December 28, 2014
In the first chapter of his Gospel account, Luke recorded Mary’s song of praise to God, sometimes called the “Magnificat.” Alistair Begg explains how this song illuminates the reason for Jesus’ incarnation: God’s love for fallen humanity. We are challenged to acknowledge that our significance depends on His mercy, not our own merits. Will we trust trust this loving, merciful God with our hearts and lives?
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn once again to the Gospel of Luke and chapter 1, and to Mary’s song, the Magnificat, which we find beginning in verse 46. Luke 1:46:
“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.”
Make the Book live to me, O Lord,
Show me yourself within your Word,
Show me myself and show me my Savior,
And make the Book live to me.
For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Well, we said, those of us who were present on Christmas Eve, that there is nothing in all of fiction that is quite as fantastic as the truth of the incarnation. It is impossible for any of us to arrive at such a belief simply on the basis of natural reason. The only way that a man or woman ever comes to such convictions is as a result of God’s amazing grace and goodness, whereby he opens eyes that by nature are blind, ears that by nature are deaf, and hearts that by nature are hard—something that nobody can do for another: no mom can do for her son, no father for his daughter, no uncle for his niece, no pastor for his people. It is a work of grace from beginning to the very end. That is, then, what humbles us when we study the Bible and also which fills us with great hope. Because God loves saving people.
And in the incarnation, we have found ourselves, as we’ve said each time, at the intersection of three roads: one road marked “Mystery,” the other marked “History,” the other marked “Divinity.” And we’ve spent time on each—not a lot of time; I hope sufficient at least to begin the process, especially for those who are not convinced. And some remain unconvinced. The question of how this has happened takes us immediately into the realm of mystery, into the matter of metaphysics, and so on. And some like to wander down those pathways, and there is much in our bookstore that will help you in your wanderings.
When we have introduced the question of when, we have sought to point out that the Gospel writers are dealing not with pious legends or elaborate stories but actually with recorded history—interpreted history, but history nevertheless. And when we ask the question “What is taking place here?” then we find ourselves in this matter of divinity or of theology, introduced as we are to this person who is truly God and truly man, yet one Christ, one mediator between God and man.
And if you’ve been around for a long time and have listened to Christmas sermons over a long time, you will have noted that there have been those from whose lips you’ve heard these same affirmations. And depending on the circuits in which you’ve moved, there perhaps will have been those from whom you’ve heard the kind of suggestion that the Christian gospel will only ever be believable, particularly to skeptical twenty-first century man, if we actually remove the difficult parts; if we get rid of the mystery, then we will be far better able to communicate it.
But the fact of the matter is that the divinity of Jesus is the foundation of our hope and is the key to the Bible, so that if you remove that, you have removed everything. You have got nothing else left to deal with. Henry Melville, preaching in St Paul’s Cathedral in 1844—I guarantee you that none of you were present—observed on that occasion, as he preached on the incarnation, that there is no book more full of contradictions than the Bible, if there was no person who was both human and divine. The Bible is absolutely loaded with contradictions if we do not have a human and divine person. Because it is only in that combination that we can make sense of the Bible and we can also rescue it from a mass of apparent inconsistencies.
We recognize that this is “a great mystery,” but, says [Melville], it’s “not the thousandth part as great as the whole Bible becomes on the supposition that Christ was only man.” Do you get that? I hope you get that. Because when I drive here on Sunday mornings, I’m fed—in the early hours of the morning, usually, if I get anything at all, it’s somebody telling me the only thing that we have in Jesus is a sort of hyped-up man, a very nice, good man, as if somehow or another this is somebody worth living for and dying for. No, [Melville] is right. It is “a great mystery,” the incarnation, but it’s “not [a] thousandth part as great as the whole Bible becomes on the supposition that Christ was only [a] man.” And I remind you of Augustine’s words: “If you believe what you like in the gospel and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe but yourself.”
