SONGS OF THE SEASON—MARY’S SONG
An Advent sermon on Luke 1: 39-55
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
December 23, 2018
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.
Christmas…and home…and family…Those things all just kind of go together, don’t they? Every year, Christmas always includes thoughts of getting together with friends and extended family to celebrate the season.
Think with me for a moment about how many popular Christmas songs speak of “home”—and by extension—how they speak of family. There are lots of them that we hear every year. Here are a few that readily come to mind that I’m sure you will recognize:
• “I’ll be home for Christmas/ You can count on me/ Please have snow and mistletoe/ and presents under the tree.”
• “There’s no place like home for the holidays/ ‘Cause no matter how far away you roam/ If you want to be happy in a million ways/ For the holidays you can’t beat home sweet home.”
• “Here we are as in olden days/ Happy golden days of yore/ Faithful friends who are dear to us/ Gather near to us once more…”
• Even the song “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” is about family during the holidays…in its own weird, quirky, off-the-wall kind of way…
These songs evoke for us lots of warm and fuzzy feelings about family and Christmas—well, except for maybe that last one. And those feelings were no doubt what the composers’ intended to evoke in us…
Best-selling author Marjorie Holmes once wrote, “At Christmas, all roads lead home.” For some folks, that includes travelling great distances during the holiday. In the early years of our marriage—that is, before we had kids—Miriam and I would leave immediately after the Christmas Eve service at the church that I served in Louisville, Kentucky. We would then drive the eight or so hours through the night to central Alabama in order to be “home” for Christmas. Arriving at around three or four the next morning, we would be perfectly exhausted, and frankly, I’ve got to tell you, I did not feel overly festive the next day. Once Will and Raleigh came along, though, we quit needing to make that long journey on Christmas Eve each year. I am not sad about that…
But for many people, Christmas does mean coming home to family. Depending on the situation, coming home for Christmas can be “the most wonderful time of the year.” But to be honest, for others of us, it is not. Gathering with family can sometimes be an occasion for anxiety and stress—especially when relationships are strained or when expectations from our family are unrealistic…
Today’s sermon text tells the story of a kind of family homecoming at what would be the first Christmas. Elizabeth meets her cousin Mary in anticipation of the birth of John the Baptist…and of the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ…
Luke sets the scene for us in chapter 1 verse 39. He writes, “Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country.” Earlier in the chapter, we learned that Mary lived in Nazareth. “The hill country,” to which Luke tells us she was travelling, was the area surrounding the city of Jerusalem. This trip would most likely have taken her through the Samaritan countryside—a trip of about 100 miles. It would have taken her some eight-to-ten days’ worth of travel by foot or donkey—and that is going just one way. Here is a noteworthy bit of trivia that you may not have considered before. I find it ironic that about nine months later, Mary would be retracing many of those steps from Nazareth to the same Judean hill country. This would be the time when she and her husband Joseph would travel to Bethlehem, to the place where Jesus was born…
At Mary’s greeting, we are told that the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaped for joy. Luke tells us that then “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.”
The Holy Spirit has already played a central role in the story of Jesus’ birth as recorded in Luke 1. Earlier in verse 15, the angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that the child that he will have with his wife Elizabeth will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his birth. A few verses later, Gabriel visits Mary to tell her that she has been chosen by God to bear the Savior. When she asks how this is to be, Gabriel tells her in verse 35, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will over shadow you. So the holy one to be born of you will be called the Son of God.”
And the Holy Spirit would continue to move in their lives. After the birth of John the Baptist, Luke 1:67 tells us that “Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit,” resulting in him singing what has become known as “Zechariah’s Song.” (You may recall that as the song that we looked at in worship a few weeks ago…)
So why all this mention of the work of the Holy Spirit in the opening chapter of Luke’s gospel? What it does is to point us to a couple of different things.
First it lets us know that the birth of Jesus was no accident. It was God’s intention that Jesus be born in this setting—in that time and that place. The birth of Christ was no accident. Nothing happenstance about it. The involvement of the Spirit lets us know that it was all according to God’s plan and action. In Galatians 4:4, the Apostle Paul tells us, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law…” In the mystery and providence of God, this was the time and place that God chose…
Second, this work of the Holy Spirit lets us know that from the very outset that this child was to be special. In fact, even before Jesus was born, there were signs and wonders associated with his birth that pointed to an event that would affect the destiny of all humanity. This would be no ordinary birth. Not by any stretch of the imagination. God himself was coming into the world as a part of his own creation. The evidence of the active work of the Spirit in the lives of the principles involved beforehand was evidence enough to prove it.
