Stories that Stick: The Scandal of the Gospel

Sermon by Gabe Fluhrer on December 7, 2015

Matthew 20:1-16

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Well it has come faster than you thought, right? Thanksgiving’s over; Advent has begun. It seems to come faster every single year. It is nevertheless, I think, useful for us in the Sundays leading up to Christmas to make use of the time and remind ourselves of the great mystery that stands at the heart of the Christian message – that God became man for us and for our salvation in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. And so for the next four weeks or so we’ll be thinking about that great theme using the four songs that litter the opening section of the gospel according to Luke. They are, if you like, the very first Christmas carols, songs of joy responding to the news of the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. And if you think about it, it begins a tradition of songs of praise related to the first advent of Christ that has continued throughout the millennia, songs that are rich and among the most theologically profound in the whole canon of Christian song.


Let me read you a few lines and see if you can identify the hymns from which they come. If that’s, if you’re too Presbyterian to offer an answer, maybe there’s some bold Baptist visitor who would like to try! Let me give you a couple of lines to see if you can pick the hymns from which they come:


“God of God, light of light. Lo He abhors not the virgin’s womb. Son of the Father, begotten not created…”


That’s terrible! “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful.”


Or how about:


“Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see; hail, the incarnate Deity. Pleased, as man, with man to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel!”


That’s “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Well done.  There’s at least one bold Baptist soul among us. Well done!


“No more let sins and sorrows grow nor thorns infest the ground! He comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found!”


“Joy to the World.” And we could go on like that, couldn’t we? We could list first line after first line and you would know what they are even if you weren’t bold enough to say it out loud. You’d be able to identify all kinds of hymns that are just etched in our memories. And if you think about the language, the words that we are singing, they are the most profound statements of Christian theology that we sing. And I think there’s a good reason for that. If you look at the songs that begin the gospel of Luke, you’ll see people standing, as it were, on the edge of the ineffable, the great mystery that God should be joined to humanity in the person of Christ. And it melts hearts. Prose simply will not do. We must sing! It seems to be the best vehicle for responding to the wonder and the glory of what happens in the birth of Jesus Christ. And we’re going to be thinking about these four songs that signal the very first responses to the coming of Christ that you’ll find in the gospel according to Luke.


And if you’ll go ahead now and take your Bibles and turn with me to Luke chapter 1, we’ll think about the first of those songs. Luke chapter 1; page 856 in the church Bibles. It’s the famous song often known by the Latin translation of the opening line, Mary’s Song. “My song magnifies the Lord.” It is, “The Magnificat.” Mary, as you will see, if you back up to verse 30, is making the journey from her hometown in Nazareth to a small town in the hill country of Judah to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, her older cousin, Elizabeth. And when she arrives, you’ll see that the exchange between these two women can best be characterized as one filled with joy. Look at Elizabeth’s words in verse 42, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” and “Why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears the baby in my womb leapt for joy.” She’s full of joy. And Mary, for her part, is equally filled with joy as she hears this greeting confirming to her what she’s heard from the angel, that the child that would be born of her would be the Lord, her Savior. And so she bursts into song. And we’re going to pick up the reading as Mary begins her song in verse 46. Before we do that, would you bow your heads with me as we pray together?


Our Father, we bless You for Your holy Word. We pray that the same Spirit by whom these words were inspired might descend upon us, Your people now, to illuminate our understanding of them, that we may see ourselves as we really are and see something more of Your glory, especially as it shines upon us in the face of Jesus Christ. Would You draw us by these words to Him who speaks to us in them, for Jesus’ sake? Amen.


Mary’s song of praise.

Luke chapter 1 at the forty-sixth verse. 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; e 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.’”


Amen, and we praise God for His holy and inerrant Word.


I want you to imagine for a moment, fast forward a few weeks – it’s already Christmas Day. The presents are all opened and there’s delicious smells beginning to waft from the kitchen as your favorite Christmas meal is being prepared. Eventually, the long wait is over, and you’re summoned to the dinner table and all your favorite food is there, your favorite Christmas food and drink. It’s an extraordinary banquet. And everyone digs in and begins to savor every morsel, but not you. You begin to pepper your host with questions on how they prepared the meal. “What’s in the sauce? How long did you cook it for? How on earth did you manage to make Brussels sprouts taste good?” and on and on and on. And you pepper your host with every kind of question imaginable about the meal. And everyone has long since finished and you still haven’t touched a morsel on your plate.


