Underdogs

This past Sunday we took another step forward in exploring the story of Jesus’ birth through the Gospel of Luke. When Mary received the news that she would be mother to the Messiah, everything she knew about the world got turned on its head. More than that for her, everything about her own life got turned on its head. What she came to recognize early on in this journey, though, was that this God she was following was in the business of turning the world upside down. In a powerful proclamation of praise, she acknowledged as much, and in the process reminded us of something important about God’s character. Let’s explore that together here. Thanks for reading and sharing.

Underdogs

I have basically three sports teams I cheer for and whose progress I follow during their relevant seasons. The Kansas City Royals, who have historically been a mostly mediocre team (2014 and 2015 being delightful exceptions). The Kansas City Chiefs, who have historically been pretty good, are really good right now since we’ve figured out how to play defense again, and things look bright in the years ahead. The third is the University of Kansas basketball team. They’re always good and this season look to be particularly fun to watch. Fun fact for UNC fans in the room, next year will be the first time since 1962 that your coach has not come to you by way of Kansas, so I have no way of guaranteeing any real success for you in the future (we’ll pretend Matt Doherty didn’t happen). 

Now, generally speaking, when someone cheers for a particular college team, they’ll cheer for all the various sports teams of that college. And I suppose there’s some truth in that for me. The trouble is, Kansas isn’t what you might call competitive in any sport other than basketball. This is especially true when it comes to football. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, our success at winning games isn’t great. Coming into this season, in fact, we were in sole possession of the longest conference road losing streak in college football history. And there really weren’t any reasonable prospects of our ending that streak this season. Or next. Or the season after that for that matter. Eventually, you just stop paying much attention because it doesn’t matter. They always lose.

Then we played Texas. Texas is one of those big, southern schools that has tended to be pretty good in football. They’re located in a state with a huge population and high school football stadiums that are bigger than some college stadiums, though, so they should be. They’ve tended to be pretty dominant in the Big 12 over the years. For Kansas’s matchup against them a couple of weeks ago, we were expected to lose by more than four touchdowns…and Texas is having an off season for them. In an average game this season, Texas scores more than twice the points Kansas does. They gain about 120 more yards per game too. To say Kansas was the underdog in that fight is a bit of an understatement. When Noah asked me about who Kansas was playing that day, I didn’t have any idea, but I told him it didn’t matter because they weren’t going to win anyway. I didn’t bother to watch the game. I couldn’t have been less interested. And can you blame me? The last time they won a conference road game Noah was a week old. They left the previous holder of that streak I mentioned in the dust three seasons ago. And then they won. 

There’s just something satisfying about seeing underdogs win. Even if it’s not your team, it still feels good. The Dayton Flyers beat Kansas at basketball the week of Thanksgiving. They were the decided underdogs and wound up shooting out of their minds and winning on a last second shot that was like something scripted for dramatic effect in a movie. I hated losing, but I couldn’t help being glad for them. We love cheering for underdogs. I would argue the reason for this goes beyond mere curmudgeonliness too. We love seeing underdogs win because in those victories we see echoes of justice; the kind of justice we long for when the unrighteous powerful finally meet their just end, and the righteous powerless meet theirs as well. It is a reminder that one day everything broken about this world will be turned on its head. 

This morning finds us in the second week of our new Advent teaching series, The World Turned Upside Down. All this month we are preparing our hearts to celebrate the first and look forward to the second arrival of Jesus into the world by taking a fresh look at the story of His first coming in Luke’s Gospel. What Luke’s telling of Jesus’ first arrival does more than Matthew’s, the other major telling of Jesus’ birth in the Scriptures, is to highlight again and again for us just how profoundly the world was turned upside down by His coming. As we even saw last week, the reversal of everything we knew to be true on the other side of the manger began even before He was officially here. Through the stories of the announcements of the births of John the Baptist and Jesus to Zechariah and Mary, John’s father and Jesus’ mother, respectively, we were reminded of how critical it is for us to respond to God’s invitations to join in His kingdom advancing work with faithful obedience and not mistrusting doubt. Or, as we said then, when God gives you the opportunity to join in His work, take it. 

