December 29, 2019
At Christmas gatherings, we’re often encouraged to bring our appetites. No amount of food, however, can satisfy our spiritual hunger. As Alistair Begg leads us through Mary’s song of praise, we discover that the Lord Himself is the answer for our restless hearts. Only God, through the work of His Son Jesus, can set us free from bondage to our sinful nature. When we place our trust in Christ, we will be transformed to love as He does.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Well, let me invite you to turn to the Gospel of Luke and to follow along as I read. And I’ll begin reading at the thirty-ninth verse. Luke chapter 1 and reading from verse 39:
“In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.’
“And Mary said,
“‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.’
“And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.”
Well, I almost hate to say “Turn to Luke chapter 1,” because I’m going to do precious little with it, to tell you the truth. But you should probably have it open, at least to see that I have chosen for our text this morning not even a verse but just a piece of a verse, and the verse is 53, and the phrase which we’re going to consider in a somewhat topical manner is “He has filled the hungry with good things.” “He has filled the hungry with good things.”
Now, if I were to guess, the one thing that none of us is suffering from this morning after the week that we have spent is hunger. And yet, during the past few days, you, like me, will have heard these statements, or you will have made them—people saying in welcoming somebody to their home, “I hope you have brought your appetite with you.” Or, “Anybody hungry?” Or, “I couldn’t eat another thing!” Or, “So where is everyone on the hunger scale right now?” These are the kind of things that have been permeating my existence in a quite wonderful and enjoyable way.
In each case, the question or statement is in direct relationship, of course, to physical hunger. And that clearly is not on the mind of Mary here in this song that she sings. The circumstances that give rise to it are enough to stir our hearts and at the same time to stretch our minds. Because it is the annunciation that Mary will be the mother of the Messiah, the Son of God, and that announcement has been made to her in Nazareth by the angel Gabriel. And all of that is contained in the text, although we haven’t read it.
Fascinatingly, that dramatic occurrence, which to a young girl, to perhaps someone who is just a teenager, must have been as unsettling as it was amazing and perhaps joy inducing—it is no surprise that she hastens off to visit with her cousin Elizabeth, only to discover that what has been a dramatic encounter for her with the angel is confirmed by her cousin. And in the verses that we read, you will notice that Elizabeth greeted Mary, and as she did, “the baby”—that is, John the Baptist—“leaped in her womb. … And she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!’” Some of you from a Roman Catholic background are very familiar with that; it is repeated often in your liturgy. “‘And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.’”
Now, just think about this for a moment. How in the world is it that her cousin can say these things? Well, the answer, actually, is in the phrase that I deliberately left out so that I would remind you of it now, the very final phrase of 41: “And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed…” The work of the Holy Spirit throughout all of the Bible is pointing us in the direction of God and his purposes that are focused finally in the Lord Jesus himself. And so, this is the background, this is the circumstance, that leads to Mary giving voice to her song: “Magnificat anima mea Dominum.” Again, some of you have grown up singing that as well in the Latin Mass. “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Or in the New English Bible, “Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord.”
Now, I would like to make just three observations in passing concerning the song. And the first is this: that it is a biblical song. It is a biblical song—to which you may immediately respond, “Well, of course it is; it’s in the Bible!” But actually, that’s not what I’m referring to. I’m referring to the fact that this song is steeped in Mary’s Bible, which was the Old Testament. It pays deference, if you like, to the song in 1 Samuel 2 which Hannah sang, and it is making frequent reference to Old Testament passages. Four of the phrases, and one that is our phrase, is picked directly out of the Psalms.
This then helps us to get some kind of a picture of Mary herself. I think I’m often tempted to see Mary as sort of dropping down out of nowhere, and it all begins with this. But of course, she had a life before this. She had a mom and dad. She was born. She had a background. How can she sing this song? Well, she must be able to sing this song and use all of this Scripture because her growing-up years were filled with the songs of the Old Testament, were filled with the Psalms of David—that she would be aware of the promise that is rooted in Genesis 3 that we considered three Sundays ago; that she would be aware of the fact that it was through the seed of Abraham that the Messiah would come. And all of that lies at the backdrop to the song she sings. It is, then, a biblical song.
