Or, A Christmas Call to Praise
December 5, 2021
Lord’s Day Worship
Hindsight is 20/20; reporting accurately on what happened is easier than predicting accurately (even though these days the “news” may exhibit more creative license than a charismatic preacher’s work in an abstract pottery class). The point is, before and after really are different positions.
One of the ways that God distinguishes Himself from idols is by telling the future (“Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them” – Isaiah 42:9). One of the ways the godly distinguish themselves is by praising God based on what he said before He brings it to pass. This is faith, yes, but it is not sleeping or silent. It’s faith that goes all in, in obedience and also in reverence and joy. We worship God on the first day of the week for a number of reasons, but we don’t hold back our praise until He “produces” later.
We are in the season of advent. From our historical perspective, Christ has already advented once—He came to earth. Christmas day is our marker of Christ’s birth, born of a woman, miraculously born of a virgin. Isn’t December 25th sufficient? Do we really need to extend our excuses for being distracted in December and shove in extra shopping and make extra work for ourselves by raising kids’ expectations for almost a whole month? Doesn’t this make us worldly, not godly?
Of course it could. Religious people have always been good at ruining religious gifts. We win at religious ways to sin, as if that were a competition unbelievers cared about. But advent—lowercase a, as in an advent principle with many opportunities not a rigid one-size-fits-all box of traditions—gives us reason to meditate on what to do before the big day.
The New Testament has much more to teach about Christ’s second coming, His next advent, then His first. The church should be actively waiting for His return. The Bride longs for he Bridegroom. We can learn from the epistles and the Apocalypse, AND we can learn from Israel’s example of waiting for the Messiah. The NT may not be overflowing with first advent details, but the OT certainly anticipated it. We are looking in Luke’s gospel for some of the pre-birth pieces which include faith, Mary’s more ready than Zechariah’s, and praise.
We saw the Annunciation (1:26-38), we will still consider the Birth (2:1-7) and the Choir of Hosts (2:8-20), but today let’s consider the Magnificat (1:46-55) along with a key doctrine and a call for us.
Based on the numbers, Mary went to see Elizabeth not long after Gabriel gave her word about her pregnancy. We, the readers, know Gabriel visited Mary when Elizabeth was six months pregnant (1:26), Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months (1:56), but there’s no indication that Mary was there for John’s birth.
It was around 75-100 miles from Nazareth (1:26) to Judah (1:39), where Mary came to Zechariah and Elizabeth’s house (1:40). Miraculously, in utero, John recognized Mary and “the baby leaped in [Elizabeth’s] womb” (1:41). It’s probably a good thing that Elizabeth “was filled with the Holy Spirit,” because, even though I’ve never had the privilege of having a womb, I wouldn’t want anyone jumping around in there. The Holy Spirit made clear to Elizabeth that the leaping was a sign (1:44), making this John’s first witness to Jesus. The Spirit also made clear that Mary was carrying a son, well before 20 weeks and no ultrasound required.
Elizabeth shouted, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? …Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (1:42-43, 45). Two (and a half) #blesseds for Mary.
As surprising as that greeting to Mary may be, the response from Mary is even more significant.
It is called the Magnificat because of the Latin version of the Luke 1:46: Magnificat anima mea Dominum, which translates the Greek word Μεγαλύνει, and becomes “magnifies” in English (or “magnifyeth” if you spelled like Tyndale). It carries the idea not just of exalting (as in NASB), but of enlarging. A magnifying glass shows the object at a higher scale. Mary does not say, “(Distant) cousin, you won’t believe this!” or, “Ellie, how did you know I was pregnant? Am I showing already?” Mary responds with theological acumen and humility and faith and perspective and praise.
Some call this a hymn, and it is sort of elevated prose, though “no precise metric form has been established” (Marshall). It might not be what would come out of some of our teenage young ladies first try on Tik-Tok. But it is wrong to try to attribute this to someone other than Mary.
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate
of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations
will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts
of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
(Luke 1:46–55 ESV)
First, Mary knew that she needed a Savior (1:47). A sinless woman wouldn’t need saving. Mary wasn’t “immaculate.”
Second, Mary knew that she was undeserving (1:48, 49). She was no one special before this, not in the world’s eyes or her own. She was a humble servant, and He was mighty and merciful (1:49, 50).
