Christmas: God Reverses the Standing of His People
Text: Luke 1:46-55;Â Scripture Readings: 1 Samuel 1:1-20; 2:1-11;Â Luke 1:39-56
December 21, 2008 Â Download this sermon (PDF)
In the Philippines, it is customary to play the song “Ave Maria” set to the popular melody by Franz Schubert during Roman Catholic funeral processions, probably because of the veneration of Mary by the Catholic faithful. This is ironic because Mary’s song is not a song of mourning, but rather a song of praise to God after the angel Gabriel announced to her that she would conceive “the Son of the Most High.”
“Ave Maria” is a Latin phrase which means “Hail Mary,” and is based on the angel’s word of greeting to Mary in Luke 1:28, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” Thus, it can also mean “Rejoice and be glad, Mary!”
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the prayer became “Hail Mary, Mother of God and Virgin…” The title “Mother of God” is a mistranslation of the Greek word theotokos, which literally means”God-bearer” or “the one who gives birth to God,” not “mother of God.” Theotokos was affirmed by the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, favoring it over Christotokos, which means “Christ-bearer.” The council wanted to affirm that Mary’s Child has in his essence both a human and a divine nature united in the one Second Person of the Holy Trinity.
However, in the development of its Marian theology, the Roman Catholic Church added extra-biblical notions about the person of Mary as the “Mother of God.” The medieval church developed the doctrines of the immaculate conception, perpetual virginity and her bodily assumption into heaven. In the 16th century Council of Trent, “pray for us sinners” was added to the Rosary prayer, thereby making Mary a co-mediator with Christ. Finally, because of her part in bearing the Savior in her womb, Mary is also thought of as co-redemptor.
This Christmas season, we are not to overemphasize nor understate Mary’s role in God’s redemption plan. Her cousin Elizabeth praised Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1:42). This does not mean that she was blessed because of her virginity and humility, but because she bore the incarnate Son of God (Luke 1:32) and the Savior of his people (Luke 1:47). We are to celebrate Mary because, out of all the women of the world, Mary was chosen by God to play this role in his plan. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:4-5). And after Jesus was born, she was also given all the serious responsibilities of motherhood in raising the Son of Man from infancy to childhood to full maturity of manhood.
In choosing Mary to bear his Incarnate Son, God reversed her status before God and man: from an obscure, humble girl to one who will be called “blessed among women” by all generations. Our text will show that God reverses the status not only of Mary, but of His people, when he chose them: from humble, lowly sinners, to His exalted, blessed and redeemed people:
1. Mary: From Maidservant to Blessed
2. Israel: From Slaves to Freed People
3. Sinners: From “No Mercy” to Heirs
Mary: From Maidservant to Blessed
Mary’s song is a hymn of praise to God for all his mighty and great works. It is also called “The Magnificat” from the first word in the Latin translation, which means “to exalt” or “to magnify.” We will also see that the Magnificat has many affinities with the Psalms.
Mary probably remembered that the words the angel used to describe her, “favored one” (Luke 1:28, 30), are the same words that described Noah, who “found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen. 6:8). Her question about the impossibility of conception without a husband was answered after the angel announced to her that her cousin Elizabeth, who was barren, is with child in her old age. The Holy Spirit, not man, is the one who creates life, and “nothing will be impossible with God.”
Being a virgin, Mary also perceived that she had become like Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel – women who were all barren but who nevertheless were involved in God’s redemptive plan by bearing children for the Jewish patriarchs. It is certain that she also remembered Hannah, the mother of Samuel the prophet, who was also barren and without a child in her old age. Hannah was despised and laughed at by Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah. But she kept praying to God for a son, and the Lord granted her persistent prayers when she conceived and bore a son whom she named Samuel.
And after Samuel was born, she sang a song that was a pattern for Mary’s song. Hannah also magnified the Lord and recognized that God can reverse the course of a person’s life: the barren can bear seven children, the one with many children can become forsaken and lonely; the proud humbled, the lowly uplifted; the mighty broken, the weak strengthened; the rich can become poor, and the poor can become rich.
Mary’s opening words also parallel many Psalms, for example:
Psalm 103:1: Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!”
Psalm 34:2, 3: “My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad. Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!”
She saw the great magnitude of what God has done for her in that she would forever be recognized as one “blessed … among women” (Luke 1:42, 48). She was the one woman, out of all women, through whom God would fulfill his covenant love and promise. How unsearchable is that! Through this obscure Jewish girl, the majestic and holy God dwelt with ungodly, unrighteous and fallen humanity. Through her, God continued his saving plan for humankind.
Did she deserve this blessedness? Was she chosen and favored by God because she was righteous and sinless, as the Roman Catholic Church claims? No, she was not. She was a sinner like us, and she knew it, as she sang, “my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Even Elizabeth knew that the one in Mary’s womb is her Lord and Savior, “And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43)
God reversed Mary’s standing from a humble maidservant to the blessed bearer of God in human flesh. But God reversed not only her standing, but Israel’s position as well – from a people in slavery to a chosen, redeemed nation.
Israel: From Slavery to Freedom
When Mary praised God for his mighty and great works, she was singing not just about God’s goodness to her, but also about God’s mighty acts in creation and in Israel’s redemption. Her praise of God’s great works of creation and redemption is elucidated more in Psalm 89. In verses 9-11, the psalmist exalts his mighty works in creation:
O Lord God of hosts, who is mighty as you are, O Lord, with your faithfulness all around you? You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them… The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it, you have founded them.
