Let me begin by asking you to pick up your “Christmas song books” (hold up BIBLE) and turn to the 26th verse of the first chapter of Luke’s gospel. Now, if you were here last Sunday then you know that I refer to my Bible as a “Christmas song book” because it contains the very FIRST songs of Christmas.
A 1st century physician named Luke recorded the words to these songs in his gospel-as sung by Zechariah, Mary, the angels, and Simeon-their response to the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. We’re studying these songs together this advent season. But, before I go any further in this morning’s message I need to correct something I said last week. I told you Zechariah’s song was the first Christmas carol when it was actually the SECOND. Mary beat him to it. Zechariah was visited by the angel first but Mary was the first to sing!
Now-one thing I learned in my study this week is the fact that these first Christmas songs were very DIFFERENT from any other Jewish religious songs of their day. I mean, if you and I were to have gone to the temple for worship in the years just before Jesus’ birth we would have heard mournful music. Worship music in this chapter of the history of Israel did not include clapping and smiling. No, the melodies and lyrics were cheerless-in fact I think they must have all been in minor keys to reflect the depressing attitude of these people.
And-the REASON there were no happy songs in these days was because these people had very little to be happy about. For example, as I told you last week-instead of LEADING other nations to God, they had been led-RULED-by pagan nations for nearly six centuries. Plus-due to their disobedience and idolatry, God had not spoken to them-through His prophets-for over four hundred years. Well, the music of this day reflected this gloomy chapter in the life of the nation of Israel.
But when Jesus came into their world-when God became flesh-music was REBORN!
New life was breathed into worship music as these central characters of the Christmas story responded to the events surrounding Jesus’ birth with songs of great JOY!
Okay-this week’s episode in our musical study of that first Christmas shifts into the future a bit. Six months have passed since Gabriel shocked that old priest named Zechariah with the news of his imminent fatherhood. And this time, Gabriel’s announcement is to a teenage girl named Mary. His next stop will be to her bewildered fiancé. Gabriel was one busy angel!
1. Okay….just like we did last week, let’s take a few minutes to familiarize ourselves with the SETTING of this angelic announcement and the song it inspired.
A. First let’s look at the PLACE.
Mary and Joseph lived in the northern province of Galilee. Have you ever wondered why would God choose this particular province as the place His Son would grow up and launch His plan to reach out to all mankind in sacrificial love? I mean, why didn’t He choose Judea, the geographical heart of Israel, the center of His dealings with mankind down through the centuries?
Now, at the time of Gabriel’s appearance, Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, was the tetrarch or “ruler” of Galilee. And he had followed in his father’s footsteps, by introducing Roman idolatry and barbarism into the life of this province. However this was nothing new because even in Old Testament times Galilee had been overrun by pagan religion. This is why Isaiah 9:1 referred to Galilee as a place that God looked upon with contempt. Yet God chose Galilee over Judea. This doesn’t seem to make sense from our human perspective.
B. And then, God’s choice of cities also seems illogical from our point of view.
He didn’t choose Jerusalem, the heart of religious influence and life in the nation. Instead God chose Nazareth situated some 70 miles northeast of Jerusalem….a small town just above the main caravan route between Jerusalem and Tyre and Sidon, on the north coast of Israel. Now, due to it’s location on the caravan route, Nazareth had many “inns” to serve the needs of the scores of travelers-Roman soldiers and merchants-that came through. Under their influence, immorality and corruption had become commonplace in the life of the city. I imagine the inns formed a sort of “red light district.” It was not a good place to grow up. No wonder Nathaniel said, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”
C. And…God’s choice of the specific site of Gabriel’s announcement is interesting as well.
This time He did not choose the ornate TEMPLE but instead He sent Gabriel to a small WELL to announce the news of the Messiah’s birth. Now, I say it was at a well because tradition says the only place women in Nazareth were alone was when they would go down in the well to get water.
