Wednesday, December 19, 2018
One of my favorite things about the Christmas season is the music. Some of my favorite Christmas tunes include O Holy Night, Sleigh ride, and anything by the Tran-Siberian Orchestra. However, I’m not the only one who enjoys carols and familiar musical phrases. The research shows that Christmas music is a powerful marketing force.
One thing that many arrangers or recording artists have done is provide compilations or medleys of several different songs that have already been written. Whether it’s a medley of carols or a grouping of holiday favorites, I always enjoy how arrangers use what has already been made available or already written to create something new (with its own spin and flavor). I had the privilege of singing such medley at the holiday pops along with the symphony orchestra choir and an entire auditorium full of people just the other day.
However, songs or groupings of songs used to commemorate a season are not new. In fact, many might be unaware of the very first Christmas song ever written. Though this first ever Christmas song is a single tune, Mary’s Magnificat is also a compilation of previous melodies that existed well before the first century. Written by the Holy Spirit and originally recorded by the virgin Mary, this song is a hymn of praise and reflection that continues to inspire those who hear it today. Let us look at its two profound stanzas in Luke 1:46-55.
I. STANZA #1: MARY’S PERSONAL PRAISE BALLAD-1:46-49
The very first Christmas song was sung by a virgin girl who would one day give birth to Christ Himself. The word “magnificat” is Latin for “my soul magnifies” and it comes from the first words used in the Latin translation of this passage (in this translation, the opening lines read, “my soul exalts”). Mary begins this ancient hymn and most beautiful Christmas melody with praise and adoration for the Lord God in Heaven. The direction of her praise and adoration is to the Lord in whose eyes she had found undeserved favor. While we have already observed how she reacted to such grace with obedience (putting her “yes” one the table), she now responds in praise and explodes in worship.
Such exaltation is seen in Hannah’s song in 1 Sam. 2:1-10- “my heart exults in the Lord.” Interestingly, she too had found favor with God by means of a miraculous conception and in response chose to praise her God.
It is important to understand that although God had shown Mary grace by choosing her for this task, the result of this journey, the completion of this task, would result in her own salvation. In a very Jewish way, Mary had also waited for the Savior that she now bore and would deliver. In essence, Mary was asked to be a small part in the program of salvation by acting as the vessel through which the God-child would come to earth. In this she rejoices in God who would save her through her child saying, “and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior” (1:47). It is obvious by this personalization (“my Savior”) that Mary saw herself as part of the godly remnant that had served the Lord.
Hannah (Samuel’s mother in the Old Testament) also understood how God had saved her in spite of her barrenness by providing for her pregnancy. In her prayer (recorded centuries earlier) we read that she also rejoiced in the salvation that God provided.
1 Samuel 2:1-“My heart rejoices in the Lord; my horn is lifted up by the Lord. My mouth boasts over my enemies, because I rejoice in Your salvation.”
One reason for Mary’s praise ballad is the attention God gave to her humble situation. Luke cannot seem to shake the theme of humility in the account of Jesus’ birth. This awesome and Mighty God took notice of Mary’s humble state (a teenage girl from a small township in the middle nowhere) and chose her for a most important task. Because of His unique and surprising choice in this matter, Mary can help but to sing his praises, “…For He has had regard for the humble state of His bond slave;…” (1:48a).
Have you ever considered that only the smaller birds sing in a pleasing way? You never hear a note worth whistling from the eagle, nor admire the sound a turkey makes, nor find the squawking of an ostrich pleasant to the ear. But we love to listen to the sophisticated tunes of the canary, the wren, and the lark. Similarly, the sweetest music comes from those Christians who are small in their own estimation and before the Lord.
Not only does Mary praise the Lord because of His recognition of her in spite of her humility; but she also understood the eternal implications of the child she bore and that she too would be remembered for her humble service in God’s incarnational program, “for behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed…”(1:48b). The small role she played would be remembered by all who know the Bible and appreciate her example of courageous obedience. The opportunity to be a testimony of obedience is yet another reason that she praises the Lord in the first verse of this song.
