Mary's song - Luke 1:46-55
1989 is a year few of us will forget in a hurry. It was a year full of staggering world events. On June 4th 1989, thousands of pro-democracy students were massacred by the Chinese Red Army in Tiananmen Square. On November 9th, 1989, the Berlin Wall was brought down as thousands of East Berliners tasted freedom for the first time in 28 years. On 11th November 1989 the Czech government ended the communist dictatorship. On 15th December 1989, the people of Romania caused an uprising which led to the downfall of the communist regime. Ceaucescu and his wife were executed on Christmas Day 1989. People called that year a 'year of revolution'. Few could doubt that there had been a dramatic shift in world power most notably in Eastern Europe. Two hundred years earlier in France, 1789, Louis XVI had turned to one of his advisors as he began to hear of the storming of the Bastille and asked: 'Is it a revolt?' To which the advisor replied 'No, sire, it's a revolution.'
Well tonight we are looking together at a revolutionary song. But this is a song sung not by the workers of Eastern Europe, but by a Palestinian peasant girl in the first century BC who had just discovered she was pregnant. But when you read verse 52: 'He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble,' it won't surprise you to know that this song has been thought of as a true revolutionary powder keg. In fact in the last days of British India, there was a Christian community which was sometimes visited by the CID because of it's sympathies with Indian nationalists. William Temple, the one time archbishop of Canterbury, also visited the community and he warned them not to sing the Magnificat, Mary's song in Luke 1, in their services. He described it as 'a most revolutionary song'. Well the fact is, Mary's song is revolutionary, but it is talking about a revolution on a much grander scale. Mary is talking about a revolution in human hearts for which a much greater power is needed, indeed a divine power; and she's talking about a revolution in world order which will be brought about by God himself through his son Jesus Christ.
Now the context of the song is that Mary has just learnt from the angel Gabriel that she is to give birth to a Son. And this Son will be very special indeed. Just glance back to what Gabriel says in verse 32: 'He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom never ends.' Now that is a remarkable future for a remarkable child. This child is the very Son of God himself and he will be King forever. But the angel also tells Mary that her cousin Elizabeth is pregnant, even though she was, as Luke puts it 'well on in years.' And Elizabeth's child will be the promised forerunner to Mary's child, who will prepare the way for the Lord. And so the two women get together to compare notes and Elizabeth blesses Mary and her child, and that is what produces this remarkable song. It is Mary's response to what God has promised will happen to her.
But before we look in detail at what Mary teaches us, it's worth us pausing to think why Luke includes this song here. It's always a good question to ask when you are studying the Bible. Why has the author included this here? And being able to answer that question will help you to understand the passage. So why does Luke include Mary's song. In fact in Luke 1-2, there are four different songs, one by Mary, one by Zechariah, one by the angels (which is very short) and one by Simeon. And it's tempting with these songs to think they are a bit like the songs in Lord of the Rings. If you've ever read Lord of the Rings and not simply watched the film, then you'll know that scattered throughout the story are various songs, which Tolkein has often kindly translated from Elfish. Now for the normal reader like me, I simply skip the songs because they don't add anything to the plot. You can read on without missing anything. Tolkein die hard fans will tell you that is heresy, but I'm a pragmatist, and I want to finish the book, so I skip the long songs. So is it like that with Luke and his songs? Well, no. These songs are integral to the story. If you study these songs closely, then you'll find that Mary's, Zechariah's and Simeon's songs make two important points. First that the promises of God in the OT have come to fulfilment in Jesus. And second that the good news about Jesus is for the whole world. These songs are packed full of OT allusions. And if you like the songs provide the theological backbone to the story Luke is telling at the start of his gospel. So can we be sure that this Jesus really is the promised Messiah? Yes. Can we be sure that this Jesus is the Saviour of the whole world? Yes. And the songs make both those points. So with that in mind, let's turn to Mary's song and see what she had to teach us tonight. And we'll discover three things:
1) A Song to Sing (Vv 46-49a)
2) A God to Glorify (Vv 49b- 53)
3) A Promise to Promote (Vv 54-55)
1) A Song to Sing (Vv 46-49a)
First we discover that we have a song to sing. Now Mary's song begins with rejoicing, and in fact that is the mood all the way through the song. Verse 46: 'And Mary said: 'My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me.'' Her soul glorifies God- she gives him all the glory and she rejoices in God. But why? Well we might think it's simply because she is having the baby Jesus. After all, every Israelite girl dreamt of being the mother of the Messiah. It was a great honour. Indeed she recognises her unique position and says that 'every generation will call her blessed.' But her focus is not on how amazing she is, how great she will be. Rather Mary's focus throughout this passage is on God. See how many times she says of God 'He' or 'His'. In every verse the focus is God. Rather what gives her joy is what God has done for her. Verse 49: 'For the mighty one has done great things for me.' And what does she call God in verse 47? She calls him Saviour. She knows that she is in need of a Saviour just as much as anyone else. Mary sings this song because she is amazed by what God has done for her. And it would be through this very child that Mary would be saved. Her own Son's death on the cross, something that Simeon later on calls a sword for Mary's soul, will mean that she too can be right with God. What staggers her about God is that he should have anything to do with her a humble sinner in verse 48. Yes he may have chosen her for a noble task, bearing God's Son. But it is still his gracious act. And it amazes her that God would deem to approach her. That's why she glorifies God. For the mighty one has done great things for her.
