Christmas Eve 2017: Mary’s Prophetic Song

(This is the text of the sermon Amy and I preached at Gainesville Vineyard‘s Christmas Eve 2017 service.)

So here we are at the Fourth Sunday of Advent. We’ve been focusing all Advent on God speaking to the various people in the Christmas story, Zechariah, the shepherds and astrologers, and Joseph. All of that has been leading up to today, when we will focus at last on what God said to Mary and actually what God said through Mary. Our service today takes a different format than usual. We’re going to interweave the songs and teaching. My hope is that this will accentuate the radical kingdom good news that Mary prophetically declares in her song. But let’s set the stage first by reading Luke’s account in chapter 1.26ff.

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! Yahweh is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. Yahweh God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the sacred one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

38 Mary answered, “Here is the slave of Yahweh. May it happen to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.

39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea,40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

And Mary said:

My soul exalts Yahweh
And my Spirit rejoices in God my savior
For He has cast down His eyes to the lowly estate of His slave girl
Behold, after now all the generations will bless me
Because the Mighty One has done great things for me
And His name is sacred
And His mercy is for generations and generations
For all those who respect Him
He bared His arm and showed His power
And scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts
He has pulled down the tyrants from their thrones
And raised up the humble
He has filled the hungry with good things
And sent the rich away with empty bellies
He has taken his child Israel by the hand
Remembering mercy
Just as He promised our ancestors
To Abraham and his children forever

Mary gives us the fullest and best response to when God speaks to us. Gabriel appears and speaks blessing and favor and calling and hardship and anointing over Mary. Whenever God speaks to us, all of these are including. It is blessing and favor and anointing when the Spirit speaks to us. Responsibility, calling, and hard work are also always included when God speaks to us. Mary’s response is the model for how we should respond: “Here we are. We are Your servants, your slaves (same word in Greek, let’s not nice up the translation to make things easier on ourselves). May it happen to us as you have said.”

But this dialogue with Gabriel is only the beginning of what Mary hears from the Holy Spirit. She and Elizabeth have a Pentecostal experience as they meet and then Mary launches into this song, what the church has called The Magnificat since it was read in Latin in the fifth century, because that is the first word in Latin – magnify, exalt, lift up, make great, praise, worship.

This is a primary response to when God speaks to us. We worship. We lift our souls and our thoughts and our voices and we praise the Lord. We rejoice – we take joy in – this God who is our savior, whose mighty arm does such powerful work and also takes us by the hand.

This is how Mary begins her song:

My soul exalts Yahweh
And my Spirit rejoices in God my savior
For He has cast down His eyes to the lowly estate of His slave girl
Behold, after now all the generations will bless me

Let’s follow her example and sing now about the great Joy Jesus brings into the world.  Join us in singing Joy to the World.

My soul exalts Yahweh
And my Spirit rejoices in God my savior
For He has cast down His eyes to the lowly estate of His slave girl
Behold, after now all the generations will bless me

Because the Mighty One has done great things for me
And His name is sacred
And His mercy is for generations and generations
For all those who respect Him

Why? Why will all generations bless Mary? Because God has done great things for her. This is true. True for Mary and true for us. God has done great things for us. Last week, the Spirit led us to take some time to remember the great things God has done in our lives. That’s not to say everything has been a walk in the park. Mary is quite honest about the lowness of her own social status. She didn’t have an easy life before or after Gabriel showed up. But God showed up and did this marvelous thing for her and for all of humanity. I encourage you again to remember the goodness of God that has been displayed in your own life. Goodness to you and goodness to others through you.

Why? Why is Mary blessed? Why are we blessed? Why does God do great things for us? Because His name is sacred. His name is holy. Our God is fully involved with all the processes of this world – and yet without being dirtied by any of them. Sometimes like flowers coming up in the cracks of the cement, God works goodness into this world whenever and wherever possible and to the extent possible without usurping human freedom and becoming a tyrant too. There is much in this world that is unholy, the profane is prevalent. And yet the holiness of God persists in direct contact with all that is profane and unholy. We get it wrong to think that holy means separate, hermetically healed, untouched and untouchable. Mary sings later about the mighty arm of God that brings down tyrants and lifts up the poor and takes children by the hand. We are blessed because this sacredness that is our God touches us and is touchable to us and yet loses none of its sacredness in the touching. In fact, it is we who are made more holy, more sacred, more good by the touch of that Mighty Hand.

Why? Why is Mary blessed? Why are we blessed? This is what Arty told us last week and precisely what Mary sings here: God’s holiness, God’s sacredness is God’s mercy. Because God has done great things AND God’s name is sacred AND God’s mercy is for all of us. For Mary. For us. For generations and generations. God’s greatness is God’s holiness is God’s mercy. This is why we follow Mary in respecting and honoring Yahweh. Because with God power is not capricious, it is morally good. Because with God sacred is not segregated, it is radically inclusive. Because with God mercy is for all of us, young, old, and in between.

