Luke1v39to56: THE MAGNIFICAT

(A) Introduction. (Read the reference)

There are many ways of dealing with this passage. I have adopted a simple approach and will look at the seal, the song and the singer.

(B) The seal.

A seal was a distinctive mark made in wax or lead that was attached to a document as a guarantee of its authenticity. It acted very much like a signature does today. It often signified approval of a transaction or a treaty.

Mary may have needed reassurance from her elderly, pious, cousin Elizabeth that she had reacted properly to the message brought her by Gabriel. She received no commendation from the angel for her humility and submissiveness. It is probably very difficult for an angel to appreciate how hard it is for humans to be humble and submissive! We read: At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea. v39. The virgin was keen to confide in her cousin who had also conceived miraculously. They had so much to share and talk about - like expectant mothers everywhere!

(1) Elizabeth's seal of affirmation.

Elizabeth was not full of herself and her special son. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting .... Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed ... . v4. Zechariah's wife was full of joy at Mary's coming. She acknowledges at once that Mary is the one most greatly blessed: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!" v43. Both Elizabeth and the babe in her womb rejoiced at the visit of Mary. Elizabeth said: "But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy." v44. The older woman was exulting in the royal status of Mary's child.

These words of Elizabeth, inspired by the Holy Spirit, delivered in ringing tones, were an affirmation of the reality of Mary's experience and the honour done her by God.

Points to note:

(a) It is wrong to be so full of what God has done for us that we have little interest in what God has done for others. There are some ministers and missionaries who delight in describing God's goodness to them but seem singularly unimpressed by God's goodness to us. It is possible to fall into the same trap as Elijah who thought that he was the only one who served the Lord notwithstanding the fact that Obadiah protected 100 prophets of God in two caves - supplying them with food and water. Obadiah's efforts were pretty much discounted by Elijah! See IKings18v13and14. 1Kings19v9and10.

(b) Sometimes we need affirmation of the authenticity of a religious experience. Saul of Tarsus encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus but he also needed a visit from Ananias. See exposition on Acts9v10to19. Some long time ago I read a biography of the evangelical Anglican, David Watson. It is so long ago I cannot accurately recall the exact details but soon after his conversion David went up to Cambridge. I think his new life in Christ seemed a little unreal to him at the time. He hadn't been in Cambridge long before he found a note in his room, left by one of the undergraduates, promising to call back soon. It was from David Shepherd! The ensuing fellowship with the future England cricketer and Bishop of Liverpool was instrumental in consolidating David Watson in the Faith. It was just what he needed.

(c) It is strange that 30 years after John leaped in his mother's womb he found it so difficult to identify Jesus as the Messiah. This tells us quite a bit about the early life of Jesus. See comment in exposition on John1v19to34. It also confirms what Jesus said about the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit prompted the babe's leap for joy! See exposition on the Holy Spirit.

(2) Elizabeth's seal of approval.

Gabriel did not convey his approval of Mary's faith in God but Elizabeth does: "Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished." v45. Elizabeth was the instrument that God used to set his seal of approval on Mary's trust in him.

There are times we need the seal of approval on our ministry or actions. When Mary the sister of Lazarus anointed Jesus' feet with precious ointment and the disciples muttered disapprovingly Jesus set his seal of approval on Mary's action. Although the disciples, led by Judas, rebuked her harshly Jesus said, "Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me." Mk14v6.

I was sports organiser for a Christian camp for 20 happy years. Eventually I, and others, felt we had to resign from the work on a point of principle. I was very upset and wondered if I had done the right thing. A few weeks later my mother died and the necessity of caring for my invalid father meant that I could not have continued working at Pioneer camp anyway. I saw this as rather drastic confirmation that my decision to resign was the right one.

I usually got on well with my last headmaster but one day, following a parental complaint, he gave me a very hard time implying that my conduct alienated pupils - especially the girls. I, like Mary, was rebuked harshly! Later in the day I was on bus duty and feeling very sorry for myself. A bus used by the general public pulled up at the school to pick up some of our pupils. A singularly lovely young woman, one of my former students, got off the bus, walked across, said, "Dear Mr Reed," hugged me affectionately and then got back onto the bus. At the time I saw this as a little gift from God - a seal of approval - a sign that not all my pupils were alienated by my methods.

