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Luke’s Christmas Liturgy – Magnificat: Mary Was a Shorter Catechism Girl

The Lord’s Day
Morning

December 3, 2006

Luke 1:46-55

“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
Saviorovershadowed
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
humble.
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 holyname.” 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
,

No. 196.

[Congregational hymn]

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and
the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

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