Throughout this month, we are talking about “Encounters.” A handful of people throughout history have had significant, meaningful encounters with God. And in each of those occasions, those people were never the same again.
This morning, we turn our attention to one of the better-known encounters of history. Mary, the mother of Jesus, had an encounter with God that was quite different from the one experienced by Moses or Hagar. Moses and Hagar experienced God in one moment. An amazing, miraculous event. God was there one moment and gone the next
Mary, however, experienced God over a lifetime. She nursed Jesus when He could not feed Himself. She taught God incarnate to speak and to walk! She tucked Him into bed each night. And perhaps the two of them, together, talked to their Father. What an amazing thought!
There are many different episodes of Mary’s life that we could talk about this morning. The birth of Jesus - the Christmas story. Jesus at the Temple at age 12 - Jesus got lost. When Jesus, at His mother’s request, turned water into wine at a wedding in Cana. Or even the week of Jesus’ death.
Each of these moments, surely, had a significant impact upon Mary’s life. Instead of talking about any of these encounters, however, I want to talk about a moment in Mary’s life just before Jesus was born.
You see, Mary’s encounters with God began even before Jesus took His first breath. As a teenage girl, she was visited by an angel, Gabriel. He told her what was going to happen. He told her she would have a son who would be a ruler, a king! He also told her that Elizabeth, her relative, would have a son. Upon the angel’s departure, Mary quickly went to visit Elizabeth. And sure enough, when she arrived, she found that Elizabeth, even though she was beyond the age of child-bearing, was pregnant.
When John, who was in Elizabeth’s belly at the time, heard Mary’s voice, he leaped for joy. And it was during this reunion, that Mary suddenly burst into song.
I want us to hear her words again this morning.
Named after a 4th century, Latin translation of the first words of this song, Mary’s words here have traditionally been called the Magnificat. There are four “songs” in the infancy narratives in Luke’s gospel. This is probably the best known of those four. This song has blessed the church for centuries!
Other songs have been written about this one. Choosing from many different tremendous themes that emerge from this song, I want us to notice a specific word this morning.
Look more closely at verses 48-50:
"For He has looked with favor on the lowliness of His servant. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and Holy is His name. His mercy is for those who fear Him from generation to generation."
Mary describes what God has done for her, and then she gives it a name. God looked with favor on her - a lowly servant. A poor, young Jewish girl. Unmarried. No social standing. No rights. Not from a powerful nation or family. God chose her!
God came into the world through her! God could have come into the world as the Son of a Queen! He could have entered this world surrounded by servants and money. He could have come into luxury and influence. Surely, such a beginning would have given God a greater platform for God’s message!
But, instead, God entered the world through a young, poor, girl named Mary. And, like I said, Mary gave this activity of God a name. She called it mercy. His mercy is for those who fear Him from generation to generation.
This month, we are turning our eyes to a few of these “encounter stories.” And the question with which we are most concerned is this: how did these encounters change people? How did this encounter with God change Mary? How did God’s extension of mercy change her?
The short answer is: We don’t know. Not much is written about Mary after Jesus’ birth. We see her when Jesus is 12 at the Temple. We see her again during His ministry when she and her other children go to see Jesus. And finally, we see her at the cross.
In the Gospel stories, at least, she just stays in the background. But in life, we know that she never left her Son. When He wandered off in the Temple when He was 12 years old, she was there with Him. And Luke tells us that she “treasured all these things in her heart.”
When Jesus left home and family and began His ministry, she never abandoned Him. She never turned her back on Him or His decision. We may not know many details of her life after that first Christmas, but we know she never left her Son.
The best evidence we have of Jesus’ effect on Mary is the character of the early church. History has told us that she, along with her other son, James, were active in the early church. And that early church was characterized by many things, and chief among those things was mercy.
The Church then and now has been an institution known for its mercy. We sometimes overlook the “good” of the church, because we become fixated, like the rest of the world, on the things that need to be improved. But the church has always been an agent of mercy in our world. Early tradition of giving alms to the poor. Early tradition of taking care of orphans and widows—a chief job of early ministers/deacons in the church
When the plague broke out in Europe in the Middle Ages, the church was the merciful agent that provided hospice. It was the church that founded important agencies of mercy in this country:
The YMCA, Salvation Army, food pantries, benevolence closets, homeless shelters.
The church, throughout the centuries, truly has been the church when it was extending mercy to the world. And one of the reasons the church has been so merciful is because mercy was given to this world.
Mercy was given to Mary. And she and the other followers of Jesus took that example and extended mercy to those around them. We stand in a long line of mercy, church! A line that started even as Mary sang the words to this beautiful song.
Historian Rodney Stark has written about how this event changed the world forever. He writes that there was one huge factor that helped capture the attention of the world - Christianity’s revolutionary emphasis upon mercy.
Here is what he wrote:
"In the midst of the squalor, misery, illness, and anonymity of ancient cities, Christianity provided an island of mercy and security, and it started with Jesus …
In contrast, in the pagan world, and especially among the philosophers, mercy was regarded as a character defect and pity as a pathological emotion: because mercy involves providing unearned help or relief, it is contrary to justice...
Thus, humans must learn "to curb the impulse to show mercy"; "the cry of the undeserving for mercy must go unanswered." "Showing mercy was a defect of character unworthy of the wise and excusable only in those who have not yet grown up."
This was the moral climate in which Christianity taught that … a merciful God requires humans to be merciful."
And church, therein is the lesson for us. Like Mary, we have been encountered by a merciful God. And as those made in the image of that merciful God we were created to extend mercy. That means we were created to be merciful with our words to one another. That means we were created to be merciful with our actions toward one another. That means we were created to seek out those who need mercy the most and give to them the help they need.
The Magnificat continues with a prominent theme that will dominate Jesus’ ministry. New Testament scholars call this theme the “reversal of fortune.” The message of the song and the driving characteristic of Jesus’ ministry is: The rich will brought down, the poor will be brought up, the proud will be humbled, the humble will be exalted.
Jesus spent His time with the poor, with the outcasts, with women (sorry ladies—at the time that was a BIG deal!) I will admit to you that as I reflect more and more on the God of the Magnificat…the God exemplified in Jesus’ ministry…I struggle with the church’s increasing desire for prestige in our world.
I struggle with enormous, influential mega-churches. I struggle with celebrity pastors. I struggle with the importance some Christians place upon influencing people in powerful positions. Our fallen world has always been enamored with power and money and influence. But, Jesus came modeling a new way to live. He came modeling a way of life that turned everything on its head.
He was born to a poor, Jewish girl. He spent His adult life homeless (or, as the gospel writers so eloquently put… “with no place to lay His head.”) He associated with the lowliest of people in His world. He never visited Rome. He never demanded an audience with Caesar. He never sought notoriety. But He always showed mercy!
I pray that we will be a church that is always on the lookout for ways to extend mercy. For He has looked with favor on the lowliness of His servant. The Mighty One has done great things for us, and Holy is His name. And God’s mercy is for those who fear Him from generation to generation.