In October 2016, I gave the following exposition on Luke 1:46-55, known as Mary's Song or the Magnificat, at my church for a women's event. In this season of Advent, I'd like to share it with you. It's interesting that Luke includes in his Gospel Mary's Song, which is an interpretation of the preceeding events (the annunciation and the incarnation). What do we learn about the nature of God (who he is) through Mary's Song? That's the question I try to answer. You can read my manuscript below or listen to the audio of it here. May this Advent season ever remind you of the nearness of God in Jesus Christ and his unfathomable love for you.
I don’t know about you but even though I’ve been a Christian for a long time, I still battle in my mind with different, opposing views of God. Every day is a struggle with belief in some way: a belief in a God who still loves me, a belief in a God who forgives me, a belief in a God whose mercy does not run dry, a belief in a God who is near me not far from me. Perhaps you find yourself asking yourself, Is God going to run out on me like that parent or spouse? Is God not going to forgive me like that friend who refused to forgive? Who is God and what do we believe about him in those darkest moments when we have nothing left to give?
Our God is notthe god of Julie Gold’s song, “From a Distance,” who is or perhaps should be at a distance.
Who is God is the singular, most important question for us believers and in fact for all of humanity. Everything else stems from how we answer that question.
That is why I am about to do something unusual: teach from an Advent passage 66 days before Christmas.
But I think Mary, the mother of Jesus, can help us answer this question, Who is God?, in her song, also known as the Magnificat.
Read Luke 1:46-55.
Who is the God we find in Mary’s Song?
First, Mary praises a God who mercifully acts on her behalf.
Mary’s Song is a response to what has happened only a few verses before, in the annunciation of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. You may remember that twice Gabriel tells Mary that she has found favor with God—and what favor! She is the one who will bear the Son of God, the Son of the Most High.
Mary was a young, poor, country, unmarried girl from Nazareth. Nazareth, that place of which Nathanael asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Mary has no reason to boast—perhaps that’s why she was so troubled over what the angel said. On what merit could Mary find favor with God so that he would send an angel and promise his presence?
No merit of course. Like us, Mary was a daughter of Eve. Like us, she could join in and say as we do in our prayer of humble access, “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy Table.”
But what immediately follows in that same prayer? “But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.”
Mary’s Song locates the saving activity squarely in the very being of God as Savior who acts mercifully for her. God has determined himself to be her Savior. God’s looking on the humble estate of his servant is not the kind of looking we women do when we go window-shopping. “I’m just looking,” we tell our husbands, our mothers or ourselves. This means I’m going to admire but I’m not going to buy. But when God looks, he acts. When God looks, he buys. And when he acts, we praise. As New Testament scholar Joel Green puts it, “God acts graciously; people respond with joy and praise.”
God’s merciful action results in a new title for Mary: blessed. We Southerners love to use the word “bless.” I’m the most guilty. I’m especially guilty of saying, “Bless her heart.” “Bless her heart” can really be used as a cutting remark. We use it when someone has done something foolish or silly. We use it of those who are gullible or when someone has just gone through difficult circumstances.
But when the word blessed is used of someone in Scripture it is used of someone who has received divine favor, who has been blessed by God. God’s blessing flows from being in right relationship to God. Jesus tells Peter after he confessed him as “the Christ, the Son of the living God”: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” True blessing comes from the One from whom all blessings flow, who has the power to bless, because he himself is blessed because he is God. Mary’s blessedness points not to herself but to the One who has blessed her, God her Savior.
Why is Mary called blessed? “For he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” Do you notice the juxtaposition in these first few verses? Mary, who is humble and who is a servant, is juxtaposed with God, who is mighty and who has done great things. It is only the One who is mighty who is able to take the lowly and lift them up and change their status. The Mighty One has taken her from the place of a lowly servant to a place of blessing and honor.
But how does He do it? Our text doesn’t supply that answer but that’s why we read Scripture in conversation with Scripture. God the Mighty One is able to bless the lowly one by himself becoming lowly. Paul writes in Philippians, “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
The fullness of God’s blessing came to Mary in the very presence of God. In Gabriel’s announcement, he tells Mary that the Most High will overshadow her and the Son of God will be conceived in her. Think of the magnitude of such an act.
When King Solomon was getting ready to build a temple for the Lord, he said, “The house that I am to build will be great, for our God is greater than all gods. But who is able to build him a house, since heaven, even highest heaven, cannot contain him?”
The same God who cannot be contained by the highest heaven, whose small toe was too big to fit in Solomon’s temple, chose to make himself small, so small to fit in a womb, Mary’s womb. This great act of humility was the gracious act of the Mighty One for Mary. This is why she can say, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!”
But Mary’s Song doesn’t stop there with verse 49. Mary not only praises a God who mercifully acts on her behalf.
Secondly, she also praises a God who mercifully acts on behalf of others, namely Israel.
Mary understands that what God has done for her is representative of or sets into motion what God is doing for his people. New Testament scholar Joel Green says, “It is by means of his looking ‘with favor on the lowliness of his servant’ Mary that ‘he has helped his servant Israel.’” It is through her that God has chosen to fulfill his covenantal promise.