There was only one source of water in Nazareth-a tiny well with room for only one person at a time to enter-and so most scholars have believed that Gabriel came to Mary with his news as she was alone drawing from this well. A church has been built over this site. I visited there several years ago with some of you and drank from the well.
D. And then…finally, the PEOPLE God chose for this part of HIS-story are also interesting.
Joseph, was a descendant of King David-a carpenter, a working man-neither poor nor excessively wealthy. And then there is of course, Mary, a teen-aged peasant girl who was also a descendant of King David. She was “betrothed” to Joseph.
Now-to understand this most important of all stories, and the song that came from it, we must know what “betrothal” meant in this culture. You see, romance and courtship did not play a large role in ancient times…because most marriages were arranged by the parents of the couple. But before you get the wrong idea let me tell you that, brides and grooms back then were not simply thrown at each other in a loveless match.No…directly or indirectly, their comments and conduct usually alerted parents as to which family to contact to arrange a marriage-so love was a factor.
In Joseph and Mary’s case here’s what probably happened. One day, Joseph asked his parents if he could marry a village girl named Mary-his distant relative who lived down the street. They discussed it among themselves before giving him an answer, carefully appraising Mary’s parentage, ancestry, and resources. Then Joseph’s father paid a call on Mary’s parents, who would act duly “surprised” as the purpose of the visit grew plain. But they weren’t really surprised because Mary’s random comments about the young carpenter Joseph had all but shouted her interest in him, and so the discussion began in earnest. Finally, the fathers agreed to a marriage contract between their children. When they did, Joseph was brought before Mary, and their parents uttered a formal benediction over them while they tasted a cup of wine together.
After this they were considered officially “betrothed.”
Now, a Jewish betrothal was far more binding than our modern engagement. You see, in their culture only divorce could break a betrothal. You might remember, this is what Matthew’s gospel says Joseph was going to do when he first discovered that his fiancé, Mary, was with child.
Matthew 1:19 says he was going to “divorce her quietly.” Of course Joseph changed his mind after Gabriel visited him and explained. But, back then betrothal was that binding-in fact, even though they were not yet married, had either Joseph or Mary been unfaithful to each other, it would have been deemed adultery and would have been punishable by death by stoning. If Joseph had died during their engagement, Mary would have been his legal widow.
Now, this betrothal period lasted a year. During this period the bride lived with either her parents or parents of her friends. However, her property now belonged to her future husband. So, in many ways to them betrothal was more like marriage. At the end of the year the marriage was completed, and the couple lived as man and wife. Matthew underscores the fact that not only was Mary a virgin at the time of Jesus’ conception but also that Mary and Joseph had no physical relations until after Jesus was born. In fact both Luke and Matthew affirm that at the time of Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph were still only betrothed-Their marriage wasn’t completed. These two gospel writers emphasize this to remind us that Jesus’ birth was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah which said, “Behold a VIRGIN shall conceive…” Now remember, Luke WAS a medical doctor and everything in his training would lead him to doubt such a story. To put it in writing would subject him to criticism by his colleagues. But having traced all things accurately, Luke was so convinced of its truth that he boldly and beautifully recorded his findings-that Jesus was indeed virgin born!
By the way, have you ever wondered where Luke got his information? Well, we know he was Paul’s companion during the apostle’s Caesarean imprisonment and that Mary was probably alive at the time so more than likely Luke got his information directly from Mary herself and to whom would a woman speak more frankly and in greater detail about the birth of her child than to a physician-like Luke!
