Sermon series: The Songs of Christmas
- Simeon's Song, Nunc Dimittis - Luke 2
- The Angels' Song, Gloria - Luke 2
- Zechariah's Song, Benedictus - Luke 1
- Mary's Song, The Magnificat - Luke 1
If you're a country music fan, you know Travis Tritt, who has made a name for himself playing everything from Southern rock to bluegrass to standard country music as a performer. In an interview, Travis revealed a little known secret about his early years, where he played out-of-the-way joints that sometimes got dangerous. Once, when a bar brawl broke out, Tritt tried something that worked so well it became his standard response when fights started.
Tritt said, "Just when [things] started getting out of hand, when bikers were reaching for their pool cues and rednecks were heading for the gun rack, I'd start playing 'Silent Night.' It could be the middle of July; I didn't care." Tritt said as he played, grown men would stop everything and calm down. "Sometimes they'd even start crying, standing there watching me sweat and play Christmas carols." (From Twang! The Ultimate Book of Country Music Quotations, compiled by Raymond Obstfeld and Sheila Burgener; cited at PreachingToday.com)
Now that might have worked for Travis Tritt, but I've got to tell you that the very first Christmas carol had exactly the opposite effect.
E. Stanley Jones, the famous Methodist preacher and scholar, called the particular Christmas carol I'm speaking of "the most revolutionary document in the history of the world." (Cited at multiple websites, including "The Baptist Studies Bulletin", online at http://www.centerforbaptiststudies.org/bulletin/2004/december.htm)
William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury, instructed missionaries to poverty-stricken India never to read the words of this Christmas song in public because it could incite riots in the streets. (Cited at Preacher's Magazine, online at http://www.nph.com/nphweb/html/pmol/pastissues/2000Advent/20001217t.html)
One modern writer said that when you read the lyrics of this carol, you "sniff the powder of dynamite." Walter Shurden, "The Baptist Studies Bulletin."
I'm talking about the song titled "Magnificat," so-named in Latin thousands of years ago because the first word of the song is "magnify." It is the original work of an unmarried teenage peasant girl who just found out she is pregnant, a girl we know as Mary. Now, most young unwed girls don't burst into song when they hear news like that. But there was something about Mary that made all the difference.
I. There's something about mary
A. Mary had learned to trust God beyond the bottom line.
The profile of Mary we pick up between the lines tells the whole story. Mary had been raised in a poor, but godly home, where life was hard but God is good. When she heard she was to be the mother of the Messiah, she didn't know how it would turn out for her, either in her present or future. She simply heard the angel say, "For nothing will be impossible with God" (v. 37) and answered with total readiness, "I am the Lord's slave," said Mary. "May it be done to me according to your world." (v. 38) She had learned through the hard times that God was faithful, and trusted Him even though she didn't fully understand.
2. Mary's personal choices had prepared her for the surprise
Verses 27 and 34 describe Mary as a virgin. She had decided early on to maintain moral purity. Don't get the idea that this was an easy thing in her day. First century Palestine was no "Leave It to Beaver" world. Yet even during her betrothal to Joseph, she kept herself chaste and right.
Second Timothy 2:21 offers a word to the wise on this: "So if anyone purifies himself from these things, he will be a special instrument, set apart, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work." Purity places us in position to be blessed of God. Mary had kept herself in obedience to God and for her husband-to-be. So when news of her pregnancy came, she knew that God was up to something special.
C. Mary knew the true identity of the Son she would bear
Eavesdrop on what the angel said to her about her son in v. 30-33: "Then the angel told her: Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Now listen: You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will call His name JESUS. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end."
Mary heard those titles: Jesus ("Jehovah is salvation"), Son of the Most High, Messiah. Before anyone else on earth knew who He was or why He came, Mary knew. She understood the purpose of her pregnancy and all the scandal in the world could not change that. A teenaged girl was the first evangelist of all. And she told the Gospel first in song.
We're almost ready to hear her solo. But first we go to the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, to whom Mary is related. As soon as the angel departed, Mary made a beeline to Elizabeth's house, which was several days' journey away. As soon as Mary enters the house and Elizabeth hears her voice, the Holy Spirit confirms the truth in her mind and she shouts out, "You are the most blessed of women, and your child will be blessed! How could this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" (1:42-43)
Well that did it! First the angel's words; then Elizabeth's affirmation; it was all she could contain. God was about to change the course of human history. The most important three decades in history in all of time are about to begin. So Mary starts to sing. The lyrics are recorded for us in Luke 1:46-55.
His mercy is from generation to generation on those who fear Him. 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, mindful of His mercy, just as He spoke to our ancestors, to Abraham and his descendants forever."
Step inside these ancient lines and hear the heart of this mother as she announces that a new day has dawned, both for her and for us. There are two stanzas to her song.
I. First stanza: 'Undeserved Grace'
Let's add the subtitle, "God's Gift, Delivered in Person." Pay careful attention to the simple words of this teenage girl and you will be kept from error in regard to Mary. Notice her self-description as she praises God:
1. She calls Him God my Savior in the opening line of her song (v. 47). Only sinners need a Savior. Mary sees herself, not as the offspring of an immaculate conception, where she was born without a sin nature, but as a sinner like all the rest of us in need of rescue.
2. She sings of God looking on the humble condition of His slave in v. 48. Literally, she sees her littleness, both in the world's eyes and in God's. Her words tell us that Mary felt totally unworthy to be chosen of God, just another poor girl among thousands who live poor lives in the backwater towns of a captive nation.
