One of the things many of us enjoy about this time of year is the music. We love the songs of the season. We enjoy singing them in church services like we will this morning. We love listening to Christmas songs on the radio.
I want to play a little game with Christmas songs right now. I’m going to give you a clue and I want you to guess the song from the clue. I’ll read the clue out loud. Then you shout out what you think the song is. I’ll then show you the name of the song:
|Christmas Clue||Christmas Song|
|1. Not here in an animal’s dish||1. Away in a Manger|
|2. Yahweh sleep you happy dudes||2. God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman|
|3. Happiness to the planet||3. Joy to the World|
|4. Get here if you’re reliable||4. O’ Come all Ye Faithful|
|5. Don’t stop the winter precipitation||5. Let it Snow|
Well, we love our Christmas songs, don’t we?
This morning I want to focus on the very first song ever written about Jesus’ birth. It’s found in Luke 1. Luke actually records the first two songs written by humans in response to the birth of Christ. One is called “Benedictus” and is sung by the father of John the Baptist in Luke 1:67-79. The other is called “Magnificat” and is sung by Mary the mother of Jesus in Luke 1:46-55. Mary’s song is called “Magnificat” after the first line of the song in an old translation of the Bible called the Latin Vulgate.
Let’s stand and read this song aloud together:
46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 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. 50 And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 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 away empty. 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.” (Luke 1:46-55 ESV)
In this song Mary sings about two things. First, in vv. 48-50, she sings about what God is doing personally to her through Jesus. Second, in vv. 51-55, she sings about what God is going to do globally to all through Jesus. The first part is her profession of what God is doing to her through Jesus. The second part is her prophecy about what God is going to do to everyone through Jesus.
And Mary settles on one word in both parts. She uses one word to describe what God is doing to her personally through Jesus and what God is doing globally through Jesus. What is that word?
Before I share it, I want you to guess it. How would you complete this sentence? The birth of Jesus is about ________. What one word would you use to fill in that blank?
Here’s the word Mary uses: “mercy.” She ends the first part of her song, the part about what God is doing to her personally, with these words: 50 And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. (Luke 1:50 ESV). Mercy is how Mary concludes part 1 of her song.
She uses the same word in the second part of her song: 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy…(Luke 1:54 ESV)
For Mary, Christmas is about mercy. God was showing mercy to her personally through Jesus. And God was going to show mercy globally through Jesus. For Mary, the one word worth singing twice is the word “mercy.”
But what does Mary mean by “mercy?” She illustrates in both parts of her song. Let’s listen once more to the first part: 46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 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. 50 And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
Notice the two words Mary uses to describe herself: “humble” and “servant.” Mary sings about herself as someone who is humble—or lowly—and someone who is just a servant or slave. To use Eric Gentry’s words from last Sunday, Mary sings about herself as a Nobody. Mary’s low on the ladder. There are lots of other people in her world who get the breaks, who make it big, and have the goods. Mary? She’s just “humble” and a “servant.” She lives in a world where people like her don’t get breaks.
But God, Mary sings, has given her a break. She calls God “he who is mighty.” Literally, she calls God “Mighty One.” And this Mighty One has done something great for her. God, this holy God she sings, has chosen her to bear his Son. God has looked upon the one whom everyone else looks over and chosen her bear his Son Jesus. Mercy!
