The Lord's Day Morning
January 4, 2009
“Mary: On the Christian Life”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord. This is our song as we come into Your house this morning to meet with You, to hear Your word; for You to speak Your truth deep into our heart, for our hearts to overflow in gratitude and praise to You. We say, “Great is Your faithfulness.” Great is Your faithfulness in the gospel, for while we were yet sinners, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly, so that all who rest and trust on Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel are forgiven, pardoned, accepted, adopted, sanctified — and one day glorified, welcomed into Your eternal rest. We praise You for Your faithfulness in the gospel.
We praise You for Your faithfulness in providence. You have brought us through another year: through thick and thin; through heartache and through joy; through sunshine and darkness. You have been with us every step of the way. You have not left us or forsaken us. You have drawn near to us in our time of need. And we are here at the beginning of another year to spend life and ministry together, and to set up a stone as witness that You are faithful, O God.
For all these reasons and a million more, we give You praise. We ask that You would help us to worship in spirit and truth today, and that the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts would be made acceptable in Your sight by Your Holy Spirit, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke 1:46-56, as we continue to work our way through the Gospel of Luke together. This is the second of five songs in the first two chapters of Luke. I've already gotten some good questions from a number of you about how we identify these as psalms. I'm going to explain that a little bit later as we work through this wonderful portion of Scripture.
What I do want you to see is that Mary's song, as you find it recorded in verses 46-55, is a totally God-centered song of praise. She sings about God, about who He is, about what He's like, about what He's done. It's all focused on God. And in response to who God is and what He has done, it is a song filled with gratitude. She's thankful for what God has done. It is a song filled with trust. She believes God's promises and sees them unfolding before her very eyes. And it is a song filled with praise. In it she adores God.
Now that, I think, actually tells us a lot about the Christian life, about the God-centeredness of the Christian life and how much who God is and what He does speaks into our lives as to how we're to respond and how we're to live. In fact, as we look at this song today, I especially want to look at how its God-centered content informs how we are to live the Christian life.
It seems to me that Mary, in her song of praise here, gives us an address, a lecture, on how to live the Christian life. I fully understand the uniqueness of her circumstances. I understand that it's not every day that a woman is called to be the mother of the Lord Jesus Christ. I understand her unique role in redemptive history and in God's purposes for salvation, but it seems to me that there are things that Mary teaches us by example that are vital and are of importance for the living of the Christian life no matter when and where you happen to live on this planet. So I want to draw your attention to them. In fact, let me tell you ahead of time so that you can be on the lookout.
First of all, I want you to notice the role of the Bible in Mary's praise. This is a Scripture-filled song. Second, I want you to note Mary's humility. Mary's humility is evident in this song. Third, I want you to note Mary's gratitude. You really can't move from syllable to syllable in this song without seeing her gratefulness, and I want to think with you this morning actually about how surprising that is. Many of us may think, “Well, there's nothing surprising about that. Of course she's grateful. She's just been told she's going to be the Messiah's mother. Of course you’re grateful!” But think a little bit about the situation that Mary finds herself in. Fourth, I want you to see how Mary does not see this as something just about her. For her, it's about all of God's people in all ages, so she sees herself as part of a larger story. That's the next thing I want us to see. Fifth, I want us to see how this song points us to God's promises. So — to God's people, and now to God's promises. And then, finally, I want you to see how this song points us to the gospel itself. So — Scripture; humility; gratitude; God's people; God's promises; God's gospel.
Now let's look to God in prayer and ask for His help and blessing before we read and hear His word.
Father, thank You for Your word. It is meant for our instruction, our edification, our equipping for the living of the Christian life, so we ask that by Your Spirit we wouldn't just be listeners to the word, but we would be believers of the word, and then that we would live out the word that we have listened to and believed, by the grace of Your Holy Spirit. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear God's word:
“And Mary said,
‘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.’
And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
Quick! You've just been told by an angel that you’re going to be the mother of the Messiah. What do you say? What do you sing? How do you respond?
Well, I understand that Mary hasn't “just been told” that she's going to be the mother of the Messiah when she says and sings these words. It's been a while. It's been a few days, a few weeks, since that amazing visitation of the angel Gabriel to the unlikely town of Nazareth in Galilee. Now Mary has already undertaken a long arduous journey, and she's with her cousin Elizabeth. And she's greeted Elizabeth, and Elizabeth has greeted her with a song — a remarkable song of faith which foretells so much about the role that Mary will have, and more importantly, draws our attention to the Savior, Jesus Christ. But in that circumstance what would you say? Having been spoken to like Elizabeth had just spoken to Mary, what would come out of your mouth?