Mary was struck by how incongruent God's choice is from how men tend to choose. I have discovered that there's always a single question that arises in the heart of a person who understands how much grace it takes for God to chose them: "Why me, O Lord? I know my own sin, my own fallibility, how fickle my heart is and how perfect You are. So how is it that You would chose the likes of me?" Mary felt that question. Listen, humility and lowliness are the abiding marks of someone who has stood in the presence of God long enough to realize that they deserve hell for their sins, but instead receive mercy. That leads to one more observation:
3. She sees God's actions toward her as evidence of His mercy (v. 50). In v. 50, she sings that His mercy is from generation to generation on those who fear Him. That's Mary's poetic way of saying, "God, you didn't give me what I deserve. Instead, You showed me mercy, withholding what I have coming, just as You do for all who fear You."
In the first stanza, we see something wonderful and true about God: He loves the underdog, the disqualified, and the unimpressive. Mary stands before the Lord just like we do - needy, flawed, with nothing to merit His favor, nothing to earn anything but judgment. She is amazed at a God who knows her so well and chooses her anyway. So am I. Here's a gift you won't find under any tree this season - the gift of God's grace in Jesus Christ, who has come for you.
But buckle your seatbelt. The second verse is coming. This is where Mary turns her attention to this world system and interprets the meaning of Christ's coming for this Earth.
II. Second stanza: 'Rescuing Power'
With the subtitle, "God's Strength Changes Everything." In v. 51-55, Mary sings of radical reversals from what our world values, shifting everything we try to establish so that it magnifies God's justice for His people. Three groups of people will be impacted.
A. He will rescue the helpless, v. 51
"He has done a mighty deed with His arm; He has scattered the proud because of the thoughts of their hearts." Now Mary is just a young girl, not a political analyst. She is standing in the living room of an older relative in the hill country of Judea, singing a song. But she saw it coming. Her boy-child will up-end all the centers of power men have established on this earth. This baby is God's signal to power brokers at every strata of society: the end of human strutting and self-centered ambition is at hand.
I love the opening line of v. 51: He has done a mighty deed with His arm. When my boys were young, they would sometimes challenge me arm-wrestling. Because their arm was too short, they would put a book under their elbow and they would go at it, sometimes with two hands and half their body weight. And sometimes I would let them push my arm backward, like they were winning. I would watch them strain and try for a while, and then, at a moment of my choosing, I would just roll them over. And we would laugh; we both knew it was just for fun.
But when I think of how many overpaid sports figures, and how many haughty business executives, and how many self-consumed celebrities, and how many prideful political leaders have, in their bloated self-conceit, tried to arm-wrestle with God, and in doing so, walk over people, I think of this verse.
Listen, if you're all caught up in this world's values; if you're fresh out of options this morning; if you feel that you've been dealt a crumby hand in life, then I have a message for you: Bring your case to the Almighty. Don't fawn after actors and make fame or wealth your great goal. Don't despair over which party wins the most seats in congress. Don't lose sleep over how unfair your boss treats you. And don't seethe over how wronged you have been in your life.
Let the song of Mary comfort you: God's just letting the powerful strengthen their position and exhibit their puny influence for a little while. But one day, He will say, "Enough!" One day, "justice will flow like water, and righteousness, like an unfailing stream" (Amos 5:24), washing away the wrong and setting all things right. Bring your case to the Almighty. He is the Helper of the helpless.
B. He will exalt the humble, v. 52
He has toppled the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly." Write in the margin of your Bible "Nebuchadnezzar." He was the most powerful man on earth in his day, and he knew it. Daniel 4 details the sudden and stunning deposing of this mighty man. When God's judgment upon Nebuchadnezzar was lifted, the former king immediately declared the truth: "Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise, exalt, and glorify the King of heaven, because all His works are true and His ways are just. And He is able to humble those who walk in pride." (Dan. 4:37)
How many times has the Lord deposed the Herods and Hitlers and Husseins of the world? He breaks their bows. He blasts their projects. He brings them low. And the meek end up inheriting the earth.
Mary's song means we need to reverse our ambitions if we want to succeed in God's world. Don't buy the hype this world system dishes out that says if you're going to get anywhere in life, you've got to be assertive, stand up for your rights, blow your own horn, and pat your own back! There's a higher law at work than the "law of the jungle." Jesus gives it to us: "Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 14:11).
So seek humility, not glory. Labor for the Lord, not yourself. Stop caring who gets the credit. Give without expecting anything in return. Take the back seat. That's the path to greatness in God's Kingdom. In Isaiah 66:2, God said, "I will look favorably on this kind of person: one who is humble, submissive in spirit, and who trembles at My word."
C. He will fill the hungry, v. 53
"He has satisfied the hungry with good things and sent away the rich empty." God is looking for people who are hungry for Him; He passes right by the self-sufficient. What did Jeus say? "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, because they will be filled" (Matt. 5:6) That's why 1 Cor. 1:27-29 says, "God has chosen the world's foolish things to shame the wise, and God has chosen the world's weak things to shame the strong. God has chosen the world's insignificant and despised things - the things viewed as nothing - so He might bring to nothing the things that are viewed as something, so that no one can boast in His presence."
The church of Jesus Christ is for people who feel their own emptiness. It's made up of people like those who gathered to King David. When he was on the run from his rebel son, : 1 Sam. 22:2 says that "every man who was desperate, in debt, or discontented rallied around him, and he became their leader." (I Sam. 22:2) That's the kind of folks God is looking for. He loves the forgotten and the passed over. He pledges Himself to those who know that they are the handicapped, the nobodies, the losers. He shows mercy to those who don't deserve it, he chooses the lowly over the proud, and he finds the hungry and fills them. God is on the side of those who can't take care of themselves.