This is why our communion table is completely open. Even aggressively open. This bread and juice stands in for the greatest of all of God’s great acts. The ultimate instance of power and sacredness and mercy expressed together in one act. Everyone should come and take this bread because God has been good in some way to each and every one of us. Everyone should come and dip that bread into this juice because there is no way that you taking this profanes it. Excluding people from this table profanes it. Including everyone as equals is the best way to honor its sacredness. Everyone should come eat this dipped bread because God’s mercy is for all of us, for each of us, from the very youngest to the very oldest. Good news to those on both ends of that spectrum, you don’t need teeth to take communion.

Arty, Jackie, Amy and I are going to serve communion now. We’re going to serve Jared, Rachel, and Kristy first so they can play over us while we take. Then we’ll all sing O Holy Night together.

As you take the bread, we are going to remind you that, “God has done great things for you.” As you dip your bread into the cup, we will declare that, “God’s mercy is for you.” Eat the bread as soon as you’ve dipped it and enjoy this sacred moment.

Mary continues her prophetic song:

He has bared His arm and showed His power
And scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts
He has pulled down the tyrants from their thrones
And raised up the humble
He has filled the hungry with good things
And sent the rich away with empty bellies

Remember earlier Amy said that whenever God speaks both favor and responsibility are conveyed. You can see that right here in Mary’s song, especially for those who might be more on the rich end of the scale than the slave-girl end of the scale. There is a basic and radical reordering in the economy of the kingdom of God. And I don’t mean that metaphorically. If we are to have Jesus as our king, that includes him being king over our finances, socio-economic standing, and even how we perceive ourselves to be in the world. I hope I don’t need to convince you that the world terribly unfair when it comes to such things. Injustice, inequality, and exploitation are basic facts of the profane world. Apart from the sacred mercy of God, our human freedom always leads to lopsided social constructs, where the strong take advantage of the weak.

We tend to get uncomfortable talking about this in church settings because religion is routinely used as a means of exploitation. False prophets have always been willing to sell their services to those in power to maintain the profane, inequitable status quo. The church in the United States has been plagued by this for a long time. We’ve had preachers declare that both slavery and later Jim Crow were both biblical and holy, that God’s will was for certain people to suffer under necessary oppression. But oppression is only necessary for keeping tyrants on their thrones. In the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary declares that the kingdom of God is breaking in and breaking the grip of those unholy powers. The Spirit anointed Mary to prophesy the shape and focus of her son’s ministry. Listen to it again as the mission statement of Jesus:

Jesus bared His arm and showed His power
Jesus scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts
Jesus pulled down the tyrants from their thrones
Jesus raised up the humble
Jesus filled the hungry with good things
Jesus sent the rich away with empty bellies

Now listen to what Jesus said himself in Luke 6:

20 Looking at his disciples, he said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
because yours is the kingdom of God.
21 Blessed are you who hunger now,
because you will be fed.
Blessed are you who weep now,
because you will laugh.
22 Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they segregate you and blame you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.

23 “Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

24 “But woe to you who are rich,
because you have already received your comfort.
25 Woe to you who are well fed now,
because you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
because you will mourn and weep.
26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 praise those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful, 37 and do not judge, and you will not be judged, and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.

None of these are metaphors. If we try to impose a spiritualized reading or religious coating to what Jesus and Mary are telling us here, we miss their point, maybe intentionally so. Now look, I’m not judging or condemning anyone. That’s right there too! But I am highlighting that the kingdom of God that Jesus brings in comes with a whole new economic outlook, one that is inimical to our Wall Street driven economy. Each of us enters this new community, this kingdom of God life, in some social position or other. Some of us are closer to Mary’s slave-girl status. Others of us are exactly who Mary and Jesus mean when they say “rich.” And all points in between. And all are welcome here. The mercy of God is for the poor and the rich. We come together and do life together and we share resources together. This is why we receive your tithes and offerings. Because in giving, you are witnessing to the fact of this new kingdom economy. You are refusing to be owned by the economy of this world. You are saying, ‘Here take this money and help the poor, help those in need. Make true what Mary sang, that hungry people are filled with good things.’ That has been the heart of this church for 30 years and you knew it was the passion for Amy and I when you brought us down here. We will be having more in-depth and direct conversations about this in January. For now, we are going to take the offering and sing The First Noel because this is a primary way we offer kingdom resistance to the tyranny of this world.

He has taken his child Israel by the hand
Remembering mercy
Just as He promised our ancestors
To Abraham and his children forever

I love Mary’s imagery here. Earlier it was God rolling up His sleeve and showing the power of his mighty arm. Here that same arm is extended out, taking Israel – and us – by the hand.

