It was as natural as making a cup of coffee in the morning. Thanksgiving was merely a sweet memory when my wife awoke on Friday and took command of our family’s traditional Day-After-Thanksgiving taskforce. Her objective? To decorate the house for Christmas in one day! So there I was, hauling boxes over my head, with John Michael following close behind firing questions about how this or that Christmas ornament came to grace our tree. My wife, at no time happier, always pulls this daunting task of bringing organization out of chaos off with grace, enchantment and wonder. And that, for me, is part of the glory of the season.
Another part of the wonder of that day of decorating and the enchantment of the days of Advent leading up to Christmas, for me and I suspect for you, is the music. The music of Christmas is forever linked to the season of Christmas. We all anticipate the time when we can crank up Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas” or Mel Torme 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” sung on the first Sunday in Advent to the joyous strains of “Joy to the World” sung 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 is my theme during the Sundays in Advent and Christmas Day. I will not be preaching from hymn texts, but from the biblical narratives of the birth of Christ in Luke 1 and 2. Now, there are no musical notations given to these “Songs of Christmas” in the Bible. But when I read of the spontaneous, poetic and profoundly theological response 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, Zachariah 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. So is the prayer from the lips of faithful old Simeon who ushered 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 darkness then. There was still more waiting to be done, but what became clear is that God’s promises were coming true and the Lord was entering 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. Joan Osborne screeched and whined out a question that became a cry of a desperate heart “What if God was one of us?”
The Songs of Christmas in St. Luke 1 and 2 give a stirring response to that cry.
We begin with Luke 1:47-55:
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 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, Latin for the word used by Mary, to magnify, arises with a 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 the most wonderful news ever revealed to man and arose and went into the hill country with haste, it says (v. 39) with haste.
Here is a clue to the whole proceedings in those 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 who lived a long way off in the hills of Judea. Of course, when she arrived at the home of Zachariah and Elizabeth, who was also with child, the embryonic John the Baptist leapt in the womb at the news of Christ. Elizabeth, we are told, was also filled with the Holy Sprit. In other words, news of the Incarnation brought a real revival to that house!
O dear friends, I want to make haste to bring you this Song of Mary because it has 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 true God. The Greeks have gods who are like men but who play tricks on men or imitate sinful man in celestial flings. The Norse pagan deities are like men also, but are oppressive and as brutish 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 young virgin girl, a sweet-natured woman who brought forth the Son of God who came 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 was one who left His royal dwelling 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.
So, as the Scripture tells us, Elizabeth blessed Mary and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit announced that Mary would be blessed among all women forever more.
What was the response from that little maiden from Nazareth?
She burst forth in a Song that originated from God Himself and bubbled 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 young woman who rejoiced in her God. And in her response, in this Magnificat, we witness a hymn to the Lord that is unequalled 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 that build to a recognizable tune, starting slowly 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 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, soul-satisfying wonder. That wonder and awe broke forth in praise from her lips and heart.
We all know that there are great and majestic hymns that 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 simple praise. 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 it was primarily aimed 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 than all the ornaments and presents and even the warm feelings 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 also call it 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, tell us that 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 was humbled because God had chosen a sinner to bring forth a Savior. Now that might sound heretical. Even those who aren’t part of the Roman Catholic Church, who do not hold to the immaculate conception of Mary, or that Mary lived a sinless life and ascended into heaven, nevertheless hold her in such high regard that to hear that she was a sinner sounds wrong. But, it is not. Mary was praising God; she was rejoicing that the Lord would come to earth through the instrument of a lowly maiden. Mary needed a Savior just like we need a Savior. Here is Mary’s repentance. She was the first to believe in Jesus as Messiah. She heard the Good News, she believed, and it caused her to say, “O Lord, I am lowly, I have nothing to offer You. 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 praised God with a sweet song of thanks because, as she said, “Henceforth, all generations will call me blessed. For He who is mighty has done great things for me.”
Mary burst forth in gratitude because the Lord was going to change human history through this little girl from the hick country of Nazareth. She confessed that He who was 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, but God who is Mighty and Powerful did great things for me. He 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. Mary started by praising God in verses 46 and 47, she moved to thanking God in verses 48 and 49, and now we come to learn the deep, theological foundation of Mary’s faith.
Mary teaches us several great truths of the Incarnation.
The Incarnation Is about God’s Mercy
In verse 50 she declares “His mercy is on those who fear Him.”
Make no mistake about it: Mary ground 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 would be 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 affirmed 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 He has exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry and sent the rich away empty.
The Jewish Rabbinical religion of that day expected the Messiah to come to the learned and powerful and make an alliance with them to 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 provided the theological grounding for her praise: God is God and we are not. And that is good. God Himself told us:
For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your 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 (Isaiah 55:6-9 NKJV).
St. Paul picked up on Mary’s theology when he wrote:
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 world 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 Corinthians 1:27).
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 to 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 said: “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.1 Here Mary is a covenant theologian. The foundation of Mary’s praise rested 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 12:2 in which God promised 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.
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 from Abraham to Mary and to you and me today and to those afar off who will hear and believe.
I heard of a lady who had been grieving 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 had 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 be back in 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 naturally 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. You may have been away for a while. Oh, you’ve sung the words of the 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 and providentially ordered events to bless you. Then you will sing a song this Christmas like Mary, a song originating from a soul in love with God.
Others of 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.
Please pray with me.
Lord, we come to You, the Son of God and Son of Mary, and laud You as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Some of us may feel lonely and insignificant. But we thank You, Lord, that in choosing Mary over a princess, in choosing Nazareth over Rome, in choosing a manger over a palace, You show Your love for the least of us. And so we come to You in brokenness, in humility, but also in the simple, child-like faith of Mary. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
1. From class notes, Knox Theological Seminary, 1991.