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Mary – The Handmaiden of the Lord


Text: Luke 1:46-56

We are looking at one of the most beautiful songs of praise to Almighty God.  It is unique, for it is the praise of Mary, the Virgin mother of Jesus, but it is also for us, as Apb. Crammer recognised when he included it in the old Book of Common Prayer as the Magnificat.

My soul doth magnify the Lord : and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded : the lowliness of his handmaiden. For behold, from henceforth : all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath magnified me : and holy is his Name. And his mercy is on them that fear him : throughout all generations. He hath shewed strength with his arm : he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.  He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek.  He hath filled the hungry with good things : and the rich he hath sent empty away.  He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel : as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.

It is set in the days of Mary’s pregnancy, after the angel had revealed that she would have a son, and before they travelled to Bethlehem, where the infant Jesus was delivered. Let’s see…

  1. The Preceding Events.

Luke chapter one is a very readable, easy to understand passage of Scripture.  It concerns the family of Mary, – her cousin Elizabeth and Elizabeth’s husband Zacharias.  Both were of the priestly line of Aaron (1:5) and both were dwellers in the hill country of Judah. (1:39). In the passage, Zacharias, a godly man, (1:6) is described as A PRIEST.  Let’s think about that for a moment:

Zacharias the Priest was one of around 20,000 priests who lived in Israel at that time.  Every male descendent of Aaron was a priest, and priests were expected only to marry full bred Jews to allow them to remain in the priesthood.  So Luke stresses that Elizabeth too was a full descendent of Aaron.

A Priest of the Division of Abijah.  Because there were so many priests they were divided into sections of around 1,000 men.  Each section served in the temple for around 2 weeks every year.  Every night one of the priests would enter the temple to burn incense.  It was the highlight of the priests whole life, for with so many priests eligible, some would never get the opportunity to do this, and most would only ever do it once.  The priest who would be so favoured would be chosen by lot.

A Chosen Priest. So on the day recorded by Luke, Zacharias was a chosen priest.  (1:9) Chosen by his fellow priests to serve in the temple, and more importantly, chosen by God to be there for a purpose on that day.

A Tragic Priest.  When Zacharias entered the temple that day he would have been elated at this marvellous opportunity, the peak and pinnacle of his career, his heart full of joy, yet at the back of his mind he would have been aware that in Israel his life had been dogged with tragedy for Elizabeth was barren, and what he longed for was a child, – children are a blessing and a heritage from the Lord.  (1:7)

So on that day, as he burned incense in the Temple of the Lord, an angel appeared to Zacharias, (1:11) and told him that his barren, aged wife would bear a son, and that the boy would be filled with the Holy Ghost and would live the life of a Nazarite and would be called John.  Zacharias’ joy would be complete! (1:14)  As a sign, (1:18-20) when Zacharias left the temple, he could not speak, but could only tell what had happened by gestures.  He returned home, Elizabeth conceived. (1:24)

It was during the pregnancy of Israel that she came to the door of her home and found her your relative Mary standing there, and she also was pregnant, although at that time she was still only betrothed, and not yet married.  Mary had travelled to the hill country, and to the home of her relatives in a hurry, possibly to avoid the gossip and scandal that would accompany the unexpected pregnancy of a Virgin.  The Bible records for us that when Elizabeth saw Mary, she was filled with the Holy Spirit, and the baby within her womb jumped – she greeted her young cousin with a blessing!  Mary responded with her wonderful hymn of praise…

2. The Praising Echo.

Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s blessing is to offer praise to God.  Note…

* Mary is well acquainted with Scripture.  There is a tendency to think of Mary as an illiterate young girl from a backward country.  Do not do so.  This hymn shows that she was well learned in OT Scriptures.  There are great references to the psalms.

Ps.35:9 Then my soul will rejoice in the LORD, exulting in his salvation.

Ps.138:6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.

Ps.71:19 Your righteousness, O God, reaches the high heavens. You who have done great things, O God, who is like you?

Ps.103:17 But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, 18 to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.