(C) The Song.

Mary's song is called the Magnificat because this is the first word in the Latin version of it. I must confess that poetry is not my first love and I do not get as much pleasure from the psalms as many other Christians. So, I have never been as uplifted by the words of Mary's poem as I would like. There are four features of it worth noting:

(1) The poetry of it.

It is amazing that a country girl, probably only about 14 years of age, with only a rudimentary education, should be capable of such poetry. However, we have to remember who her ancestor was! The shepherd boy of Bethlehem composed a short poem, 'The Lord's my shepherd,' that touches countless hearts today. Mary was a throwback to David the sweet song maker of Israel.

The intensity of Mary's experience helps to explain the joyful quality of her song. She had an uplifting, thrilling experience; a new age was dawning - the Messiah was coming. She was to be his mother. What an honour! What a blessing! Mary composes out of a full heart throbbing with gratitude: "My sould glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour." v45.

Many of our greatest hymns owe their origin to an intense experience of God's goodness and grace. Henry F. Lyte was the pastor of a seashore church in England. He worked amongst fishermen and uncultured village folk. Henry Lyte suffered from deteriorating ill health. Eventually he became so ill that his only hope of recovery was to go and live in Southern Europe. On his last Sunday among his beloved people Lyte hardly had the strength to stand and preach but with God's help he did so. We can readily imagine the sadness of both the pastor and his flock. That evening as the sun set, in the fading light, knowing that his future was very uncertain and how much he would miss his country, his work and his friends, Henry Lyte penned the words of his great hymn, 'Abide with me'. He sought consolation in the faithfulness of his Lord. Within a year Henry was dead and little did he know the comfort his hymn, the cry of a loving and grieving heart that has no earthly help or hope left, would bring to so many.

          I fear no foe with Thee at hand to bless;
          Ills have no weight and tears no bitterness;
          Where is death's sting? where, grave, they victory?
          I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

(2) The Scriptural basis of it.

Mary's song bears some resemblance to Hannah's hymn of praise but really it owes most to the 'rejoicing psalms' of David. She echoes many of the sentiments found in psalms 33, 68, 98 and 103. I like to think that Mary enjoyed the poems of her forebear David. Doubtless she learned by heart her favourites; the phraseology of them and the passionate declarations of God's goodness informing her own composition.

The greatest of our hymns are based on Scripture. Charles Wesley's hymns in particular convey biblical truth. Just consider that wonderful verse in, 'And can it be':

            He left his Father's throne above,
            So free, so infinite His grace;
            Emptied Himself of all but love,
            And bled for Adam's helpless race;
            'Tis mercy all, immense and free;
            For, O my God it found out me.

When I sing or read those lovely lines I am reminded of a passage in Paul's letter to the Philippians: And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death - even death on the cross! Phil2v8. The gratitude Wesley conveys by the lines: 'Tis mercy all, immense and free, For, O my God it found out me mirrors the heartfelt words of Paul: I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Gal2v22.

(3) The femininity of it.

Some commentators see the femininity of its author in the poem's lightness of touch, its delicacy, the mixture of dignity and humility displayed. I see it in the way Mary writes out of her experience, by the emotional intensity of her words, her modesty, the emphasis given to God's mercy and his concern for the disadvantaged - the poor and hungry.

It is good to have this contribution from a woman to the New Testament! Through the years there are many who insist on women remaining silent in the church. Well I am glad they make a contribution to worship in most fellowships through the hymns they have written. We owe a great deal to: Frances Havergal, Jane Leeson, Fanny Crosby, Annie Hawkes and Eliza Hewitt. On Sunday the congregation at Brockley sang: Be still, my soul, the Lord is on my side by Katharina A D Von Schlegel translated by Jane Borthwick. It is very much a woman's hymn - a hymn of the heart - and how I enjoyed singing it!

(4) The Theology of it.

The power of Mary's hymn owes much to the soundness of its Theology. She recognises four of God's great attributes:

    (a) His power. "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." v51and52.

    There are many examples of God's power in the Old Testament. He brought his people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. He raised a humble shepherd to the throne and used him to defeat all Israel's enemies. It was God who delivered the people from Babylonian captivity so that they could go back to their own land. We can see God's hand upon the church down the years preserving and strengthening it.

