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Take Jesus Home 3

What’s your favorite Christmas song? Particularly your favorite religious Christmas song. No “Frosty the Snowman.” Sorry. (Ask people to shout it out.)

There is a Christmas song in Luke 1 that many people don’t know. It is Mary’s song. This passage is very lyrical, like a poem or a song which is why it is often called Mary’s song. She sings this after she has a joyful meeting with her pregnant relative Elizabeth.

When we lived in Idaho, I used to go up to a little Hermitage in the foothills for some retreat and prayer. The Hermitage was run by two Benedictine nuns who lived there and provided me with hospitality. Every night before retiring from the day they met in the small chapel to pray, and they would end their time of prayer by singing this song of Mary.

This song of Mary is a staple of prayer and worship in the Roman Catholic tradition. It is called the Magnificat because Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord”. Magnificat is the word in Latin for magnify. Mary magnifies God by declaring the greatness of God.

The reason I had Josh read today’s passage in the New Revised Standard Version is because it uses the word “magnify.” Different translations have “My soul praises…” “My soul proclaims the greatness of… “My heart is overflowing with praise…” “My soul exalts…: But I like “magnify.” It means to exalt, praise, and glorify. But it also mean to enlarge, to make bigger, to show more clearly.

We use magnifying glasses to see certain objects more clearly and closely. When we magnify something we want to see the details, the intricacies, the deeper things, the vastness.

Like Mary, our lives can be a magnifying glass for others to see God. Our lives can make him bigger and enlarge him for others to see.

Does your life magnify God to others? Is he big and more easily seen by others because of the way you live, talk, act? Our love, our humility, our gentleness, our peace, our joy can magnify him. Gently, even quietly, letting people know about our faith and the importance of God to us helps others see him.

It reminds me of something Dorothy Day said. She said, “If I have achieved anything in my life, it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God.” Dorothy Day was the founder of the Catholic Social Movement, which was a massive ministry to the poor, the hungry, the homeless, and the least of these.

“Does God need us to make him bigger?” you might wonder. “He is the Creator, the Almighty God. Surely he doesn’t need us.” That’s the whole profound, incredible, amazing thing about this story. That the Creator of the universe would inhabit an obscure peasant girl in first century Palestine to magnify himself.

This song is about God. God is the subject of almost every verb in Mary’s words. Mary sings not about what God is. She sings about what God has done. Mary doesn’t say, “Look at me. Look at me!” She says, “Look at God.”

Last week I said that of all the people we pay attention to in the Christmas event don’t overlook the most obvious player of all: God. The Christmas story is a God story.

Mary has a testimony. She has something to say about God. What is your testimony? What has the Lord done for you? Where have you seen him work for you? Provide for you? Help you? One of the abilities a Christian needs to develop is being able to see what God has done and is doing in your life. He is present in the small things and the big things. He is present in the wonderful things and in the trials as well.

Once when Nancy and I were on a study tour in the Holy Land, there were a number of Roman Catholic priests in our group. We really had a great time with them. Of course, Mary is a big deal in Roman Catholicism. Many Catholics even pray to Mary. She gets a lot more play than we Protestants give her.

But Mary is the mother of the Lord. She carries in her womb and gives birth to the Lord Jesus, God come in the flesh. Give Mary some love.

One day while walking in the Galilee region with one of our Catholic friends he asked me if we do much with Mary. I said we don’t but that I had preached on Mary several times. He was impressed and said he couldn’t remember hearing any sermons on Mary. And he was Roman Catholic.

This song of Mary lifts up God in three ways. First it sings of God’s mercy.

Twice God’s mercy is mentioned. Mercy is not getting what you deserve, but receiving what you don’t deserve. I heard a story about a raucous congregational meeting in a church in which a young man rose to his feet and shouted “I demand my rights!" An elderly gentleman seated in the pew behind him, tugged on his shirttail and muttered, “Sit down, son. If you had your rights you'd be in hell.”

And that is true for all of us. We live by the mercy of God.

In Titus we read about Christ’s coming. It says, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy…”[1]

In Ephesians it says, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”[2]

Mary sings that God’s mercy reaches out to those who fear him, that is to say those who honor and give God his rightful place. She sings that he has been merciful to Israel. Israel longed for God to come. That is why they expected the Messiah – the Anointed One – to come and save them. Israel suffered under the rule of others for generations. The reason this had happened is because Israel had not been faithful to God. But God, who is merciful, didn’t abandon them. He came to them though many did not receive him.

We are often unfaithful to God. But in his mercy he doesn’t leave us. No, he comes to us. How many times has God bailed me out of a situation? How many times has he patiently walked beside me even as I ignored him? Probably more times that I will ever know.

Our God is a God of mercy.

Second, this song lifts up God’s love for the humble and the lowly. Mary knows she doesn’t have rank in the world. She is young, poor, unmarried.

Mary was part of the society known as the poor ones who lived in the areas of Galilee, Samaria and Judah. They were a particular people in the society of 1st century Palestine.

Why were they called the poor ones? They were the lowly, poor, sick, downtrodden, widows and orphans. They lived in the slums. Everyday was about survival. Food, clothing, health were day to day things.

But that dependence for basic necessities of life also made them dependent upon the Lord.

The poor ones knew that they were totally dependent on God for everything. The poor ones were different from the proud, the rich, and the self-sufficient who felt no need for God.

The poor ones also believed that they were a unique people. They believed that they were the remnant of Israel, spoken of in the Old Testament prophets, whom God would use to renew Israel.

They believed they were the ones to continue the faith and legacy of Israel as God’s people.