2. Okay-that’s the SETTING. Let’s get back to the STORY.
We’ll be focusing on Luke 1:26-46. Follow along in your Bibles as we skim over these verses leading up to Mary’s song of Christmas. Mary was down in the well, drawing water when suddenly Gabriel appeared and his first words to her were, “Greetings, you who are highly favored. The Lord is with you.” Now, Gabriel’ angelic greeting here has often been misunderstood and mis-taught. I say this because it is the source of the saying, “Hail Mary full of grace.” However the most literal Greek translation would be, “Grace, oh Graced One!” Gabriel did not say “Hail Mary who is full of grace…to bestow on others.” No-a more accurate wording would be, “Hail Mary who has BEEN GIVEN much grace.” Mary is not the dispenser of divine grace. God is! And she herself received His grace in that she had been chosen to be the mother of Him through whom God’s grace is extended to all people. Mary needed that grace as much as any sinner separated by God. And she knew this, for, in one of the first phrases of her Christmas song, she said, “…my spirit rejoices in God my SAVIOR…”
Well, Mary’s response to this sudden angelic arrival was similar to that of Zechariah. For, she too was surprised and bewildered. Luke says she “wondered what such a greeting could mean.” I mean, Mary knew that Angels didn’t just show up for no reason. Their coming was an uncommon thing and that meant that his message was an uncommon message. So with some apprehension and fear, she “wondered” what was about to come next. Verse 30 infers that Gabriel sensed her fear and said in essence, “Do not be afraid, Mary; God loves you dearly. You are going to be the mother of a Son, and you will call Him Jesus. He will be great and will be known as the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give Him the throne of His forefather, David, and He will be King over the people of Jacob forever.”
Mary’s reply-her first words to the angel were, “How can this be? I am a virgin.” And I want you to notice the difference in Mary’s response to the angel’s announcement from that of Zechariah’s disbelieving challenge. Remember? Zechariah basically said “This can’t happen Gabriel…my wife is too old to have children.” but Mary said “How can this happen?” In other words, she didn’t QUESTION that God could do this. She just wondered HOW it was going to come about. And there is nothing wrong with that. God invites our honest questions. He urges us to “Ask…to SEEK.” God WANTS us to relate to Him in this way. In fact I think He delights in answering our honest questions because in asking and waiting for His answer we FELLOWSHIP with God. We RELATE to Him-and that is why we were created in the first place!
Well, Gabriel’s answer to Mary’s honest question is in verses 35-37. Look at it with me. He said, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you. Your child will be holy-the SON of God.” Now, there must have been a long pause between verses 37 and 38 as Mary considered her response. I mean, Mary must have been torn between two conflicting thoughts as she considered the implications of Gabriel’s announcement.
First, like any Jewish woman of her day, she surely considered it an incredible honor to have been chosen to be the mother of the Messiah…the mother of Jesus.
Now, the name “Jesus” or “Y’shua” or “Joshua” – three different versions of the same name – well it was very popular in Mary’s day. This name means “God saves.” And, many parents gave their sons this name in the hopeful expectation that he might be the long-awaited One, the Messiah, who would SAVE Israel from the Romans in the same way that Joshua SAVED them from the Canaanites. So on one hand, Mary surely was thrilled at this news. Think about it! She had been chosen from among all women. And her song reflects her joy. Look at verses 47 and following: “My spirit REJOICES in God my Savior…from now on all generations will call me blessed. for the Mighty One has done great things for me!”
But on the other hand Mary also knew that to accept this privilege could bring with it great personal pain and hardship.
Joseph would have the legal right to divorce her. Her parents and friends would reject her. At the very LEAST her reputation was shot for she would be branded a lose woman. By the way, the gospels record the fact that she was indeed labeled in this way. And, at the WORST, according to the religious laws of her culture, Mary would face death by stoning.
Well, with that in mind look now at Mary’s reply. She said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” In other words, Mary said, “Here am I…USE ME LORD…” a phrase that all Christians should say each and every day. With her response Mary showed her deep trust in God-she indicated that she believed nothing UNDER God’s control could ever be OUT of control. Now, I imagine that if angels are capable of feeling amazement-that Gabriel felt it that day, amazement at the courage and humble devotion to God that he found in the life of this young girl. Well, to help Mary deal with any doubts or just the understandable shock of his news, Gabriel encouraged her to visit Elizabeth, her cousin, who, unknown to Mary, was 6 months pregnant.
