If you were to ask most people what they like best about Christmas, somewhere on almost everyone’s list would be the songs of Christmas. A good Christmas song is timeless in a way unlike other music. Because the songs become a part of our lives they often bring with them wonderful memories of past events.
During this Christmas season we are going to take time to look at the Songs of Christmas that are found in the Bible. If you will, these are the first Christmas carols. They may not have been sung . . . but they are lyrical (like the Psalms) in expression and could easily have been put to music. There are four such “songs” in the story of the birth of Christ:
• The Song of Mary
• The Song of Zechariah
• The Song of the Angels with the Shepherds
• The Song of Simeon
All of these “songs” are found in Luke’s record of the birth of Jesus. The first song is one known by many as The Magnificat, a title that comes from the first line of the song which in the King James says, “My soul doth magnify the Lord”.
If you talk to song writers or attend their concerts you know there is an inspiration for each of their songs. There is always a “back-story” which if known, makes the song all the more powerful. This morning we want to take a minute to look at the back-story of this song of Mary.
We know from earlier in the gospel of Luke that an angel had appeared to Mary and told her she was going to become pregnant; not from a man, but from the Holy Spirit. The child she would bear would “be great and be called the son of the Most High and the Lord would give to him the throne of his ancestor David”.
This was an incredible announcement. Mary was probably in her very early teens (some suggest around 13). She was unmarried but was already promised to Joseph. We would say today that she was engaged. The people followed the sexual morals of God and so Mary was still a Virgin. This prompted a clarifying question: “How can this happen since I am a Virgin?” She was told that she would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Mary responded simply, “I am the Lord’s servant.” In other words, she entrusted herself to God’s plan.
Mary had a faithful and willing heart but that doesn’t mean it all wasn’t a bit overwhelming. There were many problems. First, how would she explain the pregnancy? The truth would sound like nonsense to people. Imagine coming home to your parents and explaining that you were pregnant but the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit! Mary would, at best, become a social outcast as an “immoral woman” (even though it was not true). At worst, she could be stoned to death because since she was promised to Joseph the assumed act of immorality would be considered adultery.
Second, there is Joseph. If your fiancé told you this story how would you respond? If Joseph supported her then he too would be assumed to have been immoral. If he divorced her, what would she do?
The angel understood that Mary would need support so he told Mary to go to the home of her relative Elizabeth (who lived in another town). Elizabeth would understand because she too was having a miraculous birth.
Mary received confirmation of the angel’s words as soon as she walked in the door. Keep in mind that Mary was not able to call ahead to let Elizabeth know she was coming and why. She just “showed up” on the doorstep of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s home. There was no way for Elizabeth to know what had happened in Mary’s life.
As soon as Mary greeted Elizabeth (who was now well into her pregnancy) we are told the baby Elizabeth was carrying (John the Baptist) jumped for joy in her womb. We are told that Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and said, “God has blessed you above all women, and your child is blessed. She continued “Why am I so honored that the mother of my Lord should visit me? You are blessed because you believed that the Lord would do what he said.”
Wow! I can only imagine that Mary stood there with her mouth open. Not only did Elizabeth know about the baby but she confirmed everything the angel had said. That statement, “the mother of my Lord” was staggering. Mary was in her early teens. Elizabeth was well past the age of bearing children. For Elizabeth to address Mary in such fashion was unprecedented.
Apprehension is replaced with joy. Concern about circumstances is replaced with a feeling of humility at such a rich blessing! Mary breaks into an explosion of praise that we will call our first Christmas Carol.
Mary’s song is similar to the song of Hannah after she learned she was pregnant with Samuel after a long period of barrenness. Mary wasn’t necessarily copying her . . . it just meant she was using phrases from this text which she knew from her upbringing. Some of Hannah’s words expressed what Mary wanted to say.
Mary’s Focus Was on God’s Greatness
Let’s look at the Song. Notice that Mary’s Focus Was on God’s Greatness.
Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
47 How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!
48 For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,
and from now on all generations will call me blessed.
