Pastor Craig Carter
Today marks the beginning of Advent – the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. Our English word, Advent, comes from the Latin word meaning “coming.” So this is a time of the year in which we remember when God, through His Son Jesus, came into the world as a baby in a manger in Bethlehem.
But we also anticipate that, one day, Jesus will come again in power and glory. So during the Advent season, we watch and wait for our Savior’s appearance.
Technically speaking, the Christmas season doesn’t officially begin for Christians until Christmas Eve, but in most of our minds it’s already Christmastime. That’s not because Thanksgiving has passed, decorations have been hung, and holiday shopping has begun.
I realized the Christmas season had arrived over a month ago when I first heard Christmas music playing in a store. Nothing gets us into the Christmas spirit more than listening to Christmas music. Retailers certainly understand that principle, don’t they?
You’d have to be a complete Scrooge not to look forward to the songs of the season. Apparently, Sirius XM satellite knows that to be true as they are offering 17 channels of holiday music covering virtually every genre this year.
If we didn’t love Christmas music, how else could a two-minute song made to sound like high-pitched “chipmunk” voices sell 4.5 million records and earn three Grammy awards? Sixty years after its initial release, it’s still the third most popular Christmas downloaded song, surpassed only by Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and my personal favorite, “Christmas Eve in Sarajevo” by Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
You can’t beat Christmas music played hard-rock style on screaming guitars and accompanied by a laser light show.
There are some wonderful secular songs, but it is primarily Christian hymns that dominate the musical scene during this time of the year.
It’s almost sad that we reserve them for a four-week period of the year because many of them have beautiful tunes and meaningful messages that are timeless. And the songs of Christmas are nothing new as they date back to the Nativity itself.
Let me explain what I mean … Luke’s gospel tells us more about Jesus’ birth than any other gospel account. And if his story was put on a stage, it would be a musical production because, in the two chapters that cover the Nativity, the cast sings four songs. They are oftentimes referred to by their Latin titles (from the first line of each):
Mary’s Song – Magnificat
Zechariah’s Song – Benedictus
The Angels’ Song – Gloria in Excelsis Deo
Simeon’s Song – Nunc Dimittis
During Advent, I’d like us to explore these four songs of Christmas beginning with the Magnificat. But before we look at the content of the song itself, let’s first set the stage and recall the events leading up to this musical number:
When the angel Gabriel told the young virgin Mary that she was going to have a child who would be the Son of God and reign forever, she asked, “How can this happen?” He answered that the Holy Spirit would come upon her so that her conception would be divine in nature. Then Gabriel gave Mary the added confirmation that nothing is impossible with God by telling her that her relative Elizabeth was also pregnant – despite her advanced age and previously barren condition.
According to Luke chapter one, here’s what happened next … In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (Luke 1:39-45 NRSV)
An angel had earlier told Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, that their son, John the Baptist, would be filled with God’s Spirit even from his mother’s womb. Now we are given evidence that this prediction was true. As Mary approaches Elizabeth carrying God’s Son, little John gives his mom a swift kick in the side. Then Elizabeth herself is filled with the Holy Spirit and cries out, “Mary, my child is leaping for joy. Even before he is born he is bearing witness to the Lord in your womb.”
That’s all the confirmation Mary needed. She is now fully convinced of a most remarkable thing – God is about to change the course of human history and He is going to use two obscure Jewish women (one young and a virgin, the other one old and barren) to do so.
Mary is so moved by this vision of God and His divine plan that is about to unfold that she breaks forth in song – The Magnificat – that begins…
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” (Luke 1:46-49 NRSV)
I’d like to spend the rest of this message looking at what Mary has to say in her song. It is comprised of three distinct sections: her personal perspective – joy (vv. 46-47), God’s gracious provision (vv. 48-49), and a proclamation about God (vv. 50-55).
Let’s look at each of these sections in reverse order:
In verse 49, Mary makes the general statement that God’s name is “holy.” By that, she means God’s essential character is marked by holiness. He is completely free of sin, His attributes are altogether perfect, and His motives are pure
But then Mary emphasizes how God expresses His holiness. The word literally means, He is “set apart” or “distinct.” In particular, the Lord is altogether different in the way He treats certain types of people.
“His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:50-55 NRSV)
Mary’s heart is filled with joy because of God’s concern for the “down and out” (of which she is one). She refers to “those who fear him,” “the lowly” (or humble), and “the hungry.”
Scripture teaches that in one sense, God is not partial and doesn’t play favorites (see Romans 2:11). But in another sense, God gives preferential treatment to some because He loves the underdog. We recognize this fact during this season of the year, don’t we?
It’s why the Salvation Army’s buckets are filled with cash and enabled them to set a record last year by raising $557M to feed the hungry and house the homeless. It’s why 9 million Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes filled with gifts are being distributed to needy children around the world, including 126 sent by our Lynn Haven UMC kids to our ministry partners in Honduras. And it’s why we’re receiving a special Christmas offering to benefit Anchorage Children’s Home and Embrace Florida Kids.
Whenever we seek to lift up the lowly or feed the hungry we are demonstrating true holiness because our God is holy and He exalts the humble.
That’s one side of the Lord’s holiness, but there’s another – He opposes the haughty.
Mary proclaims that God “has scattered the proud … brought down the powerful … and sent the rich away empty.” God’s ways are clearly not the world’s ways as He turns everything upside down.
