The following post is the first in a series of Scriptural messages called “The Songs of Christmas: Advent Meditations on the Incarnation.” Each week a new Advent message will be prayerfully presented. I pray that families may use these for Advent devotions as well as individuals and perhaps even pastors who are searching for others’ reflections as they prepare their own. May Christ be exalted. And may the songs of Christmas, the stories of God’s grace in the lives of people just like us, ring out during this glorious season of the Incarnation.
For The First Sunday in Advent
THE SONG OF MARY
It was as natural in our house as coffee in the morning. Thanksgiving was a sweet memory on Friday morning. My wife awoke to command our family’s traditional Day-After-Thanksgiving task force. The object? Decorate the house for Christmas in one day! So, there I am hauling boxes over my head, John Michael following close behind both of us with a perennial question about how this Christmas Tree ornament came to grace our tree…and my wife, at no time happier, I think, bringing it all together out of otherwise chaos. Now, while that sounds like a daunting task for me, she always pulls it off with grace…and more…with enchantment and wonder—and that is part of the glory of this season.
Part of the wonder of that day and the enchantment of the days of Advent leading up to Christmas—for me and I suspect for all of you—is the music. The music of Christmas is forever linked to the season of Christmas. We all await the time when we will crank up Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas,” or Mel Toumier belting out “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” Those are wonderful musical decorations to be sure—but Christmas is not Christmas without the genuine Songs of Christmas: The Hymns heralding the coming of Christ. From the ancient “O Come O Come Emmanuel” on the first Sunday in Advent to the joyous strains of “Joy to the World” on Christmas Eve; from the hauntingly beautiful chorus of “What Child is This?” to the quiet, assuring German folk hymn: “Silent Night”—the Songs of Christmas reach deep into our hearts and stir believers to adoration and, I suspect, stir many unbelieving hearts to reconsider the Old, Old Story.
The Songs of Christmas will be my theme during the Sundays in Advent and Christmas Day. But, I will not be preaching from hymn texts, but from the Biblical narratives of the birth of Christ in Luke chapters One and Two. Now, there are no musical notations given these “Songs” in the Bible. But when I read of the spontaneous, poetic and profoundly theological response of the soul of Mary bursting forth onto the pages of God’s Word, I cannot help but call that “a Song.” When I read of John the Baptist’s father, Zacharias filled with the Holy Spirit, and breaking forth from a previously mute voice with the voice of rejoicing and prophecy, I call that “a Song.” Likewise, the sight of angels appearing to shepherds in a night sky and praising God in a heavenly chorus is a Song of Christmas; and so is the prayer from the lips of a faithful old man who ushers in the New Covenant with a prayer of astonishing wonder and hope.
The Songs of Christmas are needed today. I don’t simply mean the great hymns of the faith (although the world needs those as well); but these divinely inspired, wondrous lyrics sung early in the dawning days of the Church. There was still some darkness then. There was still some more waiting to do, but what became clear is that God’s promises were coming true and the Lord was entering our lives in a way not known before. The Songs of Christmas were announcements that God was here.
Now, I say again, we need these messages today. The attitude of our generation may be summed up in the title of a song by a postmodern popular singer a few years ago. Joan Osborn screeched and whined out a question, which became a cry of a desperate heart: “What if God was one of us?”
The Songs of Christmas in chapters one and two of St. Luke gives a stirring response to that cry.
We begin with Luke Chapter One, verses 47-55
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; For the Mighty One has done great things for me, And holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him From generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, And lifted up the lowly; He has filled the hungry with good things, And sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, In remembrance of his mercy, According to the promise he made to our ancestors, To Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
THE SONG OF MARY
Mary’s Magnificat, as it is called—Latin for the word used by Mary, magnify—arises with Holy Spirit inspired force from the soul of a faithful young woman. The Angel Gabriel had announced to a young Nazareth girl betrothed to a carpenter named Joseph that:
The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; there fore also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1.35-36).
From there, Mary—the God-bearer, as the early church fathers labeled her—bore also the most wonderful news ever revealed to man and arose and went into the hill country—with haste, its says (v. 39)—with haste.
