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“The God Mary Knew”

Luke 1:46-55
Bob DeGray
December 9, 2001

Key Sentence

Use your focus on the Christmas season to get to know better the God Mary knew.


I. A God of Holy Rescue (Luke 1:46-49)
II. A God of Mercy and Justice (Luke 1:50-55)


Mark Lowry, in a song that has become a classic asks “Mary Did You Know?”
        Did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?
        Mary, did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?
        Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
        This Child that you delivered will soon deliver you.

        Mary, did you know that your baby boy will give sight to the blind man?
        Mary, did you know that your baby boy would calm a storm with His hand?
        Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
        And when you kiss your little baby you've kissed the face of God?

        Oh, Mary, did you know that your baby boy is the Lord of all creation?
        Mary, did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?
        Did you know that your baby boy was heaven's perfect Lamb?
        And the sleeping Child you're holdin' is the Great I Am!
        Mary, did you know? Oh, Mary, did you know?

What did Mary know? I can say with some certainty that Mary didn’t know all that. Not the details anyway. Oh, she knew some things, and she would learn more as the months and years went on, but mostly what she knew was the promise of God, and beyond that she knew God himself, what he was like, what he had done, and therefore what he would do in keeping his promises.

        How do we know what Mary knew? Our evidence is found in the book of Luke, and the high point of that evidence is the passage we are studying today, Luke 1:46-55, commonly called ‘Mary’s song’ or ‘the Magnificat’. As we spend this Christmas season finding principles that apply to our lives from the life of Mary, this song is key. It challenges us to find the same focus that Mary had, to get to know better the God whom Mary so obviously knew. Use your focus on this Christmas for no lesser purpose than to get to know better the God Mary knew.

        Some have wondered how so great a song - with majestic poetry, rich imagery, profound theology - could have been sung by so young a peasant girl. The Magnificat is a brilliantly woven tapestry of Scripture, with every line an allusion to the Old Testament. But those who question have forgotten that every Israelite knew by heart the great Old Testament songs of Hannah and Deborah and many Psalms. Mary’s education may have been limited, but her exposure to Scripture was not. So she sang, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, of the God she knew from Scripture.

        Furthermore, this song is not extremely prophetic. It foreshadows Christ, but does not predict his work in detail. Instead it reflects how God had already revealed Himself. Mary was simply willing to accept by faith that God would keep his promises because he would act according to his revealed character. We can do the same thing, focusing our hearts on the God we know. And for us he is not only the God of the Old Testament, but the God who has fulfilled in Jesus many of his promises. Blessed as Mary is, we are even more blessed because we can look back and rejoice in even more knowledge of how God our Savior has fulfilled the ancient promises.

I. A God of Holy Rescue (Luke 1:46-49)

        So what do we see in these verses of the God Mary knew? We see first of all that He is a God of holy rescue. Mary begins her song with a very personal understanding of who God is and what he is doing. He is a God of holy rescue, verses 46 to 49: "My soul glorifies the Lord 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me--holy is his name.

        Mary’s first words are literally ‘my soul makes great the Lord’, or ‘my soul magnifies the Lord’. Not that our praise makes God any bigger or any greater. Rather, getting to know God better increases how great he is in our eyes. As R. Kent Hughes says: “We ‘magnify’ God when we catch a glimpse of his greatness. He becomes greater in our hearts and minds when we reflect on the wonder of his creation and incarnation, his death and atonement, his resurrection and return in power. The deeper our understanding of his greatness, the greater our ability to ‘magnify’ him.

        A focus on God and on Christ at Christmas should result in God being made greater in our eyes, for at Christmas God began the greatest of His works. And this recognition leads to joy. Mary says “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Mary’s joy reflects an Old Testament perspective. The Hebrew language has far more terms for joy than Greek or English do, and they are used very, very frequently. The Psalms, despite the dire circumstances of their authors, are full of joy and rejoicing. The prophets, despite the dark judgments they announce, prophesy that God will give his people joy - and they themselves rejoice.

