Description / Transcription
Righteous are You, O Lord, and right are Your rules. We are small and lowly, but we do not forget Your precepts. Your Word is forever righteous and Your law is true. Your testimonies are righteous forever. Give us understanding that we may live. In Christ we pray. Amen.
I invite you to turn in your Bibles to the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 1. Our plan is to look at the songs of Luke. Whether or not they were songs, they have composition of music, or at least poetry, and so they are often called Mary’s Song, next week Zechariah’s song, and then as we come to Christmas week, we will look at Simeon and then on Christmas Eve, the prophetess Anna.
This morning the famous song of Mary in Luke chapter 1, and let’s, to get to get the context, begin reading at verse 39.
“In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.'”
“And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has looked on the humble estate of His servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name. And 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 mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.’ And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.”
One of the oldest Christian books that we know of, outside of the Bible, is a late first century text called The Didache. That’s Greek for “the teaching.” It’s an anonymous treatise, we don’t know who wrote it, but it appears to be a manual on church order. And that may not sound exciting, but it’s really a very fascinating book.
And it starts like this: “There are two ways, one of life, and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways.” And that begins the famous section in The Didache, the first six chapters, it’s called “The Two Ways.” The section most scholars think was likely used for instruction for baptismal candidates, or for those who were seeking to become members of a church, that perhaps this ancient manual was one of the first things that they used in the early church to help identify if people understood what they were doing when they came forward to be baptized or to join the church, which of these two ways are you on, the one that leads to life, or the one that leads to death.
And we see something very similar here in Mary’s Magnificat. You may know that title and it may say it in your Bible, The Magnificat. That’s simply the Latin word and the Latin vulgate, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” magnifies is the word “magnificat,” and so in music and in tradition, this is often called “Mary’s Magnificat,” her song of magnifying God.
And in it she also sings of these two ways to live. Not so much life and death, though they do lead to life or death, but we might call them the way of the lowly and the way of the lofty.
And the way of the lowly and the way of the lofty are not always as they seem, for one of the great themes in Luke’s Gospel is that the lowly end up being lifted high and the lofty end up being cast down low. And things are not always as they seem.
When I was in fifth grade, the thing I was looking forward to most was fifth grade track and field day. I had seen my older brother do this and I knew this was coming up on the calendar, and I had been, I had been planning my whole life for fifth grade track and field day. All of the elementary schools in the district came together and you ran around the track and there was probably still snow on it, it was Michigan, but you ran around the track and you did high jump and you did all the things with 300 other fifth graders. This was probably as close to the Olympics as I was going to get. I wasn’t at that time known for my athletic prowess, like I’m sure I am now, [laughter] but to my surprise, I got second place in the long jump, and it felt amazing. I, I didn’t know I could jump so far. I never knew that I had it in me, with some 300, or maybe 150 other boys, and I was second place in the long jump. I didn’t know that I had it in me, and it turns out I didn’t. Because later my friend Josh informed me, “You know, Kevin, you cut in front of line in front of me and I looked on the list and they gave my jump to you and your jump to me.” [laughter] Really, Josh, you couldn’t have just taken that one to the grave? [laughter] Couldn’t have just let me have my second place ribbon? I didn’t give the ribbon back [laughter], but boy was I crestfallen. In an instant my great triumph became my great embarrassment. I think I even checked with one of the teachers and said, “Yeah, you got out of line, but go ahead and keep the ribbon.” Well, thanks.
Sometimes there is a great reversal and you seem to be lofty and you are immediately cast down low, and so we see it here in Luke and we see it in Mary’s Magnificat, the way God has worked and the way He will work. The lowly will be lifted up and the lofty will be cast down.
