St Michael’s 11th December 2011
Reading – Luke 1:39-56
What is it you want to thank God for? One thing I have noticed from years of leading small groups is that when it comes to a time of praise and prayer, there always seems to be more to pray about, than to praise God for. On the whole folk are very good at sharing immediate prayer requests, and rightly so. They may well share something to celebrate like an anniversary or a birthday. But generally when I ask them what they want to praise God for, there is all too often a blank expression and a puzzled look.
I’m not just pointing the finger at other people, though. I know, when it comes to my own prayer life, I come before God armed, so to speak, with a whole long list of concerns, and people who are on my heart. Now I know that the Lord loves to hear me pray, and I certainly shouldn’t stop interceding for others. But if I’m really honest, I have to ask myself, where is the praise and thanksgiving in my life? Is it that God isn’t actually blessing me? Or have I stopped noticing what He is doing in my life?
As Christians we’re just not that good about this whole business of praise. There are some believers, I accept, who go to the other extreme, and go round loudly praising the Lord even when the whole world is falling down around their ears. But I sometimes wonder if these voluble, and dare I say it, rather irritating brothers and sisters are in fact covering up the same problem all of us have – that generally we do not carry in our hearts a deep, lasting appreciation of all that Jesus has done for us and of our lasting, secure relationship with God our Heavenly Father.
C.S.Lewis in his Reflections on the psalms said “Praise almost seems to be inner health made audible”. If what he says is true, then I believe it would do us all good this morning to have a spiritual health check and look again at this whole subject of praise.
Which is why I want to turn to Mary’s song of praise in Luke 1:46-53. Now if you were here last week we saw how Mary was greatly troubled by the appearance of the angel Gabriel – v.29. When she was told that she would give birth to the Son of the Most High, Jesus, she still had questions, even though she believed. She may even have gone to visit Elizabeth to escape the gossip and the rumours about being a young pregnant teenager with some apparently far-fetched story about being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. Mary’s circumstances were far from easy – and yet she praised God. Why? And just was importantly, what can we learn from her song of praise today?
First of all, Mary praises God for His provision:
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. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
Mary, you see, wasn’t focused on what other people might have thought of her, or how her family reacted to her changed circumstances. Her focus and her object of praise was on what God had done for her. Yes, the angel’s message had been troubling and unsettling, yes, her life was completely upside down, but Gabriel’s words showed that God had been mindful of her, had heard and acted upon her prayers. And in that light nothing else truly mattered.
After all, as a good Jewish girl, Mary had been taught from the earliest age about God being the Saviour, the Mighty One. But now she could now testify from her own experience to God’s generosity and goodness. Her prayers had been answered beyond her wildest expectations. The great and wonderful God of Israel had become her God. It was little wonder, then, that praise so freely and so eloquently flowed from her lips.
So why had God been mindful of her? Was it, as some Christian traditions hold, that she was somehow special or different from other women? Or was it that she lived a particular good and upright life? The answer surely has to be no. The only reason why the Lord was mindful of Mary was, as verse 48 tells us, because of the humble state of his servant.
Now if you think about it, humility is not exactly an attitude you can boast about, or bring before God as some kind of virtue. If you pride yourself on how humble you’re being, then the chances are, you’re not humble. Humility is in fact the attitude of the poor, the broken, the needy, those who know they have nothing to offer God but can only trust in His mercy and His provision.
That’s how we are to understand Mary’s declaration in verse 50 that His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. We get this verse wrong because we think of fear as something negative – it conjures up for us images of people cowering before a jealous and angry God. But that’s not what it means at all. Fear of God comes exactly from that recognition you have nothing, you are nothing before God, and all you can do is trust in His grace to save and rescue you.
And the great paradox of the Christian life is that when you reach this point of realising how small you are before God, and how great and holy He is, then you discover He can do more than you can ever ask or imagine. Maybe one reason we do not praise God enough is because we do not fear enough, or come before Him with due humility. It’s hard to praise God when you don’t really believe you depend on Him for everything. Yes, we’d like to have an amazing story about God working in our life, but only if He fitted in with my lifestyle and my plans. So we carry on praying without letting God be truly God in our lives, and then we wonder why we have so little for which to give Him thanks. We can, it seems, learn much from Mary’s example of humility and her experience of God’s provision.
So Mary praises God for His provision. Secondly, she praises God for His priorities.
I wonder what you make of verses 51-53: He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
For if you think about it no ruler was literally brought down from his throne during Jesus’ life-time. The king of Judea and the emperor of Rome and the high priesthood all carried on pretty as much as before. And despite all of Jesus’ teaching there were still issues with hunger, and the gap between rich and poor remained as wide as ever.
