The Song of Mary: Proclaiming Faith in Things Unseen

And Mary sang: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.

Today we pick up where we ended last week, looking at the four songs – four of the earliest hymns of the Christian church – which make up the story of Christmas as we read in the Gospel according to St. Luke.

Last week we looked at the Song of Zechariah, the old man with his wife Elizabeth who, by God’s grace, were given a child in their old age; a child who would be John the Baptist, the great prophet preparing the way for the Lord.

In that song, that first act of this great musical, we saw how this birth was connected to so many other “impossible” births before it, as so many of the crucial turning points in God’s plan to save his people depend on God providing a child in an impossible situation.

We also saw that this theme of childless couples proves a point – that God’s mighty intervention doesn’t come for those who “sort of” depend on God, but is for those who realize that they’re out of options, that there is nothing that they can do in their human strength, to change their situation.  It’s in those situations that we see God keeping his word to defend the powerless.

A Hymn of Praise

Today we hear another great hymn of the Church, this time on the lips of a more familiar character in this Advent drama: Mary, the mother of Jesus.

If we look at that text, the text we recited on page 86 of the BAS, we see that this triumphant song of praise has three parts.

It begins as all good hymns should begin – by praising God.  “Deep in my soul – with all that I am – I proclaim the greatness of the Lord”, why? “Because, as he promised through the prophets and has displayed throughout the Old Testament, he has favour on his lowly servant.”

Then, from that opening full of praise, we hear that this, indeed, is part of God’s plan unfolding.  Just as generations before had known God as ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’, just as the entire nation of Israel knew God as the one who spoke through Moses, as the one who established the throne of David, so, “from this day,” says Mary, “all generations…” will know that our God, the One True God, is the one who brought forth his Son Jesus Christ from the Blessed Virgin Mary, something that we proclaim every time we gather.

“The Strength of His Arm'”

Then the song takes a different direction. 

“He has mercy on those who fear him; he has shown the strength of his arm; he has cast down the mighty from their thrones; he has filled the hungry with good things.”

…but wait now.  Here we have Mary singing this great song about God’s power and might… but who is she?  She’s a pregnant teenager from an unimportant, practically unknown village, engaged to be married to a common tradesman.

And she’s singing these words as a person whose government has been overthrown, and who is now subject to a vast military empire, and empire in which the mighty sit quite happily on their thrones, and the poor are taxed heavily even on what little they have.

By any objective worldly measure, “the hopes and fears of all the years”, the hopes and dreams of freedom from oppression and justice for the lowly aren’t all delivered as Mary sings her song; not even close, as St. Matthew tells us it won’t be long until her own little family, Mary, Joseph, and the young Jesus, flee to Egypt to escape a proud, conceited ruler on his throne.

And, certainly as Christians gathered to sing this song in the generations that followed, their experience wasn’t better, but even worse than when Mary first sang these words.  These earliest Christians were ridiculed, dragged before the rulers of their synagogues, beaten and at times even stoned to death by the powerful rulers; yet, gathering in homes, or hiding in caves, or meeting in fields outside of town they sing that God has shown the strength of his arm, that he has scattered the proud and cast down the mighty.

What’s going on here?  How is it that this becomes one of the popular, universal hymns of the Early Church when it clearly doesn’t reflect the persecution and real pain experienced by these early Christians?

Well, the thing that persecuted Christians remember while we who enjoy our freedom so easily forget is that we, all of us who are part of the body of Christ, hold dual citizenship.  Persecuted Christians remember, and we so quickly forget, that our Lord’s Kingdom is not of this world.

Yes, we have a God-given duty to work for justice; to remove oppression, to feed the hungry, to clothe the poor, to put hats and mitts on those cold heads and hands whose parents – for whatever reason – cannot care for their children.  But, even if we created a perfect country, even if we somehow got our act together and managed to live in harmony as so many popular Christmas songs say over and over, still, crowns and thrones will perish, and the kingdoms of this world rise and wane.  Though it’s our duty to do what is right, no amount of good deeds or happy thoughts can correct a world that is fundamentally bent towards pride.

The Paradox

And that’s why this song, and the whole Christmas story, the birth of the promised saviour, appears to be so great a paradox:  the greatest king of all kings is laid in a manger, and God himself is nailed to a tree that he created.

