What are your most common Christmas traditions and routines? Decorating a tree, watching the Queen’s Speech, and pulling cracker are obvious candidates. Most of us drink mulled wine and mince pies at some point over the festive season too.
But I think two of the most universal Christmas traditions are visiting relatives and singing carols. Most of us, I hope, find time over the festive season to pay a visit to our family and wider relatives.For many families it can be the only time of the year when everyone get together. And carol services are among the most popular events in churches. It’s the time of year when even the most hardened atheist can venture into church to sing!
We find both relatives and singing in our reading from Luke’s Gospel today. Having just been informed by the angel Gabriel that she is going to give birth to God’s Son, and that her relatives Elizabeth and Zechariah are about to have their own miracle baby, she hurries to see them. And after their encounter Mary bursts into song, composing the first-everChristmas carol!
Let’s look at both events in turn.
Mary visits her relative Elizabeth (v.39-45)
Our passage begins by telling us that Mary “hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth”. Mary clearly trusted the angels’word that Elizabeth was also miraculously pregnant,and wanted to meet her to share their experience and give one another encouragement and moral support.
What Mary probably didn’tanticipatewas the scale of the welcome she receivedfrom Elizabeth on arrival. We’re told in verse 41 that “when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” Even in the womb, John the Baptist rejoiced at the approach of Mary and her unborn son, the Christ.
Mary and Elizabeth were very different people, yet united by faith and full of the Spirit. They were of very different ages and stages of life. Elizabeth was elderly, Mary was young. Elizabeth was long-married, while Mary was only just engaged. Elizabeth came from the hill country while Mary lived in alowland town.
Mary and Elizabeth’s relationship is a model of what every Christian congregation should be like. Every healthy church should have a diverse congregation. A congregation of varied ages and stages of life, yet united by faith in Christ. A church should be one loving family, sharing the same Holy Spirit.
I think this should be at the heart of our vision for the future of St. John’s. Our vision should be to be a Spirit-filled, faithful and diverse Christian family. Our ambition should be to become a spiritually healthy congregation that is more representative of our community -with young as well as old, working age as well as retired, a place of welcome for those new to Christianity as well as those more mature in their faith. God-willing, may the warmth, love, faith and joy that characterised Elizabeth’s welcome to Mary also be a characteristic of our church in the days, months and years to come.
Mary’s song (v.46-56)
I wonder what is your favourite Christmas carol?We all have our favourites, don’t we – many of which we’ll sing tonight at our Carol Service!
I think “Hark the heraldangel”and “Joy to the world”are probably my twofavourites, though I also like somemore modern ones, such as “See him lying ona bed of straw”. But in the second half of today’s reading we hear the words of the first ever Christmas carol. Mary’s song is traditionally known as the “Magnificat”, and it’s a song that teaches us some things about Mary herself – and some things about God above.
So what then does this great song tellus about Mary?Well, the first thing that should strike us is Mary’s humility. There’s no suggestion that Mary was woman of sinless perfection. In verse 47 she acknowledges her own need of a Saviour. A God-given Saviour who would be her son. She also acknowledges her humble status and describes herself as the Lord’s servant. Two qualities, as we shall seein a moment, that made her eligible to receive God’s grace and mercy. We should pray that God’s Spirit will grow and develop the same humble attitude within all of us.
The second thingwe shouldnotice about Mary’s song is that Mary knew her Bible. Both the style and content of her song isrich in Scripture. Mary’smagnificatis saturated with Old Testament language and contains phrases fromat least four Psalms. In fact the whole song has a striking resemblance to the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel chapter 2 -another woman who celebrated a God-given child.
Mary may have been a young woman without formal education or much life experience, but she knew her Bible. Herexample challenges us to get to know our Bibles much better. She challenges us to take time each day to read a portion of Scripture. To regularly let God’s word ‘soak into our souls’, if you like, so that we can recite it and draw upon it in times of prayer and praise, in times of joy and in sorrow. So do make use of daily reading notes to help you get into the good habit of regular Bible reading.
So Mary was a humble woman who knew her Bible. But what does her inspired song also tell us about God?What portrait of the Lord is painted by Mary in our passage?
Well, Mary begins her portrait of God by describing him as both mighty and merciful. In verse 49 she calls him the “Mighty One”, yet in the very next verse she also says his mercy extends “from generation to generation”.
I hope none of us need convincing that God is mighty! He is the one who created the cosmos and threw the stars into space. Every atom in the universe exists at his command. As Mary reminds us in verses 51 and 52, he has done mighty deeds -deeds like the exodus from Egypt and the amazing miracles described in both Old and New Testaments.
God has also brought down rulers from their thrones, says Mary in verse 52. Think of Pharaohin Egypt, Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon and king Herod of Judea. All rulers who were out-witted and out-gunned by our great God and Father. Christians, of course, know that God’s mighty power will also be seen on Judgement Day. That day when Christ returns, all evil will be judged and the whole of creation will be renewed. A day when every knee will bow before him.
Yet this mighty God is also a God of mercy. As Mary herself has just experienced, the true God is a God who shows grace to the humble. People like Mary who recognise they sinners in need of a Saviour.
Throughout the Bible the only condition for receiving God’s forgiveness is repentance and faith. Those are two things a proud person will never do, but two things a person like Mary possessed in abundance. Humilityis the polar opposite of pride. We should be in no doubt that the same principle applies in 2018. To experience and enjoy God’s mercy we still need repentance and faith in Christ. Nothing more and nothing less. Salvation remainsby grace alone.
In verse 49 Mary also describes God’s name as “holy”. Someone’s name in Scripture means more than just what they are called. Someone’s name refers to their character, their personality, their qualities. So by calling God’s name holy, Mary is actually reminding us that God’s whole character is holy.
Now in the Bible, God’s holiness usually refers to two things. It refers to his uniqueness and his goodness. God is holy in the first sense because he is unique, he is ‘set apart’ from everyone and everything else. We are all creatures, he alone is the Creator. We are temporal, he is eternal. We are finite, he is infinite. God is holy in the second sense because he is totally and unconditionally good. He is perfect and pure – there is no evil in him. He is utterly righteous, totally trustworthy, his character is blameless in every respect.
Thirdly and finally, Mary’s first Christmas Carol reminds us that God is a promise-keeper. He honours his promises to his people. In particular, in verse 55 Mary mentions God’s famous promises to Abraham. Promises to make him into a great nation, to make his name great, and to bring blessing to all nations through his offspring.
As Christians we know that these promises were kept through Mary’s son. Jesus was the descendant of Abraham whose death and resurrection would release God’s grace to people from every nation, to Gentiles as well as Jews. So Mary was wise to trust God. Her confidence in God’s faithfulness to his promises was well-placed.
As I finish this morning, we’ve seen today that the first Christmas included a visit to relatives and rousing song.
Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and Zechariah reminds us that our church should be a family – a family defined by faith in Christ and filled by his Spirit. A family composed of Christians of every age and stage of life.
And Mary’s song, meanwhile, reminds us of the value of humility, and the value of knowing the Scriptures. They are two qualities that are guaranteed to improve our spiritual health. Two qualities that help deepen our relationship with God. Two qualities we should certainly cultivate and pray for.
But above all, Mary’s song introduces us to our great and gracious God. A God who is holy, and God who is worthy of our trust and praise. A God we should sing and shout about – just as Mary did.
Let’s pray: Heavenly Father, thank you that you are a great and gracious God. A God who sent his Son to seek and save the lost. Help us to learn from Elizabeth and Mary’s example. Help us to respond to you with humility, trust and praise. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.