Magnificat! | Luke 1:46-56


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 1:46–56.

 

As I wrote at the outset of this series, Christmas is a singing season. With today’s Scripture reading (Luke 1:46–56), we get to the first of the four songs Luke records. It has come to be known as the Magnificat because that is the first word in its Latin translation, meaning “My soul glorifies!” And it is sung by Mary, who is “the Lord’s servant” (Luke 1:38) and a profound theologian.

Mary begins by praising God for His goodness to her personally:

My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me —
holy is his name (verses 46–49).

All true worship begins with personal testimony. It is rooted in the story of the encounter between “the Mighty One” and “me.” Although none of us can claim Mary’s particular story as our own, we have stories of “great things” God has done for us. What is the story of your encounter with God? Do you praise God daily for it?

Of course, true worship never ends with personal testimony. It is rooted in personal encounter, but it sees that God’s purposes lie beyond our small selves. While He is “my Savior,” He also desires to save others:

His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation (verse 50).

The favor (literally, “grace”) God gave Mary (Luke 1:28, 30) is available to us as well — and to all others. But grace must be received with faith, that is, trust. Unfortunately, too many people trust in idols, not God. So, in order to save us, God becomes a great iconoclast:

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty (verses 51–53).

When I mentioned idols, perhaps you thought of gods of stone and metal and wood. But the idols God opposes most are idols of faithless hearts. And so, here, Mary teaches us that God opposes pride, power and possessions. Why? They keep us from seeing our need for God. Instead, we should be humble in God’s presence and hungry for His grace. God can do nothing for those who think they already have everything, but He can do everything for those who know they have nothing to offer Him but themselves.

Mary concludes her song with these words:

He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised to our ancestors” (verses 54–55).

Is God worthy of our praise? Is He good to us today, but not tomorrow? Will He oppose pride, power and possessions today, but change His mind tomorrow? No. His character is consistent. But so is His history. Mary cites the history of Israel’s relationship with God to remind us of this important point: God has been merciful. He is merciful. He will be merciful.

Magnificat!

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

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The Blessings of Believing | Luke 1:39-45


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 1:39–45

In Luke 1:39–56, the stories of Elizabeth’s and Mary’s miraculous conceptions intertwine when the two women meet. They are relatives, it turns out, and what could be more natural than family members sharing good news? It also helps that Elizabeth lives in the Judean hills, a far piece from little Nazareth; and young Mary no doubt needs a respite from the gossip about her pregnancy.

At their first encounter, Elizabeth says four things worth pondering:

First, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear” — literally, “the fruit of your womb.”

This line of Scripture makes an appearance in the Catholic rosary as the second line of the “Hail, Mary” prayer. But if Catholics pay too much attention to Mary, Protestants pay too little. Mary was uniquely blessed among women because she gave birth to the Son of God. We do a disservice to God’s Word when we fail to remember Mary with honor for her obedience to God, which played an important role in our own salvation. Had Jesus never been born, after all, He could not have possibly died on the cross for our sins or risen from the dead for our eternal life.

Second, “But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

This is an astonishing question at two levels: (a) in traditional cultures, the young pay homage to the old, not the reverse, as is the case here; and (b) Elizabeth calls Mary “the mother of my Lord.” This is the first time — but certainly not the last — in which Jesus Christ’s coming into the world reverses traditional cultural patterns of relationships.

Third, “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.”

That baby is John the Baptist, of course. This is the first time — but certainly not the last — that John will witness to the messiahship of his kinsman, Jesus.

And fourth, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

In my opinion, this is the key statement. None of us will ever be become the mother of the Son of God, like Mary. Elizabeth will never announce her favor at meeting us. John the Baptist will not leap for joy at our arrival. But the Lord will bless us if we believe His promises to us, just as He blessed Mary and Elizabeth.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

The Songs of Christmas, Part 1

The Songs of Christmas, Part 2

The Songs of Christmas, Part 3

The Songs of Christmas, Part 4

The Songs of Christmas, Part 5

Responding to God with Simple Faith | Luke 1:26-38


Today’s Scripture reading:Luke 1:26–38

Luke pairs the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5–25) with the story of Mary so that, among other things, we can compare and contrast them for our spiritual benefit.