49 For the Mighty One is holy,
and he has done great things for me.
50 He shows mercy from generation to generation
to all who fear him.
Every line of the song is about the character of God. Mary understood that she was not the focus of the story. This was not about her faithfulness but GOD’S faithfulness. Mary saw herself as a “lowly servant girl” who had been given a position of honor not because she deserved it, but because God (for some reason) had been wonderfully gracious to her. It was not about the cost or the sacrifice, it was about the gift and the blessing.
Every true believer should have this understanding. Our blessed relationship with God is not due to our worthiness; it is due to God’s grace in reaching out to us. We are sinful; God is merciful.
I asked Jason Gray what it was like to hear an audience singing the words he had written. His response was, “Humbling”. This is what Mary is saying. She feels no sense of pride at “winning” the contest to be the mother of the Messiah. She is humbled to be used by God in such a remarkable way. And every one of us should feel the same way when God chooses us to serve Him. Notice what God tells us about God.
Mary Declares God’s Power. She calls Him the Mighty One. She understood that God can do what no one else can do. He has the power to
• Turn a servant girl into the Mother of the Messiah
• Take broken hearts and put them back together again
• Restore those who have wasted or squandered their lives and opportunities
• Take rebellious and sinful people and make them children of the King
• Heal broken bodies and destroy diseases
• Defeat the Devil and overcome his power in our lives
• Use evil and pain for good purposes
• Even become human to rescue His creation
She rejoiced in God’s Holiness. She saw that the Mighty One is Holy. To be holy means to be “set apart”; to be different from the world around us. God is different from us. He is perfect in character and in His plan. He is consistent in His works. He does not compromise with evil. Because of His holiness our sin had to be dealt with before we could be part of God’s family. God chose to deal with our sin while at the same time demonstrating His enduring love. The Messiah had come to set us free.
She celebrated God’s Mercy. If it were not for the mercy of the Lord we would be lost forever. If God was only holy and righteous we would get what we deserved: Judgment and Hell. We would be cast aside by God because we have cast Him aside over and over by the way we live, the choices we make, the thoughts we think, and the sin we excuse.
Christmas is not the story of gifts being given to “good little boys and girls”. If you will, there is no one whose name is on God’s “Nice” list. The story of the birth of Christ is about mercy, not reward. It is about being spared what we deserve. We should celebrate Christmas because it is an incredible story of love, mercy, and grace. If we don’t understand this fact, we have missed the story entirely.
She Celebrated the Transformation of Jesus’ Kingship (51-53)
His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
52 He has brought down princes from their thrones
and exalted the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away with empty hands.
Mary somehow understood that the work that God was beginning in her womb would change the world. Today we would might say God was bringing a new paradigm, or a new rubric, or creating a new algorithm (or whatever the new “buzzword” is) to bear on life. The very fact that Mary was chosen was the first indicator that God was turning things upside down.
Mary says God has and will
• Scatter the proud and haughty (those most celebrated by the world)
• He will bring down princes and people of privilege and exalt the humble (like herself)
• He will fill the hungry and send the rich away empty.
Later in the Sermon on the Mount Mary’s son reiterated the same “counter-cultural nature” of the Kingdom of God. The Lord would
• Bless those who are poor in spirit
• Comfort those who mourn over their spiritual state
• Give His inheritance to the humble
• Satisfy those who hunger for justice after God’s own heart
• Bless those who show mercy to others
• Reveal Himself to those who had pure hearts
• Embrace those who work for peace
• And bless those who were persecuted and beaten up by the world for doing what God desires.
Mary understood that God’s Kingdom is revolutionary. It is vastly different from the Kingdom of this world. Think about it. We live in a society where people are measured by their possessions, their appearance, their “cultural refinement”, their influence, or their popularity. In God’s Kingdom people are valued because of their heart and their faithfulness. Those God rewards are those who find their joy and peace in Him.
