The Christmas stories we tell are nice, lovely stories about angels singing to shepherds in the fields at night, and cattle lowing Jesus to sleep, and Magi bringing gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh, and a drummer boy playing a song for Jesus. But the Biblical account is not entirely so nice and lovely, for the Biblical account includes a song sung by Mary (Luke 1:46-55) which E. Stanley Jones described as “the most revolutionary document in the world.”
Bruce Larson points out, “William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury (from 1942 to 1944), warned his missionaries to India never to read the Magnificat in public. Christians were already suspect in that country and they were cautioned against reading verses so inflammatory. Jesus, the ultimate revolutionary, completely reverses all human values. What Mary was prophesying about her unborn son is terrifying to the establishment, whoever and wherever they are. They cannot hear these words gladly. We may attempt instead to spiritualize these verses, but deep down we all know that Jesus has come to instigate the kind of revolution we need.” (The Communicator’s Commentary, p. 39-40)
Mary’s song challenges us in three critical ways:
It challenges our moral values.
In verse 51, Mary sings that “He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.”
The wonderful storyteller O. Henry tells the tale (“The Assessor of Success”) of an arrogant man who makes his living through treachery, enjoying the thrill of cheating others. Morley swindles money from a young boy who was sent to the druggist for medicine for his mother. Morley swindles an old man who is searching desperately for a long lost son. But when Morley happens to see a young woman with whom he had enjoyed a friendship in the days of his innocent youth, he recognizes the vileness of his present life. Before she can spot him, he darts into a dark alley, leans his head against a cold lamppost and groans, “God, I wish I could die.”
When Christ enters our world, He does the same to us. He scatters “those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.” He challenges our moral values.
Mary’s song challenges our social values.
In verse 52, Mary sings, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.”
This world values people on the basis of their social standing. God, on the other hand, honors the worth of every human soul. Commenting on this verse, William Barclay relates a disgusting account: “Muretus was a wandering scholar of the middle ages. He was poor. In an Italian town he took ill and was taken to a hospital for waifs and strays. The doctors were discussing his case in Latin, never dreaming he could understand. They suggested that since he was such a worthless wanderer they might use him for medical experiments. He looked up and answered them in their own learned tongue, ‘Call no man worthless for whom Christ died.’”
When Christ enters our world, social grades are thrown away. He brings down rulers from their thrones and lifts up the humble. He challenges our social values.
And Mary’s song challenges our economic values.
In verse 53, Mary sings, “He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”
Sadly, our world values money more highly than ethics. Thirty years ago I clipped an article about ethics from Time magazine, which seems even more timely today. After bags of cash spilled from an armored car in Columbus, Ohio, dozens of motorists scooped up an estimated $2 million; only about $100,000 of which was returned. Concerned about the evidence of ethical decline, Columbus Mayor Dana Rinehart formed a commission on ethics, chaired by former Watergate convict Jeb Stuart Magruder. Explaining his interest in this commission, Magruder stated, “I had been involved in one of the great scandals of this country…. Not only do people seem to be willing to take money off the streets, but our leaders seem to be doing the same thing. If you have leaders who have that kind of ethical standard, there’s no reason to expect the rest of the people to do better.”
When Christ enters our world, He confronts our greed. He fills the hungry with good things while sending the rich away empty. He challenges our economic values.
The Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134, which the people of God sang on pilgrimages to Jerusalem) begin in “distress,” but they end in praise.
Compare the opening lament of Psalm 120 (“In my distress I cry to the Lord, that He may answer me: ‘Deliver me, O Lord, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue.’”) to the opening joy of Psalm 134 (“Come, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord, who stand by night in the house of the Lord! Lift up your hands to the holy place, and bless the Lord.”). And compare the closing groan of Psalm 120 (“Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace. I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.”) to the closing exuberance of Psalm 134 (“May the Lord, maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion.”).
Living in a world filled with deceit and war and sin and brokenness, we all struggle with some level of distress. But the fact that the Psalms of Ascent move from distress to rejoicing gives me hope that I am not doomed to a pit of despair even though I live in a sin-filled world.
One of the keys that enables us to escape from the pit of despair is shared in the middle of Psalm 134: “Lift up your hands to the holy place, and bless the Lord.”
The word hand here is the Hebrew word yad. When this word is combined with a common abbreviation for the name of the Lord, ah, as in Jehovah, it becomes Yadah (sometimes anglicized into Judah). Yadah means to “lift one’s hands toward God” or to “reach out one’s hands toward God.” It is one of the most common words in Hebrew Scripture for worshiping God or for praising God.
What does this have to do with moving out of the pit of despair?
Consider it from this perspective: In the midst of despair, we do not lift up our hands. Instead, we wring our hands, or our hands hang limp and hopeless at our sides. In the midst of stubbornness, we do not reach out our hands. Instead, we cross our arms and bury our hands in our arm pits. When our hearts are closed, we bury our hands in our pockets.
But when we see someone we dearly love, someone whose embrace we long for, we run toward that person with outstretched arms. Running toward God with outstretched arms is the beginning of worship; it is the beginning of our escape from the pit of despair.
When a child feels scared or sad or lonely, that child looks up at her mother, with arms lifted up, longing to be picked up by that strong and loving parent. When we lift up our hands to God, with a longing for God to pick us up from the mess of our lives and hold us close to His own heart, it is the beginning of worship; it is the beginning of our escape from the pit of despair.
When something wonderful happens, we instinctively throw up our arms toward heaven in delight. Worship has to do with celebrating the wonderfulness of God. Sometimes our worship is a response to the wonderfulness of God; sometimes it is worship that leads us to see afresh the wonderfulness of God. Either way, worship lifts us up from the pit of despair.