Third, Mary knew that she was blessed (1:48). She had been chosen for a great responsibility, but given great grace to bear it. She could already tell that we would be talking about her millennia later. Has any woman on earth ever been more blessed?
Fourth, Mary knew that this is how God works. He resists the proud and lifts up the humble, which is a part of Hannah’s prayer (1 Samuel 2:8). He reverses the course of those who are rich (without fearing Him), and sends them away empty. The past tense verbs (in verses 51-53 such as scattered, exalted, filled, sent away, helped, etc.) present it as so certain it’s done. Because He is ὁ δυνατός (verse 49), “The Mighty One,” there is no question. Because of “His mercy” (verses 50, 54), there is great hope.
Fifth, Mary knew that she was part of God’s covenant fulfillment. The promises belonged to Israel (1:54), and before that to Abraham (1:55). God declared that He would make a people for Himself and this Son of Mary would be the great Son, the one through whom the great blessings would come “forever” = εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα (see similarly in Luke 1:33).
While not as on the nose as the virgin birth in the Annunciation, among the truths in the Magnificat and its context is God’s choice.
Elizabeth (like Sarah and Hannah before her) was barren. No earthly, naturopathic-only treatment could fix that. At her age, someone else had to chose to intervene. What’s more, Elizabeth knew that she had been chosen for blessing: “why has it been granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (1:43) This gift of honor wasn’t deserved. Even more, baby John couldn’t have leapt based his own self-awareness.
Mary’s praise to God is rooted in His sovereign choices, fulfilling big and broad promises in particular persons. The Lord chose kinswomen (1:36); that wasn’t a coincidence. The Lord chose a humble servant, not a proud or powerful woman. He chose against the strong and well-off in the world. He chose to show mercy, even as He chose Abram to come out from Ur, and chose Isaac instead of Ishmael, Jacob instead of Esau, “in order that God’s purpose of election” might be magnified (Romans 9:11). The Lord chose Mary; He knew her individually.
Election in creation, election in providence, and so election also to eternal life; election in the realm of grace as well as in the realm of nature. (Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, Location 3209)
Humanism, Darwinism, Secularism, Scientism, (Open Theism), none of them offer any comfort walking forward, at best they may allow moments of calm; “Whew, I’m not dead right now.” There are no guarantees, no powers that care.
God knows beforehand because He ordains what will come to pass. Therefore we can trust Him, and we can magnify Him.
Which leads to the proper response, in this case, learning from Mary to magnify the Lord.
Election, choices beforehand, is the cause of praise beforehand. Election teaches that God chooses, not men, and that He chooses with mercy in mind, to the praise of His glorious grace (Ephesians 1:3-10). We do not only want to praise Him until after the event. Afterward we give thanks.
By way of comparison, it’s one thing to talk smack when the game is over, or even when your team is up by dozens of points. It’s another thing when the score is 0-0. Are you confident before tip-off?
Praise is confident faith.
Even the shepherds we meet in Luke 2:8-20, though it could seem as if they praised post-fulfillment, really were praising by faith. The shepherds returned (after hearing the heavenly host and finding Joseph and Mary with Jesus), “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (2:20). But the baby they saw was not yet revealed to the world as the Lord. “Glory to God in the highest,” yes, but for maybe a dozen people on the planet that day?
We praise God, we seek for His name to be enlarged, before the work week and before the coming of Christ again. We praise Him as we wait, not when it’s over. We praise Him by faith, from faith to faith, not by sight. We praise Him on December 5th, and 25th.
Praise the Lord so that the next generation will learn how before we’re “finished” with them. Praise the Lord before the proud are scattered and the mighty are removed from office and the rich get hungry. Praise Him not only post-birth, but pre-birth. Praise Him when the seed goes into the ground. Praise Him because the Son is coming again to reign in a kingdom without end.
I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the LORD;
let the humble hear and be glad.
Oh, magnify the LORD with me,
and let us exalt his name together!
(Psalm 34:1–3 ESV)
Tell out the greatness of the Lord.
There are only twenty more (shopping, cooking, decorating) days to praise the Lord before Christmas. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! Praise Him before you are finished, praise Him before He comes. Praise Him because of advent, praise Him before the next one. “Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes” (Luke 12:43).
[M]ay your love abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:9-11, NASB)