So, I leave you to follow those tracks on your own. This morning we end with this thought: not the how, or the when, or the where, but the why. Why? Have you thought about that? “Why,” we ask reverently, “did God go to the bother of doing this?” The creator of the universe, who is self-existent, who needs no one and nothing, who is perfect in the Trinity, in the framework of relationships which are perfect—it’s not as if he needed somebody to spend time with—he has acted entirely volitionally, purposefully. Why? Why? Why come? Why take on human nature? Why take on all the essential properties and frailties of humanity, except for sin?
Well, Gill—John Gill, one of the Puritans—gives it to us in a sentence. I found this sentence, and I’ve been enjoying it ever since. This is what he said: “The moving cause of the incarnation of Christ, is the love of the Father, and … the Son, to mankind.” “The moving cause of the incarnation of Christ, is the love of the Father, and of the Son, to mankind.” All he is saying there is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world”—that’s the moving cause—“that he gave his only Son”—his one and only Son—“[so] that whoever believes in him should not perish but have [everlasting] life.” You see, somehow, in the mystery of eternity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit covenanted with one another for the redemption of men and women and determined essentially who would do what. They realized that it was going to be impossible for mankind to enter their presence. Because mankind by nature is all spattered with sin. It’s all over us. We haven’t loved God as we should. We haven’t obeyed his law. We have been jealous. We’ve been spiteful. We’ve been mistrustful. We’ve been arrogant. We’ve been covetous. Goodness, we don’t even want to think about it; we’re only talking about this morning so far, many of us. If you’d only sinned once a day for your entire life, and you’re twenty, that would be enough sin to have to go somewhere and get it dealt with, wouldn’t it? And you do the math on your own; that’s fine.
No, we’re all spattered over. And so God determined that on account of his love for us, his cradle would be a spattered-over feedbox. It would be splattered and slobbered with the slobbers of cattle. And into a slobbered-up feedbox God comes, because he knows that we are all spattered up with sin. He covers himself in this ignominy in order that we who deserve nothing may be covered in his glory. And “the moving cause” is love. Love! That’s why we’re able, then, to make sense of the incarnation: “Oh, it is because he loved us,” and then when we look at the cross, we’re able to look back and say, “Oh, that is why he came.” Once again, Augustine: he says, “The cross is the pulpit from which God preached his love for the world.”
Now, it is in light of all of this, in a Christology that is unfolding, that Mary sings her song. We began it last time, and we move quickly to the conclusion of it this time—because, quite frankly, we’ve run out of Sundays. “My soul magnifies the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God my Savior. He has looked on the humble estate of his servant. I’m going to be called, forever and ever now, blessed, because the one whose name is holy is mighty,” verse 49, “and he is merciful,” verse 50.
We’ll just note those two adjectives, shall we? That this God is a mighty God. And Mary’s been made aware of this in a very personal way. The Holy Spirit has overshadowed her. The child to be born of her is born of the Holy Spirit. Matthew has told us in his Gospel that this has come about in fulfillment of the word of the prophet that “a virgin will conceive and bring forth a son.” That was, if you like, a word in waiting. And that word now has come to fulfillment. The way that Mary puts it is that he has shown the strength of his arm: “He has shown strength with his arm.”
Well, of course, your granddaughter says to you, “But I didn’t think God had an arm.”
And you say, “That’s right, he doesn’t have an arm.”
“Well then, why does it say ‘his arm’ if he doesn’t have an arm?”
“Well, it’s an anthropomorphism.”
“Well, what is one of those?”
“Well, you go ask your grandma what one of those is, and I’ll talk to you later on.”