Now it's worth us pausing here to see that in almost every way there is no difference between us and Mary. Yes she was the mother of the Lord, and yet her position as mother of Jesus gave her no favours with God. Of course, some parts of the church put great emphasis on Mary, and yet Luke, while he clearly respects her godliness, also shows that Mary was a sinner in need of saving too. We need to be wary of elevating Mary above what the Bible says about her. She is no way a mediator between us and Jesus. She like you and me can only boast in what God has done for her. Notice how she responded to the angel's message in verse 38: 'I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said.' She simply accepts God's word and believes it. Or notice what Elizabeth says about her in verse 45: 'Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.' Her blessing comes from how she responds to God's word. Or again in Luke 11 v 27. A woman comments to Jesus: 'Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.' And Jesus replies: 'Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.' What counts is not blood relationship to Jesus but your response to him. And Mary knew that. And the grounds of her rejoicing was based in what God had done for her. 'My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.' She had a song of praise to sing. She would not like it for people to glorify her. Rather she would point to her Son and say glorify him. For truly she could say: 'The mighty one has done great things for me.' And her response to God's grace was humble gratitude.
And the wonderful message of this passage is that we too can sing Mary's song. No, we're not the mother of the Messiah, but we too can rejoice in the same God that Mary worshipped. For the God who acted so graciously in Mary's life in saving her and bringing her to himself, is that same God who acts today to save us. That Son Jesus who Mary gave birth to would one day die for her sins. God was her Saviour. That same Jesus is our Saviour too. And so we too can say with humble gratitude, 'My soul glorifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.' Of course the question we need to ask ourselves is does it? Does my soul truly glorify the Lord and does my spirit truly rejoice in God my Saviour. We've no less than Mary to give God glory for. Think for a moment what is it that really makes you rejoice? Maybe it's your favourite football team winning a match. You love to shout your team on on a Saturday and you rejoice with the best when they win. Maybe it's your family which gives you joy. You delight to see your children and grandchildren doing well. Neither is wrong. But let me ask you, when was the last time you truly rejoiced in the Lord. When was the last time you actively spent time simply rejoicing in God your Saviour? What is it you really delight in? What truly captivates your soul? Because the things you really find joy in reveal the state of your heart.
And nor is Christian joy simply happiness. Mary teaches us that Christian joy is not determined by circumstances. Rather the Christian can be joyful in all circumstances because his delight is in the Lord. My souls glorifies the Lord, said Mary. God's constant character is our joy. We might not be satisfied with our earthly circumstances. We might face all sorts of pressures and difficulties, even suffering or persecution. But when your heart is captivated by God, then your joy and delight is in him.
Richard Wurmbrand was a pastor in Romania during the communist dictatorship who spend a long period of time in prison for his faith. He was severely beaten in jail and he had the scars to prove it. He was sentenced to solitary confinement and for three years when no-one would speak to him. And yet he confessed that during that time there were periods when he was simply overwhelmed with joy. He would stand up in his weakened state and dance round his cell, rejoicing in his God. He had nothing outwardly to rejoice in. But his joy was in the Lord. That's the sort of joy that the Christian can have. When you rejoice in the Lord, then you can rejoice in all circumstances. You may not be wearing a smile, and often tears are more appropriate. But you do have a deep seated delight in your God. When was the last time you rejoiced in the Lord like that, your God and Saviour. It's more than a one off experience. It is growing delight in God your Saviour. For if you are trusting in Christ, then God has done great things for you. Is he your true joy and delight? Does your soul glorify him? An attitude like that takes a real revolution in your heart doesn't it? That's the first challenge from Mary's song. We have a song to sing.
