Sunday December 14th @ St Barnabas
The aim of this sermon to use the example of Mary to see how the character, the action and the promises of God should give cause for worship and enable us to renew our vision of Him whatever the particular circumstances we face.
Why focus on worship?
Well, if you were here two weeks ago, you will know that the subject I was due to preach on was that of worship, but I ended up going rather off-piste and talking about our need for a fresh vision. And since then I have been so grateful for all those who have responded so positively to my words and affirmed my sense that what we need as we go into a new year is a fresh vision from the Lord, a fresh sense of where He is calling us to go and what He is calling us to do.
But it is important that we return to the theme of worship because, as I said at the time, our vision and our worship are closely linked. If we are clear what it means to be God’s people in this place at this time, then this will impact on our worship, and as we respond to the Lord in worship, so our vision will stay fresh and alive. But if on the other hand our vision has started to fade, if our concern is simply with keeping the show on the road, then the chances are our worship too has become flat and stale. And I suggested in my rather ramshackle, unscripted sermon, we then face the real danger that we end up in a downward spiral where dull worship leads to more loss of vision leads to even less inspired worship, and so on, until at least some of the church members wonder what exactly is the point of meeting at all.
So how do we break the downward spiral? I think the most productive thing we can do is return to the Bible and see how the ordinary men and women we find in its pages learn to worship God even in the most straitened of circumstances. Think of David fleeing from the armies of Saul, or Elijah alone in his cave, or Jonah in the depths of the ocean, for example. One reason why the Bible is such a cracking good read is precisely that it resonates with the kinds of situations we face every day. It isn’t stuffed full of plasterboard saints who sail serenely through the storms of life, or strong silent types who patiently suffer everything life throws at them. It’s full of real people who face all kinds of situations – and yet, in the midst of it all, learn to worship God.
The example of Mary
And this brings me on the song of Mary, our main passage this morning. Now tradition tends to portray Mary as an outstanding, maybe even spotless, example of virtue, someone who represents a kind of ideal we should all aim to emulate. But let’s not forget that at this stage of the story Mary was an unmarried and pregnant teenager, in a society which did not look kindly upon such people, even if, or especially if, they claimed to have been overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. And even if Mary herself knew what marvellous good news was about to break upon the people of Israel, I’m sure she would have had to put up with the whispers, the sideways glances, the rumours in her home town. It’s no wonder that as our passage begins we find Mary hurriedly packing up and going to stay with her relative Elizabeth for three months. She surely needed a bit of space, a time to work things out away from wagging tongues and prying eyes, maybe even an opportunity to cope with some of the questions that few girls of her age have to deal with.
Which is why Elizabeth’s response to Mary’s arrival is surely so significant. We don’t know exactly how Mary greeted Elizabeth, but I don’t think it’s too fanciful to imagine there was a hint of fear, or nerves, or uncertainty in her voice. After all, how do you tell an elderly relative you love dearly that you are pregnant, and yes, it is the work of the Holy Spirit!? But even before she has a chance to set eyes on Elizabeth she hears a loud, familiar voice answering back Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! The Holy Spirit, it seems, has already prepared the way and whatever her fears and her questions, here is the confirmation and the reassurance that she has been looking for.
And if I’m anywhere near correct in my reading of the story, this explains why Mary pours out her worship precisely at this point. Her words are the words of someone who has found God meeting her every concern, whose worries and doubts have been met with overwhelming grace and mercy. And as we go on to look at her song of worship, I wonder – how far can you identify with Mary? Has there been a situation where you have been anxious or nervous or worried – only to find that God has already sorted it out? And if so, how have you responded? While Mary may not be a spotless paragon of virtue, there is surely much we can learn from these few brief lines – both individually and as a church – about the meaning of worship.
The character of God: Lord and Saviour
For first of all, as Mary reminds us, worship begins with the character of God. Now here’s a handy hint if you’re struggling with a passage of Scripture and wondering what on earth you can get out of it. Look at the name or names God is called in that passage and try to work out why He is called by that name at that point. God is given many different names and many different descriptions in the Bible, and they are not given by chance. The particular name God is given always relates to the particular situation. Just as is the case here. My soul glorifies who? … the Lord
You see, by calling God by this name, Mary is above all recognising His sovereignty and His control over her own particular situation. We may be very familiar with calling God Lord, and we may hardly even give it a second thought. But the term Lord is the same Greek word used for a master, an owner, even for the emperor. Calling God Lord is acknowledging that He has authority and power and might, and that He can do whatever He pleases. And real worship, it seems to me, has to start by getting ourselves and God into proper perspective. Despite the lyrics of so many modern praise songs, worship is not about me and what I want God to do. Worship is about God, and placing our lives in our hands, allowing Him to do with us whatever He wills.
Now in some ways that’s a scary thought, and I think it’s one reason why we so readily skip over Advent to Christmas and the birth of Mary’s child in a manger. To think of Jesus as a tiny little baby, weak and helpless, doesn’t really threaten us. He can in many ways be what we want Him to be. But to be reminded that one day this same Jesus will be owned by all as King of Kings and Lord of Lords – that’s a completely different story. It makes us uncomfortable, and rightly so. It reminds us that this God we worship is the one to whom belongs all our dominion and splendour, who calls us to total loyalty and obedience. And in an age where we like to focus on our rights, and our freedoms, we fight shy of truly declaring God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – as Lord.
