“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.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
From generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
He has brought down the mighty from their thrones
And exalted those of humble estate;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
In remembrance of his mercy,
As he spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
— The Magnificat, the Song of Mary, Luke 1:46-55
Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a poor peasant girl who lived 2,000 years ago in ancient Palestine — occupied Roman territory — in the tiny, backwater province of Nazareth. We know little about her before we meet her in the gospels, but it is almost certain that she grew up in poverty and obscurity (absolutely nobody, in human terms) and anxiously awaiting God’s deliverance of her people from the oppressive rule of the Romans.
As Mary grew up in the Judaean countryside, she had little to look forward to under the thumb of the Romans, and little hope of more than the brief and unremarkable life of a peasant farmer. Likely she had an honorable and loving family, and we know from Scripture that her future husband Joseph was both a competent tradesman and an honorable man in dishonorable times.
At the personal level, I strongly doubt that neither Mary nor Joseph nor their families expected much more from their lives than basic survival. Likely, their most realistic daily hope was to stay off the radar of their Roman overlords and harvest enough from each year’s crop to pay the ever increasing taxes levied against them by the thieving, ungodly men who pocketed half and surrendered the other half to their localvassal king, Herod the Great, to support his recklessly extravagant building campaign (as he tried to impress Caesar with his little kingdom).
At this time in history, it had been 400 years since the last prophet walked the earth and spoke for God in Israel. In a very real sense, God had gone dark, and many had to be thinking that He had gone away altogether. During those generations of silence, many lost faith that God still cared for them, turned away from God in a sense of hopelessness or anger, or simply forgot God. For many, hope and prophesy had turned to legend and story, or even to bitterness and unbelief.
But while most of the world, even many among God’s people in Israel, “each did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25), there were still some who remembered and believed God’s promises. Mary — as well as her future husband, Joseph — was in fact descended from King David himself (who reigned over 1,000 years before), in the very ancestral line through which God would ultimately fulfill His centuries-old promise to send to His people a Deliverer — Messiah. Mary knew that this Messiah would be stronger than Herod’s henchmen, stronger than Caesar, even stronger than all of Rome … and that He would break the yoke of their oppressors, free His people, and finally establish an everlasting kingdom for Israel. She knew that someday, a child would be born, a son (of God) would be given, and the government would finally be upon His shoulders. His name would be called, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Of the increase of His government and of peace, there would be no end, and He would reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from that time forth and forevermore (Isaiah 9:1-7).
Can you imagine how much that kind of passage (which Mary likely heard read in synagogue) would mean to those who where stepped on by earthly powers every day but who held on to God’s promises, knowing that someday, the zeal of the Lord of hosts would accomplish all this?!
In my mind, I see Mary as one who stubbornly refused to give up on God’s promises. Can you imagine the kinds of things she and her family likely talked about? Do you think that every time a traveler came through Galilee from Jerusalem, they would ask, “Is there any news? Has anyone heard of anyone who could be the One we’ve been waiting for?” Do you think the younger folks in the village ever got tired of the older folks talking about it?
And can you imagine the wrestling that doubtless took place, even if never spoken aloud, while lying in the dark before sleep? “What if Messiah never comes? Is God really there? Where has He gone? Will God not remember us in our great need? Has He forsaken us? Has our sin finally caused Him to disown us? What hope is there?”
But to be found faithful in her remembering God’s promises (which we’re clearly told she was), I bet Mary also spent a lot of time preaching to herself passages like these (in addition to Isaiah 9, which we discussed)…
“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” (Habakkuk 3:17-18)
“Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.” (Isaiah 12:2)
I can hear her saying to herself, “Though I see no evidence of hope, I choose to believe God’s promises! He will come for us!”
And then one day…
“Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you! Do not be afraid. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy — the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
(See Luke 1:26-38)
Okay, pause. Put yourself in this story. How would you be reacting at this point?
Mary worshipped God with her faith.
First, having grown up in the silence and darkness, would you have been found by the angel to be expectantly awaiting the rejoicing of the angels and the light of the world? Just like Mary, we live in our day in a sea of unbelief and self-worship, and most certainly each man still does what is right in his own eyes! If God’s angelic messenger were to come tonight, would your persistent faith invite the greeting Mary’s did? “Fear not, for you have found favor with God!” Is that you? It can be. It’s your choice.
Second, the angel bluntly proclaimed to Mary a whole series of patently-absurd miracles…
Angel: “You’ve never been with a man, but in complete defiance of nature and everything you know to be true on this subject, you’re going to wake up tomorrow and be pregnant. Surprise!”
Mary: Shocked, blank stare.
Angel: “Not only that, but this baby isn’t just any peasant baby. He’s going to be the Messiah you and your people have been waiting for for a thousand years. He’ll be the king of Israel, and rule them forever.”
