Dec 11, 2011

The Magnificat (Part 2)

Luke 1:46–56

The Lord never forgets His promises to His people and never fails to keep them. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of the book of Luke by considering how God’s faithfulness to His covenant brought about the incarnation of His Son.


We’re going to continue our study this morning of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. I’m still working from the Magnificat, and so I will read the entire Magnificat again this morning 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.

Once again, we’ve had the wonderful opportunity to hear this song, inspired by God the Holy Spirit, sung by the mother of our Lord, filled with praise and exultation for the nature and character of God. Let her song of praise be ours as well. Let us pray.

Again, our Father, we look to You in this hour, as we have come for this holy assembly, for the purpose of giving to You the reverence and adoration that You deserve as our God and as our King. We pray now that You would stoop to our weakness. Give us a deeper understanding of who You are. Strengthen the weakness of our faith within our souls. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

God Sustains Creation

In the previous sermon, we looked at Mary’s rejoicing in the character and nature of our God in the early parts of the Magnificat. She stressed the mighty power of God, the holiness of God, and the mercy of God. In the last part of our consideration, we looked at the strength of God’s right arm. In this section of the Magnificat, Mary focuses attention on the power of God.

Before I expound on that, let me say that Mary’s song celebrates the providence of God, a concept that has all but disappeared from the thinking and speaking of Christian people. When we look to the providence of God, we look to that sense in which God sovereignly sustains and governs His entire creation.

It’s not as though God created the universe, stepped out of the picture, put inherent laws into nature, and then, like the deist version of theism, wound up the universe like a clock and let it run down on its own steam. No—what God creates, He sustains. Not just over the long haul, but moment by moment, second by second, every moment of history unfolds under His omnipotent, divine government.

When we first looked at the Magnificat, I mentioned that Mary’s song is replete with allusions and references to the Old Testament. You can see the influence of the Psalms throughout this song. If there was any axiom, any central theme that defined the entire faith of Old Testament Israel, it was this fundamental assertion: the Lord God Omnipotent reigns. God is the Lord, and there is none other. In His omnipotence, He is the King of all things.

He is not like Aristotle’s first cause, or, as Will Durant once likened Him, the King of England—the do-nothing king who reigns but doesn’t rule. The Lord God Omnipotent not only reigns, but He rules over all things. This doctrine of the government of God in His providence simply means this: He raises kingdoms up and He brings kingdoms down. There is no one who exercises power in this world apart from the sovereign government of God.

God Scatters the Proud

At Christmas, we celebrate the One who comes, of whom the government is upon His shoulders, and to whom the Father gives the authority to reign with a government that will have no end. We fuss, fret, stew, and work every day about the problems that we face in the earthly governments of this world, even in our own nation. Sometimes we forget who is really running things and who the Lord God Omnipotent who reigns is.

Mary celebrates the strength of God’s right arm, then uses some images that I find marvelous:

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.

When I read that imagery, I think of two avid chess players taking their seats at the chess table. Meticulously and methodically, with great care and preparation, they assign each chessman to its place on the chessboard. With all the competitive juices stirring within their hearts, they sit down and gaze intently at the board, contemplating their first moves, when suddenly, unexpectedly, somebody comes along, sticks out his right arm, and knocks all those chess pieces on the ground, scattering them all around.

That’s what I see when I read this text. But instead of chess pieces, I see the monarchs of the ages—the Nebuchadnezzars of the past and the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt—standing in pompous might before Almighty God in a posture of utter defiance.

God Laughs at Rulers

I can’t help but think of Psalm 2. There we read:

Why do the nations rage,
And the people plot a vain thing?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
And the rulers take counsel together.

This describes a summit meeting of the most powerful potentates on the face of the globe, who come together to join their forces to rebel against God. They take counsel together against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying: “Let us break their bonds in pieces. Let us cast away their cords from us. Let us declare our liberty. Let us have our Declaration of Independence from Almighty God. We’re the kings of the world. Let’s be done with the restraints, the cords that bind us, the laws that inhibit us that come from on high. Let’s rebel against Him and against His Anointed.”

The response of God is classic. We don’t read, “He who sits in the heavens shall tremble and cower in fear at this massive power of these earthly potentates.” That’s not what your Bible says. That’s not what my Bible says. No, we read: “He who sits in the heavens shall laugh.”

God looks down, sees all the nuclear weaponry of the earth assembled, pointed at heaven, and He says, “Ha! Ha! Ha!” Then He scatters the proud with His arm. “The Lord shall hold them in derision,” the Psalmist says. I know Mary knew that Psalm.

God Puts Down the Mighty

She goes on to say, “And He has put down the mighty from their thrones.” Again, think about the imagery she uses. In the ancient world, one king would try to have a higher level of exaltation than the neighboring ruler. The way in which they measured their opulence was by the kind of throne that they established. How high was it? What was it made of? Was it made of ivory? Were the robes of the king made from ermine or mink? They would use every one of these symbols of power to puff themselves up.

