Rejoicing in the (inconvenient) Grace of God

Chatswood Baptist Church

Luke 1:26-56

Over the top reactions

I’m not a great receiver of gifts. I do appreciate gifts, and of course I’m thankful and try to make sure you know I appreciate the gift or at least the thoughtfulness. But I’m not overflowing with thankfulness when I receive gifts, and I find it really hard to pretend I like gifts that I don’t really like at all. I just can’t help myself thinking about how the gift is basically a waste of money because I won’t really enjoy or use it… 

My brother-in-law, Bill, however is the ultimate gift receiver. You end up feeling like the most thoughtful, generous, insightful person in the world because of how happy you’ve made him with your gift.

The problem though is that he tends to be a little bit over the top. His reactions are just a bit too appreciative. He can’t really like the gift that much – it just isn’t that good a gift. And so you suspect his reaction might have nothing to do with whether he really likes the present, and how thankful he is, and rather he’s just trying to make you feel good. 

Some people do tend to react to situations in a way that is frankly just a bit over the top don’t they? It just seems too much, or not quite what you’d expect given the situation.

Mary’s (over the top?) Song

I think Mary’s Song from our passage today in response to the news that she will have a child can seem a little like this. She’s been told she’s going to have a baby, albeit a very special one, and she proclaims, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.”

It’s an odd reaction in that it sounds like the grateful praise of a married woman who has been longing for a child for many, many years, but unable to conceive… and then finally, through God being ‘mindful of the humble state of his servant’ and ‘doing great things for her’, she has been able to conceive. It sounds like something that would be more fitting from the lips of her elderly cousin Elizabeth, who is in precisely that kind of situation! 

But what’s Mary’s situation? She’s an unmarried young woman, with zero disappointment for ‘not having had a child yet’, because she had no expectation of having a child yet! And what’s more is that she’s betrothed to a man who is going to have BIG questions about her pregnancy.

The world of Mary and Joseph is a not a time and place that celebrated women falling pregnant out of wedlock. The news that she was about to conceive before marriage, without the assistance of her fiancé, was not really ‘good news’ from the perspective of Mary’s personal circumstances.

When you read the account of these events in Matthew’s gospel, you get a clearer sense of how difficult and dangerous this could be for Mary. We read in Matthew chapter 1 that ‘Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.’ 

At face value, from the perspective of ‘what’s good for Mary’, the news that she was going to conceive in this way was frankly pretty bad news. It was inconvenient. It was disruptive news that had the potential to set her life spirally down into social alienation and poverty. She was lucky that Joseph had in mind to divorce her quietly and give her the best chance of survival. Of course, we know God took care of all the potential confusion and looked after Mary and her baby. But at the point when Mary breaks into her song of praise, she doesn’t know how it’s all going to play out with Joseph. 

Rejoicing in the Faithfulness of God

So, no Mary’s song doesn’t quite make sense of her personal circumstances, but that is of course because it’s not about her personal circumstances. She’s rejoicing and praising God because Mary quite rightly sees that she has been blessed to play a central role in God working out his great plans of salvation in this world, and so she rejoices at God’s faithfulness and mercy, despite the ‘inconvenience’ of his grace. Mary revels in the blessing of experiencing God’s inconvenient grace. Mary looks beyond her personal circumstances to rejoice by faith in what God is doing for her and for the whole world through this baby.

Mary understands, because she’s been told by the angel Gabriel, that the child she will bear is no ordinary child. This is not about her ‘having a baby’. This is about God graciously choosing her to bear hischild, his king, into the world. 

When Gabriel appears to Mary, he greets her as one who is highly favoured. And again, when she is troubled, quite understandably by an angel appearing to her, he explains again that she has found favour with God and there is no need to fear. This doesn’t mean God has picked her because he looked and saw a young woman who impressed her. It means she has been graciously favoured by God to be chosen for this task. It is an honour.

The heart of the good news that Mary has latched on to, the reason is to be considered favoured or blessed is, as we read from verse 31, “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

This news is the reason Mary sings praises to God her Saviour. For hundreds of years God has promised to establish a king on the throne of great king David – a king who would establish justice and peace in the world. Who would rule forever and ever in righteousness, transforming the world to a place of joy. A King who would finally put a stop to the corruption of earthly leaders and vindicate those who have waited patiently for his justice. And the angel Gabriel is saying that this king is about to be conceived in her.

This is the reason she goes on in her song (from verse 50) to declare that God’s mercy abounds, and that he has performed mighty deeds with his arm. This is the language of salvation and redemption. 

