The Christmas season always involves a lot of singing. We love to sing the old familiar carols. Did you ever realize that the oldest Christmas songs come right out of the Christmas story in Luke 1, 2? They comprise Mary’s song, Zechariah’s song, the angel’s song and Simeon’s song. During this Christmas season, beginning with the Sunday’s of Advent and then on Christmas Day, we will examine the songs of Christmas from Luke 1,2. As we examine these songs, we will learn many things about God and the way he works with his people. We will hear the good news of God’s work in history and in bringing salvation to His people.
I always enjoy a jack-in-the-box. Even though you know what is going to happen, you never know when it is going to happen and so it is always a surprise.
Surprises are not always a good thing, but most often we use the term in a positive way. Before we got married, Carla had a number of showers and almost all of them were planned in such a way that they were a surprise. What a pleasure that was! When our oldest son, Joel, was born, we lived in Steinbach. Some friends in Winnipeg wanted to make a baby shower and so we had to find a way of getting Carla to Winnipeg and we managed to make it a surprise. A surprise is an event in which something we do not expect happens.
Sometimes parents tell their children, “I’ve got a surprise for you.” The children are all excited and can hardly wait for the surprise to be revealed. As we celebrate the advent season, we celebrate the message of God in which he said to the world, “I’ve got a surprise for you.” In the announcements of Messiah’s coming and in the Christmas event, we learn that God acts in ways that we do not expect.
We learn about God’s surprise in the first song of Christmas, which is Mary’s song found in Luke 1:46-55. Read text.
We don’t know much about Mary from her growing up years, but we can expect that she was an ordinary girl. Her expectations were likely that she would marry, bear children and live a pretty normal life. She was already engaged to be married and expected that she and Joseph would be married and settle into the carpenter shop and have a good life.
What a surprise when the angel of the Lord came to her and announced that she was going to bear a very special child. She was surprised to learn that she would bear a child even though she had never known a man. She was surprised with the news that she was going to be the mother of the Messiah. It was the hope of every woman in Israel that she would be the mother of Messiah. Although many may have had this hope, I suspect that few believed it would happen to them. Mary seems to have recognized the difficulty this surprise would bring, but she also was willing to accept the blessing this surprise would bring and so in Luke 1:38 she says, “I am the Lord’s servant,”… “May it be to me as you have said.”
After hearing the announcement, Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth who was 6 months pregnant with John the Baptist. When she arrived at her home, the baby leapt in Elizabeth’s womb and she prophesied, reinforcing the surprise message by recognizing that Mary was the bearer of the Lord, the Messiah.
It is in this context that Mary sings her song. The song is about surprise. It is about the joy of the surprise Mary had received and it is about the surprising ways in which God works.
In verses 46-49, Mary expresses her praise to God for what He has done for her. Verses 46, 47 are her expression of praise. She expresses her joy before God and praises Him.
As she continues in her song, she next gives the reasons why she is praising God and rejoicing before Him. She has experienced a wonderful surprise. She has been showered by God with a blessing that she did not expect and she did not deserve.
She begins by acknowledging her “humble state.” She was not a queen like Esther. She was not a warrior, like Deborah. She was not a prophetess, like Huldah. She recognized that she was an ordinary person, just a young girl who was going to be married. She understood that there was nothing special about her. But, God surprised her and gave her a very special role. She recognized the great role she had to play and what the implications of that role were. She understood that from now on, she would be called blessed by all the succeeding generations.
She rejoiced that God, the Mighty One, the Holy One had done great things for her. He had acted in an unexpected way on her behalf and she accepted the surprise and praised God for it and rejoiced before Him because of it.
In the surprise she experienced, Mary recognized that what happened to her was in character for God. He acts in unexpected ways.
As human beings, we have a pretty clear expectation of strict justice.
I was listening to the news the other day and heard an item about some hospital records that were mistakenly faxed to the wrong location. We have heard this week from the mayor of Walkerton, Ontario. In these situations, mistakes were made, and wrongs were done. It is expected that these wrongs be paid for or corrected. People were hurt, some died because of these mistakes and society demands justice for these wrongs.
Many religions of the world, are very strict with justice. For example, the Muslim religion, has many rules and the punishment for violating the rules are always strict and often violent.
