It’s the Sunday before Christmas. This will be my 31st Sunday before Christmas sermon. How do you tell the same story 31 different times? The fact the Christmas Story is a timeless story, and a true story, and a story of hope and redemption helps. But still, after 31 years, how can I be expected to tell the Story in a fresh way? For me, the answer is looking at a huge aspect of the Story that is usually overlooked in evangelical churches. So, let me state up front, I am still evangelical. I have not converted to Catholicism. (“Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”) Today’s Sunday before Christmas sermon is focused on Mary, and how she viewed the importance of the birth of Jesus.
Let me begin by showing some paintings of Mary and the Holy Family. (The pictures are to the right in the order they are discussed.) The first three pictures date back to the 300s A.D. and are some of the earliest paintings we have. Notice the color and ethnicity of the Holy Family in these earliest pictures. Not a Christmas picture, but the earliest known image of Jesus and His disciples shows a very dark-skinned Jesus (and disciples). It was during the Renaissance period (1300s-1600s) that the Holy Family became European and Jesus was pictured as a blonde hair, blue-eyed child.
Three of my favorite paintings of Mary include a modern one of her and Elizabeth. Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist and when she touches Mary’s stomach, John the Baptist jumps and Jesus lights up; a reference to Luke 1:41. Another favorite of mine is a painting of Eve and Mary. (Even though their ethnicity is wrong, especially Eve’s, I still like the picture.) Eve is holding an apple, head downcast, touching Mary’s belly. Mary is consoling Eve, as if saying, “Everything is going to be ok.” To me, this is a portrait of Romans 5:12-21, especially verse 17, “For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.” My all-time favorite painting of Jesus is a simply black and white drawing. Mary is standing on top of a serpent and a skull, defiant, with right fist in the air, with the words from Luke 2:51-53 encircling her. This is a powerful image that captures how Mary viewed the birth of Jesus.
In my Bible, Luke 1:46-55 is titled, “Mary’s Song,” or “Mary’s Prayer.” In more liturgical churches her song is simply called, Magnificat,which is Latin for “Magnify.” It comes from the Latin Vulgate’s translation of the Greek word, “glorifies” in Luke 1:46. (The King James Version translates the Greek word as “magnify.”) The theme of Mary’s Song is glorifying God. When you consider the fact that Mary was a young teenager (possibly only thirteen or fourteen), her words are incredible and place her on the same level as the Old Testament prophets. Yet, for some reason, many of us who grew up in conservative churches, know very little about Mary and her beautiful song. As a result, we have missed the radical and relevant message of Christmas. Mary’s Song, The Magnificat, sets the stage for the entire ministry and mission of Jesus. You don’t understand who Jesus is and what He came to do without understanding Mary’s Song.
But first, a little bit of background. Isaiah’s prophecies about the Messiah make two things abundantly clear: (1) The Messiah will forgive the sins of people (mercy). (2) The Messiah will establish justice in the land (justice). MERCYand JUSTICE are the two main themes of the Messiah. Personal salvation and social justice are two-sides of the same coin. To reject, or downplay, one aspect is to minimize the Gospel. Speaking about the Messiah, Isaiah prophecies, (NOTE: Jesus quotes Isaiah more than any of the other prophets), “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations…In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth” (Isaiah 42:1-4). And again, “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:5-6). Earlier in his prophecy, Isaiah said, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this” (Isaiah 9:5-7). Through Isaiah’s prophecy the Messiah is described as bringing redemption and salvation, mercy and justice to people and nations. Salvation is both personal and public, individual and social. Quoting from Isaiah in describing His ministry, Jesus said, “The Spirit of the LORD is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
From the time of Isaiah’s prophecies until the birth of Jesus, some 750+ years, the expectation that the Messiah would soon come reached a fever pitch. Without question Mary knew these prophecies and longed for the coming of the Messiah. Mary concludes her Song, “He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers” (Luke 1:54-55).
While Mary knew these prophecies, she never imagined she would play a vital role in their fulfillment. But one blessed night, Gabriel came to Mary and said, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. 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” (Luke 1:30-33). Before leaving her, Gabriel told Mary her Aunt Elizabeth was also pregnant, even though Elizabeth was past child-bearing age. Elizabeth’s child was John the Baptist. So, Jesus and John the Baptist were cousins.
Mary goes to visit Elizabeth and Luke records, “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished” (Luke 1:41-45). There is a lot going on here. More than we can cover in one sermon. Suffice it to say that Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah, were also anticipating the coming of the Messiah. They knew their coming child was called by God to do great things. They knew their child was to be “the forerunner,”preparing the way for the Messiah. Then, the moment Elizabeth saw Mary, before Mary even said she was pregnant, from the womb, John the Baptist leaped for joy and Elizabeth immediately knew Mary’s child was the Savior of the world! In response to what had just happened, Mary breaks into a prayer (a psalm) that is filled with Old Testament references. Again, this shows Mary knew the prophecies about the Messiah. Mary knew her Bible. What she says about the coming of Jesus is indeed Magnificat. Her song tells us the radical and relevant message of Christmas.
