The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
December 11, 2016
We all want to be happy. God wants us to be happy even more than we want to be happy – and to be happier than we ever imagined – of course in the world to come, but also in this pain- and trouble-filled world.
Mary was in trouble and emotional pain. She was pregnant, unmarried, unprepared for motherhood, subject to nasty rumors and ostracism, and imperiled at a time when, without OB-GYN’s and hospitals, delivering a baby was far more dangerous than it is today and many a mother lost her life in childbirth.
Yet, despite the uncertainty and dangers of her situation, Mary exulted in her God. In a song of joyful praise called – from the opening word in the Latin translation of it – the Magnificat, Mary magnified the name of the Lord. And it was something magnificent that a girl in her challenging circumstances could exclaim, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
Three things about her song of joyful praise strike me as particularly noteworthy for today: 1) what sparked it, 2) what it consisted of and 3) what it focused on.
The Bible indicates that, in hearing angel Gabriel’s wondrous news that she, a virgin, was pregnant, Mary felt perplexity, doubt and fear even while submitting herself to God’s disconcerting wishes. Perhaps out of her still being in a state of a shock as she tried to take in what had just happened, perhaps out of ambivalence over being “favored” by God in the way He favored, there is no evidence of Mary’s giving God praise the day Gabriel dropped his bombshell.
It is, however, interesting that Mary – “with haste” the Bible says – immediately made the long trek on foot to see her elderly cousin and old friend Elizabeth, who was likewise miraculously pregnant. Apparently Mary felt an urgent need to compare notes with someone in a similar situation in order to sort it all out.
Elizabeth, an everyday human being, was able to do for Mary what Gabriel, a heavenly being, could not. Elizabeth called out of her a song of praise when she hailed her as blessed, addressed her as “the mother of my Lord”, and told Mary her own baby, now in his third trimester, “leaped for joy” in her womb at her arrival.
Struggling believers catch the fire of bright faith and passionate devotion from one another, just as logs put together in a fire pit set each other aflame by the hot, bright sparks they send up. That may be the main reason behind God’s wanting us to come together in shared worship on a regular basis. The joining together of our individual fires of faithful devotion keeps us all burning. One believer can ignite another better than angel!
It is worth noting what sparked Mary’s song of praise. It is also worth noting what it was comprised of.
Far from being a purely extemporaneous, impromptu speech, Mary’s song of praise was almost entirely made up of Old Testament quotations, very likely biblical verses that Mary had known and loved from her childhood and that had etched themselves in her memory. That storehouse of scriptures which Mary had in her brain enabled her, in the instant in which she finally caught on to what God was up to, to find a voice by which to express and fulfill her newborn wonder, awe and joy over being a part of the great and good thing God was doing.
It behooves us also to avail of all the scriptures to which we have access, either by memory or by an open Bible, in order to articulate our appreciation of God’s faithful activity, and to do justice to our growing gratitude and gladness over His astounding grace.
It is worth noting 1) what sparked Mary’s praise and 2) what it consisted of. Finally, it worth noting 3) what it focused on. Though Mary celebrated what God had done for her as an individual, she concentrated on what God was doing through her for others.
Yes, Mary at the start of her song praised God for how He had looked with favor on her lowliness, blessed her and done great things for her; but she immediately moved on to praise Him for His loving grace toward all His people, even those whom the world dismisses as nobodies and abuses as nothings.
Though very likely Mary was still a young teenager, a period of life when self-absorption comes naturally, Mary was, with her newly received sense of what God was about, enthralled with God’s big and broad plans, with God’s ultimate purpose. That’s why in her song she honed in on the end results of her miraculous pregnancy, and made not a single direct mention of what must have been on her mind every second: the baby growing inside of her. She was caught up in the vast expanse of God’s project through her, and for the moment lost sight of herself and her plight. She forgot her own concerns in her delight with God’s large and long-range concerns.
Believers are not exempted from tough-to-take turns in their lives, like that on which Mary had just embarked, turns that tempt us to dismay and even depression. What enables us to rejoice in God in the face of such trials is our awareness that God is accomplishing big things and the best things, for many, by means of them.
God would love for us to radiate the kind of magnificent joy with which Mary shines. By drawing on each other’s support and encouragement, by employing God’s own words to give voice to our faith, and by focusing on God’s all-encompassing purposes, we find our own song of joy to sing – like novelist Andrew Klavan has.
Raised in a secular home, Klavan lived, he says, the first 45 years of his life as a “philosophical agnostic and practical atheist”. Yet, he now believes that Christ was at every turn leading him to joy in God the Savior – in the kindness of a Christian babysitter and the magic of a Christmas Eve spent in her home, in the voice of a Christian baseball player who gave a radio interview that inspired Klavan to go on when he was contemplating suicide, in the day-to-day miracle of his marriage which, he says, “taught me the reality of love and slowly led me to contemplate the greater love that was its source and inspiration”, and in the ongoing story of Christ he read in scripture and saw in those committed to living it out.
The first prayer Klavan ever prayed was a three-word prayer of gratitude for his work and loved ones.
Imitating a character he admired in another writer’s novel, Klavan simply prayed, “Thank you, God”
Klavan now looks back and calls it “a small and even prideful prayer: a self-impressed intellectual’s hesitant experiment with faith”. But he stands amazed at God’s undeserved “favor” in making something significant and life-transforming of it. He writes, “God’s response was an act of extravagant grace…. There was for me a sudden clarity and brightness to familiar faces and objects; they were alive with meaning and my own delight in them. I called this experience ‘the joy of my joy’, and it came to me again whenever I prayed. Naturally I began to pray every day.”
To this day, Klavan keeps praying in the name of Mary’s baby; and, like Mary, rejoicing in God the Savior. May we enter their magnificent joy! Let us pray.