It is very interesting and adds wonderful charm to the mighty history that is recorded for us in Luke chapters one and two that the account is populated by a cast of otherwise inconsequential people who, nevertheless, make the most of their few moments on the great stage of world history. Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary, the shepherds, Simeon, and Anna are some of the most attractive minor characters in New Testament history. And, apologies to Roman Catholics, Mary herself is a minor character. She appears here as the maiden chosen to bear the Savior of the world. She will appear a few other times later during the Lord’s ministry, but less is said about her later than is said here. And then she disappears from the record never to be heard of again. We know nothing of her life after the resurrection of her son apart from the fact that she was numbered among his disciples. We know nothing of the circumstances of her death. Even with this material we know virtually nothing about her personality, about her life history, about Mary the individual. Two others of her sons became prominent early Christian leaders – James and Jude – but she is never mentioned in regard to either one. She was given a singularly great honor and a momentous role in the history of man’s redemption, but we learn very little about her as a person and once her work is done, she largely departs from the stage. Indeed, the remaining few references to her in the New Testament, and they end early in the Book of Acts, do not deal with her in her individuality at all, but only with respect to the fact that Jesus had a mother. Her importance is found in what she demonstrates about Jesus, not about herself. Indeed, Paul’s single reference to her is in his statement that Jesus “was born of a woman, born under the law.” He does not use her name.
All of that being said, she remains a wonderfully attractive minor figure in the New Testament and the fact that she does play a role, together with her husband and the other little people who populate the Christmas narrative, is itself of great importance. Even the most epoch-making event in the history of the world – the incarnation of God the Son; God taking to himself a human nature and coming into the world to men to accomplish man’s salvation – an act that is a supremely divine work in all its parts, drew human beings up into it and made them part of it and essential to it.
Salvation is of the Lord we read in the Holy Scripture and it is a point of theology proved in a hundred different ways. But, as Augustine famously put it, “God made us without us, but he will not save us without us.” Man has a role. He has a role in his own salvation when that salvation comes to pass in a person’s own space and time. He or she must believe and follow the Lord. The Bible spends a great deal of time and space on what human beings must do to obtain salvation. But human beings have a role even in the accomplishment of redemption itself. It is a minor role, to be sure, but essential nonetheless. Some contribute blissfully unaware that they are doing so. Neither Augustus nor Quirinius had the faintest inkling that he was setting in motion the history that would change the world when the former ordered and the latter brought to pass the census in Judea. But others are active and knowing contributors, and such is Mary who would bear the Savior and bring him into the world.
It is impossible that we should read the narrative of our Savior’s birth and not form some impression of the maiden who was appointed to be his mother. We don’t learn a great deal about her, but we learn some things and they are uniformly to her credit. It is a wonderful feature of the gospel narrative that the Lord so regularly spreads credit and compliment among his servants. He loves to draw our attention to their graces and their gifts and he surely does that with regard to his mother. What is more, it is entirely typical of the Bible that even in an account of God’s great salvation we should be taught what it means to believe in him, to love him, and to serve him. The two always go together in Holy Scripture: what God has done and does and will do and how we are to conduct ourselves accordingly. And so we get flesh and blood human beings playing important roles even in those accounts in which the Lord intervenes in an entirely divine way to secure our salvation. One cannot understand salvation without understanding both what God has done and how we participate in his divine work.
We could take note of a number of ways in which the narrative is written so as to induce us to admire Mary and emulate her, but this evening I want to consider her example as a Christian and as a servant of the Lord – the title she gives to herself in v. 38 – from the hymn that she wrote and sang, the famous Magnificat, so named for its first word in the Latin translation. Magnificat anima mea Dominum, my soul magnifies or glorifies the Lord. It is a hymn of immense importance in Christian history, though, alas, it is today much less well known and less often sung. For example, the Magnificat used to be a regular feature of the evening service of the Anglican Church, but very few Anglican churches have evening services any more.