However, while some might be tempted to venerate Mary herself. Mary is careful in her song to keep attention where it should be--the Lord God. God and His mighty power is the third reason she give Him praise, “for the Mighty One has done great things for me…” (1:49a). Even in her song Mary expresses that she was undeserving of any credit or any glory. Instead, she points all glory to the One who made her great because of His grace. The great things God did in her life are the only source of her goodness and that is the reason we see her praise the Lord in song, rather than sing about herself.
Mary concludes her praise ballad with a proclamation of God’s holiness—the fourth reason for her praise. Perhaps God’s most over-arching quality, holiness describes His unique and separate character that made everything transpire in both Mary’s life and in the world. It was God’s holy and awesome will that put this program of salvation together and now was pleased to bring Jesus to Earth. It is His holiness that authored salvation in the first place and it was his holy wisdom that saw fit to extend to Mary His grace and favor. For that reason Mary sings her humble praises.
Mary’s personal praise ballad is a rubric that can be followed today. Just as Mary borrowed from Hannah’s Old Testament hit, we can borrow several principles from this song to apply in our lives. Taking from this song’s template so far, we must pick up the melody and praise the Lord by our obedience in all things. Following Mary’s example, we are compelled in this text to glorify God for all of the good that He has given. When we do this, the melody is beautiful. With that spirit, let us now stand and sing.
II. VERSE #2: MARY’S REFLECTIVE REFRAIN-1:50-55
In this second verse of Mary’s song, she borrows lyrics from several popular Psalms and makes a transition from praise to reflection. First, Quoting from Psalm 103:17, Mary reflects on God’s activity in Israel’s history in general and how this miraculous conception in her life fits into a much larger story, “And His mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear Him…” (1:50). The entire story of the Old Testament leading up to this moment in Mary’s life was characterized by rebellion and mercy. In rebellion mankind sinned in the garden and God provided his mercy with the coverings of animal skin through a sacrifice. In rebellion, mankind grew so wicked that God determined to annihilate mankind in a flood and yet because of God’s mercy Noah and his family were saved. In rebellion, mankind built a tower to God and they were confused in their languages, forming all kinds of peoples and nations. In mercy, God chose Abraham to start a new nation that would bless the world. In rebellion, the nation God chose was disobedient and as a result was displaced and thrown into slavery. In God’s mercy Moses was raised and led his people to the Promised Land. In rebellion, God’s people demanded a king when they were supposed to follow Him. In God’s mercy he provides King David (albeit after Saul). In rebellion God’s people turn toward idols and are thrown into exile. In God’s mercy, He returns them to the land and rebuilds their city, their temple, and its walls. The entire Old Testament is a testimony of the incredible mercy of God. Most recently for Mary, God had been silent for 100s of years because of her people's rebellion. But now, in this single act, He breaks that silence in a big way and shows Israel, once again, His incredible mercy by sending His son. As Mary reflects she cannot help but say (again) "And His mercy is upon generation after generation…".
Along with God’s mercy as demonstrated in the Old Testament, Mary reflects on God’s mighty deeds—floods, fires, healing, victory, etc. “…He has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart, He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble…”(1:51-52). Each mighty act showed favor to the humble and judged the proud. Fires or floods were sent to scatter or destroy those who had become too proud to worship the one true God (Proverbs 8:13-The fear of the Lord is to hate evil; pride and arrogance and the evil way and the perverse mouth I hate). Defeat was handed to those nations who were haughty in the face of Israel. Even for Israel herself, pride led to exile, destruction, and defeat (cf. Amos 6:8-The Lord God has sworn by Himself, the Lord God of hosts says: “I abhor the pride of Jacob, and hate his palaces, therefore I will deliver up the city and all that is in it”). However, when she returned to her correct state of humility, Israel was blessed, protected, and provided for. Victory and promise is given to the humble. Reflecting on this principle for Israel, Mary realizes that because of her humility, she was able to experience her own mighty act of God.