Well, Mary had had some time to think about what she would say, but still it's remarkable what comes out of her mouth. It's filled with Scripture. Remember she's — what? — thirteen, fourteen years old. She's just been told she's going to be the mother of the Messiah, the one whom Israel has been longing for since Genesis 3:15. And out of her heart, out of her mouth, comes Scripture and a real humility, considering the role that she has been entrusted with by the Lord. There's an evident humility in Mary's reaction. And there's gratitude, despite the danger that she's in.
But there's not a “me-centeredness” about this. Yes, there's a personal-ness about it; she recognizes the unique blessing that God has given to her. It's very personal. She even mentions ‘the blessing that God has given to me’ a couple of times in the song, but it's set in the context of a bigger story of God's dealings over the course of the generations of His people and for His people, and it's a song that points to the covenant of grace, to God's promises of old to Abraham. And throughout, it emphasizes God's work of the gospel…God's plan of the gospel, God's carrying out of the gospel, God's grace in the gospel.
Let's look at these things together, because I believe that in each of those six areas we see areas of growth that we need. We need to grow in our understanding of and faith in and living out of the Scripture. We need to grow in humility. We need to grow in gratitude. We need to be centered on what God is doing among all His people. We need to be living out in trust our belief in God's promises in the Bible, and we need to be living lives based on the gospel. So let's look at these five or six things together in the song right now.
I. The importance of Scripture in Mary's life.
The first thing that strikes you — at least, it's the first thing that strikes me — when you hear these words of Mary's song is how filled with Scripture they are. Look! From verse 47 down to verse 55 you will get allusions to Psalm 103, Psalm 22, Psalm 147, Psalm 98, I Samuel 1 (you’ll hear Hannah's song in this), but you’ll also hear passages like Job 12. This young woman knows her Bible! And when time comes to give expression to this amazing announcement of the angel and to this unique song of her cousin Elizabeth, she does it with Scripture. It just rolls off of her tongue! And I love what J.C. Ryle says about her:
“She gives expression with her lips to what has been treasured in her heart; and what has been treasured in her heart is God's word, the Holy Scripture.”
This young woman knows the Old Testament. But she not only knows the Old Testament, she's memorized a lot of it, and so when the time comes to give expression to what the Lord is doing in her life, she does it with the language of Scripture. Isn't that a guide to prayer? All of us ought to pray the Bible. We ought to pray Scripture. We ought to know enough Scripture to pray Scripture back to the Lord. That's exactly what Mary does. She knows her Bible. How does she know her Bible? Well, because since she was a little girl she's been going to “church” — Sabbath day after Sabbath day, gathering with God's people in the synagogue and doing what? Hearing the Scripture read. Hearing the Scripture expounded. She's heard it read or recited at home. Maybe she's even read it herself. But she knows her Bible, and isn't that a vital principle for the living of the Christian life, to know your Bible? And not just know it so that your head is crammed full of a few facts, but so that your heart is taken captive by that word, so that when the joys of life or the crises of life hit and you’re in autopilot, what comes out is what you've treasured up in your heart and what has shaped your life — the Scripture. It's informing how you live, how you pray, how you cry, how you weep, how you request, how you react. This young woman knew her Bible, and when time came for her to say the appropriate thing in response to this extraordinary word from Elizabeth, she knew what to say. It came right out of God's word. You can't go wrong with God's word, can you?
You know that story that when R.C. Sproul first came to RTS/Jackson that he would have a student pray before his systematic theology class every day, and then after the student sat down, R.C. would critique the student's prayer. He would show him all the various heresies that the student had prayed in the course of his prayer. And so this went on for a couple of weeks, and finally a student was asked to pray and so he stood up in fear and trepidation, and he said, “Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name…” and so on! And sat down, safe in the confidence that R.C. Sproul was not going to critique the Lord's Prayer!
Well, my friends, you can be sure that you’ll never go wrong when you’re praying the Bible back to God, when it's the word of God that you've stored up in your heart, and it gives vent, gives expression to what's in your heart. You’ll never go wrong praying the words back to God. This is what Mary shows us here in response to this remarkable announcement: the Scriptures just flow from her heart. Know your Bible. Make that a New Year's resolution: I'm going to know my Bible better this year, and more than that, I'm going to treasure the Bible up in my heart and be taken captive by God's word, so that I won't be taken captive by the world, the flesh, and the devil.
II. Mary's humility.
There's a second thing we learn here, though, and we see it in Mary's humility. You see it in verse 48, and then you see it again in verses 51-52. She speaks of the Lord looking on “the humble estate” of His servant, and then she speaks of how He's brought low the proud, but that He's exalted the humble. We see something of Mary's humility here, and we not only learn that the Christian life is healthiest that is most informed by Scripture, but that the Christian life is healthiest that is humblest. And we see her humility.
