Advent 2021: Mary's Faith and Humility
Lord you are Immanuel, God with us. As we wait for your return, help us see your glory and love through the reading and preaching of your Word. We pray this in your name, Jesus. Amen.
Friends, every Sunday during worship you and I devote a significant chunk of our time together doing something that is becoming less and less common in American life today - we sing! That’s right, we sing! And for us as church goers, that probably surprises us, because singing is so central to who we are and what we do.
But yet, think about it - outside of church and aside from Sundays between the hours of 10 and 11am, where else do you sing? Unless you participate in a choir of some kind, there are really only two instances or settings in American life today where you sing with other people. The first, is rather obvious, it’s when you sing “Happy Birthday!” to someone on their birthday, which is a kind gesture to be sure, but yet, let’s be honest, often a bit of a train wreck from a purely musical standpoint. The other is a bit more obscure, it’s when you’re at a sporting event and you sing the Star Spangled Banner or Take Me Out to the Ballgame during the 7th inning stretch.
And that’s pretty much it. Those are the two instances in which you and I sing outside of church. And yet, singing is a major and foundational part of who we are and how we worship.
And maybe nowhere in the bible is this more evident than in the first two chapters of Luke’s gospel. Because look closely and what you’ll find is that Luke’s gospel begins as a musical. That’s right - I kid you not. Read the first two chapters of Luke and you’ll notice that it’s scored like a musical. It’s this beautiful interplay, this beautiful back and forth between story and song, story and song, story and song.
For 400 years God’s people waited in silence, wondering if their God would ever return, wondering if their God would ever dwell with their people again.
And as person after person after person heard of this good news of the birth of Jesus, the Son of God who would live and dwell among them, they couldn’t help but respond and worship through song. They were each hearing news so good, news so powerful, news so life changing that they couldn’t help but sing. And not just the women and the angels, no, no, no, it was news so good it made grown men sing!
From Zechariah to Mary, from the Angels to Simeon, from a revered priest to a teenage girl, from an angelic chorus to an old man in his final days, they couldn’t help but sing. And in the weeks to come during this Advent season, we’ll look at a couple of these songs, and for today, we’ll look at what might be one of the more familiar of them, Mary’s Song, also sometimes known as the Magnificat, which is simply Latin for how some English translations translate a word from Mary’s opening lyric: “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
Mary’s song is beautiful and poetic, and yet it doesn’t simply exist as some kind of private journal entry, but rather it is meant to be instructive and hopeful for you and I as well.
And I think in many ways, Mary’s Song is instructive because it puts before us a stirring and countercultural understanding of what it means to be blessed, or bless-ed. (“Tomato, tomado.” It doesn’t really matter.)
Before Mary bursts out in song, Elizabeth says to her, Blessed among you are women!” Then later “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” And in order for us to understand just how countercultural this understanding of blessing truly is, we first have to understand who Mary was. In Mary, we have a poor, uneducated, teenage girl living in a no-name town called Nazareth. According to worldly standards, there is nothing remarkable about her and by all accounts, she would be firmly near the bottom of the social ladder.
And so for Mary, when the angel Gabriel announces to her that she will be the mother of our Lord and carry Jesus in her womb, there’s a sense of awe and wonder that she is filled with, that of all the people God could have chosen to carry out this divine and sacred responsibility of ushering Jesus into our world, that God would choose her!
And so she sings,
“My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
(that is, that God would choose her despite, and maybe even because of her low social standing)
And then Mary repeats and echo’s Elizabeth’s word from before, saying,
From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
Under no circumstances whatsoever, if you were to just take a quick look at her personal bio, would you consider Mary as blessed. But yet here she is, blessed. And why?
Because the mighty one has done great things for [her].
And in this were introduced to one of the dominant themes that will run as an undercurrent throughout all of Luke’s gospel. We find it most succinctly in verse 52.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
Seminary professor Benjamin Gladd believes that this verse right here in chapter 1, in Mary’s song, before Jesus is even born, might be the signature verse of the entire book as this theme alone will reverberate through Luke’s gospel from start to finish.
