December 21, 2014
What could be more natural than one expectant mother going to visit another? Yet when Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth, the scene also had a supernatural element. In this message on Jesus’ infancy narrative, we see God revealing His plan of salvation to two women who responded in humble worship. Alistair Begg encourages us to consider the unique place Mary holds in human history and, like her, to respond with joy at the goodness and mercy of God.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn with me to the Gospel of Luke and chapter 1, and we’ll read from verse 39. Luke 1:39. Having received the announcement of the angel, Mary decides to go and confer with her relative Elizabeth:
“In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘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 fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.’
“And Mary said,
“‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
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 [empty away].
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.”
Well, let’s pray together:
Speak, O Lord, as we come to thee to receive the truth of your Holy Word. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Well, once again we find ourselves at the intersection of history and divinity and mystery. We have already affirmed this, but it’s good to keep it in our minds that in the virgin conception—because it is the conception that is so peculiar, not the birth itself; it was a normal birth, it was a supernatural conception—in the virgin conception, and at just the right time, God himself, in the second person of the Trinity, took the initiative and acted without the help, without the cooperation, and without the instrumentality of fallen man.
That is at the very heart of the mystery which lies alongside the resurrection, I think, as the two key elements in the wonder of God’s work in humanity. He was born as a real person, and he died as a real person. And it’s important for us to keep in mind these verities of Christianity, what we affirm in the creeds and what we have learned throughout the years, especially when—it happens routinely, and will happen again, I’m sure, in the next few days, if you haven’t encountered it already—you will find in the literature (contemporary literature and on the internet) various people saying, “Well, we understand that the Christians have come up with their own version of the ancient myths which are present in history.” And so you will find people saying that the virgin birth is a sort of cobbled version of myths that were related to the stories of Egyptian pharaohs and how the pharaohs did this and did that. And others will say that it really is akin to the pagan models which come from the Greek or Roman world, so if you remember Greek legends about Zeus and Alcmene and producing—who was it?—Heracles. And so the literature will all say… “Don’t worry about it,” says the secularist. “This is just the Christians trying to come up with their own version.”
Well, what you need to know is that the stories of Egyptian pharaohs and stories from Greek and Roman gods are not remotely like what the Bible says concerning the incarnation. They’re not even close. They wouldn’t even come on the same page. Because in the story of the incarnation in the Gospels, you will notice that there is preserved an infinite distance between God and his creatures, and that the invasion of God into time is not the production of a demigod or of a mixture of things, but it is God’s creative word alone which brings about something entirely new.
And what we’ve been discovering in these infancy narratives is that in the second person of the Trinity, God steps down into the sphere of human sin and human failure, and he does what God demands of man to do—live in absolute perfection in relationship to his law—and he takes the place of fallen man, and he does so because nobody else can do so. So when we get to Easter and we sing,
There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin;
He only could unlock the gate
Of heaven and let us in,
it is directly related to what we’re discovering here in these infancy narratives in relationship to the incarnation.
Now, with that said, we return to the story as it unfolds. Mary has been the recipient of this amazing news from the angel. She has been told that she’s to be the mother of the Messiah, the Son of God, and so she does what is not really surprising: she heads off to talk with one of her relatives. I think it’s fairly routine that ladies, when the news of expectancy is upon them, is within them, that they will seek out others like them and compare notes and so on. And largely, that is what is being described for us here.
She’s going to the house of Zechariah. You’ll remember Zechariah’s predicament. He’s got nothing good to say for himself. He’s got nothing to say for himself, actually, at all. And so it’s pretty quiet around the house, and Mary and Elizabeth will be able to have a chat without any interruptions from her husband. A quite remarkable circumstance, as you would agree. Another reminder that there are things about this narrative that are ordinary, and there are some that are extraordinary. And that, of course, is an extraordinary element.
Nothing unusual about two expectant mothers comparing notes. That’s routine. Nothing unusual about two expectant mothers describing the kicking in the tummy and whatever those things are called, given a very technical name—“Branson Hicks” or something like that. I was never sure what it was, but it didn’t really affect me unduly, and so I’m not particularly concerned. But anyway, they would confer with one another in that way, and that would be routine.