A much better example than your pastor’s fifth grade track and field exploits come from the story in Esther. You may remember it, where the king’s right hand man, his henchman, Haman, has it out for the Jew, Mordecai. Now Mordecai alerted the king of this plot against his life, and so the king is musing to himself what should be done to the man whom the king delights to honor? What do you think, Haman? And Haman thinks to himself, “Well, there is no one the king honors more than me,” and so he has a really great plan and he tells the king, “Here’s what you should do, O great king. You should give to this man whom you want to honor royal robes, give him a royal horse, give him a parade throughout the city where you will announce to all the inhabitants this is the man the king honors.” And Haman is feeling pretty smart and the king says, “That is a great idea, Haman. Everybody do exactly as Haman has said so we can celebrate Mordecai the Jew.”
And The Price is Right hadn’t yet been invented, but if it had, you would have heard “waah waah waah.” [laughter] You would have heard the loser horn, because Haman in an instant went from the man who was to be celebrated to the man that he wanted dead receiving his honor.
And as you may know the story, it’s even worse than that for Haman because the gallows that he had built hoping to execute Mordecai ended up being his own deathtrap. And so it often happens that there is a great reversal, and though we may not always see it in this life, God assures us of it in the next. There are these two ways to live.
First then, the way of the lowly. There are three words that Mary uses in her song to describe the way of the lowly. The first word is “humble.” Humble, verse 48: “He has looked on the humble estate of His servant.” Verse 52: “He has exalted those of humble estate,” low stature, low status.
Now we, many of us are so familiar with the Christmas story, we know how all of these parts come together, and some of the surprise and scandal is no longer there for us. If we heard today that a Messiah was to be born somewhere in this state, in our area, you would think, “Hmm, the Messiah. Maybe He’ll come from somewhere in uptown, probably Myers Park, don’t you think? Maybe near South Park. Maybe one of the really nice areas of Charlotte, maybe Matthews, maybe, just maybe, Mint Hill.” [laughter]
But we would not think He would come from a neighborhood that we’ve never traveled through, or from a small, rural, four-way stop that’s on a destination to nowhere. And yet that’s where Mary and Joseph were from, Nazareth, would be born in Bethlehem, would be raised in this little town of a thousand people perhaps.
Then you have Mary herself. If you were to just make a list of all of the ways in the ancient world that you could be of low estate, Mary checked almost all of them: Poor, young, she was, most scholars think, maybe 13,14 years old, poor, young, unmarried, a woman. She checked all of those boxes, people who were of little established worth, low estate. When she says this, this is, this is not like today where you may sort of put on airs about it, sort of pass yourself off as one who doesn’t have anything. No, no, no. She really was of humble estate. You wouldn’t have gone through Judea and picked out Mary as the one who would give birth to the Messiah.
And yet it’s a measure of her humility, not only the estate from which she came, but even more importantly, because she didn’t have a choice in that, but more importantly the way she sings about God’s grace. Notice her focus is on what God has done. In this song, she never mentions that she is going to give birth to the Son of God. No humble brag, no sort of #goingtobethemomofthemessiah, no sort of, “Hey, I just, you know, I’m just, I’m just so humbled. Just, I can’t believe it, really. Just pray for me. Really, I just wanted you to know I’m going to be the Messiah’s mom, [laughter] it’s kind of a big deal, but I mean, I don’t know, I don’t know. Do I look good in this dress?” She doesn’t do any of that. [laughter] She gives praise to God.
Now, of course she does recognize that, well, it is #blessed. All of nations, all of the generations, will call her blessed, but not because of who she is, but because of the Lord’s favor upon her. In some traditions, Mary is given these exalted titles, “Star of the Sea, Queen of Heaven,” even some call her a “co-redemptrix or a co-mediatrix” with Christ, as if she was a partner with Christ and the atonement. Blasphemous. She thinks of herself as nothing of the sort. She considers herself a poor, lowly maiden, uniquely favored by God, and we do not honor Mary by heaping upon her names that she would have rejected. No, we honor her in the way that she was honored, by recognizing that she was blessed.