It’s such a great paradox that it’s a stumbling block to all who think they’ve got the world figured out.  But, either Jesus is God incarnate or he isn’t, and there is no in-between that makes any sense. 

If he’s God, then this lowly birth is proof that his mission, his purpose, is not to patch up this broken world with its rulers and empires, but to re-make it, to make all things new.  If he isn’t God, then this is simply a poor, unknown family giving birth to their poor son; a son who will be unknown for most of his life, and then after three years of teaching, be crucified for political crimes.

But, if he’s God, if we trust these words, then what we have here is proof that God’s plan is to get right to the root of the problem.  If it’s the humble – those who know that God is God – who inherit the kingdom, then the greatest glory, the place of greatest power, is found in the greatest lowliness.  Exaltation and true strength are found in complete obedience and humble service.

The Grand Solution to the Fundamental Problem

So we look at this ancient hymn, these great words about God’s display of strength not as a battle song for an earthly ruler, but as the national anthem about the Kingdom of Heaven, these words first sung as God joins himself to our humanity so that we may join Him in the place He is preparing for us, just as He promised.

And to do that, to make us fit to dwell with him, takes a complete overhaul of that humanity.

The solution for our sin of disobedience is not for God to give up and start over – after all, God delights in his relationship with people, and we were created to be the crowning jewel of creation, made in God’s own Image and declared “very good”.

It was a disobedient man and woman who caused humanity’s problem, corrupting the world itself, and in the process, making it impossible for us choose humility over power, and right over wrong.

But the glory of this hymn – and the entire story of our salvation – is that, with God, all things are possible.

If no mere mortal can overcome this bending of our wills toward selfishness, if there is no other good enough to pay the price of sin, then the truth is that God loves us so much that God himself would take on human flesh and be born as a lowly baby to show us the way to God, blazing the path and trampling down the gates of death so that we can follow where he leads.

And, for our humanity to be set on that path, it took the humility of a lowly teenage girl.

Where Eve in the Garden chose disobedience and gave birth to fallen humanity that lost its access to God, now Mary offers complete humble obedience; in the face of a birth sounds impossible, where many earlier players in this grand drama would laugh, Mary responds simply “I am the Lord’s servant; so be it”.

And it’s in this act of obedience that God is reunited to us – that Emmanuel, God-with-us, comes here, as Christ himself becomes the new Adam, the first-born of the new creation, and the head of the body to which we may be joined in the ultimate show to strength as death itself is defeated, as the offspring of woman finally crushes the head of the serpent as the strongest worldly powers are confronted with the thing that they fear most – the truth that, in spite of all their wealth, strength, and glory; in spite of the victories they appear to have won through conniving and ridicule and oppression; in spite of all of that, they will pass away.

Just as God promised.

For he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our forefathers, the promise from the beginning, that we would be his people and he would be our God, that he would reconcile us to himself, that when this world has passed away, when the mighty have fallen from their thrones and the wealth of the rich is worthless, those who fear the Lord, who walk humbly with their God, are lifted up, filled with good things, and dwell in that kingdom where the lion and lamb lie together, where there is no pain or fear.

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.  My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”

These words – this conviction of faith in things that we do not yet see – have been true for Christians in every age.

Will they be true for you?

Four Songs of Christmas: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel”

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior,
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets he promised of old
that he would save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
free to worship him without fear,
holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
to give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Luke 1:68-79, ICEL translation.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always enjoyed a good musical.  Growing up, I have great memories of watching the Sound of Music and Mary Poppins, back when Disney movies used to come on TV on Sunday nights.

I’m of the generation that was raised on The Lion King and Pocahontas, with hit songs that made it off the screen and onto the radio, and I can remember riding the school bus, screaming along as Elton John belted out “The Circle of Life”.

I’ve always had a soft spot for musicals.

Part of it, I’m sure, is the musician in me, appreciating some well-written tunes.  But part of it, I think, is that music, as an art form, communicates meaning in such a special way.  A good song can summarize a thousand words of complex feelings in just a few memorable lines.  …and memory is part of it, too: one of the realities facing any preacher is that you can come to church every Sunday and hear sermons your entire life, but you will probably never remember even one sentence of a sermon word-for-word.  But, each and every one of us, even the youngest children who cannot read, have memorized the words to our favourite hymns.

