle of all— that Mary believed it. She was given to, she received beyond thought and imagination, and simply acknowledged the gift. ‘Behold the handmaiden of the Lord.’ Here is the miracle of faith. Into her nothingness the gift, the nonentity of Mary becomes the ‘mother of my Lord.’”Nagel, Norman, Selected Sermons of Norman Nagel: From Valparaiso to St. Louis (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2004): 278.
Our Lord came to his mother and cousins of low degree to save them from sin, death, and the devil in a way that was unexpected, and they were given the miracle of faith to believe that this baby not yet born would be the one who would save them, even though they did not deserve him because they were sinners. And we are in the same position. When Christ came into the world, conceived in Mary’s womb, he came for us, too, and we are also privy to the promise of salvation through him. The Virgin-born savior is ours as well, and just like Mary, Elizabeth, and the infant John, we don’t deserve him. We are lowly in the eyes of God because of our sin, but he comes to us anyway to raise us up in faith, to exalt us to be with him again, and he does so in Jesus. We who live with the war of sin raging inside of us, we who in our sin are all the lowest of the low, now can live again with God thanks to our Savior who comes down to us and becomes one of us, who takes on flesh and tents among us, and who beats death at its own game in order to give us eternal life with him.
Because of this work that Christ has done for us, we can sing confidently with Mary that hymn of joy and thanks that she sang to God for his gifts of grace and mercy in saving his creation through this lowly infant king, coming to lowly people:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,Luke 1:47-55, translation from the Lutheran Service Book.
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
For he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden
For behold, from this day all generations will call me blessed.
For the Mighty One has done great things to me,
And holy is His name.
And His mercy is on those who fear Him
From generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones
And has exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent empty away.
He has helped His servant Israel in remembrance of His mercy
As He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed forever.
Just as Mary trusted and believed that God would save his people through her child, and just as John and Elizabeth recognized and trusted in their coming Lord who would bring to fulfillment God’s plan of salvation, let us then finish this Advent season by taking comfort in God’s promise that we lowly people are his saved children, and furthermore by taking comfort in his promise to never abandon us to the predations of the world, but to destroy sin, death, and hell in full. Indeed, our Lord who came among us as a little child has saved us. Let us wait with expectant joy, looking to the completion of his work when he comes again to his kingdom. Amen.
1 Luther, Martin, Festival Sermons of Martin Luther: The Church Postils, trans. Joel R. Baseley (Dearborn, MI: Mark V Publications, 2005): 46.