Here is a clue to the whole proceedings in these days before Christ’s birth. There was a sense of ethereal excitement that couldn’t be hidden. Mary had to run and tell her cousin Elizabeth, living a long way in the hills of Judea. Of course, when she arrives at the home of Zacharias and Elizabeth—who is also with child—the embryonic John the Baptist leaps in the womb at the news of Christ and Elizabeth, we are told, is also filled with the Holy Spirit. In other words, news of the Incarnation brought a real revival to that house!
O dear friends, that is my aim, here. I want to make haste to bring you this Song of Mary because in it is enough truth to bring revival to cold Christians and new life to dead souls. The Incarnation of Christ is the story of God taking on flesh and entering our world. No human religion has conceived this for it is of the One True God. The Greeks have gods made like men but who play tricks on men or imitate sinful man in celestial flings. The Norse pagan deities are like men also, but oppressive and as brute as Vikings in dealing with man. The Babylonian gods are ruthless, impersonal things that demand human sacrifice and fleshly indulgences to satisfy their vile and wicked passions.
But, in the faith of the Bible, we have a little virgin lass, a sweet-natured young woman who will bring forth the Son of God—who will come in love to identify with his Creation. Our God came not to tempt, but to be tempted for us. Our God came not to satisfy passions, but, in fact, left His royal abode with the Father in order to satisfy Divine justice by dying on an old rugged cross.
This is the story that needs to be told this year.
So, as the Scripture tells us, Elizabeth blessed Mary and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit announces that blessed is Mary among all women forever more.
What is that little maiden from Nazareth’s response?
She burst forth in a Song originating from God Himself and bubbling up from the soul of Mary. I say again: We have no evidence in the text of musical notation, but we have every evidence of a lilting happy little lass who is rejoicing in her God. And in her response, in this Magnificat, we witness a hymn to the Lord that is unequaled by any other writer. It is a song of the soul: a praise song, a sweet song, and a deep song.
A PRAISE SONG
A symphony may begin with quiet, contemplative strains in the opening movement, building to a recognizable tune; starting slow and building to a magnificent crescendo. But, Mary’s Song starts strong and finishes strong. There are three distinct movements in her spontaneous symphony of the soul, as we shall see, but she leaves no room for wondering. She gets right in there from the very beginning and lets us know exactly what’s on her heart
This is a praise song. In verses 46 and 47 she tells us, in sweet poetic strain, that what we hear coming from her is, in fact, the song of her soul
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced!”
The Magnificat of Mary is a Praise Song because the first thing on her heart is worship. The revelation that God the Savior would come into the world through her, a virgin, caused deep, down satisfying wonder and awe and that wonder and awe broke forth in praise.
We all know that there are great and majestic hymns, which weave strong transcendent themes. These hymns teach and communicate the great truths of our faith. Mary will do that, as we shall soon note. But, she begins with a simple act of praise. A simple spiritual song does not necessarily mean that it is mindless. A quaint little verse put to music can carry major doctrinal truth in a happy little note. This is what is happening here.
Some years ago, the distinguished German theologian Karl Barth visited the United States. His so called “neo” or “new” orthodoxy was controversial but was aimed, primarily, at recovering a higher view of the Word, which had suffered under the weight of German higher criticism. At any rate, Dr. Barth, had completed a lecture at Princeton and a reporter there asked him, “Sir, in all of your years of study what is the greatest single thought you have ever studied?”
Barth smiled and shocked the audience with his reply. “The Greatest thought I have ever encountered is this: ‘Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.’”
The lesson? Our experience of Christ and our understanding of His Word bring simple rejoicing and worship. Mary magnified God in her soul, she rejoiced in God as her Savior. That is worship. This Advent, more important that all the ornaments and presents and even the “feeling” of Christmas, should be a deep down soul stirring response to what God has done for you.
“Go Tell it On the Mountain” is a simple song, but it belies a great truth: the line of that American Negro spiritual reveals its force:
“Down in a lowly manger our humble Christ was born, and God sent us salvation that blessed Christmas morn.”
