Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Original Songs of Jesus' Birth - Part 1 The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55)

Last year’s series on “Christmas Carols”
-Did not focus on the many trappings of the traditional Christmas story that are not what we find in Scripture (date of Dec. 25; 3 wise men).
-Instead, focused on the overall feel of the songs, which often sterilize the story of Jesus’ birth in a way that makes it completely unrealistic to picture as a historical event.
“All is calm, all is bright” vs the upheaval that marked the Jewish experience of Roman domination in the first century.

This year I want to do three lessons on the songs that were actually sung about Jesus’ birth. They are all found in Luke’s gospel:

-The song of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in Luke 1:46-55
-The song of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, in Luke 1:67-79
-The song of Simeon, a righteous man who saw the baby Jesus at His presentation in the temple, in Luke 2:29-32

As we go through these three songs, I want you to constantly ask yourself the question, how do these songs differ from the “Christmas carols” of our culture?

Our first song about Jesus’ birth is that of Mary. Let’s begin by looking a few verses earlier in Luke to understand why she had a song on her heart.


Luke 1:26-31

“Sixth month” of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, an elderly relative of Mary who had been barren all of her life but whose husband Zechariah was told by the same angel that she would give birth – 1:13.

This angel now travels to an obscure city in Galilee called Nazareth, an insignificant village viewed by some Jews as a backwater, a far cry from the glories of Jerusalem and the temple.

Luke 1:27 

And to a young peasant girl, named Mary, or in Hebrew, Miriam. On a personal level she was as obscure as her village, certainly not as prominent as a priest like Zechariah. But if there is anything to learn from today’s lesson, it is that God’s kingdom is not made for those who have status and prestige by this world’s standards.

Luke 1:28-30

“You have found favor” – phrase used in the OT to describe those through whom God was going to do something special, such as Noah in Gen. 6:8.

And the particular means by which God will use her for His purposes is through giving birth to a son.  In language reminiscent of the announcement of the birth of Ishmael and Samson, the angel says:

Luke 1:31

Many times in the OT God announced that those who previously had no children would have a son, but because Mary is a virgin, the most significant parallel to this angelic message is found in Isaiah’s famous prophecy in Isa. 7:14-

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

Matthew quotes this very statement in his account of the message to Joseph, and explains that “Immanuel” means “God with us.”  In Luke’s account of the message to Mary, the focus is not on the meaning of Jesus’ name – which means “the Lord saves,” but rather on the significance of His title, “Son.”

Luke 1:32-33

When we hear “Son of the Most High,” or “Son of God,” our minds immediately think of Jesus’ deity. And the Bible certainly teaches that Jesus was indeed God with us. But in the minds of the Jews, “Son of God” referred first and foremost to royalty, to the king, the line of rulers God promised to David.

This language is found in the very promise God made to David in 2 Samuel 7:12-16-

12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, 15 but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.

“I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.” The “son of God” is the king, through the rightful line of David.

Solomon was the first to obtain this title, as 1 Chron. 22:9-10 explains-

9Behold, a son shall be born to you who shall be a man of rest. I will give him rest from all his surrounding enemies. For his name shall be Solomon, and I will give peace and quiet to Israel in his days. 10 He shall build a house for my name. He shall be my son, and I will be his father, and I will establish his royal throne in Israel forever.'

But all of the kings through David were the “son of God,” and when the Israelites meditated on what the ideal king would be like, they pictured him as a righteous son, one who would bring justice, especially for the poor and downtrodden.  For an example of this hope, look at Psalm 72-

1Give the king your justice, O God,
   and your righteousness to the royal son!
2May he judge your people with righteousness,
   and your poor with justice!
3Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people,
   and the hills, in righteousness!
4May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
   give deliverance to the children of the needy,
   and crush the oppressor!

As you know from our recent study of 1-2 Kings, with a few exceptions, the kings of David’s lineage fell far short of the idealized picture of passages like Psalm 72.  They were often unfaithful to God and negligent in their duty to the people. But the prophets longed for the days of the ultimate king like David, the Messiah, the “Son of God” par excellence who would care for the people. 

So for instance Isaiah 11 promises-

 1There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
   and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
2And the Spirit of the L
ORD shall rest upon him,
   the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
   the Spirit of counsel and might,
   the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the L
3And his delight shall be in the fear of the L
ORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
   or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
   and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
   and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
   and faithfulness the belt of his loins.

