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TEXT: Luke 1:39-45
SUBJECT: Songs of Salvation #1: The Benedicta
When we come together on Sunday morning, nothing is more discouraging to me than a lackluster song service. By 'lackluster' I don't mean singing off-key, singing off-tune, or singing off-time: I mean singing as through we're not redeemed.
If you read the Bible, you'll see that the saving acts of God always produce a song in the hearts of His people. You hear the song, first, an the Exodus. For many years, the children of Israel had suffered under the last of Pharaoh's cruelty. All this time, the prayed and pleaded and begged the Lord to save them, but the got no answer from Heaven. Until they did. When God remembered His people, He broke Pharaoh's pride and feed them from their bondage by parting the Red Sea, and when the got to the other side, by bringing down the water on their enemies. When the Israelites saw the floating bodies the next morning, they didn't shriek, they didn't gloat, and they didn't thank their lucky stars. What they did is sing: first the men under the direction of Moses, then the women taking their cue from Miriam.
This was a Song of Deliverance, a hymn so decisive in the history of Israel that it's still sung--in synagogues, in churches, and...in Heaven. Round the Throne in Glory, John hears the saints raising their voices in God's praise, and one of the selections they sang in his hearing was--
The Song of Moses.
The Redeemed of the Lord are singers!
Many years later, Israel again went into captivity, this time to the East, in the mighty empires of Babylon, Media, and Persia. There they served pagan kings who commanded them to eat unclean foods, to worship golden images, and to pray to a mortal man instead of the One True God. To add insult to injury, the heathen prodded them to sing the Songs of Zion, to entertain them with a little ethnic music. But they just couldn't do it--
How shall we sing the
in a foreign land?
This terrible state of affairs lasted for seventy years. Until God, once again, stood up for His people, broke their chains, and sent them home with a song in their hearts--
Therefore, the Redeemed of the Lord shall return and come with singing unto Zion. An everlasting joy shall be upon their heads. They shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and mourning shall flee away!
The People who hung their heads--and harps--in Babylon, burst into song on their way home.
The Redeemed of the Lord are singers!
Sometimes, they raised their voice as one. At other times, trained choirs sang for them--not 'to' them as performers, but 'for' them--in their place. And sometimes, when the blessing was personal or private, a man or woman would lift his voice in praise. I think of Hannah, when the Lord gave her the son she had been praying for for so many years, a son who would preach the Word of God, adminster justice in Israel, and serve as a type of Christ.
And so, whether the singing is congregational or choral or solo, the Redeemed of the Lord are singers!
But, as the New Testament opens, the singers of Israel had, once again, fallen silent. They were back in the land, but they were still in bondage to heathen kings, first the Persians, then the Greeks, and now the Romans.
A few were still praying for God to act as He had before, but most of the people had given up. Whatever songs were still sung at Temple or synagogue were sung without heart and without hope. The song service in Israel had become...lackluster.
GOD BREAKS IN
Until God acted. He sent an angel to an old priest by the name of Zacharias, telling him that he and his elderly wife, Elisabeth, would have a son, and that their son would do the most important thing any man had ever done up until that time. He would--
Prepare the way of the Lord.
He would be the herald of the Christ, preparing the people for His arrival, and introducing the nation to its King.
The good news was too good for Zacharias to believe, and for his unbelief, he would be struck dumb until the promise was fulfilled. Unbelief--you see--does not sing! Zacharias went home disgrace.
A few months later, the angel made a second visit to Israel, this time about seventy miles north of Jerusalem, to the shabby village of Nazareth.
There he met a common girl--maybe fourteen years old--with the commonest female name in Israel, Miriam, or as we call her, Mary.
The angel told her that God would soon visit her and form a child in her womb. Mary didn't understand how that was possible, of course, but she didn't need to know the mechanics, because she knew the God with whom--
Nothing will be impossible.
Believing the Word of God put a song in Mary's heart, a song she would soon sing to her cousin Elisabeth--and to the whole world.