Now, think how Mary felt as Gabriel flew off. Imagine her excitement as this news sank in! I mean, if you have ever been pregnant, the first thing you want to do after you hear from the doc is tell someone! You know, get on the phone and call family and friends. Well, Mary knew that she was pregnant not with just any child but with the Messiah. God Himself was in her womb and she couldn’t tell her parents or Joseph-not just yet. So, verse 39 says that she took Gabriel’s advice, and after a four-day journey south, she came to a city in a hilly region of Judea, south of Jerusalem.
Verses 40 & 41 suggest that Mary’s arrival in Zechariah and Elizabeth’s home seems to have been unexpected-because she caught Elizabeth by surprise. And when she did the six-month-old unborn baby boy in Elisabeth’s womb gave his mom and extra hard kick. Apparently, little John was already doing the job God called him to do: announcing the arrival of the Messiah!
Okay, in verses 46-55 we find Mary’s song. Tradition has entitled it “THE MAGNIFICAT” or “The Glorification of What God Has Done.” Take your Bible and let’s read its lyrics.
46 – And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord
47 – and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 – for He has been mindful of the humble state of His servant. From now on all generations will called me blessed,
49 – for the Mighty One has done great things for me-Holy is His name.
50 – His mercy extends to those who fear Him, from generation to generation.
51 – He has performed mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 – He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
53 – He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
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.”
Now, if we read on we would see that after she sang her song, Mary remained with Elizabeth for about three months. Then she returned home. And there are a couple reasons she may have done this. Maybe she waited long enough to get through her morning sickness so travel would be easier. Or perhaps, as Luke implies, she just wanted to stay with Elizabeth and help her through the final three months of her pregnancy. And either of these rationales is certainly possible. But another motivation for Mary to linger those twelve weeks must have been her desire to witness the birth of John-the one who would pave the way for Jesus’ ministry. I mean, Mary knew that she was part of God’s master plan and I think she stayed so she could witness first hand another part of it. It’s always exciting to witness God working in someone!
You know, we Baptists are often critical of other Christians whom we say pay Mary TOO MUCH honor. And I would agree-many believers go too far in their praise of Mary to the point of worshiping her and praying to her.
But if we are to criticize ALL believers who err in their beliefs about Mary we must include ourselves because we tend to err in the OTHER extreme in that we honor Mary too LIGHTLY. I mean, this brave, Godly young girl, deserves our admiration! We need more Christians who courageously obey God as Mary did! In fact, I’d like us to use the lyrics to her song of Christmas to try and get us back on track when it comes to having a proper opinion of Mary-by answering these questions: Why should all Christians admire Mary? Why should we revere her like we do the apostle Paul or Billy Graham or any great Christian?
Now, I want to point out that by answering these questions we’ll also review several of the things we learned in the past 40 days. So listen for some familiar principles.
1. Okay, the first reason Christians should admire Mary is because she was a person who loved the WORD of GOD.
I say this because in the lyrics of Mary’s song of worship there are at least 10 references to Old Testament Scriptures. Obviously this young woman was very familiar with God’s Word. She was a student of it. And we must understand-this would have been difficult for Mary. You see, in those days printed Scriptures were a luxury, so peasants like Mary would not have had actual written copies. This means she would have had to memorize Old Testament Scriptures. And her song proves that she had done just that. She had hidden God’s Word in her heart. Mary was fully informed by the very heart and mind of God as expressed through His Word. She could say with the Psalmist, “Oh God, how I love Your law. I meditate on it all day long.”