Let’s begin with the comparisons. In both cases, the angel Gabriel announces the imminent birth of a baby boy who will play a decisive role in Israel’s history (and in the world’s). In both cases, the conception is miraculous, either because Elizabeth is barren or because Mary is a virgin. And in both cases, the women experience God’s blessing upon them.

The NIV uses one word, favor, of both Elizabeth (Luke 1:25) and Mary (verse 30), but in Greek, there are two different words: epeidon (“to consider”) and charis (“grace”). Both words connote God’s favorable disposition toward Elizabeth and Mary. Interestingly, Luke also uses charis to describe God’s blessing on Jesus’ childhood (Luke 2:40,52).

Now, consider the contrasts:

  • Zechariah and Elizabeth are old; Mary is young.
  • They are married; she is an unmarried virgin.
  • They live in Judea, near Jerusalem; she lives far north in Nazareth of Galilee.
  • They are priestly; she is a peasant.
  • Zechariah doubts. Mary believes.

That last contrast is the important one. Staring an angel in the face, Zechariah doubted the good news. Staring at the same angel with similar good news, Mary believed. By pairing Zechariah and Elizabeth so closely with Mary, Luke shows us the importance of simple faith.

Over the years, based on my theological reading and experience with Christians of different denominations, I have come to believe that Catholics place too much emphasis on Mary and Protestants not enough. Some time ago, one of the networks aired a two-part docudrama on the life of Pope John Paul II, for whom I have great respect. Just after being elected pope, John Paul II prayed, “Totus tuus, ego sum,” which is Latin for “I am wholly yours.” And he said that to Mary! Despite my admiration for the late pope, I cannot help but think that this is fundamentally wrong. We are wholly Christ’s alone, in my judgment. That does not preclude loyalties to other Christians, but it does preclude total loyalty.

On the other hand, Protestants give Mary little credit. Perhaps as an overreaction to Catholics, we downplay her role in the story of our own salvation. Think of it this way. Without Jesus dying on a cross for our sins and rising from the dead three days later, we cannot be saved. But Jesus could not have died or risen again without being human, and being human requires birth. So Jesus could not have been born without Mary. And Mary could not have given birth unless she had given assent to becoming “the Lord’s servant” (verse 38). Therefore, to a certain degree, the progress of the gospel hinged on whether Mary said “Yes” or “No” to the angel’s announcement.

But isn’t that just what salvation is all about — the grace (charis) of God calling out for a response of faith? The progress of the gospel in us, it turns out, also hinges on whether we say “Yes” or “No” to God’s grace.

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

The Songs of Christmas, Part 1

The Songs of Christmas, Part 2

The Songs of Christmas, Part 3

The Songs of Christmas, Part 4

The Antidote to Shame | Luke 1:23-25


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 1:23–25

“You should be ashamed of yourself” is one of the most powerful combinations of words in the English language, both for good and for evil.

At best, those six words shake people out of their moral stupor, show them how their deeds or words fall far short of God’s standards, and cause them to act and speak in more honorable ways. For example, if a father with a secret drug habit gets caught shooting up in the bathroom by his young son, he should feel ashamed of himself. But rather than wallow in that shame, he should get clean and sober and give his son a reason to be proud of him.

At worst, however, those words imprison us in a cage of other people’s opinions and arbitrary standards. Some time ago, Dr. Phil aired the story of a mother who despised her older daughter because she was stocky, but lavished love, attention and affection on her younger daughter, who was petite. Through her words and actions, this mother created a deep feeling of shame in her older daughter. Did I mention that both girls were under 10 years of age? There was nothing wrong with the older daughter. The problem was the mother and her arbitrary standards and loveless criticisms. She was the one who should have been ashamed of herself.

When Elizabeth became pregnant, she said God had taken away her “disgrace among the people” (verse 25). Which kind of shame had Elizabeth felt up to this point: the better kind or the worst kind? Obviously, it cannot be the better kind. Luke 1:6 says Zechariah and Elizabeth were “righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” Elizabeth’s feelings of shame (or disgrace) did not arise from anything she had done wrong. She did not need to change her ways.

Rather, her shame arose from what her community expected of her as a wife, namely, that she would also be a mother. Unfortunately, through no fault of her own, Elizabeth was “not able to conceive” (Luke 1.7). And this childlessness lowered her several notches in her neighbor’s estimation of her, and, consequently, in her estimation of herself. She had no reason to be ashamed, but she was ashamed nonetheless.