    (b) His holiness. "For the Mighty One has done great things for me - holy is his name." v49.

    God's holiness is shown by his concern for the humble, the hungry and, above all, the sinner. God's hatred of sin is demonstrated by his decision to send his Son to earth to save his people from their sin. William Wilberforce so hated the slave trade that he brought motion after motion, year after year, before the House of Commons to abolish it. He did something about it. God so detested sin that he acted to defeat it. Every sinner saved by grace is able to sing along with Mary: "For the Mighty One has done great things for me."

    (c) His mercy. "His mercy extends to those who fear him from generation to generation." v50.

    God was merciful to his wayward people in the wilderness. He showed mercy by sending them prophets, restoring them to the Promised Land and making provision for the rebuilding of Jerusalem's walls and temple.

    God's mercy has been revealed to us by: the work he sent his son to do - to make a sacrifice for sin, his acceptance of that sacrifice and the application of the blood shed to save individual sinners.

            From sinking sand he lifted me,
            With tender hand he lifted me;
            From shades of night to plains of light,
            O praise His name, He lifted me!

    (d) His faithfulness. "He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants for ever, even as he said to our fathers." v54and55.

    When that holy thing was conceived in the womb of Mary, God was keeping his promises to Abraham, to David and to the prophets. God was faithful and kept this wonderful promise to the man after his own heart: When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you ... who will come from your own body and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. 2Sam6vs11to16.

    The God who kept his promise to David will keep his promises to us - his children.

(D) The Singer

There are four things to notice about the sweet singer:

(1) Her joy.

Mary rejoiced because she was:

    (a) Redeemed. She sang: "My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour." v47.

    (b) Regarded. Mary realised God had noticed her - "For he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant." v48.

    (c) Rewarded. The willing handmaid of the Lord looked forward to her reward: "From now on all generations will call me blessed." v48. Christians everywhere revere Mary as an example of motherhood. She was a godly woman who accepted her responsibility with confidence and gratitude.

Every believer can rejoice with Mary in:

    (a) Their salvation. We sing with gladness:

          I'm redeemed yes I am,
          By the blood of the lamb,
          Jesus Christ has done it all for me.
          I am His, He is mine,
          I'm part of the royal vine,
          All my sins were washed away at Calvary.

    (b) Being noticed. I have just returned from a visit to Bury St Edmunds town centre. No-one paid me any notice - except the cashier in Lloyds Bank who gave me the sweetest of smiles. What a difference that smile made! It gave me a little significance. There are so many people in the world and we are known by so very few. It is hard to believe that we matter much at all. But God does take notice of us. He knows all about us down to the number of the hairs on our head. Christians are God's children and important to him.

    (c) So many blessings. We enjoy the blessings of sins forgiven, the indwelling Spirit, satisfaction in service, fellowship with God's people, the life-giving word and the hope of glory.

            For all Thy gifts we bless Thee, Lord:
            But most for Thy redeeming blood,
            Thy pardoning grace, Thy quickening word,
            These prompt our songs that God is good.

(2) Her faith.

Mary had every confidence in God. She did not doubt him but believed that he had done great things for her and that later generations would call her blessed. It was this faith that contributed to her joy. Without it she would have experienced no joy. Christians lack joy because so often their faith is weak and faint. We find it hard to say with Paul: For our light affliction which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. 2Cor4v17. AV.

(3) Her knowledge.

Mary, as we have seen, had a good knowledge of the Scriptures and so her Theology was sound. This contributed to her faith - her knowledge of how God used individuals throughout the history of Israel. Mary knew the stories of Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Elijah, David and Esther. She was also aware from the psalms and prophets that God was concerned for the humble and the hungry. So Mary was able to anticipate some of the values of the kingdom her son would establish.

It hardly goes without saying that our faith will be sustained by a sound knowledge of the Scriptures and the ability to quote it in time of need.

(4) Her patriotism.

Mary cared about her people. She sang: "He has helped his servant Israel." Mary had something in common with old Anna the prophetess who spoke about Jesus to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. Lk2v38.

We should be concerned for our nation and pray for its spiritual revival and renewal.

          Lord, while for all mankind we pray,
          Of every clime and coast,
          O hear us for our native land,
          The land we love the most.