Gordon MacDonald writes of the time when he was sixteen and met Cliff Barrows, the music director for Billy Graham. This was during the time when Graham was filling stadiums with his evangelistic preaching. MacDonald was a student at a New York boarding school: It was 1957, the year of Billy Graham’s historic, four-month crusade at Madison Square Garden. On one of those days, a schoolmate of mine and I took the train into the city, found the “Garden,” and sneaked in a side door. It was midday and the arena was empty except for one solitary figure sitting on the edge of the stage shuffling papers. It was Cliff Barrows. When he saw my friend and me, he put his papers aside and swiftly walked in our direction. “I’m Cliff,” he said when he reached us. “Welcome to the Garden. Where are you from?” We told him we had come to the city hoping to be part of the event that night. I shall not forget his response. “Well, let’s see how we can make that happen.” He took us to the stage where there were three or four rows of chairs right behind the podium. Barrows pointed to those seats. “Where do you think you’d like to sit, second or third row?” We were astonished! And when we realized he was serious, we pointed to two seats in the second row. He immediately took paper and wrote, “Reserved for Gordon MacDonald.” Doing the same for my friend, he placed the papers on the seats we had chosen. “Now let’s find a way to get you back into the Garden tonight,” he said. Taking us to a small office outside the arena area, he spoke to a security guard. “These two young men need passes for the side door. Please make that happen.” And the man did…I think I grew a foot taller and several years older that day, thanks to Cliff Barrows. MacDonald said it changed his world when a Somebody like that chose a Nobody like him. That’s the kind of thing Mary’s singing about.
Mary then moves to part 2. In part 2 she starts to sing of what God’s going to do globally for all people through Jesus. She started leaning in this direction at the end of part 1 where she said that this mercy shown to her was going to extend from generation to generation. Now, in part 2 of her song, she fleshes this out.
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 away empty. 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.” (Luke 1:51-55 ESV)
Notice that the verbs in part 2 are all past tense: he has scattered, he has brought down, he has filled the hungry, he has helped his servant, etc. Because these verbs are in the past tense, we’re tempted to think that Mary is singing of something that’s in the past. But many scholars tell us that Mary is actually singing of something that’s going to happen in the future. Mary’s singing of what God’s going to do globally through Jesus. But if Mary’s singing about the future, why does she use verbs in the past tense? Here’s why—Mary is so sure that God will show mercy to all through Jesus, she sings about it as if God’s already shown mercy to all through Jesus. Mary is so sure of what God’s going to do through Jesus that she can sing about it in the past tense.
And she illustrates what God’s going to do through Jesus in a way similar to how she illustrated what God had done to her through Jesus. First, she mentions that there will always be people in society who always seem to get the breaks, get the goods and have it all. She calls them “the proud,” “the mighty,” and “the rich.”
Mary then mentions the rest of us—those Eric last Sunday called “Nobodies.” She calls them the “humble, “the hungry” and “his servant.” As Mary peers into the future, she sees that there’s always going to be people who don’t get the breaks, who get overlooked and who never seem to be on the receiving end.
But then she sings about what God’s going to do through Jesus for this group. Notice that she talks of God’s “strong arm.” Earlier she sang of God as “Mighty One.” Now she sings of God as having a “strong arm.” How is God going to use his strength through Jesus? Here’s what Mary sees Jesus doing: scattering the proud, bringing down the mighty, exalting the humble, filling the hungry, sending away the rich, and helping his servant. And Mary is so certain that God, in Jesus, is going to act in this way, she sings about it in the past tense.
And, of course, we can read ahead through Luke’s gospel and watch these words fulfilled.
Luke 4 – large crowds of the sick and diseased gather around Jesus and he heals them. Mercy!
Luke 5 – a leper comes to Jesus, Jesus touches him and cleanses him. Mercy!
Luke 7 – the only son of a widow dies, and Jesus brings him back to life. Mercy!
Luke 10 – Jesus tells a story in which a hated and despised person—a Samaritan—is the hero. Mercy!
Luke 13 – Jesus describes his kingdom as a feast to which are invited the scum of society. Mercy!
Luke 15 – Jesus describes his kingdom as a party thrown for a prodigal. Mercy!
Luke 23 – Jesus is hammered onto a cross and he says, “Father, forgive them.” Mercy!
Luke 23 –Jesus says to a criminal dying next to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Mercy!
This is what Mary’s singing about in part 2.
