I love Lord of the Rings. But for those who have read it you will be aware that in between the story bits there are poem bits. They weren’t in the film, and I have to confess that when I read it, I skim them. Which is a bit of a shame, because they are actually quite important.
Today we come to one of the songs that Luke records in his story of Jesus. It is the song of Mary. Some people say that Mary could never have said these words: ‘They’re too profound for a peasant girl’. But actually the song of Mary is very similar to another song in the bible sung by a woman who had been barren, and despised, but who had, against all the odds, given birth. And Mary would have known that song (we can find it in 1 Samuel 2: it is the song of Hannah), and she would have reflected on it and, over time, spoken these words.
And Luke records this song because it is actually quite important.
In it, Mary tells us about God and about what God is doing.
1. Mary tells us about God who is her Saviour
Mary describes God as her Saviour: ‘My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour’ (Luke 1:47).
The key to understanding Mary is not about realising just who she was.
Obviously she is, as her cousin Elizabeth realises, the one who is going to be the Mother of our Lord (Luke 1:42-44). It was an astonishing privilege, and a sheer act of grace: that the Son of God was physically living in her.
Mary is often described in ancient liturgies as a temple for God. The eternal Son of God, who was with God the Father in the beginning, who created the universe, who is the author of life; the one who has reigned and will reign forever, chooses to dwell inside Mary’s womb.
No wonder Mary says, ‘From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me’. (Luke 1:49)
But Mary’s significance is greater than that. If you notice in verses 42-45, Mary is described as blessed by Elizabeth because of two things. First because she will be ‘mother of my Lord’. But secondly because, in verse 45, ‘She has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished’.
Mary’s significance lies in her response to the word of God. And this is, in fact, the primary reason why we should honour Mary. In Luke 11:27-28, a woman says to Jesus, ‘Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and blessed you’, and Jesus replies, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it’.
And interestingly, because of her response to the word of God, Mary becomes a picture of the Church. She is used as an image of the church. I think there are hints of that in how John’s gospel uses Mary (in only two places, at the beginning of Jesus ministry and at the end), but it is much clearer in the imagery of Revelation 12.
And yet, even though Mary is so special, even though she believes God, she declares that God is her Saviour.
You may come across teaching which says that Mary is so important that she must have been without sin. ‘How’, they say, ‘could God come and live in a sinner?’
But that is the astonishing thing. Even though Immanuel, ‘God with us’, lived in her, Mary was not sinless. She needed a Saviour herself. And Mary, in the opening words of her song, declares that.
She recognises that God has chosen to come and live in a nobody: in someone who was probably very poor and at times went hungry, and who certainly had no power.
She recognises that it is the God who has spoken to her who is the Saviour, and that she is privileged to play a part in his plan to rescue all of us, including her, from sin and death.
And if Mary needs a Saviour, how much more do you or I need a Saviour; how much more do we need someone who will set us free from sin and death; someone who will set us free from a world ruled by sin and death.
2. Mary hints at what this salvation involves.
Luke’s gospel is about God’s salvation. And Mary’s song tells us a bit about that salvation.
And we note for a start that it does not here speak of forgiveness of sins.
And there is a reason for that. ‘Forgiveness of sins’ is critical. It is mentioned specifically in the second great song of Luke which you can find in Luke 2:67-79. Without God’s forgiveness we are living in darkness, in the shadow of death. But forgiveness of sins is the starting point of salvation, not the finishing point.
And here Mary hints at what this salvation might look like.
It is about the radical overthrow of the established order:
the proud are scattered
rulers are brought down
the rich are sent away empty
This is radical stuff. I suspect that when Christians in Tripoli say this, they look over their shoulders to check that the secret police are not listening.
And the Magnificat is sung at evensong. It reminds those who have nothing that it will not always be like this; and it reminds those who have that it will not always be like that.
Oh, and if you think that this applies to them and not to you, note verse 51: ‘He has scattered the proud in their inmost thoughts’. The moment that you look at a politician and think, ‘I’m better than them’ …
And this theme, that in the Kingdom of God, when the rule of God comes in its fullness, there will be a radical reversal is taken up again by Jesus in Luke. In Luke 6:21,25.
(I’ve spoken about this often. The Jews were waiting for a Messiah who would come and establish the Kingdom of God. It would be a place where God would rule, where people are right with him, with each other and with creation. It will be a place where we do God’s will on earth as they do it in heaven: with such joy and delight. It will be a place of abundance and prosperity and peace - where there will be no more suffering, pain or death.)
Mary’s song makes clear that the kingdom of God will be a kingdom in which the things that this world values and desires - status, fame, power and wealth - are turned on their head.
And we see that happening in God’s choice of Mary. He has passed over the famous, the powerful and the rich for a peasant girl from Nazareth. She is the one who will be mother of Jesus.
And in Luke’s gospel we see Jesus, the friend of outcasts and sinners, the one who challenges rulers; the one who has come to reverse this current order: where the confident and the established and the strong and the wealthy rule.
So there is a warning to us here. Do not value the things that our celebrity mad society values, because you will be left holding something worthless. Do not cherish powerful friends, loads of money, fame or status. If you have such things, do not put your confidence in such things. When the final dreadful Tsunami comes, you will be left clutching cobwebs.
And for Mary. There is a deep confidence in these verses. Notice how she speaks of it as already done: ‘He has performed; he has brought down; he has filled; he has helped’. It was a confidence rooted in what God had said to her about her Son (Luke 1:32-33).
She believes what God has said.
3. Mary declares the praises of this saving God
This song is called, in many churches, the Magnificat.
Magnificat comes from the Latin meaning ‘Glorify, magnify’
This is a song of praise. Mary takes an Old Testament song of praise. She makes it her own, and she declares the glory and wonder of God.
As an aside, it is a good thing to do. If you wish to do something different in a prayer time, take a Psalm and write a personal prayer to God based on that Psalm. I doubt that God will say that his son will live physically in you, but he has promised that his Spirit, the Spirit of his son, will live in you.
And just notice who is the subject of this song: the Lord, God my Saviour (v47) - again that is a challenge when so many of our songs focus on ourselves and on how we are feeling.
And notice how Mary describes him:
He is the mighty one who does great deeds (v49,50)
He is holy (v49): that means that he is other, he is set apart
He is merciful (v50, 54): he has deep compassion on those who turn to him
But it seems that the main focus of her song is not on that, but on the faithfulness of God.
Mary praises God because he does not forget people.
v48, at the beginning of her song: ‘for he has been mindful of ..me’ (says Mary)
v54, at the end of her song: ‘He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful’
At times it might have seemed that God had forgotten her. V53 suggests that Mary must have gone through incredibly hard times. She knew what it was to have wealthy neighbours who had plenty when she went hungry.
But God hadn’t forgotten her. He has been mindful of her (v48).
And it must have seemed that God had forgotten his people Israel. They suffered under foreign occupation. But he hadn’t. He remembered to be merciful to Israel (v54). He remembered his promises to Abraham and his descendants. He has come to save.
In other words, this song embodies what Elizabeth has said of Mary: ‘Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished’.
Mary believes God and she praises God.