It is an accommodation to us, in order that we might picture the exodus from Egypt. He stretches forth his arm. He intervenes. He is personally engaged. His might is displayed in the strength of a man’s arm. There is a man in here that I won’t identify, that when I see him coming, I avoid him. Oh yes! I say so. I don’t avoid his gaze or anything, but I avoid his handshake. And if you’ve ever shaken his hand, you know who I mean. It is a bone-crushing experience. And I know my wife says, “Why don’t you have an arm like that?” And I say, “Well, this is the only arm I’ve got.” But it’s the strength of his arm, the might of God’s arm. God is mighty; that’s why we teach our children to sing, “My God is so big, so strong, and so mighty. There’s nothing that he cannot do.” That’s what Mary’s singing about.
And in a culture that lays great stress on being self-assured, powerful, and rich, God, we’re told here, reverses the human opinions of significance. That’s what she’s going on to say. When God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah to his people of old, this is what he said: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, or the intelligent boast in their intelligence, or the mighty man boast in his might, strong man boast in his strength, or the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he knows and understands me.” Can you imagine that on the front of Fortune magazine, huh? The new rich people, beginning 2015, they actually have no money at all. And the really powerful ones, there’s no pictures of their muscles. And the really influential ones, they have no followers on Facebook at all. What a strange way for God to work!
Well, I think it is a strange way, isn’t it? He didn’t come to a palace; he came to a stable. He didn’t wear a crown that was full of beautiful jewels; he wore a crown that was made of thorns. He had no beauty that we should imagine him to be the obvious quarterback of the high school team. No, no.
So look at what she sings. It’s an interesting song, isn’t it? You tend to pass over a song like this: “Well, it was nice. Mary sang a little song. Diddley-dee, diddley-dee.” No, no, no. You can’t go away like that. No, this is a revolution. This is right up here with,
Come, mothers and fathers
All over the land,
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand.
Your sons and your daughters,
Beyond your command;
Your own road is rapidly fading.
This is more along the lines of “Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing?” This is the ’60s. This is not some cute little song you can just put aside.
No, look what she says. This God who is mighty and merciful, number one, he scatters the proud. He scatters the proud. “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” “I’m a big deal!” Pfft! No you’re not. You exist for a very short time, and you go away. Nobody knows where you are. Nobody knows where you’ve gone. Nobody can even find your grave. He scatters the proud! “To think I did all that, and may I say, not in a shy way…” Pshew! Scatters the proud. Brings down the powerful. Brings down “the mighty from their thrones.” Nebuchadnezzar: “Look at this place that I have built. Look at these gardens. Look at my majesty. Look at my wealth.”
“Anybody seen Nebuchadnezzar?”
“Yeah, he’s been crawling around down in the bottom of the property for quite a while now. He’s not a pretty sight.” Pshew!
He brings down from the thrones, and he disperses the prosperous: “The rich he has sent away empty.” I meant to bring a quote here; I have it up the stairs. I meant to bring a quote from John Paul Getty. What a tragedy Getty’s life was! So wealthy. Lived in his place, surrounded by dogs, afraid of people but afraid of isolation. That’s a tough spot! How do you fix that one? “Well, I don’t like being isolated.”
“Why don’t you spend some time with people?”
“I don’t like being with people.”
“Well, I guess you’re gonna have to be isolated.” He had everything; he had nothing. The more of the wealth they have, the more they prize that, the more empty, the more hollow, they become.
So God is mighty, but he’s also merciful—verse 50: “And his mercy is for those who fear him.” You see, God brings people down in order to raise them up to newness of life. That’s the difference. That’s why it’s very important to understand that the mighty God is the merciful God—that he “opposes the proud,” but he “gives grace to the humble.” And his majesty and his might are displayed, in part, in his mercy. That’s why Jeremiah, who’s the one who said, “Let not the man boast in his wisdom” and so on, is also the one who wrote, “It is on account of the Lord’s mercy that we are not consumed.” Because notice this: that if it is bad news for the proud and the powerful and the prosperous, it is good news, equally, for the humble—verse 52. And he exalts “those of [a] humble estate,” those who are humble enough to say, “I don’t actually have it all together. I don’t have all of my questions answered. I do need to be forgiven. I have actually made quite a mess.” Well, he comes to that humble heart.