But we are not much different. When the hail goes over one person’s farm and hits another, we wonder what he did right, or what the other one did wrong. We have an arbitrary list of things which need to be done in order to be pleasing to God. I’m not talking about faith for salvation, but all kinds of additional deeds of goodness. We are quite judgemental about others who do not meet up to those standards. Whenever we fail in our efforts to please God, we beat ourselves up and condemn ourselves and find it very difficult to accept God’s forgiveness.
What we expect is reward for good behaviour and punishment for bad behaviour.
Mary saw in the surprise she had experienced the unexpected way in which God acts. She knew that she did not deserve to be the mother of the Lord and yet God had given her this blessing. In her surprise, she saw that God does an unexpected thing. He does not act only with justice, but also with mercy. She says, “vs. 50.”
This is an unexpected thing for us. Instead of acting with what justice would demand, God acts with mercy. He rewards her with a blessing which she recognizes that she does not deserve. This is the nature of God. He rewards us with mercy which we do not deserve. Salvation is not about earning a place with God, but about receiving the gift of forgiveness which is given by His mercy. Mercy is not reward. As we continue in our Christian walk, God continues to act in mercy towards us. He changes us, sustains us and continues to forgive us, not as a reward, but as an act of mercy.
Such mercy is shown to those who fear the Lord. This is very unexpected. We would want to say that mercy ought to be given to those who please the Lord. Mary recognized the unexpected way in which God works when she said that mercy is shown to those who fear the Lord. To fear the Lord is to recognize that He is the Lord. It is to accept His rule over us. It is an act of humility which accepts God.
If this is the unexpected way in which God acts, then we have to change our expectations.
We can stop offering people a plan to reform themselves and instead offer them a forgiveness in which God will transform them.
We can stop thinking that we have earned God’s blessing because we have been so good and humbly receive all the blessings he gives us, not because we deserve them, but because of his mercy.
We can stop beating ourselves up after we sin in order to somehow get ourselves into a place in which we deserve to be forgiven and simply accept God’s forgiveness.
The unexpected act of mercy which God has demonstrated towards us in Jesus is so difficult for us to accept that we need to meditate deeply on the gracious act of God until we understand, as Mary understood, that God’s mercy extends to those who fear Him.
Mary realized another surprise about the way power is handled.
What we expect is that the powerful become more powerful and the weak become weaker. Nations which are strong, like the United States, become even stronger. Nations which are identified as “third world” countries, seem to increase in dependence.
People who have inherited great wealth, invest their money and become even more wealthy. Poor people descend down a spiral of poverty that gets more difficult to live with every day. Often people are given raises at the end of a year. If their salary is $100,000 a year, and they receive a 1% raise, they receive $1000 dollars more the next year. If their salary is $10,000 a year, they receive $100 more the next year. When you do the math that way, you understand why the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
The same thing goes in sports. A team that wins, gets more revenues and is able to hire better players and so it wins more games and so the spiral goes.
Those who are the best always win and the rest are doomed to mediocrity and failure. As a result, we worship success - whether that is in business, sports or even in the work of the church.
But Mary experienced something else. The surprising fact that she was a poor country girl who was greatly blessed by God, allowed her to see that this is the way God works. He acts in ways that we do not expect by reversing power and weakness. She expresses this surprise in her song in Luke 1:51-53.
God reverses expectations. The proud who feel they have a right to blessing are scattered! The rulers who exercise power from their thrones are brought down! The rich, who have everything and expect to continue to have everything, are sent away empty! In contrast, the humble, who depend on God are lifted up. The hungry are fed!
This is not a new thought Biblically. In Psalm 113:7,8 we already see this idea expressed. “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes, with the princes of their people.”
This is not the first time God has acted in this way. The proud nation Babylon which had great power and succeeded in putting down the people of God, was, by this time, no longer a nation. Israel, on the other hand, had been restored.
The great King Nebuchadnezzar who was the greatest ruler in the world, was humbled and forced to spend some time living like a beast of the forest until he recognized the power of God.
When Jesus came, he demonstrated this surprising principle. He fed the hungry, he blessed the children, he raised the status of women to equality.
Where do we see this principle expressed today? God continues to act in this way. We see a reversal of expectations in the change from slavery to equal rights for the African American people in the United States. We see the dignity given to poor people in the acts of such agencies as MCC when they give entrepreneurs an opportunity to make their own living through the work of “Ten Thousand Villages” They work with God to reverse expectations when they assist in development projects in poor countries.
