Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Magnificat: Mary’s Song of Worship (Luke 1:46-55)

As we enter the Advent season, we begin to sing the familiar songs of Christmas in our worship services. With Thanksgiving behind us, radio stations have begun incorporating holiday songs, new and old, into their playlists, and some are beginning to switch to all Christmas music, all the time. The music in the stores is all about Christmas now. A few years ago, around this time of year, Solomon and I were in a shopping mall in a Muslim country, and we couldn’t believe our ears as the air was filled with lines like, “O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!” and “Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices, O night divine, O night when Christ was born.” Christmas has always been a season of music, from the very first Christmas until today.

In the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel, we find the most complete historical narrative of the Christmas story. But Luke’s account is no mere prosaic academic treatise. It is punctuated throughout with song! We find in the first two chapters of Luke four Christmas hymns. They are known today by their Latin titles: Mary’s Magnificat (in our text today); Zacharias’ Benedictus; the angels’ Gloria; and Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis. Graham Scroggie referred to these songs as “the last of the Hebrew Psalms and the first of the Christian hymns.”[1] These songs that are recorded for us in Scripture remind us that what God is worthy of our praise for what He has done for us in Christ, and our praise rightly takes the form of celebratory song!

Today, our focus is on the first of these hymns: Mary’s Magnificat. We might call it the first Christmas carol. As such, it informs us how we should worship God for what He has done for us in Christ. Because of the errors and the abuse of Scripture in the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings on the Virgin Mary, Evangelicals tend to get a little nervous when it comes to Mary. Certainly we do not want to venerate her in any way that smacks of idolatry, or ascribe to her any of the super-human attributes that the Catholic church has, but when it comes to worship, as we find her here, she is a worthy role model for us. There is nothing in her song that cannot also be sung by any born-again Christian. But more than just the words of her song, the way that she sings this song is a great example for us to emulate. There are at least four characteristics of worship that we find in the Magnificat, Mary’s song of worship, that should also be found in our songs of worship.

Let’s consider the first one:

I. We sing in joyful exaltation. (vv46-47)

Charles Haddon Spurgeon lamented the state of worship that he had observed so often in 19th-Century England in a sermon on this text that he preached in 1864. He said, “Some of my brethren praise God always on the minor key …. Why cannot some men worship God except with a long face? I know them by their very walk as they come to worship—what a dreary pace! … [T]hey come up to their Father’s house as if they were going to jail.”[2] I think I have seen some of these folks before. Have you? But you don’t see Mary like this as she breaks into her song of worship.

She says, “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.” The songs burst forth from her innermost being – her “soul” and her “spirit.” This is not mere lip-service or mindless recitation. This is a heartfelt song of genuine praise. She feels the truth of the words that she sings. I wonder if we are able to do that? For many of us, the songs we sing, especially the songs of Christmas which are etched in our minds from childhood, are so familiar to us that we have grown numb to the emotional weight of the lyrics. We may sing them well enough with our lips, but is our inner-being engaged? Are we contemplating the truths with our minds and engaging our hearts with the affection and emotion of the hymn? 

Of course, we all have days and seasons of life when our souls are not joyful because we have been laid low by the hardships of living in broken bodies in a sin-corrupted world. But notice that Mary does not sing with joy over the circumstances in which she finds herself. We might expect her to do so, for she has just been visited by an angel from heaven who has announced that she will conceive in her virgin womb the Son of God. But, let us not forget that her situation was not one of uninterrupted bliss. Like all of her Jewish kinsmen, Mary lived under the subjection of a foreign power. The entire nation was under the heavy hand of a capricious dictator, the Roman Emperor. But more personally, Mary found herself in a set of circumstances that must have left her with many mixed emotions. There was the unimaginable joy of being chosen by God to bear the Savior and bring Him into the world. But there was also the weight of worry, knowing that no one – not even her betrothed groom-to-be – could believe that she had conceived a child apart from normal sexual relations. As the baby within her began to grow and show, she would be subject to all sorts of gossip and rumors of scandalous behavior – remember that she was an unwed, pregnant teenager. At this point in the story, her relative Elizabeth was the only one who found her story credible because she herself had received a special message from heaven about the child she had conceived in her old age. There was a weighty burden on Mary’s soul, counterbalancing the joy of the good news the angel had delivered to her.

We must notice that Mary does not say here that she sings with joy for her circumstances. The object of her rejoicing is the Lord Himself. She sings, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Seldom will we find ourselves in circumstances of complete and utter happiness in this life. Because of sin’s effect on us and on the world, we are never far removed from the realities of suffering. But we are not waiting for a better day in which to find joy. The Bible promises us that there is joy in the Lord. There is a joy that comes from knowing Him that is utterly distinct from the fleeting pleasures of life in the world. Though our circumstances are ever changing, our steadfast God never changes. He created us to long for a joy that can only be found in right relationship with Him. When His Spirit leads us to find that joy in Him, there is nothing in this world that can rip it from our hearts! When we can find nothing else in which to rejoice, the child of God can rejoice in the Lord, even as Mary does here.