By the way, notice that when David’s offspring judges for the poor and the meek, he will at the same time be judging against those who are wicked. That is the way salvation works – to save the poor and meek is to overthrow the wicked who oppress them. And that is what the Messiah, David’s son – God’s son - and according to Gabriel – Mary’s son - would do.

But Mary apparently understands Gabriel to mean that she is to give birth in a relatively brief period of time, before her betrothal period is scheduled to end. And since she is a woman of integrity and purity, this leads to an obvious question-

Luke 1:34

The answer was astounding-

Luke 1:35-37

God’s Holy Spirit and power would “overshadow” her – terminology used to described the cloud of God overshadowing the tabernacle in Exodus 40, and the presence of God that overshadowed the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration in Luke 9:34. God’s very presence would come over Mary and do what is impossible by human accounting – conceive a child in a virgin.

But as Gabriel points out, “nothing will be impossible with God.” Just as the angels told Abraham that Sarah would give birth – news that caused Sarah to laugh – to which they responded by asking, “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” once again an angel reminds us that God can do what seems impossible to us.

Almost as remarkable as this message is Mary’s response.

Luke 1:38

Of course it was a great honor to bear the Messiah, news that moves Mary to sing with joy. But think about the practical realities of her situation. She is going to be pregnant before marriage, and as we know from Matthew’s account, this fact nearly cost her a husband. And we know from pagan writings of the early period of church history that the common explanation for Jesus’ birth was that He was the product of an illicit relationship. Mary was going to suffer the significant loss of her own reputation, not to mention the rigors of carrying a child and giving birth, all for the purpose of God.

And yet her response to all of this was, “I am the servant of the Lord.” That is why she is such a heroine.

Mary rushed to see Elizabeth, traveling from Galilee to Judea. No sooner had she arrived than something amazing took place –

Luke 1:41-45

Elizabeth becomes the first to acknowledge what Gabriel promised – Mary is indeed a blessed woman giving birth to a blessed child.

The only proper response to such a blessing was to sing about it.

The Magnificat

The Bible observes what we all know to be true – sometimes our heart is so overjoyed we just have to sing. James 5:13 says “Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.” This is exactly what Mary, bursting with joy, does.

The song we are about to read is actually a medley, a remarkable collection of excerpts from passage after passage in the OT. The cross reference system in my Bible refers to 50 passages from the OT in these ten verses.

But if you want to see one particular song of praise that is most like this one, turn back to 1 Samuel 2, where Hannah rejoices that after years of childlessness (and derision because of it) God has blessed her with Samuel -1 Samuel 2:1-10.

The song here in Luke 1 is – in musical terms – a familiar refrain sung in a higher key. A greater miracle, and a greater Son.

By the way, many commentators have questioned whether a young peasant girl could create so remarkable a hymn. How could a young Jewish girl weave together so many passages into this glorious song? I think this line of questioning says far more about us than it does about Mary. Mary lived in a culture soaked in Scripture. It is what she heard in the synagogue every week, what her parents would have taught her every morning and evening. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks, and it is clear that Mary’s heart was saturated with the word of God. Ours should be as well.

Luke 1:46-47

This song is traditionally called “The Magnificat,” stemming from the Latin translation of verse 46, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Mary wants to turn the spotlight on God, to draw attention to Him so that everyone knows how awesome He is. And the reason is because of what He has done for her-

Luke 1:48-49

This is always the motivation for worship. If you show me a person who is driven to praise God, I will show you a person who knows “He who is mighty has done great things for me.” And on the other hand, if you show me a person who doesn’t bother to worship – or if they do it is lethargic and perfunctory – I will show you a person who doesn’t understand that God has done great things for them.

Mary does understand. She knows that God is holy – meaning that He is unlike anyone or anything – and that no one is like God in His power to save and deliver.

Psalm 77
13Your way, O God, is holy.
    What god is great like our God?
14You are the God who works wonders;
   you have made known your might among the peoples.
15You with your arm redeemed your people,
   the children of Jacob and Joseph. 

This holy power of God is prompted by His mercy.

Luke 1:50

God wields His holy might for His people not because they deserve it, but because of His tender compassion. God’s mercy is in fact a recurrent refrain in the songs of Jesus’ birth – 1:54, 1:72, 78.

But remember, to save and deliver some is to judge and defeat others.