While we show partiality to proud, powerful, and rich persons, He does not. In fact, according to Mary’s song, the Lord works against such persons. Why? Because these things are substitutes for God.
God cannot and will not affirm attitudes and behaviors that remove Him from His rightful place upon the throne.
That’s why, with God’s help, the tiny army of Israel defeated powerful foes like the Canaanites, Hittites, Midianites, Amorites, and every other big, bad -ite imaginable. And it’s why a movement started by a seemingly harmless baby born in a manger in Bethlehem ultimately brought down the Roman Empire.
There’s a message here for us today. We need to be cautious lest we become enamored with what the world has to offer and take delight in our comfortable lifestyle.
Please take note of that fact at the start of this holiday season before you go out and spend $1,000 per person like most Americans will on gifts, decorations, and entertainment. We may be impressed by possessions and proud of prestigious accomplishments, but God is not. In fact, He actively opposes such people.
Mary makes a bold, even revolutionary proclamation about God that runs counter to the world’s way of thinking. The holy God demonstrates His greatness by blessing the humble who admire His greatness and by opposing the haughty who admire their own perceived greatness. And she knows this to be true because she has experienced it firsthand through His gracious…
In verses 48-49, Mary sees in her own experience an example of the way God is.
“He has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” (Luke 1:48-49 NRSV)
And what has the Lord done for Mary? Only made her the earthly mother of God’s own Son!
And why has He done such a thing? Because God is holy and this is His way.
It was not because Mary was morally or spiritually unique.
So we need to be careful of any tendency to ascribe to Mary any attributes that the New Testament does not give her (i.e. sinless life, perpetual virginity, bodily assumption into heaven). In fact, on least two occasions, Jesus debunked the notion of giving Mary an elevated moral status (see Luke 8:19-21; 11:27-28).
That being said, Mary was unique in that no one else has borne God’s Son. But her distinctiveness was based on God’s sovereign choice and her obedience and submission.
Mary was greatly used by God because she was willing and (avail)able.
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” (Luke 1:38 NIV 1984)
I wonder … was Mary God’s first choice or had He approached others?
Mary’s song shows us that God cares about folks living in out of the way places in humble settings and acts in and through their lives if they’ll only trust and obey. And it is God’s provision that makes such persons “blessed.”
The lesson for us is obvious, isn’t it?
Most of us are a lot like Mary – just small town boys and girls. But we’re worth something because God says that we are. And, beyond that, He wants to use us for His divine purposes.
True blessedness comes by living in this truth and not from what we have.
Think of a time when you truly felt blessed? Was it a great achievement? Receiving an expensive present?
For me, I feel most blessed when I know I’m being used by God. Every one of us has opportunities every day to be blessed by God by being a blessing to someone else.
What is God calling you to do? Where is He asking you to go? Whom does He want you to serve?
Can you say, “I am the Lord’s servant?”
We tend to think of God’s provision in terms of what we can get from the Lord. But Mary’s song shows us that the most gracious gift we’ll ever receive is realizing that God takes notice of us and wants to do great things for us, in us, and through us.
You and I don’t ever have to worry because God can and will provide for our every need. We simply need to be willing to trust Him and take Him at His word.
And we can do so, knowing that the Lord keeps His promises and remembers His people.
Why did God do great things for Mary and grant her His favor?
“He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:54-55 NRSV)
You and I are descendants of Abraham and just as the Lord was Jehovah-Jireh to him, God will be our Great Provider as well.
Realizing who God is and what He had done for her, gave Mary a certain…
Mary’s heart was filled with joy so her mouth burst forth in praise: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” (Luke 1:46-47 NRSV)
First of all, Mary’s spirit rejoiced because she knew that God was her Savior. If this is going to be a joyful season for us, it won’t be because of where we go, what we do, or whether we get or give the perfect gift.
Real joy is found in Jesus and by having a relationship with Him.
We will become and stay jubilant when we say like Mary, “God is my Savior!”
Try and say that with a downcast spirit or frown on your face. It can’t be done! ☺
Finally, we arrive back at the beginning, the title line of Mary’s Song: The Magnificat. Magnify literally means to “make large.” Mary is making God real big!
There are two particular ways to magnify an object. You can use a microscope that makes something very small look big. Or you can use a telescope that takes something that appears small because it is so far away and lets you see it as it really is. Through her song, Mary put a telescope on God.
She understood that in our human condition it is very easy to belittle God. Amid life’s circumstances, God can easily get pushed far into the distance. At the same time, we focus a microscope on ourselves and magnify our problems.
Mary could’ve easily have done that considering the predicament she found herself in – unmarried and pregnant … by supernatural means. But by magnifying the Lord, Mary made God big and her problems smaller.
And in both cases, it was (and is) the proper perspective.
Friends, trials and troubles are part of our human existence. They always have been. But let’s keep them in perspective. Compared to God, they’re infinitely small.
It just depends on … How big is your God?
What is your perspective today, especially as it relates to the season we’re about to enter? What are you magnifying and making large?
Is it all that you have to do, bills that will have to be paid, difficult relationships that you’ll have to deal with, or health problems that may affect your plans?
While these things are legitimate concerns, don’t let them cloud your thinking and darken your perspective. Instead, sing along with Mary … rejoice in God and His salvation and make a big deal out of Him.
Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together! (Psalm 34:3 ESV)