Summary of the Text
Introduction: The Surprise Guests Who Fills Us with Gratitude
Although it seems to be vanishing from life in Western culture, most of us have experienced the great joy of an unexpected guest: someone who interrupts our often humdrum existence, imbuing the moment with new life as stories are told and experiences shared. We are going through our days, tending to our tasks, when all of a sudden the doorbell rings and a friend or neighbor is there, maybe with a gift, homemade cookies or muffins…but what is most encouraging is their presence. They enter our homes and they encourage us.
Leaving us with a sense of the richness of life. This seems the proper metaphor for the writing of the Magnificat! And yet the news is not what we would expect: Mary is pregnant! Usually not the news we learn from a houseguest, but this is precisely what happens just a few passages earlier in Luke, when Mary is told by the angel Gabriel that she will bear a son! Even though she has not yet been fully married!
Ancient Lens: What can we learn from the historical context?
Setting the Scene: Luke’s gospel begins, not with the lineage of Jesus, but with the corresponding accounts of two births: the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus. Each account includes a supernatural annunciation-that is, angels coming (as their name implies) with a message: a child, uniquely called to God’s purposes will soon be born. Each child will have a significant role to play in God’s rescue plan for the human race through God’s chosen people, who will become a “light to the nations.”
Our text takes place after Mary has visited her cousin Elizabeth, who herself has had a supernatural visitor-an angel who foretells the birth of her son John. For John to be born first, fits with his larger role as the one who “prepares the way for the Lord.”
Mary, as we already mentioned, has already been visited by the angel Gabriel ( Luke 1:26-38), who informs her of her role as the one who will give birth to the savior of the world, even though she remains a virgin. Mary accepts the responsibility, even though it is sure to mean questions regarding her character and sexual purity.
Mary’s Song: Now, having returned from her visit with Elizabeth, Mary shares the deepest longings of her heart. This hymn of praise is composed of numerous phrases from the Old Testament and is quite similar to Hannah’s Song (1 Sam. 2:1-10). There are a number of interesting ideas to explore here, including Mary’s upbringing and ability to cite scripture in such a powerful and personal way.
Mary’s quoting of these texts demonstrates a keen understanding of scripture (The Old Testament) and an ability to weave the metanarrative of scripture into the “micro-narrative” of her own personal story. In other words, Mary interprets her life through the larger narrative of God’s salvation plan as found in God’s Word.
Scripture, therefore, is not merely academic, nor historical, but the lens through which Mary understands and assimilates her own experience. How admirable, especially if we consider that Mary was probably a teenager when she composed the Magnificat. This behavior also stands out against an ancient world in which women were rarely given opportunities to learn or, for instance, in the case of Greece, go out in public, which would only happen a few times a year!
The Magnificat is so named because of the first words of the hymn, here in the NIV translated “My Soul magnifies the Lord.” (NRSV) This is the first major theme of the Magnificat: Mary’s exaltation of the God who has given her a special place in God’s redemption story. The scene is imbued with the joy of believing Mary will play a central role in God’s story.
We also see a major theme throughout the BIblical text in the opening words: that God often draws not upon the strong, but the weak and humble, to achieve his plans.
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
This is then followed up Mary’s recognition of her part in God’s story:
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.
The Greek word translated here is makarios, the same word used by Jesus in the beatitudes of Matthew 5. This is why Alfred Plummer, in his commentary on Luke, (International Critical Commentary Series) argues this is the “first” beatitude, which foreshadows much of what is to come in Jesus’ own set of blessings.
Like Jesus’ own beatitudes, Mary praises the one who calls upon the humble, not the rich and well-connected. This is an important reminder for all of us who are easily enamored by wealth and power. If God wanted to show his glory through power, he would have chosen the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Macedoanians, or…the Romans.
Instead, he chose a small group of people that had endured hundreds of years of occupation by larger, more powerful empires. And within this small, seemingly insignificant group, God finds a teenage girl, to literally bear the savior of the world.
Ἰησοῦς Lens: How do we point to Jesus?
