If you’re a country music fan, you’re probably familiar with Travis Tritt. Several years ago, Travis revealed a little-known secret about his early years before he made it big. He was playing in out-of-the-way joints that sometimes got a bit dangerous. Drunken fans would start fights over the smallest matters. But Travis said he discovered a surefire way to restore peace whenever fights broke out.
When bar fights started to get out of hand, when bikers were reaching for their pool cues and rednecks were heading for the gun rack, Travis would signal his band to play “Silent Night”. Even if it was the middle of the July, Travis would start singing “Silent Night”. And it always worked. Fights would stop, everyone would get quiet, and things would calm down.
Now that might have worked for Travis Tritt, but I’ve got to tell you this morning that the very first song about the birth of Christ has had exactly the opposite effect.
During World War II, missionaries from Great Britain to India were instructed never to sing this song in church. They were told not to read the words of this song in public because it might cause riots in the streets.
In the 1970s and 1980s, governments in Argentina and Guatemala considered this song to be so dangerous and so revolutionary that they banned any public reading of this song and they would not allow the words of this song to be posted in public.
They said, “Don’t sing that song. In fact, don’t even read that song. It’s dangerous! It’s radical! And we’re afraid of what people will do if they hear that song!”
So, what was this dangerous song that no one was allowed to sing or read for fear of causing riots, an uprising among the people? It was a song first sung by a teenage girl by the name of Mary who had just learned that she was carrying a baby, the Messiah, the Son of God.
Mary was a young woman at the time – a girl, really. It’s been estimated that she was about 14 years old when she became pregnant. Luke tells us that, while she was pregnant, she traveled to see her cousin Elizabeth, and when she got there, she burst into song.
But, instead of me reading this song to you, I’ve asked Jordan Winans to read it for us. Because in a few months, Jordan will turn 14, which means that she is about the same age that Mary was when she sang this song. So, I’d like for you to imagine what it must have been like when Elizabeth heard these words from a teenage girl.
“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.” (Luke 1:46-55)
This song is often referred to as the “Magnificat”. It was named that because Magnificat is the Latin word for “magnify”, and Mary begins this song by saying, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
It was a song of praise. And that’s how the story of Jesus begins in the gospel of Luke, with people singing. There are actually five songs in the first two chapters of Luke. Two by women, two by men, and one by the heavenly angels. First, Elizabeth sings. And then Mary sings. And then Zechariah sings. And then the angels sing. And then, after Jesus is born, an old man named Simeon will sing.
But it’s Mary’s song that has resonated with so many people. Some scholars believe that Christians were singing Mary’s song even before Luke wrote his gospel. And whether that’s true or not, what we do know is that, ever since Luke wrote these words, Christians have been singing this song – the Magnificat – again and again and again, for nearly two thousand years now.
But why was Mary singing? We sing for a variety of reasons. For one thing, singing gives us the opportunity to express our emotions. Think of the range of emotions that you experience when you listen to music. Singing can inspire us, lift us up, move us into action. Or singing can help us to express the sorrow and the pain that we feel. Think about someone singing the blues.
We sing to remember the past and to tell a story. In church, we do that a lot – we sing songs that tell the story of God and us – the stories we collectively remember and continue to pass down through the generations, stories of God’s power and presence through the years.
But our singing doesn’t justremember the past. We also use songs to shape the future. In the civil rights movement, they sang – and continue to sing – “We Shall Overcome” – not because anyone had yet overcome, but in order to create a future where that would be true. We sing about how we believe things ought to be, and that affects who we are right now.
So why did Mary sing? I think it was for all of these reasons. It was a way to pour out all of the emotions that she was feeling, it was a way to remember what God had done in the past, and a way to help shape the future into the world that God wants it to be.
Mary was bringing Christ into this world. And, so Mary shares that good news in her song. She sings with her soul, her whole being – everything that she’s feeling – all the wonder, all the fear, all the determination, all the hope, all the joy.
Mary remembers God’s faithfulness throughout history. How God has brought down every power – every Pharaoh, every Babylon. Time and again, God has lifted up those who are low – all those who are in slavery, and all those who are oppressed.
She sings about what God has done, and then she proclaims what God is going to do through this baby that is in her womb. With her song, she paints a picture of the future that God has promised.
This morning, I want to explore what it is that is so special about this song, and why governments in different countries have believed it to be so dangerous that they wouldn’t even allow it to be read in public.
But, first, let’s take a look at this overview of the first 9 chapters of the book of Luke, and then I’ll be back to talk about this revolutionary song.
VIDEO (Gospel of Luke, part 1)
In Luke chapter 1, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she’s going to conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit and give birth to Jesus, the Son of God. Mary responded with these beautiful words. She said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38). But, immediately after that, we’re told, “And the angel departed from her.”