God is in the business of taking shame away from people. He does so in several ways. First, He removes our shame when we repent of the deeds and words that are shameful. Second, He removes our shame when He exposes the arbitrary social standards and expectations that society unfairly imposes on us. And third, He gives us grace, in both spiritual and material ways. In Elizabeth’s case, that grace was a baby boy named John, Yohanan, “The Lord is gracious.”

Grace, you see, is always the antidote to shame.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

The Songs of Christmas, Part 1

The Songs of Christmas, Part 2

The Songs of Christmas, Part 3

The Lord Is Gracious | Luke 1:13-17


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 1:13–17

In Luke’s account of Christ’s birth, silence precedes singing. Zechariah and Elizabeth’s home was silent because they were childless. Zechariah’s mouth became silent because he doubted the angel’s good news. And Israel’s prophets were silent too.

Malachi is the last prophet of the Old Testament. He ministered in the fifth century B.C. Speaking on behalf of God, Malachi’s final words are these: “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction” (Malachi 4:5–6).

In this prophecy, Malachi promises three things: righteousness, revelation and reconciliation. The day of the Lord is the day on which God right-sizes the world. It is currently under the grip of the Axis of Evil (sin, death and the devil). So it is awash in unrighteousness. What should be isn’t, and what shouldn’t be is. But on the day of the Lord, God will make all things right.

A prophet’s ministry has to do with revelation. He sees a vision of God, or hears the Word of God, and communicates it to the people so that the people might hear and obey God’s will. Elijah was a great prophet in an age of great prophecies, and Malachi promises a fresh outpouring of divine revelation as the day of the Lord draws near.

But neither God’s actions nor prophetic revelation alone determine what happens to you and me as the day of the Lord draws near. We are given a choice: reconciliation with one another and with God, or a curse. What must happen in us is a turn of our hearts.

After Malachi spoke these words, prophecy in Israel went silent for over 400 years. And then, the angel Gabriel spoke good news to childless Zechariah. He would have a son, but not just any son. In the Old Testament, the prophets were filled with the Holy Spirit on occasion, at the moment of divine revelation. But Zechariah’s son “will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born” (Luke 1:15).

And this son’s ministry will be a ministry of turning: “He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous — to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:16–17).

After Malachi, silence. Beginning with Zechariah’s son, a new voice. And that son’s name encapsulates his message: John (Luke 1:13). In Hebrew, his name is Yohanan. In English, it means “the Lord is gracious.” And God is. To the childless, to the doubting and to us.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

The Songs of Christmas, Part 1

The Songs of Christmas, Part 2

Struggling with Disappointment and Doubt | Luke 1:8-23


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 1:8–23

The singing season of Christmas begins in the silence of a childless home. It becomes even quieter with the doubts of Zechariah.

While Zechariah is offering incense to God in the temple, an angel appears to him and tells him that he and Elizabeth will soon give birth to a son to be named John. According to the angel, this son “will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous — to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (verse 17).

The angel’s words allude to Malachi 4:5–6, which foretells the ministry of a prophet “before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” John is that prophet. (And Jesus Christ is the Lord!)

You might think that the angel’s good news would fill Zechariah with joy. Instead, when the angel appears, Zechariah is “gripped with fear” (Luke 1:12). This seems to be the natural reaction of human beings to heavenly beings (see Luke 1:29–30 and 2:9–10, for example). But Zechariah’s fear gives way to doubt. Here’s how Luke describes Zechariah’s reaction to the angel’s message: “Zechariah asked the angel, ‘How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.’”

Have you ever struggled with disappointment and doubt? Have you ever wished that God would part the clouds and send a message directly to you, to comfort you in your situation? Many of us seem to think that we would have more faith in God if only He were a bit more forthcoming about His existence and plan for our lives.

Zechariah’s encounter with the angel Gabriel dispels such illusions. Through Gabriel, God spoke directly to Zechariah. He spoke directly to the issue of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s childlessness. He offered hope not only to them, but to all Israel (and to us as well). But Zechariah doubted anyway. And so, the angel struck him silent.