        And like Mary, the psalmists and the prophets focus their joy on God as Savior - the Hebrew phrase would literally be ‘the God of my salvation’. Psalms: 13:5 “I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.” Psalm 35:9 “Then my soul will rejoice in the Lord and delight in his salvation.” Psalm 95:1 “Let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.” Remember that in both Old and New Testaments, salvation is nearly synonymous with rescue, often of physical rescue or healing, but also spiritual rescue and even emotional rescue from that which weighs on us. So, for example Isaiah 25:9 says“In that day they will say, “Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he rescued us. This is the Lord, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his rescue.”

        In the same way, the verse that most closely parallels Mary’s song is from the song of Hannah when God allowed her to give birth to Samuel. It begins “My heart exults in the Lord; My horn is exalted in the Lord, My mouth speaks boldly against my enemies, because I rejoice in Your salvation.” She delights in God’s rescue.

        But for Mary this phrase ‘God my Savior’ must have had additional meaning, because of what the angel told her to name her baby. ‘Jesus’ is the Greek form of the Hebrew name ‘Joshua’ which every Hebrew would know meant ‘Jehovah saves’ or ‘Jehovah rescues’. Mary almost says ‘my spirit has rejoiced in God my Jesus.’ She doesn’t say it, but she has to be thinking of the Savior she has been told she will bear.

        As her rescuer, God has, verse 47 “been mindful of the humble state of his servant.” This phrase is similar to one used by Hannah, whose humble state was a result of not being able to bear a child. It was humiliating in Jewish culture for a woman to be barren. But Mary had never been barren - she was virgin. When she talks about her humble position, she must be referring to her personal lack of honor, her poverty, her entire lack of anything in her nature or her circumstances that would influence God to bless her. Unlike Catholicism, which exalts Mary for some supposed perfect virtue, she herself exalted God because of her lack of worthiness. And the same is true for us. Only when we recognize our own need and our utter lack of ability to earn God’s favor will we properly exalt and worship him as the one who saves us. It is utterly his grace that sends Jesus to be our rescuer.

        Mary clearly recognizes the greatness of what God is doing for her. “From now on all generations will call me blessed.” This is not pride speaking, but an astounded wonder. She is not exalting herself but exalting the one who blessed her “for the Mighty One has done great things for me - holy is his name.” The God Mary knew, and the God we must learn to know better, is a God of holy rescue. The great things he has done for us do not diminish his holiness, but instead they magnify it.

        It is true that to be holy is to be set apart - to be separated from the common. God, in the perfect holiness of his name and of his power, is perfectly set apart and entirely separated from the sinful and the common and the fallen nature of this world he has created. And yet it exalts his holiness to be known as the one who reaches down, who bridges that separation to rescue the common and to make it holy. He has done great things for us, that we could never do ourselves.

        In many ways we know more about this than Mary did, don’t we? We can see what God was doing through Mary, see with clarity that he was bringing his holy Son into the world. We can see where that would lead - to a cross where the holy one would become sin for us that we might receive forgiveness of sins, where the holy became scarred so that we might be healed. We can see beyond the cross to the resurrection where Jesus’ perfect holiness was vindicated as he was given life again -eternal life.

        You and I can exalt God and rejoice when we see how Jesus won the victory over death and sin for us and we can see how he has gone before us as the author and perfecter of our faith to be seated at the Father’s right hand in the holy place. Even more than Mary we can see God’s holy rescue and each of us personally can share in Mary’s exaltation of God. If we focus on God and on Christ in his Christmas season our hearts can get to know even better the God Mary knew.

II. A God of Mercy and Justice (Luke 1:50-55)

        Not that Mary didn’t know a lot. Through the power of the Sprit Mary understood that God is at the same time a God of justice and a God of overwhelming mercy. Verses 50 to 55: His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers."

        In the second part of her song, Mary shifts her focus from personal truths about God to universal truths she has learned from Scripture. Notice that each of these truths about God is presented in the past tense: “he has performed,” “he has scattered,” “he has brought down,” “he has lifted up.” Mary spoke as if God had already accomplished all of these things. Like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel, Mary’s words were put in the past tense to emphasize two things: first, that God had already done things like this in the past, and second that what God will do in the future is so certain that we may properly speak of it as already having been accomplished. In the stock market they try to tell you that history does not predict future performance. Not so with God. What God had done in the past was irrefutable evidence for what he would do in the future through his Son’s work.