Where time and time again we’ll see God turn our understanding of the world’s social order upside down. How those who are seen as great in the world’s eyes – the Pharisees, religious leaders, the rich and those in authority are brought low due to their their pride and arrogance and how those who are often forgotten and overlooked in the world’s eyes – the sinners and outcasts, the tax collectors and prostitutes, the poor and vulnerable are exalted and lifted up because of their humble and earnest faith in Christ.
After all, that’s part of why Elizabeth calls Mary blessed, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” She herself, by how she responded to the news from the angel Gabriel that she would give birth to Jesus, demonstrated tremendous faith. Even more, Luke has already demonstrated this upside down nature of the kingdom of God here in chapter 1.
Where we’re introduced to two people, Zechariah and Mary, both of whom are told through the angel Gabriel that they’ll become parents in miraculous ways, Zechariah as the father of John the Baptist, and Mary as the mother of Jesus.
Zechariah is a revered priest and religious leader who lives under the bright lights of big city Jerusalem. Mary, on the other hand, as we mentioned earlier, is a poor, uneducated teenage girl who lives in the podunk town of Nazareth.
So of those two people, which might we guess would respond in faith and obedience? By all accounts, you’d think it be Zechariah, but no! Instead, it’s Mary.
Zechariah, as we learned last week, responds to Gabriel’s birth announcement with doubt and suspicion. And in contrast, Mary responds in faith and humility when she utters this famous line …
“8 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” “May it be to me according to your word.”
And so in light of this, Zechariah is humbled by being made mute, reduced to communicating through hand gestures until his baby boy is born. Mary, on the other hand, is exalted and lifted up.
Together, all of this says something about our God and the way he works. And that is, God often uses people who are not great in the world’s eyes to work his purposes here on earth, using those of humble beginnings who respond in faith to accomplish his purposes.
Yet that said, the takeaway here should not be that if you find yourselves, for example, affluent and educated or esteemed in the world’s eyes, that you unfortunately are hopelessly out of luck or that the good news of Jesus can’t be good news for you.
Rather, it’s a call and pleading for us all, whether rich or poor, PhD or high school dropout, to respond to our Lord in faith and humility. To not lean on our own accomplishments and social status as the basis of our worth, but rather in humility to realize that our standing before Christ is born out of what God has done for us, rather than what we have done for him. Or as Mary says, “for the Mighty One has done great things, not because of me, but rather, for me.”
So friends, how might you and I cultivate this kind of faith and humility? Here might be one example: Legend has it that once upon a time, when Teddy Roosevelt was president, he would entertain his guests at the White House by taking them out to the back lawn to go stargazing. Together he and his guests would stargaze for a long while, be awed by the great constellation of stars and after a long while, Mr. Roosevelt would eventually say, "Gentlemen, I believe we are small enough now. Let's go to sleep."
What a wonderful line. “I believe we are small enough now.” Here you had one who was arguably the most powerful man in the world embracing and cultivating a spirit of humility, that would then help recalibrate his own sense of importance before the God of the universe. And so, if we want to cultivate a posture of humility, gain a clearer understanding of our smallness and God’s greatness, maybe the simplest thing we can do is to get outside and look around.
And like Mary, may we be overcome by awe and wonder, bowled over by gratitude, that even in midst of our smallness, that God would choose us and want to use us to accomplish his purposes here on earth.
You see, this sense of awe and wonder is not just for Mary. In fact Mary tells us this much, when she says, “His [God’s] mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.” It’s for all those who come before the Lord in reverence and awe and humility. And though we won’t experience and embody Christ in the same way Mary did – as she battled morning sickness, an expanding waistline and unexpected elbow jabs – we too experience and embody Christ to the world around us, called to proclaim this good news and His love and light wherever we go. We too get to show the world what and who is truly worth treasuring.
Which, in the end, is something worth singing about if you ask me.