Mary begins, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” (Luke 1:46-47). Mary wants all praise and glory to go to God. Mary knows she is underserving of God’s gift of grace in Christ Jesus. She continues, “…for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant” (Luke 1:48a). The word “humble” is better translated “lowly,” and refers as much to Mary’s low status in society as it does her spiritual countenance. Mary, a young girl, born into poverty in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, with no power and subject to oppression and exploitation by others, has been chosen by God to be the mother of our Lord. We see the depth and sincerity of her faith when she said to Gabriel, “I am the Lord’s servant…May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38). In humility Mary sings, “From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name” (Luke 1:48b-49). There is no arrogance in her. She is not bragging. She knows the burden she has to carry. She also knows the same God who favored her will extend grace to others. Mary prays, “His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation” (Luke 1:50). An echo of Jeremiah’s prayer, “Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23).
The Magnificat can be divided into the two parts, each part summarized by one word. The first part, Luke 1:46-50, is summarized by the word MERCY. You could say this is the personal, individual message of Christmas. Jesus has come to reconcile people to God. He has come to show you grace and forgive your sins. One aspect of the Christmas message is that by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, you are redeemed. Not because you deserve it, but because of God’s love, mercy, and grace. Hallelujah and Amen!
But that’s not the entire message of Jesus. That, in and of itself, is not what makes the message of Christmas radical and relevant. Mercy is only half the equation. The second part of The Magnificat (Luke 1:51-55) is summarized by the word JUSTICE, the public and social message of Jesus. Personal conversion AND social justice. Private faith AND public demonstration. Mercy AND justice. That is the radical and relevant message of Christmas! The same God who embraced a poor girl from Nazareth, embraces the poor all over the world. God’s justice flows from His mercy and reverses life’s unjust circumstances. This is what Dallas Willard calls “the divine conspiracy.” The radical reversal of all things. It’s the “last shall be first, and the first shall be last” theology of God (Matthew 20:16).
The Magnificat continues, “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts” (Luke 1:51). In God’s finger there is great power. In God’s hand there is greater power. But the greatest power of all is in His arm. God is Almighty, Omnipotent, and Omniscient. By His greatest power God scatters, like weeds, those who think themselves to be high and mighty. God’s justice reverses the social standings of people. The arrogant are brought down and the humbled are lifted up. The powerful become week and the oppressed are set free. In God’s justice there are no class systems, and there is no room for systemic racism. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Mary continues, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble” (Luke 1:52). Oh, how practical this verse is in our current situation as a country. As followers of Jesus our hope and security are in Him, not any political party or political ideology. Saying, “Jesus is Lord,” is both a statement of faith as well as a political stand. It means your allegiance is to Him alone. No governmental ruler has complete authority over you. This prayer of Mary’s echoes Daniel’s prayer while serving King Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel prayed, “He (God) changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning” (Daniel 2:21).
Then Mary sings, “He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:53). What an earnest prayer from a poor, teenaged, un-wed, expectant mom! Mary’s prayer is quite similar to Jesus’ own words when He preaches His first sermon at his childhood synagogue. Reading from Isaiah, Jesus says, “‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’” (Luke 4:18-21).
The great Scottish theologian and Bible scholar, William Barclay (d. 1978) outlined the second part of Mary’s prayer (Luke 1:51-53) as revolution: (1) Moral Revolution (v. 51); (2) Social Revolution (v. 52); and (3) Economic Revolution (v. 53). Thus, the radical, relevant message of Christmas is a revolutionary message! A message that shakes us to our core as people, and a message that threatens the systemic injustices of our society.
Mary concludes her prayer, “He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers” (Luke 1:54-55). In her closing remarks she ties her entire prayer with everything God had said and promised in the Old Testament. What the Messiah will do, and did, is exactly what God said the Messiah would do, and did. The radical, relevant message of Christmas has always been the Gospel message of mercy AND justice; personal conversion AND public transformation. Both individual AND social salvation. Luke concludes this section of his gospel by telling us, “Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home” (Luke 1:56). I am confident, one of the main things they discussed during that time, was the radical, relevant message Mary’s child would preach. I am confident that for three months, Mary and Elizabeth regularly sang this song to their unborn children.
These words Mary prayed and sang are so radical, relevant, and revolutionary they have been banned many times in modern history. When the British ruled India, the Magnificat was prohibited from being sung in churches. During the “Dirty War” in Argentina (1976-1983), after the mothers of disappeared children plastered the capital with the words of the Magnificat, the military banned all public displays of the song. During the 1980s the Guatemala government banned any public recitation of the Magnificat. Why? Because governments understand something many of us Christians have forgotten. The message of Christmas offers hope! The message of Christmas forgives sins, changes cultures, and challenges socioeconomic and political institutions that oppress people.
The Magnificat is an outline, and a foreshadowing, of everything Jesus will do, and did. He will forgive sins and reconcile people to God. He will scatter the proud and the self-righteous by exposing their true selves. He will challenge powerful kings like Herod and Caesar, by demonstrating the power of love. He will advocate for justice, mercy and peace. He will sit with the poor, the hungry, the sinners and the outcasts, filling them with hope. He will denounce the wealthy who oppress the poor. He will expect His followers to deny themselves, pick up their cross and follow Him. Finally, as the CHURCH, the body of Christ, Jesus incarnate in the world today, Jesus expects us to continue doing what He did, proclaiming His message of mercy AND justice. That’s the radical, relevant message of Christmas! Let’s read the Magnificat once again (Luke 1:51-55):
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”