The final two songs that were sung at the first Christmas are the songs of Mary and Simeon. The former is the most well-known of the four first Christmas Carols and is also called Mary’s Magnificant by scholars. I laid out the context of her song in last week’s article. Here are her words:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
Mary’s opening two lines tell us that Elizabeth’s response at her arrival both confirmed and relieved her. The appearance and prophecy she had seen and heard from the angel Gabriel was not a bad dream, but a genuine encounter with the living God. It’s always nice when others validate our experiences. The challenge we face in our current culture is that too often we only listen to those who agree with us, ignoring and dismissing the valid points that others are making on a given topic. And you know I’m not talking about theology but politics. We easily get the two mixed up.
The next three lines reveal that Mary was able to see her immediate circumstances (pregnant prior to the consummation of her marriage to Joseph) in light of the long-term blessings the baby she was now carrying would bring to the whole world. Because we live under the constraints of time, gaining a historical or eternal perspective is difficult. The fact that we live in a culture that magnifies immediate gratification makes it even harder. Knowing that her situation would primarily bring contempt from her generation, she could declare that all future generations would call her blessed because she also knew that God is mighty, holy, and merciful. Thus, Mary had the strength to accept her plight.
Paul challenges us to have that same perspective on life: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). The Christmas—New Year season is a time for reflection and a time to make resolutions. Prayerful reflection with the counsel of spiritually mature friends and family can help us differentiate the circumstances we can change from the changes we need to make in our hearts, minds, and daily actions. Most of the time we complain about things we cannot change and are resistant to address the things we need to change. Resolve that 2022 will be the year that your resolutions focus on spiritual transformation not just your need for a healthier diet and more exercise. Again, Paul has some words of wisdom: “For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come” (I Timothy 4:8).
The songs of the first Christmas shattered the four-hundred years of prophetic silence that spanned the time between Malachi and Matthew. During that period, Israel fell under the authority and influence of the Greek Empire. Then the temple was desecrated by Antiochus IV Epiphanes when he sacrificed a pig on the altar. This ignited the Maccabean Revolt. Although they were significantly outnumbered, the Jewish forces won, the temple was cleansed and rededicated, and a brief period of Jewish freedom ensued. The temple’s rededication serves as the basis for the Jewish Celebration of Hanukkah. But the period of freedom lasted only 100 years at which time the Romans assumed authority.
So when the second half of Mary’s song expresses five different ways that “He [God] has” blessed His people, she had to be referring to the long-term historical work of God beginning with Abraham. Now keep in mind, Abraham lived almost 2000 years before Mary. In the midst of living in a subservient nation and living an impoverished subsistence lifestyle, Mary could praise God for His righteous and just actions.
Contrast Mary’s circumstances and attitude with many of us. Although we live in freedom and affluence, we have become hyper-sensitive and easily offended. A rhyme I learned as a child was “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” Today we aggressively attack others for something they said—or something they might have said—or we listen to someone who took out of context what they thought someone else said—or we define a word differently than someone else does, so we make what they were saying, say what they didn’t say—or…
As we approach the close of 2021, maybe we should stop and praise God for all He has done. Instead of regularly lashing out at someone for something they may or may not have said—or done, maybe we should let His righteousness and justice take care of more issues in our life. Maybe we should sing out like Mary did:
God has shown strength with His arm;
I pray that you will close 2021 with songs of praise for all He has and is doing in your life, and you will begin 2022 by singing songs of deep commitment to becoming more of who He has designed you to be.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
In recent weeks we have been taking a musical interlude to look at the four carols sung at the first Christmas. But before we look at the last two, I want to remind us of the story behind the songs. It helps us to hear the story of how a song-writer came to write a hymn or chorus to better understand the author’s emotions. The Gospels don’t give us a clear time-line for the sequence of all the events recorded by Luke and Matthew, but let me suggest the following:
As I did a quick review of the events leading up to the first Christmas, did you notice how many people and how many unique events God orchestrated to make it possible? Before I point us to the last two of the first Christmas carols, let me encourage you to pause and reflect on all that God has done to bring you to this once-in-a-lifetime Christmas of 2021. Too often, we take for granted God’s sovereign work throughout history and particularly in our own lives. At other times, we are oblivious to His handiwork as we forge our own path. Take time to review what God has done this year alone to guide and direct you along the path He designed for you at the foundation of the earth.