Imagine Nebuchadnezzar or Pharaoh seated aloof in his palace on his throne. Suddenly, you see a little hand come out. There’s a little tug at the bottom of his robe, but that little tug is from the Lord God Omnipotent. Just like that, God topples the thrones of these monarchs and drags the mighty down from their positions of exaltation. In contrast to that, He raises up and exalts those of low degree.

That’s what Mary is singing about: “Why me? I don’t have a throne that’s established. I’m a lowly handmaiden of the Lord. My degree is low in our culture, and yet God has raised me up, just as he raised Israel up out of the ashes of the Exodus in the Old Testament.”

God Fills the Hungry

Mary continues:

He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent away empty.

Mary uses antithetical parallelism in these lines. This is a stark contrast. In the first case, God, in His mercy and providence, has provided for the poor. This presupposes the sermon that Mary’s Son will preach one day in years to come: “Blessed are the poor, blessed are those who hunger and thirst, for they will be filled. Come, eat food for which you have not paid, drink the water from wells you have not built but that flows freely from our God.” So, Mary says, “He fills the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.”

We need be careful at this point. Throughout Scripture, there is not an absolute negation or condemnation of the rich, but there is a universal condemnation by God against the self-satisfied rich—those with no sense of dependence upon their redeeming God. These are the bootstrap mentality people who think they have earned everything without any assistance from the mercy and grace of God. People who think they are self-sufficient run a severe risk of God Himself opposing them. He declares that He gives grace to the humble, but He resists the proud.

I need to say another thing about the rich in Scripture: when the judgment of God comes upon the rich in Scripture, in most cases that judgment is not directed against the merchant class of Israel. It’s not that God was the original protestor of Wall Street. Rather, the rich usually in view are the rulers who use their seats of authority, like Ahab, to exploit the people and sell the poor for a pair of shoes.

“God will fill the hungry with good things,” says Mary. In contrast to that, He sends the self-sufficient, arrogant rich away empty. For a self-sufficient, wealthy person, there is no worse consequence they can imagine than to go away empty. There is nothing worse for them than to have the things that fill them, their possessions, removed and to lose everything. It’s God who gives grace to the poor, and it’s God who will take away from the self-sufficient rich, because it is the Lord who gives, and it’s the Lord who takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

God Rules All Things

Let me go back briefly to the Old Testament, to the book of Isaiah, where the prophet hears the word of God. In Isaiah 45:4, we read these words:

And Israel My elect,
I have even called you by your name;
I have named you, though you have not known Me.

The refrain throughout Isaiah 45 is:

I am the LORD, and there is no other;
There is no God besides Me.
I will gird you, though you have not known Me, That they may know from the rising of the sun to its setting
That there is none besides Me.
I am the LORD, and there is no other;
I form the light, I create the darkness,
I make peace, and I create calamity;
I, the LORD, do all these things. (Isaiah 45:5–7)

This is the sovereignty of God. This is His providence.

We sometimes have a naïve view of God and look at the things of God through rose-colored glasses: “Yes, all good things, come from the hands of God, but any problems or suffering or afflictions are far removed from Him.” No, no—He brings peace, He brings calamity. He fills, He empties. He heals, He hurts.

I hear people say that they pray and experience unanswered prayers. There’s no such thing as an unanswered prayer. God’s “No” is just as much as answer as God’s “Yes,” and it is the same God saying yes or no when we plead our case with Him—it is the same One who is holy, the same One who is merciful, the same One who does all things well.

Mary didn’t understand all the depths of theology. She couldn’t fathom everything. She was overwhelmed when Gabriel said she was going to conceive a child. “How can this be?” she asked. The answer was: “Mary, here’s how it’s going to be: God. That’s how it can be. The Sovereign One—there is no other.”

God Remembers His Mercy

Mary finishes this song in a magnificent style, and this might be my favorite part:

He has helped His servant Israel,
In remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and to his seed forever.

Remember David’s cry in Psalm 103:2:

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
And forget not all His benefits.

Our tendency as Christians is to be as strong in our faith as the recollection of our latest blessing. We forget all the benefits that God has poured out on us in our lives. That’s our tendency. That’s our nature—to forget.

This is one of the ways, beloved, in which we differ so profoundly from God. God simply does not know how to forget. Once God makes a promise to His people, it is set in stone. It is forever. That promise cannot be broken. It will never be forgotten.

Here is Mary, at a time when the national faith of her people is at a low ebb. The spiritual vitality of Israel at the time of the coming of Jesus was ghastly. Those few people, like Elizabeth, Zacharias, Joseph, and Mary, who kept the faith handed down through the ages, felt all alone. They were asking, “Where is God?”

Now, in the Magnificat, Mary says: “Oh, yes, He remembers! He remembers the covenant that He made with Abraham and with our fathers forever.” That’s the God we come to worship every Sunday morning: the God of providence, the God of promises, the God who doesn’t know how to forget His promises to Abraham and to his seed forever. Let’s pray.

Our Father and our God, how merciful You are to us in the promises that You give and the gifts You pour out to us. We cannot understand why we have been so blessed by Your lovingkindness and Your mercy, but we praise You for Your goodness. In the name of Jesus. Amen.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.