The Bible recognises various types of worship offered to God. On Sundays, when the church gathers together, corporate worship is offered. During the week, family worship is (or ought to be) offered as families gather around the Word and prayer. But there is also the reality of private worship, which every individual Christian is privileged to offer God every day.
Our text in the Gospel of Luke for this particular study exposes us to the private worship of two women who were blood relatives. They were linked, not only by blood, but also by the shared experience of having been visited by the angel Gabriel directly from the presence of God. Further, they shared the experience of being pregnant, both of them for the first time, and both with special babies. One woman, Elizabeth, was six months ahead of the other woman, Mary, in her pregnancy experience. Elizabeth was advanced in age and thought she would die childless. Mary on the other hand was young, betrothed to be married—and a virgin!
Our text tells us about the older woman waiting, while the younger woman was on the move. She was on her way to go and visit her older relative—probably with the relieved blessing of her embarrassed parents.
Before we turn our attention to the text, I need to exhort you to resist the kind of unbelief, mental paralysis, passive neutrality, and ho-hum suppressed contempt that sets in with reference to these things, possibly because they are familiar and of a “religious” nature. Remind yourself that everything I have said thus far, and what we are about to read, is nothing other than historical narrative. This is a record of history, and an account of real people who really lived and experienced what we are about to read. Allow yourself to be amazed. Pinch yourself! You ought to be wowed by the details of an event that really took place about two thousand years ago.
Let me remind you that what we read here are the researched words in the orderly account compiled by a medical doctor and historian by the name of Luke.
In v. 39 we find the phrase “in those days.” We might ask, in which days? In answer, we might consider that they were days in which Mary was probably experiencing morning sickness, and continuing bewilderment at being pregnant as an unmarried virgin—bearing the Messiah, no less! They were the days of Elizabeth’s pregnancy and silence at home with her mute husband, Zechariah, the priest.
At the outset, I want to encourage you to appreciate the symmetry of our text verses (vv. 39-56). This text is divided into two halves: the first focusing on Elizabeth (vv. 40-45), and the second focusing on Mary, her response to the words of Elizabeth and the context of those words, namely her pregnancy and her expectations for the future (vv. 46-55). There is a verse of introduction (v. 39) and one of conclusion (v. 56).
But between those two halves, we have the incredible scene of in-utero relating: a six-month-old foetus jumping in the womb at the presence of a tiny zygote, just a few days into its development! Here we have six-month old John (in NASA-language, T minus three months), who, in fulfilment of vv. 16-17, is filled in the womb with the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist was using the womb for a pulpit, announcing by his foetal movement the very presence of Messiah!
This scene of in-utero comprehension and the display of emotion has much relevance to pregnancy and the fight against abortion. Simply put, it is evident from this text that unborn babies are capable of feeling emotions and displaying them! Unborn babies hear and recognise voices! They are not clumps of cells but unborn human beings.
The visit was not only for the benefit of two expectant mothers, but also for the relationship of their in-utero sons.
Having been informed by the angel that her older relative was pregnant—and six months so—Mary travelled to Elizabeth’s home to visit. She would stay for three months, leaving shortly before or immediately after John’s birth (v. 56). No doubt, she was of some assistance to Elizabeth during her stay.
As Mary entered the house, she greeted Elizabeth. We are not told how she greeted her older relative, but Luke informs us that “when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb.” Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, and so did John in her womb. John who was filled with the Holy Spirit, immediately recognised Mary’s voice, realised that she was the mother of Messiah, and responded by leaping for joy. Feeling her unseen son leap in her womb, Elizabeth responded:
“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 fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, humbled herself to make much of Mary. How did she know all that she seemed to know about Mary’s baby? We can only assume that it was revealed to her by the Holy Spirit. And so she expressed words of worship, identifying Jesus as her Lord. She affirmed Mary’s faith in believing Gabriel’s words—possibly as a rebuke to her husband, now still mute.
Mary’s song, known as the Magnificat, forms part of evening worship liturgy for Anglicans, making it (after the Lord’s Prayer) probably the best known words in the Gospel.
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
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.
The Magnificat is the first of four nativity hymns, the other three being Zechariah’s Benedictus (1:68-79), the angels’ Gloria (2:14) and Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis (2:29-32). It is, according to Graham Scroggie, the last of the Hebrew psalms and the first of the Christian hymns. It (and the other nativity hymns) appears only in Luke, and highlights for us the importance of worship in public song, not simply and merely in private thought.
What Mary’s song, and her ability to express such rich praise, tells us about parenting. She was probably only around thirteen-years-old, but she had learned all this rich theology from her parents!
She sang about the fact that God is supremely able and willing to both lift the humble and to humble the proud (cf. James 4:10). She sang about a soul magnifying and a spirit rejoicing (expressing gratitude to God). She rejoiced in the triune God as her Saviour.
In this song, Mary effectively worshipped her way out of fear. She was young and unwed, and the thought of being the mother of Messiah was doubtless a fearful thing. But she recognised that, by God’s grace, she could perform the task He had set before her. She obviously had a deep knowledge of Scripture (very similar to Hannah in 1 Samuel 2) in order to worship with such rich content.
Mary was obviously a woman who allowed the Word of Christ to dwell in her richly (Colossians 3:16). She was therefore able to teach and admonish with all wisdom and able to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness (gratitude) in her heart to God.
Would to God that we would share her theology and her ability to lift such rich praise to God. If that will be true of us, we must spend tome daily in the Word of God, and also immerse ourselves in theology and church history.
By way of application, let us note that Mary’s humility is worth emulating! We must not think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think!
Briefly, we should note from Mary’s song six reasons for worship, each of which lies in the person and the actions of God.
First, God is aware of the humble. Mary was able to rejoice in God because “he has looked on the humble estate of his servant” (v. 48).
Second, God is “mighty” and has “done great things” for the benefit of His people. Mary had experienced this might in her own life, and had seen God do great things for her, and we would do well to lift praise to God for the same in our lives.
Third, she praised God for His “holy name” (v. 49). His name speaks of his character and relates directly to his purpose and agenda.
Fourth, she found reason to praise in is steadfast mercy (vv. 50-53). There are two contrasting evidences here of His mercy. On the one hand, “he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their heart” and has “brought down the mighty from their thrones.” On the other hand, He has “exalted those of humble estate” and has “filled the hungry with good things.” In His mercy, the Lord fills and the Lord sends away empty.
Fifth, Mary praised the Lord because “he has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his own mercy.”
Sixth, Mary praised God because “he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” The Lord reveals Himself and instructs and cautions.
Notice practically, at a social and interpersonal level, how these two excited women related to each other. They learned to really listen to each other, as opposed to waiting for a chance to add their bit of their own story. They were each willing to put off their own story in order to first listen fully to each other’s story.
What do we take away from this historical description of a meeting between two women?
Fundamentally, these verses encourage me, in the midst of my circumstances, to look beyond myself to see what God is up to. Elizabeth did that. Mary did that. They saw the handiwork of God and worshipped Him. We should do the same.