Speaking of Elisabeth, she was back home in the hill country of Judea and about six months along in her pregnancy. One day her young cousin paid her a visit and when she called from the front door, the babe in Elisabeth's womb--
Leaped for joy, and she was filled with the Holy Spirit!
The Salvation of the World had come to her home, and so, naturally, Elisabeth sang God's praises and became the first singer of Christmas music.
The song recorded for us in Luke 1:42-45 is called The Benedicta. It was soon followed by Mary's song, the Magnificat, then, three months later, Zacharias's Benedictus, then the angels' Gloria, and finally, forty days after the Lord's birth, the song that always chokes me up: Simeon's Ninc Dimittis.
For the next few weeks, God willing, we're going to read and meditate on the first Christmas hymns, with the prayer that God would not only move us to sing them, but would also--in the words of Isaiah 12-become--
and our salvation.
The Benedicta was part of our New Testament lesson this morning, but it's short enough to be repeated in full--
Blessed are you among women, and
Blessed is the fruit of your womb!
But why is this granted to me,
That the mother of my Lord should
come to me?
For, indeed, as soon as the voice
of your greeting
sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in
my womb for joy.
Blessed is she who believed,
for their will be a fulfillment of those things
which were told her from the Lord!
The first thing you notice about Elisabeth's song is it's theme: Blessedness. In just three-and-a-half verses, the dear woman pronounces three blessings. In the Greek Testament, two words are commonly translated, 'blessed'.
One means 'happy', found seven times in the Beatitudes--
Blessed are the poor and spirit...
Blessed are the meek...
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness...
...And so on.
The other means 'favored', and that's the word Luke uses here. Elisabeth tells her young cousin that God has favored her. Mary's not 'full of grace' in the Roman Catholic sense of the term--that is a dispensary of God's favor to others--but is herself favored, 'graced' by God..
On this point--I think--Evangelical Christians are too scared of being 'Catholic' to take in what the Bible plainly says. When Elisabeth pronounced Mary blessed, she wasn't crowning her the Queen of Heaven or making her Co-Redemptrix alongside her Son.
She was simply stating the obvious: to be the mother of Messiah was a singular honor. Mary didn't deserve the honor more than any other woman, but it was given to her on the principle that all blessings are conferred: by grace alone!
A bit later in the Gospel story, however, we're going to learn something Elisabeth couldn't have imagined at the time. Mary was chosen by God and destined for glory, but...
The blessing was not only hers! When she and her other children tried to squeeze their way in to see Jesus, somebody told Him they were standing outside, assuming He would grant them an audience.
Instead of doing that, however, Jesus said one of the most shocking thing 1st Century Jewish ears ever heard--
Who is my mother and who are my brothers?
Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in Heaven is my brother and sister and mother.
Nothing was more important to the Jews of that time than family--nuclear family, of course, but mostly the more extended family. Israel itself, in fact, was a family, succeeding from one old couple, Abraham and Sarah.
But Jesus implies that this family is only provisional. A blessing, of course, and necessary for life under the sun. But when all things are restored, when Heaven and Earth are renewed, the true family of God will emerge, related not by common DNA, but by union with Christ!
By its very nature, bearing the Son of God was a one-of-a-kind work, a privilege only one woman could enjoy. But the infinite and eternal favor of God can be--and is--the possession of anyone and everyone who puts his faith in Christ!
Every Christian is every bit as blessed as Mary, the mother of our Lord. Our callings are different, but our destiny is the same.
Elisabeth's second blessing is pronounced on--
The fruit of [Mary's] womb,
Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus was not yet born, of course; in fact, Mary was not even 'showing' at the time. But even then--just a few days or weeks after conception, Jesus was 'favored by God'. Like Mary--except on a much higher plane--He was chosen and set aside to become--
The Savior of the World.
How much Christology Elisabeth knew at the time, I don't know. She knew the unborn babe was King, of course, and Messiah, but did she also know He was the very Son of God? And if she did, did she know what 'Son of God' means? No one can say.
But we can say this. She spoke these words under the prompting of the Holy Spirit--and He certainly knew who Jesus was and is--and it was He who moved the lady to sing with the Psalmist--
I will bless the Lord at all times;
His praise shall continually be in my
My soul shall make its boast in the
The humble shall hear
and be glad;
O, magnify the Lord with me,
and let us exalt His name together!