But you will notice that the extraordinary breaks into the ordinary, because—verse 40—when Mary “entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.” So she greeted her. I think if you have a King James Version with you, it says she “saluted Elisabeth”—which is a good reason for dispensing with your King James Version, because you’re gonna have to explain to yourself that she didn’t walk in and go, “Good morning, Elizabeth. Nice to see you.” But it is not the word that conveys what was taking place. As she “greeted Elizabeth” and—verse 41—“Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary,” then what is ordinary is swallowed up by what is extraordinary. Because we’re told that Elizabeth’s unborn child—namely, the one who is to be John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus—the baby “leaped” in her womb. And this verb here is expressive of an unusual encounter—not the normal kicking, not the “it feels like an elbow” story, but actually something entirely different. And in verse 44, Elizabeth, in mentioning it again, explains the reason for the leaping of the baby—namely, that this baby leapt “for joy.”
Now, what we need to see here is that Luke has done his careful research. I would imagine that he was able to get much of this material from his own personal conversations with Mary. And he would have been able to interview her, sit down and talk with her, and ask her, “Tell me about those things.” Now, the level of detail and intimacy points to that, I think you would agree. And it comes out—and remember that Luke is a physician—it comes out that Elizabeth is aware of the fact that what has happened inside her is no ordinary movement.
Now, we should not be surprised by this—at least, only in some measure—because of what we already know from reading the earlier part of the chapter. Remember, in 1:15 (of course, we’re still in chapter 1) that the word of the angel to Zechariah was—concerning the one who was to be born of Elizabeth—is that he would “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God,” and the way in which this would take place is on account of the fact—verse 15—that “he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” So here we have an ordinary—we might say tranquil—scene in a routine home in the hill country in the region of Judah, in the house of Zechariah the priest, with a lady, his wife, who is now expectant to the tune of some six months, and in the encounter that takes place there, once again, divinity and mystery invades the ordinary.
Now, keep in mind what we’ve said all along: that these events are unfolding after a period in which the silence concerning the prophetic word has seemed almost deafening, we might say. And the darkness that is represented in the surrounding culture seems to be a virtually impenetrable darkness. And now these prophecies—such as are found, for example, back in Ezekiel, about how the Spirit of God would be poured out, and in that day, and in that mighty day of the Lord, the Spirit of God would come in his power and influence and so on—it is with all of that by way of background that we come to this event. And we realize that here, in a place that no one would ever expect, in an ordinary couple that would not stand out in any crowd, even in the context of the priestly function, God himself is at work.
I think we ought just to pause and acknowledge that God works like this more often than not. No one was looking in Bethlehem for the Savior of the world. No one was looking to the youngest child of Jesse to be the champion of Goliath. No one was looking in the temple of Eli for a little boy called Samuel to be raised to such a position. And so, it ought to remind us of the way God has worked throughout history—that no one would have anticipated that a slave trader by the name of John Newton, who could cuss one side up and one side down, would become the writer of the Olney Hymns; that a little lady like Gladys Aylward, who had no education and no status, and no social background at all, would become the agency of God to reach countless thousands of little Chinese children when she went as “the little woman” to China.
And we need to keep in mind that God is still at work when the silence seems deafening and the darkness seems impenetrable.
How silently, how silently,
the wondrous Gift is giv’n;
[And] God imparts to human hearts
The blessing of his heav’n.
When you trusted Christ, was there a trumpeter that went before you? Was there a brass band that played? I would guess not. Perhaps you knelt in your bedroom, perhaps as you drove in your car, perhaps seated on a Sunday much like this, you cried out to God in a way that you never cried before, and he came and made you a new person—silently, unmistakably, transforming.
Now, Elizabeth’s baby, you see, is the one who’s going to go before the Messiah. That, again, was the prophecy—verse 17, if you turn a page back: “And he will go before him.” Who is the him? The Messiah. “He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah.” So what is happening here, apparently, is something along these lines: I take it that the baby in the womb of Elizabeth, sensing the presence of his Master in the womb of Mary, leaps in anticipation. It’s almost as if he knows that he is to be the one who will go before, that he is the one who must come out first, in order that he might be ahead of the one who will come after him; the one who will come after him will be greater than he. You say, “Well, that’s conjecture.” Well, I said to you, “I take it that…” I don’t know. I’m trying to make sense of it, the same way that you are. Because he was to be filled with the Holy Spirit “from his mother’s womb,” so presumably, this is what is happening here. And that is exactly what has happened in relationship to Elizabeth herself: “And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” So here we have this child in the womb, and the mother, and the Spirit of God invades them and comes upon them.
