Sermon / December 20th, 2015 / Luke 1 / Mary's Advent Song of Praise / Pastor Terry Defoe
Our sermon text is found in Luke's gospel, chapter 1. I'm reading verses 46 to 49:
46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me — holy is his name. (N.I.V.)
This morning we turn our attention to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Our text from the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel gives us a chance to see what the Bible has to say about this important Biblical personality. Our text gives us a chance to compare the Bible's portrayal of Mary with what we encounter in popular culture. It's obvious that two major branches of the Christian church, the Protestants and the Roman Catholics, view Mary in very different ways. One elevates Mary so that she’s near the level of deity. The other doesn't quite know what to do with her. Protestants don't want to say anything about Mary that the Bible doesn't say – they don't want to add to the Scriptural record. So, if it's true that the Catholics say too much about Mary, it could very well be that Protestants don't say enough. I pray that the Holy Spirit would enable us to hear God's word, to understand it, and to put its truth into practice in our lives today!
Our Gospel reading this morning begins at Luke, chapter 1, verse 39. It begins with Mary's visit to Elizabeth. Elizabeth, you may remember, was the wife of Zechariah the priest. Elizabeth was the mother of John the Baptist. Elizabeth and Mary were relatives. They were cousins. Mary was expecting a child. And so was her cousin, Elizabeth. Their children, Jesus and John, were to be born six months apart. And so, as you might expect, these two women had a lot in common, and a lot to talk about.
In the first chapter of Luke's Gospel, we read about Elizabeth and Zechariah. We hear that both were well-pleasing to the Lord because of their faith in Him and their commitment to his service. At that time, Elizabeth was getting on in years. And she had no children. Zechariah, her husband, served in the Temple at Jerusalem. One day, he was visited by an angel who told him that Elizabeth would bear a son. The angel told Zechariah to name the child, "John." The angel said that the child would be a joy and delight to his parents, and, in addition, would be great in the sight of the Lord. The child would be filled with the Holy Spirit. And, most importantly, he would prepare Israel for the coming of the Messiah. But Zechariah didn't believe the angel. He doubted that such a think would ever take place. The angel told Zechariah that since he didn't believe God's word, he would not be able to speak until the child was born.
In the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Mary. The angel told Mary that she was highly favored in the eyes of the Lord. He told Mary that she would conceive and give birth to a son and that she was to name him "Jesus." That name in the Hebrew language, by the way, means, “The One Who Saves.” Mary was told that the child would be great, the very Son of the Most High God. He would assume the throne of his ancestor, King David. There was more. Mary was told that that her child would be given life, not by a human father, but by the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life. Mary’s child would be God in human flesh. Mary was also told that her cousin, Elizabeth, was also carrying a child – a child that had also been conceived under extraordinary circumstances. Gabriel said to Mary, "Nothing is impossible with God."
God communicated with Mary through an angelic messenger. The Lord found a way to inform her as to what he had planned for her and for the world. What Mary heard from God's messenger brought mixed emotions. On the one hand, she felt great joy in knowing that she was to be part of God's plan for the salvation of the world. But, at the same time, she also felt fear – fear that her husband Joseph would misunderstand – fear that he might even reject her. So Mary went to see her cousin for a little encouragement. She needed strength to undergo what God had in store for her. She knew that it wouldn't be easy. When you think about it, all of us need encouragement. Celeste Holm, that well-known film star of a generation ago, knew the value of encouragement. She said:
"We live by encouragement, and we die without it – slowly, sadly, angrily."
Elizabeth and Mary compared notes during the time they spent together. Both women, as I say, were expecting children in out-of-the-ordinary circumstances. Both women knew that God was directly involved in their lives. Mary entered Elizabeth's home and spoke a word of greeting. And, at that very moment, the Scriptures tell us that the babe in Elizabeth's womb "leaped." And at that moment, Elizabeth, we are told, was "filled with the Holy Spirit." God was obviously at work in the lives of these two special women. They were sure of that. But what about us today? Is God at work in our lives, too? Do we experience his presence ? Is our life different because we know and trust God and his Son, Jesus Christ? Absolutely! God is at work in the lives of his people every day and in every situation.
Elizabeth, for her part, felt that she wasn't worthy to have Mary in her home. In a loud voice, and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth spoke as a prophetess of the Lord Almighty. "Blessed are you, Mary," she said. “And blessed is the child you will bear." "You are the mother of my Lord!" Elizabeth told Mary how the babe in her womb had leapt for joy when Mary spoke. Elizabeth brought Mary the encouragement she needed. Elizabeth congratulated Mary for her great faith. It's interesting – and significant – that nowhere in the New Testament is Mary called "The Mother of God." She is definitely called "The Mother of the Lord" several times, including here in Luke, chapter 1. Mary was chosen by God to bear the Messiah. She was chosen by God to carry this special child and give it birth. Mary was the mother of the Lord in the sense that she nurtured him and protected him until the day of his birth. But she was not the mother of the Lord in the sense that he owed his existence to her. There never was a time that Jesus didn't exist. Mary was simply the vessel through whom Jesus came to this earth so that he might live, and serve, to teach, and die on a cross as payment for sin, and then be raised from the dead.
God has always had multiple ways of communicating with His people. He communicated with Zechariah in the temple one day, but, surprisingly, given his role in life, Zechariah had a weak faith. God communicated with Mary, but Mary still needed encouragement and support from others. And God communicates with us today. Back in Bible times, God spoke directly to his people, or spoke through a messenger. Today, he speaks through his word, the Bible, and he speaks just as Elizabeth did – loud and clear.
