The Lord's Day MorningDecember 3, 2006
“Luke's Christmas Liturgy:
Magnificat: Mary Was a Shorter Catechism Girl”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Amen, and as Ligon was saying earlier, of course, the choir has just been singing what is the text this morning, The Magnificat, the song of Mary. So turn with me now in your Bibles to Luke 1, and we're going to read shortly from the beginning of verse 46 through to the end of verse 55.
Over the next four Sunday mornings in December we are going to be looking in the mornings–there’ll be a parallel theme running in the evenings, but in the mornings we're looking at the four songs in The Gospel of Luke: this one this morning, The Magnificat, the song of Mary; then will come The Benedictus, which is the song of Zacharias; then, the Nunc Dimitis, the song of Simeon; and, fourthly, which is only one verse, but everybody of course will know it immediately, The Gloria, the song that the angels sang:
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will towards men.”
They’re all hymns. Actually, we could say they’re all psalms — hymns of praise, hymns filled with joy and holy wonder at what God has done and is doing, and will yet do.
It's all about worship. It's all about the worship of God. That's why God made us. That's why God redeems us. That is, of course, the principle reason why we gather together on the Lord's Day — to worship Him, as a foretaste of what we will do forever and ever in eternity. Let me suggest to you that over these next four weeks you adopt these four hymns as your weekly meditation. Read them. Read them aloud. Sing them (in your hearts, if you’re a little nervous)! Meditate on them. Draw from them all of the wonderful, wonderful lessons that each one of them has, and listen to what God may be saying to you this Christmas season.
Let's remind ourselves of the context. It's of course a very familiar story. In Jerusalem, Gabriel has appeared to Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist-to-be. He and his wife, Elizabeth, are described as an elderly couple who have no children. They have prayed for years and years for children, but God has not given them children. And all of a sudden Gabriel appears to him and tells him that his wife Elizabeth (they lived not in Jerusalem, but in the hill country of Judea)...he says his wife Elizabeth is expecting a child, and his name will be John, meaning the Lord is gracious...John the Baptist. Zacharias, as you can readily understand, is struck dumb by the news, and he will remain dumb for the duration of the pregnancy.
Six months later, Gabriel appears again, not in Jerusalem now, but up north in Nazareth, to a young woman by the name of Mary, who is betrothed to Joseph, but they have not had sexual relations. And Gabriel announces as he meets her that she has been highly favored by God–and, by the way, you’re pregnant. His name (the name of the child) will be Jesus, meaning Savior; and God has given to Him a status in which He will be great, and He will be called the Son of the Most High. The Holy Spirit has overshadowed her - and in the Bible translation of her day, that word overshadowed was the same word employed for the glory cloud of God in the tabernacle. God in His glory had come and done something extraordinary.
Mary flees to the hill country of Judea to Elizabeth. They are related. The Bible doesn't quite tell us how; we sometimes hear that they are cousins. It's girl talk–about babies. And you can imagine what's going through Mary's mind, in contrast to what may be going through Elizabeth's mind. Elizabeth is filled with joy, no doubt; Mary is probably quite alarmed. What in the world is she going to say to Elizabeth? So she tells the story of an angelic visitor, and a virginal conception–and you know, you don't need Bishop Shelby Spong to tell you that virgin births do not occur! Mary knew that; Elizabeth knew that; Luke's readers knew and understood that. God has done something quite extraordinary.
But, you know, Elizabeth knows before Mary comes, and greets her, and greets her in a way which must have brought tremendous relief and encouragement and growth in faith for this young girl, Mary. On the meeting, the baby inside Elizabeth (John) leaps for joy, not so much at Mary, but at Jesus, whom she is carrying.
Now before we read The Magnificat together, let's look to God in prayer.
Father, we thank You again for the Scriptures, for Your holy word; and we pray, Holy Spirit, that You would help us now read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Hear now the word of God:
“And Mary said:
‘My soul exalts the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave;
For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed.
For the Mighty One has done great things for me; and holy is His name.
And His mercy is upon generation after generation
Towards those who fear Him.
He has done mighty deeds with His arm;
He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones,
And has exalted those who were
He has filled the hungry with good things;
And sent away the rich empty-handed.
He has given help to Israel His servant,
In remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and his offspring forever.”
Amen. May God bless to us the reading of His holy and inerrant word.
