A SONG FOR ALL SEASONS
An Advent sermon on Luke 1:39-56 (Magnificat)
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
December 19, 2021
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our
Strength and our Redeemer. Amen
And Mary [sang], “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Luke 1:46-47
Songs are powerful. The writer of the gospel of Luke knew that and included songs as a part of
his telling of the Nativity story. And not just a song or two. Songs make up a significant portion of Luke’s
telling of Jesus’ birth narrative—a total of 27 verses. Think with me for a moment.
During the first two chapters of Luke’s gospel, there is a song by Zechariah, the father of John
the Baptist. There is the song of the angels to the shepherds on the hillside “keeping watch over their
flocks by night.” Eight days after Jesus was born, an old man named Simeon greets Jesus and sings about
him in the Temple. And in today’s text, Mary, the mother of Jesus, sings a psalm of praise known in
many Christian traditions as “The Magnificat.” That is a lot of singing for only two chapters…
We begin with a story that illustrates the power of song. It involves a famous Christmas carol
that you all know…
The year was 1870. The armies of France and Germany had been battling on the eastern French
border for six long months during what has come to be known as the Franco-Prussian War. It was
Christmas Eve—a bitterly cold and snowy Christmas Eve. At a place in the battle lines that were fairly
close together, both sides glared at the other across the “no man’s land” that separated them.
During a lull in the shooting, it is said that a French soldier suddenly leapt out of his muddy
trench. Both sides looked intently at this seemingly crazed man. Boldly standing with no weapon in his
hand or at his side, he lifted up his eyes toward heaven and began singing, “Minuit, Chretiens, C’est
l’heure solennelle”…Those are the opening words of the well-known French Christmas carol “Cantique
de Noel.” You know the song in its English translation as “O Holy Night.”
After the French soldier had completed all three stanzas of “O Holy Night,” a German
infantryman climbed out of his trench. He answered the French soldier’s song by singing a classic
German Christmas carol by Martin Luther. That carol was “Vom Himmel hoch, da komm’ ich her”—
translated into English as “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.”
The story goes that the fighting stopped during the next twenty four hours. Soldiers on both
sides observed a temporary cease-fire in honor of Christmas Day. And each side continued to sing
Christmas carols to the other, alternating back and forth between the trenches. And whenever a
P a g e | 2
particular carol happened to be in Latin—say, like “Adeste Fideles” or “In Dulci Jubilo”1—then both sides
joined in singing it together. 2
A remarkable story—one that is a testament to the power of song—and to
the power of the Christmas spirit…
Today’s text from Luke 1 begins by describing a journey taken by Mary the mother of Jesus to
see her cousin Elizabeth. She leaves her home in Nazareth after receiving news from the angel Gabriel
that she would be the one to bring God’s son into the world. She travels the 60 or so miles to what Luke
describes as “the hill country of Judea.” That would be the area just to the north of the city of Jerusalem.
The purpose of Mary’s journey is to visit her cousin Elizabeth. In contrast to Mary, who is
believed to probably have been in her teens, Elizabeth is an older woman. In fact, Luke tells us in verse
17 that she is “well up in years” and probably thought to have been beyond her child-bearing years.
However, as the angel Gabriel explained to Mary, “Nothing is impossible with God.”
[Side bar here: It seems to me that the verse, “Nothing is impossible with God” pretty much
sums up the whole of the Christmas story. Throughout the entire Christmas story, we read how God was
at work in a most miraculous way. But the most astonishing part of the Christmas story is not the Virgin
Birth. Nor is it angels frequently coming and going making proclamations, nor the star overhead, nor
the visit of the Wise Men from the East. Those are all amazing, supernatural events, to be sure.
But none of those is the biggest miracle of Christmas. Make no mistake about it. The most
incredible part of the Christmas story is that the Lord God Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, the
creator of billions of stars in the sky and thousands of galaxies even yet undiscovered, the Ancient of
Days, the One who was, and is, and is to come, perfect in love, power, and purity, came to earth and
that he was somehow present in all his boundless majesty and glory in a tiny, helpless infant born in
Bethlehem. That act of God is the one that completely defies human logic and understanding. That is
the real miracle of Christmas, friends…]
Anyway, back to the story…As it turns out, when Mary leaves on her journey, Elizabeth is
entering her third trimester. She is carrying the child who would be known as John the Baptist.
When the two women meet, we are told that the child in Elizabeth’s womb leapt with joy at the
sound of Mary’s voice. Luke then tells us that Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and told Mary how
blessed she was, that the mother of her Lord would come to visit her. She then pronounced a blessing
on Mary, because Mary was one who believed what God had promised her. And in response, Luke
records that Mary sang a song that the church has been singing for the last two thousand years. It is
thought to have been embraced and sung as a hymn used in worship from the earliest days of the
“O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” respectively.
2 Most of the info for this story is taken from www.beliefnet.com/entertainment/movies/the-nativity-story/theamazing-story-of-o-holy-night.aspx (Accessed December 14, 2021)
P a g e | 3
church’s existence. It is the song known as the Magnificat—from its first word in Latin… It is a song
appropriate for all seasons…
Songs are powerful. And that is certainly true of Mary’s Song. One commentator has written
about Mary’s Song, “Because it evokes the history of the Hebrew-Christian faith from Abraham to the
end of time, it has been described as a biblical theology in miniature….The song brings together the
esthetics of divine worship and the ethics of human service.”3 Wow…That’s quite a claim for just one
song, isn’t it?…
One of the major themes of Mary’s Song is that things are not always what they seem. To the
human way of looking at things, it is the wealthy and the powerful who seem to be in charge. They are
the ones who run things. They are the ones who make the important decisions. They are the ones who
think themselves to be the most influential. They are the ones in control—or so they think.
