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Christmas [2011]: God of Mercy, God of Judgment (Luke 1:46-55)

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December 25, 2011

Special Christmas Message

We live in a day of cafeteria Christianity, where churchgoers think that they’re free to go down the line picking what they like from the Bible, but rejecting or at least ignoring the rest. “I like God’s love, grace, mercy, and kindness. Yes, give me a large helping of those! But I don’t care for His holiness and justice, thanks.”

When people do that, they’re creating an idol, a god of their own liking. But the Bible reveals God as He is, not as we may want Him to be. Being a Christian means that I must embrace and submit to God as He has revealed Himself, not to some modified version of God that is more to my liking.

Today we’re going to be instructed by a teenage Jewish girl who knew God well beyond her years. Our text is Mary’s hymn of praise in response to Elizabeth’s recognition through the Holy Spirit that Mary was expecting the promised Messiah. In this hymn, Mary extols God for His great mercy, but also for His righteous judgment. Her theme is similar to Paul’s theme that we’ve just studied in Romans 9. Although she was probably only 15 or 16-years-old when she spoke these words, Mary had a deep understanding of who God is. From her we learn an important truth:

We should glorify God for His mercy in salvation and for His judgment on the proud.

To correct some widespread false teaching, the Bible is clear that the virgin Mary was not immaculately conceived. She is not the “Queen of Heaven” or “Co-Redemptrix” with Jesus. We are not to pray to her. She cannot obtain or impart salvation to anyone. The Bible is clear that Mary is not to be elevated above any other believer. But at the same time, we should not react to the erroneous veneration of Mary by neglecting to learn from her.

1. We should glorify God for His mercy in salvation.

To glorify God means to extol Him for His attributes and His actions. It is to make God look as good as He really is. Thus,

A. We can only glorify God to the extent that we know Him.

Mary’s hymn brims with information about the attributes of God. But it’s not dry, academic information. Mary exults in God as she considers what He has done in choosing her to be the mother of the Savior. She calls Him “God my Savior” (1:47), which implies that Mary knew she was a sinner; none but sinners need a Savior. Implicit in the term “Savior” is the fact that we are lost and alienated from God because of our sin. We don’t just need a little boost from God to set things right. We don’t just need a few tips on how to succeed in our families or businesses. Savior is a radical term that implies that we are helplessly, hopelessly lost unless God in His mighty power intervenes to rescue us.

Mary refers to God’s power when she calls Him, the “Mighty One who has done great things for me” (1:49). She is referring to the miracle of the virgin birth. She adds, “He has done mighty deeds with His arm” (1:51), referring to His scattering the proud, who would scoff at the notion that they needed a Savior. God is mighty in mercy to the humble, but mighty in judgment toward the proud.

Mary further teaches that God’s name is holy (1:49). His name refers to His person, the sum of His attributes. To be holy means to be set apart. In this context, it refers not only to God’s absolute moral righteousness, but also to His being set apart as the only sovereign authority over people (Darrell Bock, Luke [Baker], 1:152). Thus He is to be held in highest esteem and to be feared.

Thankfully, Mary does not leave us with just these attributes of God, or we would not dare to approach Him! She goes on to emphasize God’s mercy: “His mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear Him…. He has given help to Israel His servant, in remembrance of His mercy” (1:50, 54). Mercy refers to God’s compassion due to our misery as sinners. His mercy is on those who recognize His holiness and bow in reverence before Him. His mercy caused Him to send the Savior.

In addition to His mercy, Mary adds that God “has filled the hungry with good things” (1:53). God gives good things to His children. After instructing us to ask, seek, and knock in prayer, Jesus concluded (Matt. 7:11), “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” Salvation from God’s judgment is the best gift of all.

In line with this, Mary shows that God is faithful to His covenant promises: “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). Even though 2,000 years had elapsed since God’s promises to Abraham, God had not forgotten. What God has promised, He will fulfill in His time.

In giving instruction on how we can magnify the Lord, Charles Spurgeon encourages us to ponder the attributes of God:

Begin with his mercy if you cannot begin with his holiness; but take the attributes one by one, and think about them. I do not know a single attribute of God which is not wonderfully quickening and powerful to a true Christian (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 51:308).

Thus Mary teaches us to know God as He has revealed Himself in His word, so that we can glorify Him. Also,

B. We should especially glorify God for His great mercy in salvation.

Understanding God’s mercy and grace is fundamental to a relationship with Him. We are saved by God’s grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9). As we received Christ Jesus the Lord, so we are to walk in Him (Col. 2:6). His mercy and grace should permeate our daily walk with Him. Note three things about God’s mercy:

God’s mercy is a sovereign mercy. Mary mentions God’s mercy to Abraham and his offspring (1:55). There is only one reason that Abraham became the father of our faith: God sovereignly chose him. Abraham was a pagan man from an idolatrous family in a pagan land when God called him (Josh. 24:2).