Notice also that she says, “My soul exalts the Lord.” The older English versions say “magnify,” in line with the Latin word magnificat which supplies the traditional title of the hymn. We know what the words “exalt” and “magnify” mean. To exalt something is to raise it higher, and to magnify it is to make it bigger or greater. But how can we raise God higher than He already is, or make Him bigger or greater than He is in His very nature? We cannot, but we can meditate on His greatness in our heart of hearts until we come to understand and appreciate just how vastly great He truly is.  Again, Spurgeon is helpful here, as he says, “God cannot be greater than He is, but He can be greater in you than He is at present!”[3] When Mary says that her soul exalts the Lord, it is to say that, internally, she is immersing herself in the solitary thought of how exceedingly great He is. But, notice also that there is an external component of this exaltation. She is not singing silently. She has a twofold audience. Most obviously, the audience of our worship is God Himself. When we exalt the Lord in our songs of worship, we are acknowledging before Him that we know Him to be great and glorious and that we are striving to increase our comprehension of His greatness. But Mary also has a human audience in her worship, as we often do as well. Mary is with her relative Elizabeth as she sings. Elizabeth has just extolled the young virgin, saying, “Blessed are you among women!” But Mary will not have Elizabeth to praise her too highly without acknowledging that God is the one of supreme greatness. She exalts the Lord that she might also enlarge Elizabeth’s view of Him. So, when we exalt and magnify the Lord, like Mary, we are enlarging our own estimation of His greatness in our hearts, we are acknowledging His greatness before Him, and we are proclaiming His excellencies to others!

Mary’s song is a song of joyful exaltation. In other words, it is a song of worship, for this is what worship is: it is the joyful exaltation of God offered up from the innermost being of a soul that has found Him as the object of their true and everlasting joy, even as Mary has done here in her song.

II. We sing of who our God is. (vv47-50)

Worship is chiefly about the nature of God in all of His glorious attributes. In worship, we are praising God in view of who He is. In the nature of His being, He is worthy of our worship and praise. In worship we are saying, “We worship You, O God, because You are _____________,” and in that blank, we can inscribe any of the attributes that He has revealed about Himself in His word and works. Mary does this in her song of worship, and so should we.

Notice firstly that she worships the God who saves. She says in verse 47, “my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.” She recognized that God was sending into the world through her womb the one who would accomplish the redemption from sin that mankind so desperately needed. But, her praise is not lifted up in the general terms of what this saving God can do for others, or for the whole race of humanity. No, her worship is more personal than this, for she recognizes that the God who saves is her Savior. He is not just the Savior that the world needs, He is the Savior Mary needs! Mary sees herself before God as one who is as guilty of sin as any other, and whose only hope is that there is a God who saves coming into the world in the person of Jesus Christ. The angel said that she shall name this child Jesus, which means “salvation.” Jesus is the God who saves. He will be her son by His birth, but her Savior by His death and resurrection. When the Bible says that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” the virgin Mary is no exception. When it says that there is no name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved, or when it calls us to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ that we might be saved, it applies to Mary as much as to the vilest offender. One of the greatest errors that has been taught about the virgin Mary is the doctrine of her immaculate conception, by which she came into the world without the stain of original sin. Friends, if Mary be not a sinner, then Mary needs not a Savior. But here she rejoices in the God who is coming into the world to be her Savior.

From this she moves on in verse 48 to worship the God of compassion. She says, “He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave.” She was merely an insignificant peasant girl from Nazareth, the place of which it was said, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46). She was a nobody from nowhere. She had perhaps lived her entire young life to that point unnoticed and unappreciated by anyone else. But the God of compassion had not overlooked her in the dispensation of His kindness. He had sent His angel Gabriel to announce to her that, of all the women on earth, God had chosen her to bear His Son. When the angel came to her, he greeted her with the words, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” (1:28). These words puzzled her (1:29), but the angel went on to say, “Do not be afraid Mary; for you have found favor with God” (1:30). The words translated as “favor” and “favored” here are from the Greek word that is normally translated as “grace” in the New Testament. God’s sovereign choice of Mary was a gracious favor, not something she had earned or was entitled to. It was grace, and she knew it, so she worshiped the God of compassion in her song.