Yet, as the story of Mary shows us, it is precisely when we place ourselves in the hands of the Lord, when we surrender control of our lives to Him and say, as she says in verse 38, I am the Lord’s servant that we discover the other, equally important aspect of God’s character. My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour. Because when we give God control, when we recognise His might and His majesty, then He responds with total, unconditional, undeserved love and mercy – as we shall shortly see in the Christmas story.
And it is precisely the fact that God is both Lord and Saviour which gives us as Christians particular reason to worship. It is not simply that He is Lord – distant, remote, unapproachable. Nor that He is simply my Saviour – the one who is always there for me. It is the fact that He is both, that He uses His power, His might, His majesty to show us His love and His grace in the person and work of His Son, Jesus Christ. And surely when you understand that, don’t you have to rejoice like Mary and glorify His holy name?
But there is more to worship even than that. For when we understand something of God’s character, then, like Mary, we begin to understand something of His actions, and the way He works in the world. So, for instance, if the God we worship is Lord and, as the confession in the Book of Common Prayer puts it, Maker of all things, Judge of all men, then it is easy to see that He must be opposed to all those who claim for themselves authority and power over others.
The actions of God: Good news for the poor
And that’s why Mary says the wonderful good news of Jesus turns out to be bad news for the proud, the powerful, and those who have plenty. He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts: He has brought down rulers from their thrones: (He) has sent the rich away empty. Not that being rich or powerful is in itself wrong, but that it encourages an attitude of self-sufficiency, a feeling that you don’t really need God, then you don’t require His salvation. And as we well know, there are still so many who have such an attitude today. It is a sad irony, that even while they enjoy such good things on the outside, inside they have a spiritual poverty which no amount of money or wealth can satisfy.
But to those who recognise their need of God, to those who have no illusions of power, the message of salvation through Jesus Christ is however nothing but a cause for rejoicing. And that also explains Mary’s references to the humble and the hungry. He… has lifted up the humble; He has filled the hungry with good things again, not because being in want or poverty is a good thing, but because those who on the outside lack the trappings of wealth or status are often the ones who know their need of God, and are willing to respond to the good news.
That at least was the testimony of Mary, a poor, pregnant teenager from an obscure village in a far-flung Roman province, and it has been the testimony of countless ordinary Christians since. Which of course raises an interesting question: if God really does act on behalf of the poor, and the needy, why does the church as an institution so often give the impression it’s real interests are in retaining power, privilege and wealth? If I’m honest, it’s often at Christmas time I feel most keenly the gap between what the Lord calls the church to be, and the institution we have become. How many of the poor, the needy, and the destitute around us, I wonder, know that God has a particular heart for them? Maybe in the season of Advent it would all be good if we spent some time reflecting on those words of Isaiah that Jesus quoted at the start of His public ministry:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
The promises of God
The God we worship is both Lord and Saviour, and He has a message of good news to all those who are willing to confess their need of Him. But how do we know this to be true? Well, we can trust God’s character and we can depend on His actions because, thirdly, God always keeps His promises.
Verses 54-55: He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants for ever, even as he said to our fathers.Now we’ll be looking more closely at the detail of the Old Testament promises next week, but the point I want to make in connection with worship this morning is the fact that God always keeps His word. What He says He will do, He does. That’s what it means when Mary talks about God remembering to be merciful. Not that God is in danger of forgetting, or suddenly realises one day He has failed to do something important, but that He always fulfils the promises He has made.
And I don’t mean simply that the Old Testament promises have all been fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ, wonderful though that it is. It is the fact that God’s promises still hold true today for all who believe in Jesus Christ today. And that’s why Mary’s song is more than the words of someone who lived two thousand years ago. They are the words of countless Christians down the generations who have found them true of their own experience. And even today the words of the Magnificat – as this passage is called – are sung, chanted, spoken all over the world by the faithful. God has remembered us, God has acted, God has given us salvation through His Son, Jesus Christ. And to the one who is both Lord and Saviour all honour, praise and glory be given.
Returning to Mary
Now Luke doesn’t tell us how Mary spent the next three months with Elizabeth, but surely it must have been an exciting time where they reflected on the promises they knew so well from the Old Testament, a time of praise and prayer, as well as, of course, practical preparation for the births they both faced. And by the time Mary returned home she could do so with her trust in the Lord renewed, and a confidence to face all those who asked questions or spread rumours about her increasingly visible bump. Mary had a new vision of God, enriched and nourished by worship, a vision that would go on and sustain her even in the trauma and heartbreak of the months to come.
Worship and vision
And to that extent Mary surely is an example to us. She encourages us to lift our eyes beyond our circumstances, beyond our own narrow horizons, to look to God our Lord and our Saviour, to accept His good news and to trust His promises. For in that way we too can gain a vision as a church, a vision that can sustain us as we move forward to the unknown of a new year, to meet all the opportunities and the challenges that the Lord gives us.
My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is his name.
So let’s make Mary’s words our words as we turn to the Lord now in prayer…