It’s certainly not the kind of thing you normally hear from expectant parents is it? It’s not what you typically read under ultrasound pictures posted on Facebook… “We are looking forward to the birth of a little girl! God has done mighty deeds and brought down rulers from their thrones!”

Mary draws on the language and longing of the Old Testament prophets, looking forward to the coming Kingdom of God as she contemplates what the birth of her child will mean. This will mean the justice that God has been promising his people for so long will finally be brought to fulfilment. No longer will the proud and powerful trample on the humble and needy. No, simply in the announcement that this child is coming, is being formed inside her by the power of the Holy Spirit, God has ‘scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts’ and ‘brought down rules from their thrones’ and instead ‘lifted up the humble.’ In the news of this child to be born, God has ‘filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.’

The birth of Jesus, even simply the announcement to Mary that she will conceive him, is God being faithful to his promises to turn this world upside down – to bring blessing through the nation of Israel to the humble, and bring his judgement on the proud and oppressive people and systems in this world. The birth of Jesus is all about God establishing his good kingdom. It’s all about him sending his Messiah, his Son, to bring justice and peace and to set everything right in this world.

Rejoicing in the (inconvenient) grace of God at Christmas

This is what Christmas is all about! This is why all the original Christmas carols (the ones that are actually about Jesus!) go on and on about kings in the line of David, and God’s redemption of a world languishing in sin and death. 

Take these two verses from O Come, O come Emmanuel:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,

and ransom captive Israel

that mourns in lonely exile here

until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Desire of nations, bind

all peoples in one heart and mind;

bid envy, strife, and discord cease;

fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

shall come to thee, O Israel.

And of course, the opening verse of Joy to the World:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!

Let earth receive her King;

Let every heart prepare Him room,

And heaven and nature sing…

Christmas is all about the wonderful news that God has kept his promises. He has sent his king, his Son, to ransom captive Israel – to rescue humanity from our exile in sin. Jesus comes as the desire of the nations, the one who will end discord and strife and fill the whole world with heaven’s peace. 

So Mary rejoices in the announcement that she is to conceive this child, because it means her King has come, and with him, all the joy and hopes for peace and justice that are bound up in the promise of God’s good kingdom. She rejoices in the midst of the inconvenience and disruption this news brings to her personalworld, because she knows how good this news is for her and for the whole world. She rejoices that God is going to turn the whole world upside down through this baby, even though her personal world is going to be turned upside down in the process.

Rejoicing with Mary

And I think in Mary’s reaction, in her song of praise, we have a helpful reminder for each of us to look beyond our personal circumstances and rejoice in the news that God’s King, our King, has come in Jesus, even if this news is actually a little inconvenient… 

On the surface of it, Christmas seems to be all about comfort and feeling good (except for the shopping!). Quite frankly, Christmas can often be all about rejoicing in our immediate, physical and social circumstances. Family, friends, food, holidays… we celebrate this time of year and look forward to it for a reason. 

But of course, as we know, the real reason for the season is Jesus. And Jesus, is actually a little inconvenient isn’t he? Jesus comes as THE king. He comes to disrupt this world and to turn it upside down – to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty, to scatter the proud and lift up the humble. And whilst this really is good news, it means our lives getting turned upside down too. Either now, as we embrace Jesus as King, or later as we find ourselves swept up in his justice.

I think the way the birth of Jesus disrupts Mary’s personal world is like a picture of the way Jesus actually disrupts our whole world – the way he disrupts each of our lives. It’s a profoundly good thing that Jesus comes to disrupt this world and set things right, but it’s not an easy or comfortable thing. 

 He comes to take back his rightful place as king over each of us. As we sing in Joy to the World, “Let Earth receive her King, let every heart prepare him room.” And that’s not comfortable is it? That’s not convenient. Because we tend to enjoy ruling our own lives. It would actually be easier and more convenient if God just left us alone.

But it wouldn’t be better for us. It would be less disruptive, but it would be tragic. 

Jesus comes to turn the world upside down – our lives upside down – because that’s what we need! It really is profoundly good news that Jesus has come as God’s promised King to set everything right – even if that means our lives being turned upside down in the process. 

So let’s follow Mary’s example and rejoice by faith in the grace of God at Christmas – his inconvenient, disruptive grace, because it really is such good news. In the midst of the superficial comforts of Christmas – the meals, the presents, the time relaxing with family – in the midst of all this, it’s good to appreciate that the birth of Christ is actually a disruption to all our lives. It’s not comfortable or easy to hand over the reins of our life back to God. But like Mary, we want to quickly see past the disruption and the risk and the inconvenience to see just how profoundly good this news is. This is the powerful, merciful, faithful justice of God – it’s exactly what we need. It’s pretty much impossible to go over the top celebrating this news.