We Must Keep our Focus on God.

It’s a bizarre and frankly ridiculous image, but sometimes we come to passages like the one before us with an attitude a bit like that, wasting our time asking questions of the cook instead of enjoying the meal. Focused, not wasting our time, there are certainly things to learn, but focused more on Mary and the lessons Mary’s example can teach than on the God whose saving intervention in the child Mary is carrying than on the God who is the focal point of Mary’s song. Mary wants us to look where she is looking and to taste something of the feast of grace she is savoring. She wants us to join her in singing, not merely learn from her how to sing. But to find our hearts erupting with joy over the same object of her song. Mary is not the focus of Mary’s song, but the God who saves by Jesus Christ is. And we really ought not to spend our time asking questions of Mary so much as looking where her song will point us that we may begin to enter into some of the same joy that has captured her heart. Now to be sure, there are lessons to learn from Mary. Mary’s song is filled with Scriptural allusions. It looks very much like the Biblical psalms, for example. It echoes Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel chapter 2. Mary is a Bible girl and we ought to be Bible people as well. We could profitably spend time learning about Biblical praise and how it ought to be saturated with Scripture. Mary here is also extremely clear about her own humble estate. She calls herself “the servant of the Lord.” Actually, the word is “slave.” It echoes the language she used back in verse 38 when the angel first announced that she would bear the Messiah. She is the slave of the Lord. She makes no grand claims for herself; her focus is entirely on God. There’s a lot to learn about godly humility.


                                                                I. God’s sight


But if we spend our time learning lessons from Mary, we will miss the main course, the central dish in the banquet. She wants us to look at the glory and greatness of God who saves. That’s the big idea in this song. And as we look at it together, I want you to see three things, the first of which, if you’ll look at verses 46 to 49, is God’s sight. God’s sight. Verses 46 to 49. Now Mary, on her long journey from Nazareth to this little town in the hill country of Judah, has had plenty of time to consider the angel, Gabriel’s, message to her. No doubt it would have originally come as a terrible shock. She would have a daunting task ahead of her, to be the mother of our Lord. But now she has arrived at Elizabeth’s home, the message has sunk in, and it has begun to overflow within her with gratitude and joy in the knowledge that the child she carries will be the Messiah, the Savior of the world. And so she says that she “rejoices in God, my Savior.” That’s what she understands is now taking place. Somehow, in the person of the child growing in her womb, God was acting to save and redeem her. Jesus Christ, her own child, would be her Rescuer and Redeemer and Lord.


Mary Magnified God.

And notice that she says, as she begins to pour out her celebration of the saving grace of God, she says, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior!” There are two ways you can magnify a thing, aren’t there? You can magnify it with a microscope – something that’s very, very small and you make it look big. Or you can magnify something with a telescope – something that is big but only appears to be small because we are at such a distance from it. And your telescope allows you to see it as it really is. Mary is not training a microscope on God but a telescope. When she magnifies Him, she is not making something that is small appear as if it were larger; that’s not what it means to magnify God. Rather, she’s training a telescope on Him. She knows that the human heart, her own human heart, our hearts also, are inclined to belittle Him, to make Him small and to make much of ourselves, probably because we are afraid that if God is big He will ask too much of us and that is a sure and certain pathway to killing our joy. If God is too big, He’ll be too demanding, and that will be the end of our joy. That’s our fear. And so we make Him small and we make ourselves big. But Mary knows actually the only sure way to lasting rejoicing is to magnify God, that is, to see Him as He really is. The bigger your God, she is teaching us, the deeper your joy. The bigger your God, the deeper your joy.

Mary’s song is not a microscope; it’s a telescope. She wants us to see God as He really is, in the glory of His sovereignty and saving mercy and grace.


God Looks Upon Mary With Mercy and Redeeming Love.