But that actually helps me to understand how it is that Elizabeth was able to say what she said. Because think about this: she hasn’t had a postcard explaining what has been happening in Mary’s life. Mary has shown up, she came in, she said, “Elizabeth, hello!” And then look what happens! Look at… She doesn’t say, “Would you like a coffee?” No! She exclaims with a loud voice.
And then she’s got her own little song of her own. It’s almost like her own little poem. We have the Magnificat for Mary; we don’t have anything for Elizabeth here. But it’s almost like her own little poem: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted … that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”—because the sound of the greeting made the baby leap in the womb, and he leapt for joy. “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” That’s quite a response, wouldn’t you say? That is quite remarkable. She was filled with the Holy Spirit, and then she said this.
How do you explain Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost? He was filled with the Holy Spirit. How do you explain the activity of God, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit? The Spirit of God pointing forward always to the Son of God; the work of the Spirit of God to say, “This is Jesus; consider him. This is Jesus; believe in him. This is Jesus; trust in him.” And it is this role that is given to the baby in the womb of Elizabeth.
And on account of that, she pronounces her blessed. She acknowledges that Mary is the mother of the Lord. And she proclaims the humanity of Jesus, in that it is “the fruit of your womb.” And she declares her own personal humility: “Why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
That’s why I had Alan play that wonderful melody to the song that appeared on the screen:
My song is love unknown,
My Savior’s love to me.
Love to the loveless shown,
That [I] might lovely be.
O who am I, that for my sake
[The] Lord should take frail flesh and die?
You see, this is the work of the Spirit of God in the life of a person in bringing them to conversion. This is how God’s Spirit works. He brings us not to a point where we say, “Oh, it makes perfect sense. God must know what a wonderful person I am, you know—that I’ve done this, and I’ve done that, and I’ve done the next thing.” No. The Spirit of God shows you that you’re a bigger mess than you’re prepared to accept from the lips of your wife, that you’re more broken, that you’re more fouled up, that you’re more sinful than you could ever, ever imagine. And then the Spirit of God says, “But I’ve got amazing news for you: this Jesus that is born of Mary is the one who saves from sin,” so that when you’ve tried your best to fix yourself, when you’ve tried your best to free yourself, when you’ve tried your best to make sense of yourself, and it all comes to naught, the Spirit of God is at work saying, “Listen. Listen.”
You see, Elizabeth’s words actually reinforce the angel’s announcement. How nice that she had this second reinforcement! She told Joseph what the angel had said. Now she goes to tell Elizabeth, presumably, but before she gets a chance to tell Elizabeth, Elizabeth tells her. And if she’d imagined, even for a moment, that perhaps she’d got it wrong, her faith is secured, strengthened, by the response of her relative: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Mary believed that it would be fulfilled. That’s how she’d said, “Let it be … according to your word.” And Elizabeth says, “There’s a blessing that attends that.” And then Mary starts her own song. And we just have a chance to look at it for a moment: “And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord.’”
You’ll notice in your Bible there, it says “The Magnificat.” And those of you who were brought up with the Magnificat, perhaps brought up with the Latin Mass, will have said this many, many times—“Magnificat anima mea Dominum”—and said it again and again, service after service. You maybe never knew what you were saying. But you enjoyed it. It’s been said in the church for centuries. It’s been in the Anglican church, in Vespers, the ancient service of Vespers, since the sixth century. If you go to an Anglican church tonight in England, it will be in the evening service of prayer. It’s interesting, isn’t it? That a song like this, in a very specific circumstance like this, should become a song that has entered into the very heart of the Christian community forever and ever—in part, in fulfillment of the word that is spoken: “And you will be blessed for all generations. Generations will always be blessing you.”
So, essentially what is happening here is that Mary is singing her own song. “This is my story, this is my song,” says Mary. That’s what I wrote in my notes. And if it brings to mind the Psalms, you’re on track. In fact, as I looked through this in the week, I could find allusions to the 111th Psalm, the 103rd Psalm, more besides. And frankly, the opening verse or two sounds an awful lot like Psalm 34, doesn’t it? “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise [will] continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the Lord.” And then Psalm 34:3: “Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and [come,] let us exalt his name together!” “And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, … my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Sounds a lot like that, doesn’t it?