Quoting from another Song (Psalm 107:9), Mary also reflects on God’s unique provision in response to man’s desperate need “…he has filled the hungry with good things; and sent away the rich empty -handed” (1:53). It is clear when one looks at this Psalm (Psalm 107:5-6-“they were hungry and thirsty their soul fainted within them. Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble…”), that Mary is not condemning the rich, but rather a failure to recognize dependency on the Lord for all things. This line in her reflective refrain reveals that those who recognize their hunger before the Lord are filled; however, those who already think they have it all will be sent away with nothing. Mary recognizes this throughout Israel’s history and in her own life as well. In no way did she pretend to have it all and not need God. In her own mind, she understood that God’s grace had filled her and her life with good things because of her dependency on Him. That was something to sing about.
The final lines of this early Christmas song reveal that Mary understood how her baby’s life carried on the promise that was made to Abraham thousands of years before her time “…He has given help to Israel, His servant, In remembrance of His mercy as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his descendants forever...”(1:54-55). As the child meant so much to Mary personally (the self-proclaimed bond-slave of God) because He was the means God had used to bring grace into her life, so to would this child fulfill a greater purpose for Israel who is called “God’s servant.” This baby would continue God’s program of grace for the nation of Israel as it had for Mary individually because He would carry out the promise that was made to Abraham. In fact, Mary’s humble life and obedient response to grace provides an exceptional example of how Israel should have responded all along to God’s grace. In so many ways, Mary was uniquely humble, obedient, and selfless, traits that are rare in Israel’s history. Here was yet another opportunity for Israel respond correctly as Jesus entered the world. Would they make the most of it?
So What ?
With that, Mary’s compilation of Old Testament hits is complete. Having borrowed from Hannah’s timeless hit and a couple of noteworthy tunes from the Psalms, Mary was able to create something new for the first ever Christmas season. Both her personal praise ballad and reflective refrain sing of God’s greatness, mercy, and sovereign purpose in the world to bring about redemption to mankind. First, Mary’s personal praise reveals that this experience was one that brought much joy and wonder to her life. She recognized that her humility had been awarded with this opportunity to shine brightly for the Lord. After praising God for this she reflects on how God has done similar wonders in the life of her people. He extended mercy to Israel following prideful rebellion, had done mighty acts, and would continue to see the promises He made fulfilled.
These verses teach us that God is eager to bless the humble and desires to perform the miraculous with the lowly. Mary’s humility was an opportunity for God to use her. Israel’s humility led to incredible victory. Your humility before the Lord today is also an opportunity for God to use you in extraordinary ways.
This Christmas, humble yourself before the Lord in order that He might shine brightly in your life. Recognize that your humble state, my humble state, and the humble state of this church is not an obstacle we are having to fight against. Instead, it is an opportunity we have for God to shine in ways other people or places who fail to realize this cannot.
When used in a special way, this song also outlines how we should respond to God’s greatest gift—Jesus Christ. Like Mary, we are always to give God the credit and praise His holy Name. Who do you praise? Who gets the credit for what takes place in your life? Choose this Christmas to sing a new song in place of the selfish tunes we are prone to belt. Choose this day and everyday to make your life’s song all about the one who came to save!
Friday, December 7, 2018
Over the last several weeks we have been looking at Old Testament passages that figuratively foreshadow the coming Lord and Savior-Jesus Christ. In Genesis we learned that in Christ is born a defeater of sin (the “Seed of the woman”). Later in Genesis we learned that in Christ is born a superior substitute (who takes our place as an offering unto the Lord like the ram caught in the thicket near Abraham and Isaac). From Exodus we learned that in Christ is born a complete Revelation of God (while Moses only saw God’s back, we are allowed to behold more of God through the Son). Last week we saw that in Christ is born a great Redeemer (just as Boaz redeemed a foreign woman out of her desperation, so too does Jesus redeem lost sinners). All of these passages have hinted at the Christ child through subtle (and not-so subtle) imagery. However, today’s passage—Isaiah 9:2-7—comes right out with a direct and obvious prediction of the coming Messiah. This week we are going to learn that in Christ is born a Prince—the Prince that Israel anticipated and the Prince that we all need.
