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Advent: Upside-Down Promises

“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; 
     he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 
He has brought down rulers from their thrones 
     but has lifted up the humble. 
He has filled the hungry with good things 
     but has sent the rich away empty. 
He has helped his servant Israel,
     remembering to be merciful 
to Abraham and his descendants forever, 
     just as he promised our ancestors.”

                                                                           —Luke 1:51-55

It’s a curious passage, isn’t it—the Magnificat? Mary, a teenager of no particular importance in the eyes of the world, pours forth a prophetic song of such potency that we would expect it to come from the likes of Jeremiah or Ezekiel. But it doesn’t. It comes from Mary: a nobody girl from the backwater town of Nazareth in a forgotten corner of Galilee. A commoner engaged to a commoner in the middle of nowhere, far from the power centers of the first-century world, not even on the map of the local elite, much less known to the governors, generals, and rulers of the Roman Empire.

It comes from Mary: a nobody girl from the backwater town of Nazareth in a forgotten corner of Galilee.

But it doesn’t sound so curious when we remember that Mary has long heard the promises that she pronounces. All of Israel has heard these promises before. They have echoed down through history. They have reverberated within the people’s common memory. They have been in the mouths of Israel’s prophets, priests, and kings for centuries.

And these promises are not small—they are big, audacious promises. Promises to right wrongs, to untangle intractable systems of abuse and oppression. Promises to bring down rulers and lift up the humble, to honor the poor and to humble the rich. Promises of redemption, of reconciliation, of resurrection.

Mary’s proclamation sounds even less curious, and perhaps even downright obvious, when viewed backwards from the other side of Christmas. Everything about Jesus—from his humiliating incarnation to his ministry on the margins to his sacrificial execution—everything is shot through with the paradox of the Magnificat.

Everything about Jesus is shot through with the paradox of the Magnificat.

The long-awaited promises have been kept, and they look like an unremarkable baby wrapped in rags and born to an unwed mother in the midst of dust and manure with no one to greet his arrival but a handful of no-name, boondock shepherds.

The King of kings has come among us, and he is a penniless preacher who spends his time with the disabled, the outcasts, the addicts, and the whores.

The power of sin and evil has finally been undone, and it looks like defeat at the hands of those in power.

Life has come to a world ravaged by disease and despair, and it looks like death on a cross.

God makes good on his promises, and the entire world is turned upside down.

The power of these words from Mary, the nobody-teen that the world would so easily overlook, is that they so perfectly capture the unexpected, upside-down, first-will-be-last-last-will-be-first meaning of the incarnation. Mary understands that the long-awaited promises which have echoed down through the centuries have culminated in her young womb, that God’s covenant faithfulness will finally find full expression in a helpless baby.

And so it is that this insignificant girl from nowhere-Nazareth proclaims the fundamental truth of the gospel, for which the incarnation serves as a microcosm and foretaste: that God makes good on his promises, and that it looks nothing like we would expect. God makes good on his promises, and it looks like a baby in a manger. God makes good on his promises, and the entire world is turned upside down.


God of incarnation, your promises are sure, even and especially when all the evidence points to the contrary. May we have the same faith as Mary, who saw promise and possibility where others saw insignificance. May the incarnation remind us that you have made good on your promises, and that your purposes for your world continue to ripple out from Bethlehem to all the earth.

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