In today’s scripture, Mary visits her relative Elizabeth and finds her pregnant, thus confirming the angel Gabriel’s message to her in last Sunday’s scripture. She exclaims, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” In the same way, we need to teach our soul to “magnify the Lord.” Too often, however, we Christians magnify our problems instead. As I point out in this sermon, our God is so much bigger than any problem we’re facing.
Sermon Text: Luke 1:39-56
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“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” What does this mean for us today, and how do we do it? That’s mostly what this sermon is about.
The last verse of the scripture I preached on last week was Luke 1:38, which immediately precedes today’s text. After the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she’s going to conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit and give birth to the God’s Son Jesus, Mary courageously responds with some of the most beautiful words ever spoken: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
Let us hear now the next sentence of that verse: “And the angel departed from her.”
And the angel departed from her.
Mary, undoubtedly, has dozens of questions at this point: “Is this really happening to me? Am I dreaming? Am I hallucinating? How will I tell Joseph? When should I tell Joseph? Will Joseph believe me? Will we still get married? What will our families think? What will our friends think? How am I supposed be the mother to God’s own Son? Am I smart enough? Am I wise enough?”
Mary could not google the answers to any of these questions. And even if smartphones existed in the first century, it doesn’t seem like Gabriel would be the type to say, “Just message me if you have any further questions.” He is not Aladdin, and Mary does not have a lamp. Gabriel has left Mary to face a frightening, uncertain future all by herself—without the benefit of any further angelic appearances. Remember: even the angels who visit the shepherds on Christmas night don’t show up at the manger. The shepherds report that event—secondhand—to Mary and Joseph.
My point is, in verse 38, Mary has submitted herself to God’s will, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t scared. Being brave doesn’t mean you’re not also terrified. And being faithful doesn’t mean you don’t have any doubt.
Or else, Gabriel’s words to Mary in verse 36 would make no sense: “And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.” Why does Gabriel tell her this? To give her a sign—a way of reassuring her and confirming for her that everything that he told her will come to pass. Mary knows that Elizabeth is unable to have children. And in verse 24, Luke tells us that Elizabeth has kept her pregnancy a secret. So Mary would have no way of knowing that her cousin is pregnant. So if she shows up at Elizabeth’s house and finds her pregnant, well, that’s a pretty good sign that the angel was telling the truth!
So in verse 39 we’re told that Mary “went with haste into the hill country to a town in Judah,” where Elizabeth and Zechariah lived. Why “with haste”? Because she wanted to alleviate her fears and doubts. Of course, the town where they lived was still a three-day’s journey from where Mary lived in Nazareth, so she remains alone with her questions, alone with her fears, alone with her doubts—for days. And assuming she told Joseph before she left for Elizabeth’s house about her pregnancy, it’s likely that she left with her future marriage up in the air—not knowing for sure if Joseph would end up choosing to marry her. We know from Matthew’s gospel that after she told Joseph, he believed she had cheated on him and, after deliberating over it, decided to divorce her.
All that to say, we can only imagine how difficult this all was for Mary!
But isn’t it safe to say that difficulty comes with the territory of having genuine, saving Christian faith?
Look at verse 54 and 55 of today’s scripture—this is part of Mary’s song, often called the Magnificat: “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” Mary refers to Abraham because she recalls that God promised that the world’s Savior would come through Abraham’s family tree. So what God is doing through Mary is the ultimate fulfillment of that promise.
Of course, when God made this promise to Abraham, he had no son. He was 75, Abraham’s wife was 65. And they were unable to have kids when they were younger.
So God’s promise meant that God would have to work a miracle to fulfill it. In fact, God wouldn’t fulfill it for another 25 years, when Abraham’s son Isaac was born. There was a lot of suffering, a lot of doubting, a lot of pain that happened during those 25 years.
And you may ask why? Why is faith so hard? Why did Mary have to wait for these three anxious days? Why didn’t the angel give her a sign immediately—to calm her fears and relieve her doubts? For that matter, why did Abraham and Sarah have to wait 25 years and endure so much suffering in order for God’s promises to be fulfilled? Why is faith so hard?
