Nov 27, 2011

The Magnificat (Part 1)

Luke 1:46–56

With the incarnate Son of God within her womb, Mary sang a hymn of praise to the God who cares mightily for the lowest of His servants. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Luke by expounding on the rich truths found in Mary’s Magnificat.


Our Scripture this morning is from Luke 1:46–56.

And Mary said:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant;
For behold, henceforth 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 on those who fear Him
From generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
And exalted the lowly.
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 seed forever.”

And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her house.

This is Luke’s record of this marvelous song of Mary, known as the Magnificat, inspired by the Holy Ghost and given to us for our instruction and edification, for the moving of our souls to praise and adoration. May you hear these words to that end. Let’s pray.

Again, our Father, we look to you to help us in our weakness, that you may stoop to our fragile understanding and the frailty of our faith, that by your Word our souls may be quickened to strength, that we may give you praise and adoration from the depths of our being. We ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mary’s Scriptural Song

One thing that’s clear from the reading of this text is that Mary, as a young Jewish girl, did something that most Jewish girls did in her day: memorize Scripture. We see similarities between her song and Hannah’s song of praise and thanksgiving in the Old Testament when she was told of the impending birth of her son, Samuel.

If you look closely at this song, you will see that there are several references to elements in the Psalms. The more we ingest Scripture and hide it in our hearts, memorize it, and become familiar with it, we will find that when we are praying, we will turn again and again to the language of the Word of God itself. This is modeled for us in this marvelous hymn by Mary herself.

Mary sings this hymn under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and its content reveals much about her, but also much about the character and nature of God. She begins by saying, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit doth rejoice in God my Savior.” One of the things Scripture warns about more than once is the danger of rendering to God mere lip service, going through the motions, rote worship, where we say the words and we confess with our mouths while our hearts remain far from Him.

Pure Praise Music

It is noteworthy about this hymn that Mary is not simply giving lip service to God, but this song of praise and adoration is welling up out of the depths of her being. She says, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Not that God could become any greater or larger than He already is, but what she means when she says, “My soul magnifies Him,” is this: “My soul has been saturated by a sense of the divine, and by His presence and mercy. So, from the deepest part of my being, I want to exalt Him.” That’s what it means to magnify—to lift God up in exaltation.

There has been much debate in recent years about the appropriate type of music that is to be used in worship. We even have a new vocabulary, in which we talk about praise music. Indeed, music should be filled with praise for God. If you want to see an example of pure praise music (not of the seven-eleven variety, in which the same seven verses are sung eleven times), but praise music that is deep and rich in content, focused on the majesty of God, then here we have Holy Spirit-inspired praise music, where Mary says, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

Mary is not making a distinction between her soul and her spirit like some people would like to believe, but instead uses a common Hebrew form of poetry called parallelism. In this case, she uses synonymous parallelism, where the first line and the second line mean essentially the same thing. She says it once, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” and says it again, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

Mother of Her Savior

Theologians have paid attention to the last couple of words of the second line, “my Savior.” What does Mary mean by that? St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, believed that Mary could not have been sinless because she confessed in this hymn her need of a Savior. That insight may be correct, but it’s not a necessary inference from the text, because the word “to save” and the word “salvation” in the Bible can mean something other than the ultimate salvation that we have from the consequences of our sins.

Any time God rescues His people and spares them from any calamity, that can express a kind of salvation. The salvation that Mary may have in view could simply be the rescue from the calamity of being humiliated, being a forgotten person, a person of insignificance, as she specifies in the next line the sense in which God has been merciful to her.

Even though Mary is not necessarily referring to divine deliverance from sin, that idea is probably contained in the words that she’s using in this song. If so, what is she saying? Just as the child that is conceived in her womb will be called David’s greater son, and not only David’s son, but also David’s Lord, so the babe will not only be Mary’s son, but he will be Mary’s Savior. No woman in the history of the world could sing that song, either before or after that time, because only Mary was given the unspeakable privilege of being the mother of our Savior.

God Regards the Lowly

Mary speaks initially of being overwhelmed by the tenderness of God. She says, “For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant.” In former Christmas seasons, I’ve preached on the Magnificat, and I’ve pointed out that in this line, we have the original Cinderella story. This Cinderella story was not a fairy tale nor a myth but was sober reality and truth because God Himself looked at this woman in her low estate.

