O Magnify the Lord!
A sermon on Luke 1:26-56 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 12/11/05
Do you have a plan for your life? – A list of things you hope or expect to accomplish?
Perhaps education: Finishing high school, college, or graduate school.
Perhaps family: Getting married, having children.
Perhaps career: Moving up in your profession.
Perhaps recreational: Goals to achieve in sports, or a vacation you’re aiming at.
What’s your plan? How important is that plan to you? How would you feel if through a change in circumstances or by conviction, you knew that glorifying God most fully in your life would lead you to abandon all those plans? How would you respond to God? How would you feel toward God?
For some of us: Having seen that happen already, how do you respond toward God right now?
Last week we began our studies in the Gospel of Luke. The angel Gabriel announced to Zechariah that his plans were greatly revised. For years he had wanted a child, but in his old age he had given up that dream. Yet now he becomes a father. And not just a father: The father of the forerunner of the long-awaited Messiah. This forced a huge change in Zechariah’s plans. Certainly there was some disruption of his plans, as in the case of any unexpected baby. But as the angel tells Zechariah, “You will have joy and gladness.” He sees the link between this birth and the fulfillment of God’s plan; he raises the boy in his first years of life; Zechariah most likely dies before the tragedy of John’s beheading.
This week, we see Gabriel announce God’s plan for Mary to become pregnant. Note that he doesn’t say anything to her about joy and gladness. Pregnancy for an unmarried girl is much more problematic than for a barren, married woman. God changed Mary’s plans dramatically.
How does she respond? Why does she respond the way she does? What lessons does Mary provide for us, as God changes our plans? We’ll answer those questions along the way this morning as we look at Luke 1:26-56 under two headings:
Today’s text opens in verse 26 when Elizabeth is six months pregnant. As we learned last week, she has remained in seclusion, not announcing her pregnancy, so even Mary, her relative, does not know.
Gabriel – the same angel – goes to an obscure town out in the sticks, Nazareth. Remember what Nathanial, a future disciple, says to Philip about Nazareth in John 1? “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Think of the place you would least expect to give birth to a president or a major business leader, and that place is today’s equivalent to Nazareth.
Gabriel goes to virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, who is a descendant of David. That may sound important, but it doesn’t mean much. David has lots of descendants, and none of his descendants has reigned as king for hundreds of years. King Herod, the king of Judea mentioned in verse 5, is not a descendant of David; indeed, he is not fully Jewish. In any event, even King Herod is ultimately under Roman authority.
We learn elsewhere that Joseph is a carpenter. He thus has a profession. Thus, the family is not poverty-stricken by the standards of the day, but neither Joseph’s nor Mary’s family has any claim to prominence. Joseph is a small-town carpenter. That’s it.
Yet Gabriel appears, saying, “Greetings, O favored One, the Lord is with you!” Mary is frightened – the usual response in the Bible to an angelic appearance, as we noted last week. She can’t figure out how she is favored, how she is a recipient of grace. So Gabriel explains in verse 30:
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God”
“You have found favor” or “found grace.” This expression “found favor” is common in the Old Testament, appearing over forty times. The same Greek words written here are found in the Greek translation of the Old Testament again and again. The expression is used of finding favor both with men and with God. It does not mean “full of grace.” In Genesis 6:8, for example, Noah is said to have found favor in the eyes of the Lord. Similarly Moses is said to have found favor with God in Exodus 33:17. Surely neither Noah nor Moses merited God’s favor. Instead, He showered grace on them.
So Gabriel is saying, “Mary, God is going to show you unimaginable grace. God will give you a privilege so far beyond your deserving that you will be overwhelmed.”
The angel explains this grace in verses 31-33:
And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."
Look at how the angel describes Mary’s son: Great. The Son of the Most High. The Son of David. He will receive David’s throne. He will reign over the house of Jacob – that is, over all Israel, all God’s covenant people – forever. For emphasis, he repeats this last idea: His kingdom will never end.
As we mentioned last week, the Jews have been waiting hundreds of years for the promised son of David to arise and become their king. Mary now hears the angel say that her son is this long-awaited Messiah. A young girl from nowhere. A girl with no prominence. Chosen by God to be the mother of the Messiah.