Why did Zechariah doubt? Because he put greater faith in earthly realities than in heavenly revelation. He trusted his experience more than God’s message. He believed that childlessness was his lot in life, even when an angel from heaven told him otherwise. Reason told him that he and his wife could not have a son, but reason did not factor God into the equation and so became irrational.

God speaks good news to us as well. Let us believe his Word, so that our silent fears and doubts may give way to joyful song.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

The Songs of Christmas, Part 1

 

Silent Beginnings | Luke 1:5-7


Today’s scripture reading: Luke 1:5–7

Christmas is a singing season. Its catalogue of music includes an A to Z of joyous, hopeful tunes, both sacred and secular. Every song from “Away in a Manger” to “White Christmas” finds its proper place in this holiday season.

The singing began early with the events surrounding Jesus’ birth some 2,000 years ago. In his Gospel, Luke records the original songs of Christmas. They are best known by their Latin titles: “Magnificat,” “Benedictus,” “Gloria,” and “Nunc Dimittis.” Throughout this holiday season, I will be writing about these songs and the events that inspired them by taking a close look at Luke 1:5–2:52.

Although Christmas is a singing season, Luke begins his narrative of Christ’s birth with silence — specifically, the silence of a godly home without children. In biblical Israel, a large family was seen as evidence of God’s blessing, but childlessness was a source of shame (Luke 1:25).

The childless silence of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s home teaches us two things. First, in this life, obedience and blessing are not always linked. Luke emphasizes that both Zechariah and Elizabeth are devout Jews, not just in the eyes of other people, but “in the sight of God” himself (verse 6). Their childlessness is not a result of any sin or lack of faith on their part. On occasion, I hear of well-meaning Christians who tell sick people that an unconfessed sin or a lack of faith is the cause of their illness. But neither sin nor faithlessness explains Zechariah and Elizabeth’s childlessness here. In the providence of God — and for that reason alone — these godly people have no children.

Second, salvation begins when we recognize our utter need for God’s intervention. Luke tells us not only that Zechariah and Elizabeth did not have children, he tells us that they could not have children. Childbearing was beyond their ability, due to infertility and their advanced age. They could not have a child unless the Lord performed a miracle.

And so, the Christmas story begins with the forlorn silence of a childless home, of godly people who cannot have children. Why does Luke begin the Christmas story with Zechariah and Elizabeth? I see at least two reasons. First, He wants us to see a model of true godliness. Zechariah and Elizabeth worship God for His own sake, not for their own sake. They love God regardless of whether doing so results in this-worldly blessing. And second, Luke wants to show us our need. Like Zechariah and Elizabeth, we bring nothing to the table in our relationship with God. He alone works the miracle of salvation.

“Trouble at the Inn” by Dina Donohue


Today, in honor of Christ’s birth, I’m posting the second best Christmas story ever told: “Trouble at the Inn” by Dina Donohue. My dad read this almost every year at our church’s Christmas Eve service. Good times! And merry Christmas!

~ George

—–

For years now whenever Christmas pageants are talked about in a certain little town in the Midwest, someone is sure to mention the name of Wallace Purling. Wally’s performance in one annual production of the Nativity play has slipped into the realm of legend. But the old timers who were in the audience that night never tire of recalling exactly what happened.

Wally was nine that year and in the second grade, though he should have been in the fourth. Most people in town knew that he had difficulty in keeping up. He was big and clumsy, slow in movement and mind. Still, Wally was well liked by the other children in his class, all of whom were smaller than he, though the boys had trouble hiding their irritation if the uncoordinated Wally asked to play ball with them.

Most often they’d find a way to keep him off the field, but Wally would hang around anyway—not sulking, just hoping. He was always a helpful boy, a willing and smiling one, and the natural protector, paradoxically, of the underdog. Sometimes if the older boys chased the younger ones away, it would always be Wally who’d say, “Can’t they stay? They’re no bother.”

Wally fancied the idea of being a shepherd with a flute in the Christmas pageant that year, but the play’s director, Miss Lumbard, assigned him to a more important role. After all, she reasoned, the Innkeeper did not have too many lines, and Wally’s size would make his refusal of lodging to Joseph more forceful.