Also, it is a personal song. It is uniquely personal. In fact, the first four verses make that very, very clear, don’t they? “My soul,” “my spirit,” “looked on [me],” “all generations will call me,” “he who is mighty has done great things for me,” so that there is a uniqueness to this song in terms of the personal engagement with Mary herself.
But at the same time, what is personal to her is personal just in a way that is true of, if you like, a general principle of what is true of God and his dealings with men and women. And that’s my third observation: that the song is biblical, and it is uniquely personal, but at the same time, it is typical. It is typical in a general way of the experience of every Christian believer. Otherwise, it would be really no reason for us to sing this song. We would say, “Well, why would we ever sing this song?” because it was a song about a unique individual in response to the fact that she was going to bear the Messiah.
Well, you’ll see that it changes from the first person at verse 50: “And his mercy,” sings Mary, “is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” In other words, she looks back over her shoulder in the song, and when you see her saying, for example, “He has shown strength with his arm,” you think of him bringing his people out of the bondage of Egypt. “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones,” you think about the pomposity of Nebuchadnezzar and his great Babylonian Empire and how he ends up crawling around in the grass in the backyard. And she looks forward in the awareness of the fact that generation after generation will be the beneficiaries of the mercy of God. His mercy is known by “those who fear him,” who reverence him, who come to him as he has made himself known.
So, with these three passing comments, let’s then come just to the phrase that we’ve taken for the morning: “He has filled the hungry with good things.” Once again, let me say three things.
First of all, this is the hunger of the human heart. This is the hunger of the human heart. In the Bible, the word “heart,” and the word “soul” often in the same way, is used not of that muscle that is pounding away just now and keeping each of us alive but in terms of, if you like, the control center of our very being, so that it involves both our minds, our intellects, it involves our emotions, and it involves our will. And it is because of that that the heart is then used by way of exhortation in terms of our response to God. So, for example, in Proverbs chapter 4, the writer says to his son, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” Now, clearly that is not a reference to the heart in our chest cavity. But it is a reference to the fact that the very epicenter of our being, made for God, made for the inhabitation of God within us, is to be guarded and is to be kept.
Now, the phraseology that I said emerges from the Psalms, our phrase here, comes from Psalm 107, which Justin read for us earlier. And in Psalm 107:9, the psalmist says, “For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things.” So, presumably, Mary, as she sings out, realizes that she is singing out again what she has known from her childhood. He is the one who satisfies the longings of our hearts. He is the one who fills those who are hungry with good things.
And the surrounding context is a picture of the human condition: that man and women wander, as it were, in desert spaces. It’s a picture of a kind of… It’s the start of a movie, you know, where there’s a very, very long lens, and a wide lens too, and there’s the vastness of the terrain, and there’s just really a speck or two of humanity in it. And as it stays on that long-zoom lens, you just have the sense of the vastness of everything and the tininess of the people. And you’re saying to yourself, “I wonder where they’re going. And I wonder if they know where they’re going.” And here in the psalmist, he says, “And they don’t know where they’re going. They’re wandering here, there, and everywhere.” They’re like the “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” in The Kinks’ song from the 1960s, that “he flits from shop to shop just like a butterfly,” looking in the hope it’ll finally find something or someone. A wanderer, a hungry person, a thirsty person, a restless person. That’s the picture that is the backdrop. And in the context of that, the psalmist says what Mary now says: he fills the hungry with good things.
Now, that’s all we need to say on the first point. We could belabor it, but to no advantage. No. What we’re dealing with here is the hunger of the heart. The hunger of the heart. And anybody who has lived any length of time at all will have at least an inkling of what we’re referencing.
The second thing to say is that this hunger of the heart is a hunger that only God can satisfy. Only God himself can satisfy the hunger. The restlessness can only be satisfied in him. Remember Augustine: “O God, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you”? Now, what he’s saying there is what I’m saying to you now: that only God can satisfy the hunger of our hearts.