As a woman unable to bear children, she had been scorned and pitied by her neighbors for years, and maybe every time she looked into her husband's eyes, she saw disappointment, failure, resentment. But how strange are the ways of God! The pitied, scorned, disappointing old woman becomes the first person to recognize the Christ and the first in this world to lavish honors upon Him.
Thirty years after this meeting, Elisabeth's son, John, said of Mary's son, Jesus--
He must increase,
I must decrease.
He said it as a matter-of-fact, as the way things were and ought to be. There was no jealousy in John, no secret envy resenting the popularity of his cousin. For John, humility before Christ was a family affair. Long before he said it, his mother did--
Why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
This was an age that preferred age to youth, marriage to singleness, and the priesthood above all other callings. On all three points, Elisabeth had the advantage: she was old and Mary was young; she was married and Mary was single; her husband was a priest, while Mary's fiance was only a carpenter. You'd think Mary would feel awkward around her cousin, but it's the other way around: It is Elisabeth who is shy in the presence of God's Special Favor.
Who was she to meet the mother of Christ? Who was she to meet Christ Himself?
This was the proper approach to take. She should have been humbled in the presence of the Blessed. And so should we. We look at each other as 'regular guys': but there's not a 'regular' Christian in the world! Every one of us is chosen by the Father, redeemed by the Son, indwelt by the Spirit, and destined for a glory the angels would envy (if they did envy).
Keeping this in mind will keep us from the selfish ambition and conceit Paul warns of in Philippians, the attitudes to which every one of us is prone!
The coming of Christ humbles His people: common people, like Mary and Elisabeth and people not so common, like the Magi who show up a bit later in the story. What's true of Christ's Incarnation is also true of Christ coming to us in the Holy Spirit. Where He is present, there is humility; where pride prevails, He is absent!
Elisabeth is so overcome by the coming of Christ that she can't stop blessing His mother; in v.45 blessing her, in particular, for her faith--
Blessed is she who believed.
Here, it's impossible to miss the irony. Her own husband is a priest, trained his whole life in the Word of God, but when he got the 'good news' he doubted: and there he sat, mute as a statue! For six months, he hadn't said a word, as the angel had spoken.
But, in contrast to the well-educated priest, an ordinary girl--perhaps illiterate--is naive enough to believe God can do what He says!
This, too, speaks powerfully to us, to people who think 'right doctrine' is important. It is important; we're to love the Lord with all our minds, but remember, an ounce of faith is worth more than a ton of knowledge!
We are not justified by knowledge, we are justified by faith! The woman's sickness wasn't healed by her theology, it was her faith that made her well.
Many good things can be said about Mary, but none compare to faith, to her simple, childlike believing God.
Well, I've said a good deal about Elisabeth and Mary, Jesus, of course, but there's one other person in the story. Like Christ, he is also in his mother's womb, and though he doesn't speak any words, he very much has something to say.
It is John the Baptist. Like his mother, he too, heard Mary's greeting, and when he did--
He leaped for joy.
Everyone knows that babies move around in the womb, sometimes kicking their mothers black and blue on the inside! We also know that there's no way of interpreting the kicks. Is the baby jumping for joy? Or kicking in anger? Or is he just moving? We don't know these things.
But the Holy Spirit does. And it was He who gave Elisabeth her Song. He knows what John was doing: He was jumping for joy!
This is the message of the Benedicta: The coming of Christ brings joy. For God did not join the human race to just wander around, doing what came to hand. He came with a purpose: He came to save His people from our sins!
The work began with His conception, and proceeded through His whole life, climaxing in His death and resurrection thirty-plus years later.
John the Baptist didn't know this at the time, but even knowing what he did, he felt the hope that Christ was bringing into the world.
We know more than the baby John did. And so, we ought to leap for joy as well, to live contented and cheerful lives, to praise God for what we have instead of muttering over what we don't have. And most of all to take in, meditate on, and respond to God's Unspeakable Gift.
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