And so some call her the Blessed Virgin Mary. All of those words are true, as long as you remember that each of us are also blessed. The Bible says not just Mary, but the psalmist says “blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked.” Jesus said “blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are the pure in heart.” We can be as blessed as Mary was, not in the same way, obviously, but we can have the same kind of blessing if we walk in her same path, the path of humility.
It’s hard to be humble. Perhaps some of have a sense of low estate, like Mary, and you feel like, “Well, yes, I’m nothing.” Others here might know the right thing to say about your humility. “Oh, no, no.” Kind of like when you’re making the Thanksgiving turkey or the Christmas ham, “Oh, it’s, it’s not, it’s not very good, is it?” Just sort of waiting for everyone to say, “Yes, yes, it’s the best thing I’ve ever had in my life.”
No, some of us have a hard time really believing that we are men, women, children of humble estate. Now it doesn’t mean that we have to denigrate ourselves. As it’s often been said humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less. Humility is walking throughout life with this profound realization every day: God has given me a lot more than I deserve.
Now that in itself is not saving faith, but that’s the mark of one who is being drawn to God or one who is being drawn to God or one who already has been. Do you walk through your days thinking, “Why have I gotten such a raw deal in life, from my parents, from my school, from my government, from God Himself?” or do you think with whatever struggles and suffering in your life, “God has been kind to me, He has blessed me.”
That is the way of the lowly, the way of humility. That’s the first word, humble.
Look at the second word, verse 50: Fearful. “And His mercy is for those who fear Him.” The way of the lowly is the way to be humble and the way to be fearful.
Now, of course, we know there are all sorts of bad kinds of fear. Grovelling, shriveling, faith defeating, anxieties, worries, terrors in the night. Those are not the types of fear that Mary is extolling. But if you know your Bible even a little bit, you understand that all over the place in the Old and in the New Testament, fear is often a shorthand phrase for devotion, for piety.
The world talks about no fear, but if we’re honest, most of us live hounded by some set of worries, anxieties. Maybe it’s deep down and comes out in only the bitter moments of your life, or maybe it’s right at the surface, constantly aware of it, not measuring up, not having enough, the fear of missing out, being on the wrong side supposedly of history, the fear of disappointing your parents, the fear of being like your parents, the fear of your children turning from you, turning from the Lord, the fear of your friends betraying you, the fear of not having any friends, the fear of saying or doing something a little wrong at some point in your life and facing the social media mob, the fear of being without money, being without a job, being without purpose, being without health.
We all have fear. We can pretend that we’re macho and we can pretend that we go out to conquer from strength to strength, but we all fear. And the Bible tells us that all healthy fear starts with the fear of the Lord. If real humility says God has blessed me more than I deserve, then healthy fear says, “God, you’re really big, and I’m not. God, you call the shots in my life; I don’t. God, you know what is better for me than I do.”
It sounds so simple to say it, but isn’t that hard?
Children don’t like to say any of those things about their parents. You’re big, well I can maybe you’re taller, but to say I’m not? To say you call the shots and I don’t? To say, Mom, Dad, you know what’s better for me than I do in my life? Well, as hard as it is for children to say that about parents, it’s even harder for any of us creatures to say that about our God.
That’s why Mary extols His mercy is for those who fear Him. Not for those who run from Him, not for those who thumb their noses at Him, not for those who think that they are in no need of mercy, but those who fear Him and realize they will have to stand before a Holy God and give account, and that if they are relying upon their own merits, they will be doomed.
That is the healthy fear which is the beginning of wisdom and is the pathway of salvation, for God has mercy on those who fear Him.
It used to be in centuries and millennia past, that church people, if there’s one thing they knew, they knew it was God was to be feared. And if they were on one end of the extreme, perhaps forgetting at times how much God was a father, how tender He could be, and perhaps if they had to endure sermon after sermon of hellfire and brimstone, at least those are the sort of caricatures, then surely we are way over on this other end, and we scarcely have a God that we think is to be feared; He’s a pal, He’s a buddy, He’s a secret Santa in our life. Not a God to be feared, not a God that we have to stand before and give account of, not a God who holds us in the palm of His hands.
