Fourth Sunday in Advent
December 20, 2009
“Luke’s Lead-up to Christmas: The Visitation and the Song of Mary, the Magnificat” (Luke 1:39-56)
This Advent, during our three midweek services and now on this, the Fourth Sunday in Advent, we’re working our way through Luke chapter one, on our way to the Christmas Gospel in Luke chapter two. We’re calling this series “Luke’s Lead-up to Christmas,” and so far we’re looked at: “The Annunciation of St. John the Baptist” to Zechariah; “The Annunciation of Our Lord” to Mary; and “The Nativity of St. John the Baptist and the Song of Zechariah, the Benedictus.” Now today we take up the one remaining account in Luke 1, “The Visitation and the Song of Mary, the Magnificat.”
What Luke does in the first few chapters of his gospel is to tell his story on sort of a two-track model, first telling us something of how John the Baptist came on the scene, and then switching over to tell us something of the arrival of Jesus Christ. Our text today is one of the places where these two storylines intersect. It’s the account of “The Visitation,” that is, the visit of Mary to Elizabeth while both women were expecting their very special children. You could call this story “The Meeting of the Moms.”
“The Meeting of the Moms”: Aged Elizabeth, the mother-to-be of John the Baptist. Young Mary, the mother-to-be of Jesus the Christ. Both women were granted these children under very unusual circumstances, to say the least! Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah both were well advanced in years and had been unable to have children. Mary was not yet married, and as a virgin therefore she became pregnant in a most miraculous way. Both women received their special roles in God’s plan with humility and faith. Both women rejoice in realizing what God is doing through them. But today as we drop in on the Visitation and see Mary and Elizabeth, while we see “The Two in the Room,” let’s not forget “The Two in the Womb,” for it is really John the Baptist and Jesus who will carry the story forward.
So Elizabeth is about six months along, and Mary has just conceived. Mary goes from her home in Nazareth up north down to the hill country of Judah, to the home of her relative Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah. Mary enters the house and greets Elizabeth, and as she does, something remarkable happens: The baby leaps in Elizabeth’s womb! Remember what the angel Gabriel had told Zechariah about John? “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” And so here, even inside his mother Elizabeth’s womb, “John the Baby” can sense that he is in the presence of the one greater than he, the Messiah whose way he would prepare.
Elizabeth, herself filled with the Holy Spirit in order to recognize what is going on, tells Mary, “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? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” So here we’ve got John filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth filled with the Holy Spirit, and Mary, whose child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. In each of them, the Holy Spirit is pointing to Jesus and so is producing joy.
That’s how it is with us, isn’t it? We hear about Jesus, we are in the presence of Jesus, and we are filled with joy! The Holy Spirit is doing his work in our hearts, pointing us to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and nothing could be more joyful than that.
And so it is that Mary rejoices, and the result is her magnificent song that we call the Magnificat. “Magnificat” means “magnifies,” and it is simply the first word in Latin in this song, which begins, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Mary is magnifying–proclaiming the greatness of–the Lord. It’s like what you do when you use a magnifying lens. You focus on the object in the lens, and it becomes great in your sight. The thing is, when Mary magnifies the Lord, it’s not as though he was small and needed to be made greater. No, the Lord God is great in himself. But when we focus our attention on him, on his character and goodness, on the great things he is doing on our behalf, then we are magnifying the Lord like Mary did. We do that here in our worship, don’t we, in our liturgy and hymns. We consider and ponder how good and great the Lord is, and we give words to our praise, lifting up our voices in song. All of our worship is one great “Magnificat.”
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” Mary says, and then she goes on to say why. The first reason she gives is about what the Lord has done for her in particular. She says, “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 for me, and holy is his name.” Mary is talking about her unique and unrepeatable role as the mother of the Messiah. Elizabeth had just called her “blessed,” and from that point on all generations will call Mary “blessed,” because of the great honor bestowed on Mary to bear the Savior of the world. This is God’s doing, Mary’s blessedness is, and Mary knows it. She humbly acknowledges that “he who is mighty has done great things for me.” Mary has no grace or greatness or blessedness in herself. She is but the vessel for the Lord’s mercy embodied in the holy child she is carrying. Mary would agree: It is the Lord’s name, not hers, that is holy and to be magnified.