        Verses 50 emphasizes this continuity: “his mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.” The God who acted in the past in mercy toward the people of Israel despite their sin would continue to act in mercy toward all those who fear him in every generation. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” and the one requirement to receive God’s mercy is to recognize one’s need of it through the wisdom God gives. In contrast, those to do not fear God are characterized in verse 51 as “those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.” The outcome for them is that they are scattered. Verse 52 “he has brought down rulers from their thrones.” God does indeed bring down the strutting proud, the arrogant, the conceited. Looking back in history, we see how God destroyed arrogant Pharaoh and his defiant armies; how he crushed the pride of Nebuchadnezar, reducing him to a beast of the field until that monarch turned to God in abject humility; how he struck down Belshazzar on the very night of his strutting pride, destroying the Babylonian Empire in a single day.

        God’s character in this has not changed. We see the same pattern throughout history. Prideful Herod Agrippa stood in his splendid white robes enjoying the blasphemous praise of an adoring audience. “This is the voice of a god, not a man,” they said. But Luke tells us, “Immediately, because he did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died” Napoleon had his great victories, but then came Russia and Waterloo. Hitler launched a blitzkrieg, but a few years later D-day came. And today the great sculptured heads of Lenin and Stalin lie in junk yards throughout the continent they controlled. The proud and arrogant indeed are brought down by God as he works through history.

        More than that, a final reckoning that awaits those who proudly reject the work of Christ. “He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts,” Mary said. Twice the New Testament repeats the theme, “God opposes the proud but to gives grace to the humble.” Those inwardly proud because of health or education or privilege or a feeling of moral, racial or intellectual superiority are in for a rude awakening. If they do not repent and turn to God their fate is an accomplished fact. It has already been sealed. We might as well speak of it, as Mary did, in the past tense.

        The gospel of Jesus Christ is the great reversal. By it the humble are lifted up to eternity, and the proud are cast down to judgment. We can learn this, as Mary did, in many places in the Old Testament, but we see the pattern most clearly in the incarnation and suffering of Jesus. He willingly allowed himself to be brought low, made a tiny part of his own creation, emptied of the glory and honor that he had received from eternity past, born into poverty and need. He was mocked and beaten, condemned and crucified, bearing the sins and interceding for those who despised him.

        But now, because of his willing humiliation, he has been lifted up, raised high above every power and throne. As Paul wrote: “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” In his humiliation and exaltation Jesus provides salvation for those who could not otherwise be saved. And it is only those who will follow him into humility who are saved. Only those like Mary who recognize their humble state, only those who fear him, only those who recognize their need and meekly turn to him for rescue will be rescued. Those who are too proud, too independent, too self centered, too sin-centered to cry out to him will still perish. Spiritually, down is the only way to be lifted up.

        Verse 51 amplifies this contrast: “He has filled the hungry with good things and has sent away the rich empty-handed.” What kind of God did Mary know? A God of justice - a God who judged the proud and arrogant, a God who rejected the selfishness of the grasping rich who sought still more. And yet a God of mercy - a God who lifted up the humble and who fed the hungry.

        Do these two things contradict? No - remember what Jesus said “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.” It is only those who seek after God’s mercy who can find it. Those who reject his mercy find justice. Put another way, we all deserve justice. Our sin and rebellion against God means that he is just when he judges. He gives us not only what we deserve but what we say we want. Men say “Leave me alone, God. Don’t impose yourself on my life.” Only much later do they find out that to be left alone by God is hell. God gives justice when he judges rebels. But he gives mercy when he forgives men and women who seek him - who hunger and thirst after what only he can give.