Luke 1:51-53

Take a look at who will be on the wrong side of God’s mighty strength: the “proud in the thoughts of their hearts” (v 51), the “mighty from their thrones” (v 52), the “rich” (v 53).

This brings me to the biggest difference in the Magnificat and our “Christmas Carols.” This song is a militant celebration of the overthrow of the proud, rich, and mighty. Very few of our traditional Christmas Carols contain language remotely like this. Could it be because by ancient standards we are proud, rich, and mighty?

Even more to the point, on the basis of our commonly sung Christmas Carols, why would anyone have wanted to kill Jesus? “Holy infant tender and mild” doesn’t instill paranoia in anyone. But if you are a rich, proud king and all of a sudden a child is born who is going to “bring down the mighty from their thrones,” that is a different matter. You have reason to be afraid, and do exactly what the king mentioned in Luke 1:5 did. We may not get the point of Jesus’ birth, but Herod certainly got the point.

The Jesus of the Magnificat, the Jesus of the Bible, is a threat to the self-appointed powers of the world, who think they can do whatever they please. Just as Isaiah promised, the Messiah came to set wrongs right, to restore justice. And what that means is turning the world’s corrupt systems upside down, so that the in-crowd (the rich, the powerful, the self-righteous) are out, and those who have been shut out (the poor, the disenfranchised, the sinful) can rejoice in acceptance in the kingdom of God.

What Mary announces here is merely the first verse of a song that reverberates all through the gospel.

4:18-19; 6:20-26; (12:13-21); (16:19-31); (18:18-23)

At this point lots of modern talk show and political commentators would undoubtedly accuse Jesus of class warfare. Isn’t interesting that when we use that phrase we invariably use it to describe criticisms of the wealthy, when throughout the Bible the real class warfare was the oppression and exploitation of the poor by the rich. Have times changed so much from the days of Scripture that all of these warnings about the dangers of the corrupting power of wealth are no longer relevant?

But lest anyone think that Jesus is dismissing all wealthy people to condemtnation, notice the exchange in 18:24-27.

Verse 27 should sound familiar. The same God for whom Gabriel said in Luke 1:37 nothing is impossible, the same God who could conceive a child in a virgin, can bring a wealthy man through the eye of the needle. And if you want to see a camel go through the eye of a needle, all you have to do is turn the page to Luke 19 and read the account of the salvation of Zacchaeus.

19:9 “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.”

Mention of Abraham brings me back to the last part of Mary’s song.

Luke 1:54-55

Just as Mary was the servant of God (v 48), so also was the nation of Israel. Think of passages like Isaiah 41:
8But you, Israel, my servant,
   Jacob, whom I have chosen,
   the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
9you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
   and called from its farthest corners,
saying to you, "You are my servant,
    I have chosen you and not cast you off";
10fear not, for I am with you;
   be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
   I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

Mary knew that the Messiah she would give birth to would be the one through whom the story of Israel found its completion, that just as God remembered His promises to the patriarchs and had mercy on Israel in Egyptian bondage, He would once more act with mercy on behalf of His people. And just as the famous Miriam of the OT sang with joy when the horse and rider were cast into the sea, the most famous Miriam – Mary – of the NT rejoices in hope of God’s deliverance of His people,  a salvation so certain that many times in the Magnificat Mary speaks of it in the past tense –it is as good as done!

There is another way in which Luke describes the work of God to rescue the poor and judge the rich. It has to do with those who are spiritually destitute – tax gatherers and sinners – versus those who think they are spiritually affluent.

You can see this in the story of Simon the Pharisee and the sinful woman in Luke 7, where after Simon scorned Jesus for allowing such a sinful woman to touch him, Jesus rebuked him with this comment: “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”

You can also see it in the banquet stories Jesus told in Luke 14, where those who were invited to the feast rejected the invitation, so the master of the house orders his servant to invite the poor and crippled and blind and lame, to go out to the highways and hedges and compel other to enjoy his feast.

And most of all you see it in the stories Jesus told in Luke 15, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son, all of which were prompted by the Pharisee’s complaint that “this man receives sinners and eats with them.”

And that story doesn’t end in Luke 15. Let me remind you of one line of the Magnificat. “And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” God’s mercy is available from generation to generation, and just as surely as God could do great things for Mary, He can do great things for you today if you will entrust yourself to Him as she did.

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