A sermon on the Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55, given by the Rev. Justin Clemente at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD on December 6, 2020 the Second Sunday in Advent. This sermon is part of a three-part series on Mary.
O Lord, with your own mouth, you have told us that at midnight the bridegroom shall come. Grant that the cry, “The bridegroom cometh!” may sound evermore in our ears, that we be never unprepared to meet him, or forgetful of the souls for whom he died, for whom we watch and pray. And save us, O Lord. Amen.
I. Mary Did You Know?
In our series on St. Mary, we come now to her song, known as the Magnificat. As she meets with Elizabeth, the humble submission we saw in the Annunciation now bursts forth in praise. In this, the early chapters in Luke are a picture of authentic Christian faith. Mary’s was a “faith seeking understanding.”
Tim Keller writes, “There is a kind of doubt that is the sign of a closed mind, and there is a kind of doubt that is the sign of an open mind. Some doubt seeks answers, and some doubt is a defense against the possibility of answers.” (Hidden Christmas, pg. 83) Mary went forward to Elizabeth looking for confirmation of God’s word. She was not disappointed.
And this song of praise did not die with her – how could it? It has echoed down the corridors of history. It has found a home in the hearts and lives and mouths of God’s people ever since Mary first proclaimed it.
If you had to list the top ten songs ever written, which ones would make your list? I dare say that the songs and artists we think of as famous in this century or the past century would not stand a chance against Mary’s song (with apologies to the Beatles). Her song is titled “The Magnificat,” which is taken from the first line, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” The Magnificat has served as the inspiration for some of the finest music in history, including settings by at least six classical composers like Vivaldi, Bach, and Mozart. It has been the church’s daily bread in prayer, forming a regular responsive reading in Evening Prayer both today and from time immemorial.
The Magnificat is a testimony to Mary’s faith and godliness. It is based on at least twelve Old Testament passages. The liberal response to that is to say, well Mary’s song must just be simply “lifted” (stolen) from those passages. The right response is to say that the song speaks to the depth of her piety. Some of the modern songs we sing don’t help here either – “Mary Did You Know?” Yeah, she knew.
Well, that’s an introduction to the Magnificat. In our time today, I want to focus on two things: 1) receiving this song from God and 2) singing this song with Mary.
II. Can We Receive This Song (vs. 47, 51-55)?
The purpose of Mary’s song is to tell out or declare the greatness of God because of what he is doing through Jesus, her son. Were we to write our own Magnificat, what would our song, our hymn of praise, magnify? My soul magnifies…what? My soul, that is to say, the deepest part of me, all that I am, is given over the praise of…who? Ourselves? Another person? Our bank account? Our accomplishments? Can we receive this song?
Looking at verses 51-53, I wonder also: are our hands full or empty? Are we the lowly or the high, those that God will pull down? These verses here contain a particularly powerful theme in Luke’s Gospel. It is the theme of the Great Reversal. And so God pulls down the sufficient, he pulls down the powerful, he pulls down the mighty and he exalts the humble. Mary is part of that exaltation.
Which camp do you identify with today? Have you yet come to the end of yourself? If not, you’re not yet ready to receive this song.
Have you come to a place where you’re beginning to see that the deepest needs of the world, of people, are beyond the help of human aid? Our society can put some very nice-looking band-aids on humanity, but we cannot cure the core of what is broken.
Have you come hungry for Jesus Christ? If so, you are near the kingdom of God, for this is what the Magnificat celebrates.
The whole second-half of Mary’s song is all about praising God for his mighty acts. Look specifically at verses 54-55:
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.
Think about Israel in Mary’s time: captive, divided, defeated. In the faithfulness of God Mary reaches back and tell us that in remembrance of his mercy, God has come to his people. The promises he gave to Abraham are now coming to pass. What did he promise? Three things: 1) to be a great nation, 2) to possess the promised land, and 3) to be a blessing to all nations.