Well, we ought not to be surprised, ’cause Mary was a Hebrew girl. Mary had the benefits of the Shema. Mary had been brought up—in fact, Mary’s mind is saturated with the Old Testament. Her mind is just full of the Bible. And when your mind is full of the Bible and you sing, you’ll sing what is in your mind, what is in your heart. If you fill your heart up with God, God will come out. If you fill your heart up yourself, yourself will come out. If you fill your heart up with nonsense, nonsense will come out. And so, when in response to this amazing encounter she gives voice to her song, what does it come out as? It’s not about herself. She doesn’t sing about herself. She sings about God and his greatness, God and his goodness, God and his power, his majesty, his might, and his holiness. And it is a fact of history that we too will give voice to that which is in our hearts. Because “out of the abundance of the heart [the] mouth speaks.” And that’s why James is so galling, isn’t it? “Are you still gonna let come out of your mouth curses and praises?” he says. “This shouldn’t be. You don’t get salt water and pure water out of one spring. Therefore, you ought not to have cursing and praising coming out of your lips.” And he says, “If a man controls his lips, he’s a perfect man.” There only was one perfect man.
Now, I was thinking a lot about this this week. Because I am observant, and I am concerned, both personally, familially, congregationally, culturally, and beyond. Because we dare not underestimate the impact of music, melody, and lyric in building into the lives of children. How many times in the last eighteen months has somebody told you how cute it is that your little one knows all the words to Frozen? And if they don’t know all the words to Frozen, they know all the words to “Let It Go.” Okay? And you can find them everywhere, little voices going, “Let it go, let it gooooo!” And I’m like, “What is that about? What are they singing about?” But they’re singing it!
Now, I may have it upside down, but I went and got the lyrics. And I can’t quote them all, because we don’t have time, but let me just give a little flavor of what it is that my grandchildren are deciding they’re gonna sing:
It’s funny how some distance
Makes everything seem small.
And the fears that once controlled me
Can’t get to me at all.
It’s time to see what I can do,
To test the limits and break through.
No right, no wrong, no rules for me,
Let it go, let it go.
Oh, now, that’s cute. No, that’s downright dangerous. That’s what that is. Did anybody tell you that we are in a battle, not against physicality but against spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places—that we don’t wrestle against flesh and blood, that the battle is a cosmic battle, is a far more significant battle? And the battle for the minds of our children and our children’s children is a real battle being waged all day, every day. Therefore, it matters what they memorize. It matters what they sing. It matters what goes in.
And when I think back on my own life and how I used to buck under the miserable system of my parental jurisdiction, the jurisdiction over me—how I had to scream and kick and do everything to finally get to see a movie… At the age of fifteen, I saw my first movie: The Ten Commandments. Finally, I broke through with The Ten Commandments! Two and a half hours of Charlton Heston. That was the thin edge of the wedge. I was able then to push through and into The Sound of Music! And it all seemed so rotten. But if you want to know how I know all my songs, it’s ’cause we sang them in the car. We sang them on the way. We sang them on the way home. I didn’t necessarily think it was great. But I know now, today, it was great. Just a word in passing: don’t “let it go.”
Notice her posture: she’s a worshipper. “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Mary worships God. Mary is not to be worshipped; Mary worships. Wrong views of Mary have led many astray. All you need is your Bible to stay straight. Just allow the Bible to be the grid through which you pour every other idea, so that you make always your appeal to the Scriptures, no matter who says what he says, where he says it—myself, my colleagues, anybody else. It is to your Bible that I appeal. Look to your Bible. See if it’s there. If it’s not there, then you don’t want to pay any attention to it.
Her posture was of a worshipper. Her privilege was that God had looked upon her “humble estate” and that she is able to rejoice in God her Savior. What a mystery that the child in her womb is the one who by his death will make atonement for her sin. The child that she carries will one day hang upon a cross. She will be at the foot of the cross, and she will say to herself, “Here is my Lord and my Savior.”
Her posture is worship. Her privilege is that she would know him as a Savior. And her place, you will see, is that “from now on all generations will call me blessed.” What does that mean? Well, it means that generations that follow will praise God for the honor that he bestowed upon her. Because he’s the one “who is mighty” and “has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” She goes on in verse 49—we need to stop, but she goes on in 49 to speak about his majesty, the majesty of this one whose power and whose holiness and whose mercy extends to “those who fear him,” who love him, who obey him, who trust him. And it goes “from generation to generation.”
