December 7, 2013 | Brian Bill
Isn’t it great hearing Christmas music? I love how kids and Christmas go together, don’t you? Sometimes we forget how our carols come across to kids. Here’s how some of our songs sound to them:
- We three kings of porridge and tar
- Later on we’ll perspire, as we dream by the fire
- He’s making a list, chicken and rice
- Olive, the other reindeer
- Oh, what fun it is to ride with one horse, soap and hay
- Good tidings we bring to you and your kid
- Sleep in heavenly peas
- You’ll go down in Listerine
Have you noticed that more and more radio stations have been switching their formats to all-Christmas, all the time? According to Arbitron, it’s not unusual for ratings to double once a station makes the switch. The Hollywood Reporter points out that it makes a lot of sense because “People who find the station often stick around after the holidays and discover a new favorite station.”
Shouldn’t the music about Christ’s birth be much more than just a clever marketing scheme during the Christmas season? As we continue in our series called, “The Songs of Christmas,” we’re going to listen in to the lyrics of Mary’s Music. It’s my hope that after hearing her music, you’ll stick around in the Scriptures and discover some other favorites. But before we do that, let’s admit that Mary is often misunderstood.
The Overestimated Mary
Mary plays two widely divergent roles among Catholics and Protestants. I’ve been in both camps – I was raised Catholic and now I’m a Protestant.
I believe many Catholics overestimate the role of Mary. According to Pope Pius, IX, “God has committed to Mary the treasury of all good things, in order that through her are obtained every hope, every grace, and all salvation.” Pius the XII put it this way: “It is the will of God that we should have nothing which has not passed through the hands of Mary…The Blessed Virgin Mary is to be called Queen…had a great part in the work of our salvation…she co-operated in our redemption.”
And there has been a recent push among many Catholics to declare Mary the “Co-Redeemer, Mediator of All Graces, and Advocate for the People of God.” (Christianity Today, 12/8/97). In one Catholic Forum, I came across these words: “Jesus is obscured because Mary is kept in the background. Thousands of souls perish because Mary is withheld from them.” It was Jerome, an early church father, who said this: “Death through Eve, life through Mary.”
The current Pope, Francis, made this statement just six weeks ago: “As we continue our celebration of the Eucharist, let us invoke Mary’s intercession.” He then entrusted the world to the “Immaculate Heart of Mary” her help to “revive and grow faith.”
When we were missionaries in Mexico for three years, we were astounded and grieved by all the attention given to Mary. This Thursday they will celebrate the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, what some call the most important Mexican holiday. Hundreds of thousands will make a pilgrimage to the Basilica in Mexico City from all over the country. Many of them will travel on their knees. Beth and I have been to this shrine on several occasions and have observed people climbing the rough brick stairs on their knees, leaving bloodstains behind.
I’ll never forget an experience we had shortly after we arrived in Mexico. As part of our attempt to understand the culture, we made it a practice to visit different churches. One day, we found an open church and walked in. It was a fairly large building, but pretty plain on the inside. As we walked toward the front, we saw a huge statue of Mary, hung prominently right in the middle of the wall, directly above the altar. This image was probably 30 to 40-feet high! As we got closer, we then observed a small statue of Jesus, only about two feet high, placed at the feet of Mary. We just stared with our mouths open in disbelief, while our eyes flooded with tears. There’s something wrong with that picture, isn’t there?
Before I say what I want to say next, please understand that I am not a Catholic-basher. I care deeply for those who are Catholic. However, it must be clearly taught – Mary has no place in our redemption. It is only by the shed blood of Jesus that you and I can have forgiveness of sin and open access to God the Father. Mary is not a co-redemptorist, an advocate, the dispenser of all grace, or our mediator. Her heart was not immaculate. She needed to have her sins forgiven, just like we do.
Friends, there is no biblical basis that she lived a sinless life or for her bodily assumption into heaven. Don’t give to Mary that which belongs only to Jesus and that which she never asked for herself.
By the way, Jesus deflected deference from his earthly mother in Luke 11:27-28: “As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, ‘Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.’” Jesus is rather blunt with his answer: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” One other point to consider is that the Apostle Paul’s only reference to Mary is in Galatians 4:4 when he writes: “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman…” He doesn’t even use her name.
