Veiled in Flesh: The Magnificat

Sermon by David Strain on December 17, 2017

Luke 1:46-56

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Well do please open your Bibles with me to Luke's gospel, chapter 1, as we continue this Advent series thinking about the first coming of our Lord Jesus. You may remember that at the very beginning of Luke chapter 1, Luke tells us that he is working in his gospel with eyewitness testimony, seeking to provide an orderly account that Theophilus, for whom he is writing his gospel, may have certainty about the things that he has been taught. And if you read the first few chapters of Luke's gospel, in particular, it's hard to resist the conclusion that Luke has been drawing on the eyewitness testimony of one individual especially. One preacher I know suggests an experiment that you might like to try later when you go home. Reread Luke chapters 1 and 2 and wherever you find the word "Mary" or "she" referring to Mary, insert instead the word, "I" or "me" and you'll see with very minimal changes that these chapters read like first person statements of direct eyewitness testimony from the lips of the virgin Mary herself, which is really what we are, in all likelihood, dealing with.


Over these weeks of Advent so far, we have walked with Mary through the events of Christ’s first coming and listened in as the angel, Gabriel, announced to her, her miraculous pregnancy. We went with Mary on her journey last Lord’s Day Morning to visit cousin Elizabeth in the hill country of Judah and we saw the explosive joy that characterized their meeting. You remember Elizabeth was so full of joy she burst out in an exclamation of blessing and benediction upon Mary and her child. John, the child growing in Elizabeth’s womb, was so full of joy he leapt in his mother’s womb. And now today we see that Mary, similarly, there in Elizabeth’s home that day, is so full of joy that she bursts into song. You find the words of her remarkable song on page 856 in your Bibles at verses 46 through 56. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d invite you now to turn there with me. And once you have it open, let’s bow our heads together as we pray.


Our Father, we confess to You that there are times when it is hard for us for our hearts to sing. Our circumstances may be hard and our challenges acute and the song of joy does not easily come to our lips. So we pray today that, by Your Word, You would redirect our gaze that we may look less at our circumstances and more at the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and at our Savior Himself upon whom Mary had fixed her gaze that, with her, we might begin to magnify the Lord and rejoice in God our Savior. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.


Let’s read God’s Word together; Luke’s gospel chapter 1, verse 46. This is the Word of Almighty God:


“And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And 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 mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his offspring forever.’

And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.”


Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken to us in His holy Word.


One of the reasons I love Christmas is the songs that we get to sing. Don't you? I love Christmas carols in particular. The church's tradition of sacred music across the centuries has always given particular attention to the first coming of Christ so that many of our most robust and theologically profound hymns are Christmas carols. Tonight we'll have our annual service of Lessons and Carols, the Music of Christmas, and as always, the beauty and the power of the music married so well with the richness of the truths being sung will move us, I'm confident, at a very profound level. And there is an argument to be made that that tradition of joyous, Christmas hymnody takes its cues from the opening chapters of Luke's gospel. If you scan through them, you'll see they are just bursting with songs of joy. Aren't they? There's the song of Zechariah we used in our call to worship; often called "The Benedictus." Later, in chapter 1, then in chapter 2, there's the wonderful "Gloria," the angels' song where the angelic choir split the skies above the hills of Bethlehem while the shepherds kept their flocks by night. And then there's the words of the "Nunc Dimittis," Simeon's song later in chapter 2; his song of rest and satisfaction at coming of Messiah after all these longs years of expectant waiting.


One of the really wonderful features, I think, of the opening chapters of Luke’s gospel is how much Luke loves the category of song as a vehicle for explaining the significance of the first coming of Jesus. You could say, with complete seriousness and significant credibility, that Luke chapters 1 and 2 is a musical. And the opening song with which Luke’s musical celebration of the birth of Jesus begins, the very first Christmas carol, is Mary’s song that we read together a moment ago – “The Magnificat,” Mary’s song, which will be our focus of attention this morning. Mary is singing out her joy to God, and at the same time, telling us about the significance, the meaning of the coming of the child that she carries.