Well, if that is the case, why is it that men and women, aware of that hunger, being told that God is able in himself and only in himself to satisfy that hunger—why is it that men and women are not turning in their droves to God to say, “O God, satisfy the longings of my heart”? Well, the answer to that—the short answer to that—is that our hearts are diseased. Diseased. That our hearts are actually from our birth antagonistic to God; that our natural thoughts and desires are not for him or to submit to him or to honor him but, like Adam and Eve in the garden, to believe the lie, to go our own way, and to seek satisfaction in everything other than himself.
Now, you may not actually accept that, but I think you will be prepared to recognize that if you don’t want to look into your own heart but look around you, you will see that this is the story of twenty-first-century America: the attempt that is being made on a daily basis by men and women, by young people, by boys and girls, to satisfy our longings with everything but God himself. To satisfy our longings with everything but God himself.
So, for example, we say, “If I could be in a relationship with him”—or “with her”—“that would satisfy my longings.” Well, my wife has been in a relationship with me now for a very long time, and forty-four years of them in marriage, and if you check with her at the end of the service, she will be able to tell you categorically that I do not have any capacity whatsoever to satisfy the longings of her heart. There is no marriage, there is no person in marriage, there is no relationship that will fill that hunger. There is no career that can do it, there is no academic advancement that can do it, there is no travelogue that takes you round the world to every place that no one else has ever been that will satisfy the hunger of the human heart. Because only God can satisfy it.
It’s twenty years now, almost, since Myers wrote his book The American Paradox, with a subtitle Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty. He wasn’t writing a religious book. He’s a sociologist, a psychologist. And he’s observing at the end of the last millennium and at the threshold of the new millennium the nature of things. And he’s identifying the fact that in the midst of all of the plenty that is represented in our nation, there is an essential spiritual hunger. David Wells, our friend, commenting on that in a most helpful way, points out how this has particular application to young people, to the university and the college students who have come from a good home, who have attended college, who now find themselves employed. They’re all around us. Some of them are present with us. And yet if you talk to them, they are often baffled by the sense of emptiness that they feel: “I thought if I could go there, that would be it. I thought if I could graduate from there, that would be it. I thought if I got that job in that place with that group, that would be it.” Baffled by a sense of emptiness. “Their self-esteem is high but their self is empty. … They want to be accepted,” and yet they feel themselves to be “alienated.” “They are more connected to more people through the Internet, and yet they have never felt more lonely.” “They are unhappy, but there seems to be no cause for [that] unhappiness.”
C. S. Lewis, in The Weight of Glory, observes that in that dilemma, men and women, in seeking to satisfy themselves with what he says—and this is a long time ago—with drink and with sex and with ambition, he says, in our endeavor to fill that vacuum in that way, “we are far too easily pleased.” He’s essentially saying we’re going for soft options to try and take care of that dilemma. And then you remember his illustration: we’re “like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he can[’t] imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.” “This’ll do.”
So, what? We’re “caught in the devil’s bargain,” to quote Joni Mitchell, again, from “Woodstock.” What is that? Well, believing the lie that what God wants to do is to deprive us; that the Bible is somehow or another set up so that if you get into it, it’ll squeeze you down, it will close you out, it will end your existence. That’s the lie. That was the lie in the garden: “God doesn’t want you to have this. He’s depriving you.” No he wasn’t! It was the perfect plan. No, he fills the hungry with good things, and he’s the only one who does.
Here’s a final quote from C. S. Lewis—for now. This is from Pilgrim’s Regress. I never saw this before. You’ll have to think this one out, but it’s very good: “What does not satisfy when we find it, was not the thing we were desiring.” “What does not satisfy when we find it, was not the thing we were desiring.” We thought that was what it was, but when we got it, we realized it wasn’t. It’s the same thing that he does when he talks about thinking about going back to a place that was very precious to us and was full of certain enjoyments and everything. He says when you go back there, it’s not there. It was only there. It can’t be back there.
