December 20th, 2015
And I think he gave it to Prince John Frederick, Duke of Saxony, in the hopes that the words of Mary would open his heart to his subjects. And most of his subjects were probably half-starved, short-lived, and dirt poor. This was the 16th century, after all, when life was nasty, brutish, and short. And the first thing Luther tells his Prince straightaway, that everybody on earth loves a rich, famous, handsome prince, but nobody cares about the depths and dreck of society. No one that is, except God, who Luther says acts only for those who are poor, either in spirit or in material. Which is why Gabriel came to Mary, not to the rich daughter of a prince, but to the poor daughter in a nameless section of Judea, to tell her that she would be the mother of God.
And Luther’s commentary on the Magnificat has one of my favorite lines in all the theology I have read, as Luther is trying to instruct his prince in humility: “It is vain therefore, to teach men to be humble by teaching them to set their eyes on lowly things, nor does anyone become proud by setting his eyes on lofty things. Not the things but our eyes must changed; for we spend our life here in the midst of things both lowly and lofty…It is thus not the things but we that must be changed in heart and mind.”
Luther was trying to tell a powerful prince to be humble, to serve his poor subjects, and to resist the trappings and pomp of power. He well knew that those with power will be loathe to give it up, but he said that the more lofty and exalted the person, the farther away from God they were. And he therefore encouraged his prince to look for good in the poor and the lowly, to seek humility, to pray, and to serve his people. How can you expect a person in power to truly look to serve the poor, to be with them? It is not the things but we that must be changed.
The Word of God changes us. God’s promises change us. When we hear the Word, when we receive it in faith, the world opens to us in amazing ways, not because the world was any different, but because we are different. Imagine a prince, used to the ways of power, used to thinking of his subjects as his servants, and then, by God’s grace, realizing that it is actually he who is the servant. Imagine a President who understands that he is the lowest of all Americans, because he must serve every other American. Imagine your life, in which you are the servant of all. And, conversely, imagine if you are lowly, or too humble, or feeling worthless. Imagine if God said to you—lift up your head—I choose you.
The lowly and the afflicted are dear to God, and God has chosen them to reveal his glory. The Magnificat stands in a long tradition of the songs of Israel, a small, persecuted and dispersed people, who continually find God’s promises fulfilled over and over again. You yourself may not feel like much, or worth much, but today you are like Mary—you are the hearer of God’s Word, which claims you and makes you God’s own. God’s word humbles the proud and lifts up the lowly, because it is not the world but we who must be changed, if we wish the world to change. And God does change us. Amen.
The Reverend John Flack