She's given a unique responsibility in all of redemptive history. Can you imagine your heavenly Father coming to you and saying, ‘I want you to rear My boy. I want you to rear My Son. I'm entrusting My own Son, dear woman…I am entrusting My own Son into your arms to rear Him in the nurture and admonition of the Lord’? And the reaction of Mary is to be humbled by this, because she knows the greatness of her God and the greatness of that gift, that blessing, that responsibility, and she knows that she's a sinner. And she's utterly humbled by it.
And I want to suggest that that's something that we need to grow in the Christian life. We need to grow in humility. Humility is absolutely essential for the living of the Christian life. If you haven't cultivated gospel humility, you haven't cultivated the queen of all gospel graces; for the sure mark that the Holy Spirit has done a work in your heart is in the production in you of gospel humility.
Without humility, we can't forgive one another, because we're proud and we don't want to admit that we've done something wrong. We want the problem to be somebody else's problem — “It's his fault…it's her fault…it's their fault.” A lack of humility prevents us from seeing our own sin and accepting it and dealing with it, and seeking forgiveness. And it prevents us from giving forgiveness, for what enables the believer to forgive others who have wounded him or her is not that those people are worthy of forgiveness; it's that you are the recipient of an undeserved forgiveness yourself. God has forgiven you when you didn't deserve it, and so it makes the heart large and generous in forgiving others who don't deserve forgiveness. And only the humble heart is able to forgive in that way, because only the humble heart has experienced its need and the surprising, gracious forgiveness of God to that need in the gospel. Well, Mary manifests humility, and we need to grow in humility.
III. Mary's gratitude.
But she's also grateful. She's thankful. Did you notice that? Look at verses 46 -49. The whole section oozes gratitude:
“My soul magnifies the Lord…my spirit rejoices in God…from now on all generations will call me blessed…He who is mighty has done great things for me.”
She is grateful.
Now you say, “Well, of course she's grateful! She's the mother of Jesus! She's the only one. She's the only woman in all the world that God has called to be the mother of Jesus. Of course she's grateful!”
Have you thought about the danger that Mary is in? She's a young teenage girl in a culture where people who commit adultery get stoned to death. And she is betrothed…she's engaged, but she's not yet married. And she's expecting. It should not escape you that she's not in her home town right now. She has packed up and moved away for three months. Now I think even in our culture we understand that. Women don't pack up and leave their parents and their family and their dearest friends during their first trimester unless something's up. And that's exactly what she's done. She has left her parents and her family and her friends, and she's gone way far away from Galilee to her cousin Elizabeth. And she's there for three months. And it may well indicate, among other things, that there would have been problems in Nazareth had she stayed. She faced at least ostracism, if not personal danger.
But more than the cultural or social danger that she faced, think about the danger from the assaults of Satan, when we know what Satan has attempted to do all throughout the Old Testament to God's seed to try to keep the seed, the Messiah, from coming into this world. She is now Ground Zero in the bull's eye of Satan's sights. And what's more, as Elizabeth has already predicted, because she is to be the mother of a boy who was born to die, in the midst of her immense joy, she is going to bear the sharpest of sorrows — all her life. Dear sisters in Christ, if God were to announce to you today that He was entrusting into your care for a brief time a young man who was destined to go and die for his country in Iraq or Afghanistan or in some other field of battle, that as a very young man he would die…and not only that, but you would see him die with your own eyes…and you were told this from before he was born. Wouldn't there — in the midst of your deep love for that son and your deep joy at his birth and your delight in the role that he would play for his people — would there not be a tremendous burden of sorrow to bear as well? And yet Mary is grateful. She's thankful.
Now every single one of us has things that we can gripe about…complaints that we have about life, or maybe even with God. I doubt many of us have the burden to bear that Mary had to bear, because most of us aren't told ahead of time what's going to happen to us or to our children. And she had to bear that knowledge ahead of time, all her life. And yet she's grateful. Does that not tell us something about our gratitude? You may be in a vulnerable place right now. You may even be in a dangerous place right now. And you may be tempted to respond to that vulnerability or to that danger with complaint and with bitterness. But Mary responds with gratitude. She's thankful.
The Christian life is healthiest that is characterized by gratitude, and Mary just shows us how it's done, right here.
IV. Mary understands something of God's larger plan.
Fourth, Mary, even in this song in which she acknowledges this unique thing that God is doing in her life and this unique thing that He's going to do in the life of her son, is all about God's people and the larger plan of God in the history of His people. Do you notice this? Look especially at verses 50-55, and zero in especially on verse 50, and then 54 and 55:
His mercy is for those who fear Him from generation to generation.”
This isn't just about Mary. This is about God's faithfulness from generation to generation.
“He's helped His servant Israel…He's spoken to our fathers, to Abraham.”