And the answer is, first, that God intends for it to be hard. Every time we put our faith in action and discover that—oh yeah—we’ve somehow made it through O.K.—that once again, God has taken care of us, in spite of our fear, in spite of our doubt—every time God tests our faith, our faith will be a little bit stronger; we’ll trust in the Lord a little bit more; and if we trust the Lord more, we’ll love the Lord more. And if we love the Lord more, we’ll experience more of the joy that Mary and Elizabeth experience in today’s scripture. Don’t we want that? We’ll only find that joy on the other side of God’s testing! What does Peter tell us? “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” Don’t be surprised. Testing is a part of God’s plan for us.
I can’t tell you, for instance, how badly tested Lisa and I were, financially, when I decided to change careers and go into ministry. We had three children at home under five years of age, including a newborn, when I left my engineering career, when we sold our house, when I uprooted our family, when I went went to expensive seminary, when we had to purchase health insurance on our own instead of through an employer, yet somehow we found a way to make ends meet for the next several years. In spite of the fact that we had a series of bizarre mechanical problems with our cars; I’m not kidding when I say were caused by Satan himself!
Oddly enough, the onset of this fiery financial trial also corresponded to the moment we decided, finally, to tithe—that is, to give ten percent of our income to church. I knew that we needed to tithe because I was going to be asking my church members to tithe—and what kind of hypocrite would I be if I didn’t?
And guess what? It all worked out. We’re many years on the other side of that financial testing. And look, we made it through! So God has proven that we can trust him in this particular area of our lives. And if we can trust him in that area of our lives, in what other areas can we trust him?
As a result of our experience, we have far greater confidence in God. And that’s a confidence I want all of y’all to have, too! Why? So we can do what Mary does and surrender our lives to him! We can learn to say, along with Mary, “Here I am, Lord. I’m you’re servant. I’m your slave—let’s not mince words. You’re completely in charge of my life. I live my life for you and for you only. My only goal in life is to please you and not myself, to do your will and not my own will, to glorify you and not to glorify myself.”
Needless to say, surrendering doesn’t mean asking Jesus for advice on how to live; it doesn’t mean asking him to help us out of a jam every now and then; it doesn’t mean asking him to be our personal assistant; it doesn’t mean asking him to be our life coach. It means he’s in charge. It means that what he wants, he gets. It means that we’re happy to give it to him—because we’re not living for ourselves; we’re living for him.
Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Does mine? Does yours? Or do we try to cut Jesus down to our size—treating him like he’s some bigger, stronger, more perfect version of ourselves. Who are we kidding? Our Lord created the universe and everything in it! Hebrews 1:3 says that Jesus Christ “upholds the universe by the word of his power.”
Pastor Tim Keller shared this analogy, which puts this in perspective nicely:
If the distance between the Earth and the sun—ninety-three million miles—was no more than the thickness of a sheet of paper, then the distance from the Earth to the nearest star would be a stack of papers seventy feet high; the diameter of the Milky Way would be a stack of paper over three hundred miles high. Keep in mind that there are more galaxies in the universe than we can number. There are more, it seems, than dust specks in the air or grains of sand on the seashores. Now, if Jesus Christ holds all this together with just a word of his power (Hebrews 1:3)—is he the kind person you ask into your life to be your assistant?”… [I]f he really is like that, how can I treat him as a consultant rather than as Supreme Lord?
Brothers and sisters, if we can teach our souls to magnify the Lord, then we’ll learn to interpret events in our lives differently. Think, for example, of the events of Luke chapter 2: We know from prophecy in Micah 5:2 that the Messiah has to be born in Bethlehem. Yet we know that the child’s mother is with her husband in Nazareth, 70 miles away. And she’s going to have the baby soon. So how will God get Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem so that the prophecy will be fulfilled?