She sings next of His great power. In verse 49, she says, “For the Mighty One has done great things for me.” God is the Mighty One who does great things, and Mary knows this because He has done great things for her. The angel had told her that she would conceive and give birth to one who would be great and would be called the Son of the Most High (1:32). She asked, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (1:34). And the angel told her that the Holy Spirit would accomplish it, “for nothing will be impossible with God” (1:37). Mary has come to know that the Mighty One has all power to do all things and there is nothing is beyond His power to accomplish.

From here, she moves seamlessly to the holiness of God in her worship. “And holy is His name” (v49b). Remember that, in the model prayer, Jesus said that we should pray, “Hallowed be Your name.” This is not a declaration, it is a petition. The Christian prayer-warrior is to plead with God that His name would be known in all the earth as HOLY. That’s what “hallowed” means. Mary knew that God’s name was holy. Hers was not a request but a proclamation of praise, that God’s name IS holy! What does this word, holy, mean? The primary meaning is something like “separate,” meaning that He is transcendent. He transcends anything and everything in existence. He is in a category all to Himself, unique, distinct, beyond comparison – in a word, holy. Throughout the Bible, we find God making things holy, and making people holy. But no one or nothing makes God holy. Holy is His name; it is who He is in the nature of His being. The angel had told her that God the Holy Spirit would accomplish this miraculous conception within her, and that the holy Child she would deliver would be called the Son of God. Holy Spirit, Holy Child – holy is who God is. But the greatest miracle of Christmas, indeed of all Christian theology, is that this holy God, who transcends time, space, and comprehension, has come near, by the Holy Spirit, in the Holy Child. Holiness has come to dwell in this unholy place to redeem us, we unholy people, from all of our unholiness. Holy is His name!

Then, Mary exalts the Lord in her song because of His great mercy. In verse 50, she sings, “And His mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear Him.” The salvation God is bringing into the world in His Son, the Lord Jesus, is a demonstration of His mercy. Those who fear, who revere the Lord in humble faith and obedience, do not receive judgment from God, through it is deserved of all men because of sin. God, in His mercy, has withheld His judgment and showered generation after generation with His saving mercy through the gift of His Son.

Friends, the God of whom Mary sings is unchanging. Those same attributes that Mary recited in her song are still true of Him. Mary could sing of these things because they were personal to her. She had experienced these attributes of God in His dealings with her. And all who have come to know Christ as Lord have experienced the same and can sing a song just as glorious as hers. We know that His name is holy, that He is rich in mercy and compassion, and that He is mighty to save because He has revealed Himself to us in all these ways and more through the work of Jesus Christ in His life, His death and His resurrection. Mary’s song of worship is a model for ours, because she sings of who her God is, and you and I must do the same as we worship Him.

Then thirdly, we observe in Mary’s Magnificat

III. We sing of what our God has done. (vv51-53)

God is worthy of worship because of who He is, even if He never did anything to or for us. But, because of who He is, He has acted in history, in our lives, and will act in the future. Mary praises Him with her song because “He has done mighty deeds with His arm” (v51a). She enumerates five specific mighty deeds that He has done with His mighty 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. This is, generally speaking, how God has acted throughout history. God turns things upside down in the world. As Luther said, “He can make great things small, and small things great, like a potter at his wheel.”[4] He blesses those who are humble and know of their desperate need for Him, and He brings down those who in their arrogance give no thought to Him. He raised up humble Moses to lead His broken people out of Egypt, while He laid Pharaoh and his armies low, drowning them in the sea. He raised up the lowly shepherd David, and scattered the arrogant Philistines when their mighty champion Goliath was felled by a single stone. He delivered Daniel from the den of lions, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace in Babylon, while bringing the mighty Nebuchadnezzar down from his throne.

Mary is not just reciting old history lessons here. She is singing of how this same God has done the same for her. She was humble, and saw herself as the Lord’s bondslave. And the Lord in His mercy exalted her to a place of highest honor, that all generations might count her blessed (v48). He did not choose a daughter of Caesar or a daughter of Herod, but by His sovereign grace, He chose the most humble of servants to bear His Son.

Her words are also applicable to her son, God’s Son, the Lord Jesus. He will do mighty deeds with His arm, and He will humble Himself even to the point of death on the cross. But God will highly exalt Him and give Him the name that is above every names in raising Him from the dead and coronating Him as King of kings. The prosperous and proud rulers who conspired against Him on earth, as well as the Satan and his demons, will be scattered, brought down from their thrones, and sent away empty handed as King Jesus triumphs over them in His death and resurrection.

These mighty deeds which God does by His arm also speak to how He will act toward those who belong to Him. She speaks in the past tense, but she speaks of future acts that have been promised by God, and when He makes a promise, it is as good as already done! The one who in humility sees himself or herself as a sinner before God and in need of a Savior, and turns in saving faith to Jesus, will be highly exalted, reigning with Him and sharing in His eternal glory. The one who hungers for God and thirsts for His righteousness will be filled with all this and more! But the one who thinks that he has no need for God, who refuses to allow God to rule over him or her, whose security lies in the things that he or she possesses, these will be humiliated and laid low by the strong arm of the Lord. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:27-29, “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.”