I. Darkness Illuminated-9:2
Isaiah is written at a low point in Israel’s history. The Kingdom that was once prosperous and united under David and Solomon is now divided (into the ten tribes of the north who were in captivity and the two tribes of the South). In addition to this, while the Assyrian empire was expanding, Israel was declining. Through some misplaced deals with foreign powers, Judah and her people’s future in exile is pretty much sealed. Although the fall of Jerusalem would not take place until much later, Isaiah assumes the destruction of Judah is as good as done and proceeds to predict a future restoration of the people following their looming captivity. Much as God redeemed his people out of Egypt, Isaiah, even before his audience is thrown into exile, predicts that after they are taken over, they will be rescued once again. Ultimately, the book is written to exhort God’s people to place their trust in God for their deliverance in spite of what is going to take place. Then, and only then would they receive God’s blessing.
Shades of this central message are witnessed in this passage that opens with “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light” (9:2). This short phrase highlights the ones who will receive the special revelation that is coming and the character of the revelation to be given. First, those to whom this revelation belongs include “the ones who walk in darkness” (9:2a). This refers to the state of Israel in Isaiah’s context—”the northern kingdom of Israel had been carried into captivity (722 B.C.), and the kingdom of Judah was in the middle of idolatry and evil” (Allen Ross). In other words, Isaiah predicts that those in both spatial and moral darkness would receive a special revelation from God.
Such a prediction highlights the grace of God for his people. Though many might be tempted to hold back communication from those who perpetually disappoint, God meets Israel’s failure with a message (and a positive one at that!). Why? Because these are God’s people and they have received unconditional promises from the Lord involving land, descendants, and forever blessing (see Genesis 12 and 15).
To his undeserving children God predicts that they will see “a great light” (9:2b). Light is a familiar and important symbol. Light reveals (Gen. 1), illuminates the proper path (Psalm 119:11), exposes darkness (Psalm 18:28), and serves as a figurative image for the revelation of God (John 8:12). In fact, this last use of the symbol of light is what is most appropriate to consider in this prophecy inasmuch as it is, in many ways, a prediction of the coming Christ who is, according to Hebrews 1:3, is called radiance of the glory of God. The idea is that those living in separation and spiritual darkness will receive the revelation of God in a way never-before-seen—in the coming Messiah.
In keeping with familiar Hebrew parallel structure, the prophet reiterates his thought by saying the same kind of thing, but in a different way—“Those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them” (9:2c). Often there is a connection drawn between the prosperity of God’s people (practically and spiritually) and their land. The Promised Land was to be the terminus of the Jews from which they would be used to bless the world. However, as a consequence of their disobedience, they were thrown into exile and displaced from the land. Now they were in a spiritually impoverished domain—“dark land.” However, these same sojourners would soon have the light of God shine on them, principally in the person of Jesus Christ—the coming Messiah.
II. National Blessing-9:3
In addition to revelation (found eventually and most completely in Christ), the prophet predicts national blessing for the people of God. He frames this blessing both practically and psychologically. First he says, “you shall multiply the nation” (9:3a). A nation’s prosperity was often measured in its numbers. Whether or not this prediction envisions a spike in population is secondary to the idea of practical and observable blessing upon God’s people. The multiplication of the nation comes only after the light shines, indicating that God’s blessing is inextricably tied to his revelation.
Positive response to God’s revelation doesn’t just lead to existential blessing; it also bring forth psychological health—“you shall increase their gladness, they will be glad in Your presence” (9:3b). The gladdest people in the world ought to be God’s people who respond well to God’s message. Is that true in your circle or is that the case for the people in this church who know the revelation of God today? Something to consider 😊.
Certainly the Israelite’s situation (characterized by division and coming exile) stifled their morale. However, Isaiah predicts a time in which their spirit would be restored and their joy made great following a special revelation of God in a coming Messiah.
