Whatever you think of the old slogan lex orandi lex credendi (the law of prayer [is] the law of belief), there is no doubt that music has a significant impact on our faith and life as Christians. This is true throughout the year. But during the month of December, the symbolic power of song is undeniable. Much like the 1931 Coke advertisement which continues to shape the American conception of Saint Nicholas, our cultural holiday playlist teaches us (for better or worse) how to prepare for and think about Christmas.
This power of Christmas music recommends preaching on the appointed Gospel reading from Luke 1. There we find the original Advent song—the Magnificat. In addition to listening to or singing it as a congregation (LSB 933-935 offer versions, as does Todd Agnew and the Gettys), your sermon could unpack its theological depth (you might also check out Bror Erickson’s reflection here).
As you think about what your sermon might do with this ancient song, you might reflect on these overarching themes that could be explored more fully:
1. God deals graciously with the humble, the lowly, the hungry. Prescient of Jesus’ teaching in the Beatitudes, the singer of this song approaches God as one who is poor in spirit, meek, and hungry for righteousness. He shows His favor to those who fear Him (verse 50). He looks on their humble estate and exalts them (verse 52). He exercises His might by remembering His mercy (verse 54) and doing great things for them (verse 49).
In terms of present-day proclamation, this part of the Magnificat could lead you to call your hearers to humble themselves before God (1 Peter 5:6-7). This would be appropriate for a congregation which is overly confident and proud. They may need you to proclaim God’s command to repent of the arrogant thoughts of their hearts (verse 51). On the other hand, your congregation may have already been brought low by any combination of challenges and frustrations. They may need you to emphasize God’s promise to comfort and exalt them in His time.
He exercises His might by remembering His mercy and doing great things for them.
2. God’s work through Mary’s child has been in the works for a long time. Those who sing this song identify themselves as minor players in a much bigger story. This is most explicit in verses 54-55. God has been helping His servant Israel for a long time. Ever since His promise to Abraham and His offspring, God has been working to bless all peoples of the earth. His plan of salvation includes all He has created.
This part of the Magnificat would be helpful to emphasize to a congregation whose understanding of the biblical narrative jumps immediate from Genesis 3:15 to John 3:16—from the fall into sin to the birth of Jesus. If you have not explicitly been locating your hearers in the biblical story of everything and its emphasis on God’s choice of Abraham and his family, this would be a great opportunity to start doing so (if you are not sure what I mean by “story of everything,” it would be well worth your time to watch this recent lecture by Joel Okamoto).
3. The promise of Mary’s child leads to great rejoicing. The Magnificat begins with praise to God and “exceeding joy” in the spirit of the one who sings. Luke’s word often translated “rejoice,” is ἠγαλλίασεν, which was a new formation in Hellenistic Greek and found only in biblical and ecclesiastical literature. In almost every case in the New Testament, it refers to the joy we have in God’s work of salvation. The creation of this word reminds us that the Magnificat, like Christmas itself, is charged from the start with joy and praise.
A worthy goal for this sermon would be to (re)kindle in the hearts of your hearers the joy of God’s saving work in Christ. We are days away from hearing once again the “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10), and yet the busyness of the season and the commercialization of that holy night has a way of sucking the joy out of the hearts of Christians. You cannot just tell people to rejoice, of course. That is not how it works. But you can proclaim the good news promises of God as they are spelled out in the Magnificat. And you could proclaim them with zeal and fervor. By attending to the pathos (emotion) with which you speak, your own rejoicing through this sermon can become contagious. If your hearers sense you genuinely believe what you are saying, and that you are filled with joy in God’s promises, it will be more likely that they join in the rejoicing. For those of you who are more comfortable with a muted and stoic demeanor, this might be a stretch. But given the incredible promises of God in this child of Mary, it is a stretch worth making.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Luke 1:39-45 (46-56)
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 1:39-45 (46-56).
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Arthur Just of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Luke 1:39-45 (46-56).