And as she magnifies the Lord because “He has shown strength with his arm… he has brought down the mighty from their thrones,” she affirms verses 22-23 which proclaims the power of his servant, the king of Israel, over his enemies:
The enemy shall not outwit him; the wicked shall not humble him. I will crush his foes before him and strike down those who hate him.
Israel’s history bears witness to God’s strong and mighty arm. Poor slaves in Egypt for 400 years escape with their masters’ gold and silver. Then God brought down the proud Pharaoh and his army into the depths of the sea. Traveling in the desert for 40 years, they never lacked food, water, shelter and protection from her enemies. God reminded them before entering the Promised Land of his steadfast love for them, “clothes have not worn out on you, and your sandals have not worn off your feet” (Deut 29:5). These former slaves conquered all the neighboring kings of Canaan, then settled and prospered in the land. And when David and Solomon became their kings, Israel became one of the most powerful and richest nations on earth. How improbable this is! This is why Mary rejoices in the Lord: he “has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (Luke 1:52).
From the day that God made his covenant promises to Abraham, he was faithful to fulfill those promises. Abraham had descendants as numerous as the stars in heaven, and they inherited the Promised Land. And even when the people fell into sin and were punished by God through cruel Babylonian invaders, God still performed his mighty work of restoring them back to their land.
But God’s promises to Abraham were not only to Israel. When he made his covenant with him, God already promised, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 15:3). God also reversed the standing of His people from all nations, tribes and tongues. In his steadfast love, his people are being transformed from sinners who have never received mercy to heirs of God’s eternal promises.
Sinners: From “No Mercy” to Heirs
Hannah’s song contains a prophecy about a coming King who is a descendant of Abraham. Hannah praises the Lord because he “will judge the ends of the earth and “will give strength to his king and exalt the powerÃ‚Â of his anointed. Similarly, Mary’s song magnifies the Lord because “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 child that the Holy Spirit will conceive will be given the throne of his father David, “and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33). This King is God’s Anointed One, who is the Lord’s Christ. He is also Abraham’s seed, who will reign forever.
This child is not only King, but also a High Priest, for he was born of Mary to offer a once-for-all sacrifice on behalf of his people’s sin (Matt 1:21). He is God’s ultimate provision to give mercy to his people.Ã‚Â Because of his steadfast love for his people, He bore their sins on the cross in order that God will give grace and mercy to his people.
In her song, Mary recognized God’s eternal mercy on his people, “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (v. 50). In this, she echoes the psalmist, “But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children” (Psalm 103:17).
And although Mary refers to Israel in her song of praise, God’s eternal plan of salvation included not only Israel, but in the fullness of time, all the nations of the earth. Paul explains an amazing turn of events between Israel and Gentile believers in several ways. In Romans 11:30-31, the turnaround is in relation to the disobedience of Israel, “For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may nowÃ‚Â receive mercy” (Rom 11:30-31). Israel received God’s mercy as he redeemed them from slavery in Egypt. But they were disobedient people, so God withdrew his mercy from them. As a result of their disobedience, Gentiles in turn received God’s mercy. The chosen ones became disobedient in order that those who were disobedient will receive mercy and become obedient.
In Ephesians 2:1, 4-5, the reversal that Paul explains is about the sinner’s former state of being dead in sin, “ButÃ‚Â God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” Because of God’s love and mercy, the dead sinner comes to life in Christ. A few verses later, Paul again describes a complete turnabout in the status of sinners,
you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ… So then you are no longer strangers and aliens,Ã‚Â but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (Eph 2:12, 13, 19).
The Gentile sinner, an alien and outsider, is given citizenship in God’s kingdom. This is why Peter reminds God’s people who were called out of darkness into God’s marvelous light, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Pet 2:9-10).
How did all these impossibilities become realities? Only through another great reversal in the work of Christ on the cross, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).
What a wonderful reversal of position before God’s court of law! Through the blood of Christ poured out on Calvary, our standing before God changed from sinner to saint, dead to alive, alien to citizen, “not a people” to God’s people, and “no mercy” to heirs of the promise.
Are you one of those who have received God’s mercy through faith in the One who was born Christ on Christmas day? If you are not, remember as you celebrate Christmas, that by faith, your standing before God will change from one who has not received mercy from God to one who is an heir of God’s promise.
As we read or listen to Mary’s song this Christmas season, let us not focus on Mary as the “mother” of God. Instead, let us focus on how God, through the Son of God whom she bore, is able to do the impossible: reversing the standing of His people.
Mary, a humble, unknown maidservant, became the favored one of God and blessed by generations to come as she carried in her womb God’s Anointed King and Priest.
Israel – lowly, poor slaves in Egypt – became God’s holy nation and treasured possession. God preserved them in the wilderness by providing food, shelter and clothing for them. He settled them and prospered them into a great nation in the Promised Land.
But because of Israel’s disobedience, we who are condemned Gentile sinners have also become members of God’s covenant people. And because of God’s rich mercies, he has redeemed us from condemnation – through faith alone in Christ alone. We were condemned to God’s wrath and received no mercy. But now, because of Christ’s finished work on the cross, we have received God’s mercy and love.
We have now become God’s holy nation, heirs to his promise to Abraham, David and Mary, the one who bore the incarnate Son of the Most High.