There are many other OT references in the psalm, and of course there are cadences of Hannah’s Song in 1 Sam 2:1-10,

And Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in the LORD. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation. 2“There is none holy like the LORD; there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God.

Now this is important for us, too, for in her use of Scripture in her praise Mary is a good example for us.  How good it is to include Scripture in our praise!

* To sing the psalms, inspired Scripture is the ultimate act of praise!  Hymns can be poetic, and helpful and inspiring, but God’s Word is INSPIRED and the psalms are the hymn-book of God’s people for thousands of years.  Why would we want to sing merely the words of sinful men and women when we can sing God’s Words, in God’s Way!

* To pray the Word is a great blessing!  So often we pray in the vernacular and make our prayers self centred and selfish.  But listen to someone who prays the Biblical Promises of God, who prays to God in God’s own words, and what a blessing it is!

To do these things, to be like Mary, is to read the word, to learn the word, to quote the word, to hide the word in our hearts.  Paul puts this well for us in Colossians 3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

* Mary is characterised by her humility. The woman who is chosen by God to be the vessel through whom his Son would come into this world, to accomplish God’s eternal plan, was the same woman who spoke only of the lowliness of her own condition.

And perhaps more significantly, when we think of the perverse doctrines to be attributed to her in later years by the Roman Catholic Church, Mary acknowledges her need of a Saviour.  1:47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.  Mary, like all of humanity, is a sinner who needs a Saviour.  There is no indication whatsoever that she thinks of herself as ‘Immaculate’. May we learn Mary’s lesson of humility!  1 Peter 3:8 Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.

Among those who visited Dr. Carey, the missionary, in his last illness was Alexander Duff, the Scotch missionary.   On one occasion he spent some time talking chiefly about Carey’s missionary life, until the dying man whispered, “Pray.” Duff knelt down and prayed and then said “Goodbye.”  As he passed from the room, he thought he heard a feeble voice pronouncing his name, and turning, found that he was recalled. He stepped back accordingly, and this is what he heard, spoken with gracious solemnity: “Mr. Duff, you have been speaking about Dr. Carey! Dr. Carey! When I am gone say nothing about Dr. Carey—speak about Dr. Carey’s Saviour.”

Duff went away rebuked and awed, with a lesson in his heart that he never forgot.—Scattered Seed.

* Mary has a thankful Spirit.   The whole song is permeated with thankfulness.  She rejoices in the Lord, she praises God that future generations would call her blessed, that the Lord has done great things for her…  What thankfulness!  Oh that the Lord would make us thankful for what we have and what the Lord has done for us.

Sir Moses Montefiore, the Hebrew philanthropist, had as the motto of his family, “Think and Thank.” In the old Anglo-Saxon language thankfulness means “thinkfulness.” Thinking of all God’s goodnesses draws forth gratitude.—The King’s Business.

* Mary is aware of God’s Covenant with His people.  God has a redemptive covenant with his people and includes them and uses them in his redemptive purpose.  He planned their redemption in eternity past and he works that plan out, in his OT people, in Elizabeth and in Mary, and of course, ultimately in Christ.  Mary knew this and it is reflected in her praise.

* God ‘scatters the proud’ – as he did with his enemies like the Philistines and the Canaanites throughout the Old Testament.

* God ‘puts down the mighty from their thrones’ as he did with Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar.

* God ‘sends the rich away empty’ and we remember that God’s prophets like Micah and Amos were preachers of justice and mercy who spoke out against the oppression of the poor and disadvantaged.  Micah 6:8 He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

And throughout history, Mary affirms, God has helped his servant Israel. He helped and spoke to Abraham and Joseph, and Moses and David and he preserved his chosen people, despite their unfaithfulness.  And now he has continued his saving purpose by taking a young girl from Nazareth and using her as part of his redemptive purpose.  Would that the Lord would give us a sense of destiny like that. We are here for a purpose!

So, Mary – the handmaiden of the Lord, the chosen vessel to bear the Christ Child into this world, and a wonderful example to those who would seek like her to be faithful servants of the Lord.  Let us all consider her, and let her prayer of submission to God’s will be our prayer also…

Luke 1:38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

From → Sermon Notes

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