A SWEET SONG
Mary’s Song was a Praise Song and in verses 48 and 49, we might call it, also, a “Sweet Song.” It is sweet because Mary moves from honest praise and worship to humble gratitude and thanksgiving. In other words, these two verses, the second movement in this Scripture, tells us what she is praising God. She is praising God because He has “regarded the lowly state of His maidservant.”
In other words,
God saves sinners
This is the first Sweet Chord struck in the passage. Mary is humbled because God has chosen a sinner to bring forth a Savior. Now that might sound heretical. Even those who aren’t a part of the Roman Catholic Church, who do not hold to immaculate conception of Mary, or that Mary lived a sinless life and ascended into heaven, nevertheless, hold her in such regard that to hear that she is a sinner sounds wrong. But, it is not. Mary is praising God, she is rejoicing, for the Lord will come to earth through the instrument of a lowly maiden. Mary needed a Savior just like we need a Savior and here is Mary’s repentance. She was the first to believe in Jesus as Messiah. She heard the Good News and she believed it and it caused her to say, “O Lord, I am lowly, I have nothing to offer Thee. I am a sinner.” This is the Good News of this season: God has loved us while we were yet sinners. God came down to be born of a woman, entering a world of sin and a world at war with God in our very flesh. But when you stop to consider how amazing that is, how great is the love of God for us, is causes you to thank God. He came to save His people from their sins.
Another reason for this sweet song of thanksgiving may also be observed:
God Changes things
Mary praises God with a sweet song of thanks because, she says, “henceforth, all generations will call me blessed. For he who is mighty has done great things for me.”
Mary burst froth in gratitude because the Lord is going to change human history through this little girl from the hick country of Nazareth. She confesses that He who is mighty had used His power to arrange and order events in the universe so as to bless her and bless the world through her.
This is the core message of hope and wonder in Christianity. It is the romance of our faith, if you will: that God can save a sinner and so change him or her that future generations are shaped and molded by God’s grace to one person.
I hope you will pardon me if I illustrate this truth with a personal song of thanks. I was not born into the loving arms of a family who wanted me. I was a product of sin and shame. I was scheduled to be aborted. But God regarded me. He used His mighty arm to protect me and give me life. I could have been reared in a terrible environment and endured that for a little while, but God who is Might and Powerful did great things for me and placed me in a loving home and in the arms of a childless widow, who adopted me and gave me love and faith. God regarded me, for what reason I do not know, but He used His power to protect me and give me life. I was a prodigal and left the pathway of God, but in my suffering and my sadness in the twists and turns of running from God, He came to me and saved me. His mighty Arm has done great things for me. And today through the gift of a godly wife, a happy home, and children, who know the Lord, I can say that future generations will be blessed because God saved me.
Oh, this is the Song of every saint! This is the Song of Songs for weary, desperate people who see no hope, who can find no consolation in this life, who think that things can never be changed and that life holds no wonder. Oh, listen, this Advent, my friend, to the Song of Mary and hear the Song of a person who has been redeemed! Hear the romance of the Gospel! Jesus has come and nothing can ever be the same again! Jesus invites you to come and believe and receive Him as Lord and Savior and be free of the domain of cheerless living:
“God rest you merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay, remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day, to save us all from Satan’s pow’r, when we were gone astray; O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy, O tidings of comfort and joy.”
Mary’s Song was a Praise Song, a Sweet Song, and I say that her song is:
A DEEP SONG
The third and final division of the Magnificat is found in verses 50-55. She started by praising God in verses 46 and 47, she moved to Thanking God in verses 48 and 49, but now we come to learn the deep, theological foundation of Mary’s faith.
Mary teaches us here about several great truth of the Incarnation.
The incarnation is about God’s Mercy
In verse 50 she declares that “His mercy is on those who fear Him.”
Make no mistake about it: Mary is grounding her salvation in the mercy of God. I believe that Mary understood the total depravity of mankind better than anyone did. She understood that unless God sent a Savior who would meet the demands of the Law and take the penalty of sin upon Himself, that unless a Man did that and yet a Man who was altogether God, mankind is lost forever.
This Song is a deep doctrinal statement on God’s mercy on sinners.