Like much of Jesus’ earthly ministry, Mary’s song highlights the role reversal for those whose strength is in the Lord and not their own strength. It brings into view the larger scope of history: of kingdoms that rise and fall…”He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; (vs.52…He has helped his servant Israel. (vs.54) in remembrance of his mercy,”) but also extends to the individuals involved:
[God has] lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Jesus will of course repeat similar words after his encounter with the rich young ruler, saying:
“Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
In other words, Jesus’ ministry will not merely be a ministry for those in charge-those who desire to keep things the status quo, those who control the purse-strings and the power moves. Rather, it will be for all people, including those who have felt left behind and marginalized by the powers that be. This is an important reminder for all of us, for we all in some way long to find our meaning, our relevance, in power or money or status.
Modern Lens: How does this touch my heart, life, emotions, thoughts and relationships today?
The True Nature of Blessing: Mary’s Magnificat focuses on the blessing that comes from being part of God’s plan. Blessing, in this context, is seen as the fruits of being in relationship with God and part of God’s will. Unfortunately today, “being blessed” is often a thin veneer for more worldly desires, or that the very least, cultural values: health, wealth, status.
Mary’s Magnificat, like the beatitudes which are to follow, offer a counter-cultural ethic: one in which the humble are exalted, where joy is found not in one’s earthly status, but in their connection to the God of the universe.
The question Mary’s song may pose to us today is, what does blessing look like for us? Where do we place our value? Is it in our riches, or power, our health? Or is it in our place in God’s story, where we see ourselves as humble servants of God. It’s an important reminder, for us pastors and ministry leaders as much as our flocks. Mary’s Magnificat is a solace to the poor, the marginalized, etc., and a warning to those well-heeled who place their identity and value in their position here on earth.
This may not sound like “good news” for many of us who are close to the halls of power, or who have in fact great wealth. But the message is not: if you are rich or well-connected that you are bad, or evil, or on the outside, but merely that if that is the place you find your worth, well-then, you are in some trouble, but the good news is, you can always repent and turn to the God who cares for the poor and the vulnerable. This is good news, because it means there is a place for each of us in God’s kingdom.
Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. His primary passion is equipping the saints for the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4). He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.
In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.
The kingdom is in everyday life with its ups and downs, and above all, in its insignificance. Such is where most people actually live their lives. The kingdom is thus readily accessible to everybody.
The Two Ladders
In her short story, Revelation, Flannery O’Connor describes a woman sitting in a Doctor’s office, gossiping away without concern for who hears her questionable commentary:
This woman says to herself and to anyone who will listen, “I thank you God that you didn’t make me and my husband Claude black. But if the choice was between making me black and making me white trash, God, I would rather you make me black. I couldn’t bear to be white trash.” And at about that time a young woman also in the waiting room whacks her over the head with a book.
As a result of the impact she becomes dizzy and is carried off to the hospital. At the end of the story she has a dream, a revelation, that there is a great band of folk dancing their way up the ladder to heaven—prostitutes and thieves and blacks and white trash and there, at the end, are she and her husband Claude.
Additional Sermon Themes
Inspired by Matthew 1:18-25
You are near when my dream dies.
You are near the brokenhearted.
Thanks be to you for a new dream and a future beyond my imagining.
Maker of Miracle,
You are near when I cannot see your will.
When a good choice, even a merciful choice, is not your choice.
Thanks be to you for correction and clarity.
You are near when I dismiss the holy.
When I say no to your call.
Thanks be to you for your patience, your persevering grace, and second chances.
O come, O come Emmanuel,
strengthen me with the promise of your steadfast presence and saving love,
set my heart and step into your righteousness. Amen
You are near © 2016 Lisa Ann Moss Degrenia, www.revlisad.com
Prayer of Confession
Lord, you came to us when we least expected. We thought that all hope for humanity was lost, or that it was up to humanity to save ourselves or we would not be saved, or that some god or other would swoop down from the heavens and deliver us. Then you came to us in the dark of night, born to Mary and Joseph; you came to us as a baby. Lord, forgive us when we don’t see you because we look in the wrong places, or because you give us hope for your advent, or because we expect you to come in power, majesty, and glory rather than in humility, poverty, and meekness. Lord, help us to experience your birth among us. God with us. God with us not on our terms, but on your terms, as a baby, Jesus, a human one who took upon himself our humanity that we might be brought back to God. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon
When we find ourselves without hope, we can pray along with the Psalmist: Should I say, “Yes, the darkness will envelop me / and the light around me become night / Darkness itself will not darken for You / and the night will light up like the day / for darkness is as light to you.
Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to [the] gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, to bring about the obedience of faith–to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.