And notice particularly what she celebrates about God. Verse 48, “He has looked on the humble estate of his servant.” God’s sight has fallen upon her. He has regarded her in her lowly condition and her heart is overflowing with joy because she knows that despite the vast gulf between her and her Creator, His gaze does not fall upon her in scorn or in condemnation but in mercy and redeeming love. She knows – we can see her training the telescope, her magnification instrument carefully here, can’t we, in these verses? She gets herself and she gets God in their proper dimensions. She sees herself and she sees her God as they really are. Look at what she says about herself. She says, “He has looked on the humble estate of his servant.” She has a humble estate; she is a servant, actually a slave. But God, she says, He is “the mighty one whose name is holy.” And although there is this vast difference between them, between creature and Creator, between sinner and sinless Sovereign, He does not look on her with an eye to her condemnation but with an eye only to her redemption. He has chosen her to be the bearer of the God-Man, Christ’s human nature. Think about this! His human nature, formed from her substance, united irrevocably to Deity in her womb so that the child she was carrying about be the God who would rescue her. No wonder she sings! “The Lord has looked upon the humble estate of his servant.” He has looked upon her to be her Savior in Jesus Christ.


The story is told of Muritus, a wandering scholar in Italy during the Middle Ages. On one occasion, Muritus fell gravely ill and he awoke to find himself lying in a hospital bed in a poor hospital where he’d been placed surrounded by doctors speaking in Latin about his case. Assuming that this worthless vagabond couldn’t possibly understand them, one doctor suggested to the others that they use him, this worthless, homeless vagabond, they use him for medical experiments. But Muritus replied immediately in impeccable Latin, “Call no man worthless for whom Christ died.” This worthless vagabond, let’s use him. Who cares for him? Insignificant, small, despicable. To be rejected and overlooked and despised. Call no one worthless for whom Christ has come to be a Savior and a Redeemer.


Mary was a woman of humble estate, a sinner unworthy of grace, yet one upon whom God had fixed His gaze in saving mercy. No one, there is no one so small, no one so insignificant that the saving eye of God cannot fall upon you in redeeming love. There is no one here, no one beneath the gaze of God who loves sinners in Jesus Christ. Mary is small, insignificant, yet the Lord has fixed His eye on her and He has fixed His eye on you as He holds out His Son, our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, to you to be a Savior for you. Mary sings here first of all about the sight of God.


                                                               II. The Strength of God


Then secondly, she sings about the strength of God. Do you see that in verses 50 through 53? The strength of God. Notice how as she begins to rehearse God’s saving work in her life that she immediately places her experience into a wider context and she says, in effect, “The way of God with me is really consistent with His way with all people. He’s not acting out of character when He fixes His saving eye on me. This is what He loves to do.” Verse 50, “His mercy is on those who fear him, from generation to generation.” This is how God loves to work! And notice especially verse 51, “God has shown strength with his arm.” God has shown strength with His arm. That is to say, God is no absentee landlord, indifferent and unconcerned with regards to our spiritual condition. The arm of the Lord, she is saying, is not shortened that it cannot save. God intervenes. He intervened in Mary’s life supernaturally in the child she was carrying and He intervenes in our lives too! He will intervene in your life too in one of two ways. I guarantee it! God will intervene in your life in one of two ways. He will either intervene in salvation, or in judgment; in wrath, or in mercy. In deliverance, or in rejection and in condemnation.


God’s Strength in Judgment and Grace.

You see that in the passage. Both of those themes are right here – the strong arm of God either bringing judgment or bringing grace. Verse 53, “The rich he has sent away empty.” Verse 52, “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones.” Verse 51, “He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” God is not indifferent to our sin. He bears the strength of his arm in judgment on those who live for themselves. And so there’s a solemn warning for us to hear. But there’s also marvelous good news. God bears His mighty strong arm not only in judgment but also in grace. “His mercy is for those who fear Him,” verse 50. “He exalts those of humble estate,” verse 52. “He fills the hungry with good things,” verse 53. The God who deals with sin in His wrath loves to deal with sinners seeking mercy in His grace. The God who intervenes in judgment delights far more to intervene in our lives in salvation.


The Strong Arm of God Revealed in the Life and Sufferings of Christ.