After Elizabeth spoke to Mary, Mary spoke. Elizabeth spoke under God's inspiration. And Mary did too. Mary’s words, recorded for us in Luke chapter 1, verses 46 to 55, are known as the Magnificat. These words from Mary tell us much about herself. And they also tell us a lot about the God she served. Scholars tell us that these words are very similar to words first spoken by an Old Testament woman whose name was Hannah – Hannah’s words are recorded for us in the Old Testament book of First Samuel. Significantly, Hannah, too, was the mother of a child that was a special blessing from God.
There's a good chance that the words of the Magnificat came to Mary as she travelled to meet Elizabeth. Mary spoke as she was guided by the Holy Spirit. Mary was a woman of strong faith, a woman who walked close to the Lord she loved. Mary uttered words of praise to God. She thanked God for his amazing grace – grace that Mary knew she didn't deserve. Mary was very much aware of God’s blessings in her life. She was very much aware of the fact that she was from the lowest social class in Israel. She was aware of the fact that, like everyone else, she too, had sin in her life. And yet God had now chosen her. She was amazed by that. And the same is true of us today. Martin Luther wondered what Mary might have said, knowing God's wonderful, and undeserved, grace. Luther thought that she might have said this:
God has looked upon me – poor, despised, lowly maid, where he could easily have found a rich, high, noble, mighty queen...
Mary spoke of God's mercy. She included herself among those who had experienced the mercy of God. We are reminded this morning of the fourth Advent candle, the mercy candle. Mary spoke of those who "fear God." She said that those who "fear God" experience his mercy in their lives. To fear God is not to cringe before him, expecting his punishment. That fear is the fear of an unbeliever. To fear God is to stand boldly, but reverently, in his presence, knowing that our sins are forgiven and that he loves us with a most amazing love. In our text this morning, Mary praises God. And when you think about it, true faith is always accompanied by praise to God. Because we fear him, because we respect him and want to please him, we offer him our heartfelt praise. Praise brings God and his people together. Praise helps us focus on him and his love. As Mary spoke these words, she was thinking about the child she was to bear. As Mary spoke, she remembered the angel's words:
You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name "Jesus." He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; HIS KINGDOM WILL NEVER END.
And as Mary spoke, she also remembered Elizabeth’s words:
Blessed is the child you will bear. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.
Mary was told that the child she carried would be Israel's Messiah. And Elizabeth’s child would prepare the way. These two women were privileged to be an important part of God's plan of salvation. God doesn't show favoritism. At times, he chooses men to do his will. And at other times, he chooses women. On this fourth Sunday in Advent 2015, we consider our Advent theme – the coming of our Lord. We consider John the Baptist who was to prepare the way. Mary's song, the Magnificat, is her Advent Song of Praise. When you think about it, God was Mary's Savior, too. God was sending his son to pay the price for sin on the cross and, by the empty tomb, to heal humanity's broken relationship with Him. God was keeping his promises. In and through Mary's son, God's Advent promise to send the Messiah into the world was being fulfilled.
The world we live in today is dominated by concern for the self. God's Kingdom, on the other hand, is dominated by self-less love, love seen most clearly at the cross and the empty tomb of Jesus Christ. Mary knew that God has a special concern in his heart for the poor and the forgotten. Mary knew that God is not pleased with many who are rich and famous, those who are self-sufficient with no need for God. As one wise Christian once said, "Without God's grace and forgiveness, no one can be rich!" Mary's God "throws down" powerful rulers from their thrones. He puts the proud and the arrogant in their place. He sends them away empty, because empty is what they've always been. The original word for “empty” here literally means "having no substance", "hollow." The rich and the famous of our world are too often people of no real substance, people who are hollow inside. Mary's God is a God of mighty deeds. He’s a God who satisfies the hunger of humanity – physical as well as spiritual hunger. He’s a God who brings out the real potential in people.
I have a newspaper clipping in my files with the headline "Home Sought for Ireland's Treasure." Included in that article is a picture of Jesus on the cover of a book. So what is Ireland's treasure, you ask? Not Jesus, pictured on the cover of the book. The article tells us that Ireland's treasure is THE BOOK ITSELF! It’s called the "Book of Kells." Apparently the Book of Kells is a 1,200 year old, nine kilogram, illustrated manuscript of the four Gospels. The Gospels, of course, are the story of Jesus. It seems to me that the real treasure is not the book, but THE ONE THAT THE BOOK IS WRITTEN ABOUT.
The first chapter of Luke's Gospel proclaims Mary's Song of praise to God, along with words spoken by Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. These two women were an important part of God's plan to save the world from the curse of sin. One woman bore a child that prepared the way for the Messiah. And the other bore the Messiah himself. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is not to be deified. She’s not to be worshipped in the same way as her Son. But she's certainly not to be forgotten either. Mary, the mother of Jesus, like Elizabeth and countless others, was a person of amazing faith. She is a special role-model for the Christian church today. God had a special plan for Mary. And he has a special plan for each one of us as well. May God always remind us of that wonderful truth! Amen.
Let's Pray: DEAR HEAVENLY FATHER – Help us understand Mary. Help us emulate her faithfulness and her commitment to you and to your service. Remind us of what she was willing to endure for you – and for us. She is a role-model of what true faith is all about. In Your Son's name we pray. Amen.