Well, all disciples of Jesus should love the Word of God as Mary did because remember, the Bible wasn’t just given to increase our knowledge but also to change our lives. The plain truth is we can’t grow spiritually-we can’t mature and become more like Jesus unless we love His Word in the same way that Mary did. And this leads to the second reason Mary provides a good mentor for Christians to emulate. You see, not only did Mary LOVE the WORD of God…
2. She also OBEYED the WILL of God.
You know many people these days love the Bible. They even agree with its teachings and hold them in high esteem-but that’s not enough. We must follow Mary’s example and take the next step-by obeying God’s will as expressed in His written Word. As James says, it’s not enough to be HEARERS of the Word-we must also be DOERS of it! And Mary embraced this way of thinking. Even as a teen, Mary had learned to forget the world’s most COMMON prayer “Thy will be changed” and pray the world’s most POWERFUL prayer “Thy will be done” I mean, basically she told old Gabriel, “Whatever God says, I will do.”
I’m sure you’re familiar with the life of the late Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ. Well, through Crusade staff around the world, the Four Spiritual Laws track that he wrote, and the JESUS FILM…that he produced, which has been seen by over four BILLION people-through all these things that Bill Bright did more than 150 million people have come to Christ. Bright was once asked why God used his life to this extent and he replied, “When I was a young man, I made a contract with God. I literally wrote it and signed my name at the bottom.
It said, ‘From this day forward, I am a slave of Christ.'” His words remind me of Mary’s because when Gabriel explained God’s improbable plan she calmly responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. I am willing to accept whatever He asks of me.”
Well each of us should do that-we should think of our lives as a blank check given to God-letting Him fill in the amount-as we yield completely to His will in everything. Can you imagine the difference in this world if more Christians obeyed God’s commands as willingly as Bill Bright did? As Mary did?! And this leads to the third thing I admire about her. You see, her love of God’s Word and her obedience to God’s will enabled her to have…
3. …a deep RELATIONSHIP with God.
You see, whenever you obey God’s will-even when it doesn’t make sense-every time you trust God’s wisdom and do whatever He says even when you don’t understand it, you deepen your friendship with Him. In fact, Jesus made it clear that obedience is a condition of intimacy with God. Remember? Our Lord said, “You are My friends-if you do what I command.” (John 15:14) And apparently this was the way Mary lived. She knew God’s laws and she obeyed them-and this lifestyle deepened her relationship with God such that she could sense His Spirit at work and respond to it.
Look at Luke 1:41. When Mary arrived, God’s Holy Spirit prompted Elizabeth to say, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the Child you will bear…blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.” (Luke 1:42, 45) Well, Mary knew God well enough to recognize Him at work in her cousin and her response was to join in that moment of impromptu Spirit-led worship by singing her song of Christmas. And this reminds me of something else we learned in the 40 days, “When God is at the center of your life, you worship. When He’s not, you worry.” Now, as I said, Mary certainly had a lot to worry about-losing her fiancé, losing her reputation, losing her life-but she didn’t. No, her relationship with God was the center of her existence and so instead of worrying she WORSHIPED!
And, to me, her awareness to God’s Spirt illustrates the fact that people like Mary who walk closest with God-people who memorize His Word and meditate on it-people who spend time in prayer-people who PRACTICE THE PRESENCE OF GOD-well they are better able to recognize and respond to God’s still small voice. Henry Blackaby writes, “The key to knowing God’s voice is not a formula. It’s not a method you can follow. Knowing God’s voice comes from an intimate love relationship with God.” This is the principle Jesus was teaching when He told His disciples, “The sheep that are My own hear and are listening to My voice…and they follow Me.” (John 10:27)
All this reminds me of a story from the days a century ago when the fastest means of long-distance communication was the telegraph. On day a young man answered an ad in the newspaper and applied for a job as a telegraph operator. One of the requirements of course was that he be able to understand Morse code. Well, he went to the address that was listed in the paper and found a large, noisy office with seven other men waiting for an interview for the same job.
A sign on the receptionists’s counter instructed job applicants to fill out a form and wait until they were summoned to enter the inner office. In the background a telegraph clicked away. Well, the young man sat down and completed his application form. Then he stood up, crossed the room to the door of the inner office and walked right in. Naturally the other applicants perked up, wondering what was going on. Why had this young man been so bold? They muttered among themselves that they hadn’t heard any summons yet. Within a few minutes the young man emerged from the inner office escorted by the interviewer who announced to the other applicants,
“Gentlemen, thank you very much for coming, but the job has been filled by this young man.”