Music, too, across cultures, has a way of communicating those things that are too deep for words.  Think back to a Remembrance Day ceremony: the speakers can read poems and deliver speeches about the meaning of remembrance and sacrifice; but nothing makes it sink in like those first blazing notes of that solo trumpet playing the Last Post; it’s a sound that gives goosebumps and calls us to focus in a way that words never could.

This Advent, as we prepare ourselves not only to celebrate Christmas, but to make ourselves ready for Christ’s coming, his advent into our hearts and lives both every day and at the last day when he comes in glory, we’re going to focus on a wonderful but often-overlooked musical.

That musical is the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel, Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus.

A Grand Production: More than a Christmas pageant

If you sit down and read the start of Luke – something I encourage you to do when you go home today, it’ll only take 5 minutes – you’ll see that this account of Christ’s birth is no dry news article or history book. 

St. Luke, as the apostles were entering old age after long lives of preaching and teaching by word of mouth, was called by God to record, to write down, their teachings so that they could be carried to the ends of the earth.  And as you read about the birth of Jesus, you’ll see that he included the oldest Christian hymns that we have; hymns sung by the earliest Christians, summarizing exactly what the birth of Christ means, and, like all great songs, saying in the most efficient and memorable way possible how it is that this unlikely birth — an unwed teenage mother giving birth to a helpless baby in a shed in a forgotten farming town — is, amazingly, exactly how God intended to keep his promise to restore and redeem a broken world.

So today, we zoom in on the first song from that musical: the Benedictus, on page 88 of your BAS. 

The Setting

Luke starts us off in his wonderful account of Christ’s birth, not in Bethlehem, but in Jerusalem.

It isn’t Mary and Joseph on the stage, but the story begins with an old priest and his old wife.  In art this priest, Zechariah, is shown as a kind, old man: a long beard, a warm smile on wrinkled cheeks, with a once-strong body now slightly hunched over by the weight of time.  By his side, centre stage in the Gospel, is his wife, Elizabeth, her rosy, wrinkled cheeks framed by her gray hair.

They were faithful believers in God’s promises, and Zechariah was a faithful priest, serving in the temple in Jerusalem. 

But, in spite of their faithfulness, in spite of their faith in God, they were childless.

And that’s an important point – and, if we think back to the Old Testament, it’s a familiar point.

In the days before Old Age Pensions and RRSPs, without welfare or income support, your children were your retirement; your children were your insurance policy for when your body became too weak to work.

Children are a blessing from God, not least because it’s their God-given duty to honour their father and mother, to care for them and provide for them in that great role-reversal of each generation, as the one who once cared for, fed, and changed a helpless baby is now the one being cared for by that child.

Elisabeth is barren; this faithful couple, entering old age, has accepted that they are entirely dependent on God and the good will of others for their survival.

And that should sound familiar, if we look at God’s plan of salvation.

Abraham and Sarah were childless.  They were practically ancient, and God says “your descendants will be like the sand of the sea”, something so ridiculous that Sarah laughs in the face of the angel.

God gives them Isaac, who marries Rebecca.  Clearly, it’s up to Isaac and Rebecca to produce these great descendants, but guess what, Rebecca is barren too. 

God gives them Jacob and Esau; Jacob is to inherit the promise of God, and God changes his name to Israel and says he will make a mighty nation through whom the knowledge and saving truth of God will reach the whole world… except, guess what, Rachel can’t have children either, until God intervenes and she becomes the mother of the tribes of Joseph and Benjamin.

Hannah, too, is unable to conceive until God intervenes and she gives birth to Samuel, the prophet who is responsible for anointing David as King of the Jews, as we know God’s ultimate plan was that that earthly throne would be united with God’s throne in Jesus, who reigns as both Son of Man and Son of God.

The Message

And that’s the first important point that this song teaches us about the message of Christmas: God’s mighty intervention isn’t for those who are “sort of” dependent on God.  God’s outstretched hand and mighty arm doesn’t flex his muscle for those who are faithful but who are “getting along just fine, thank you very much”.

No, God’s promise to lift up the humble and meek, is, throughout history, for those who reach the realization that there is nothing they can do to ‘fix’ their situation. 

God doesn’t want a chosen people who can look back and say, “wow, look how great we are”.  He doesn’t choose mighty heroes, models of human strength.  No, he chooses to raise up a people out of those who are barren. 