Years ago, I told the story of an experience I had in Western Pennsylvania, when I used to work with labor management relations from a Christian perspective. I would speak at corporate headquarters in Fortune 500 companies, and on the same day I would lecture at union halls from the United Steel Workers International on the question of dignity in the workplace. I remember interviewing a man who worked as a chipper in a steel foundry in the Monongahela Valley of Western Pennsylvania. Being a chipper in the foundry is one of the toughest, most difficult jobs you can have.

I was talking to this man and asking him about his labor, and he mentioned to me in passing that when “the suits,” or the executives, came on to the foundry floor, they dropped their heads. I thought that was a rather vivid image. I thought of executives walking onto the foundry floor carrying their heads in their arm like the headless horseman and dropping them on the floor, but that’s not what he meant, of course.

Shortly after, we were doing a seminar in a hospital. I was sitting on a chair and watching what was going on in one of the wings of the hospital. The head nurse was at the nurses’ station, and I noticed that when a doctor came through the doors, she brightened up immediately, smiled at him, and said, “Good morning, Dr. So and So…”

I watched the dynamic, and then I watched the nurse leave the nurses’ station and start walking down the hall. Coming up the hall was one of the laborers from the housekeeping department, and he was pushing his basket of soiled garments. He saw the nurse coming, and lifted up his head to acknowledge her, and as he looked at her, she put her head down and walked past him. She didn’t even acknowledge him, she acted like he didn’t exist. I watched his body language. His face sank, and you could see the hurt from the snub he had just received from the nurse.

When Isaiah writes of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 and describes the pain of our Redeemer, he says: “We hid, as it were, our faces from Him. He had no comeliness that we should desire Him or to look at Him.” Our Lord Himself experienced this phenomenon of people too proud to look upon His countenance because they held Him in such contempt.

As a peasant girl in Nazareth, Mary had perhaps often experienced the same kind of contempt from people who were in a higher station in life. Now she says: “I can’t believe this. My soul wants to exalt Him infinitely. My spirit is rejoicing because He has regarded me in my low estate. He looked at me.”

On another occasion, I mentioned that unforgettable scene in the movie, Ben-Hur. When Ben-Hur was in chains and they brought him by the well, he was on his knees, and no one would give him anything to drink. Suddenly, the shadow of a figure came across the screen, and you could see somebody stooping over and giving water to this slave in his shackles. You never saw the man. All you saw was Ben-Hur looking up into the face of the man who gave him the cup of cold water, and you saw the instant radiance on the face of the slave. Everybody knew instantly that he had just been given a cup of cold water from Jesus.

This is Mary’s experience: “He looked at me. He noticed me. He sees me and, behold, henceforth all the generations of human history will call me blessed, because I am blessed, supremely blessed, like no woman in human history has ever been blessed.”

Mighty, Holy, Merciful

Mary continues: “For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name. And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation.” Here in the Magnificat, Mary mentions three specific attributes of God. He is mighty, He is holy, and He is merciful.

The Almighty One

The One who has recognized Mary is the Almighty One, the One who possesses all power on heaven and earth. He is the One who can create a universe by the sound of His voice, by the power of His command, who can say, “Let there be,” and there is.

The angel Gabriel mentioned God’s mighty power to Mary when she was confounded by his announcement. She asked, “How can this be, since I know not a man?” Gabriel responded: “Mary, it will be because of the power of the Most High God. The Almighty will overshadow you. For with Him, all things are possible. He is the One who is mighty.”

The Holy One

Notice, in passing, that so often in our culture when people speak of God, they do so in meaningless terms. People will speak about a higher power or a force greater than themselves. There is hardly any difference between that kind of language and the language of an animist practitioner who bows down and worships an idol made of wood. Higher power? Force greater than yourself? What are you talking about, gravity? Cosmic energy? Why do we do that?

As long as we can depersonalize God, make Him an impersonal force of vague, amorphous power, we have nothing to worry about. Impersonal forces will never hold you accountable for your behavior. You will never have to face the judgment of cosmic dust. But the God who is, is the God who has a name. He is not simply a power, though He has all power. He is “He who is mighty, He has done great things for me, and holy is His name.”

How beautiful is this description of the character of God. Mary is saying that God is so holy, so transcendentally majestic, that His very name is holy. That’s who He is. That’s His identity. He is the Holy One of Israel. He is not just mighty, not just raw force or brute power, but He has a holy power, a holy might, a holy strength, “and His mercy is on those who fear Him.” Don’t miss the impact of those words. The One from whom we receive mercy, beloved, is the Almighty One, the Omnipotent One, the Holy One.