Remember how Zechariah responded when he was told that he and his barren wife would have a son? He asks, “How shall I know this is true?” (verse 18). He is asking for sign, asking for the angel’s credentials.
Does Mary ask for a sign? Not at all. She is just confused. She doesn’t see how this is possible. Luke has already told us that she is a virgin. Her response to Gabriel shows that it is clear to her that this child is not to be fathered by Joseph. She asks,
“How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Luke 1:34
She is saying, “I don’t get the biology here.” Gabriel tells her it will be a miracle:
"The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy- the Son of God.” Luke 1:35
“Overshadow” may seem like a strange word, but it is used several times in Scripture to indicate God’s presence. For example, in Exodus 40:35 when the Israelites complete construction of the tabernacle, the cloud of God’s glory “settles” on it. The Greek translation of the Old Testament uses the same word. In Luke, the same word is used in chapter 9 verse 34 when a cloud overshadows Peter, James, and John on the mount of transfiguration, right before God speaks to them out of the cloud. Thus, “overshadow” draws attention to the miracle of God’s presence with Mary.
Mary did not ask for a sign, but Gabriel in verse 36 gives her one, telling her of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. This is an example of what he says in verse 37: “Nothing will be impossible with God.”
How could Mary have reacted to this news? She could have said, “What? Me, pregnant? What will Joseph think? What will my parents think? You know, I was looking forward to life as a carpenter’s wife in Nazareth. Can’t you just leave me alone and pick some other girl?” In effect, that’s how Moses’ answered God’s call in Exodus 4:13.
Have you responded that way? When God convicts you of something:
Do you respond, “That’s for other people, not for me. God, just leave me alone. I’m doing well enough just as I am, thank you.”
But Mary says in verse 38:
“I am the Lord’s slave. Let it be to me according to your word”
Mary receives great grace from God – the privilege of bearing the long-awaited Messiah: A great, inconvenient privilege. This was nowhere on her radar screen. She had many expectations, many plans for her life. But Mary, showing great faith and wisdom, forgets those plans. She has faith in God’s promise to her and to her people. And as we’ve seen in our studies in Proverbs, wisdom is seeing who God is, seeing how He rules the world, and responding accordingly. She has learned God’s character in her young life, she knows how He rules the world through studying His Word, and so she is ready to respond with wisdom and faith to His call.
Are you similarly ready? Will you too respond with wisdom and faith?
Like most dialogues in Scripture, it is highly unlikely that Luke gives us a complete account of every word spoken in this conversation between Gabriel and Mary. For Mary knows she will become pregnant soon; that’s way verse 39 tells us she “went with haste” to see Elizabeth. No one else is likely to believe her story that her pregnancy is God’s work; no one else will be able to share her joy like this elderly relative who is also pregnant via God’s miracle.
Mary enters Elizabeth’s house and greets her.
And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Luke 1:41-44
Permit me to give a brief footnote here: Verse 15 tells us that the infant John is filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb. Then in verse 41, he leaps when Mary greets Elizabeth. Most importantly, in verse 44, the Spirit-filled Elizabeth interprets this action, saying the baby leaped “for joy.” If an infant still in his mother’s womb can be filled with the Holy Spirit, if he can leap for joy in response to the presence of his Messiah, there is no question that he is human. Babies in the womb are human. That is not a major point in this text, but is nevertheless a clear implication with huge ramifications for the abortion debate.
Elizabeth’s response makes clear whose son is the most important, as she calls Mary the “mother of my Lord.” She knows Mary’s son will be the Messiah, the long-awaited descendant of King David.
Verse 45 then highlights the reason for her to honor Mary, and for us to honor Mary:
We should honor Mary for the same reason Elizabeth honors Mary:
“And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord." Luke 1:45
Mary is a woman of faith. She believes. She acts on that belief. Her plans were turned upside down. And she followed God faithfully. She is a wonderful example of a woman of faith.
She now expresses her response to God’s work in a marvelous song.
46 "My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Luke 1:46, 47
These two lines are in parallel to each other, like many verses in Proverbs. Mary restates her idea, but with enough changes to clarify the meaning of the first statement. “My soul” parallels “my spirit.” “Lord” – here standing for the name of God, Yahweh, the God of covenant – is in parallel with “God My Savior” – the One who promised, who will deliver His people.