That’s the point: God does the impossible for those who love him and have a holy fear, the fear, the awe that comes when you recognize that you are powerless but he is powerful; he does the impossible not when we’re “trying their best” or when we think we’ve “got this under control”, but he does the impossible when those who love him admit that they’re in an impossible situation.  When we admit that He is God and we are not.

This is the story that Luke is proclaiming as he opens the Gospel with this great song: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has come to his people and set them free.  He has raised up for us a mighty saviour, born of the house of his servant David” – a house built, not on might, but on unlikely people lifted out of impossible situations by an almighty God.

…Just as He promised.

And that’s the second point being made as Luke opens with this great musical number, this great hymn of the Church.  This – what we’re about to see – “is the oath God swore to our forefather Abraham”. 

The message of Christmas, the message of the Gospels, is that God keeps his word. 

Now, it might not be as we expect – and that’s part of the point.  In our Bibles we just need to flip a few pages to see where God’s promises were fulfilled.  But, for the people of Israel, for Zechariah and Elizabeth standing here on centre stage, it’s been 700 years since the prophets said the Messiah would come.  700 years.  That’s like someone making a promise to your great-great-great-great-great-grandmother in the 1300s; it would take a lot of faith for you today to wait for that promise to be delivered; but that’s where we have to remember that God’s timescale isn’t ours; as we sing, a thousand years for Him are like an evening, as the ever-rolling stream of time carries its’ sons away.

But God swore an oath.  Have you ever sworn an oath?  Have you ever made the declaration that your very life and freedom depend on what you’re about to say?  Now, imagine, God, the very Creator of life, has such a plan for our Redemption that He, the Eternal One, swears an oath – swears on His Life – that his people, the holy and righteous, will be free.  Free from the hands of our enemies; free to worship him without fear, all the days of our life.

As we begin the Christmas story, as the first characters walk onto the stage, we sing “God will do the impossible”, and why?  Because this, this birth in a manger, as unlikely as it seems, is God keeping his promises – just wait and see.

And then the song closes with a surprising twist: Zechariah says “you, my child” speaking of John the Baptist, the baby that God sent to this old man and his barren wife, “You will be the prophet of the Most High”. 

That’s the twist: in each of these situations where God has intervened, where God has done the impossible, the end is the same.  Your life is not your own.  When you admit you’re powerless; when you accept God’s promises, you become part of God’s plan.

This child from this barren womb would be the last of the Old Testament prophets, born to prepare the way for the Lord, to preach salvation by the forgiveness of sins.

John the Baptist is no hero: he’s a strange man living in the desert wearing camel skin and eating locusts; he’s not what you want your child to be when they grow up.  But, by the grace of God, he’s an essential part: it’s through Him that God reveals Jesus as his beloved Son when he is baptized in the River Jordan.

Do you ever wonder about your purpose? 

I’m not talking about work or ‘success’ – after all, by all accounts, John was a madman in the desert. 

But, as we prepare for Christmas, as we prepare for Christ to enter our lives in our own day, once we accept that we are powerless and depend on God for the impossible; when we finally come to believe that God will keep his promises, then the clear message of Christmas is that our lives are not our own; that each of us has a purpose, each of us, as we acknowledge God as Lord, has a part to play in God’s plan, a part in this great musical, this great drama playing out from the foundation of the world.

That’s why a wrinkled old man and his wife will hold the baby that baptizes Jesus. 

That’s why a teenaged mom lays the Saviour of the world in a bed of hay

That’s why you and me have been called to bring the Good News of healing, and forgiveness, and freedom from the past and fear of the future to a world …and neighbours… who don’t know that God will do the impossible; who don’t know that God keeps his promises; who don’t know that they, if they’re willing, have a part in this story too.

This is the first song of Christmas, and it’s no “Walking in a Winter Wonderland”, but it’s more than a classic – these are words to live by, words to teach our children, words to bring to the ends of the earth, as we prepare, one day, to see our Saviour face to face, when, like the shepherds and the angels above, we fall on our knees and veil our faces as we come and adore Him, as we worship Christ, our Risen King.

Notes:
Gospel Lesson: Luke 1:5-24a
Hymns: “Let all mortal flesh keep silence”
and “Lo, He comes with clouds descending” (Easily sung to the tune Regent Square (“Angels from the Realms of Glory”) if the traditional tune is unknown).

The general idea for this series — but not the content — is borrowed from Alistair Begg’s book The Christmas Playlist