The Underestimated Mary
Now, let me be quick to add that while many Catholics overestimate Mary’s importance and attribute things to her that are not taught in the Bible, most Protestants underestimate her importance. Many of us allow her a cameo appearance in Christmas cards, carols, and nativity scenes during this time of the year, but then we tuck her away like a Christmas ornament, out of sight, out of mind, until her reappearance next December. Mary is often the victim of simple neglect, having been abandoned to a kind of evangelical limbo. Some of us have consigned her to virtual oblivion.
When we are humble the Holy One can use us
As we will see, Mary did play a crucial role in God’s plan, and we will be spiritually impoverished if we ignore her. Let’s not let the excesses of the Catholic tradition keep us from admiring her and learning from her example. Here’s the sermon in a sentence today: When we are humble the Holy One can use us. Before getting into the meat of Mary’s music, I want to list three impressions of Mary from Dr. Robert Rayburn that helped me to better understand the depth of her devotion.
1. Mary immediately interprets her circumstances biblically.
She strings together at least 15 Old Testament quotes or allusions, especially from the Psalms and from Hannah’s hymn of praise found in 1 Samuel 2. As a young woman she was probably drawn to women of faith like Sarah, Deborah, Hannah, Ruth and Abigail. It’s as if she tried to fit the whole Bible into her song. It’s amazing that such a young teenager was such a master of the Scriptures. She clearly had been taught the Bible at home and had studied it at great length and worked at memorizing large chunks.
Mary is so steeped in the Scriptures that when she responds in song, the Bible just bubbles out of her. As I thought about this I was challenged to try to share a verse of Scripture in every conversation I have.
2. Mary saw everything in terms of God reaching out to people through His Son.
She starts by praising God for what He has done for her, but then focuses on what God has done and will do, for others. I count 9 different times that she refers to what God has done, not what she has done. Like John the Baptist, she deflects attention from herself to her Savior. In Luke 1:47 she calls God her Savior, meaning she was a sinner in need of forgiveness.
3. Mary was in awe of God’s greatness, not her own goodness.
She saw herself as a humble servant because she saw the Lord as a great King. What God had done for her, as marvelous as it was, was part and parcel of what He always does. In Luke 1:49 she doesn’t declare that she was a doer of good things; but rather one for whom great things were done.
Did you hear that Amazon is considering using drones to make deliveries in the future? When God wanted a message sent to Mary, He didn’t need to send a drone, He called on Gabriel in Luke 1:28: “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” This is where the phrase “Ave Maria” or “Hail Mary, full of grace” comes from. The Greek literally reads, “Grace, oh Graced One!” Let’s be clear. Gabriel was not referring to Mary bestowing grace on others but instead was focusing on how much grace she has been given. She is not the dispenser of divine grace; only God is. She will be called, “blessed.” It doesn’t say that people will “invoke her blessing.”
Let’s go behind the music and set the scene. Mary traveled a great distance to be with Elizabeth because she needed someone who would understand her situation. Elizabeth could emphasize because she was pregnant as well. When Mary arrives, little John gives an extra hard kick while still in utero. He was already doing the job that God gave him which was to announce the arrival of the Messiah. By the way, this is strong evidence that life begins at conception!
This was an outburst of joy, as the old covenant greeted the new. Luci Shaw describes the scene like this: “Framed in light, Mary sings through the doorway. Elizabeth’s six-month boy jumps, a palpable greeting, a hidden first encounter between son and Son.”
Mary’s music is in response to Elizabeth calling the unborn Christ “my Lord.” In the verse immediately preceding Mary’s song of praise she says this: “Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.” God used Elizabeth to calm Mary’s questions and her doubts disappeared. Praise erupted from within like an overflowing fountain. This Scripture song is like Mary saying, “Aha!!!” as she glimpses God’s great work through the years, and her place in His unfolding plan.
Mary’s music is spontaneous, poetical and profoundly theological. Since poetry is a heightened form of expression, it causes us to slow down. I came across this statement: “Let’s approach Christmas with an expectant hush, rather than a last minute rush.”
Let’s hush right now and pray as we get ready to listen to the lyrics of this teenager’s tune.
I see three main movements in Mary’s Music.