You know, there are commentators — they’re not worth reading, really, but they tell you that Mary couldn't possibly have written The Magnificat...it's too full of the Old Testament. Well, commentators who write that sort of thing have never been to a prayer meeting of relatively uneducated people who know their King James Bible, and can in their prayers cite great chunks of the Old Testament from memory! And that is precisely what Mary is doing here. She is putting together in poetic form words that are culled from all over the Old Testament, and it's a song of great joy and great hope, and great anticipation. There's a grasp about the song about what God has done for her; there's theological reflection of what God has been doing and is doing, and will yet do, and it boils down to three things. She gives thanks and glories in God, first of all, for what God has done in her particularly. Secondly, she is glorying in God because of what God has done in others generally. And, thirdly, she is glorying in God because of what God has done for Israel — and, we might say, for the church. Let's look at The Magnificat together along those three lines of thought.
I. Firstly, as she gives thanks to God for what God has done for her personally. As Elizabeth greets her, she says (in verse 43), “Why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” What an extraordinary expression it must have been as Elizabeth first said those words, “...the mother of my Lord.”
Mary was greatly blessed, as she says in this Magnificat in the opening verses of the hymn. She speaks about her being highly favored, and that future generations will call her blessed. God gave to Mary an extraordinary and unique role, a role that He gave to no one else: to be the bearer of the Savior, the Lord of glory incarnate; to be, as Elizabeth puts it, “...the mother of my Lord.” She is to be honored for that. She is to be respected for that. We honor her. We cherish her. We count her memory blessed in Israel for it.
But you notice what Mary herself says about herself: she refers to the One that she is carrying as a Savior, and she speaks of herself as one who is lowly or humble, because Mary is self-aware and self-conscious that she needs a Savior in the same way that you and I need a Savior. There's nothing here, you see, of an immaculate conception. There's nothing here about a perpetual sinless existence; there's nothing about a perpetual virginity; there's nothing about a bodily assumption into heaven. There's nothing here that would endorse a role for Mary as the co-redemptress.
No, she sees herself as a sinner. She sees herself as following in the line of Adam and Eve, of having within herself that fallen humanity, that need for a deliverer, that need for a Savior, that need for One to come and wash her of her sins and cleanse her of her guilt and restore her into fellowship and communion with God, that she might sing the song of the redeemed with the assurance that she is a child of God. What she is most self-aware of, what she is most self-conscious of as she bursts now into song is that God has provided for her a Savior.
You see, she's singing the equivalent of “Nothing in my hands I bring....” She's singing the equivalent of “Praise Him! Praise Him! Jesus, my blessed Redeemer!” Her song is one of gratitude. You know, she knows the gospel dynamics: grace followed by gratitude. We experience the gospel, we experience forgiveness for which we give thanks to God.
As we gather together, you and I this morning, on this Lord's Day, that's the chief thing on our hearts and on our minds, is it not? God has been gracious to us. God has redeemed us through the blood of His Son. God has quickened and regenerated us. He's brought us into union and communion with Jesus Christ. He's set some of you in godly homes and families...that your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, going all the way back in the history of Mississippi... and some of you, like myself, He has snatched like brands from the burning from no covenant line and brought us all together into a family of God, whereby we are brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ and part of the family of God; and we are heirs of God, and joint heirs with Jesus Christ, and our hearts want to burst out in song. Our hearts want, with Mary, to say, ‘My soul exalts the Lord. I want to give Him all the glory. I want to give Him all the praise. I want to give Him all the adoration.’
Is that how you begin this Christmas season? Well, shake yourselves if it is not! Arouse yourselves! Call on the Holy Spirit to remove the cobwebs. You know, when we got in at 8:30, there were cobwebs all over here! These poinsettias had little spiders in them.... and you know, I was thinking that maybe that's just how I felt as I was worshiping God. I want to remove all those cobwebs. I need a good spring cleaning. I need the Holy Spirit to come and give me joy in my heart and remind myself of the good things, the wonderful things, the extraordinary things that God has done for me. Granted, there is a uniqueness about what God did for Mary, but there is a lesson that comes out of it: To give God glory for what He has done for you in your own heart and soul.
II. Secondly, she gives glory to God for what God has done in others generally, and it springs (do you note in verse 49?) from the idea that God is holy; and not just “holy” — “holy is His name.” And this is a Hebrew idiom, because the name identifies the character. This is God's essential character, and holy is one of those one-word Bible terms that summarizes for us all that God is essentially in His character, and evokes awe and wonder and fear, because He's different from us. He's pure. He is without sin. You remember Isaiah in the temple, in Isaiah 6, and the seraphim:
“Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts. Heaven and earth is full of Your glory.”