2) A God to Glorify (Vv 49b- 53)
But there is a second lesson that we can learn from Mary's song, and that is that we have a God to glorify, the only true and living God. Because Mary's joy in her God leads her to tell of his character and his wonderful deeds. And you cannot separate what God does from who he is. For he shows what kind of God he is by the sort of things he does. Now we need to note here that Mary tells us about God's character and deeds mostly in the past tense. She says that God has performed mighty deeds, he has brought down rulers from their thrones etc. And often in the Bible the past tense is used to talk about the future in a certain way. So what God will do in the future is so certain that it is spoken of in the past tense. We might say something like: 'It's as good as done.' And that seems to be what Mary is doing here. Yes God did act in these ways in the past, but Mary's also looking forward to what God will do through this child she is to bear. And the rest of Luke's gospel shows how Jesus did do all these things and reveal God's character to the world. So what does Mary teach us in this section. Four things about God:
a) God is Holy- First God is holy. Mary says in verse 49: 'For the Mighty One has done great things for me. Holy is his name.' Now holiness is the only quality of God to be said three times together in the Bible. In Isaiah's vision of God in chapter 6 of his prophecy he says that the cherubim say of God: 'Holy, Holy, Holy is Lord God Almighty.' To say that God is holy is to talk of his very nature. God's holiness is his perfect splendour which means that sinful people like you and me cannot approach him. It means he is set apart. To enter his presence stained by sin would be to be incur instant death. So remembering God's holiness means that we should never waltz into his presence or think God is a cosy grandfather figure who gives us nice sweets. He's a God of awesome holiness. And yet what do we discover about Jesus in verse 35? The angel tells Mary: 'The holy one to be born in you will be called the Son of God.' Jesus too is holy like His Father and yet in Jesus we too can be made holy. Through Jesus there is a way for a Holy God and an unholy human to be reconciled. For Jesus the holy one became unholy for our sakes where he bore our sin. That's how concerned God is for his holiness. He'll go to extraordinary lengths to allow sinful people like you and me to dwell with such a holy God. And that privilege should never be taken for granted.
b) God is Merciful- Secondly Mary tells us God is merciful. Verse 50: 'His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.' Mercy is not receiving what we do deserve. We do deserve a rightful penalty for how we've treated God. God is holy, but we have spurned his goodness and grace. And we rightly deserve his condemnation. It would be a just judgement. But Mary tells us God is merciful. He does not give us what we do deserve. How do we know? Well thirty or so years later Mary would see her Son on a cross dying for her sins and your sins and my sins. On the cross we see how incredibly merciful God is to the people he has made. For there Jesus took the sins of the world on his shoulders. There Jesus was paying the penalty we justly deserve. God is merciful.
c) God is powerful- But Mary also acknowledges God's power. Verse 52: 'He has
performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their
inner most thoughts.' Why is it that God can show mercy? Because he is truly powerful. He has the power to do what he feels is right and good. He has performed mighty deeds. And through Jesus we can see God's mighty deeds in glorious technicolour. Jesus defeats disease by healing cripples on the spot. Jesus shows his power over nature by claiming ferocious storms with one word. Jesus shows his power over evil by driving out demons with authority. Jesus defeats death by his resurrection from the dead. Truly we can say of Jesus: 'He has performed mighty deeds with his arm.'
d) God is Gracious- But there's one final thing Mary delights in and that is that God is gracious. Verses 52-53: 'He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.' God is gracious to lift up the humble and to fill the hungry with good things. You see if mercy is not receiving what we do deserve, then grace is receiving what we don't deserve. Mercy withholds something from us that we thoroughly deserve- judgement. Grace goes a step further to give us what we don't deserve- salvation. God is willing to feed those who hunger for him spiritually. God is willing to lift up those who are downcast and who cry to him.