If you are a typical human being, you will have to admit that we all learn more about God when we are walking through the valleys of life than we do when we are enjoying the view from the mountain-tops. Review the list of events above and note how many of them were positive versus how many described difficult circumstances.
The Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose (Romans 8:26-28)
What God, through His indwelling Holy Spirit and because of my acceptance by faith in the gift of God through Jesus Christ’s atoning death, did for Paul and has done for me is, or can be, true of your life as well. This Christmas season, take time to reflect upon all God has and is doing in your life, and then either receive or renew the peace that surpasses all understanding that is made available to you through the Gift that God sent to us that first Christmas.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
Last week we looked at the shortest of the four carols sung at the first Christmas. Today, I want us to look at the longest: the Song of Zacharias. Not able to speak for nine months Zacharias had a few things to say—he was truly suffering from undelivered speech. Luke tells us:
Now his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying:
A. T. Robertson noted that nearly every phrase of Zacharias’ Song can be found in the Old Testament—in either the Psalms or one of the Prophets. Zacharias’ forced silence had provided him with a lot of time to reflect on the Word of God and to spend time in prayer (Luke 1:8-22). We can assume that he felt significant guilt for doubting the angel’s declaration. To make matters worse, we can also assume that those around him were not always silent about their assumption that his inability to speak was a judgment from God for some unspecified sin he committed when he was given the opportunity to minister in the temple. He also had to be concerned about the health of his wife who was carrying a child well beyond her childbearing years. Zacharias had a lot to ponder and nine months filled with sleepless nights in which to do it.
And as God alone can do, in the fullness of time, He erased all of the negative emotions and thoughts. Zacharias’ grief and pain were washed away in a flash flood of joy at the birth of a promised son and by the sudden return of his voice. Zacharias burst forth in song. His song naturally divides itself into two verses and a short chorus:
In verse 1, he speaks of the imminent coming of the long ago promised Messiah (68-73)
In this season when we celebrate His first coming, we also wait expectantly for His second coming—both were prophesied long ago. But our time of waiting is not to be spent pursuing our own agendas—I mentioned that in a recent article on Avoiding Distractions (11/16 and reprinted in the December HCN Newsletter).
Christmas is a time of mixed emotions as our joy and sorrow become mingled as we reflect upon family and friends who are no longer with us. We are reminded of past seasons of our life when words were hard to come by because the challenges or tragedies of life had become overwhelming—kind of like Zacharias did for nine months. When I have had those seasons, I have found comfort, and when needed, correction in the Word of God. My prayer life is deepened and my dependence on God is magnified. The more yielded to God that I become the more I find myself experiencing what Zacharias did. His chorus reflects the heart of a deeply committed servant of God—a fearless (bold) desire to seek a holy and righteous life.
We should note that God used an already yielded couple when He chose Zacharias and Elizabeth as the parents of the Messenger—John the Baptist:
There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years.
We should also understand that God didn’t ask Zacharias to be the Messenger, but the father of the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah. And He didn’t choose Elizabeth to be the mother of the Messiah, but her cousin Mary. God calls and equips every believer to serve in a unique way in His Kingdom.
This Christmas, in the midst of all the shopping, eating, traveling, gatherings with family and friends, and, for those of you who are pastors, sermon preparations make time for a personal interlude. Stop and reflect in-depth on how God has preserved and prepared you through these last few years of cultural chaos to uniquely serve Him. My prayer is that you too will find yourself suffering from undelivered speech and incapable of not proclaiming the Gospel with renewed boldness and compassion from the brokenness of a humble servant’s heart.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
Last week I introduced a five-part Musical Interlude that will take us through the Christmas/New Year seasons. Each week, we will look at one of the four Christmas carols sung at the very first Christmas: Mary’s Magnificant (Luke 1:4-55), the Song of Zacharias (Luke 1:68-79), Simeon’s Song (Luke 2:29-35), and the Angel’s Song (Luke 2:13-14).