Of course, Mary could just be making the general point that God is in control of history, and provides for those who confess their need of Him. But I think that Mary’s words go deeper than that. Think for a moment about how people did or did not react to Jesus. For example, what about Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, who met Jesus at His trial? He saw Jesus was someone special, he may even have glimpsed that Jesus was indeed some sort of king. But his encounter with Jesus did not change him. He still carried on ruling in the same brutal kind of way. Or what about the Pharisees and the teachers of the law? They met Jesus loads of times. But they refused to accept Jesus’ claims about Himself in spite of all the evidence. Their hope for a Messiah remained unfulfilled, they still tried to earn their way into God’s favour even after all Jesus taught about trusting and believing in Him. Or then again, the rich young ruler who fell on his knees before Jesus? He went away sad because he would rather cling on to his riches than follow Jesus.
So in a very real sense the rich, the powerful, the religious did go hungry because they refused to accept Jesus for who He was. They never knew the joy and the privilege of entering into God’s kingdom, or the peace of having sins truly forgiven and eternal life assured. But on the other hand think of the widow who put two little copper coins into the offering box in the temple, or the blind beggar who cried to Jesus for mercy, or the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years. In the gospel story these are the ones who become great in God’s kingdom, the humble who are lifted up to positions of honour and privilege because of their faith and trust in Jesus.
In a season where we are encouraged to spend and eat and drink more and more, it’s worth stopping and realising where God’s priorities lie. God’s heart this Christmas is for the lonely, the widowed, the sick, the carers. And if you can in any sense identity with any of these groups, don’t think that Christmas is not for you. Because if the Christmas story teaches us anything, it is that God is on your side. He never intended to create festival where only the rich, the happy, the religious fit in. He intended to set up a kingdom where it is the broken-hearted and the spiritually needy are lifted up, honoured and exalted. Society may look down upon you or ignore you this Christmas, God does not. You are precious in His eyes. And that is surely a great source of praise.
Mary praises God for His provision. Mary praises God for His priorities. And finally, Mary praises God for 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.
For Mary this was the ultimate reason why she could praise God – His word could be trusted. Yes, the message the angel gave her was in one sense radically new and different. But in another it was simply the logical outworking of all the promises God had made so far over the course of the history of Israel. Right back even before the beginning of the nation God had promised to Abraham that through his seed he would become a great nation. Within a few generations this appeared to come literally true. You may remember the story of Joseph and how all the sons of Jacob came to settle down in Egypt.
Wind forward a little and you have the people of God, by now numbering in their tens of thousands, gathered at Mount Sinai, and God making promises that they would be a holy nation and a royal priesthood, if only they observed His law. Go many generations after that to King David in Jerusalem and there God promises that he will always have a descendent on the throne, providing they keep their commands. The whole flow of the Bible comes out of these significant promises God makes at key times with Abraham, Moses and David.
This doesn’t mean that the history of Israel runs smoothly – far from it. God warns His people time after time what will happen if they disobey Him. And what happens? They disobey Him, they are carried into exile, they lose their land and their temple. It’s in many ways a tragic tale of compromised faith, idolatry and persistent sinfulness. But what they realise through all this is that when God speaks He means what He says. If God promises penalties for disobedience, then you will in the end suffer those penalties unless you repent. But equally, if God promises a seed, a kingdom and a blessing for all people, then those promises must also come true.
And that is exactly what has happened with the announcement of Jesus’ birth. Suddenly it all becomes clear where the whole of the history of the Old Testament has been heading. No longer do you have to put together a kind of jigsaw puzzle, wondering how each promise relates to the other. Because now you have the full picture gloriously revealed. Jesus is the true promised seed of Abraham. He is the one who perfectly obeys the law given to Moses. He is the one who sits on the throne of David forever. In fact every word ever spoken by God to His people has now come true.
God keeps His promises. That’s the lesson Mary learnt from her reading of the Hebrew Scriptures, which we know today as the Old Testament. What about us? We have both the Old Testament and the New Testament, both promise and fulfilment. If we find reading our Bible a duty, a chore, and not a source of praise then I suggest we maybe need to take a fresh approach. Because the Bible is God’s word of promise to us, and as Mary saw, we can trust and rejoice in what it says to us in every season of life.
So let’s sum up what we have learnt this morning. Mary praised God for His provision, His priorities, His promises. It’s little wonder that this song of Mary has been used by countless generations of Christians as their song of praise, for believers have seen their own experience mirrored in hers. But if all this talk of praise seems to you a little strange, maybe something you’ve never really thought about before, then let me finish by pointing you to the Christmas story we will celebrating in a couple of weeks’ time.
For at the heart of the Christmas story are the very truths Mary sang about. The baby born in a manger shows us that God provides for the needy and the humble, that God’s priorities are for the outcast and the poor, that God keeps all the promises He has ever made. And when you realise that, when you look beneath all the tinsel and the glitter, and see what Christmas is really about, surely all of us can say with Mary:
My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.