This morning we are going to take another step forward in the story. As we do, we are going to come face to face with Mary’s Spirit-inspired recognition of just how profound was the change God was bringing to the world through her. Displaying a wisdom far beyond what her years would suggest, Mary revealed in an outpouring of praise to the Lord an awareness of the significance of what was happening to her and to what she had now irrevocably committed her life that marks her out as someone far more significant in this whole process than a mere clueless extra. She was sitting at the very center of what God was doing. It was neither safe nor particularly easy, but she understood the importance of it all and so she went forward anyway. If you have a copy of the Scriptures with you this morning, find your way to Luke 1:39 and let’s see together how God in Christ was turning the world on its head. 

Now, we don’t know exactly what the timing was on all the events Luke records in his first chapter in terms of their relation to one another, but it was pretty tight on the whole. In other words, when the angel came and announced to Mary that she was going to become pregnant, you don’t get the sense reading carefully that there was a whole lot of lag between the announcement and the event. Odds are, Mary knew within a couple of weeks that what the angel said was true. At that point, as far as she was concerned, God may or may not have been turning the world upside down, but He was certainly doing so to her life. Any plans she might have once had – and by “once,” I mean just a couple of weeks before – on what her future held – plans that included getting married soon and starting a family of her own with her new husband – were shattered into a million pieces and she was left trying to figure out what to do with all of them. One thing she knew for certain was that things were not ever again going to be as they were before. 

Today if a woman gets pregnant and is single, we hardly bat an eye. That kind of thing happens and life goes on. In Mary’s day and time, though, her situation was a bit more serious than it would have been today. Remember how Luke went out of his way to make the point that she was engaged and still a virgin? The obvious conclusion of everyone around her to the news of her being pregnant – especially when Joseph rightly announced that he didn’t have anything to do with it – would have been that she had been unfaithful to her future husband. And again, while even today we don’t look on that kind of thing with anything like moral approval, it was a whole lot bigger of a deal then. Her presumed actions were a crime punishable by death. 

It’s no wonder, then, that Luke tells us there in v. 39 that “in those days Mary set out and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judah where she entered Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth.” Since she was probably around 14-15 years old, we can probably assume she had let her mother in on what was happening to her. Her mom probably told her dad. Both of them would have been distressed to say the least. Besides the glaring question of their daughter’s character and what was going to happen to her because of what seemed to them to be a rebellious streak that came completely out of left field, there was the matter of their own reputation. The shame this was going to bring on their family was enormous. And in an honor and shame culture like they had where anything that brought shame was to be avoided like the plague, this whole situation represented something like an existential crisis for them. Mary’s siblings, especially her younger siblings, would have been beside themselves when they learned of it because her presumed actions were going to taint their own marriage and family prospects for the future. And maybe they all believed her story about the angel and the birth of the Messiah, but probably not. So, whether Mary went or was sent, they got her out of town in a hurry so they could figure out what they were going to do when she came back and didn’t look quite the same as she had when she left. 

Don’t forget: We read these stories with a bird’s eye view and 2,000 years of hindsight. They were living them. They didn’t know what tomorrow would bring. They didn’t know how things were going to end. Mary didn’t have any idea beyond the angel’s blessing whether she was going to be charged with a crime and put to death for it. She didn’t know if her fiance would have any interest in her anymore. She didn’t know if she was going to have to spend the rest of her life alone with her child. It’s a good reminder that when we are living in the midst of our own stories, and those stories have taken a sudden and apparently dramatically bad turn, there’s a bigger story going on around us that just may include God’s doing something very, very good. We just can’t see it yet. 

In Mary’s case, God was doing something big in the life of her cousin, Elizabeth who was now six months into her own miraculous pregnancy. Mary’s going to her house, which, Luke notes, was tucked away in the hill country of Judah – far away from prying neighbors and anybody else who might ask awkward questions about her situation – made perfect sense because if there was anyone in the world who had some modicum of understanding of her situation, it was Elizabeth. In fact, Elizabeth didn’t simply understand it, she celebrated it. Do you remember when the angel told Zechariah that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit while he was still in his mother’s womb? Listen to the next part of the story: “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped inside her, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” John knew his Lord when both of them were still in their mothers’ wombs and when Jesus was likely less than a month beyond conception. John was excited and Elizabeth was excited because of it. “Then she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and your child will be blessed! How could this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For you see, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped for joy inside me. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill what he has spoken to her!’” 