And in this dilemma, Mary sings her song. And she says of God, “He fills the hungry with good things,” and he’s the only one who does. So it’s the hunger of the human heart, God is the only one who can fill that hunger, and thirdly and finally, only in Jesus—only in Jesus—do we find the answer to our deepest longings.
Longings. What do you long for? It’s a good word: long for. It’s almost onomatopoeic. There is a word in German, actually, for it that does not translate to a single word in English. It’s the word sehnsucht: that’s s-e-h-n-s-u-c-h-t, for those of you who immediately want to google and see if I’m telling you the truth. Well, you definitely should check my German, because I know no German at all. Well, I do. I do. I know “hello,” I know “goodbye,” and I know “thank you,” and I also am able to say “Würdest du gern tennis spielen?” See? That’s pretty impressive, isn’t it? “Würdest du gern tennis spielen?” You say, “What is that about?” Well, when I was about sixteen, we had some students that came on an exchange, a bunch of German girls. And so I had to come up with something. So I came up with “Würdest du gern tennis spielen?” And now, even when I meet Germans, no matter who they are in any place, I always say the same thing to them. They say, “What?” But it’s a conversation stopper. It really is quite wonderful.
Anyway. That’s just to disavow any notion that, you know, I’m speaking out of a vast, you know, knowledge of German. No. But the word is sehnsucht. And this is what it is: it is an internal longing—it speaks to the issue of an internal longing—for somewhere, someone, or something. And it is actually expressive of the longing of our hearts, thoughts and feelings about aspects of our life that we know are unfinished or they are in themselves imperfect. And at the same time, that then is coupled with an intense yearning for an ideal alternative experience. So it’s all wrapped up in this. So I’m sitting here saying, “But that is an unfinished project. That is an imperfect goal. What am I gonna do? There must be somewhere, someone out there, somehow or another.” That’s sehnsucht.
At a very, very mundane and trivial level, we could honestly say that if we never had a notion of the word, surely the few days after Christmas and in prospect of New Year are ideal territory for discovering the reality of this. Think about it. At a very mundane level, we may already feel robbed by the fact that Christmas was over—and so fast! And all of that endeavor to get to it, and now we’re left with ribbons and wrapping and returns. And happy memories, true, yes. But why did Christmas go so quickly? Was it something that we said? How come it just slipped out?
Our good friend—my big brother, as I call him—Sinclair Ferguson is honest enough in one of his books to identify this very issue in his own young life. Growing up in Glasgow, on the night of Christmas Day, when all of the festivities were over and when it was time for bed, he writes, “I used to get my presents and the paper and wrap them up again in the hope that the magic of the day would last until the twenty-sixth.” It never does, because that’s not where the magic is. The magic, as C. S. Lewis says, is the “deeper magic from before the dawn of time.” Now, that little phrase “the dawn of time” is the opening line of our closing song, which we’ll come to in just a moment or two—chosen because the song states very clearly how in Jesus we have one who has saved completely all who draw near to God through him.
Remember we said that the issue is that our hearts are diseased. The good news is that God is in the business of heart transplants, and that God in his grace does this through the work of the Lord Jesus for us and the work of the Holy Spirit in us. Well, how would that happen? How does that happen?
Well, let me tell you. You may have been brought up within the framework of Christianity. You may have only recently come around things. But in either case, you find that you’re able to sit, as it were, aloof to the affair. You perhaps want to affirm your belief in the Bible, but that is not a belief that has resulted in your interaction with the Bible in such a way that you have submitted to its truth and that you have identified its message and that you have trusted Christ. No, you see, what needs to happen is God has to do something. And God is the one who took the initiative with Mary, and God is the one who takes the initiative with each of us.
This is what he does. First of all, he illumines our minds. Or, if you like, he opens our spiritual eyes so that passages that we’ve known for a hundred years or things that we’ve only just discovered but could make no sense of at all suddenly come to light. And he illumines our minds by the truth of the gospel: that we no longer need to try and work our way up to some acceptance with God because, as we’ve sung already this morning, there is in Christ a righteousness which is credited to us through faith in him.