The first thing one cannot help but recognize when he or she reads the Magnificat is that this great hymn, written by the mother of our Lord when she was, in all probability, still a teenager, is such a magnificent example of a theological cast of mind and of theological devotion. It is precisely what you and I need so much more of ‑‑ the mind that thinks and the heart that beats from the beginning to the end of Mary’s song. Earlier in the chapter Mary is presented as an example of a sturdy and living faith. Here we see her as an equally excellent example of a renewed and sanctified mind, of a person who sees all in terms of the Lord, who is happily subject to Him in everything. Indeed, if you want to learn how a Christian ought to think about everything, you could hardly find a more perfect example than Mary here.
Men and women may have different callings in life and certain aspects of the Christian life have applications peculiar to each sex; but in general the life of faith and holy love is exemplified in the Bible now by a woman, now by a man, with no distinction made between them. Every Christian man should desire a double portion of Mary’s spirit, and every Christian woman a double portion of Zechariah’s spirit as it is exemplified in the song that follows, the Benedictus.
So let me draw your attention to Mary’s theological cast of mind, her turning of everything to God and her consideration of everything in terms of the Lord that so wonderfully characterizes this hymn. Let me illustrate this in three particulars. I had six or seven on my list in an early stage of this sermon’s preparation, but we haven’t the time for that many demonstrations of the same fact. We will content ourselves with three.
- First, Mary immediately and comprehensively interprets her circumstances biblically; her thinking is defined by the Bible, her mind shaped by God’s Word.
One of the things which has always astonished devout readers of the Gospel is that a Hebrew maid of teenage years should have been able to compose a hymn like the Magnificat. Indeed, skeptical commentators have proposed its sophistication as evidence that Mary was not in fact the author and that the hymn was being written back into Mary’s mouth as a kind of pious fiction.
But great as this hymn is, no Christian can think it impossible for Mary to have written it, however young a lass she may have been at the time. For Mary did not invent this hymn out of whole cloth. It is not, in fact, a work of creative genius in the ordinary sense of the term. In respect to its originality, this is not a poem like a Shakespeare sonnet or a lyric of Byron. It is a compiler’s poem more than a work of pure creativity. Mary’s hymn is the language, the phraseology, even the sentences and the expressions of Holy Scripture itself strung together to make a new song. The psalms, scattered expressions from across what we call the Old Testament, and especially the Song of Hannah from 1 Samuel 2 all make their appearance here in Mary’s song. In some editions of the Greek New Testament, the text is printed so that material that is regarded as a citation of an OT text is placed in bold type. In such editions of the Magnificat, there are only two lines and some scattered words in the entire poem that are not printed in bold type. It is almost wholly made up of Old Testament citations; it is what is called a catena or chain of quotations; a patchwork, but beautifully done.
What astonishes the devout reader of Mary’s song is not that so young a girl could think and utter such thoughts but rather that so young a girl was such a master of the Word of God. It may be that in some periods of history girls were characteristically not given the same educational advantages as boys, but not among the pious and faithful Jews of those days and, I’m happy to say, usually not among pious Christian families since. Mary clearly had been taught the Bible at home and had studied the Bible for herself and at great length. And, what is more, she had studied it not dispassionately, not with a merely theoretical interest, but, as Alexander Whyte used to put it, she read the Bible as though it were “autobiographic of herself,” or, as Thomas Boston put it, she read the Bible “as though it were written for her.”
Ludwig Feuerbach, the German atheistic philosopher whose thought laid the groundwork for that of Karl Marx, made famous the saying that “man is what he eats.” Well, he was righter than he knew! God’s words were found and Mary ate them, and they became the joy and the rejoicing of her soul. She had so mastered the Word of God that she was well able to turn her own remarkable experience into biblical expression and explanation and apostrophe. You see, she thought in biblical terms about her own life and about everything else; she had come to have a biblical frame of mind and frame of reference. Everything in her mind was shaped by the truth, by the concerns, by the interests, by the manner of God’s Word, because she had taken that Word into her heart. And so, when out of the abundance of her heart her mouth spoke, as here, she gave vent to her feelings in Scriptural language. If the Scripture is the expression of God’s mind, Mary’s mind had become like God’s mind because of its absorption of the Scripture.