I would imagine that Mary had dozens of questions at this point: “Is this really happening to me? Am I dreaming? Am I hallucinating? How am I going to tell Joseph? When should I tell Joseph? Will Joseph believe me? Will we still get married? What will our families think? What will our friends think?”
Gabriel left Mary to face a frightening, uncertain future all by herself — without the benefit of any further angelic appearances. In verse 38, Mary submitted herself to God’s will, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t scared. Being brave doesn’t mean you’re not terrified. And being faithful doesn’t mean you don’t have any doubts.
And I think that’s why Gabriel said what he did in verse 36, “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.” I think the angel told Mary this as a sign— a way of reassuring her and confirmingfor herthat everything that he told her would come to pass.
So, in verse 39, we’re told that Mary “went with haste into the hill country to a town in Judah”, the townwhere Elizabeth and Zechariah lived. It was about a three-day’s journey from Nazareth, so Mary had plenty of time to spend alone with her questions, alone with her fears, alone with her doubts.
And she left Nazareth with her future marriage up in the air—not knowing for sure if Joseph would end up choosing to marry her. We know from Matthew’s gospel that after she told Joseph, he believed she had cheated on him and, after giving it some consideration, decided to divorce her.
All of this is to say that we can only imagine how difficult all of this was for Mary! And there’s one more reason why Mary may have been in a hurry to get to Elizabeth. Unwed and pregnant, it’s possible that Mary left Nazareth to escape the shame that her neighbors were sure to lay on her.
So, what a comfort it must have been to arrive at Elizabeth’s house and have Elizabeth greet her with these words, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1:42).
How reassuring it must have been to have someone tell Mary that this child growing inside her was special. That this child would be a source of blessing, not of shame. When Elizabeth spoke those words, she wasn’t just conveying her own love for Mary. She was expressing God’s love as well. The words were in Elizabeth’s familiar voice, but the message was from God: “Mary, you are loved and you are blessed.”
And those words of love were enough to lift Mary’s spirit. So that she could sing:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” (Luke 1:47-48)
When Mary referred to her lowliness, she wasn’t exaggerating. Keep in mind, she lived in a world where everyone else had all the power. There was the power and the authority of the religious officials. There was the power and the authority of the government officials. There was the power held by the men of that day and the rich people of that day. But Mary didn’t have any sort of power. She was on the lowest rung of every kind of hierarchy.
But I don’t think Mary was just singing about herself. She was singing about God’s love for everyone who has ever been put down. Everyone who has been abandoned. Everyone who has been shamed. Everyone who has been abused, bullied, oppressed, enslaved, trafficked, denied justice. Everyone who hasn’t been given an opportunity to even have an opportunity.
God looks at all these people who feel like they’ve gotten the short end of the stick in life, and God extends his favor to them. He lets them know how much he loves them. Because God’s love is not dependent on our circumstances in life. In fact, God has a preferential love for the lowly and the abused.
And in the following verses, Mary lets us know that God’s love turns the table, it flips the script. In verse 51,
“He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53)
Mary is just a young girl, but she understood the powerful implications of the Messiah’s arrival. And, with these words, Mary sounds less like a scared 14-year-old girl, and more like a revolutionary.
Because Jesus didn’t come to this earth to maintain the status quo. And he didn’t come to give us all a lifetime of pleasure and ease. He came to change and reverse the order of things.
And in the gospel of Luke, this is how the story of Jesus begins: A young girl who is a nobody from nowhere announces the downfall of all the rich, powerful people in the world, and proclaims good news for the poor. Good news for the hungry. Good news for everyone who’s ever been looked down on, pushed around and mistreated.
It is a radical reversal of everything that our world believes to be important and valuable. Notice with me three groups of people that will be affected.
1. God Will Take Down the Proud and Rescue the Helpless
“He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” (Luke 1:51)
“He has shown strength with his arm.” Picture a young boy challenging his father to an arm-wrestling competition. His arm is short, so he puts a book under his elbow and goes at it, maybe even using two hands and half his body weight. And maybe his father might let him push his arm backward, to give his son the impression that he’s winning. He watches him strain for a while, and then, at a moment of his own choosing, he just crushes his son.
I think of how many proud business executives, and overpaid celebrities and self-consumed political leaders have tried to arm-wrestle with God, and in the process, step all over other people. But, at a moment of God’s choosing, God will show strength with his arm, and will scatter the proud.
If it feels like you’ve been dealt a crummy hand in life, then let the song of Mary comfort you. Because she lets us know that God is letting those who are powerful do their thing and show off their puny influence for a while. But the day is coming when God will say, “Enough is enough!”