This goes all the way back to the beginning of God's dealings with His people. Mary realizes that this is not all about her. Of course it's about Jesus. But it's about God's total plan with His people that stretches into history past and is much larger than just His dealings with her. In other words, Mary views herself in light of the larger reality of God's people and God's plan.
And, my friends, the Christian life is healthiest that is anchored in our understanding that there is something bigger than just us: God's plan. And it's more than about just us individually; it's about all of God's people. We’re a part of that story, to be sure — individually, to be sure — by faith in Jesus Christ. But when we come to faith in Jesus Christ, we're brought into a family and we're part of a story about that family.
And Mary reminds us that we need to view ourselves as a part of God's people and a part of what God has been doing in the past, and a part of God's work in the history of redemption, and a part of a destiny that all of us will share together. And Mary is far from self-centered here. She's centered on the church and on God's plan.
It's a good thing to remember in the Christian life. And I think one of the things that is missing in the kind of Christianity that is so often fostered by television preachers is that it is all focused on our attaining our own personal success and having our own personal desires fulfilled, and there's no sense that there is something bigger in life than “me” — God's plan, God's mission — and that I'm a part of a family, God's people; and that it may well be my calling to suffer for the sake of God's mission and for God's family because there's something bigger than me. Mary understood that, and she gave vent to it in the prayer.
V. Mary points to God's promises.
Fifth, look at verses 54-55 again. Notice how Mary takes you right back to the covenant of grace with Abraham and to God's fulfilling of the promises that He had made to Abraham:
“He helped His servant Israel…” [Why?] “…in remembrance of His mercy.” [What mercy?] “As He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his offspring forever.”
She takes you right back to God's promise to Abraham which was secured and assured in the covenant of grace in Genesis 12 and 15 and 17, and she says this promise is being fulfilled before our very eyes in the sending of the Messiah into the world, and she announces this believing God's promise. And in doing so, she reminds us that the Christian life is healthiest that is most trusting of God's promises. Mary understands the promise of God and she believes it, and isn't that what faith is about? It's about taking God at His word and believing His promise, and Mary does that.
Now, I understand that Mary has a unique role. I mean, not all of us were born at the time that the Messiah was come into the world, but do you understand that every time we see a Gentile converted to Jesus Christ, or every time we see someone who is literally ethnically descended from Abraham himself come to faith in Christ, that we are seeing God's promise to Abraham fulfilled before our very eyes? So, though, yes, we're different from Mary, we're not all that different from Mary. We see God's promises fulfilled all the time. Do you believe it? Do you believe His promises? He's fulfilling them all the time, right before your very eyes. Do you take Him at His word? That's what saving faith does. It believes the promises of God. That's how the Christian life is to be lived, believing the promises of God.
In a few minutes we're going to sing over and over, “The Lord fulfills His word.” That beautifully captures precisely what Mary is saying here. She's saying, ‘Look! The Lord has done it again! He fulfilled His word.’ That's how the Christian life is lived: believing that the Lord does what He says He will do.
VI. It's all about the gospel.
One last thing. Did you notice about this song that it's all about the gospel? This song has nothing in it about what we do. This psalm has nothing in it about what we do to save ourselves. This song is all about what God has done for the salvation of His people.
We have a word for that. One word: gospel. Two words: good news. It's all about what God has done for the salvation, for the redemption of His people. So Mary is singing about the gospel here. She's excited about the gospel; she is seeing the gospel unfold before her very eyes, and her response is to praise God for it and to believe in it. And in doing that she reminds us that the Christian life is based on the gospel, the good news of what God has done in His grace to save us from our sin. And she reminds us that if we're going to live the Christian life, we need to know the gospel and believe the gospel, and then live out the gospel.
She gives us a good example by responding as she does in praise to God for the gospel, but in doing so she also reminds us that the whole Christian life is based on the gospel. It is God's initiating mercy to us in Jesus Christ by which He forgives us and pardons and accepts us that is the foundation for everything in life. Until we understand that we do not deserve forgiveness, but that for all who admit that they do not deserve forgiveness and who look to God for forgiveness, by mercy there is more forgiveness offered than we could possibly get our heads around. And that's the whole foundation of the whole Christian life. And Mary reminds us of it in this great psalm.
May the Lord bless His word to our hearts. Let's pray.
Heavenly Father, thank You for these inspired words of Your Holy Spirit, given so that we would have a greater view of yourself and of Your grace and of Your purposes, but also given to instruct us in how to live the Christian life. Lord, if we have not embraced Your promises and believed Your gospel, cut us to the quick this morning and show us our sin and our need, and then point us to Your provision, to Your Savior, Your Son, and enable us to believe Your promises that though our sins be as scarlet, yet You will make them to be white as snow if we will but believe. And then grant that those of us who have trusted in Jesus would live lives based on the gospel. In Jesus' name. Amen.