Angel: “And not only that, but the father isn’t Joseph. The father is God Himself.”
Mary: Blinks twice. Mouth gaping.
Angel: “No wait, there’s more. Just to make sure you really can’t sleep tonight and will spend the rest of your life trying to figure out what I’m talking about, here’s the cherry on top… This baby will be human in some sense, but in another impossible-to-understand sense, the baby will actually be God Himself — the Son of the Most High.”
Mary: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
Jeff: Blinks twice. Mouth gaping.
Honestly, is this how you would have responded? In my better moments, I think I would have at least believed the angel, but even in my finest hour I suspect I would’ve had 63 follow-up questions and more than a skeptical tendency or two to pray through. What about you? Have you positioned yourself for God to work miracles in your life? When He’s asked you to believe and do “just a little crazy” stuff, have you submitted with joy and responded as Mary did? Because if God can’t expect that response from us in the little things, we’ll never have a day like Mary did that day. Why would we expect otherwise?
Do you have the faith to believe the impossible? Because the truth is that God makes the impossible look easy, but only for those who believe He can and will. We worship God well when we believe Him and take Him at His Word — when we make God big and whatever else small.
Mary worshipped God with her trusting submission.
In Mary’s day, out-of-wedlock pregnancy wasn’t a misdemeanor or an inconvenience, it was a stoning offense. Literally. Having been betrothed to Joseph, Mary was considered legally married to him, but not yet legally free to consummate the marriage. Like engagement on steroids. In the eyes of the people around them, being pregnant before marriage, Mary was at best a fornicator (for sleeping with Joseph before the appointed time) and at worst at adulteress (for sleeping with someone else while betrothed to Joseph). Either way, everyone around them would have said that it honored God for the townsfolk literally to stone her to death in the street. Yet Mary met the angel’s proclamation of her virgin conception with faith and submission. I’m sure she was afraid, but she trusted God in her fear.
To say that our cultural morays have migrated somewhat since that day is a gross understatement, and God is likely not looking for any other virgin mothers any time soon. But what if God asked you to do something else you found scary and difficult, something that would look crazy or even foolish to the culture around you? For that matter, what if God asked you to do something that was merely inconvenient? What if honoring God and obeying His word meant losing friends? Alienating family? Losing your job? Losing time you planned to spend on something else? How about surrendering some possession or freedom that you really love?
Would your response by as worshipful as Mary’s was?
“God, because you are everything and my fears are nothing in comparison, I will do and say and be whatever you ask of me.”
“Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
Mary worshipped God with her song.
After all this, Mary’s response was to sing to God. Awesome! After her encounter with the angel, Mary travels to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was also miraculously pregnant with John the Baptist (who would become the prophet who would “prepare the way” for Jesus). When confronted with this second sign of the unfolding of God’s plan, she responds by breaking into a song of praise. See Luke 1:46-53, which I quoted in full at the beginning of this post. This song is so beautiful an expression of faith and worship that it has been repeated and re-sung for centuries, written into hymnals and confessionals, and even named “the magnificat”.
In her song, Mary sees herself as a prism through which God’s glory is to be shown on earth. She magnifies God. She sees her poverty and sin and “humble estate” before God. She is God’s servant. She sees God’s transcendent holiness and beauty and power, and she sees that He has “done great things” on her behalf — things she couldn’t have begun to do on her own. Her song is bursting with spot-on theology — worshipful truths about God. And she shows clearly that she is trusting the Lord to do what He has been saying He’s going to do for centuries.
Are we like this?
In even the best of times or the easiest of circumstances, do we see our “humble estate” before God? When life breaks bad, is our first instinct to run to Him? Do we call His name “holy” with our lives, not just our words — setting apart only the finest, choicest offerings with which to come into His presence? Or, do we casually troll into God’s office and make demands? What does your life say? Are you more like Mary — “the humble” who will be “filled with good things” —, or are you “the rich” whom God will “send empty away”? It’s not about money (as Joseph taught us), it’s about the heart. If you have everything you need in yourself, then you a) don’t understand what you really need, and b) will be incapable of truly worshipping God. The incense we burn on God’s altar from a position of self-confident strength does not turn His head toward us the way it was turned toward Mary. More than once God has said, “Oh that there were one among you who would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire on my altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you, and I will not accept an offering from your hand” (Malachi 1:10). Ouch! Seems like God might take His holiness fairly seriously. Perhaps we should too, as Mary clearly does.
The Almighty God — who brings salvation and the hope of eternal life — dwells in unapproachable light. He is high and lifted up. There’s only one acceptable response to God’s holiness, and Mary shows it to us… Get as low as we can as fast as we can. And if we do, then the world will see that in our lives, as we live out our faith in God’s promises and our submission to God’s commands.
And they will hear it in our songs…
Todd Agnew’s amazing rendition of Mary’s song