There are few things as important to grasp as the idea of Christmas mercy. In fact, a well-known Christian historian proposes that mercy was the reason for the rapid spread of Christianity. Some scholars and historians are mystified that a movement like Christianity ever survived. It started out with the marginal and misfits in a tiny corner of the world. But then it spread to every rung in society and every corner of the globe. Scholars have wondered how that happened. One historian, Rodney Stark, says it came down to one thing: mercy.
Stark writes: In the midst of the squalor, misery, illness, and anonymity of ancient cities, Christianity provided an island of mercy… In a culture that was merciless, Christianity (Start suggests) gained traction because it was merciful. In fact, he goes on to write that “in the pagan world, and especially among the philosophers, mercy was regarded as a character defect and pity as a pathological emotion: because mercy involves providing unearned help or relief, it is contrary to justice… Stark quotes ancient thinkers who wrote things like this: ….humans must learn “to curb the impulse [to show mercy]“; “the cry of the undeserving for mercy” must go “unanswered.” “[Showing mercy] was a defect of character unworthy of the wise and excusable only in those who have not yet grown up.” Stark concludes: This was the moral climate in which Christianity taught [mercy]…
Do you know what was born that day in the manger? Mercy. A God willing to provide unearned help or relief. A God passionate about giving what was undeserved to the undeserving. A God longing to look upon those often overlooked. What was born that day in the manger was a movement of mercy.
How does this connect in 2012? Let me share one example. Highland members Julie and her husband Jon are loving parents of daughters Alli and Kelsey and of a newborn named Isaac. Isaac was a surprise. Julie and Jon didn’t think it was possible to have another child. And then God blessed them with Isaac. But Isaac couldn’t seem to wait to arrive, and he was delivered quite prematurely. So prematurely that his life was endangered. Julie and Jon have been with Isaac these last five weeks as he recovers in the NICU. He’s up to 4 pounds, 5 ounces, gaining about one ounce each day. He’s had a couple of blood transfusions. It’s been quite a test for the family, and for Julie who is still recovering from her own surgery. Recently Julie sent out via email a top 10 reasons why spending the last 5 weeks at the hospital has turned out to be filled with hidden blessings. Here’s what she wrote:
10. My Sunday school class felt sorry for me and didn’t steal my Starbucks gift card during the church Christmas party dirty Santa game.
9. Jon’s niece came to town and did all my Christmas shopping and wrapping – I’ve never been done this early!
8. Meals, meals, and more delicious meals that I didn’t have to cook.
7. I’ve gotten to wear a hospital gown every single day for a month, which hides the fact that I haven’t had time or energy to worry about that baby weight.
6. I got to spend 2 weeks of precious time with my mother as she helped us out after Isaac’s birth.
5. My Christmas decorations look better than they ever have in my lifetime because my Dad came in town and did them for me.
4. Sitting in a dark quiet room with my son for hours a day is much more peaceful than holiday traffic.
3. I’ve realized the blessing of an amazing family, church, and friends.
2. I have a good excuse for not being in charge of the 2nd and 4th grade school Christmas parties today.
1. The girls have fallen in love with their time with daddy even more, as he is been totally awesome in keeping the whole family running.
And then Julie wrote this conclusion:
** Top reason that has made it all worth it:
Having a baby boy to love on during Christmastime has made me appreciate the birth of our Lord, and God’s sacrifice of his Son, more than ever!
What strikes me is that in difficult times, Julie’s thoughts returned to the birth of Jesus and the mercy of the manger. What helped carry Julie along in this stressful time was the knowledge of the birth of mercy and her experience of that mercy through her family, Sunday School class and others. What has encouraged Julie in this time is the subject of the song Mary sang two thousand years ago. It’s a song that still causes us to rejoice and magnify the Lord. Mercy!
And so, let’s follow Mary’s lead. Let’s rejoice and magnify the Lord. Let’s engage our soul and our spirit in worship of the Lord. For in sending his son Jesus, he has sent us all mercy.
 Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity, (HarperOne, 2012), page 112.