In verse 46, Mary begins to sing. The song that she sings is a psalm of thanksgiving. It is not unlike many of the poems that can be found in the book of Psalms. It could have been sung by any orthodox devout Jewish person. It speaks of God’s covenant faithfulness. It marvels how God has chosen Mary over all of the other highborn noble women of the age to become the mother of the Savior. In doing so, God is now ready to exalt the low, the poor, and the hungry over the high, the rich and the well-fed. She goes on to say that this is no new promise that God is making. NO—the event that Mary sings of is nothing less than the fulfillment of the ancient covenant that God had made to Abraham centuries earlier…
But this song also contains something else—something which has made this song by this unassuming Jewish woman a part of the wonderful Christmas story. It is a description of what the teachings of Jesus would look like during the years of his earthly ministry.
It shows the topsy-turvy nature of the kingdom of God that would arrive in the person of Jesus. In verses 51 and 52, Mary sings that “[God] 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.”
Our Lord demonstrated throughout his ministry that the kingdom of God does not belong to the mighty…it does not belong to the powerful…it does not belong to those who hold positions of strength…it does not belong to the wealthy and famous. It belongs instead to those whose hearts are right, to those who earnestly seek the Lord. Mary sings that those are the types of people who are recipients of God’s mercy.
Think with me for a moment about a few of the words that Jesus would utter during his ministry. These are some of the life-giving words that demonstrate the topsy-turvy nature of God’s kingdom:
• Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
• Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
• Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
• Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.
• No one can serve two masters…You cannot serve both God and mammon.
• You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemies.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies…
• It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.
• The first shall be last…and the last shall be first.
• The one who would save his life will lose it. But the one who would lose his life, for my sake, shall find it.
That is not the way the world works, is it? In fact, it is just the opposite of the way the world looks at things. And yet, these are words that Jesus used to describe the Kingdom of God.
This is the truth that the “Song of Mary” shows to us this morning. And this is the main takeaway from this sermon. The Son of God entered this world as a tiny, helpless baby some 2000 years ago. That is what the Christmas season is all about. That is what we celebrate. But the important thing is that Jesus did not stay that way. He did not remain the cuddly baby Jesus, “wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger”—with “no crying he makes,” as the song says—that we sing of every Christmas. If that is all we think about Jesus each year, then we are missing the point…
Instead Jesus grew up into a man who was uniquely human and divine at the same time. And he did not stay cute and cuddly. He demonstrated by his life and his teachings what it means to have a relationship with God. He showed us that we do not serve God by obeying a set of rules, regardless of how strenuous they may be. He taught that our righteousness must exceed that of those who would scrupulously follow a set of laws—ANY set of laws. He demonstrated that a relationship with God is built on dedication and devotion—dedication and devotion in cooperating with what God desires to do in our world…and what he desires to do inside of each and every one of us. The way of Jesus calls us to live different lives—lives that are empowered by the Holy Spirit, changing us into people of prayer and praise and Christ-like living—and helping to bring the coming kingdom of our Lord “on earth as it is in heaven…”
Songs are meant for singing, right? So we close this morning’s service by singing a paraphrase of “Mary’s Song.” Its title is “Tell Out, My Soul” by hymn writer Timothy Dudley-Smith. The opening line of the hymn, “Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord!” is taken word-for-word from the New English Bible translation of Luke 1:46. Like today’s scripture, the hymn is the expression of an exuberant young Mary, announcing God’s enduring love and ever-present power. It serves as a herald God’s saving work, salvation that comes to all people through the birth of God’s Son into the world. It is a great song for us to sing during the Christmas season—or for any other time of the year, for that matter…
Since the tune of this hymn is not as familiar as some others, I am going to ask the choir to sing the first stanza by themselves to introduce the tune to you. Please follow along in your hymnal as they sing, and then feel free join in on the remaining three stanzas. “Tell Out, My Soul”–#27 in your hymn book—let us stand together as we sing. And to God alone be the glory! Amen.