And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
even as he said to our fathers.”
We continue our Advent Series of looking at the great themes of the Christmas season. We’ve spent time on Love and Peace, and today we’re going to look at Hope.
I suppose it’s sort of lazy to start a sermon with a dictionary definition, but here’s what Webster’s has to say about the word, hope: Hope is desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfilment.
Our text today is a prophecy in the form of a song. Mary sings this as the story of her role in the birth of the Messiah unfolds.
Biblical prophecy is a complicated thing, but for us today we should know that it can have different functions for the reader. Sometimes it’s predictive—it tells of something that’s going to happen in the future. That’s the way we use the word ‘prophecy’ today. Sometimes it speaks to a specific issue in the present, as when the Old Testament prophets talked about injustices in Israel. And at other times it declares the ideal for what the present should be like—these prophecies talk about the world in its perfect state, as God intended for it to be.
Mary’s song has all three of these.
What’s going on in this song of Mary?
‘All generations will call me blessed.’ Church traditions have argued about this for centuries. What does it mean for Mary to be blessed in some special way? Certainly she deserves some exalted status for being the mother of the Messiah, but that doesn’t make her some form of Deity. It’s important, though, to remember Mary’s faithfulness and humility as we celebrate Christmas. It’s an important part of the story.
‘God’s mercy extends from generation to generation.’ This wasn’t just a first century event. The eyewitnesses make it pretty clear that whatever happened in Bethlehem was for all people at all times.
‘Filled the hungry and sent the rich away empty.’ This is the ideal for what the world should be like. Hungry people should have enough to eat—that’s part of our call as Christians. You’ve heard me say it before: God doesn’t intend for a single person to starve—there’s enough food for every single person, every child of God. The problem isn’t production, the problem is distribution. Moving to the next phrase, the ‘rich’ aren’t sent away just because they’re rich, but because they’ve wrapped up their hope and security in money and possessions, and they become deaf to the good news of Christmas.
This song is about the meaning of Christmas—what it means to the world for a savior to come. We talk and read and sing so much about Bethlehem, about the baby Jesus, about the trappings of that first Christmas night—whether those details are actually in the Bible story or not. We devote so much time and space in our Christmas services to remembering the details—do we spend enough time thinking about what it all meant?
Richard Mouw is the president of Fuller Seminary. He tells the story of being in a mall a few days before Christmas, doing some last-minute shopping, and hearing ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ piped in above the noise of the crowds. When it got to the line: ‘the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight,’ it stopped him short.
His reaction was to say: Really? The hopes and fears of all these people are met somehow in the baby Jesus?
I’ve been shopping this year, too. Have you seen the faces of the people you’re shopping with? So many people look miserable.
They really look afraid—afraid that they won’t find the gift they’re looking for—afraid they won’t be able to afford it if they do find it—afraid that this Christmas might be as vaguely disappointing as so many others have been.
The other night Andy McGuffie and I were walking to a restaurant nearby, and we saw a couple dressed up for Christmas—we heard them arguing loudly near a pub down the street. There a lot of profanities involved, which I won’t quote for you today, but at one point the guy turned to his girlfriend and said: ‘How can you call me negative? I’m not negative at all—I’m not!’
Andy and I both wanted to say that, in point of fact, the more times you try to negate something, the more likely it is that someone close to you will assume that you’re negative.
What are we trying to negate—what are we trying to deny this Christmas? How about our hopes and fears?
We deny our fears so that people will think we’re strong and brave and indestructible.
We deny our hopes so that we can’t be wounded—so that no one can disappoint us.
‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight?’ What does that mean?
‘All the years’: We heard Mary sing that God’s mercy extends to those who fear him from generation to generation. The gift of a savior wasn’t just for the fist century—it wasn’t just for the Jews—the offer of that mercy wasn’t limited to anyone or any time. ‘His mercy extends to those who fear him from generation to generation.’ This is not an exclusive party we’re celebrating this week. It’s a free offer, an open invitation to a place that will never run out of room, a welcome to a gathering where each one of us can feel at home—freely accepted and loved and known. Not bad, eh?
How does that happen? It happens because our hopes and fears ‘Are met in thee tonight’ The parts of our lives that drain us and harden us and make us fearful and hopeless—all of those parts of our lives are met—they’re encountered and satisfied by the baby Messiah, lying in a manger, coming to be a gift of love and hope and sacrifice for the world.
Remember the dictionary definition of hope? Hope is ‘desire accompanied by expectation of, or belief in, fulfillment.’
Our hope is found in God’s love and sovereignty over his creation, and in how he exercised that love and sovereignty through the birth and life and death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.
As we gather in our homes and parties—with friends and family members—this is what we celebrate: Our hopes and fears are met—they’re fulfilled—in the one we have come to know and worship, Jesus Christ. Amen.