Praising and Teaching

And just as an aside, all Christian praise has those two elements to it. We are singing to God and we are teaching and admonishing one another. There’s a vertical and a horizontal plane going on all the time whenever we are singing praises to God. Ephesians 5:19 says that in sung praise we are addressing one another “in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with our hearts.” Do you see both planes? Colossians 3:16, similarly, we are “teaching an admonishing one another,” there’s the horizontal plane, “in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” There’s the vertical plane. Both are going on at the same time; that is true of all Christian praise, certainly true of Mary’s song. She is singing praises to God because of what He has done in the Lord Jesus Christ and she is teaching us.


Glory and Joy

And what is she teaching us? The dominant note of her song you can see in the opening two verses, verses 46 and 47, if you'll look there with me for a moment. "My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior." Isn't it striking how robustly Godward she is here? She's a teenage girl; she's an expectant mother, a new mother-to-be. And yet, she is not at all the focus of her own satisfaction. Her joy is not centered on herself. He soul magnifies the Lord. She rejoices in God her Savior. I once heard Sinclair Ferguson point out how closely Mary's song mirrors the structure of the opening question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. You know it well, don't you? "What is the chief end of man?" You can say it with me. "Man's chief end…" That's pathetic! Stop, stop, stop, stop, stop! "What is the chief end of man?" "Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever." Now, look at verses 46 and 47. Mary magnifies the Lord – she is focused on His glory. She is giving Him glory. And as she does, and in so far as she does, her spirit rejoices, finds joy in God her Savior. She is glorifying God and enjoying Him. As a good Presbyterian girl, Mary really gets Shorter Catechism one, doesn't she? She knows the deepest joy of our hearts is inextricably bound up with our determined commitment to refuse any glory for self that all the glory might be God's.



And so notice, very carefully, the precise language she uses in verse 46 as she gives glory to God. “My soul magnifies the Lord.” I’ve often puzzled over what that really means. What does it mean to magnify the Lord? It’s an interesting image, isn’t it? I found some help in a paragraph from John Piper. See if this helps you understand what it means to magnify the Lord. “Magnify,” says Piper, “has two distinct meanings. In relation to God, one is worship and one is wickedness. You can magnify like a telescope or like a microscope. When you magnify like a microscope you make something tiny look bigger than it is. A dust mite can look like a monster. Pretending to magnify God like that,” Piper says, “is wickedness. But when you magnify like a telescope, you make something unimaginably great look like what it really is. With the Hubble Space Telescope, pinprick galaxies in the sky are revealed for the billion-star giants that they are. Magnifying God like that is worship.”


Mary is involved in telescopic worship. She has come to see with the coming of the Lord Jesus something of the vastness and the greatness and the glory of her God in a fresh way. And in the midst of a world that belittles Him, as she sings out her praises, she aims to help us see Him as He is. That’s what true Christian worship always aims to do – to display the greatness of God to the world, to one another. As we teach and admonish one another that we might say to one another, “Do you see the dimensions of the glory and the grace and the love of God for your soul, brother, sister, in the Lord Jesus Christ?” That’s what’s happening here in Mary’s song.


And if you’ll look at the passage carefully, you will notice there are three aspects about God, three themes in her song that teach us about God and what He has done for her in Jesus in particular, over which she celebrates and rejoices. First of all, in verses 48 and 49, she tells us what God sees. He has “looked on the humble estate of his servant.” Then in 50 through 53, what God does. We see God’s activity; the work of His arm. Then finally, what God says – 54 through 55. His promise to our father, Abraham. So what God sees, what God does, and what God says. Those are the themes that occupy her song.


What God Sees

What God sees, first of all. Look at verse 48. Mary says that she magnifies the Lord; her soul rejoices in God her Savior, “for” – here’s her reason – “he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on, all generations will call me blessed for he who is mighty has done great things for me and holy is his name.” What God sees. He sees Mary. He looks upon her and has taken notice of her humble estate.


Some of us like the limelight more than others. Isn’t that so? I was once at a college football game while I was a pastor in Columbus, and the big screen was sponsored by the dental practice of one of my elders in the church there. And so, in between plays, the camera would fall on someone; they called it the “smile cam” and the idea was that it would linger on you, it would be fixed on you until you smiled broadly enough. Now as an introvert, that is my worst nightmare! I can’t think of anything worse! And so I spent every break in play sort of hiding behind people and trying to not be seen, because of course, the camera would fall on me and I wouldn’t smile! I would hide! And so it would just linger there! I can’t think of anything worse! Some of us love the limelight. If you’re an introvert like me, you really don’t. But whether you love it or hate it, every one of us really longs to be known, to be really seen; to be seen, to be noticed and truly known.