And I’ll finish with this, (you probably weren’t expecting me to say that just yet, but don’t let those words get you too excited, this is a long conclusion I’ve got for you.) Years ago, Lee Strobel wrote a book called The Case for Christ, a book that winsomely makes the case in support of the many truth claims within the Christian faith and has helped Christians around the world come to faith in Christ in confident assurance.
Yet many years before that though Strobel was an atheist and worked as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune, during which he reflects on how one year leading up to Christmas he was asked to do a story on the struggles of an impoverished, inner-city family. And as he did, he found himself surprised by the family's attitude in spite of their humble circumstances. The Delgado’s family - 60-year-old Roberta and her granddaughters, Lydia and Jenny were living in a tiny apartment on the West Side. As Strobel entered their home, he says, I couldn't believe how empty it was. There was no furniture, no rugs, nothing on the walls—only a small kitchen table and one handful of rice. That's it.
In fact, 11-year-old Lydia and 13-year-old Jenny owned only one short-sleeved dress each, plus one thin, gray sweater that between them they would trade off wearing as they walked to school on cold mornings.
But yet despite their poverty and the painful arthritis that kept Roberta from working, Roberta still talked confidently about her faith in Jesus. She was convinced he had not abandoned them. Strobel says, I never sensed despair or self-pity in her home; instead, there was a gentle feeling of hope and peace.
Strobel completed his article, then moved on to more high-profile assignments. But when Christmas Eve arrived, he found his thoughts drifting back to the Delgado’s and their unflinching belief in God's providence. In his words: "I continued to wrestle with the irony of the situation. Here was a family that had nothing but faith, and yet seemed happy, while I had everything I needed materially, but lacked faith — and inside I felt as empty and barren as their apartment."
And so, Strobel decided to visit the Delgado’s again. When he arrived, he was amazed at what he saw. Readers of his article had responded to the family's need in overwhelming fashion, filling the small apartment with donations - new furniture and appliances, a Christmas tree and wrapped presents; bags of food and warm winter clothing, even a generous amount of cash. But yet it wasn't the gifts that shocked Lee Strobel, it was the family's response to those gifts. As he writes:
As surprised as I was by this outpouring, I was even more astonished by what my visit was interrupting: Roberta and her granddaughters were getting ready to give away much of their newfound wealth. When I asked Roberta why, she replied: "Our neighbors are still in need. We cannot have plenty while they have nothing. This is what Jesus would want us to do."
Roberta continued: "We did nothing to deserve this—it's a gift from God. But," she added, "It is not his greatest gift. No, we celebrate that tomorrow. That is Jesus."
To her, this child in the manger was the undeserved gift that meant everything—more than material possessions, more than comfort, more than security. And at that moment, Strobel says something within him desperately wanting to know this Jesus—because, in a sense, he says, I saw him in Roberta and her granddaughters.
And it’s Strobel’s final reflections that I find especially profound: He says, they [the Delgado’s] had peace despite poverty, while I had anxiety despite plenty; they knew the joy of generosity, while I only knew the loneliness of ambition; they looked heavenward for hope, while I only looked out for myself; they experienced the wonder of the spiritual, while I was shackled to the shallowness of the material—and something made me long for what they had. Or, more accurately, for the One they knew.
Beautiful, right? The Delgado’s were showing Strobel what it meant to be truly blessed, that despite their poverty and humble circumstances they had it all, and for Strobel, realizing that in midst of his wealth abundance, he was missing the One that mattered most.
For as, Mary sings, 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
Friends, like Mary and like the Delgado family, may we too find and experience what it looks like to be truly blessed as we come before the Lord this Advent season in faith and humility.
Heavenly Father, you humble the proud and exalt the humble, and we stand in awe. We recognize that the way we feel fragile, exhausted, and burdened this Advent may mean we are right where you want us … Magnify yourself in us this season through our rejoicing in you and your Son. In his name we pray, Amen (prayer by David Mathis)