IV. We sing in response to what God has said. (vv54-55)

In the final stanza of Mary’s hymn of worship, she exalts the Lord who has come to the aid of His people in faithfulness to the Word which He has spoken in days past. “He has given help to Israel, His servant, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and His descendants forever.” With the birth of her child, God was bringing to pass the fullness of all that He had ever promised. As Paul said in 2 Corinthians 1:20, “For all the promises of God in Him are yea, and in Him Amen” (KJV). Christ was bringing about the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise to Abraham, in which the Lord had said, “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” God had promised that Abraham would have a descendant who would bring blessing to all nations. He continued to broaden and clarify His promise to Abraham’s descendants, generation after generation. He promised to David that he would have a descendant who would reign forever over an everlasting kingdom. Centuries had come and gone and the promises had not been fulfilled. But Mary recognizes that in the good news she has received from heaven about the birth of her son, all of the things God had spoken in the past – promises of help, promises of salvation, promises of mercy – were coming to pass.

Her entire hymn is built upon the promises that God had spoken. Every line finds a parallel in the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, as either a direct quotation or overt reference. She borrows from Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, 1-2 Samuel, Job, Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah. The Hebrew Bible is divided into three portions: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. Mary included references to all three sections in her song. As Phil Ryken has said, “Mary knew her Bible! … [She] tried to put virtually the whole Bible into her song!”[5]

In verse 29, after being greeted by the angel, the Bible says that Mary “kept pondering what kind of salutation this was.” As she pondered, she must have reflected upon the Scriptures. That is a mark of great spiritual maturity. She was not about to be led astray by a mystical experience, as so many are inclined to do. She carefully measured what she was hearing and experiencing against what God had revealed in His holy word. She was like the Bereans, whom Luke says were more noble than the Thessalonians, “for they received the Word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so” (Ac 17:11). So must we all measure what we hear, what we experience, and what we imagine as being of God against what God Himself has declared in His word, the Bible. But in order to do this, we must know our Bibles, and it is obvious that Mary did. As Gresham Machen says, “The author of such a hymn must have lived in the atmosphere of the Old Testament, and must have been familiar from the earliest childhood with its language. Only so could elements derived from so many sources have been incorporated without artificiality in a single poem. The synthesis must have been made in life, long before it was made in literary form.”[6] The vocabulary of the Bible had become her own vocabulary, and when she sang to God, she sang His own words back to Him.

But it is not just her knowledge of the words of Scripture that impresses us here. It is also her careful handling of the word of God. She understood that all of Scripture was to be interpreted through the lens of God’s redemptive promises which were coming to pass in the birth of her Son. This, after all, is how Jesus taught His disciples to interpret the Bible. In Luke 24, as the Risen Jesus gathered with His disciples, “beginning with Moses and the with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (24:27). He said to them, “all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” And then, the Bible says, “He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (24:44-45). Mary’s mind was seemingly already opened to see how all the various threads weave together into a tapestry depicting none other than her son who was to be born to her, the Lord Jesus. But she also understood what Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16, that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” She understood that God’s word applied to her own life and experiences. We must come to understand these truths as well if we would handle the Bible accurately. We must know that it all points us to Jesus, and it all has application for our daily lives and our varied circumstances. And then, we will be able, like Mary, to sing God’s promises back to Him, infusing our worship with the very words which He has spoken.

So, in conclusion, we may say that Mary’s Magnificat is a great example for us in how to rightly worship God. She sings a song of joyful exaltation, a song of who God is, what God has done, and what God has said. As we comprehend His Word, as we grow in our understanding of who He is, and experience the mighty deeds of His outstretched arm in accomplishing salvation for us through the life, death, and resurrection of His Son, our Lord Jesus, we will erupt with an equally glorious and beautiful song, and crown our Redeemer King with joyful exaltation. May it be so, not just in the songs we sing, but in the lives that we live and the witness of our words and deeds for Him in the world.

[1] W. Graham Scroggie, A Guide to the Gospels (London: Pickering & Inglis, 1948), 371.
[2] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “Mary’s Song.” Accessed November 24, 2015.
[3] Spurgeon, “Mary’s Magnificat.” Accessed November 24, 2015. 
[4] Martin Luther, “The Day of Mary’s Visitation,” in The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther (vol. 7; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 353.
[5] Philip G. Ryken, “Magnificat.” In Daniel Doriani, Philip Ryken, Richard Phillips, The Incarnation in the Gospels (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008), 73.
[6] J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1930), 84.

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