December 20, 2009
Today, the fourth Sunday in Advent, we are moving on from the Annunciation passage to another well-known passage in the first chapter of Luke. It is called the “Magnificat” from the Latin first word meaning “it praises.” This song or prayer of Mary’s took place in response to seeing her pregnant relative, Elizabeth. Having trusted the angel, whose message we considered the past three weeks, Mary believes God’s Word to her and Elizabeth declares her blessed for doing so.**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**
We are moving forward from the questions of “Is God trying to get your attention? Is God trying to tell you something? And what is it that God would birth in your life for His glory?” Last week we looked at how Mary didn’t demand proof in the way of specifics or a miraculous sign, but trusted in God’s Word to her. That faith is manifest in today’s text as worship and as joy.
Worship and Joy
Mary’s song begins with worship and joy: “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.” Exalt is a worship word meaning praise or lift up as worthy. I talked last week about how demanding proof of God might address our curiosity, but often can choke out love and trust. Here the converse is demonstrated. Mary’s faith and obedience didn’t result in insecurity and doubt, but in soul-worship or heart-felt praise of God. This isn’t just going through the motions as a religious exercise, but a spontaneous and authentic expression of love for God. And it’s not just worship – lifting God up as worthy; it is also joy-filled, as Mary rejoices in her spirit over God’s salvation.
I highlight all this as the conclusion to what we’ve been talking about the past few weeks. The point of those questions about whether God is trying to get your attention, speak to you, or do something in your life is not to get you to do something for me or the church, but to grow in knowledge and love of God… to tune in to God in your life. Not only is that one good definition of worship, it also results in deep joy and real satisfaction, the kind we find ourselves pursuing without knowing it and the kind Mary demonstrates in her song.
It is worth noting that Mary does not focus for long on what God has done for her, but is drawn to the way God is faithful in all generations. As we have noted before, this is the difference between thinking about or praying to a Santa Claus Jesus and tuning in to a saving God who is at work in the world. God isn’t about me; I need to be about God!
Highs and Lows: the Language of Exaltation and Humility
Most of Mary’s song is spent describing what God has done. What jumps out at me are the “highs and lows” – that is, the language of exaltation and humility. I counted as many as twelve words or phrases that speak to position or perspective. God “has regard for the humble”; God has “scattered the proud”; and so on.
What emerges is this picture: God is high and exalted and worthy of our respect and worship. That’s who God is! Mary sets an example for us of how God is to be honored and adored. And not only does Mary lift God up in worship, she declares God mighty deeds. She sings of what God has done and will do. God’s justice and salvation will accomplish two things: exaltation of the humble and humbling of the exalted.
God will raise up those who are humble and turn to him in need. Mary begins by describing how God “had regard” for her own situation – the “humble state of His bondslave” (v. 48). She is marveling that God would choose someone so young and lowly as herself to give birth to the Messiah. But she moves past this “great thing” God has done for her to praise God for His faithfulness over the generations. God’s mighty deeds include mercy and compassion for “those who fear Him (v. 50)… those who were humble (v. 52)… the hungry (v. 53)… Israel His servant (v. 54).”
And yet God has justice for those who put themselves in His place to take advantage of others – the proud, the unjust rulers, the selfish rich. God will scatter those proud, bring down those rulers, and send away those rich empty-handed. This is a declaration of God’s judgment and justice, to be accomplished provisionally on earth and finally in Heaven.
Another way of tying all this together is to say that Mary’s song describes God as high and exalted, and we as His creatures. Both in God raising up the lowly and in God humbling the so-called mighty, God will be shown to be both merciful King and faithful God.
The Faithfulness of God
This song – the Magnificat – is not primarily about celebrating what God is doing for Mary. Rather, it starts out of amazement at this miracle and moves to Mary marveling at God’s faithfulness in human history, coming to an amazing and miraculous point in her own generation and life.
Mary punctuates and concludes her song with reminders of God’s faithfulness. In verse 50 she quotes Psalm 104 about God’s faithfulness from generation to generation… a phrase that will also figure prominently in the Pentecost outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Then, in verses 54-55, she remembers God’s covenant promise to Abraham, and acknowledges God’s faithfulness in fulfilling those promises through the birth of the Messiah.
Realize that Mary wasn’t living in a vacuum, but was of a generation of Jewish people who had grown up believing in and waiting for God to act. Particularly under the degree of persecution and struggle experienced within the Roman occupation of their country, the longing for the Messiah was keen indeed. Mary seemed to naturally and faithfully make the move from “What is God doing in me?” to “What is God doing around me?” And that’s the final move and question I want to make with you as we try to understand and apply these stories to our own lives.
What is God Doing around Me?
We started with these questions: Is God trying to get your attention, and what is He trying to say?
From there we moved to this one: What does God desire to bring about or birth in your life for His glory?
I asked these questions because these are the questions going on in the story of the angel, Mary, and the announced birth of Jesus. There is one more change of perspective and question, demonstrated by Mary in this song. It is the move from asking the question with a me-focus and asking it with a God-and-neighbor focus.
Mary recognized that God was trying to get her attention, was speaking to her, and did desire to do something in her life. But, accepting all that and putting herself in God’s hands, she realized that what God was doing was bigger than her life. Her focus shifted to what God was doing around her and how she could be a part and serve Him.
That’s the final move and question I want to make with you. If you have wrestled with God trying to get your attention and speak to you, and if you are willing to consider what it is that God would do in your life, I urge you to ask one more question: What is God doing around you and how can you serve Him there?
This is one way to understand the significance of Christmas: it is God’s premiere demonstration of “doing in the world.” With the birth of Jesus, God was not only fulfilling generations of promise, but definitively demonstrating that He is God with us and for us, a sovereign Creator with a deep love and interest in those He created.
The question, “What is God doing around you” is rooted in the Christmas demonstration that God is indeed at work in and for the world. How can you be a part of what God is doing around you and serve Him in and through your own life? That is a worthy Christmas question! Amen.
Postscript: in the actual [delivered] sermon, I also made an extended application point about experiencing God’s peace and joy in service… noting that it is when we turn from God, deafen ourselves to His voice, or strain against His will that we experience discontent at the deepest level. Though obedience to God’s will may seem daunting, frightening, or even impossible, there is no better or more blessed place to be than in the center of God’s will. In fact, the delivered sermon varied quite a bit from this manuscript. I invite you to listen to the audio on this post.