And do you remember Isaiah's response?
“Woe is me! For I am undone! I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell amongst a people of unclean lips.”
Well, Mary is reflecting now on the holiness of God, that God owes us no favors; He owes us justice. And do you notice the contrasts in verses 50-51, and 52 and 53? On the one side, He has mercy on those who fear Him, He exalts those of low degree, He fills the hungry with good things. And on the other hand, He scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He puts down the mighty from their thrones. The rich He has sent empty away . This song is for those who realize that they need grace. They need gospel grace, and Mary is reflecting on this holy God who owes us no favors, has revealed His mercy; that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved, whoever they are: those of low degree, those who humble themselves, those who acknowledge their sin, those who acknowledge that they are guilty in the sight of God. God again and again and again has shown mercy, and Mary is reflecting on this beautiful character of God: that not only is He holy and righteous, but He's merciful and longsuffering to the lowly, to the humble, to the contrite in spirit.
So she's reflecting on what God has done in her own life personally, she's reflecting on what God does in the lives of others generally, and
III. Thirdly, she's reflecting on what God has done for Israel...for Israel. And you notice at the end of The Magnificat, in verses 54 and 55, “He has given help to Israel His servant, in remembrance of His mercy....” And where is that mercy first seen? “As He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his offspring forever.” She goes all the way back to Abraham.
Now follow with me for a second, because Mary was a good covenant theologian. She had taken Ligon Duncan's ‘Covenant Theology’ class at seminary! She realized that the Child she was carrying, whose name would be Jesus, meaning Savior, was the fulfillment of a promise that went back all through the pages of the Old Testament, all the way back to Father Abraham. She understood how the Old Testament needs to be read. She knew, as it were, the hermeneutic; she knew the principle by which we read the Old Testament: seeing not just the individual parts, but seeing the whole - seeing the line that connects Abraham with Mary, and you, and me, and it's called covenant: that God makes this promise, a promise that He first makes with Adam in the Garden of Eden that the seed of the woman would crush the head of Satan, and in the process His heel would be bruised; and how at successive moments and epochs in redemptive history God has come and repeated that promise with Adam and Abraham, and Moses and David; and the prophets had spoken of a new covenant, so that what Mary is saying - do you see? — is that there's one story here, and it's a gospel story. It's a story of God's saving and redeeming a people for Himself through something that His Son, Jesus Christ, will do.
Isn't it interesting that eight days after Jesus is born, Mary will be thinking about Abraham again. She will recall on that day that the sign and seal of that covenant that God made with Abraham is circumcision, and she will take her Son, Jesus, to be circumcised. And circumcision has more than one meaning in the Bible - not only a physical meaning, but it has a theological meaning, because the word for circumcision employs a verb meaning to cut, and in the Abrahamic story there was a story that illustrated what that meant, when, you remember, the animals were cut in pieces — severed in two. And God passes through with that flaming torch, and it becomes a picture of judgment, so that Paul will speak of the work of Jesus on the cross as the circumcision of Christ; then in another epistle he would speak of the curse of God coming down upon Him. He was made a curse for us.
Mary is thinking about her Bible, do you see? And as she thinks about her Bible, she thinks about the story of redemption in a line of covenant promise that God has given.
You know, in our Confession of Faith, in Chapter VII we read these words:
“The distance between God and the creature is so great that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which He hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.”
And Mary is nodding wisely in the background to the seventh
chapter of The Westminster Confession of Faith.
Mary, do you see, was a “Shorter Catechism girl”, because in answer to the question “What is the chief end of man?” she would say “To glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” Glory and joy; joy and glory...and you know, as you reflect on this Magnificat you see both of those things. You see her glorying in God, and her heart filled with the joy of the gospel that brings to sinners like her and you and me the most exalted blessings imaginable: that we are heirs and joint heirs with Christ. She saw in her Old Testament, do you see, a principle that ran all the way through to where she is: “The New in the Old concealed; the Old in the New revealed,” as Augustine would say. And she bursts into song.
You know, if there's any season of the year where even the most reluctant of choristers burst into song...when you turn on the radio and you hear a familiar Christmas carol, you can't but join in. There's something about that that makes you want to sing! What is it that makes Mary sing? It's gospel! It's grace! It's the all-surpassing grace of a covenant God to needy sinners.
“Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord;
Unnumbered blessings, give my spirit voice.
Tender to me the promise of His word;
In God my Savior shall my heart rejoice.”
Well, let's sing together the words of a hymn, and it's Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
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This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.