And that is the proper response to this holy, merciful, powerful and gracious God. It is humility. It is to humbly admit that you are in need of a Saviour. It's to humbly admit you cannot go it alone spiritually speaking, or indeed in any other way. It's to humbly admit you are a wretched sinner in need of mercy and grace. See what God does to those who are humble, to those who fear God, who respect his awesome power and authority. Verse 48, Mary comments that God is mindful of the humble. Verse 50, he is merciful to those who fear him. Verse 52 he lifts up the humble. Verse 53 he fills the hungry. But what of those who refuse to come? What of those who refuse to admit their need before God and arrogantly swagger before him saying: 'I don't need you God.' What of them? Verse 51: 'He has scattered those who are proud in their inner most thoughts.' Verse 52: 'He has brought down rulers from their thrones.' Verse 53: 'He has sent away the rich empty.' And Luke's gospel makes it clear that God is not talking about material wealth, though that may be a barrier, but spiritual wealth. Rather those who think they are spiritually rich on their own merit are in fact self deceived. God will bring low the proud and lift up the humble.
And throughout history God has acted in the same way. Think of a king like Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar was a great king of Babylon in Daniel's time. He was the most powerful man in the world at the time, the George Bush of his day. But Daniel told him that if he did not repent and humble himself before God then God would humble him. Nebuchadnezzar refused and so God sent him mad. He humbled him. He actually went around Babylon eating grass like a cow. His mind and body went to pot, until God graciously brought him to his senses. And what did Nebuchadnezzar say? 'Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.' (Daniel 4 v 37)
Or take a modern day example, a man like C S Lewis. Lewis was one of the most gifted minds of his day, a professor of English at Oxford University. But he was a staunch atheist and strongly refused to acknowledge the existence of God. But slowly God humbled him and brought him to his senses. Listen to the way Lewis puts it: 'You must picture me alone in that room in [Oxford], night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the [Winter] Term of 1929 I gave in; I admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.'
Both these men finally admitted, albeit reluctantly, their need. They humbled themselves under God. God opposes the proud and lifts up the humble. If you're proud and holding out against God, then be warned. God will bring you down, maybe not in this life, bit certainly in the next. Humble yourself before this great and awesome God, and he will lift you up. For God is holy and merciful and powerful and gracious. And that's the kind of God I for one long to get to know better. It will take a revolution to get us thinking God's way, don't you think? But that's what God is in the business of doing. Performing revolutions in people's hearts. That's the second thing Mary teaches us from her song. We have a God to glorify.
3) A Promise to Promote (Vv 54-55)
But then the third thing Mary teaches us from this song is that we have a promise to promote, and we'll look very briefly at this final point. Let's see how Mary puts it in verses 54-55: 'He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.' What Mary is referring to here is the wonderful promise of God to Abraham that he would be a blessing to the nations. God's plan had always been to offer his gift of salvation to the whole world. Through the Jewish nation the Saviour would come, and his salvation is for everyone. And Mary rejoices that God has kept his word, he has remembered his promise to Abraham, and the Saviour of the world, Jesus, has come.
And that is the message right the way through Luke's gospel, until right at the end, Jesus commands his disciples that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in Jesus' name to all the nations, the whole world. And it's that message, that promise which turned the world upside down in the first century and even today is doing the same. The promise of forgiveness of sins for all peoples through Jesus is the promise you and I are to promote like our Christian forbears before us. And that is the real revolution. That's the revolution that will last, a revolution in people's hearts when lives are turned round, when men and women, boys and girls come to know the true and living God for themselves. And that's a revolution you and I can be involved in. We fight not with placards or weapons, but with the gospel and prayer, pleading with God to change stubborn hearts and believing that he will do it through his word the gospel as he has promised. That's the promise we have to promote. Get on board with the revolution. Even in our own parish men and women, boys and girls are coming to Christ. God's work is going ahead. His cause is being furthered. It's thrilling, and there is no worthier cause than the glory of the living God. We've a promise to promote.
1989 was a remarkable year. Old oppressive kingdoms fell and democracies began. And yet in many ways nothing has changed. There is still bloodshed, turmoil, greed and sadness. Indeed, in China little seems to have changed. And yet behind the scenes in all these countries there is a far more important revolution taking place. Millions in China's underground churches are becoming Christians. In the Czech Republic there is steady growth in the churches. In Romania, there has been a huge church planting initiative. God has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. God's revolution is turning the world upside down, even today in the 21st century. Yes it is hard work being involved in God's revolution, but it is thrilling. And it's a work that will last for eternity. My soul glorifies the Lord, said Mary, my Spirit rejoices in God my Saviour. Praise God for his gospel revolution.
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