The Thrilling Reversal of Christmas
In 1983, elite distance runners from around the world met in Australia to compete in a weeklong, 544-mile ultramarathon from Sydney to Melbourne. The racers were lean and mean professional athletes, decked from head to toe in the most expensive gear by Nike, Asics, & Puma; all except for Cliff Young, a 61-year-old shepherd in his overalls and work boots. He’d even removed his dentures for the race because he said, “they rattled.” When the gun sounded, the runners leapt from the line and quickly left Cliff far behind as he shuffled along. At the end of the first day, the pack was miles ahead when the runners stopped to get a few hours of sleep.
But nobody told Cliff he was supposed to stop and rest. So, while the other racers slept, Cliff ran through the night. You see, Cliff was a poor shepherd who couldn’t afford a horse or all-terrain vehicle. When storms rolled in on his 2,000-acre farm and his sheep needed to be gathered in, he would herd them on foot, running for days on end. Nobody knew that when the race began, but everyone knew it when the race ended, because, after five days of continuous running, Cliff shuffled across the finish line in 1st place, shattering the previous course record by two days. It was a stunning upset, a thrilling reversal, that made the world stop and stare and wonder.
Thrilling reversal is what Christmas is all about. God insists on showcasing his power through weakness and his wisdom through foolishness so that we would stop and stare, wonder and worship. Thrilling reversal is the theme of Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55, in which we see that God moves in mysterious ways so that we would give him all glory.
After learning from the angel Gabriel that she would conceive in her virgin womb by the power of the Holy Spirit and bear the Son of God, Mary flew to her cousin Elizabeth, who was also unexpectedly expecting. And as Mary drew near carrying the embryonic little Lord Jesus, John, the prenatal prophet, leaped in Elizabeth’s womb, and Elizabeth sang a song of joy, humility, and faith. So, Mary responded with a song of her own, stitching together patches of Old Testament passages, relishing in God’s reversals:
“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” (Luke 1:51–55)
Just before Jacob blessed Joseph’s sons, he crossed his hands, bestowing (contrary to custom) the greater honor upon the younger instead of the older. So, Mary marvels in the way God crosses his hands time and time again throughout redemptive history, casting down the proud, powerful, and prosperous and exalting the humble, weak, and poor. The Bible is a flip book of one reversal story after the next. God chose old, childless Abraham to be the father of many nations. God chose the younger Isaac instead of Ishmael to be the son of promise. God chose the younger Jacob instead of Esau to be his Israel. God saved a starving world through a Hebrew slave named Joseph. God chose a stuttering murderer named Moses as his prophetic mouthpiece and liberator of his people from their Egyptian bondage. God chose the Hebrews to be his people not because they were the greatest but because they were least of all the peoples on the earth. God preserved the Messiah’s line through a Moabite widow named Ruth, and Boaz, the son of a Jerichoan harlot named Rahab. God chose David, the youngest and least of Jesse’s sons to be king over Israel. God exalted the lowly while at the very same time he brought down the lofty champions of the world like Pharoah, Goliath, Sennacherib, Nebuchadnezzar, and their respective kingdoms (Egypt, Philistia, Assyria, and Babylon). So, we sing, “Heavens, spread the story of our Maker's glory, all the pomp of earth obscuring.”
But Mary knew that God’s redemption through reversal was not merely a thing of the past but a present reality. She knew that she was playing a privileged part in God’s greatest reversal yet. At last, the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace was coming to save his people from their sins, not down from the clouds upon a flaming chariot, but up through the darkness of a virgin’s womb. His first palace was a stable, his first throne was a manger, his first robe was swaddling clothes, his first subjects were shepherds.
The Angel told Mary, “He will be great”(Luke 1:32). And our Lord Jesus was great, but not in the eyes of the world. He never won a battle or built an earthly empire. He never wrote a timeless novel. He never created a classic work of art or music. He never made a breakthrough invention. He never amassed a fortune. He wasn’t handsome or popular. In the eyes of the world, he was a nobody. But in heaven’s eyes, he was perfectly holy, humble, kind, gentle, and righteous. Though he was a king, he came to serve, not to be served. Though he came to set his people free from their bondage in sin, their liberation would come not through his conquest but through his crucifixion.
You see, at the cross, the sinless Lord Jesus and his sinful people knelt before God the Father. And God did what he always does: he crossed his arms, bestowing the blessing upon the lesser, not the greater. But to do so, to bless wretches like us with the gift salvation, God had to curse the righteous Lord Jesus in our place and for our sins. This he did by nailing him to a tree by the will and hands of sinful men. But why? Why does God insist on crossing his arms in this way? Why is Scripture filled with one thrilling reversal after the next? So that God would not share his glory with another. So that, through the cataracts of our own sin and the fog of a fallen world, we would see him and recognize him as the one who made us in his own image for his glory and run to him in faith, singing with Mary, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-47).
To magnify means to enlarge. While it’s impossible to magnify an infinite God by making him bigger, we can magnify our understanding of his ways and of his heart. We can magnify our sense of need for him. We can magnify our fear of him alone who grants mercy. We can magnify our love for him who “so loved the world that he gave his only son so that whoever believes in him shall not die but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). We can magnify God by making him known to our family members, friends, and neighbors through our profession of the gospel and our pursuit of holiness and service. O may we be living lenses through whom the world can look to see the magnified glory of God!
Jim McCarthy is the Senior Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg, MS
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