This week I will begin with the shortest of them—The Angel’s Song
In the same region, shepherds were staying out in the fields and keeping watch at night over their flock. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today in the city of David a Savior was born for you, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be the sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped tightly in cloth and lying in a manger.” Suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:
This passage was the focus of James Tyler’s message Sunday morning as Phyllis and I had the opportunity to worship with Springfield Baptist Church. James is serving as their supply pastor. He reminded us that the promised “Messiah, the Lord” was, in reality, God Who “emptied Himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when He had come as a man, He humbled Himself” (Philippians 2:7-8a). What an example of servanthood! Jesus modeled it throughout His earthy ministry. One of the more familiar demonstrations of that humble servant heart was when He took a towel and basin and washed His disciples’ feet (John 13:1-20). The ultimate example happened a few hours later when He was willing to stay on the cross to the point of death; thus, providing the sole sufficient blood sacrifice that can atone for our sin.
However, James spent most of his message talking about the shepherds and how they were viewed in the New Testament era. Most of us have a childlike picture of men and boys carrying a shepherd’s staff standing next to a few sheep in a live nativity scene. In reality, they were involved in a livelihood that made them ceremonially unclean—they could not participate in religious services. What’s more, first-century shepherds were generally the type of men who would not have been interested in being involved in anything related to religion. That is with one major exception: making money off of religious activities wouldn’t have bothered them. Some Bible scholars suggest that the shepherds near Bethlehem would have raised sheep and goats that were sold in the temple marketplace.
Because of the census, the Bethlehem shepherds were forced to watch their flocks by night in the open field, thus making livestock shelters temporary housing for the overflowing crowd. Could it have even been possible that the reason these particular Bethlehem shepherds were able to quickly find the baby Jesus was because He laid in one of the mangers they regularly used to feed their sheep?
What kind of a God would humble Himself in such a manner and then make the first announcement in a grand and glorious way to a group of cultural outcasts? Why didn’t He send the Angels to the High Priest’s house? Why not make a grand announcement on the temple mount? No religious leader would have dreamed that shepherds would be the first to know that the Messiah had been born. Luke records that the shepherds “reported the message they were told about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” But their story was obviously not seen as credible. Proof of that reality is seen in the fact that when the Magi came to Herod’s palace looking for the newborn king, no one from Herod’s court nor any of the religious leaders who told him that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem even bothered to go with them on the short journey between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Could it be that God wanted the lowliest of the low among us to know that they too are worthy of God’s love and forgiveness? No matter who you are, what you’ve done, or where you live on earth, the Angel’s short chorus is for you:
Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people He favors!
And as is true of today’s choruses, it is worthy of being repeated over and over. God obviously favors the humble and lowly of heart. A constant accusation that was made against Jesus was that “All the tax collectors and sinners were approaching to listen to him. And the Pharisees and scribes were complaining, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15:1-2). The balance of Luke 15 records three parables which all speak to God’s efforts to seek and to save that which is lost: Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, and Lost Sons.
If you are one of the humble and lowly who has accepted God’s gracious gift of salvation, then you too can live daily with the boldness of Paul. He experienced salvation and encouragement from God and could boldly declare:
"I give thanks to Christ Jesus our Lord who has strengthened me, because he considered me faithful, appointing me to the ministry—even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an arrogant man. But I received mercy because I acted out of ignorance in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. This saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them. But I received mercy for this reason, so that in me, the worst of them, Christ Jesus might demonstrate his extraordinary patience as an example to those who would believe in him for eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen." (I Timothy 1:12-17)
True believers have the indwelling Holy Spirit, who comes upon us at salvation. To live in constant doubt and fear is to deny the power of our salvation. This Christmas let your voice sing loud of the One who came and died for your sins so that you can boldly cry out “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them.”
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
Last week I injected a Thanksgiving break in the series I have been doing on some of the major cultural challenges we are facing. For the next couple of weeks, as we move through the sometimes hectic pace of the Christmas season, I will be doing a musical interlude, but don’t worry, you won’t have to listen to me sing.
Recently I had a friend tell me about a guy who had attended their church. He grew up in this area, but had zero church background. After services, the guy commented on how surprised he was that singing was part of a church service. Another friend shared how impactful music was in a Buddhist family they knew coming to faith in Christ. He also shared about an Iranian couple that he and his wife have befriended, and who have started coming to church with them. Last Sunday the service was what you might call an old-fashioned hymn-fest. After the services, the husband commented on how meaningful the service was to him.
Music plays an instrumental part in the worship service for both Christians and Jews. In fact, one of the longest books in the Bible, Psalms, is actually a collection of songs that served as the church’s hymnbook for centuries. As Phyllis and I have the privilege of worshipping with the ethnically and culturally diverse churches that constitute the Heartland Church Network, we have found that the style of music varies significantly from church to church. We have also been around long enough to observe the seismic shifts that have taken place in established churches. The latter at times has been referred to as “The Worship Wars!”