Can you imagine what a powerful word of encouragement this had to be for Mary? She was still trying to make sense of this whole situation. Obviously the angel’s words had been proven true, but exactly what they meant was probably something she was still trying to puzzle out. What she did understand, though, no doubt left her feeling incredibly isolated and anxious about what her immediate future held. What did any of this even mean for her? And then came Elizabeth’s joyful and confident words here. It’s no wonder Mary herself turned from this moment and issued her own exclamation of joyful praise. And it is in the words coming off of her lips that we find a depth of understanding that surely came from the Holy Spirit Himself. Stay with me in the text and let’s look together at what she said and what it means for us. 

Mary raised her voice to the Lord and proclaimed: “My soul praises the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, because he has looked with favor on the humble condition of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed, because the Mighty One has done great things for me, and his name is holy. His mercy is from generation to generation on those who fear him.” 

These words begin what is traditionally known as Mary’s Magnificat. That title comes from the Latin word for that first phrase, “my soul praises.” The word “praises” could also be translated “magnifies,” and from that you perhaps hear the echoes of the older Latin. There is a great deal going on in her exclamation of praise and I want to make sure we don’t miss any of it. Look at this with me a bit more closely. It would be easy to read this casually and criticize Mary for her pridefulness. I mean, just look at that line,  “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” What is that? I’m so awesome that everyone from now on will celebrate my awesomeness! Not quite. 

Look at the language she uses around that odd expression. What is she really celebrating here? My soul praises the greatness of the Lord. My spirit rejoices greatly in God. He is the one who is looking on the humble condition of his servant. Generations will call her blessed not because of anything she’s done or someone she is, but because the Mighty One has done great things for her. The beginning of her expression of praise here is completely consumed with praise of the Lord because of His greatness. In other words, Mary recognizes here that her role in this whole adventure is limited to her humble obedience to what He wants to do. Anything that happens from there or because of her obedience is something God has done. She was right in her awareness of the honor her role in God’s story was going to bring to her name. Other than perhaps Jesus Himself, there aren’t many other names so known to human history as Mary’s is, and her recognition is all fame, not notoriety. But that was all God’s doing. What we are seeing here is humility, not pride. 

Mary goes on at the end there, though, to begin moving from making her praise merely personal, to revealing a deeper truth about the character of God. Look again at what she said in v. 50: “His mercy is from generation to generation on those who fear him.” What does this mean? Well, the idea of fearing the Lord doesn’t only mean we are afraid of Him (although it doesn’t mean less than that as He could erase our entire lives from existence with a thought which is a fact that should keep us pretty humble around Him). It means we are willing to acknowledge who He is and live in light of that. Understanding that, what Mary means here is this: When we are willing to trust Him, the blessings of that trust don’t land only on us and our lives. They spill over from there to impact the people around us. More than that, they have a way of trickling down from us to our kids and grandkids. The humble faithfulness of a single individual acts like a rock thrown in a pond. The ripples and waves that come out from there go much further than we might imagine and take a long time to fully work themselves out. 

And the thing is, from a cultural standpoint, putting ourselves in that kind of a place of dependence on God generally leaves us looking pretty weak from the standpoint of the world. People who trust in God look like underdogs. Just think through a short list of some of the most notable characters in the Scriptures. Moses was a murderer on the run who was afraid of public speaking and was kind of a whiner to boot. David was a violent, selfish man who used his power and position to steal another man’s wife and murdered him to hide the evidence. Gideon was a faithless coward. Abraham lied about Sarah’s being his wife…twice…to save his own skin. Jeremiah was just a kid. Paul began his career seeking out Christians to throw in prison or put to death if he could. Then, once he got drawn into the church he was subjected to all manner of hardships. Mary – the hero of our current story – looks incredible from the hindsight of history, but her life was fraught with all manner of difficulties. And those came not in spite of her saying yes to God, but because of it. The people who commit themselves to following God’s ways look like underdogs. But then, when the leader of the movement got Himself hung on a cross, why should His followers expect much better? 