Humble Estate

And that is what has happened for Mary. In the coming of Jesus Christ, God has looked upon her humble estate. “All generations,” she says, “will call me blessed,” not because Mary thinks herself worth being made much of, but because, she says, “he who is mighty has done great things for me. He has done it; I haven’t done it. He has intervened in the coming of Jesus Christ and His intervention has satisfied my need to be looked upon and noticed and known.” Some of us can barely stand to look at ourselves. Our humble estate, our sin and our misery, our shame makes us want to do what our first parents did back in the garden. You remember what Adam and Eve did when the Lord God came walking in the cool of the day? They heard Him coming and they hid themselves because they were naked and they were afraid; they were ashamed. That’s how we feel before the gaze of God, before the watching world. We want to run and hide, naked and ashamed.


Covered in Righteousness

But with the coming of Jesus, Mary comes under the all-knowing gaze of Almighty God and she doesn’t need to hide anymore. In the coming of Jesus, the mighty One has done great things for her. Holy is His name! She didn’t do it; God did it. With the coming of Jesus Christ, she has been known. And instead of that gaze causing her shame so that she wants to hide, it makes her heart ignite with joy. You see what that means? It means, because of Jesus, it is possible for shameful sinners like me and like you to no longer need to run and hide. We don’t need to hide anymore. You don’t need to hide anymore. Jesus, you see, covers your nakedness and your shame with robes of His own perfect righteousness. Because of the coming of Jesus, naked and ashamed is no longer true of you. He has made coverings for you that you may stand in His sight not excluded but draw near. God has looked upon you in your humble estate in the Lord Jesus Christ. He sees you, He sees all of it, He knows you, and He does not turn away from you. He turns toward you and He pursues you so that now, if you will but trust in Jesus, even if no one else really looks, ever really notices, ever really sees you, now in Jesus Christ you are and you may know for sure that you have been seen and known and beloved, welcomed and accepted. What God sees.


What God Does

Then look at verses 50 through 53. What God does. What God does. Notice carefully that while Mary starts her song speaking about herself, it’s a word of testimony, a word of personal witness to the work of God’s grace in her life in the coming of Jesus Christ, she very quickly universalizes it. Doesn’t she? The grace of God isn’t for her alone. More is taking place in the coming of Mary’s child that first Christmas than the favor of the Lord for Mary. No, she says, his mercy “is for those who fear him. From generation to generation, he has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered the proud and the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted” – notice this language – “exalted those of humble estate.” That’s the same vocabulary she used with regard to herself. Now it’s true for all those upon whom the Lord shows His grace. He exalts all those of humble estate who turn to the Lord Jesus. “And he has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.”


The Blessings of the Messiah

Now here’s how she understands the significance, the meaning of the coming of her child. His arrival is the mercy of God for all who fear Him, from generation to generation. It is the display of the strength of His arm by which judgment on the proud and blessing on the humble at last have come. Interestingly, did you see that throughout this whole section of her song she speaks of the blessings Messiah brings in the past tense? Did you see that? In the past tense. These are promises that really speak about what Jesus is going to do. She sings about them as though they were already done. Her song is steeped in Old Testament scripture. She either quotes or alludes to passages from Genesis, Deuteronomy, 1 and 2 Samuel, Job, Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah. This is a virtual tour of Old Testament expectations about what God will do for His believing people and in particular what He will accomplish in the coming of Messiah.  And Mary sings about all of it as though it were already fully accomplished; as though it were a past tense.


The Past Tense

It’s the same kind of thing we see most famously in passages like Romans 8:29-30. Famous, well-known passage, you may know it – Paul tells us that “those whom God foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” Past tense, okay? In eternity, He purposed to save some and make them like Jesus. “And those whom he foreknew,” Paul says, “Those whom he predestined,” rather, “he also called.” Calling. When you became a Christian, as in, your past, Paul says to the Roman Christians. And then he says, those whom he called “these he also justified.” Those to whom he was writing are believers in Jesus and in their past, when they came to know the Lord, they were counted righteous in God’s sight. They were justified in the past. And then he says wonderfully, “those whom he justified, these he also” – what? “These he also glorified” – also a past tense. But glorification still waits for the future, doesn’t it? We’re not yet glorified; it’s still not yet. So why does he use a past tense?