        Is God conflicted over what to do, in one instance denying his mercy to mete out justice, and in another ignoring his own holiness to forgive? No. In Jesus these things are resolved. In his humiliation he bore our sin, paid its penalty and assumed our guilt. The justice of God was satisfied by a substitute rather than the guilty rebel. When Jesus gave himself for us he accepted God’s justice to provide God’s mercy, forgiveness and rescue to the undeserving. The only requirement for receiving that rescue is a humble and hungry turning from self to God, from independence to dependence, from doubt to faith. It is in believing what God has done through Jesus and throwing ourselves on him that he becomes, as Mary said, ‘God my Savior’.

        The God Mary knew was a God of justice and yet mercy. He was a God of holy rescue. Therefore, though Mary did not know the details of Jesus’ life, she knew God’s intent in sending this Messiah who was also the Son. Verse 54 “He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.” Mary knew a God who was keeping his promises. Even though this is still past tense, Mary is anticipating the present and future fulfillment of these words by a God who kept his promises to his people.

        The obvious question is, do we know the same God? We have the benefit of hind-sight. We have the benefit of the New Testament Scriptures which give us the facts to be sure of what we know about God. If we focus on him in this Christmas season, as Mary did, we ought to come to know even better than Mary knew him. And the obvious place to focus is Scripture. Focus on God and his character, focus on Christ and his work by digging into the Old and New Testament Scriptures that describe these great truths. It is in Scripture that you get to know God better.

        Many authors have speculated about what Mary knew, but some of them have had as their real purpose to remind us what we know. Nobody has ever done this better than Max Lucado, and I close with a reading from his book “God Came Near”. It’s called “Mary’s prayer” - but it’s about the God we want to know better - a God of justice and mercy who has provided holy rescue through Jesus.

        God. Oh infant-God. Heaven’s fairest child. Conceived by the union of divine Grace with our disgrace. Sleep well. Bask in the coolness of this night bright with diamonds. Sleep well, for the heat of anger simmers nearby. Enjoy the silence of the crib, for the noise of confusion rumbles in your future. Savor the sweet safety of my arms, for a day is soon coming when I cannot protect you.

        Rest well, tiny hands. Though you belong to a king, you will touch no satin, own no gold. You’ll grasp no pen, guide no brush. No, your tiny hands are reserved for works more precious: to touch a leper’s open wound, to wipe a widow’s weary tear, to claw the ground of Gethsemane. Your hands, so tiny, clutched tonight in an infant’s fist aren’t destined to hold a scepter nor wave from a palace balcony. They are reserved instead for a Roman spike that will staple them to a Roman cross.

        Sleep deeply, tiny eyes. Sleep while you can. For soon the blurriness will clear and you’ll see the mess we have made of your world. You’ll see our nakedness, for we cannot hide. You’ll see our selfishness, for we cannot give. You’ll see our pain, for we cannot heal. O eyes that will see hell’s darkest pit and witness her ugly prince... sleep, please sleep; sleep while you can.

        Lay still, tiny mouth. Lay still mouth from which eternity will speak. Tiny tongue that will soon summon the dead, that will define grace, that will silence our foolishness. Rosebud lips – upon which ride a star born kiss of forgiveness to those who believe you, and death to those who deny you – lay still.

        And tiny feet cupped in the palm of my hand, rest. For many difficult steps lie ahead for you. Do you taste the dust of the trails you will travel? Do you feel the cold sea water upon which you will walk? Do you wrench at the invasion of the nail what you will bear? Rest, tiny feet. Rest today so tomorrow you might walk with power. Rest. For millions will follow in your steps.

        And little heart... holy heart... pumping the blood of life through the universe: how many times will we break you? You’ll be torn by the thorns of our accusations. You’ll be ravaged by the cancer of our sin. You be crushed under the weight of your own sorrow. And you’ll be pierced by the spear of our rejection.

        Yet in that piercing, in the ultimate ripping of muscle and membrane, in that final rush of blood and water, you’ll find rest. Your hands will be freed, your eyes will see justice, your lips will smile, and your feet will carry you home. And there you will rest again – this time in the embrace of your Father.

        Use your focus on Christmas, on Christ, and on Scripture in this season to get to know better the God Mary knew.