But Mary sings it so well. If you want to know mercy, you have to know the God who gives mercy, and the God who gives mercy is the God who also can bring judgment.
The way of the lowly is the way of humility, it’s the way of fear, a healthy fear, and here’s the third word. Verse 53, it’s the way of hunger: “He has filled the hungry.”
It could be physical hunger. Certainly at many times in the history of the church it has been those who face physical hunger and even still around the world that know in a very real way that their daily bread is coming from God. And so as they hunger for physical food, they know they have to turn to God if they’re going to live. But that’s not the only kind of hunger. Jesus says blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, so there is more than one way to be hungry. And the most important way to be hungry is not what you’re feeling right now, yes, Pastor, it’s almost noon, I am hungry, now that you mention it, but it’s the sort of hunger that all of you have experienced, the hunger that says, “There’s got to be something more.”
Even in Christmas, with all of the joy and all of the traditions, there may come some moment in this holiday season, perhaps after you unwrap the last present and you think, “[effect], it’s done.” Some of you, “[effect] it’s done.” Is that it?
Have you ever considered that perhaps the reason nothing in this life quite seems to live up to the hype is because maybe we’re made for something more than this life. Maybe we’re meant to hope for something more.
When does food taste best? When you’re hungry. Now I know this is not the month that you’re ever hungry, but if you are, that’s when even the vegetable tray might look attractive, with enough ranch to soak it down. [laughter]
Do you hunger and thirst after righteousness? Have you been so satisfied, satiated by the empty fast food meals of the world that you’re no longer hungry for the things of God?
I bet there’s someone in your family, maybe it’s the teenage boy, maybe it’s the 1-year-old, who never ever gets full, always hungry. We have a 1-year-old like that right now; it’s as if he’s never eaten every time there’s new food in front of him. Take him out of the high chair, there’s more food. We don’t need a dog; we have a 1-year-old. [laughter]
Always hungry. Maybe that’s you, maybe that’s your kids.
What about your heart? Some of us have gone a long time without really hungering after righteousness. O God, I want to be holy. God, I want to know more of Christ this Christmas. No, we’re just, we’re too satisfied. We, we’ve got clothes, we’ve got a house, we’ve got food, we’ve got Christmas songs, we want to have some nice holidays… We’re set.
But we’ll see in a moment what happens to those who are filled. Here we see the hungry will be filled with good things. They way of the lowly is the way of humility, fear, hunger.
What about the way of the lofty? If that’s the way of the lowly, I said there’s two ways to live, that’s the lowly, here’s the lofty. Three words.
The first word: Proud. Verse 51: “He has scattered the proud.” Monastics and medieval theologians usually considered pride to be the root of the seven deadly sins, as they called them, or the seven capital vices. Pride was the root deep in the ground that was bearing this rotten fruit of envy and lust and sloth and all the rest. Proud.
Of course, there’s a right way to be proud. You can be proud of your kids for what they do and you can be proud of something you worked hard on. We use the word in a lot of different ways, but this sort of proud is the pride that thinks that we have a reason to be elevated before God. And the world is not going to help us. The world says, “You’re amazing, you’re smart, you’re beautiful, you are perfect just the way you are.”
Now when the world says that, it doesn’t usually mean it. There’s lots of things that you can find instant shame and judgment from the world, but they will give you that message. But even if they meant it, it’s not the Gospel. Don’t be confused. That’s not the Gospel. God does not come to us and say, “Look at you, just the way you are, everything about you is perfect. Nothing needs to change, you’re amazing!”
There’s a lot of Christians that have come to believe that’s the sort of God that we have. No, it’s better than that. Because God loves us enough not to leave us where we are, and He says to us, “You know what? By yourself you’re not that amazing. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. All like sheep have gone astray. But you don’t have to be like that. You’re born one way, you can be born again another way.”
