Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Mary's Song: Luke 1:46-55

“Give me the songs of a nation, I care not who writes its laws.” “Give me the songs of a nation, I care not who writes its laws.” So says 18th century Scottish political thinker Andrew Fletcher (oft quoted by Ravi Zacharias). Whatever the rules of a society, it is the songs that really motivate them. It is the songs they sing that really inspire them. It is the songs sung in the bars, on the radio, at the stadiums, that move people, arouse people, drive people—even control people. The songs people sing, and the rhymes and poems and little sayings that flow through the heart, soul and mind—these are the things that make us who we are in powerful ways.

On the beach up north on Lake Michigan, I’d taken Brynne to a beautiful playground with swings and so forth, and we were having a peaceful time. A woman and her 4 year old granddaughter join the gang and the little girl is swinging in one of those baby seats. Just an indelible picture of vulnerability, all strapped in that heavy plastic, with no chance of falling out. We exchange pleasantries, and Grandma tells me the girl goes to the local Christian school. Very good! The little girl is swinging back and forth in the baby seat, all snug in and Brynne is playing on the jungle gym (or whatever). Then this little girl starts with a real, intense, word-for-word recitation of some song and she has the facial expression going on like this was serious business. She’s all into it. She has the rhythm and the cadence going on like she’s ready to enter a contest. It’s like looking at an adult and a child all at the same time. It’s weird. This girl recites the song with ferocious intensity. I ask the grandmother what song it is, and she says, “Hannah Montana.” I mutter something under my breath, and the woman says, “What?” “Oh nothing,” I reply. (I had muttered the word “pagan”). Guess I was feeling a bit judgmental at the time…

But, let me ask you a question…and I’m not judging anyone or condemning anyone in here, because I’m not near where I need to be on this. But, what songs do you sing? And, what songs to you teach your children? To your grandchildren? When you are fearful or lonely, do you sing any songs at all? When you rejoice, do you sing a song? Which song? Whether you are suffering, or enjoying good things, or just musing about the day, do you praise God in song? Do you have any songs memorized that give praise to God? I have to confess, that I am way, way behind on this. I don’t know how to sing any songs from the Psalms. I hardly have any Christian hymns memorized. At one point, I could listen to a mere blip of any rock song from the so-called “classic rock” genre and tell you the song, band, album, band members, even the year the song was released. I even have a reputation from school for that. But the Psalms? Christian songs and hymns? Sadly, I have a long way to go.

Which brings us to Mary’s song. In this song, Mary praises God for his faithfulness to his promises. Mary was only about 8-10 years older than this girl at the beach, and she’s from a little country town, and probably can’t read, she’s probably illiterate, she doesn’t have an ipod or a music player of any kind, no CD’s, no mp3’s, no nothing, and yet look at this song. This song is so incredible and full of Scripture and theology that critical scholars actually deny that Mary even sang the song in the first place, because they say, as one scholar notes, “Could a country girl compose such a work?” Well, the answer is yes. In fact, there isn’t any evidence that the hymn was written by “postcross” early Christians in the church. The hymn is very nationalistic and “Israeli” in nature, whereas early Christian hymns are more centered on the finished work of God in Christ, the church, and our need to follow him at all costs. Scholars also note that Jewish boys and girls in the 1st century memorized entire books of the Old Testament, and in the synagogue, the Psalms were sung for worship, and they were also sung amidst popular culture.

We just experienced the Holidays, and I heard Christian hymns in stores. What would it be like if throughout the year, we heard psalms, hymns and spiritual songs throughout our society: at sporting events, in restaurants and bars, over loud speakers downtown. Tell you what I’d like: those (fill in the blank for yourself) ice cream trucks to carry a Christian tune. That music coming from that thing is enough to drive someone batty!

We have this beautiful song by Mary called The Magnificat, where Mary praises God for his faithfulness to his promises. It’s called The Magnificat because of a word in the song from an old translation of the Bible called the Latin Vulgate. It’s where Mary says her soul “magnifies” the Lord. It’s the word “magnifies” where we get the title “Magnificat.”

“My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

By magnifying the Lord, she praises him for his work in her life and for her people. She praises him and gives thanks to him for his goodness, faithfulness and justice. “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Lord you are good, you are mighty, you are great, and I praise you!

So Mary is a young, Jewish girl, probably of junior high age. She was in Nazareth, a small town of maybe six hundred people. She probably could not read. She was just a little thing as girls of that day were engaged at fourteen years old—sometimes younger.

She was just a small town girl engaged to be married, living in the countryside in a nation dominated by Roman rule, in a nation that still considered itself in exile, awaiting the promised reign of God to set the people free. And now she is pregnant and she goes with haste to Elizabeth’s home.

Mary’s song contains three themes, two of which are closely related.
1) nationalistic character
2) personal thanksgiving
3) eschatological hope (I’ll explain that)

1) Nationalistic hope: Mary praises God for his faithfulness to his promises to Israel. For the longest time, the Jews hoped for a deliverer that would set them free from foreign oppression. God promised his people that he would send them a king to lead them. The people of Israel longed for this king. We don’t have time this morning to go over all the passages related to the promised king but note Jeremiah 23:5

“The days are coming,” declares the LORD,
“when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch,
a King who will reign wisely
and do what is just and right in the land.

“How long, O Lord?” was the cry of the Jews (and still is for many today) before he would set them free from their oppressors? First the Egyptians, then the Philistines and Canaanites, then the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Medes and the Persians, then Greece, then the Syrophoenicians, then Rome. How long?!!! Send us a king who will rule and bring peace! Not 150 years earlier, the Jews had been at war. And now, the promise has come. And Mary shall bear this child promised so long ago. Even way back in Genesis 3:15 when the Lord says to the serpent,

“And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.”