He uses it for the same reason Mary sings about the range of blessings Messiah brings. As if it had already all come into the world – the poor fed, the proud condemned, the humble exalted – it’s a past tense because now that Jesus has come, the future is as sure and certain; the promises of God as sure and certain as a fact of history. For some of us, this Christmas will be harder than last year. You may have lost a loved one in the year that’s now almost behind us. Perhaps your life is far more complicated, financial situation more precarious, your health perhaps has suffered, and honestly, working up enough Christmas cheer to cover those struggles hasn’t been easy. Has it? Working up Christmas cheer when it’s hard and sore and long. If that’s you, can I suggest that you meditate on the past tenses of “The Magnificat” a while because they remind us that because of Mary’s boy, because of Jesus Christ, born of the virgin, tempted in the wilderness, obeyed the Law of God, healed the sick, raised the dead, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried, on the third day He rose again from the dead, He is seated at the right hand of God and from thence He is coming to judge the living and the dead, because of Jesus and what He has done, these promised future blessings – an age when suffering is over, when righteousness reigns, when wickedness has ended, when wrongs are righted – all of that is certain, it is sure, as sure as yesterday’s news. You will find strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow because of Jesus Christ when you anchor your faith to the promises of God. Because the tomb is empty and the throne occupied, because Jesus died and rose and now reigns, you can press on. You can press on, however dark and hard and sore this Christmas may be for you.


What God Says

What God sees. What God does. Finally, look at verses 54 and 55. Here's what God says. "He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his offspring forever." Mary is remembering and she's reminding us that the first Christmas is the fulfillment of God's ancient promise. It was two thousand years old, the promise, when Mary began her song; four thousand years old now. The promise made to Abraham, that in his seed, in his offspring, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. The apostle Paul in Galatians 3:16 says that that promise is not referring to multiple seeds, as of many. It is a promise to your seed, to your offspring, meaning one, which is Christ. Jesus is the child of Abraham to whom the promise pointed and in whom blessing would come to the nations. That says that with the birth of Jesus Christ, God was keeping a millennia-old promise at last. No wonder Mary sings! No wonder the Church has been singing about it for two thousand years! The infant child in Mary's womb is the nexus, the focal point of human history in whom all the promises of God – not just for Mary but for all people everywhere – were coming true.


And so you see, because of the promises of God, because the promises of God are kept in Him, and because a glorious future is secured in Him, and because God comes to you and He sees you in your weakness and ugliness and sin and He loves you, because of Jesus, you can begin at last to fulfill your chief end. Right? To glorify God and enjoy Him forever. You can begin to sing Mary’s song for yourself. “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. Not, perhaps, in my circumstances, not in my trails which grieve me for a time, but in God my Savior and in His Son, the Lord Jesus.”


I wonder if you can join Mary's song today? Can you stand no longer naked and afraid before God but robed instead with the righteousness of Jesus Christ, seen and known and beloved? Are you able to face the future with all its apparent uncertainties and pain, confident that all things are one day going to be made new because, remember, Jesus came to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found? He will make all things new one day. Have you come to understand that because God has already kept His Word, His ancient promise to Abraham, in the birth of Jesus Christ so that in Him all the nations might be blessed, He will keep His every promise to you if you would but take Him at His Word. You, you can be blessed in the Lord Jesus Christ with the blessing promised to Abraham. Mary's baby, God the Son, the crucified, risen, reigning Christ is for you. He's for you. And in Him alone, Mary's joy is for you. I wonder if you'll come to trust in Jesus that you might taste that joy for yourself this Christmas?


Let’s pray together.


God our Father, we do confess to You how often we allow our circumstances to fill our whole horizons and to steal our joy. Please, will You teach us to look where Mary looked that we might ignite, or You might ignite in us renewed wonder and gratitude that we, with Mary, might magnify the Lord and our souls, like hers, might rejoice in God our Savior. Help us to find our hope, not in our own strength or the credibility of our own plans, but in the Lord Jesus who is one day coming to make all things new, in whom all Your promises are ‘Yes' and ‘Amen,' in whom already Your covenant promise is fulfilled, that in Jesus all the ends of the earth may be blessed. And we pray for any here who do not know Him, for whom the joy Mary found is utterly alien. O Lord, now, even now would You open their hearts to believe the Gospel? For we ask it in Jesus' name, amen.

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