It’s the pride that Mary speaks of that feels sufficient, independent. Mary is singing of the best sort of girl power. Young women, if you’re interested in girl power, good. You want to show real power? Look to Mary. She knows how to be a woman highly favored by God. It’s not from being puffed up, it’s not from pride, it’s not from believing that every single thing about yourself is amazing and the best it can ever be. Real girl power comes from praising God. That’s what we see with Mary.
The way of the lofty is the way of pride.
Second word, verse 52, is the way of the mighty. He brings down the might from their thrones. So this is the opposite. Those who have lowly estate; now these of high estate, those who sit on thrones. Be careful the subtle snare of power in your life and in my life.
It’s true, not all power is bad. God has power. He gives to elders a certain kind of power. He gives to parents power. He gives to governing officials power. The world doesn’t work without power. It’s not that power by itself is evil. But the chasing after it, the grasping onto it, the sinful attacking for it; that’s the sort of mighty that Mary has in mind. And you may quickly think to yourself, “Well, that’s not me, I don’t care about power. I’m not into thrones or titles.” But there’s a lot of ways that we can grasp after power. Good looks can give you power, skill with a musical instrument can give you power, good grades can give you power, notoriety can give you power, even preaching good sermons can give you power. Victimhood can give you power.
And Mary says in her song that if you are holding onto that, that’s what you think, that’s your identity, you have a throne, you have power, you are mighty…. You’re not in a good place when the great reversal comes.
The way of the lofty is the way of pride and might, and verse 53, riches.
“He’s filled the hungry with good things,” we’ve already seen how hunger can be more than physical hunger, “and the rich He has sent away empty.” Riches can be more than material wealth.
Now it’s not less than that. There is a great danger that most of us face, because when you are rich in things, it is easier to be poor in God. Because you can go through most of your days thinking you have all that you need: You have insurance, you have retirement, you have money in the bank, you have a job. It is easy to think you have what you need when you are rich.
But the riches that Mary is talking about is not just the riches that come from dollars and cents, it’s not just that the rich are full, but that they are full of themselves, that’s the danger.
You think of Revelation chapter 3, the letter to the church at Laodicea, where Jesus says to that wealthy people, “You think you don’t need anything. You think you have it with your affluence and your wealth,” but Jesus gives the true mirror to their soul. He says, “You are wretched, naked, pitiable, and blind.” You think you’re the big cheese, but really you just stink.
Maybe that’s the word He has for some of us. You work at a big building, drive a fast car, live in a big house, go on big vacations, and you think that you are a big shot. Well, what will happen when the big shots are lowered and the little people are lifted up?
God does not demand that all of us trade places. We saw a couple months ago from Luke in Acts how Luke is the evangelist to the rich. He is looking to give examples to Theophilus of people like Barnabas and the women who follow Jesus, those who have means, how they can be generous of heart and spirit.
But we must be aware of the danger. Do any of these words mark your path? Proud, mighty, rich.
There’s the way of the lofty, and there’s the way of the lowly. There’s two ways, and there’s one God.
You see what this God is like? Verse 47, He’s a saviour, which means we need deliverance. Verse 49, He’s mighty, which means we’re small. He’s holy, verse 49, which means we must be sinners. He’s strong, verse 51, which means we must be weak. And we see what He will do and what He has done.
Mary sings of it with these, they’re translated in English we would say as past tense or perfect tense, He has brought down, He has scattered, He has filled. It’s as if this prophetic word is certain of what God will do that it’s already depicted as having happened. It’s the way God works, it’s the way He has worked, the way He does work, the way He will work.
There will be a great reversal, and we will see the government of the world is ruled by divine providence, not by impersonal fate. Your life is not ruled by blind chance or dumb luck, but by God.
And the two responses could not be any clearer. Look at how God responds to the lowly, verse 48: He looks upon the humble estate. Verse 49: He does great things for us. Verse 50: He is merciful toward us. Verse 52: He exalts us. Verse 53: He fills us. Verse 54: He helps us.