Mary’s Song turns that idea on its head. She sings that it is God who scatters the proud in the
thoughts of their hearts. In essence, she sings that it is God who brings their plans to naught. He brings
down the powerful from their thrones and seats of power. While he fills the poor with good things, God
sends the rich away hungry and empty-handed.
That is really the story of the Old Testament. God chose a group of nobodies—a people who
were enslaved by their Egyptian masters—to be his people. He raised that people up and brought them
out of the land of their oppressors and into the Promised Land. And once they had settled in the land,
God showed his people his care and mercy in the face of their enemies. It must be admitted that things
did not always go well with his people. But that was on them—not on God. When catastrophe struck the
nation, it was because the people forgot their God and disobeyed him. Empire after empire conquered
the land and enslaved the people once more due to their spiritual adultery. Syria, Persia, Babylon,
Assyria, Egypt, Greece, Imperial Rome…all had enslaved them in turn. But what of all those empires
now? They all had wielded great power and influence in their day. Nowadays they’re all gone. Every one
of them. At one time, they all seemed like they were strong and in control. But now? They have all been
consigned to the ash-heap of history.
All of which is to show that it is not the rich and powerful who are the recipients of God’s special
grace. NO—Mary sings that it is those who are humble…those who are poor…those who are
outcasts…those who are down-and-out…Those are the ones who are treated to God’s special mercy.
She sings that God’s favor also rests on those who revere him. Those who follow his commands. Those
who worship him in Spirit and in truth.
Samuel Terrien, The Magnificat—Musicians as Biblical Interpreters (New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1995),
P a g e | 4
And to finish up her song, Mary sings that God has not just done it in the past. He will keep on
doing it in the future as well. She sings that future generations that follow in his way will continue to be
blessed by the promises of God—even those promises that were given long ago…
That’s quite a song…and songs are powerful…
In our own lifetimes, we have witnessed the power of song on a number of occasions. For
example, during the 1960’s struggle for racial equality, songs were an integral part of the protests and
demonstrations. Protestors could be seen linking arms with one another and singing as they marched
together. Songs like “We Shall Overcome,” “Blowin’ in the Wind, and “All My Trials” often took center
stage. They gave demonstrators strength and courage to continue.
Another example of the power of song occurred some twenty five years later and half a world
away. On November 9, 1989, the world witnessed something that few ever thought was possible—the
Berlin Wall was dismantled. To say that it took the entire world by surprise would be an
understatement. Critical to that pivotal event in global politics were the months of peaceful protests by
the citizens of Leipzig. Every Monday night for about seven years, the people of the city gathered by
candlelight around St. Nikolai cathedral in the town square. (Interestingly, this is the very same church
in which Bach had composed many of his greatest works.) The gathering included the singing of hymns,
and songs of protest, freedom and justice.
At first, only a few hundred people showed up for these weekly gatherings. But eventually the
size of the crowd grew to more than three hundred thousand participants—more than half of the city’s
population. The songs they sang shook the powers of their nation and thereby changed the world.
Within a year after the wall “came a-tumblin’ down,” Germany was officially reunified. As a
consequence of the communist government of East Germany collapsing, other Eastern Bloc communist
governments soon followed suit. The climactic event occurred on December 25, 1991, for it was then
that the Soviet Union itself was officially dissolved. The Cold War was over. A new world order was
created. And it was the power of song that got the ball rolling…
At this time of year, we sing songs of the season which celebrate the coming of the Christ—the
inauguration of a new thing that God is doing through his Son, Jesus. Sure—many of the songs catch our
fancy. Let’s face it—Christmas carols are songs that have stood the test of time over hundreds of years.
There’s a reason for that. Christmas carols are beautiful…and many are fun to sing. (Does anyone NOT
like to sing or hum along with the “Gloria in excelsis Deo” chorus of “Angels We Have Heard on High”?
For me, I find it to be an infectious earworm that stays with me long after the final notes of the organ
have subsided…) Or who among us is not moved by the singing of “Silent Night” in a darkened church
building on Christmas Eve while holding a candle?
For the follower of Jesus, the singing of Christmas carols is more than just a pleasant way to pass
the time. It is more than artistic exercise. Instead it is a declaration of what God is doing in Jesus. In
world full of darkness and death, we sing of the One who is the Light of the World—the one who has
P a g e | 5
come to bring life and life more abundantly. When we sing these songs, it is something like an act of
resistance against the standards and values which the world holds dear.
Like the song that Mary sings in today’s text, we too sing about a different way of understanding
our world—a different way of looking at life that those who do not know Christ fail to understand. God
has come in the flesh—and that changes everything. The thing about the Jesus of Christmas is that he
did not stay “the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.” He grew up to be one who would teach a new way
to be reconciled to God. He came to remind us that being right with God is a matter of loving God with
all that we are—and that we are to love others as much as we love ourselves. That the way of love is the
way of self-giving, with our Lord Jesus being the prime example of what that looks like and what that
In a world that emphasizes looking out for Number 1, what God has done in Jesus is radical. And
singing about it is an act of resistance to the mold that the world would want to squeeze us into. That is
what Mary ultimately sang about…and also what we sing about each Christmas season. “Peace on earth
and mercy mild, / God and sinners reconciled.” That is the promise of Jesus and the new order that he
has come to bring to the earth…
So as you sing the songs of the season this Christmas, do not let their overly familiar words just
fall off your tongue. What you are singing about is nothing less than the promise of ages—of God
coming to earth to inaugurate his kingdom. We are singing about the new world that is on its way. And it
begins with the infant holy, infant lowly of Bethlehem. So sing—and go! Go—go sing it on the mountain
that Jesus Christ is born!
To God alone be the glory! Amen.