But you see, the thing about underdogs is just what we said a little bit ago. People love to cheer for underdogs. Actually, more than just “people” love to cheer for underdogs. Do you know who else cheers for the underdogs? God does. God loves to cheer for the underdogs. Actually, it’s better than that. He helps them win. God doesn’t just cheer for the underdogs, He helps them win. 

Mary understood this in a truly profound way. Perhaps it was just because of her own experience, perhaps it was because of the Spirit’s movement in her heart and mind, but she goes on from marveling at what God was doing for her, to rejoicing in what God was doing in the world around her. Look at how she continues in v. 51. “He has done a mighty deed with his arm; he has scattered the proud because of the thoughts of their hearts; he has toppled the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly. He has satisfied the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering his mercy to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he spoke to our ancestors.” 

Do you see what she’s saying here? Again and again we see her celebrating God’s turning the world upside down. What Mary describes here is not how the world works. Ever. The world exalts the strong and mighty; it preferences the rich and talented. Those who can’t on their own are thrown down and trampled by those who can. They are consumed like chaff to feed the appetites of the powerful. In the world, the underdogs always lose. But with God, He takes the underdogs and lifts them up so they are the victors. And, as Mary knew herself, this isn’t because of anything particularly notable about them, but rather it is grace from top to bottom and everywhere in between. The proud, the mighty, and the rich – that is, those folks who are most tempted to rely on themselves and their resources instead of Him – He has opposed in favor of the humble, the lowly, and the poor. The folks who look like they can’t do it, but who are willing to throw themselves on Him anyway, He supplies with all they need and then some. He gives to them in abundance, and He does this not so they can simply sit fat on the hog, but so they can share with others, following the example He has set for them. In this there is victory, the greatest victory imaginable. God doesn’t just cheer for the underdogs, He helps them win. 

This means a couple of things for us, both of which are critical for us to understand. For starters, it means that if you have ever been in a place where you are an underdog, you’ve got God on your side. He came to lift you up and help you accomplish more than you ever imagined possible. God doesn’t just cheer for the underdogs, He helps them win. If you are in a place of life in which you are feeling weak, God will be your strength. The world may be arrayed against you, but Jesus came for the purpose of making you more; more than enough to overcome whatever obstacles to righteousness might be standing in your way. Now, if you’re feeling not up to the task of life because you’ve been making some poor decisions, He’s not going to hold you up to keep making those. All of this help and support from God, Mary said, comes when we are willing to trust humbly in Him. If you’re losing because of sin, you’re not an underdog, you’re throwing the game on the basis of a bad bet. You won’t find help with that. But when you have set your sights on Him and life is pushing back against that decision as it will always do, He’s got your back. He’s got your front and your sides and your top and your bottom as well. God doesn’t just cheer for the underdogs, He helps them win. 

There is another implication here, and we dare not miss it. If God is for the underdog, so must we also be. It is far too easy for churches to start buying into worldly ideas about who matters most and what counts as success. It is easy for us to start looking to people the world defines as wealthy and powerful for our help and support and quit giving meaningful attention to the people who are closest to God’s heart. If our priorities do not align with God’s priorities, we aren’t going to accomplish anything particularly meaningful for His kingdom. If we start acting against the underdogs, we will quickly find ourselves lining up with God working against us. Friends, God doesn’t just cheer for the underdogs, He helps them win. Let us make sure we are joining in His efforts. 

This is not a challenge we can simply throw money at either. This requires us to be involved, giving of our treasure, yes, but of our time and talents as well so that those folks who are being put down by the world can find themselves resourced with the power of God’s kingdom and invited to join it themselves so they can become a part of that same power. In other words, we want to see them connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom. I don’t know about you, but that sounds awfully familiar to me. God doesn’t just cheer for the underdogs, He helps them win. He sent His Son to earth to be born of one of those underdogs to prove it. As we take part in His efforts, we’ll be making sure we are as ready for His coming as we possibly can be. God doesn’t just cheer for the underdogs, He helps them win. Let’s join Him. 

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