Fulfilling all of those covenant promises to Abraham and to his offspring forever. That’s the way of the lowly. If your path is marked by humility, hunger, a sense of fear before God, then the good news for you is God looks upon you, He will help you, He will fill you, He will exalt you, He will be merciful towards you, He is for you.
And then there’s the way of the lofty. Look what God does, verse 51: He scatters the proud in their hearts. Verse 52: He brings down the mighty from thrones. Verse 53: He sends the rich away empty.
Do you understand why I’m using this language of a great reversal? Everyone who is low gets exalted; everyone here in Mary’s song who is exalted gets down low. You’re starving now, you’re going to have a meal in heaven. You’re full now, well, enjoy it because it’s all you’re going to get. You’re going to leave empty.
Matthew Henry puts it well: “God takes pleasure in disappointing their expectations who promise themselves great things in the world, and He delights in outdoing the expectations of those who promise themselves but a little.”
You’ll find few sentences as counter-cultural as that, even in many churches. God takes pleasure to disappoint the expectations of those who think they are owed great things in life, and He loves to surpass all of your expectations for those who think they have nothing coming.
The lowly will be lifted up, the lofty will be cast down.
And as you know the rest of the story, Jesus, of course, is the example. Not only the example, but the way. For who left a more lofty position than the eternal Son of God that He might be clothed in human flesh and come to us as a weak, helpless baby that he might all of His life suffer the, the taunts and the assaults, the suffering of human life and to be attacked and persecuted and eventually murdered and killed. You will not find a better example than the Lord Jesus and you will not find another way than in the Lord Jesus. For it is only by faith in Him, you see the song of Mary is not about, hey, just God wants people to be humble in life and don’t be so full of yourself and be a nice person. That would completely miss the point of the song.
Mary’s song is always God-ward. This is about God, this is about how God looks upon those who are meek before Him and gives to them great reward.
What path are you on? What path are you on? Is your life marked by lowliness of spirit, or loftiness of heart?
Look at verse 38. After Mary is told that she will give birth to the Messiah, she says, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to Your Word.”
Now, that’s amazing. Our world talks a lot about identity. You get your identity by your gender, your race, your politics, your language, your nationality, your sexual experiences, your income, your sports team, your television shows, your looks, your brains, your degree, your neighborhood, your car, your house, your stuff, your vacation, your family, your friends… Your identity.
But here’s where biblical identity starts, and it doesn’t start with any of those things. It starts with what Mary says right there, “Behold, I am a servant of the Lord.” You get that right, and a lot of other things will fall into place. And you get that wrong, and most everything else about your identity will be wrong.
She doesn’t say, “I am the Lord,” “I’m a servant.” And she doesn’t say, “I’m a servant of my employer, first of all, or of my nation or of my ethnic tribe or of my political party.” She says, “No, I’m a servant of the Lord.” You get that in place, and then you can say with humility and with honesty the second half of her sentence, “Let it be to me according to Your Word.”
That’s the way of the lowly, that’s the way of Mary’s song, and that’s the way of Christ. Mary’s way is not the way of the world. It’s not what the world promises. The world says, “Don’t do that. Grab onto it. Fight for yourself. Exalt yourself. Platform yourself. You’re never going to be happy.”
And God shows us this other way, the way of Christ. And Mary’s is the way of joy, satisfaction, and unexpected blessing.
And so we identify with a young, poor, virgin. In identifying with her, we identify with her confidence, her hope, her exuberance, and ultimately with the child that would be born from her womb, the Lord Jesus.
Let’s pray. Our gracious heavenly Father, we give thanks for Your Word and we pray that whether we seem to be exalted in this life and our people of prestige or privilege, that we would be lowly of heart, lowly in spirit, that we might be on the way of eternal life. We thank You for all Your grace that You give us in Jesus. And we pray in His name. Amen.