God reverses expectations in that all people, no matter what their position in life, can become children of the King. The ground at the foot of the cross is level.
The greatest reversal is, of course, yet future. A day is coming when, as Revelation tells us, the great city, Babylon, which now rules in this world, will be cast down and those who have humbled themselves by becoming obedient to the cross of Jesus Christ, will be exalted and become kings who reign with God.
If that is the unexpected way in which God acts, we have to change our expectations. We do not have to worship at the world’s altar of success. We are prone to do so, but God invites us rather to recognize what He is doing.
You may have heard the story about the boy who had a severe speech impediment. He was at camp and because of his handicap, many of the other children avoided him and made fun of him. On one of the last days of camp, an opportunity was given to anyone who wanted to share a testimony. Many of the children got up and shared eloquently about all the great things that had happened at camp. When the boy with the speech impediment got up, everyone groaned. With agonizing slowness and many repetitions, he ground out a message about how God’s love had changed him. The impact was so powerful that his testimony, weak as it was, had the greatest impact of the whole week at camp.
God reverses our expectations. It is not necessarily worldly success or power or ability that will have the most powerful impact for Christ. It is those who humbly bow before the Father and yield their lives to him who will be used by God. It is not necessarily the church that has the most political power or the most money in the offering plate or the most effective preacher that will have the greatest impact in the kingdom of God.
God reverses expectations about power and we need to change our expectations and humble ourselves before Him, rejoicing at his unexpected ways.
Israel, at the time when Mary sang this song, was a downtrodden nation. Rome had them under its thumb. They knew the promises of God and they had a hope in those promises, but one wonders about how strong those expectations really were. Had they gotten used to being downtrodden? Many had given up on a Messiah from God who would bring release from the oppressors. They began to take things into their own hands, and so we hear about the Zealots, who were ready to fight against Rome. Did they expect God to act according to his promises or had they given up on His promises?
The promise that Messiah would be born to her was the surprise that Mary and all Israel had been waiting for. The promise of God was going to be fulfilled.
From ancient times, Israel had heard the promises of God. One example of such promises is found in Isaiah 41:8-14, “But you, O Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend, 9 I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you. I said, ‘You are my servant’; I have chosen you and have not rejected you. 10 So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. 11 “All who rage against you will surely be ashamed and disgraced; those who oppose you will be as nothing and perish. 12 Though you search for your enemies, you will not find them. Those who wage war against you will be as nothing at all. 13 For I am the LORD, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you. 14 Do not be afraid, O worm Jacob, O little Israel, for I myself will help you,” declares the LORD, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.”
In the promise to Mary that Messiah would be born to her, she saw the fulfillment of all the promises God had made.
Mary realized in her experience that God was going to do what he promised. Mary saw that the coming of her child constituted God’s greatest act of faithfulness to Israel. He was about to bless Israel with redemption.
We are not much different. We have the promises that one day Jesus will return and restore all things. We hope that soon Jesus will come back, but we do not live according to that expectation. We live as if all things will continue as they always have.
Once again, we need to change our expectations. Messiah came! He will come again! Let us live in the recognition that God keeps his promises. Let us live with the expectation that He will come.
The promise of the coming of Messiah as announced to Mary tells us that God acts in surprising ways. He does things that we do not expect. The song of Mary is about surprise. He will give mercy and act in mercy instead of only with justice towards those who fear Him. He will reverse fortunes and favor those who humble themselves before Him. He will fulfill his promises.
Instead of living by the hopeless ways of this world and instead of feeling we are doomed to what is the normal course of action for this world, we can live in expectation of God’s surprises. Our responsibility is to fear the Lord and humble ourselves before Him. If we do that, we can live with the expectation that God will act in surprising ways.
What a great way to live. We never know what God will do, but we know that whatever surprising thing he brings, will be a good thing. We can expect surprises. We can expect God to change lives, we can expect God to bring renewal, we can expect God to act in powerful ways to change us, we can expect God to renew churches.
Let us praise Him for the surprising things he has already done. Let us live in expectation of God’s surprises.
Praise God that we don’t have to live by the mundane and unhappy consequences of this life. God has surprises for us. Do we live in expectation of those surprises? Do we praise Him that He is the God of surprises?