The verbs are the most interesting: “magnifies” is in parallel with “rejoices in.” What does magnify mean? A magnifying glass increases the apparent size of anything we look at through it. But how can Mary magnify the Lord? Isn’t He already as big as He can get? Many of you know the illustration that John Piper uses: We magnify God the way a telescope magnifies a star. The star is huge – so huge it’s beyond our comprehension. Yet it appears to us as a tiny speck of light. The telescope makes it appear a bit larger to us – and thus a bit more like it’s real self. Just so with God. When we magnify Him, we make Him look more like He really is. On this world, in our culture, God appears small and insignificant. We magnify Him – and still fall far, far short of showing all His glory to those around us.
The parallel between “magnify” and “rejoice” shows that Mary magnifies the Lord through her joy. Note: If she went along with God but moped throughout her pregnancy, she would be diminishing Him, not magnifying Him. “Oh, I just wanted a quiet life. I guess I’ll do this, but all my plans are out the window!” That attitude would imply that her plans were more important than the bearing the Messiah! But that’s not what she does. Instead, she sees that God has lifted her out of the mundane and given her a great task. He has also given her great grace for that task – He planted the baby in her womb, and will do all else necessary to enable her to fulfill her role. She rejoices – and thus magnifies God. She shows that God is her all in all.
She explains what she is so joyful about, why she magnifies Him, in verses 48 and 49:
For he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. Luke 1:48, 49
God looked on her “humble estate.” He could have glanced at her and rejected her, thinking that her surrounding were too humble, her town too small, her parents too unimportant. But instead He looked at her and chose a nobody. He did not look away, rejecting her because she was nobody in the eyes of the world. So Mary says here, “I am a nobody. I am not important. My plans were not important. God is everything. He is mighty. He has done great things for me.”
So now, everyone in the future, all generations, will call her blessed – by God. Why will this continue forever into the future? Because, as Gabriel said, His kingdom will never end. Mary clearly believes Gabriel’s prophecy. She believes God’s might. She rejoices. She magnifies Him.
She concludes this section by declaring, “Holy is His name!” This expression sums up her praise. He is pure. He is right. He is just. He is different. She knows she is not holy – she is nothing. But this great God has touched her, has blessed her, has empowered her. So she rejoices in Him, thereby magnifying Him.
Verses 50-55 turn away from herself, and reflect on God’s expressions of covenant love to his humble people of all times – times past, present, and future. God had a plan of redemption from the beginning of time. Mary now stands at the focal point of that plan, with the infant Jesus in her womb. She does not yet understand His role completely, but knows enough to offer these great words of praise.
This stanza begins and ends with general statements in verse 50 and 54-55 that set the themes. The middle verses, 51-53, speak of specific ways that God shows His covenant love. In considering the theme verses, let’s ask three questions: What? When? And to whom?
And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. Luke 1:50
This verse alludes to Psalm 103:17:
But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children's children.
What is the theme? God’s mercy, His steadfast love, His covenant love, His faithfulness to His promises as expressed to His people.
When is this mercy expressed? Mary says, “From generation to generation;” the psalmist says, “from everlasting to everlasting” and “to children’s children.” That is, always. God is always working for His covenant people; He was even working over the previous 400 years when it seemed as if God was silent. God is even working today, in your life and in mine, when it looks as if He has abandoned us.
To whom is this mercy expressed? Note that Mary does not say he shows mercy to all of Abraham’s physical descendants, but to those who “fear Him.” We must fear Him. As we saw in Proverbs,
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge but fools despise wisdom and instruction. Proverbs 1:7
If we have no fear of God then we are not humble. Instead, we are proud. Fear leads us to keep God’s covenant, as Psalm 103:18 tells us. Indeed, Psalm 103 in its entirety records the rejoicing of one who is in covenant with God, one who is a beneficiary of the promise-keeping, forgiving God.
Now look at verse 54 and 55, asking the same three questions:
54 “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever."
What is the theme? His mercy, His covenant love.
When is this mercy expressed? Forever. This is clearer in the NIV, which changes the word order of the Greek but I think interprets the verse correctly:
54 “He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers." NIV
In this rendering, “forever” refers back to God’s helping Israel, His being merciful. So once again we see that God is always merciful, to every generation.