And also to the hungry heart. He fills the hungry with good things; he’s “filled the hungry with good things.” David Myers, in his book The American Paradox, from which we’ve quoted before, has as the subheading to that book Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty. Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty. I wager there are no hungry people in here this morning. If you are, please do not admit it. I mean, I can’t imagine that there’s anyone right now who’s actually hungry, unless somehow or another you’ve just wandered in and you haven’t had anything to eat, in which case, I apologize drawing attention to you. But most of us are not suffering from hunger at all. And if we didn’t eat until well into new year, we probably wouldn’t be in any difficulty, any one of us. In fact, we might be all a lot better off by, you know, the following Sunday, if we speak truthfully.
So, what about the hungry? Well, it’s the spiritual hunger, ultimately, that God comes to satisfy. There is a spiritual vacuum at the very core of American society this morning. There is a spiritual vacuum at the core of our culture. And it’s amazing to me how many people are prepared to acknowledge it. It’s an easy thing for somebody in my position to say; you expect that. That’s what you expect the religious boffin to say. Now how about this: “We have the money. We have the education, but there is something within us that is in trouble.” Jesse Jackson. Underneath the “hopeless girls with babies and [the] angry boys with guns,” there is spiritual poverty. Hillary Clinton. And I can go down the line and turn…
The solution is not agreed upon; the condition is undeniable. Who answers the hungry spiritual heart? Where is that answer? Why is it that man, with all of his scientific advance, chases down all these old-fashioned roads? You hear really smart young guys talking about “Well, I think I’m gonna go to Tibet, because in Tibet they understand peace and tranquility and so on.” Pardon? And why are you even looking for it? “I don’t know.” Do you realize that Jesus, the incarnate God, is the one who will satisfy that spiritual hunger—if you’re humble enough to admit your need?
So, for the humble, and the hungry—and the helpless. He helps the helpless. “He has helped his servant Israel.” You say, “Well, they weren’t helpless.” Well, yeah, actually, they were helpless. You think of the beginning of humanity, and Adam and Eve’s sin, and now they’re naked. And they’re running around hiding. And God comes to them, and he calls out, “Where are you?” And they said, “Well, can’t say just at the moment.” They have no means by which to deal with their predicament. And God, the mighty one who banishes them from the garden, is the merciful one who provides the clothing that they require. Who covers over our nakedness? God does. Who is able to take them from their entrapped condition under the bondage of the tyranny of the Egyptian rulers and set them free? Only God, the mighty one and the merciful one, who might justifiably have said, “You made your bed; lie in it.” Who then is able to take them in their wilderness wanderings, with one step forward and two steps back, and still bring them through as promised—the promises that he has made to Abraham, and through Abraham to the seed of Abraham? Only a God who deals with the humble and with the hungry and with the helpless.
Now, let me just finish in this way this morning. We could say far more about that, but I don’t want to. I want to finish by making two observations, one invitation, and a final affirmation. Okay? That sounds like a very long time, but it’s not. All right?
Observation number one: Jesus is inescapable. Jesus is inescapable. Try as you might to avoid him, you’ll never do it. You may run around with your fingers in your ears and your hands over your eyes, but you will discover again and again—sometimes simply when you put your hand in your pocket and take out a coin—that we are where we are today because, essentially, the coming of Jesus of Nazareth has impacted society and history in a way that no man ever has and no man ever will. And even if you were able to avoid him and his words and his claims, never open a Bible, never listen to anybody’s invitation, never listen to any song that had to do with Jesus, he is inescapable, because one day you’re going to stand before him, and you’re gonna give an answer to him for why it was that you spurned his love, why it was that you ignored his sacrifice, why it was that you decided to trust in the fact that you were intelligent and self-resourceful and that you had perfectly enough of all you needed to get through your life. That day will come.