They knew the remnant was a people faithful to God so they lived a certain way of life, a way of life that was full of faith and devotion to the God of Israel. They sang the songs of faith, recited and learned the stories of God from the scriptures, they worshipped, prayed, and lived believing that God would come to them and redeem them someday.

God has been mindful of Mary’s humble estate. She sings that he has lifted up the humble.

The opposite of being humble is being proud. Pride is absolutely contrary to God. Everything that is wrong with this world has been brought about by pride, either our own or that of others. Every war, all selfishness and suffering, every jealousy, every broken heart and abused life is because of pride.

Pride puts all the attention on us. Pride insists that we have to have our own way. Pride tells us that only our opinion counts. Pride looks down on others. It is because of our pride that we needed redemption.

Peter writes, “…all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’”[3] God is against the proud.

God opposes the proud but lifts up the lowly. Look at who God comes to and uses in the Bible. He chooses a slave people in Egypt to be his special people. He takes a shepherd boy, David, and makes him King of his people. He comes into the world through a peasant girl living under Roman occupation. Jesus doesn’t come as a worldly king or high priest or dignitary. He comes as a Jewish, peasant, carpenter. Jesus himself said he came not to be served, but to serve. His disciples were not powerful people. They were fishermen, tax collectors and common men. The early Christians were often from the slave class. They were considered foolish and weak by the standards of society.

And so Mary sings that God has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. These words of Mary are kind of suggestive. Mary sings about rulers being taken down from their thrones. The rich being sent away with nothing. The humble are lifted up.

There was a time in the 1980’s when the government of Guatemala – which has a history of being a very nasty government - banned this passage from being said in public because of its revolutionary themes of bringing down the wealthy and powerful, and lifting up the downtrodden and the poor. In particular, Roman Catholic Christians were saying this every Sunday. You start singing this every week and it starts getting into your head. The dictators banned it.

There is power in song. Think of the African-American slaves in this nation and the rich songs and spirituals that came from them. They were subtle songs of protests against their masters who kept them from freedom but couldn’t keep them from the promises of deliverance in the Bible.

Do you know a large part of the story of the revolution in Eastern Europe had to do with singing? For several months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the citizens of Leipzig, Germany gathered on Monday evenings by candlelight around St. Nikolai church – where, by the way, Bach composed many of his cantatas. Around that church the people sang. Over two months their numbers grew from a thousand people to more than three hundred thousand, all of them singing songs of hope and justice. Finally, those songs changed the world. When one of the East German secret police was asked why they didn’t go in a crush the protests like they had so many others, the officer replied, “We had no contingency plan for songs.”[4]

Yes, God gives grace to the humble. Mary sings, “I may not be much, but I am the Lord’s.”

Finally, the song lifts up God’s faithfulness. It ends,

He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.

You might be wondering, “What does Abraham have to do with this?” God used Abraham and his wife Sarah to put into motion his plan to reclaim this world that had been lost through human sin and rebellion. He promised to Abraham that he would make those who come from him a blessing to all people. Abraham and Sarah were old and didn’t have any children. But God gave them a child who was their son, Isaac. Abraham kept faith that God would continue and increase his line. That was God’s promise. That promise never died.

But sometimes it seems like God’s promises work so slow. From Abraham came the people of Israel. A day came when Israel was in exile. They had no home. They were always ruled by other people and had no king. It felt like they were forgotten by God.

The Lord speaks to Israel in the prophet Isaiah:

O Jacob, how can you say the Lord does not see your troubles? O Israel, how can you say God ignores your rights? Have you never heard? Have you never understood? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding. He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. Even youths will become weak and tired, and young men will fall in exhaustion. But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.[5]

God had not forgotten. God doesn’t forget. God is faithful to his promises. And Mary knew it. Mary had been told by Gabriel that the child she was bearing would reign over the house of Jacob, which was another designation for Israel. Mary knew the child in her womb was of God, and that God was coming to his people.

She sings, “…just as he promised.” It says this promise is not only for Abraham but his descendants as well. That is us. We are sons and daughters of Abraham by faith. Paul writes in Galatians, “…for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith…And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring…”[6]

Jesus called people sons and daughters of Abraham.

The point is that God is faithful to his promises. Really the Bible is one big story of how God fulfills his promise to Abraham. The first verses of the New Testament in the gospel of Matthew state how Jesus Christ came from the line of Abraham.

God is faithful. And he is faithful to his promises that he is preparing a place for us, and that someday all that is wrong with this world will be gone. And those who have kept faith in the Lord will be with him in his kingdom.

Christmas is the fulfillment of God’s promises to redeem us. But this time God came himself, in the flesh, as a human being.

In most religions if you want to get God’s attention the low have to ascend high and sinners have to become saints. But Mary’s song tells us that the protocol has been reversed. God who is high becomes low. He sees human need and reorders things. God works on behalf of a lowly young woman one of the poor ones, and calls her blessed. He gives mercy to those who fear him and scatters the strong, proud, and rich, while filling the hungry and needy with all good things.[7]

And that was what Mary’s baby, Jesus Christ, was about. God became low and came to us. It’s worth singing about.

Let’s take him home. Let’s take him into our hearts. Let our souls magnify him.

Prayer: Great and merciful God, we may not be much but we are yours.And if we are yours, then we are loved, cared for, and lifted up.Thank you that you are faithful.That you that you have never forgotten your people over the centuries.And you don’t forget us today.We welcome you, Lord.Be our song, this Advent, this Christmas,

[1] Titus 3:4-5 [2] Ephesians 2:4-5 [3] 1 Peter 5:5 [4] From “Singing As An Act of Resistance.” [5] Isaiah 40:27-31 [6] Galatians 3:26, 29 [7] James Edwards, Commentary on Luke, p.56

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