19 Dec 2021
19 December 2021

19 Dec 2021

Passage: Luke 1.39-55
Service Type:

Mary’s Song: Magnificat

(Luke 1:39-56)[i]

A long, long time ago – around 2,000 years ago –in Nazareth, a small town just over 2,000 miles from here in Roman occupied Palestine, there lived a girl called Mary. Mary was just an ordinary Jewish girl whose family knew and loved God. Mary was promised to be married to a man called Joseph, and she was looking ahead to married life.

Anyway, Mary was just doing her ordinary things when something extraordinary happened – an angel showed up. His name was Gabriel, and he had an extraordinary message for Mary. “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favour with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High!”

Mary was confused, as she was a virgin. But Gabriel said, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

Although today we think of Mary as a wonderful woman, in those days her life would have been in great danger because she was having a child before she was married. The law said that she could be stoned to death if she was pregnant before she was married. And very few people would believe that she had really seen an angel! But she was obedient to God’s purpose, and we see that she visited her cousin Elizabeth who was also pregnant. That, too, was amazing because Elizabeth had thought she was too old to have a baby. Her baby was to grow up to be John the Baptist who prepared the way for Jesus.

And that is the context in which Mary sung this marvellous song, often known as the Magnificat - which means "Praise," from the first word of the Latin translation of its first line. I wonder how Mary felt at that time.

What are the words that we associate with Christmas? Perhaps words like joy, happy, giving presents. Christmas is meant to be a happy time, but for many people it isn’t. Christmas can be lonely, painful and even frightening for some people, especially in these Covid times. When Mary sang the Magnificat, she was probably going through a range of emotions. Yes, joy at the prospect at giving birth to the promised Saviour, but also her world had been turned upside down. She was pregnant and unmarried, a dishonour to her family. And at one stage Joseph, her fiancé, had intended to break off the engagement. Her situation was very precarious, to say the least. Yet she comes up with this marvellous song of praise.

There are various ways we can divide the Magnificat, and I’m going to look at it in three sections. First, Mary expresses what she feels in her heart (verses 46 and 47), namely, joy. Second, she describes what God has done specifically for her as an individual (verses 48 and 49): He took notice of her, a girl of low status in her society. He did great things for her, and so future generations will call her blessed, and she will never be forgotten. Third, she spends most of the time describing character of God.

The character of God explains why he has treated her the way he has and so leads her to rejoice and praise the Lord. We'll look at these three sections in reverse order.

God’s character: The key point that Mary makes about God’s character is that the holy God helps the lowly.

In the second half of verse 49 Mary declares that God's name is holy. God’s nature is holiness. He is completely free from sin, and his ways are not our ways. He is separate from and exalted above all creation. He is perfect in every way. But what Mary stresses is the way this holiness expresses itself.

At that time many people thought, and many still think, that because God is great, he favours great people, that material prosperity and earthly power are signs of God’s favour. Just the opposite is the case. God's holiness expresses itself by raising up the lowly and casting down the haughty and mighty.

What fills Mary's heart with joy is that God raises up the underdog who calls on his mercy. She mentions this three times:

  • verse 50, "His mercy extends to those who fear him";
  • verse 52, "He has lifted up the humble"; and
  • verse 53, "He has filled the hungry with good things."

That's one side of God's holiness. The other side is that God opposes and lowers the haughty. Mary mentions this three times also:

  • verse 51, "He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts";
  • verse 52, "He has brought down rulers from their thrones"; and
  • verse 53, "He has sent the rich away empty."

It is clear from Mary's words (and from the whole Bible) that God is not partial to the rich, the powerful, or the proud.

How could God favour the things which in our world are, more often than not, substitutes for God rather than pointers to God? God is not impressed by earthly power.

God has mercy on those who fear him, who humble themselves and turn away from the trappings of worldly success to the lowliness of self-denial for the sake of others.

For those of us who have a decent income in a rich country, that puts us in an uncomfortable position! But it’s a very clear statement about justice. William Barclay, a great Scottish theologian, wrote that: “There is loveliness in the Magnificat but in that loveliness there is dynamite. Christianity brings about a revolution in individuals and revolution in the world.”

Traci Blackmon, an African-American United Church minister, has declared that we should not get caught up in the poetry or “loveliness” of the words. “It is a revolutionary song, a song of freedom that turns the world upside down.”

Mary’s song makes it clear to us: a world in which there is hunger and food banks and cities with vast wealth on one street and grinding poverty on the next – that is not the world of God’s kingdom. God is on the side of the oppressed and the marginalised, the people with whom Jesus spent his time.

That's the third section of the Magnificat. Now we move back briefly to the second section, verses 48–49a. The holy God blesses Mary.

Here Mary simply sees in her own experience an example of the way God is. He looks on Mary's lowliness and does a great thing for her: he makes her the mother of the Son of God! This is such an amazing and unimaginable blessing that all generations from that time on have called Mary's blessed.

Mary knew from the Old Testament that God lowers the proud but blesses the lowly who look to him for mercy, but now she has found it to be true in her own experience.

And thirdly, very briefly, we look at Mary's response in the first part of the Magnificat. She praises the Holy God, "My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour."

Before anything else, Mary praises God and rejoices in him. As we’ve seen, the rest of the song outlines the reasons why she praises him, but before anything else, she praises God and rejoices in him. She praises him for her coming motherhood, for the things he has done for her, but also for the amazing things he has done for his people and for the whole world. Her response, despite all the uncertainty she faced, is joy.

Mary’s song can be unnerving, indeed as it should be. It challenges us to consider our values and goals. Are we striving for the wrong things in life? How much of our lives are devoted to seeking security, reputation, and power? How often do we hold on to our material blessings rather than sharing them with the poor and hungry?

As Christmas approaches, may we live as your servants. May we be truly humble before you and others. May we use the opportunities and gifts you place in our hands, serving you and others for your glory. Amen

[i] 19 December 2021


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