Well, you know, in one sense, what Mary sings about here is unique. In another sense, what she sings about is typical of the experience of every Christian believer. Because if you really know Christ today, that will not be an unfamiliar phrase to you, will it? “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Doesn’t say, “My spirit rejoices in God, who is a cosmic phenomenon,” “My spirit rejoices in God who is inside of me.” No, it says, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” And the reason it does is because “he has looked [up]on the humble estate of his servant.” And in one sense, “from now on all generations” will refer to you as “blessed.” They’ll say things like, “Do you remember old Grandma? Bless her! Do you remember old Great-Grandma? Bless her.”
And the blessing that attends the transition from generation to generation is a blessing that is uniquely of God. God gave his Son to be formed in her body. That’s unique. And yet, actually, what God is doing in the life of a Christian is forming his Son in you—conforming you to the image of his Son. You can read all about it in Galatians. You can read about it in Colossians and so on.
But let me end where I began. In Jesus, God has stepped down into our human sin and our failure. He has come because no one else could. No one else should. He’s come into our world, which is broken. And if we’re not prepared to think that one out, then we’re just not prepared to think.
One black man choked to death by a policeman. Two policemen shot dead in their patrol car in Brooklyn, New York. A hundred and twenty, or a hundred and forty, many of them children, ushered into eternity. Drug abuse that holds many in a viselike grip. A materialism that holds options and no answers. And everywhere you turn, someone will tell you the answer lies in education, or in capitalization, or in redistribution. And even a modicum of historical analysis is able to tell you that has never fixed anything before. It certainly can’t fix the brokenness of a heart and a life. It certainly cannot set free oneself from the addictions that so easily grab us. It certainly cannot give us a straight pathway in the journey of life when we realize ourselves to be so easily lost.
If you’ve come here this morning, and you’re actually prepared to wrestle with that, and you’ve been saying to yourself, “Is there no one—is there no one—who can deal with this?”—let me tell you, you can’t, and an angel can’t, and a philosopher can’t, and an example can’t. Only a Savior can. And the real question, as we anticipate Christmas Eve and the celebration of Christmas, is, “Can I take Mary’s statement upon my lips and use it as a genuine expression of my understanding of God’s grace and goodness to me?” In short, “Am I able to say, ‘My spirit rejoices in God my Savior’?” He is not your Savior by transition from generation to generation. He does not become my Savior as a result of any endeavors on my behalf. He becomes my Savior as I come to him, acknowledging the humble reality of my life: “I’m broken; please fix me. I’m lost; please guide me. I’m trapped; please free me.”
Let us pray:
Thank you, gracious God, that we are able to think these matters through as we find ourselves so far away from an encounter in a hill house in the Judean countryside, and yet we realize that as the Spirit of God works through the Word of God, we’re confronted by things that we know we need to make our response to.
We thank you that Mary in her song introduces us to the majesty and to the greatness and the grandeur of God: that he is the mighty one, he is holy, and that he is merciful—so merciful, so that none of us are ever able to say, “I’ve gone so low that I could never be picked up.” He has entered into the very depths of our circumstances, and he stands ready to pick us up. None of us can stand proudly and say that we have no need of a Savior, because we know, even in a flash of honesty, that we wouldn’t want anyone to know what goes on in our minds. We wouldn’t want anyone to know how jealous we are. We wouldn’t really want anyone to know much at all. And we know that we understand guilt, we understand shame. So we daren’t say we have no need.
Help us, then, gracious God, to bow before you in all of your majesty and in your gracious power, so that we might be able to say with Mary that we rejoice, as Christmas comes around, “in God my Savior.” For we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
 Cecil F. Alexander, “There Is a Green Hill Far Away” (1847).
 See Ezekiel 39:29.
 See 1 Samuel 17.
 See 1 Samuel 3.
 Phillips Brooks, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (1867).
 See Acts 2:14–41.
 Samuel Crossman, “My Song Is Love Unknown” (1664).
 Luke 1:38 (ESV).
 Fanny Crosby, “Blessed Assurance” (1873).
 Psalm 34:1–2 (ESV).
 Luke 6:45 (ESV).
 James 3:2, 10–12 (paraphrased).
 Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, “Let It Go” (2013).
 See Ephesians 6:12.
 See Romans 8:29.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.