And it’s as if God were saying, “Watch me! Thesis no problem.” Caesar Augustus, the most powerful man in the history of the world up to that point, a man himself hailed as lord and savior and as “son of the gods,” is actually doing the bidding of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the world’s true Lord and Savior! He declares a census, every one has to return to their home towns to be registered, and voila! Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem late in her pregnancy, where the Messiah can be born.
Was it just a coincidence that got Joseph and Mary from point A to point B? Of course not! Or if it was, then let’s say that God works through coincidences all the time! Do you see the “coincidences” in your own life that turn out to be the very hand of God? “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Brothers and sisters, God has the same good plans for us! God has made us a part of his plans. So “Magnify the Lord!” He’s bigger than that dream of yours that never came true. Besides, he’s got a better dreams for you anyway. “Magnify the Lord!” He’s bigger than any problems you’re facing in your family, with your kids, with your husband or wife. “Magnify the Lord!” He’s bigger than that scary diagnosis you received, or that disease you’re dealing with. “Magnify the Lord!” He’s bigger than any problem you’re facing in your job or at school! “Magnify the Lord!” He’s bigger than any financial crisis you’re dealing with! “Magnify the Lord!” He’s bigger than any sin, any failure, any disappointment. “Magnify the Lord!” He’s bigger than whatever you’re afraid of. “Magnify the Lord!”
Why do we act like our problems are so large, and the Lord is so small? We need to magnify the Lord!
And why does Mary say, “My soul magnifies the Lord”? Verse 49: “for he who is mighty has done great things for me.”
For me! And that’s certainly true of Mary! Think about it: There was surely some irony in the angel’s words in Luke 1:28 when he tells her, “The Lord is with you” Because very soon—probably within a matter of moments—after the Holy Spirit came upon her conceived Jesus in her womb—the Lord was going to be with Mary in a way that he had never been with any human being: the Lord was literally going to be part of her! Up to that point in human history, no human being had ever been closer to God than Mary.
What a gracious privilege God had given her! So by all means, “he who is mighty” had done great things for her.
And yet, soon, through the atoning work of Christ on the cross, this privilege would be shared by all believers in Christ.
Do you remember that in the Temple in Jerusalem there was a curtain that separated the “Most Holy Place”—the Holy of Holies—from the rest of the sanctuary. This curtain was huge: 60-feet high, 30-feet wide curtain, four inches thick. God’s presence and God’s glory dwelt in the Most Holy Place in a special way. And only one person in the world could enter that room, the high priest, and only once a year, on the Day of Atonement. That large, thick curtain served as a warning: we sinful human beings can’t get too close to a holy God. It symbolized the separation between us and God on account of our sins.
But remember what happened the moment when Jesus died? The curtain “was torn in two, from top to bottom,” the Bible says. This miracle symbolized that there is now nothing which needs to separate us from God! Our sins are no longer a barrier between us and God. Because on the cross an exchange took place: Christ took our sins upon himself and suffered the penalty for them—and in return he imputed his righteousness to us. We can now stand before God as if we had never sinned—as if we were perfectly holy.
And not only that… Consider the location of the Temple today. Where is it? The Bible tells us: 1 Corinthians 6:19: “[D]o you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?”
For those of us who are in Christ, the Bible says that our very bodies are a temple—and like the Temple in Jerusalem before Christ died, God’s very presence—his glory, his holiness—now dwells within us.
What Mary had within her—physically—when the power of the Most High overshadowed her and Jesus was conceived—we now have within us spiritually. The reality is the same: Our bodies are now temples, and God is living inside of us! What a privilege we have in Christ!
In Christ, we are favored in exactly the same way that Mary is favored! In Christ, we are as “full of grace” as Mary was full of grace! In Christ, the Lord is with us as much as he was with Mary!
So we can say, along with Mary, “he who is mighty has done great things for me!” Amen?
1. 1 Peter 4:12
2. Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas (New York: Viking, 2016), 91-2.
3. Jeremiah 29:11