Why didn’t God call Abraham’s whole family? Why didn’t God choose people already living in the land of Canaan? Why did God choose the descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob to be His people? Why not Ishmael? Why not Esau? Why not the Europeans, Asians, Africans, or North and South Americans? We don’t know why. All we know is that God chose Israel because of His sovereign purpose (Deut. 4:37; 7:7; 9:4; 10:15). As Paul cites God’s word to Moses (Rom. 9:15), “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.” Paul adds (Rom. 9:16), “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.” If you have tasted the Lord’s kindness in salvation, glorify Him for His sovereign mercy.

God’s mercy is a covenant mercy. God made a covenant with Abraham and repeatedly reminded him and his descendants of that covenant as the basis of His dealings with them. God’s new covenant assures us that we have permanent forgiveness through Christ’s blood (Heb. 8:10-12). If He has begun a gracious work in you, you can be assured that He will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:6), not because of your performance, but because of the promise of His new covenant in the Lord Jesus Christ.

God’s mercy is a benevolent mercy. “He has filled the hungry with good things” (1:53). God is a loving Father who will tenderly do that which is good for His children all the days of their lives. Though we often face difficult trials, and even death, we can know that the Good Shepherd is with us even in the valley of the shadow of death. He has prepared a place for us in heaven where “He shall wipe away every tear from [our] eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (Rev. 21:4). Hallelujah!

When we contemplate the nature of our God and His great mercy towards us in Christ, we will join Mary’s song, “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.”

But, perhaps you’re wondering, “How can we know that we are the objects of God’s great mercy?” Mary gives us some signs:

2. The objects of God’s mercy have experienced evidence of His salvation.

Mary mentions at least five characteristics of those who have received God’s great mercy.

A. The objects of God’s mercy know Him personally as Savior.

Mary calls God “my Savior” (1:47). It’s very personal. Mary was from a Jewish home. The Jews were God’s chosen people. She easily could have thought, “We’re good Jewish people. We keep the Sabbath and follow the commandments. That’s all I need.” But even though she was a moral young woman from a religious family, she knew that she was a sinner who needed a Savior. She had personally trusted in God and His Messiah as her Savior.

It’s not enough to know God as your parents’ Savior. It’s not enough to belong to your parents’ church. Christ must be your Savior. That means that you see yourself as a sinner who has broken God’s holy law. You stand guilty and condemned before His righteous justice. There is nothing you can do to deliver yourself. All you can do is cast yourself on His mercy and trust in Jesus as the One who bore your penalty on the cross. When you do that, you will come to know God in Christ as your Savior.

B. The objects of God’s mercy seek Him in His Word.

Mary’s hymn of praise is full of Scripture. It’s similar in many ways to Hannah’s song of praise (1 Sam. 2:1-10), but there are also citations from the Psalms and references to other portions of the Old Testament. Although she was a young girl in a culture that tended to restrict Scriptural training to boys, Mary knew the Bible. We’ve already seen that she knew a great deal about God’s attributes. She knew what God had done in the history of His people, and what He had promised to do in sending His Messiah.

Peter exhorts us (1 Pet. 2:2, 3), “Like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.” I gained some painful insight into that verse when I was a young father. I made the mistake of taking our newborn into my arms when I was not wearing a shirt. She saw my nipple, and even though it was surrounded with hair, it looked good enough. She latched onto me, thinking that she would get the milk she craved. I discovered that a newborn goes after her mother’s milk with a vengeance! Have you tasted the Lord’s kindness? Go for the milk of His Word.

C. The objects of God’s mercy are filled with praise and joy.

There is probably not any special distinction between “soul” and “spirit” (1:46, 47). What Mary means is that from the depths of her innermost being, she was exalting God and rejoicing in Him. She was worshiping God in truth, since her words came right out of Scripture. But she was also worshiping Him in spirit, since her praise came out of her heart (John 4:24). Her entire being was caught up with the majesty of God and His mercy, as expressed in this song.

It’s no accident that the longest book of the Bible (Psalms) is a song book. God loves to hear the praises of His people. He wants us filled with joy as we think about what He has done for us. Heaven is filled with praise and joy. The saints gather before the throne and sing, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev. 5:12). The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Those who have received His mercy are filled with praise and joy.

D. The objects of God’s mercy have a big view of God and a little view of themselves.

We’ve already seen Mary’s big view of God. But note also that she refers to “the humble state of His bondslave” (1:48). She mentions that God has “exalted those who were humble” (1:52). The word means “lowly.” She also states that those who have received God’s mercy fear Him (1:50). Without exception, those who have encountered the living God are awed by the greatness of His splendor and terrified because of their own shortcomings and sinfulness in His holy presence. John Calvin explains (The Institutes of the Christian Religion [Westminster Press], 1.1.2),

It is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself. For we always seem to ourselves righteous and upright and wise and holy—this pride is innate in all of us—unless by clear proofs we stand convinced of our own unrighteousness, foulness, folly, and impurity. Moreover, we are not thus convinced if we look merely to ourselves and not also to the Lord, who is the sole standard by which this judgment must be measured.

The more we see how great God is, the more we will sense our own sinfulness, which will lead us to magnify all the more His abundant mercy toward us in Christ.