William Barclay observed that Mary saw that God’s Kingdom will bring about a Moral transformation (God will scatter or judge the proud), a Social transformation (the humble will be exalted), and an Economic transformation (needs will be met and hoarders will be judged). This powerful kingdom will have an impact on our lives. Barclay shares a story,
O. Henry has a short story about a lad who was brought up in a village. In school he used to sit beside a girl and they were fond of each other. He went to the city and fell into evil ways. He became a pickpocket and a petty thief. One day he snatched an old lady’s purse. It was clever work and he was pleased. And then he saw coming down the street the girl whom he used to know, still sweet with the radiance of innocence. Suddenly he saw himself for the cheap, vile thing he was. Burning with shame, he leaned his head against the cool iron of a lamp standard. “God,” he said, “I wish I could die.” He saw himself.
This is the effect the Kingdom of God should have on our lives. When we truly see Jesus we will also see ourselves most clearly. When that happens we understand how desperate we are for His redeeming grace and we should run to Him.
She Praised God for Keeping His Promise (54-55)
He has helped his servant Israel
and remembered to be merciful.
55 For he made this promise to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children forever.”
Mary saw what God was going to do in her and through her was an expression of God’s faithfulness. She was going to give birth to the promised Messiah. He was the One who was the hope of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon and all the prophets. Mary was given the inestimable privilege of being part of God’s faithfulness in action. God was fulfilling His promise to Israel and to all mankind.
The coming of Christ was not an afterthought of God. It was God’s plan from creation! This was God’s way to redeem the world and to reveal His character and love to those whom He has created. Mary knew this and now she knew that God keeps His promises. He kept them to those who served Him in the past and He will keep them to you and me. He promises that if we will entrust ourselves to Jesus we will be made new in this life and we will live with Him forever in the next life. He promises to never leave us and to never withdraw His love. These are promises that are sure because it is the promise keeping God that has made them.
The announcement that seemed at first to be a request that would “ruin” Mary’s life turned out to be an event that would transform the world. Mary would not be an outcast. She would be given a prominent place in history books and in the hearts of all the faithful. She would be known as the Mother of the Savior. She would be made new and become a child of God (just like you and me). What a joy! What a privilege! What a God!
Mary could have been frightened and paralyzed by what the angel told her. She had no idea what was ahead. She was later warned that a sword would pierce her soul (by the death of Jesus). She would suffer much in the years ahead. However, Mary did not try to look too far into the future. She did not try to “control” things. Instead, she submitted herself to the God who sees all things, knows all things, and governs all things. She didn’t need to understand because she had placed her trust in the Lord.
This is what God also wants from us. He calls us to trust Him not because doing so will make our life better (sometimes it does, sometimes it makes it harder). He calls us to trust Him because He is trustworthy. None of us knows the future. However, if we trust the One who holds the future we do not need to be afraid.
The birth of Jesus is only one chapter in the story of redemption. But what a wonderful account it is! It is time for us to reflect, to worship, and to embrace the One who has come to set us free. And yes, it is a time to sing. It is great to put music to the message. So sing out loud! Testify of the Joy that has come to the World.
However let me add a caution: remember that there is something frightening about singing these Christmas carols. If we sing these songs but do not embrace and commit to the One they point to, those very carols will rise up and judge us in the end. If we testify to the truth but do not commit to that truth then the words we sing will seal our fate. Such is the case for many in our world.
So I encourage you this Christmas season
1. Listen carefully to the words of the songs of Christmas and to open yourself up to Him. Use this time to commit or recommit your life to Him.
2. Write your own Christmas song. Even if it never becomes popular (which it probably won’t) it will be a wonderful act of worship.
3. Make an effort to proclaim Jesus through the music you play. It is still acceptable to play Christmas songs in our society so choose to play good songs; songs that declare the message of God’s grace, mercy and love.
4. When you see others enjoying Christmas music dare to ask them if they know the story behind the song. If they allow you to do so, take the opportunity to tell them about the love of God which sent a baby into Bethlehem and into Jerusalem to die on a cross.
The songs of Christmas are meant to touch our heart. May they not only bring back warm memories, may they also lead us to rest in the One who is worthy of our trust and our service and always keeps His promises.