It used to be said of John Bunyan, the immortal author of Pilgrim’s Progress, that you could prick him anywhere and you would find him “bibline.” The same thing has been said about some of the disciples of Bunyan, such as Charles Spurgeon, the great 19th century preacher. That is, the Word of God ran in his veins. And so it was with Mary, the mother of the Lord and the author of this first New Testament hymn. By the time A.W. Pink had been a Christian twenty-two years, he had read the Bible through more than fifty times. I don’t know how often Mary had read the Bible through, but she was a master of its matter, its meaning, its manner and style while still a girl. She does not come off poorly in comparison with the priest Zechariah, whose Benedictus is likewise shaped by the utterances of the Bible.
What a perfect mother she would be for the Lord Jesus. With a mother like Mary, how certain it would be that he would be raised from his first consciousness to know and to love God’s holy Word. I want to be like Mary and I hope you want to be like her too. The Lord surely wants us to want to be like his mother in the cast of her mind. And the first prerequisite of that is that we consume the Bible as she did, that we so take it in, so absorb not only its matter but its way of speaking, that soon we think like the Bible and speak like the Bible ourselves. That is what Mary did.
- Second, her theological cast of mind is revealed in the fact that she saw everything, including her own amazing experience, in terms of God’s love for his church and people and his commitment to their salvation.
You may have noticed this about the Magnificat; it is one of its most striking features, I think. Mary begins, in vv. 46‑49, by praising the Lord for what he has done for her. She appreciates that she, of all the women in the world, has been singled out for highest honor. And understandably she expresses her wonder and her thanksgiving. But in the rest of the song her personal situation and good fortune is forgotten and the significance of what has been said to her for the people of God occupies her mind. Until, in the climax of the hymn, she sings not that God had helped her, but “He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and to his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.”
The grace – and extraordinary grace it was – that God had showered on Mary, she took to be grace that he was showering on his people. Her gift was theirs; her happiness was for them all; her honor God’s means of bringing salvation to the world.
And, what is more, Mary seems genuinely happier, more elated on the church’s behalf than on her own. Mary was a Christian patriot. She loved the church of God. She carried the fortunes of God’s people upon her heart. Her prayers were not only the prayers of a teenager about friendships and about love and romance; but were also for God’s people, the church, and that God would deliver his people from their present bondage and extend his kingdom to the four corners of the world.
She had been nurtured on the history of the church; she knew the great episodes of the history of Israel by heart. She considered it all her own story. She knew the promises of God and knew what the future held in store for the people of God. All of this was of immense personal importance to her. The current fortunes of the church pained her deeply and, like Simeon, the old man she would meet in a few months time, she was, with all her heart, waiting for the consolation of Israel. She could never be happy if God’s church were in ruins – she was like Nehemiah in that way – and she could never be sad if the kingdom of God was forcefully advancing. So much had she come to have God’s own interests and God’s own love for his people in her heart.
I want to be much more like Mary in that! And I very much hope you want to be as well. I hope that we too, by the grace of God and by the mastery of his Word, come to feel that every blessing he gives to us is the church’s by right as well and that nothing is a matter of the greatest happiness to us that does not in some way advance the interest of the Kingdom of God in the world.
How natural it would seem to us if Mary had been utterly preoccupied with herself and her own good fortune in this Psalm. That she turns so quickly from herself to the church is, I have come to think, one of the most beautiful and magnificent examples in all the Bible of that forgetfulness of self that her Son would later say was the identifying mark of his genuine followers. It looks very beautiful on Mary, and the Lord often tells us it will look as beautiful on you and on me.
- Mary’s theological cast of mind is revealed in the way in which the greatness of God colors all her thinking about herself.
You are aware, of course, that there are a great many professed Christians who think of Mary more highly than they ought to think. In some circles she is given a role somewhat like that of her son, as a mediator between God and man. She is prayed to. Roman Catholics will often hurry to say that they do not pray to Mary but only ask her to pray for them, though the more honest among them will admit that vast multitudes of Roman Catholics do pray to Mary as somehow more accessible than God himself or as perhaps more likely to hear and answer. Some of you may remember that when John Paul II was shot in St. Peter’s Square some years ago, the prayer that was on his lips as he was sped away in an ambulance was “Madonna!” Over and over again until he was put out on the operating table, the head of the largest Christian church in the world was turning to Mary in what might have been his hour of death. You, perhaps, know how interested he was to visit the more important Marian shrines when he traveled abroad. Something is clearly amiss here. This is not simply something more than is taught in the Bible; it is something in direct conflict with what is taught in the Bible. In many countries of the world multitudes of professed Christians pray more often and more earnestly to Mary than to Christ Himself or to the Father in Heaven. Our missionaries to South America tell us that statues of Mary in a city will sometimes be larger than those of Christ and that this is an accurate reflection of the people’s faith.