Another time when we lift up our hands is when we have done something that fills us with regret—particularly when we have hurt someone we love. Then we reach up our hands in a plea for mercy. That, too, is the beginning of worship and a move away from the pit of despair.
The Bible invites us to reach out our hands to God, to lift up our arms to God, to worship God, and to praise God—not for the sake of ignoring or closing our eyes to the mess of our lives but for the sake of focusing our attention of something higher and better, more certain and longer lasting than the mess of our lives. Praise is the deliberate act of remembering and declaring the goodness of God. It is in the process of doing this that our hearts begin to settle into the truth that God’s goodness withstands all of our hard times. True praise is not a pretending that we are happy about how things are turning out in our lives, but it is the declaration that we cast our hope on the goodness of God, regardless of whether things are going well or poorly for us.
I confess: I have an extreme tendency to be orderly. I am driven by Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder. Some would say that I am Anal Retentive. Some would say that I have a stick up my….
For this reason, I tend to have a negative reaction—a gut repulsion—to Psalm 133: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes….”
I am creeped out by the idea of oil being poured onto a person’s head, running down that person’s head, onto his beard, through his beard, and drenching the robe he is wearing.
But Psalm 133 holds this out as good, and likens it to the good that happens when people live together in a mutually caring community of faith.
What this psalm helps me to face is that Christian care is both good and messy. Any way I look at it, oil that runs down one’s head to one’s beard to one’s clothes is messy! And any way I look at it, genuine care between two or more real people is always going to get a bit messy. Any effort to keep us away from messiness will also keep us away from genuine care for others. British pop star Cliff Richard discovered this truth while visiting a Bihari refugee camp in Bangladesh many years ago. He shares, “That first morning I must have washed my hands a dozen times. I didn’t want to touch anything, least of all the people. Everyone in those camps was covered with sores and scabs. I was bending down to one little mite, mainly for the photographer’s benefit, and trying hard not to have too close a contact. Just then, someone accidentally stood on the child’s fingers. He screamed and, as a reflex, I grabbed him, forgetting his dirt and his sores. I remember that warm little body clinging to me and the crying instantly stopping. In that moment I knew I had much to learn about practical Christian loving, but that at least I’d started.”
This psalm also helps me to face the fact that genuine Christian care is both good and extravagant. It was not just a little bit of oil that was dabbed on Aaron’s head; it was so much oil that it ran down his head to his beard, and down his beard to his robe. And it was not just spare oil that happened to be lying around. It was, according to Exodus 30:22-33, a special blend of the finest spices: of olive oil, myrrh, cinnamon, cassia and cane. Nothing was held back out of stinginess. And that’s how Christian love should be as well.
Many years ago, Grace Richardson Long shared a story in Reader’s Digest. She wrote, “As a single parent, I worried about coping with chores when we moved from the city into the country. However, a grandfatherly neighbor helped me with repair work. Then he died and his wife was alone for the first time in her life. Knocks on Mary Lou’s door went unanswered, but she always went to the post office at 2 p.m. I just happened to show up there with fresh baked bread. She thanked me and left. Two days later I was back with a casserole. Soon other townspeople began appearing with food. One day Mary Lou wasn’t there, and the smiling postmistress handed me this note: ‘Dear Friends, You have helped me through a most difficult time. Since I can’t possibly eat all the food you’ve been bringing me, and the freezer’s full, you’re invited to supper tomorrow night at six.’”
How many wonderful miracles like that do I miss out on when I am driven more by my compulsion to be neat and orderly than by a love that is willing to get messy? Or when I am constrained by stinginess rather than by a love that is willing to be excessive?
After several decades of participating in worship and leading worship, I have come to the conclusion that we get out of worship what we put into worship.
If we put into worship merely token devotion to God, we will get out of worship a token—a souvenir worship program or a souvenir memory of having attended church this week. If we give to God superficial, surface-level, distracted attention, we will receive from worship surface-level joy, superficial spiritual nourishment, and distracted serenity.
If on the other hand, we pour our heart into worship, we will receive, in turn, the very heart of God poured out to us. If we sacrifice to God our time and offering and attention and energy, we will receive in abundance the gifts of the One who sacrificed His very life for us.
The good news is that no matter how much of ourselves we give to God in worship, God gives more of Himself to us in return, for God has so much more of Himself to give away than we do!
Any gift we make to God is miniscule compared to God’s incredible gifts to us. We are like a boy thinking that giving his mom a handmade lanyard compares to the multitude of gifts she has given to him. Billy Collins, Former Poet Laureate of the United States, depicts this in a poem which concludes with these stanzas:
She gave me life and milk from her breasts, and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips, laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said, and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied, which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart, strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now, is a smaller gift—not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was sure as a boy could be that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.
Psalm 132 reflects the same dynamic. It opens by recalling how King David wanted to build a house for God. From David’s perspective, a temple would be a wonderful gift for God. But the best constructed building for God is really nothing more than a lanyard for a mother. Walls of gold cannot impress God, for even the backroads of heaven are paved in gold. Carved doors, ornate walls, bronze pillars, and even golden cherubim are but a preschooler’s art project compared to God’s awesome masterpieces of the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, Mt. Everest, leopards, angel fish, and butterflies. Nothing we give to God can compare to what God gives to us.
The psalm begins with the recollection of David’s desire to give a good gift to God, but it goes on to detail God’s commitment to pour greater blessings on us. Verse 13 states, “For the Lord has chosen Zion,” and in verses 14-16 God announces, “This is My resting place forever; here I will reside, for I have desired it. I will abundantly bless its provisions; I will satisfy its poor with bread. Its priests I will clothe with salvation, and its faithful will shout for joy!”
All of this serves to confirm that we will get out of worship what we put into worship. If we give our hearts to God in worship, God will pour out to us in abundance the riches of His heart.