Just as Elizabeth’s pregnancy was a sign for Mary that God would fulfill his word to her, so Mary serves as our sign that what God has done for Mary he will do for us. Of course we won’t bear the Son of God, but just as he poured out his Spirit on Mary and she was not consumed, so too he will pour out his Spirit at Pentecost and thereafter for everyone who believes in Jesus Christ. Just as he reversed Mary’s status and showed her favor and mercy, He will do the same for us.
But what may make us feel uncomfortable is how God’s mercy is described. It’s described in very concrete, worldly terms. Where is the spiritual reality of God’s mercy or the talk of hearts and faith and sin? Why does Mary use the description of God overcoming the social realities of our daily existence instead of Him overcoming the sinful realities of our spiritual existence?
We reject the promises of prosperity gospel preachers that with just the right amount of faith and the least amount of sin God’s blessings will pour out on us in material ways. We reject this because we know that even the righteous will suffer.
So what do we make of this?
First, God is a merciful God. God’s acting in human history is an act of grace. Grace implies that we are given something we do not deserve. The second part of Mary’s Song begins and ends with reference to God’s mercy: “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” and “He has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy.” Thus God’s acts listed between verses 50 and 54 should be read in light of God’s grace.
Theologian Karl Barth says, We have “perverted, wasted and hopelessly compromised our own being, life and activity, who find ourselves disqualified.” We are all messed up people, “offending and provoking God, making ourselves impossible before Him.”
It is what we confess and pray to God each week in our prayer of confession: “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.”
Like Mary, we have forfeited any rights to salvation.
Oh but God. When God’s name is used with the word but, there is hope. God coming to us through the womb of Mary breaks into our world with a declaration of his mercy and the divine “but.”
“But 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—by grace you have been saved!” Eph. 2:4-5.
Once again Barth says, “‘God with us’ means more than God over or side by side with us, before or behind us. It means more than His divine being in even the most intimate active connection with our human being otherwise peculiar to Him. It means that God has made Himself the One who fulfills His redemptive will. It means that God has become man in order to take up our case. What takes place in this work of inconceivable mercy is, therefore, the free over-ruling of God, but it is not an arbitrary overlooking and ignoring, not an artificial bridging, covering-over or hiding, but a real closing of the breach, gulf and abyss between God and us for which we are responsible. At the very point where we refuse and fail, offending and provoking God, making ourselves impossible before Him and in that way missing our destiny, treading under foot our dignity, forfeiting our right, losing our salvation and hopelessly compromising our creaturely being—at that very point God Himself intervenes as man.”
This is why, friends, we can say that God with us is God’s for us in Jesus Christ.
Second, God is a God who cares for the whole person. Think of Jesus’ ministry. Yes, he proclaims good news for the sinner, but He also feeds the hungry on the mountain. He physically heals the wounded. He commands his disciples to take care of the most vulnerable: the widows and orphans. He turns water into wine for a wedding feast; he delivers those who are demon-possessed. He raises the dead and gives them back to his family. He weeps with the weeping. The fact that the God who created the material has entered into the material shows us that God cares about even the very basic necessities of this life. His mercy doesn’t stop with overturning the oppressor of our spiritual lives but extends to those people and those things that oppress even our physical lives.
This part of Mary’s Song is declarative of what God is doing in the present, but also a prophecy of what he will do in the future.
He scatters the proud, brings down the mighty from their thrones, sends the rich away empty, exalts the humble, and fills the hungry. In this context, Mary is not simply talking about the poor as those who are unfortunate and the rich as those who have money. These terms are used to represent those who are humble and depend on God (the poor) and those who use their power and privilege to oppress others (the rich). You can have money but still be poor in spirit; you can have little money and still reject God in your pride. These are representative terms.
But even God’s judgment on the mighty is an act of mercy in order that they may repent and turn to him. In his mercy he takes away those things which become our stumbling blocks to him, and he gives those things which sustain his people.
So, in conclusion, who is God? What does Mary’s Song teach us about our God?
He is the God who has determined himself to be a God with a people. He is a God who desires to be known personally and by what he does for us. He is a God who loves freely and freely acts mercifully on our behalf. He is a God who desires to be praised for what he has done for us in history.
He is the God who, as we confess in our creeds, “for us men and our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”
For us men and our salvation.
Theologian T. F. Torrance says, “He loves us with the very Love which he is.”
Again: “In this final revelation of himself God proclaims himself to all mankind as the one Lord God the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth, who in his overflowing love will not be without us human beings but has freely come among us to be one of us and one with us in order to reconcile us to himself and to bring us into communion with himself.”
And one last quote from Torrance: “We believe that what God is toward us in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, he is in himself, antecedently and eternally in himself; and that what he imparts to us through the Spirit who sheds the love of God into our hearts, he is in himself, antecedently and eternally in himself.”
This means that there is not a different God behind the back of Jesus. The God we see in Jesus is the same God who is for us in history. The God who is for Mary is the God who is for us, working in our lives, hovering over our chaos and creating us new. He is not a God at a distance; He is God with us. Mary’s God is our God. Thus, Mary’s Song is our song. In Christ, we too can sing:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
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.