And in the context of Mary’s own circumstances, her miraculous pregnancy, when she says the arm of the Lord has been stretched out and intervened in her life, what is she really talking about – the strength of the arm of God? She’s talking about Jesus Christ. Jesus is the strong arm of God in both judgment and in mercy. The strong arm of God raised for our salvation. And when you think about it like that, there’s hardly any wonder that she bursts into song as she does here. How is the mighty right hand of God laid bare? Not in military conquest, not in the pomp and majesty of political might, not in finery or affluence or acclaim, but in the baby of Bethlehem, born in a stable, laid in a manger, in the Son of Man who has nowhere to lay His head, despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And nowhere more clearly is the strong arm of God raised in salvation seen than in the wounds of the torn and broken wretched figure nailed to a cross between two thieves on Calvary’s tree – the Lord Jesus our Redeemer. The strong arm of God is revealed in Jesus Christ when God Himself, as it were, stepped from His throne and “humbled Himself taking the form of a servant and becoming obedient to death, even the death of the cross.” How could Mary do anything other than sing when the child she was carrying would be the Redeemer of God’s elect? There in poverty and weakness, in condemnation and pain, sin atoned for, Satan’s kingdom toppled, God’s righteousness vindicated, sinners who look to Him in faith saved, there at the cross. No wonder she sings praise! That’s why our Christmas carols are so filled with the most sublime and profound theology. It’s also why we find most joy in them, I think, because they evoke something, a little taste of the wonder and the joy Mary begins to feel here at the coming of the God-Man as God’s mighty arm is laid bare to intervene for our rescue and relief.


                                                                III. God’s Speech


God’s sight. God’s strength. Then finally look at verses 54 and 55 – God’s speech. God’s speech. He has helped His servant, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his offspring forever.” God, you will remember, had made a covenant, a promise, to Abraham that in his seed, in his offspring all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Paul, in Galatians chapter 3 at verse 16 explains that the seed of Abraham is not a reference to many children but to one in particular, to Jesus Christ. He is the seed of Abraham, the focus of the covenant promise. It’s this covenant promise that Mary remembers. But you see what she’s saying? Thousands of years ago that promise was made, repeated generation after generation to Isaac and Jacob with Moses and David and with Israel and the prophets – a child is coming! The seed of the woman, as Wiley read to us from Genesis 3:15, who would crush the serpent’s head, the seed of Abraham in whom the nations would be blessed, the seed of David who would reign on the throne forever, of whose kingdom there shall be no end, the root of Jesse, the King of kings, Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, Everlasting Father, the Servant of the Lord – He’s coming! God had promised a coming Savior and here is Mary now, think of it, she’s saying, “The child I’m carrying is that child! And all the lines of redemptive history coalesce here in Him! God has kept His promise. His Word is true. God has kept His promise.”


We Can Trust That God Will Always Keep His Promises.

You see what she is saying? There are no promises upon which you cannot found your life, no precepts in Holy Scripture upon which it is unsafe to rest your life. God’s Word is sure. You can trust Him. He has kept His promises. The child born of a virgin is proof of that. In the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law. Because of Jesus Christ you may know God keeps His promises. He kept His promises to Abraham and His promises to Israel and His promises to Mary and He keeps His promises to you to be a God to you and to your children and your children’s children. He is a perfect Savior of sinners and all who trust His promises find that “He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how shall He not also along with Him graciously give us all things?” He is a trustworthy God and He will keep His promises and you can trust them forever.


The speech of God – a secure, solid foundation upon which to base your life for time and for eternity. The strength of God – His arm, stretched out in omnipotent might to deliver you and rescue you from sin and death and hell in Jesus Christ. And the sight of God – His eye resting upon you in mercy and love, not in condemnation and rejection and in wrath. If you trust in Jesus Christ, the promises of God are sure and they are for you, the strength of God, omnipotent to save and rescue you, and the sight of God, you will never stray out of the line of His sight but He will hold you as the apple of His eye forever. Let’s pray together.


Our Father, we bow before You and we praise You that Your Word us true and sure. Please will You help us and teach us to trust Your promises. We confess that we often find ourselves wondering, doubting Your reliability. Circumstances shake our faith. Grief overwhelms us. Suffering and sorrow cause fears to fester. Help us to look where Mary looked, to trust the promises in which Mary trusted. As she saw them fulfilled in her own child, help us to see them fulfilled there also, in Jesus Christ a perfect Savior, to see the baby laid in the manger and the man nailed to the tree, to see the tomb empty and the throne occupied and to know that God keeps His Word. Regardless of our circumstances as we cling to Christ, strengthen our weak faith and send us from this place rejoicing with some measure of the same joy Mary felt that day, for we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.

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