The other applicants began grumbling to each other, and then one spoke up and said, “Wait a minute-I don’t understand something. He was the last one to come in and we never even got a chance to be interviewed. Yet he got the job. That’s not fair.” The employer responded, “I’m sorry but all day long as you’ve been sitting here waiting, the telegraph over there has been ticking out the following message in Morse code: ‘IF YOU UNDERSTAND THIS MESSAGE, THEN COME RIGHT IN. THE JOB IS YOURS.’ None of you heard it or understood it. This young man did. So the job is his.”
Now, how about you? Do you spend enough time talking to God and meditating on His Word to recognize His still, small voice-even as you walk through this noisy crowded world of ours?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more Christians followed Mary’s example and nurtured a close relationship with God-such that they were always tuned in to His voice? Remember, you are as close to God as you choose to be. The more we obey His Word, the more deeply our relationship with Him will grow. Friendship with God is a choice not an accident.
4. And then, the fourth thing about Mary that I admire is the fact that she had the right ATTITUDE before God.
I’m referring to the attitude of humility and it’s easy to see that she embraced it because in her song Mary repeatedly refers to this essential Christian character trait. In verse 50 she says that God’s mercy is given to those who humbly “fear Him.” In subsequent verses she sings, “God scatters the proud…brings down rulers…but has lifted up the humble.” And you know, perhaps the main thing we should take from Mary’s experience…is to be able to see how much importance God places HUMILITY. In fact, God’s selection of the setting-the region, the city, and the people of this part of HIS story: Galilee, Nazareth, Joseph and Mary, Zechariah and Elizabeth well, it helps illustrate His reversal of human ideas about greatness and smallness, significance and insignificance. You see, it is not the spiritually proud, the socially mighty, nor the materially prosperous who have the last word in God’s kingdom. Arrogance and power and wealth are totally out of place there.
No-as Mary’s song proclaims, God exalts those who are not great by the world’s standards-those who hunger for God and realize how much they need Him in their lives. The fact is-in the Kingdom of God, HUMILITY is an essential. Think about it. A person can’t even become a Christian until he or she humbly admits their need for God-until in HUMILITY they confess their sin and ask for God’s forgiveness. After we become Christians HUMILITY continues to be a necessity because God will not use us unless we humbly place our lives at His disposal the way Mary did. The Bible teaches that God won’t indwell and empower a PROUD person. He is too much of a Gentleman to force Himself on those who don’t think they need Him.
In Isaiah 57:15 God says, “I live in a high and holy place but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit.” In Isaiah 66:2 God says, “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at My Word.” Referring to these and other Scriptures Jerry Bridges writes, “The promises of God toward the truly humble are almost breathtaking. The infinitely high and lofty One Who lives forever promises to dwell with them, to esteem them, to give them grace, to lift them up, and to exalt them.” The truth is in order for us to be useful in God’s kingdom we must humble ourselves. Like Mary we must realize that God has the right to interrupt our lives any time He wants.
And when we humble ourselves and make ourselves available to God we learn-as Mary did-that with God nothing is impossible! Please understand people-this is more than an angelic insertion. It is a positive reality! With God it was possible for an old, barren woman and her husband to conceive and bear a son-John-who was the forerunner of the Son of God. With God it was possible for a virgin girl to give birth to a baby-JESUS-Who was and is the SON of God-the Savior of the world.
With God sinful people like you and me can find redemption in Christ and have new life through faith in Him. With God NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE. In fact think about that for a moment. If God could use the life of a young peasant girl, then He CAN use any life-including yours. As St Francis of Assisi said, “If God can use me….God can use anyone.” Well, what would happen if you humbled yourself and allowed God to use YOUR life? Wouldn’t it be exciting to find out this Christmas?
Let us pray.