When Paul preached to the intelligentsia in Athens, he made that very point, which eventually blew the congregation right out of the scene. Eventually, they said, “Oh no, we’ve had enough of this.” It was at that very point—the point I’m making for you now. He said that “God, who created you, has established a day when he will judge the world—a day that is fixed, a day that is gonna be fair, and a day that is absolutely final.” And Paul says, preaching to them, “And he has given proof of this by raising Jesus Christ from the dead.” And at that, the people said, “No, no, no, we gotta get out of here right now, immediately.” What he was saying to them was, “You’re not going to be able to escape him. Jesus is inescapable.”
Simeon, remember, he says, “This child is destined for the rising and falling of many in Israel.” And we pray, don’t we, that there’s gonna be a great rising within Israel before the great and glorious day of our Lord? That he will not be a stone over which they stumble but rather a rock upon which they find salvation. “The wise man built his house upon the Rock,” and “the foolish man built his house upon the sand, and the [rain] came tumbling down.” See, where do you go when the rain comes down? Where do you go when the foundations shake? Where do you go when your best intellectual acumen has no answer for the diagnosis you’ve just received at University Hospital? Where do you go? He’s inescapable.
Secondly, he is not only inescapable, but he is completely reliable. He’s completely reliable. How many financial things can they put on the TV? Apparently, there’s no limit. I always say this to you but—I say a lot of things to you—but isn’t it just amazing how life has changed? I mean, how drug companies, actually, they don’t sell to the doctors; they sell to us, and then we go and ask the doctors for the stuff that we “know” we need—and we know we need it because they told us on the TV, you know: “You need this. Go tell your doctor. He doesn’t know; you better tell him. He hasn’t got a clue. He’s probably never heard of this. You need to go do this.” So they market to us, and then we influence the medical world, as if we know what we’re talking about. It’s amazing.
And then, at the same time, the financial thing: “Get the strength of the … around you. Get the security of the … round you.” Yesterday in the Wall Street, same thing about the 3-percent program for your retirement and your security, and if you use 3 percent and add two and multiply by six, you’ll be bereft of anything by the time you’re eighty-two, and so on. It’s just complete paranoia. And you’re looking for something, somewhere, that is utterly reliable. Is there anything that is just completely reliable? Is there anything that can answer for me, not only in the face of my finances and stuff like that, but in terms of the actuality of who I am?
And the answer is that Jesus is trustworthy. You can trust him with everything. You can find the weight of your entire salvation resting on him. You can bring the most complicated affairs of your life right now, and you may entrust them to his wisdom. Try him! Try him! And see! Don’t tell me he can’t. You never tested him. He’s inescapable. He’s completely reliable.
Those are the observations. Here comes the invitation. And it’s an invitation, and it is a final invitation of 2014 from my lips to yours. I don’t plan on being up here again before the end of the year, and I don’t think you’ll be in here before the end of the year, so let me give you this final invitation. Let me ask you: Will you—forget the person next to you right now; this is my mouth to your ears—will you have this Lord Jesus to be your Savior?
Now, in a matter of a few days, I’ll be here, and I’m gonna ask that question to a young bride and to the groom. And I’m gonna say to them, “Will you have this man to be your husband?” And I’m expecting a resounding “Yes!” Otherwise, the whole thing to this point has been a futile exercise, and we’ve all got places to go and people to see. But without that yes, there’s no marriage. They don’t want to have to come back and say, “Well, I’ve been giving it some thought lately. It’s an interesting proposition. It’s an intellectual journey.” I just asked you, “Will you have him?”
“Good. Now, how about you, boy?”
We got a relationship.
So I’m asking you: Will you have this Lord Jesus? Will you enter through the narrow gate? Will you bow your head underneath his yoke? Will you confess your sins in the assurance that he’s faithful and just to forgive your sins, that he will cleanse you from the guilt of sin and also from the power of sin? Will you have him? This is the invitation. This is my question. Will you? Will you?