To whom is His mercy expressed? His “servant Israel,” His covenant people, the recipients of His promise. But the context makes clear that here too Mary is not talking about all the physical descendants of Abraham, but to those who fear him, those who are humble. She thus sets the stage for the future clarifying revelation that her son will open the door of salvation, the promises of the covenant, to all who fear Him, whatever their ancestry. The promises to Israel are for all nations.
That the promises are not for those Israelites who are proud is absolutely clear in the middle verses, 51-53. These verses show specific ways that God helps His people. Note that in our English translations, all the verbs in these verses are in the past or perfect tenses. But given the emphasis on God’s everlasting help in the bracketing verses, 50 and 54-55, we should not limit the idea to God’s work in the past. The idea here is not only that God has been faithful in the past, but that God is faithful always; He was faithful in the past, He is being faithful right now in Mary and Elizabeth’s lives, and He will be faithful for all eternity in the future.
51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; 52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.
God is the only strong one! He always takes weak ones – like Mary, like Esther, like David, like Daniel - and exalts them, showing that He is the source of their strength. He always takes the proud, the mighty – like Pharaoh, like Nebuchadnezzer, like Jezebel, - and humbles them, showing that their power is nothing. Worldly power, worldly accomplishment, worldly pride are nothing. Indeed, to the extent that they make us think we do not need God, they are worse than nothing: they are dangerous.
God always keeps His covenant; He always shows mercy. But he shows that mercy only to the humble – to the one who admits he needs God’s mercy.
As Mary sees this – as she sees that she deserves nothing from God but, like so many throughout history, she receives great mercy from Him – she overflows with joyous praise. She could have bellyached. She could have focused on all her plans gone awry. At this point she doesn’t even know how Joseph will respond. But she rejoices in God Her Savior. She humbles herself. And she magnifies God.
What about you? Will you humble yourself? Will you admit your need for Him? Will you thus magnify God?
He who is mighty, He who is faithful, He who expresses covenant love to His people will do great things for you too.
You might say, “I’m not chosen to be mother of Jesus Christ! I’m not chosen to do anything important – so how does Mary’s situation apply to me?”
I can say with confidence that no one here this morning will give birth to the Messiah. But God nevertheless has a task for you, a vital task. You are like Mary, in that no one else can perform that task. Furthermore, like Mary, you will only accomplish God’s task by setting aside some of your own plans, being willing to lay them all aside.
For three Decembers in a row, 1999 to 2001, if anyone had told me where I would be and what I would be doing the next December, I would have told him he was crazy. I had no inkling of the way God was leading us. Many plans were set aside.
On the other hand, the three previous Decembers have not brought any surprises about the location, at least, of our work. What about December 2006? Where will we be? What will we be doing? I think I know. But I never want to get so comfortable that I say, “God, don’t do that! Send someone else!”
Think about Mary at this point. What does she think God will do with her son? She knows He will become king, for that’s what the angel said! And in her head, undoubtedly becoming king means gaining honor and glory in this world. She doesn’t yet know that the path to kingship goes through the cross. Think about all the difficulties Mary will face in the future:
Mary found favor with God. But: finding favor with God did not lead to an easy life for Mary, and it won’t for you. Her statement, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” held when she saw and understood part of God’s great plan, and it held when she didn’t understand. We need to learn from her example always to live a life of humility, a life of acknowledging who God is, living out who God is, rejoicing in God your Savior, even as He upsets your plans and leads you through suffering. For He has looked with care at your humble estate, and has chosen to use you for His good, wise purposes.
Any one of God’s covenant people can know for sure He has done great things for you, and will do more great things in the future.
Are you within that covenant? Are you a recipient of God’s promises? Is God working for you? Can you rejoice in God your Savior?
You can answer “Yes!” to all those questions. That’s why Mary became pregnant: For your everlasting joy.
So fear the Lord. Be humble. Acknowledge your sinfulness. See God as your treasure. Admit that you have been proud, have exalted yourself, have held on to your own plans, your own desires. Admit that you have diminished God, have blocked Him out. Admit that you have thus violated the whole reason for your existence: to live to God’s glory.
Repent. Turn. Seek joy in Him. See Jesus as the one who paid the penalty for your sins.
Then rejoice in God your Savior. Find Joy in humility – and thus magnify the Lord.
This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 12/11/05.
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