The devil will try to crush God’s anointed king, Jesus, by striking his heel at the cross, but by Jesus’ death and resurrection, he will crush the head of man’s archenemy the devil. As Romans 16:20 says, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.”

Mary praises God for his faithfulness to his promises to HER.

2) Personal devotion: Mary’s song also contains personal devotion. She must have been tempted with fear. After all, she risked accusations of adultery; she risked consequent stoning; she risked the sneers and back-stabbing and gossip of the village of Nazareth. She’s in a situation where she could have been thrown out on the street, without a job, without help of family or community, all alone and rejected. But, instead of questioning God, and cowering in fear, she rejoices in a song of confident praise!

How many of us, when we feel lonely or afraid turn to destructive things, instead of turning to our heavenly Father and rejoicing in him? I have a friend who suffers from depression and anxiety and sadly, he gives himself over to heavy drinking and pornography. Anything to bring comfort, put away the pain, and bring some kind of satisfaction. Now, he’s getting help, and doing good things to avoid this stuff. And he’s still going to church and praising God. He’s with community. He’s got a roommate that will keep him accountable. He’s taking action. That’s the right thing to do. Christians do the right thing by saying no to idols of destruction, and giving themselves over to the Lord in praise, confession, repentance, prayer, and the good counsel of fellow believers. Mary is a good example of making haste and running to her relative, who is a fellow believer, and she responds in praise instead of fear. She responds in faith. A REAL faith. A LIVE faith. And Mary responds in praise to God for his faithfulness to her to bring good things to pass.

3) Eschatological hope: Lastly, Mary’s song is eschatological. This simply means that the song looks forward to God’s plan for the world history, that God’s promises will be fulfilled in Christ.

She draws allusions from Genesis, Deuteronomy, 1&2 Samuel (Hannah’s song), the Psalms and the prophets. And she’s in junior high! What an amazing young woman! She says that God has helped Israel his servant (the word is closely related to “child”) and that God has remembered his mercy as he promised to Abraham and the fathers of old--forever.

The word “mercy” here is interesting. During the time between the Old and New Testaments, there was a translation of the Old Testament from the Hebrew into the Greek, called the Septuagint. In the Septuagint, the word “mercy” translated from the Hebrew is often understood as God’s covenant justice, or his covenant faithfulness or in some translations, his “lovingkindness.” But the idea is that God will be faithful to his promises, even if Israel fails to be faithful to God. God, in his mercy, will bless his people by coming through with his promise to bring the forgiveness of sins and a light for revelation to the Gentiles (As we see later this chapter in Zechariah’s prayer and in Simeon’s prayer in chapter 2 verse 32).

God is going to keep his promise to deliver Israel, and bless all nations through Abraham’s seed which is Christ Jesus! The promise is coming to fruition, and Mary takes a huge part! Her response is to praise God for his faithfulness to his promises to Israel, and to her as well.

God’s promise is to save Israel from their enemies. Mary says this, and so does Zechariah later in the chapter. The hope is that God is going to save Israel from their enemies, but one of the confusing things is that Israel as a nation was completely destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70 by Titus, the Roman general. The 1st century Jewish historian Josephus records that during the 3-year siege by the Romans, over one million Jews lost their lives in the city. Inside the city were the Jews, cut off from food and water. There was famine, cannibalism, infighting, and murder. The magnificent temple was totally destroyed. It was their Pearl Harbor, or their 9/11. It was worse. The whole country was ruined, and the Jews were scattered or killed. So, what does this say about Mary’s song and Zechariah’s song? Did God remember Israel or not? Well, he did…by sending Christ, the author of a new and better covenant.

Perhaps Simeon’s prayer in Luke chapter 2 helps us understand this. He was a righteous and devout man and was “waiting for the consolation of…Israel.” He saw the baby Jesus and prayed this—and pay attention to his comments about not just Israel but the rest of humanity:
29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”

God has kept his promise to Israel in that Christ Jesus is the glory of Israel.

Now, let’s go from the big picture of the reign of Jesus over all nations, to each one of us and our lives: Mary was not afraid, but she feared the Lord.
“His mercy is upon those who fear him,” she says.

To fear the Lord means a few things. It means to tremble before him because of his mighty power and his holiness. It means to have a deep reverence for him and his ways. It means turning away from evil and striving after holiness. It means being humble and calling oneself a “slave” to him. It means knowing that we’re sinners who deserve his wrath and justice. For Martin Luther, a holy fear is a gift from God that the person without the Holy Spirit just can’t understand (what the Bible calls “the natural man”). But the beauty of God’s goodness is that when we come before him in this way, he welcomes us as the loving heavenly Father that he is. “A broken and contrite heart, O Lord, you will not despise,” King David says. As modern scholar Darrel Bock notes, “The point is that God’s mercy and power are exercised for the humble who fear him.” And those who fear the Lord praise him. They can’t help but praise him, and sing songs to him. Those who fear the Lord worship him.

Mary sees herself in terms of her relationship to God and in terms of her relationship with the covenant people of God, Israel (she would no doubt later understand it in terms of the new covenant people of God, the Church). But she sings appropriately to the actions and goodness of God to bring about good things to those who fear him. Do our songs that we sing reflect his goodness, justice and mercy of God? Do our songs that we have memorized give him praise and glory for his faithfulness, for his judgment? Bock says again, “Assurance comes from knowing that God acts in this way: faithful to his word and stretching out his mighty hand for those who stand humbly before him.” Amen.

(Delivered at Bethel United Church of Christ, Mountain View NC, Jan. 6, 2011).

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