Because if you say no, that’s fine. That’s your deal. But I’m just asking you. And I want to tell you that you need him. And you need him urgently. Because he alone has the words of eternal life. There is no other Savior, because there’s no one else who’s qualified to save. You need him to help you live, and you need him to help you die. Will you have him?
And finally, an affirmation. Here is the affirmation of the person who has bowed beneath the lordship of Christ, who recognizes that they are fallen, they’re frail, they’re sinful, and that every day of their lives they remain entirely in need of Jesus as their Savior. Here in the words of Annie Johnson Flint is a final affirmation for the closing Sunday of a year and the anticipation of the new year. Listen carefully as I read this to you:
I look not back; God knows the fruitless efforts,
The wasted hours, the sinning, the regrets.
I leave them all with him who blots the record,
And graciously forgives, and then forgets.
I look not forward; God sees all the future,
The road that, short or long, will lead me home,
And he will face with me its every trial,
And bear for me the burdens that may come.
I look not round me; for then fears would assail me,
So wild the tumult of earth’s restless seas,
So dark the world, so filled with woe and sorrow,
So vain the comfort and hope of ease.
I look not inward; that would make me wretched;
For I have naught on which to stay my trust.
Nothing I see save failures and shortcomings,
And weak endeavors, crumbling into dust.
But I look up, into the face of Jesus,
For there my heart can rest, my fears are stilled;
And there is joy, and love, and light for darkness,
And perfect peace, and every hope fulfilled.
Look into your heart, unearth your deepest longings, and answer honestly: Have you found a way for these longings to be answered in this life? No. Because you never will. Because you were never supposed to.
He’s inescapable. He’s completely reliable. Will you have him?
Let’s pause and pray.
Somebody, perhaps, on this final Sunday of the year, says, “Well, I do want to make sure that I’m not simply acknowledging these things bobbing around in my head, but that my heart is in it.” Well, perhaps this prayer you can make your own: “Lord Jesus Christ, I admit that I’m weaker and more sinful than I ever before believed, but through you I am more loved and accepted than I ever dared to hope. I thank you for paying my debt, bearing my punishment, and offering me forgiveness. I turn from my sin and receive you as my Savior.”
And now unto him who is able to keep us from falling, to present us faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Savior be glory and majesty, dominion and power, now and forevermore. Amen.
 R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943). Lyrics lightly altered.
 See 1 Timothy 2:5.
 Henry Melville, quoted in William S. Plumer, The Rock of Our Salvation: A Treatise Respecting the Natures, Person, Offices, Work, Sufferings, and Glory of Jesus Christ (New York: American Tract Society, 1867), 38.
 Melville, quoted in Plumer, The Rock, 38.
 Augustine, Contra Faustum 17.3. Paraphrased.
 John Gill, A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity; or, A System of Evangelical Truths Deduced from the Sacred Scriptures (London, 1796), 2:57.
 See Luke 1:35.
 Matthew 1:23 (paraphrased).
 Ruth Harms Calkin, “My God Is So Big (Great)” (1959). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Jeremiah 9:23–24 (paraphrased).
 Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (1963). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Pete Seeger, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (1955).
 Paul Anka, “My Way” (1969).
 See Daniel 4:28–33.
 James 4:6 (ESV).
 Lamentations 3:22 (paraphrased).
 Quoted in David G. Myers, The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 257–58.
 See Genesis 3.
 Acts 17:24–31 (paraphrased).
 Luke 2:34 (paraphrased).
 See 1 Peter 2:6–8.
 Ann Omley, “The Wise Man and the Foolish Man” (1948).
 See Matthew 7:13.
 See Matthew 11:30.
 See 1 John 1:9.
 See John 6:68.
 Annie Johnson Flint, “I Look Not Back.” Lyrics lightly altered.
 Attributed to Jack Miller. See, for example, Katherine Leary Alsdorf, foreword to Every Good Endeavor, by Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf (New York: Penguin, 2012), xix.
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.