So much of Israel’s history – and our own lives – can be described in terms of a loving parent holding a child’s hand. I like holding hands with my kids. Especially out in public, especially in parking lots, especially out holiday shopping. They are just safer that way. But they don’t always want to hold hands.

And kids you know, when you don’t want to hold hands, you have amazing ways of getting out of that grip don’t you? You can make your hand like a smooth cone with no surfaces to keep a grip on. You can do the limp/passive then sudden pull away thing. You can just throw all your body weight against the hand hold, hoping they let go before your shoulder goes out of socket. Or you can go all in and do the full lay on the floor, drag-me-if-you-want-to move.

I think we do all of these with God at different times. But when we do that, when we succeed in breaking free from our adult who’s holding our hand, what happens next? Does your mom or dad just forget you and wander off to find some coffee or something? Of course not. They get that hand back as fast as they can, right? It’s the same with God. The prophet Isaiah said it like this:

But we said, “Yahweh has forsaken us,

Yahweh has forgotten us.”

“Can a mother forget the baby she is nursing

and have no compassion on the child she has borne?

Though she may forget,

I will not forget you! 

From at least as far back as Abraham, and that’s a long way back, God has promised to be merciful to us. It is that mercy that causes God to reach out and take us by the hand. God never forgets what He promised. God never forgets to have mercy on us.

Mary knew that God had shown her great mercy in letting her become Jesus’ mom. She also knew that Jesus was going to be how God was going to show mercy not only to her but to all of her people – the Jewish people, and to all the people in the whole world.

This is what Christmas is all about, God taking us by the hand and showing us amazing mercy. And we join in this by showing mercy to each other. Just like we’re lighting one candle with the next, we share the light of God’s mercy with each other. From one of us to the next and on down the line, generation to generation, a light for all people.

Listen to more of what Isaiah said about the coming of Mary’s baby, the one they both prophesied about. And then we’ll sing about it together.

Listen to me, all you in distant lands;

hear this, you who are far away:

Before I was born Yahweh called me;

from my mother’s womb he has called me by name.

He made my mouth like a sharpened sword,

in the shadow of his hand he hid me;

he made me into a polished arrow

and concealed me in his quiver.

He said to me, “You are my servant,

And you will bring me glory.”

I replied, “But my work seems so useless!

I have spent my strength for nothing and to no purpose.

Yet I leave it all in Yahweh’s hand;

I will trust God for my reward.”

And now the Lord says—

he who formed me in the womb to be his servant

to bring Jacob back to him

and gather Israel to himself,

for I am honored in the eyes of Yahweh

and my God has been my strength—

he says:

“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant

to restore the tribes of Jacob

and bring back those of Israel I have kept.

I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,

that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” 

Shout for joy, you heavens;

rejoice, you earth;

burst into song, you mountains!

For Yahweh comforts his people

and will have compassion on his afflicted ones.

But we said, “The Lord has forsaken us,

the Lord has forgotten us.”

“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast

and have no compassion on the child she has borne?

Though she may forget,

I will not forget you!

Join us now as we sing Silent Night together.



Lord, we join Mary – our souls exalt You
We are grateful and full of joy because
You have seen our lowly condition and brought
Us salvation and  blessings.
You are the  Mighty One and You have done great things for us
Your  name is sacred
And Your mercy is for generations and generations
We honor and respect You
Show Your power Lord
Tear down the proud in the imagination of their hearts
Pull down the tyrants from their thrones
Raise up the humble
Fill the hungry with good things
Send the rich away empty
Take us by the hand
Remember Your mercy
Your promises to our ancestors
To Abraham and us his children forever


keep this miracle a secret

Ever wonder why Jesus told people to keep his miracles a secret? Seems like a strange thing to do and usually no explanation is given. But there is one instance in Matt. 12 where we are told why Jesus did things this way: 

But Jesus knew what they were planning. So he left that area, and many people followed him. He healed all the sick among them, but he warned them not to reveal who he was. This fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah concerning him: (Matthew 12:15-17 NLT)

 Jesus ministered like this because it was in keeping with what Isaiah prophesied about him. In the Isaiah passage (which Matthew also quotes), we see that this approach pleases the Father and has certain qualities:

Look at my servant, whom I strengthen. He is my chosen one, who pleases me. I have put my Spirit upon him. He will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or raise his voice in publicHe will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle. He will bring justice to all who have been wronged. He will not falter or lose heart until justice prevails throughout the earth. Even distant lands beyond the sea will wait for his instruction. (Isaiah 42:1-4 NLT)

Ministry that is dependent on the Holy Spirit does not draw attention to itself, is completely gentle, and yet so strong it never gives up. This is what pleases God. This is what Jesus did. This is what Jesus calls his followers to do (and how to do it).