I hope you noticed that I used the phrase “music plays an instrumental part of the worship service”--I didn’t say music was the worship service. I must confess that I cringe inside when I hear someone refer to the music portion of a service as “the time of worship.” What we say and how we say things from the pulpit makes a huge difference. The music portion is a significant part, but it is not the only aspect of a well-constructed worship service.
As much of the reformation movement continued its pendulum swing away from what had become a dry, liturgical service over the past 500 years, some would say it has devolved instead of evolved. One of the most obvious shifts has been from a weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper as a sacrament to the symbolic observance of it on a monthly, quarterly, or on an occasional basis. I served as interim pastor of a church that hadn’t observed the Lord’s Supper in a couple of years—probably a little too long between doing “this in remembrance of Me.”
Another obvious shift in worship was away from the liturgical use of the Lord’s Prayer along with other written prayers during each service to more “Spirit-led” spontaneous prayers. A recent shift away from having a formal offering time (worship through giving) began during the seeker-sensitive movement. That trend was solidified under COVID restrictions as many churches no longer include it as part of their corporate worship experience.
Changes in the sermon time and content have also occurred. Two biggies have been the shift away from the use of a Lectionary and the length of the message. My guess is that if you asked your congregation this Sunday what a Lectionary was that only a few folks with a Catholic or Lutheran background could even answer your question. Pastors tend to do either topical sermon series, or they will preach through a book of the Bible. Some do a combination of the two. The idea of preaching annually through the historic church calendar with special sermon emphases during Lent and Advent is not common. We would call the latter two an Easter or Christmas series—although more and more churches have returned to the historic Advent Candle.
The length of the message continues to shift. During the seeker-sensitive era, some pastors moved to a shorter time. With a resurgence of reformed theology in Baptist life, the length of sermons is getting longer, and in some churches longer and longer and longer. I would remind pastors who tend towards the latter of two things - the mind will absorb only as much as the seat can endure. Second, there are only a handful of preachers who can keep people’s attention long enough to do an hour-long message—and you are probably not one of them.
As someone who has the privilege of seeing the diversity in how Baptists worship, I would suggest that many of our churches would benefit from an in-depth study of the theology of worship by its pastor(s) and church leaders: What elements need to be included and why? Once the leadership team has wrestled with the topic, a good sermon series on the elements of Biblical worship would be in order. But let me get us back to my primary topic after a typical Mark Elliott rabbit chase.
The first recorded song in scripture is called the Song of Moses (Exodus 15:2-18). It begins with the words, “I will sing to the Lord for He has triumphed gloriously!” It is written in a style we often see in Psalms and in hymns. Then Moses concludes with the words, “The Lord shall reign forever and ever.” These are words that reverberate in the mind of all of us who have heard Handel’s Messiah:
Hallelujah! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth. The Kingdom of this world is become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ: and He shall reign for ever and ever. King of kings, Lord of lords. Forever, forever, forever…
The second song recorded in scripture is called the Song of Miriam (Exodus 15:21). Interestingly enough it is written more in the style of a modern-day chorus:
“Sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted. Both horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.”
Between now and the end of the year, I want us to take a look at the first four Christmas carols: Mary’s Magnificant (Luke 1:4-55), the Song of Zacharias (Luke 1:68-79), Simeon’s Song (Luke 2:29-35), and the Angel’s Song (Luke 2:13-14).
Until then, my prayer is that Christmas season 2021 will see you singing the praises of our awesome and incomprehensible God!
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
Retiring in April 2022, Mark R. Elliott served as a Director of Missions (Associational Mission Strategist) in Western Iowa and Eastern Nebraska for almost three decades. He is a strong advocate for obedience and Biblically based disciple making. As such, he knows that making healthy disciples requires Christian leaders to be constantly pursuing spiritual maturity—be lifelong learners. Because of the time constraints of ministry, most pastors focus their reading list on resources that assist them in teaching and preaching the Word of God. As such, books focusing on church health, leadership development, and church growth tend to find their way to the bottom of the stack. With that reality in mind, Mark has written discussion summaries on several books that have helped him to personally grow in Christ and that tend to find themselves on the bottom of most pastor’s stack. Many pastors have found them helpful as they are able to more quickly process great insights from other pastors and authors.