And so it happened that the usual large, partisan audience gathered for the town’s Yuletide extravaganza of the staffs and creches, of beards, crowns, halos and a whole stageful of squeaky voices. No one on stage or off was more caught up in the magic of the night than Wallace Purling. They said later that he stood in the wings and watched the performance with such fascination that from time to time Miss Lumbard had to make sure he didn’t wander onstage before his cue.
Then the time came when Joseph appeared, slowly, tenderly guiding Mary to the door of the inn. Joseph knocked hard on the wooden door set into the painted backdrop. Wally the Innkeeper was there, waiting. “What do you want?” Wally said, swinging the door open with a brusque gesture.

“We seek lodging.”

“Seek it elsewhere.” Wally looked straight ahead but spoke vigorously. “The inn is filled.”

“Sir, we have asked everywhere in vain. We have traveled far and are very weary.”

“There is no room in this inn for you.” Wally looked properly stern.

“Please, good innkeeper, this is my wife, Mary. She is heavy with child and needs a place to rest.
Surely you must have some small corner for her. She is so tired.”

Now, for the first time, the Innkeeper relaxed his stiff stance and looked down at Mary. With that, there was a long pause, long enough to make the audience a bit tense with embarrassment.

“No! Begone!” the prompter whispered from the wings.

“No!” Wally repeated automatically. “Begone!”

Joseph sadly placed his arm around Mary, and Mary laid her head upon his shoulder, and the two of them started to move away. The Innkeeper did not return inside his inn, however. Wally stood there in the doorway, watching the forlorn couple. His mouth was open, his brow creased with concern, his eyes filling unmistakably with tears.

“Don’t go, Joseph,” Wally called out. “Bring Mary back.” And Wallace Purling’s face grew into a bright smile. “You can have my room.”

Some people in town thought that the pageant had been ruined. Yet there were others—many others—who considered it the most Christmas of all Christmas pageants they had ever seen.

*This article by Dina Donohue is reprinted from the Baptist Herald (Dec. 15, 1968).

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Thursday, December 22, 2011


DECEMBER 22: Happy Winter Solstice Day!

POT, MEET KETTLE: “The Accidental Universe: Science’s crisis of faith.”

That same uncertainty disturbs many physicists who are adjusting to the idea of the multiverse. Not only must we accept that basic properties of our universe are accidental and uncalculable. In addition, we must believe in the existence of many other universes. But we have no conceivable way of observing these other universes and cannot prove their existence. Thus, to explain what we see in the world and in our mental deductions, we must believe in what we cannot prove.

Sound familiar? Theologians are accustomed to taking some beliefs on faith. Scientists are not. All we can do is hope that the same theories that predict the multiverse also produce many other predictions that we can test here in our own universe. But the other universes themselves will almost certainly remain a conjecture.

“We had a lot more confidence in our intuition before the discovery of dark energy and the multiverse idea,” says Guth. “There will still be a lot for us to understand, but we will miss out on the fun of figuring everything out from first principles.”

YEP: “Call It Christ’s Mass and Let Best Buy Keep the Holiday.”

AZUSA STREET, 100 YEARS LATER: “More Than 1 in 4 Christians Are Pentecostal, Charismatic.”

COME ON IN, THE WATER’S FINE! “Baptists, Pentecostals Seek Common Ground.”

OR PERHAPS EUROPE HAS MOVED AWAY FROM FOLLOWING? “Christianity is still the largest religion in the world but followers have moved away from Europe.”

BECAUSE VIRTUE ISN’T GOING AWAY: “Why We Need a ‘Stuck with Virtue’ Science.”

BECAUSE SOCIOLOGISTS HAVE NOTHING BETTER TO DO: “Sociological rules of Christmas gift giving.”

QUESTIONABLE RELIGIOUS STATISTIC: “Study: Atheists distrusted as much as rapists.”

GOOD FOR THEM! BUT DIDN’T SCROOGE CONVERT? “Atheists aim to change image of penny-pinching Scrooges.”

CRAP OR CONSCIENCE? “Manure Makers, Yes; Catholics, No.”

ANTISEMITES, RACISTS, CONSPIRACY NUTTERS: “The Company Ron Paul Keeps.”

IVY LEAGUE PERVS: “The Postmodern Pedophile: Meet the academics who try to redefine pedophilia as ‘intergenerational intimacy.’”

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