So he illumines my mind through the truth of the gospel; he then comes and sets me free from the bondage of my heart to my own sinful endeavors. He washes clean my inordinate affections, and inwardly, then, he motivates me to live in the light of the truth of his Word, to discover that his law is actually for me in Christ a pathway to freedom rather than a bondage. In other words, he works in such a way that I might love what he loves.
Well, that actually does sound a bit like a transplant, doesn’t it? It almost sounds like a whole new birth. Well, it is a whole new birth. That’s why Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Nicodemus, let’s just cut to the chase. Unless a man is born again, born from above, he can’t see the kingdom of God.” It’s something God does. Now, we sang this morning—did you mean it when you sang, “Open up my eyes that I might see”? God responds to our cries in that way. He responds to our cries when we are honest enough and humble enough to acknowledge it.
You know, that’s the real issue—and with this I close: hunger is the indispensable condition of spiritual blessing. Hunger is. Hunger. Those who have no consciousness of need, those who are complacent and who respond by saying, “I’m just not hungry,” he sends them away. He fills the hungry and sends the rich away empty. That’s not a comment on the amount of money in your bank balance. It is a picture of the notion of self-sufficiency. It is a picture of the notion of complacency. So the person says, “No, fine. I’m gonna go and continue chase my dreams. Thank you for sharing this with me. I realize that you have a very strong view on this, that this hunger of the human heart is answered solely in God and that he does this through the person of his Son, the Lord Jesus, by the work of the Holy Spirit. I get all of that. Thank you very much. And maybe I’ll see you again next year. I’m just not hungry.”
Anybody hungry? Jesus said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, … whoever believes in me shall [not] thirst.” Fascinating, really, isn’t it? Bread and water. Not actually luxury items. No, essential for living—and actually, essential for dying too. Anybody hungry?
A final word to the children who sat through all of that and tried to understand at least some of it: I think you probably got the part about our friend wanting to rewrap his Christmas presents, because no matter if you got the thing you wanted, deep down, you still say, “Oh dear, why do I feel the way I do?” Because the thing that you wanted, you see, that you thought would make you really, really happy, cannot do that. And so it’s a wonderful opportunity to say to Jesus, “Jesus, you’re the only one that can make me happy. You’re the only one who can fill my heart. I want you to come and do that for me. I want you to come and live in me.” And the only reason you’ll do that is because God has actually opened your eyes. You can do that. You go home in the car, tell your mom, “That’s what I’m doing today.”
Whitefield in his journals, many years ago, writes on Christmas Eve, “Oh, if there is only one soul who will trust in Christ tomorrow, then it will be a happy Christmas indeed.” Well, who knows?
Father, thank you now that your Word is fixed in the heavens. Thank you that the Lord Jesus Christ is the one who promises to receive all who come to him in trust. Grant that we might do that, from the youngest to the oldest, wherever we are in the panorama of life. Fulfill your purposes today. Make today just the most important of days for some of us.
And may the grace of the Lord Jesus, the love of God the Father, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, rest upon and remain with each one who believes, now and forevermore. Amen.
 See Luke 1:26–38.
 See Daniel 4:28–33.
 Proverbs 4:23 (ESV).
 Ray Davies, “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” (1965).
 Augustine, Confessions 1.1. Paraphrased.
 See David G. Myers, The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000).
 David F. Wells, God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-Love of God Reorients Our World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 23.
 Wells, 23.
 C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (1949; repr., New York: HarperOne, 2001), 26.
 Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock” (1969).
 C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, Wade annotated edition, ed. David C. Downing (1933; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 128.
 Sinclair Ferguson, Child in the Manger: The True Meaning of Christmas (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2015), 41. Paraphrased.
 C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), chap. 15.
 John 3:3 (paraphrased).
 John 6:35 (ESV).
 George Whitefield, A Continuation of the Reverend Mr. Whitefield’s Journal, from His Embarking after the Embargo, to His Arrival at Savannah in Georgia, 2nd ed. (London, 1740), 73. Paraphrased.
 See Psalm 119:89.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.