Strange as it may seem, in the last few years a number of prominent American evangelicals, raised in the very circles of which this church is a part, have left the churches of their upbringing for churches which make much more of Mary than we have ever felt the Scripture permitted us to do. But, surely, the simplest rejoinder to all of that prayer to Mary or faith in Mary is the woman’s own words! She says herself, in the opening sentence of her hymn that she is a person who needs a Savior. Far from being a Savior of any kind herself – the very notion that someone would ever think such a thing would have been utterly incomprehensible to her – she needed a Savior. The very idea that she was not conceived in sin – the immaculate conception of Mary of Roman Catholic dogma – would have been repugnant to her. She was not a doer of great things, she says in v. 49, but one for whom great things were done.
If you want a simple test of the cast of Mary’s mind and, in particular, of the relative places the Lord God and she herself occupy in her mind, just count the pronouns in her song. Look yourself and see how many more references there are to God in these verses than to Mary, how many more “he’s” than “me’s” and how many more “his’s” than “my’s.” She was a woman low in her own eyes and estimation and she was so not, primarily, because of how clearly she saw her own sinfulness – she no doubt saw that clearly enough – but it is not that to which she gives expression in the first place. Her pure and holy form of humility was based rather on her exceedingly high view of God. She saw herself a humble servant because she saw him a Great King. She spoke with such animation of God’s mercy because she knew how great a thing it was that Almighty God should be merciful to her.
You wouldn’t perhaps expect that a Jewish lass who had just discovered herself miraculously pregnant with the Savior of the World would sing of the mighty power of God scattering the proud, bringing down rulers from their thrones, and defending and protecting his people. But such was Mary’s view of God. What God had done for her, marvelous as it was, was part and parcel, she knew, of what he always does. What had happened to her startled her not because her God could not or would not do such a thing – that was no problem – but that a God as great as He would do it for her! Even that was not an intellectual problem for Mary; it was more a matter of simple amazement and wonder.
Now, I want to be like Mary in this too, in the way in which she rejoiced in the Lord and in which God’s greatness even more than the wonder of what he has done for me preoccupies my mind. I want to be like her in always seeing the majesty of God behind what happens in my life and in the world: his wisdom, his power, his goodness, and above all, his mercy, his immeasurable mercy.
I want to have Mary’s wonderfully and accurately high view of God himself. I want to know that I am a miserable sinner. I do. It is true and I want to be an honest man and I want to know and feel how great my salvation is. But I do not want my humility before God to be chiefly based on my sense of the enormity of my own sin.
No, like Mary, I want my humility – that bottom grace of all graces in the Christian life, that virtue from which all the other virtues come – I want my humility to be based much more on my sense of God’s greatness than on my sense of my own badness. If it is, it will be Mary’s happy and cheerful and pure humility.
What I want, then, and what I hope you want is the theological cast of mind that Mary had. I want the Word of God to shape all of my thinking and all of my speaking and all of my singing. And I want to have the same church and kingdom‑mindedness that Mary had, so that I always think of my own life in terms of what matters most to the Lord. And I want to have Mary’s same wonderful sense of how great God is and how wonderful it is, therefore, to know him and to be his servant, and to have that same sense she had, that, God being so great, any kindness he shows to us, little as we are in ourselves, ought to take our breath away!
Surely you agree with me that there is a special affection in the Lord Christ’s heart for Mary his mother. Among all those whom he loves and for whom he shed his blood, surely she holds a place of high honor in his heart. That is as it should be and so we are sure that it is so. But, if that is so, can you think of anything that would please the Lord Christ more than to tell him now and throughout the Christmas season, that you love and admire what divine grace made of his mother and that you want to be like her because in so many beautiful ways she was like him.