The Merciful One

How else could we exist in the presence of the Holy One, except by mercy? That mercy, however, is not infinite. We hear the hymns that speak of God’s infinite mercy and infinite grace, and I think that’s just giving ourselves over to hyperbole. We’re so amazed at the wideness and the extent of God’s mercy, kindness, and grace that we say it’s so wonderful that it’s infinite. If it’s infinite, it has no bounds.

God, however, says, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy” (Rom. 9:15). He does not extend that mercy to everyone. Not everyone receives the mercy of a forgiving God. Some, in the final analysis, receive His justice, without mercy. But who is it who receives the mercy of God? Those who fear Him.

Fearing God at this point is not in the sense of being frightened like you would be by a burglar or a ghost. Rather, it’s fear in the sense of reverence, in the sense of awe, of adoration. This is why we’re here on Sunday morning, to worship God, and that’s what worship is, to show Him reverence. We have this awe, this fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom, the beginning of faith, the beginning of everything, and without it, there is no mercy.

The godless are described in Scripture as people who have no fear of God. The world is filled with people who have no reverence for God at all—no respect, no awe, no adoration. They could not care less. In fact, they show their irreverence by how they use His name. How could somebody have any fear of God, any reverence for God whatsoever, and use His name as a curse word? Can you answer that question? Maybe you’re one who does it. If you do, ask yourself: “What does that say about me? How impious I must be, that I have no reverence for the living God, because I don’t even respect His name?”

God’s mercy is on everyone who fears him, from generation to generation. This is not something new. This is not something unique in the life of Mary. This is something that goes on and on, from Adam to Noah, to Abraham, Jacob, Isaac, David, Jeremiah, Peter, Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, to you and me. Generations come and go, but throughout all the ages, one thing is constant: the Lord is merciful to those who revere Him.

The Arm of the Lord

It is interesting that Mary mentions this in the middle of a hymn filled with reverence and adoration: “He has shown strength with His arm.” Here we have an image of God in human form, in which His arm is a symbol of His strength.

I think the funniest chapter in the Bible is Numbers 11. In that chapter, Moses was very distraught because the multitude of people he led in the Exodus were now complaining day after day. They wanted to go back to Egypt because they missed their leeks and their garlic and their onions. All they had to eat every day was manna that God supernaturally provided for them from heaven.

The Israelites got sick and tired of the manna. They had manna for breakfast, manna for lunch, manna for dinner, and if they wanted to have a midnight snack, they had manna as a midnight snack. They had roast manna, fried manna, sautéed manna, pot manna—they did everything they could possibly do to alter the taste of this stuff.

They couldn’t take it anymore, and they said: “Let’s go back to Egypt. Give us Pharaoh. At least under Pharaoh, even while we were slaves, we had onions, garlic, and leeks.” Moses wanted to die. He said: “Did I give birth to these people? Do I have to listen to this? They are crying in my tent, ‘Give us meat to eat.’”

God responded to Moses, “I’ve heard the cries of the people, and they shall have meat to eat, not for one day, not for a week, but for a whole month, until it’s coming out of their noses and becomes loathsome to them.” Be careful what you ask for when you pray. God said, “You want meat? I’ll give you meat until it’s coming out your nose until you don’t want to look at it ever again.”

Now Moses was really upset, and he said: “God, how are you going to do that? Are all our herds going to be killed to supply meat for a month for all these people? Are you going to dry up the sea with the fish so that we can feed them? This is even more than you can do.”

God answered a question with a question. He said, “Moses, has the arm of the Lord waxed short?” In other words: “Moses, who do you think you’re talking to? Do you think I’m a God with a withered arm? Do you think I’m a ninety-seven-pound weakling and that bullies kick sand in My face? Has the arm of the Lord waxed short? Moses, you will see if what I say comes to pass.”

What a great, great image. That’s the image that finds its way into this song: “He has shown strength with His arm.” Mary goes on to demonstrate how God has displayed the strength in His arm, and that’s what we’ll look at, God willing, next Sunday morning. Let’s pray.

Father, give us hearts like Mary where we sing your praise in adoration with all of our soul and all of our spirit. May the words that pass over our lips come from the depths of our being. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.