Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 12/10/2000
Just before our passage this morning, Mary had received the most astounding news ever delivered to mortal man or woman. If an angel told you something like that, what would you do? You couldn't sit still; you would have to talk to someone or burst. But who? Joseph? Your parents? "Uh, I'm going to be an unwed mother, but an angel said it's OK." Yeah, right. Let's just put those conversations off a bit. Right now there is only one person who can be counted on to understand. And so Mary hastens to visit Aunt Elizabeth. Lots of stuff happened in those three months that are not recorded. The account we have is here because, at the very outset of his earthly life, it gives three responses to the coming of Christ that form a definitive pattern, trustworthy signs of His presence with His followers. Our Lord cannot be present to a receptive and faithful heart without producing these three responses.
The first is that the infant John the Baptist LEAPED FOR JOY (v. 41, 44). Joy is different from Happiness, which is more dependant on circumstances; Jesus was a man of sorrows, but this is not incompatible with Joy. Joy is the ability to praise God and rejoice in His love in spite of our circumstances. So prominent is this response to Christ in both the Gospel narratives and in the Epistles which explain them that its absence in so many contemporary believers and their churches is a troubling and perplexing wonder indeed. In Mat. 2:10 the Wise Men saw the star and rejoiced with exceeding great Joy. In Luke 2:10 the angels announced Christ's birth as news of great Joy to all peoples. The Lord himself said he had come to bring life, and that abundantly, for the word "Joy" does not have to be present for the concept to be implied. In Mat. 25:21 he promises to say to his faithful servants, "Enter into the Joy of your master." In John 15:11 he came that his Joy might be in his disciples and their Joy be made full. In Gal. 5:22, the fruit of the Spirit he sends as his Representative is love, Joy, peace,etc. John writes in 1 John 1:4 so that our Joy may be made complete. Peter speaks in 1 Peter 1:8 of "Joy unspeakable and full of glory." When the lame man in Acts 3:6 was healed by Christ through his servants Peter and John, he started walking and leaping and praising God. None of us here are lame in body this morning, but we are all lame and worse in spirit, yea, "dead in trespasses and sins." Does having our crippled,twisted souls straightened and strengthened not make us leap for joy within? Yes, unless we have forgotten. No one met Christ without a strong response. It was either bitter anger and hatred, or joy and love inexpressible. If He causes neither in you, then you have not met Him, only a phantom we have created in our own minds to protect us from the shocking and astounding Reality of the Son of God.
The second Response is that Elizabeth was FILLED WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT (v.41). This too is the result of responding to Christ with faith. It is related to Joy, which is part of the Fruit of the Spirit, and it is simply a way of talking about the presence of Jesus in your life. For it is He who sends the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:16, John 16:7, 13-14, Acts 2:33). And He sends Him to each heart which He Himself enters (Rom. 8:9). The Spirit's ministry is to take what belongs to Jesus and reveal it to us, to glorify Jesus (John 16:113-14); in other words, it is to make Jesus real to us. Therefore the fullness of the Spirit is not some strange mystical experience in addition to knowing Christ. It simply IS knowing Christ. It has no necessary connection to speaking in tongues or any other particular Gift (for He distributes them severally as He will) but everything to do with Christ being formed in us. For the Holy Spirit is simply Christ's personal Representative and Agent who mediates Christ's presence to His disciples after Christ's ascension until He returns. The closer to Jesus, the more full of the Spirit. To know the fullness of the Spirit, draw near to Christ.
The third Response is that MARY PRAISED GOD (vv. 46-55). Mary was probably illiterate, since only boys would have been sent to synagogue school, but she had absorbed the content and the spirit of the Old Testament through a rich oral culture. And so in response to the Spirit in her own heart she spontaneously uttered the Magnificat, one of the most beartiful hymns of praise to Christ ever composed, in which the very style and rhetorical structure of the Psalms is reproduced. Luke's almost classical Greek becomes suddenly very Hebraic as he quotes it, worthy to take its place in the Psalter alongside the greatest Messianic hymns written by the Sweet Singer of Israel. It continues the them of Joy (v. 47), for praise is Joy overflowing in expression. It praises God for his Grace, in Old Testament terms, to be sure (since the radical form Redemption would take had not yet dawned on her), but Grace unmistakably (vv. 48-50). And this is an infallible sign of Christ's presence among a people, that they praise God specifically for his Grace because Christ is its supreme expression. She also praises God for his mighty power (vv. 51-55), power used to bring his Grace to bear in the lives of men. And she praises him for his covenant faithfulness (v. 55). And again and again as we follow Jesus through his earthly ministry, we find that he causes people to give glory to God. This has not changed to this day among those who truly know Him.
Now, I want us to put this little vignette to its right use. I want it to be an encouragement to us to respond to Jesus authentically as these three did. But it may be a discouragement if we are not careful. What we are seeing here is a classic, definitive, perfect, paradigmatic instance of the natural response of faith to Christ. It is crystal clear, and it is pure. But in our own lives, the response has been anything but clear or pure. It is muddy and mixed and scandalously undependable, to the point that we might, in comparing ourselves to this portrait, become discouraged and wonder if we have met Christ at all. But I think that if those of us who are truly Believers could look at our lives objectively, we would see Joy in the Lord, we would see the fruit of the Spirit, and we would see that we have praised Him truly if imperfectly on many occasions. The fruit of love, joy, and peace may be green and knotty, but it is there on the branches in ways that would not be so had Christ not impacted our lives. We should perhaps be encouraged that in vile, wretched, hopeless and inexcusable Sinners like ourselves we can see these signs at all. But encouragement is no grounds for complacency. When we see Him face to face, these responses in purity and power will define us completely. And to the extent that we come to know Him and learn to live by faith in Him, we will find them growing in us even now. To that extent our testimony will have credibility, for these things are the definitive evidence of His Presence in our lives--just as when Mary brought Him in embryonic form into the house of Elizabeth, and there was Joy, the Fruit of the Spirit, and the spontaneous Praise of God. May it increasingly be so in our lives.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams