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The Song of Mary: Magnifying the Lord 
By Dr. Todd B. Jones
12/18/11

FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, NASHVILLE
DR. TODD B. JONES
DECEMBER 18, 2011

The Song of Mary:
Magnifying the Lord
1 Samuel 2:1-10
Luke 1:39-56


If something surprising, something life-altering, shocking, even unbelievable happened to you, who would you tell it to first? In the Gospel of Luke, after Mary is visited by the Angel Gabriel, we are told that she "set out with haste" to visit the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth, her older kinswoman. It is possible, of course, that Mary spoke first to her mother and father, and that they sent Mary out of town to visit with some older relatives. But Luke does not tell us this. What he does tell us is that Mary "set out with haste" to meet with Elizabeth, her kinswoman who has also conceived and will bear a son. Their meeting is a small story about a genuine human connection between two pregnant women of very different generations. I might add that it is a very beautiful little encounter, and it is easy to imagine from the exchange, laughter and tears of joy, even dancing between this one who is pregnant too late in life and the other who is pregnant too soon. And it also seems reasonable to infer from this small story that Mary further recognized her own calling in the words Elizabeth spoke to her. John Calvin sees God's hand in this winsome meeting: "Mary was above all right to seize upon the help afforded her, if she did not wish to reject what the Lord had deliberately put before her." This meeting, like so much else in Luke's Gospel, is a God-thing.

So we will not be surprised at all that through this small story that God is at work to change the world. And this young peasant girl whom God has chosen to bear His only Son is empowered by this moment to offer a very powerful song. That song is what we want to look at this morning on this fourth Sunday in Advent. We call it The Magnificat, once again from the first word of the song in the Latin version of the Bible known as the Vulgate. And Mary's first word is all about God, to whom she sings these prophetic words. "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…."

Note, dear friends, the setting for these words. Mary is but a teenager; she is engaged to be married, and now she is pregnant, and she knows this is not Joseph's child growing in her womb. She has likely had to leave home, and she still faces the problem of telling Joseph and returning to her small hometown to live amidst all the whispers. And yet, she "magnifies the Lord," she "rejoices in God my Savior." Mary is not focused on herself at all. She is not wringing her hands, saying, "What am I going to do?" She is not cowering in fear. She is singing a song of joy to God with all her heart! Isn't there always something liberating in such an act of praise? Don't we grow larger and stronger than our own smaller issues by losing ourselves in the greatness, the sheer goodness and beauty of God?

"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior." Ten years ago Rick Warren wrote a best-selling book called, The Purpose Driven Life. The last time I looked, it had sold over thirty million copies. Do you remember the first sentence of Warren's book? "It's not about you." Warren says this is the key to finding your purpose in life. This Southern Baptist even quotes the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism in his opening pages. "What is man's chief end?" "Our chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever." Our reason for being is not about us, and it does not even start with us. It is all about God, who is great beyond our reckoning. "My soul magnifies the Lord." I always think about my friend Bill Wood when he was at First Presbyterian Church in Charlotte. One morning a man walked out of church and said, "I didn't like that last hymn we sang at all!" Bill said, "We weren't singing it for you!"

Mary starts where so many world-shaking, life-altering moments should – in worship and praise of Almighty God. This is the secret to Mary's power and hold upon us – she remains devoted to God, trusting in His word, praising His greatness. Remember the poem of Poet Laureate Sidney Lanier, The Marshes of Glynn? "As the marsh hen builds on the watery sod, so I'll build me a nest on the greatness of God." And because Mary trusts in God's greatness, God lifts her up. This is the source of Mary's strength, though, and I would commend it to you: find your purpose, your passion, your life in God, who is great beyond our understanding, and who calls us to be a part of His plan, to find our glory in Him. Take these first words that Mary sings as your own call to worship and service.

Secondly, note that Mary has found her own voice in this song, and she has begun to grasp the greatness of her own calling. God calls us to great things; God calls us to change the world, to be a part of His redeeming, reconciling work, and too often, we miss this completely and we end up living small, insignificant lives. Bill Coffin used to say, "The smallest package in all the world is a person all wrapped up in the self."

Mary here sings of the greatness of her own calling. "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." Again, who Mary is called to be is all tied up in who the God who calls her is. For Mary, and for us, the knowledge of herself is directly linked and grows out of her knowledge of God. Mary's God is large, powerful and good. Mary's God is "the Mighty One, and holy is His name."

And yet, this peasant girl can sing rightly and truly, "Surely, from now on all generations shall call me blessed." How could a young peasant, a lowly servant, sense such a grand and glorious calling? How could she be a part, play a role, in God's plans to save the world? Mary does all this by praising God with all her heart and soul, and in her worship of God she finds her calling, her purpose, and she is obedient to it.

By the way, I should add that Mary's words are utterly prophetic. They come true, literally. For "all generations have called Mary blessed." Is there a better known, more recognizable woman in all human history than Mary? Artists and poets and musicians cannot be done with Mary. And the image of the Madonna and Child is universal, immediately recognized by all cultures, all countries across the world. Isn't it interesting that the most well-known, widely-recognized and regarded woman ever to live is one who was a lowly servant, "the handmaid of the Lord," as she described herself? Not Joan of Arc, nor Helen of Troy, or Cleopatra, or Catherine the Great, or Queen Elizabeth, or even Sarah Palin rival Mary.

I want us to think for a moment of this paradox, of how often true greatness finds itself in those who are truly humble. Remember Jesus' word? "Whoever would be great among you must become the servant of all." Schweitzer said: "The only ones among you who will be truly happy are those who learn to serve."

I am serving as a member of the Presidential Search Committee for my seminary, and we met for the first time this past week. We talked some about the kind of person we seek. I love how Dennis Olson, an Old Testament professor at our school, put it: "We want someone who possesses both confidence and humility." On the surface, of course, they sound like opposite traits. But truly good people almost always possess both. Mary is both confident and humble. Her confidence is found in God, and before God, she remains His "lowly servant." This is greatness, dear friends.

I was working on a lecture for our Wednesday night survey of the New Testament a couple of weeks ago on Romans. I was reading N.T. Wright's work on Romans. N.T. Wright might be the most widely-read Christian theologian in the world right now. And in his opening words on Romans, this world-renowned scholar says, "Anyone who is confident they know what Romans means is overestimating themselves." Humility and confidence … think about it!

Finally, that God chose Mary gives us a clue of the shape of things to come. God chose someone who was poor; powerless as the world regards power. God chose someone who is lowly, who was fine with it when the angel said, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the most High will overshadow you." It makes us heed what one Latin American theologian called "God's preferential option for the poor." Mary is singing her own song so powerfully because it is also God's song she is singing. And she sings of the day when God will "lift up the lowly" and "fill the hungry with good things." This same God will "bring down the powerful from their thrones" and "send the rich empty away." Actually, Mary sings all of these prophetic words in the past tense, as if God has already accomplished them. It is a vision of what is sure to come for Mary. If God says it, for Mary it is as good as done.

You cannot be a person of the Bible and not recognize God's concern for the poor and for perfect justice. Proverbs says, "Speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute." The prophet Zechariah says, "Administer true justice, show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the immigrant or the poor." The Psalmist in Psalm 146 says, "He executes justice for the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord … lifts up those who are bowed down, and the Lord loves those who live justly."

I cannot see Mary joining the shrill, accusative cry of those who are part of Occupy Wall Street, but I also cannot imagine Mary celebrating the growing disparity between the very rich and everyone else, and I cannot imagine Mary lacking an active concern for the poor and the marginalized. The power of Christian civilization has always been its care and protection offered to the poorest and the most vulnerable. Karl Barth reminded us that societies would finally be judged by what they did, by how they treated the very youngest and very oldest in our midst.

Let me add that this is part of the joy of serving First Presbyterian Church. Each year over $1,100,000 of our budget is given away in mission, most of it to serve the poor and the most vulnerable. And this year Caroline Gustafson distributed gifts from you of over five hundred stockings to the Salvation Army. Sue Fort White arranged for Christmas for one hundred twenty children who would not otherwise have one, and when Room In The Inn asked us to house fourteen homeless men on Christmas Eve, within hours fifteen families offered their hospitality and help. There will be Room In The Inn this Christmas at First Presbyterian Church! And I pray that there will be room in your heart to welcome Jesus as Mary did, so that "your soul," too, "may magnify the Lord, and your spirit rejoice in God my Savior."

AMEN.
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