- Mary’s Adoration (46-47)
- God’s Attributes (48-51)
- God’s Actions (52-55)
We’re going to learn that when we’re humble the Holy One can use us.
1. Magnifies the Lord.
This song has been known for hundreds of years as the Magnificat, which is Latin for the word “to magnify.” Look at verse 46: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” We should point out that it doesn’t say that she “sang” but rather that she “said.” When speaking of her soul, Mary is saying that this poetry comes from the depth of her being. To “magnify” is from the root, “megas,” which means to declare as great, to enlarge or to increase in one’s estimation. My mind goes to Psalm 34:3: “O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His name together.”
On one occasion an orchestra presented Handel’s “Messiah” so beautifully that the applause was thunderous, and everyone turned toward the composer. Handel stood up and with his finger pointing upward, silently indicating that the glory should be given to God rather than to himself. That is exactly what Mary did. It is as if she were saying, “Don’t praise me, but magnify the Lord who is my Savior.”
Some time ago I read a book called, Preaching to Yourself. In it, Joe Thorn writes this: “Take note – your view of Jesus tends to shrink over time…and as your shrinking Jesus becomes small Jesus, He is easily eclipsed by your idols and ego. The bigger and more biblical your understanding of who Jesus is, the more likely He is to be such an object of love and adoration that the idols that aim at capturing your attention and swaying your allegiance will lose their power…because small Jesus does not inspire awe, command respect, lead to worship, or compel us to talk of Him…so please remember – Jesus is bigger than you tend to think.”
She begins with reverence and then moves to rejoicing.
Many songs start softly and then crescendo at the end. Not so with Mary’s music. She busted out with a song of praise extolling the immensity of the Almighty. She begins with reverence and then moves to rejoicing.
2. Rejoices in God her Savior.
Because Mary magnifies the Lord, she can’t help but find joy in Him in verse 47: “And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.” The word, “rejoice” means to “jump for joy” and “to be exceedingly glad.”
For the next section of Mary’s song, I’m going to borrow three words that I heard Alistair Begg use in a sermon on this passage – mindful, mighty and merciful. Specifically, this is what Mary worships God for.
1. He is Mindful.
Check out verse 48: “For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant.” The word “regard” means “to look upon, to regard with affection and to gaze at with favor.” God is for the lowly and unlovely, the little, the least and the lost. The Almighty sees all that you’re going through right now and is mindful of your misery. Psalm 34:15: “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their cry.”
Mary refers to herself as being of a low and humble state, which likely refers to her social position in the Jewish culture. The phrase “lowly state” references the fact that she was young and poor. I wonder if she had Psalm 136:23 in her mind: “He remembered us in our low estate.” She sees herself as a subservient slave, a humble handmaiden. She takes the position of subordination and absolute submission. Confronted with God’s holiness she is immediately humbled. When we are humble the Holy One can use us.
She can’t get over the fact that God would choose a sinner to bring forth the Savior. And yet she also marvels that the course of human history will be changed, as all generations will remember how blessed she is to be used by God.
2. He is Mighty.
We see this in verse 49: “For He who is mighty has done great things for me” and in the first part of verse 51: “He has shown strength with His arm…” God is all-powerful and she makes Him the subject of the rest of the song. The next phrase literally reads, “He has done to me great things.” The word “great” means, “big and exceedingly great.”
He is holy and separate from sin and everything else. Mary is turning all attention away from herself and putting it all on Him. She may have been meditating on Psalm 24:8: “Who is this King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.”
3. He is Merciful.
We see this in verse 50 and again in verse 54: “And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation…In remembrance of His mercy.” The word “mercy” refers to God’s faithful love towards those who deserve punishment. If grace is getting what we don’t deserve then mercy is not getting what we do deserve.
“Fearing” God has to do with having a reverential respect for Him. And notice that God’s intention is for His mercy to pass from one generation to the next, from parents to children to their children and on and on. That means that we as parents have a huge responsibility and opportunity to affect the formulation of faith for the next one hundred years or more!
Mary moves from adoring God to celebrating His attributes and now she lists three types of people that God acts on behalf of.
1. The Humble.
Look at the last part of verse 51 and verse 52: “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly.” This is powerful language and quite revolutionary. God has no tolerance for the proud. The phrase “put down” means to demolish or destroy, to pull or throw down. Think about all the rulers who recently have gone off the scene around the world. It’s always been the case because the kingdoms of this world are temporary and transitory.