The prophet illustrates both the practical and psychological blessing foretold with the following illustration—“As with the gladness of harvest, as men rejoice when they divide the spoil” (9:3c). In the principally agrarian context in which this was originally written people measured their season or year’s success based on the yield of their crop. If the harvest was abundant and able to be spread around, it was an occasion of rejoicing. The prophet foretells such a blessing (both practically and spiritually) for the people of God.
III. Existential Relief-9:4-5
The third prediction the prophet makes is existential relief (revelation, blessing, and relief). Isaiah says, “for You shall break the yoke of their burden and the staff on their shoulders” (9:4a). This figurative language is used both to highlight near and future relief from oppression. “breaking the yoke” and “the staff on their shoulders” envisions a people under the control of a dominating figure. Nearest to Isaiah’s original context, this probably referred to Assyria and other oppressors both of the southern kingdoms and of the ten northern tribes. However, further on into the future, this predicts a time in which the coming Messiah will break the chains of all tyranny including the subjugation brought about by the Antichrist.
Prophecies in the Scriptures often have a dual fulfillment (both near to the original context and down the line into the future). For instance, many of the predictions concerning the kingdom of God saw a partial fulfillment at the death and resurrection of Christ (in which the kingdom of God was said to be “at hand” or “has come”). However, the kingdom of God is still something that is yet to be realized in many respects (see Revelation 20-22). Isaiah 9:4 operates in much the same way. The prophet promises relief from a present threat and a greater future threat.
The prophet compares relief from these threats to a familiar and inspiring Old Testament story—“the rod of their oppressor as at the battle of Midian” (9:4b). This refers to the incredible victory God handed to his people in Judges 7:1-24. There, God took the Israelite forces from 22,000 to 10,000 to then just 300. Thereafter, he divided this small band of brothers into three microscopic units, outfitted them with trumpets and empty pitchers and torches. With this small troop and their peculiar tools God caused a cacophony so overwhelming that the much larger forces of the Midianites and Amalekites ended up taking up arms against each other and fleeing from the scene. It was a supernatural victory that involved a few winning over many.
The same will be true in the end. On that day, one (a coming Christ) will overwhelm many and win supernatural victory over a host of forces led by Satan and the Antichrist. In fact, the battle won’t even be fair.
So total will the victory prophesied be that “....every boot of the booted warrior in the battle tumult, and cloak rolled in blood, will be for burning fuel for the fire” (9:5). In other words all warlike accoutrements will be destroyed as they will no longer be required in the new era of peace.
Of all the tragic conflicts that have plagued our planet throughout history, WWI, because of its global scope, mass casualties, and many geopolitical and economic implications was referred to as “the war to end all wars.” Many must have believed that there was no way any nation would ever allow conflict to ever rise to a similar degree ever again. Little did they know that an even worse horror awaited them just a few years later in WWII. When men fight, the peace that is achieved is temporary. However, this passage reveals that when the coming Messiah wages war, he deals with his foes completely—so completely that there is no threat ever to follow.
Malachi 4:1-“’For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every soldier will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.’”
IV. Prince of Peace-9:6
The coming revelation, blessing, and relief is found in a single figure. He is introduced as the fourth prophecy of this exciting passage—“For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us” (9:6a). Though one might find it odd to consider such great victory and blessing from a small child, this child is unique—he is the promised child of God, the “seed of the woman” sent to crush the head of the serpent” (Gen. 3:15), and the coming King that will rule a forever kingdom (see 2 Sam. 7:13). Stately and powerful though he will prove to be, he will come as a small baby—humble and lowly. Also, this child is given first and foremost to his people (the Jews). Notice the repetition of “to us” in the first part of verse 6. This indicates, even at this early juncture,that salvation is both from the Jews and for the Jew first (John 4:22; Rom. 1:16). This child and all that comes with him is also “given” out of the grace of mercy of God to a people that, in many ways did not deserve him (indeed to a world that does not deserve him).