Here, now, in the womb of this poor, godly teenager from Nazareth, that is to say, Nowhereville, the nations will now be blessed. Can you receive this? Can you accept the disgrace of God’s ways? Can you accept the foolishness of his wisdom? If not, then this song, this Great song, will never make sense to you.
III. Can We Sing This Song?
First, can we sing a song that counts the promises of God as good as done (vs. 51-54)?
Here, Mary teaches us what it means to live in the already and not yet of Advent. There’s an interesting thing that happens in the Magnificat. Right around verse 51, the tense changes. Four times we see it clearly: “He has…, he has…, he has…” This is actually reflected in the Greek text – Mary is talking about all of these earth shattering things that God is doing through the birth of Jesus, and it’s hard to tell whether they have happened already or have yet to occur.
What we might want to ask Mary is, when? When did God do these things? Is this portion of the Magnificat talking about things that God habitually does throughout history, or is Mary so confident in the work of God, so filled with joy in her expectant waiting, that she sings out about the future reversal as past events? For several reasons, it seems to be the latter. Mary was so confident that the promises of God made to Abraham and Israel were being fulfilled that it was as if they had already happened.
All this is simply the outworking of Mary’s reply to Gabriel: “Be it done unto me according to your word.” What word? The word of God – the word that never fails. The sure word.
Robert Webber writes, “This song of Mary expresses the hope of Israel… Mary knows that the promise made to Abraham was being fulfilled in her; she knew that God was now active in Israel to do a new work for Israel…. The revolution that was begun in Jesus was the revolution that would put down the power of evil and eventually do away with evil in the whole world, bringing the world into a new creation – the new heavens and the new earth.” (Ancient-Future Time, pg. 48)
To all this, Mary agrees and simply says, “Yes, Lord, it is done.”
Are you able to live in that kind of tension, trusting the word of the Lord the way Mary was? If not, the way the world looks in the present will rock you every single day.
Second, can we sing a song that sees blessing differently (v. 48)?
Because God has seen her and chosen her for this task of bearing Jesus, Mary says all generations will call her blessed.
Now think of what she is choosing. It as if the Lord comes come to her in her lowly estate and says to her, would you like to go lower with me? For the rest of Jesus’ life, the people around Mary will look at her, her, son’s birthday, the wedding date, and draw on the logical conclusion. And so people at Nazareth will later say things like, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4:22) That was not a compliment.
And she will go lower still. She will see her Son – miracle of miracles, gift of gifts, die in ignominy on the wood of the Cross. And what does Mary do? Does she become bitter about all this? Far from it. Mary is always pondering these things, treasuring them up in her heart (Luke 2:51).
The Passion of the Christ beautifully captured this in Mary. You may remember how, at Jesus’ Crucifixion, just as Jesus is being hoisted upright on the Cross, Mary is pictured with rocks in her hands. For the slightest moment, she looks as if she is about to sling them in the direction of the nearest Roman soldier. But even then, she is still pondering. In that moment, it all comes together, and the rocks fall from her hands. This is the blessing she has borne; this is the gift she has been given from God to the world.
Christian, do you trust your God like Mary trusted God?
Tim Keller relates, “If the distance between the Earth and the sun – ninety-three million miles – was no more than the thickness of a sheet of paper, then the distance from the Earth to the nearest star would be a stack of papers seventy feet high; the diameter of the Milky Way would be a stack of paper over three hundred miles high. Keep in mind that there are more galaxies in the universe than we can number. There are more, it seems, than dust specks in the air or grains of sand on the seashores. Now, if Jesus Christ holds all this together with just a word of his power (Hebrews 1:3) – is he the kind of person you ask into your life to [simply] be your assistant?” (quoted in Hidden Christmas, pgs. 91-92)
In a word, Mary surrendered to the blessing God gave her in her life. In the midst of trial, in the midst of hardship, in the midst of suffering, in the midst of painful loss, in the midst of being poured out as a sacrifice for others, do you trust in the good, wise, and sovereign purposes of your God?
This is the song we’re invited to receive and to sing together with Mary this Advent and Christmas, 2020. May it be yours. Amen.