The incarnation is about God’s Irony
In verses 51-53, Mary affirms faith in God’s wonderful irony. He has shown strength with His arm—not by man’s arm—and, he has scattered the proud…He had put down the mighty…And exalted the lowly…He has filled the hungry and sent the rich away empty.
The Jewish Rabbinical religion of that Day expected Messiah to come to the learned and powerful and with an alliance with them defeat the foes of God. All man-centered religion wants to boasts of its works, its ceremonies, and its ability to placate and please a holy God. That is idolatry. Atheistic man is proud and wants to build a tower made by his hands. The Nimrod impulse exists in the hearts of many today who think that through science or government or finance, we can solve our dilemmas. That is atheism.
But, Mary here provides the theological grounding for her praise: God is God and we are not. And that is good. So God Himself told us:
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are you ways My ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Is. 555.6-9 NKJV).
And so. St. Paul picked up on Mary’s theology when he wrote that:
For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the wor4ld to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty…1 Cor. 1.
The Gospel of a Savior dying on a cross is abhorrent to religious man who desires to make his own arrangements for salvation. The Gospel of Grace—that the Almighty offers eternal life as a gift to repentant sinners—seems contrary to what we know. The Irony of the Gospel, though, is our salvation. God came to us in a manger to a maiden from the backwoods—not in a nursery with a nanny in a palace. His power is revealed in weakness. His death is the key to life. His Crown was first molded in thorns. His people are often beaten for their faith, but are more than conquerors. This is the irony of the Gospel. And it is precious to those who are, as our Lord would put it: “poor in spirit.”
There is another great theological statement here from the voice of Mary:
The incarnation is about God’s Covenant
Dr. Robert L. Reymond called this section of Mary’s Song one of the great theological statements in the Bible. Mary is here a covenant theologian. The foundation of Mary’s praise is resting in her undeniable understanding of God’s covenant. Listen again:
“He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy. As He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever.”
Mary is remembering Genesis 12 in which God makes a promise to Abraham:
“I will bless you and make your name great and you shall be a blessing…And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” NKJV.
The Incarnation of Christ is the fulfillment of the ancient promises. The Christmas Story is the story of the Bible. The birth of the Lord Jesus was promised to Abraham and brought to fulfillment through Mary.
This morning that Covenant is a wonderful promise to you and your family. God has blessed us with the opportunity to enter into His family by trusting in Jesus Christ as Lord. The blessings are for now and forever. The blessings extend form Abraham to Mary to you and me today and to those afar off who will hear and believe.
I heard of a lady who had been in grief for a long time over the loss of her husband. She had stopped going to church. Finally, after several of the members of the church encouraged her and stood beside her, she committed to return. After the service, she greeted the minister at the church door. She told him that it was good to come back to church. She said, “I was afraid of one thing, though—I thought that maybe I had forgotten how to sing. It’s been so long since I did. But, pastor, that message today touched my soul and I was surprised: singing just comes natural when you have faith.”
In Mary’s Song—in her affirmation of faith, her soul’s resounding praise and thanksgiving—we find a song as natural as the meadowlark or the Robin. Mary’s Song is a Praise Song, a Sweet Song and a Deep Song. The truth is that, to enjoy the true meaning of Christmas, it must be your song. Some of you may have been away for a while. Oh, you’ve sung the words of our hymns, but there’s been no happy song rising from your soul. Today mediate on what God has done for you, how He saved you, providentially ordered events to bless you and you will sing this Christmas a Song like Mary’s—originating from a soul in love with God.
For some others of you: you just need to repent and believe and let the music begin. Then, you will really know what we mean when we sing:
“Gentle Mary laid her child lowly in a manger, there he lay, the Undefiled, to the world a stranger, such a babe in such a place, can he be the Savior? Ask the saved of all the race who have found his favor.”
Let us pray.
Our Father, who caused all of creation to sing with joy at the sending of Thine only begotten Son, tune our minds and hearts this season and all seasons of our lives, to sing with the faith of Mary at the blessed Advent of Jesus into the world to save a sinner like me. Through Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.