“And the government will rest on his shoulders” (9:6b). Eventually, he will exercise all authority on the earth. Here again is an example of a near and far fulfillment. Though, to be sure, Jesus had all authority in his first coming, this authority was veiled and/or inconspicuous. Later, the full expression of his might will be revealed in his second coming. While God’s people have throughout history been ruled under the yolk of authoritarians and tyrants, one day God will remove this yolk, take on the raiment of power, and rule his followers perfectly.
“And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6c). These four descriptive phrases reveal something of the character of the coming Messiah. “Wonderful” (‘exceptional’ or ‘distinguished’) “Counselor” speaks of ability to teach God’s ways and instruct in the ways of righteousness. Though many ignored God’s commands and protocols throughout history, the people of God will be anxious to hear what he advises in this future fulfillment as he is the most distinguished mentor.
Not only that, but this child will prove to be the mighty God—not merely a prophet, miracle worker, or preacher. The Messiah would be God incarnate. He is also called “eternal Father.” This is curious as it seems to confuse the members of the Trinity (I thought we were talking about Jesus but now he is called the “eternal Father?”). Several things worth mentioning might help us to understand what this title might mean. First, the Messiah, being the 2nd person of the Trinity, is in His essence, God. Therefore, He has all the attributes of God including eternality. Since God is One (even though He exists in three Persons), the Messiah is God. Second, the title “Everlasting Father” is an idiom used to describe the Messiah’s relationship to time, not His relationship to the other Members of the Trinity. He is said, in other words, to be everlasting, just as God. Third, perhaps Isaiah had in mind the promise to David in 2 Samuel 7:16.
2 Samuel 7:16-“Your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever”
In this passage, the “foreverness” of the kingdom of God is prophesied as coming through David’s line. The Messiah, a descendant of David, will fulfill this promise for which the nation had been waiting. Therefore, in these ways, “eternal Father” is not so awkward a title for this coming Messiah.
Finally, he is called the Prince of Peace. Though many before him would promise peace without delivering it, He will actually bring everlasting peace to the earth. Together, these four titles prophecy an exceptionally marvelous coming Messiah who will one day rule over the world and his people.
V. Eternal Rule-9:7
This rule is highlighted in the fifth prediction—eternal rule. Isaiah concludes this passage by saying “there will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace” (9:7a). Kings come and go, regimes rise and fall, presidents serve brief terms in office, but the Messiah will come to reign forever in perfect peace.
This he will do “on the Throne of David and over his kingdom…” (9:7b). Again, as mentioned before, Isaiah is predicting the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant—a forever literal kingdom of God established through someone from the line of it’s premiere monarch.
Christ will rule this kingdom “to establish it and uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore” (9:7c). Everything about this prediction is the antithesis of what the people of God were experiencing at the time this was written. In their world, the nation was divided and fallen (or falling). Different rulers were coming and going and the moral framework of the majority was anything but righteous. Peace? Yeah right! However, this is the hope that the prophet Isaiah spells out for his people—a secure kingdom at perfect peace, led by the great Messiah, forever. It was everything they would need and the sign that this would eventually be fulfilled would come at the birth of a small child in Bethlehem that first Christmas morning—For unto us is born a Prince!
That same Prince of peace promised to the people of God in the Old Testament is alive today. He was willing to come to this earth as a baby boy not just to provide hope for the Jews but hope for all men and women. Just as his birth signals a hope for the nation of Israel, it also spells hope for you and for me. Perhaps like the people of Israel in the time of Isaiah you are out of sorts, divided, in darkness. TO be sure, God’s people are called sojourners, refugees, and aliens in this world in both the Old and the New Testament. What/who is going to get you through? The Prince spoken of in this passage? Do you have hope today? Are you listening to the wonderful Counselor who wants to lead you in the ways of righteousness? Do you trust that there is a mighty God who is stronger than your greatest problems? Have you fallen into the embrace of the loving and eternal Father? Are you living with the expectation of perfect peace one day in eternity with the Lord? For unto us is born the Prince who gives all of this and more as gifts to those who after witnessing his light, turn from the darkness and place their faith in Him. This Christmas, before you receive any other gift, be sure you’ve already opened those that Christ offers to you in his grace.