As God reveals His plan of salvation for the world, we see embodied the truth which God speaks: “‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the Lord” (Is. 55:8). The Feast which we observe today, the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, is part of what St. Luke records as the lead-in to the birth of Christ. We see again proof that God does not function in the ways we would. He does not send His Son to be born of a powerful or wealthy family, but into poverty and derision, and by circumstances which prove that God has His hand involved. By the birth of Christ, and especially in Mary’s hymn, which we still sing today, we understand that God’s work and His eyes are in the depths, but man only in the height.
When St. Mary went to visit her cousin, St. Elizabeth, the once barren and almost equally unexpectedly pregnant mother of St. John the Baptizer, Mary was only a child. She was a pregnant, unwed teenager. She had claims to a royal lineage, but the dynasty was long defunct. King Herod was neither of the Davidic line nor a Jew. And Caesar probably didn’t know who David was. Mary’s family was poor, without honor or prestige in Nazareth. If she, or anyone else in her family, tried to get any mileage out of being a distant relative of King David, they were probably laughed at, thinking they were making it up, or worse, scorned because the hearer thought they were trying to be better than everyone else.
Regardless, Mary knows the truth. She knows the genealogy. She knows God’s Word, that of her family would come the Messiah, even if she is thought a fool, vain, or uppity for it. And then comes the unexpected—Gabriel visits, the Holy Spirit overshadows, and Mary conceives in her womb without the intervention of Joseph or any other male. She is now highly favored, blessed among women, the mother of God. Yet if there were laughs at claims of royal blood, how much more will they laugh when she claims that her Child is not illegitimate, and she is still a virgin?
Likely embarrassed and hiding the news, Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, her aged cousin. Before Mary can tell Elizabeth what has happened, Elizabeth’s baby, John the Baptizer, the promised Forerunner, leaps in joy as his God and Lord visits. And Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, confirms John’s confession by addressing Mary as “the mother of my Lord.” She recognizes that, just as God was involved in her conception after a life of barrenness, so has God done miraculous things in bringing about Mary’s Child, fully God yet fully Man from the moment of His conception by the Word of God. Elizabeth praises Mary, not for who she is, but for the faith created in her by the Word, the faith which clung to the promise of the Savior to come. She believed, and that faith is counted to her as righteousness, as she carries the One who gives that righteousness.
And then the Holy Spirit again visits Mary and she sings one of the most beautiful confessions of the faith man has ever known. Her hymn, which we know as the Magnificat, confesses Christ, confesses the seemingly ridiculous ways of God. He has raised up the lowliest of women. She is humble, knowing that she is not deserving of this honor, not worthy for even an angel to speak to her, let alone to give life to God in the flesh. So she extols the merciful God who gives gifts to His creation.
And in those gifts is seen the ridiculousness of God in the world’s eyes. Since Satan’s pride infected us at the Fall, our eyes have not been focused on God’s mercy or the needs of our neighbors. Rather, as Proverbs declares of us, “There is a generation—oh, how lofty are their eyes! And their eyelids are lifted up” in arrogance (Prov. 30:13, addition from NKJV footnotes). We clamor to help those above us, hoping to earn some kind of favor for them. Luther, commenting on the Magnificat, writes of man being the opposite of God: “No one is willing to look into the depths with their poverty, disgrace, squalor, misery, and anguish. From these all turn away their eyes. Where there are such people, everyone takes to his heels, forsakes, and shuns and leaves them to themselves; no one dreams of helping them or of making something out of them. And so they must remain in their depths and in their low and despised condition” (AE 21). But because God is perfect, because no one is above Him, all He can do is look down into the depths to regard those of low degree. And He looks down to us in the depth of sin and death and looks and remembers the mercy that He promised to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.
This is why Mary magnifies the Lord. To magnify means to proclaim greatness. It doesn’t mean to make larger, as if it were something small or insignificant, but to laud it, or to cause it to be held in greater esteem or respect. Mary lauds God’s character: His goodness, the great things He does on our behalf, and the promises He makes and keeps. That is why we sing with her. Our praise of God is centered on who God is and what He does for us, specifically His salvation in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
This salvation, the mercy spoken to our fathers, is that God sees us in our distress and acts to help us. Mercy is God’s answer to our misery. All the heartaches and distresses that we know in this life are seen and known by God. He knows your sickness, sadness, depression, broken relationships, hurts, and everything else. He knows how all these things can weigh heavily on your heart, adding to your distress. You can only be lifted up by God’s mercy.
God’s mercy and forgiveness, help and salvation are all dependent on the child in Mary’s womb, everlasting God in the flesh. Jesus will be the one to lift you up because He was lifted up on the cross. In Him, God has seen your distress, your sin, and your death. He has acted in mercy to save you by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is in Him that the Mighty One has done great things for you.
God is faithful to His promise to you. Through Word and Sacrament He gives the forgiveness that Jesus died to win. When Jesus comes again to judge the living and the dead He will bring you in your perfected body to the heavenly home He went to prepare for you. He will bring that promise to pass just as He kept His promise to Eve and Abraham. Until then, ponder all these things with Mary, focus on the mercy of God in the flesh. And when you do you can sing with her “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.