God lifts the humble and humbles the proud. We’ve been reminded of that this week as tributes have poured in for former South African president Nelson Mandela after his death on Thursday. After being imprisoned for 27 years in his struggle to end apartheid, and then serving as president and winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Mandela exhibited great humility. Here’s something he said: “It’s not only me, there are hundreds and hundreds of unknown people who have contributed to ending apartheid.”
James 4:6 says, “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.” And verse 10: “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.” God is the lifter of the lowly. I’ve been drawn to Isaiah 66:2 recently: “But on this one will I look: On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word.”
We tend to focus on beauty, bucks and brains. Philip Ryken writes: “This is the way God operates: The humble are shown mercy, while the proud receive justice. The lowly are lifted and the lofty are brought low.”
2. The Hungry.
Before you can be fed, you must first be hungry. Look at verse 53: “He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.” The idea behind “filled” is to be fully satisfied. And the meaning of “hungry” is not to just have a little “rumbly in the tumbly” but “to be famished and to crave.”
Some of us are not spiritually satisfied simply because we’re not famished enough for God to fill us. We’ve gorged on so many other things that we have no appetite for spiritual matters. Again Ryken nails it: “When we get stuffed on the pleasures of this life, we do not feel our need for God, and then he has nothing more to give us. If we are too proud to admit that we need God the way a beggar needs bread, he will send us away empty.” Matthew 5:6: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”
Do you recognize that Christmas in our culture counts on our discontentment? That’s why all the commercials and ads focus on what we think we need so that we’ll be happy when we get what we can’t live without. I’ve heard Dave Ramsey say, “We buy things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like.”
3. The Helpless.
We’ve mentioned this before but God doesn’t help those who help themselves; He helps those who are helpless. In the closing lines of her song in verses 54-55 we see that God remembers His promise and His people: “He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever.” I love the picture behind the word for “helped.” It means, “to take hold of, to embrace and hug, to support and help.” That’s how God treats us when we’re helpless.
Mary is remembering God’s covenant to Abraham and marvels that God’s mercy is now coming to fulfillment through her Son. Mary was well-versed in Genesis 12:2: “I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing.”
God is always on the side of the humble, the hurting and the hungry. He’s cheering on the orphan and the widow. He’s for the preborn and the elderly, the poor, the disabled, the deaf, the blind and the feeble. God cares for those who can’t care for themselves. Listen, if Christmas teaches us anything, it’s this: When we are humble the Holy One can use us.
People are listening to the lyrics of your life.
People are listening to the lyrics of your life. I wonder what they’re hearing. I heard about a little girl who watched her mom and dad get ready for Christmas. Her dad seemed preoccupied with burdens and bundles. Her mom was caught up in parties and presents. Neither had any time for her and she felt like she was being ignored, especially after hearing one of her parents say, “Would you please get out of the way?”
One night before going to sleep, she knelt by her bed and prayed this prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven, please forgive our Christmases as we forgive those who Christmas against us.”
Would you notice how abruptly Mary’s music ends? All of a sudden, it just stops. I think it’s because the song is not over. As we allow the words of Scripture to penetrate our souls, we too will sing. And each of us can add our own verse.
Let me ask you some questions. Is the music of your life secular or is it spiritual? Is it worldly or worshipful? If someone hung out with you for a day, would they hear a hymn of humility or would they want to puke because of your pride? Would they be drawn to the Lord by the lyrics of your life?
The key to Mary’s music was the fact that she believed, she surrendered and she obeyed.
What about you? Are you ready to believe? After you believe, will you surrender and then obey? Are you ready to make these lines the lyrics of your life?
Will you have a “Mary” Christmas?
Whatever you want…do it, Lord.
Whatever you need…take it, Lord.
Wherever you lead…I’ll follow, Lord.
We carry Jesus around with us, don’t we? It’s time to share Him so that His birth and death will lead others to be born again. I want to give one action step today. Will you take your bulletins and pull out the sheet of invitation cards for our Christmas Eve services? I’d like us to tear them apart right now and put them in our wallets or purses so we’ll have them ready to give to our friends, family members, neighbors and co-workers.