And when that day comes, God will wash away all the wrong and set everything right. So, put your faith in Almighty God, because he is the Helper of the helpless.
2. God Will Bring Down the Powerful and Lift Up the Humble
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly.” (Luke 1:52)
I can’t help but think about King Nebuchadnezzar. He was the most powerful man on earth in his day, and he knew it. But God humbled him and removed him from his throne until he was willing to acknowledge how great God is.
Think about how many times God has brought down the Herods and the Hitlers and the Husseins of the world. No matter how powerful they may think they are, eventually God brings them down. And he lifts up the lowly.
Be careful not to buy into the hype that this world dishes out that says if you’re going to get anywhere in life, you’ve got to stand up for your rights, blow your own horn, and pat your own back! There is a higher law at work than the “law of the jungle”, and Jesus gives it to us in Luke 14, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11).
3. God Will Fill the Hungry and Send the Rich Away Empty-Handed
“He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:53)
God is looking for people who are hungry for him, and so he passes right by the self-sufficient. We’re more familiar with the Sermon on the Mount, but Luke records for us Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. And the beatitudes he records there are a little bit different than we’re familiar with in Matthew, but they fit in with the theme of Mary’s song.
Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied…But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.” (Luke 6:20-21,24-25)
Jesus came to turn everything upside down. That’s why Paul said in I Corinthians 1, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (I Corinthians 1:27-29)
The church of Jesus Christ is for people who feel their own emptiness. You see, God loves the forgotten and the passed over. He gives himself to those who know that they are the handicapped, the nobodies, the losers. He shows mercy to those who don’t deserve it, he chooses the lowly over the proud, and he finds the hungry and he fills them. God is on the side of those who can’t take care of themselves.
What Mary is describing here is a world where everything gets turned upside-down. God deflates the big egos, he brings down the powerful, and he takes those who think they have everything and brings them to the point where they have absolutely nothing. And, in the process, God lifts up those people who are the nobodies, the people are oppressed and abused.
But Mary wasn’t singing a new song. Not really. The Magnificat is really just another verse to a song that is recorded throughout the Scriptures.
For example, in I Samuel chapter 2, Hannah sang, “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God . . . The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.” (I Samuel 2:1,7-8)
And I think Mary had heard this old, old song about how the love of God works relentlessly to turn the tables of injustice, and tip the scales in favor of those who are vulnerable. Because when it comes to people who have their boots on the necks of other people, God is always—let me say it again, write this down, the scriptures confirm it time and again—God is always on the side of the ones who are being stepped on.
And, as Christians, we are called to imitate the love of God. A love that always favors the underdogs and the outcasts and the mistreated.
Mary’s song, the Magnificat, has been cherished by Christians throughout the centuries. But it’s a song that we’ve pretty much ignored in the American church. We hardly pay any attention to it. And maybe that’s because this song doesn’t really sound like good news if you’re someone who is well-fed, or rich, or in a position of power, or if you benefit from systems that oppress others.
And so, we hear this merely as a pretty song that belongs only to Mary. It’s about her joy at finding the love of God growing in her womb. And, in the process, Mary’s song has lost its power for us.
Remember how I said that in recent history, the governments of Great Britain, Argentina, and Guatemala have banned the Magnificat? Because it’s so dangerous and revolutionary and subversive? But here’s the key — it’s only dangerous if it’s sung by people who really believeit.
We all know the story of how Jesus overturned the tables of the merchants in the temple, and chased them out. But do you remember who he let into the temple after he cleared them all out? In Matthew 21, Jesus brought in the lame and the blind — those people who had been kept out of the temple, excluded from God’s presence—and then he brought in a bunch of screaming children.
You see, there’s a certain radical nature to the love of God. And God will not rest until all of those who are mistreated are restored to a place of honor.
Mary’s song may not feel like good news to me because I’m not someone who is hungry or poor. But Mary’s song is very much good news for my neighbors, both locally and globally, who continue to be crushed under a world that thrives on exploitation and injustice.
And so, as we seek to love God by loving our neighbors, it is essential that we work toward bringing about a world where things get turned upside-down. We need to advocate for racial and economic justice. And we proclaim the good news that God comes, not for the already rich and powerful, but for at-risk children, for the poor and the vulnerable, for the elderly, and for all the voices that are considered too insignificant to be heard.
God has called us to carry on with what Jesus started. God invites to fill our hearts with the relentless, tender, and scandalous love of God. To make a difference in the lives of the people around us.
The gospel of Luke begins as God takes ordinary folks – people who have no power or position in life – and gives them a song to sing – and their song shapes and creates a future that changes the world. It’s the song that God has been singing from the very first moment that he created us. The song God sings – through Mary, and through everyone who has joined the song ever since – including you and me – is a song that compels us to seek to make things right in this world.