Mary continues her song, and now she moves from the blessing the Lord has bestowed singularly on her, and she expands her scope to take in how the Lord deals mercifully with those who trust in him in all times and all places. “And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation,” she says. Dear friends, don’t think of these Bible accounts as something that happened only for those people way back when, in ancient Israel. No, by no means! God’s mercy is for you, here and now, just as much as it was for Mary and Elizabeth. God didn’t love them any more than he loves us. His mercy is for all generations.
God’s mercy is that he sees us in our distress and he acts to help us. Mercy is God’s answer to our misery. All the heartache, all the misery, all the sorrow and distress we experience–sickness and sadness; disease, depression, and death itself; our broken relationships, the hurt and damage we stupid sinners inflict upon one another–God sees it all, he knows how messed up we’ve made things. How about you? How are you hurting? Is it the pain of seeing your loved ones in the hospital or the nursing home? Is it the sense of loss, as more and more of the people in your life are no longer around? Is the hurt and regret due at least in part to how you yourself have messed things up? Your sense of guilt and failure, not being the kind of person you know you should be? All these things can weigh heavily on our heart, adding to our distress. We need mercy, God’s mercy to help us in our misery and lift us up.
That’s how God acts. That’s what Mary sings about next: “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.” This is what we call the Great Reversal. God flips everything upside-down from the world’s perspective. Those who are high and mighty in their own thinking, and maybe in the eyes of the world–those folks God brings low in the end. On the other hand, those who are lowly of heart, bowed down and crushed–these the Lord lifts up. The proud and the satisfied God resists and sends away. The humble and the hungry God raises up and fills with good things.
How do you stand before God? Are you secure in yourself, satisfied with how good you are and your own righteousness? You need to repent. Recognize your sinfulness and your need for a righteousness not your own. Or are you well aware of how you are nothing but a poor miserable sinner before God, entirely dependent on his mercy and forgiveness for anything good you may receive? Then hear the good news: God is merciful and he does forgive your sin, for the sake of that little child Mary will bear. God cleanses you of your guilt, washes it away in the blood of Christ and in the waters of your baptism.
Yes, God’s mercy and his forgiveness, all of his help and salvation, all your hope of everlasting life–all of this is located in the little child in Mary’s womb. For the Christ child, Jesus, born at Christmas, will be the one to lift you up, even as he is lifted up on the cross. God has seen our distress, our sin and death, and he has acted in mercy to save us, in the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. If you know your need for God’s mercy, then put Jesus Christ in your magnifying lens. Focus on him, for it is in and through Christ that the Mighty One has done great things for you.
Mary concludes her Magnificat with words befitting a daughter of the covenant. She says, “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” The Lord God had made a promise to his people of old, and God remembers his promises. He is faithful to his covenant, to fulfill it. The covenant the Lord made to Abraham was that he would bless Abraham and that through his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Now in the coming of this son that Mary is bearing in her womb–now God is fulfilling his word. This is the seed of Abraham that Mary will bear. The promise is coming to fruition in the fruit of her womb.
Dear friends, our faithful God is true to his promises to you. Today come and receive the new covenant, established in the blood of Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. This covenant, this promise, is that you have life in his name, everlasting life. God will bring this to pass, even as he fulfilled the covenant of old with Abraham. You have God’s word on it.
Today, fellow faithful, you and I have been privileged to attend the greatest baby shower of all time. It’s “The Meeting of the Moms,” the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth. As we see “The Two in the Room,” don’t forget “The Two in the Womb,” John the Baptist and Jesus. Especially Jesus, don’t forget about him. Put Jesus in your magnifying lens, and you will see the mercy of God come in the flesh. As you do, you will say, with Mary, ““My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”