E. The objects of God’s mercy are satisfied with God.

“He has filled the hungry with good things” (1:53). This refers primarily to spiritual, not physical, hunger. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6). They will be satisfied in God, yet they will still hunger and thirst for more of Him.

The prerequisite for being filled is to be hungry. If you’re filled with your own self-righteousness, you’re not spiritually hungry. If you think that you’re a basically good person, and that God might be a nice accessory to help you reach your goals, you’re not hungry. Truly hungry people are not cool, confident, have-it-together sort of people. Hungry people are desperate. They know that they will perish if they don’t find food soon. Spiritually hungry people recognize their desperate spiritual condition and cry out, “Save me, Lord, or I perish!” God fills such hungry souls with “good things,” namely, with Himself. They are satisfied with Him and yet they always long for more of Him.

It would be great if everyone acknowledged his need for God’s mercy, as Mary did. But her song not only glorifies God for His mercy, but also for His judgment.

3. We should glorify God for His judgment on the proud.

This part of Mary’s song is out of sync with our tolerant, “judge not,” immoral culture. But we ignore it to our peril!

A. God will judge the proud, the powerful, and the rich.

God judges the proud. Mary describes these as “proud in the thoughts of their heart” (1:51). Pride is a heart attitude of self-sufficiency. The proud person thinks that he doesn’t need God. Pride is the original sin that brought Satan down. He appealed to Eve’s pride, that she could be like God, and she fell. Pride is at the root of all our sins. The Bible declares, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet. 5:5). Suffice it to say, you don’t want God as your opponent! So fight your pride on the thought level every day!

God also judges the powerful. “He has brought down rulers from their thrones” (1:52). Mary is not referring to faithful rulers who humbly serve God and their people, but to arrogant rulers who wield their power for their own advancement, with no regard for the people they rule. God will be glorified in bringing judgment against such powerful, self-centered despots (Rom. 9:17).

God also will be glorified when He judges the rich: He “sent away the rich empty-handed” (1:53). Mary is referring to the selfishly rich, who live lavishly with no concern for the needy (Luke 12:15-21; 16:19-31; 1 Tim. 6:17-19). But she is also referring to those who think that they are spiritually rich because of their own righteousness, when in fact they are spiritually poor. If they do not repent of their self-righteousness, they will face God in judgment.

If you’re not living with every area of your life under the lordship of Jesus Christ and with a view toward the day when you must give an account, you need a reality check! God will be glorified, either in saving you or in judging you. Make sure that it is the former, not the latter! There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). But there is the “terrifying expectation of judgment” (Heb. 10:27) for those who cast off Christ’s lordship.

B. We should glorify God for His powerful triumph over all who resist Him and reject His mercy.

Mary emphasizes God’s powerful judgments on these people: He scatters the proud (1:51), brings down the rulers (1:52) and sends the rich away empty-handed (1:53). What frightening words! God does not just ignore such people or leave them alone. He actively scatters them, brings them down and sends them away empty-handed! You may ask, “Why does God do this? Doesn’t He desire that all people be saved?” Yes, He invites all to come and receive His mercy, but they must come on His terms, not theirs. He doesn’t negotiate a compromise with sinners. Either we bow before Him as Lord or He will actively bring us down in judgment.

Conclusion

Maybe you’re thinking, “This doesn’t sound like a warm, fuzzy Christmas message, where we all gather around the manger and adore the baby Jesus, while the angels sing, “Glory to God in the highest.” But judgment is a part of the Christmas story, from the lips of Mary herself. She glorifies God for His mercy in sending the Savior for all who will humbly receive Him. But she also glorifies God for His judgment on those who proudly reject Him.

You can’t pick and choose which attributes of God you like, and ignore the rest! God isn’t operating a religious cafeteria! You come to Him His way, as a guilty sinner needing a Savior, or not at all. If you repent of your pride and selfishness and sin, and come to the cross, He will pour out His tender mercy on you. If you proudly cling to your own righteousness and self-sufficiency, God will send you away empty. And if God sends you away empty, you’re absolutely empty! You don’t want to go into eternity empty, without God’s mercy!

D. L. Moody said, “Christ sends none away empty but those who are full of themselves.” The church at Laodicea professed to be a Christian church. Things seemed to be going fairly well there, from their perspective. They said, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing.” God’s perspective was a bit different: “You do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” (Rev. 3:17). The Lord told them to repent. He also told them, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with Me” (Rev. 3:20).

That offer still stands. If you will repent of your sin and cry out to Jesus Christ to save you, God will pour out His tender mercy on you. Then you will be able to sing Mary’s song, “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.”

Application Questions

  1. Discuss: One of the main problems of the church today is that we do not know God as He has revealed Himself.
  2. How can a lukewarm Christian develop a deeper hunger for God?
  3. Since we’re often blind to our own pride, how can we spot it and fight against it?
  4. To what extent should the church try to cater to the felt needs of our lost society?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Christmas, Soteriology (Salvation), Worship (Personal)