Like many of my colleagues and fellow travelers, I’m leery of moralizing on deep theological passages. Gideon’s story is not about being watchful when you drink from a river, and the death of Goliath is not about “only a boy named David” and those “five little stones he took.”
Those passages are about the might of Israel’s God, and his faithful, loving covenant loyalty (hesed). In the main, the Scripture is about God, not us, and we do a disservice to its Author when we turn it into a self-help book.
I had an experience years ago that drove this idea home to me.
One Christmas my family was visiting my sisters in New England. Not far from one sister’s house was a colonial-era church, which is well known for its architecture. Built in 1719, it has the box pews and the pulpit sounding board that were common design features in those days. As it happens, a painting of the building was included in one of the BJU Press textbooks back in my days with the Press, and when I left the Press to join the BJU faculty, my boss, who knew how much I loved that illustration, gave me the original artwork (by John Roberts—no, not the Chief Justice), and it hangs in our dining room today.
I really wanted to visit that church.
We showed up for the Sunday morning service just before Christmas. The minister presented a homily on Mary’s Magnificat (Lk 1.39-56).
Now, I knew this church was theologically liberal, and I later learned that it had embraced liberal theology not long after it was founded; it was liberal before liberal was cool. But even knowing that, I was floored by the homily.
As students of the Scripture know, the Magnificat presents some really remarkable features—
- To begin with, it exhibits extensive parallels with Hannah’s prayer of thanks after the birth of Samuel (1Sam 2.1ff), and it is delivered extemporaneously—which indicates that Mary was thoroughly familiar with Hannah’s song, having probably studied and memorized and meditated over it, in a day when most girls were never taught to read. As a literary work alone, it’s worthy of extensive study.
- Further, it develops significant theological themes involving multiple divine attributes and works, demonstrating both his greatness and his goodness. Again, this is surprising in an age when women were generally not educated or included in theological discussions—all the more so if, as we suspect, Mary was a teenager at the time.
If it’s Christmas-time, and you’re preaching on the Magnificat, there’s no lack of substantive material to present. The hard part is deciding what to include in just one sermon.
So what was the homily about on this Christmas Sunday morning?
Mary said these things after her cousin Elisabeth had greeted her with uplifting words (Lk 1.42-45). So we should say uplifting words to one another, thereby encouraging one another to produce wonderful creative things.*
My friends, I’m all for encouraging people—even poets!—but that is not what the Magnificat is about. When we deal with biblical theology, we need to make it about what it’s about, not our own good feelings about ourselves.
So here in Philippians 2 we have a significant Christological passage, the classic biblical passage on Christ’s humiliation and exaltation. The deity and humanity of Christ are in here, and the divine plan involving the cross, and eventual obeisance of all life—human, both regenerate and unregenerate, and nonhuman as well—and the absolute and eternal lordship of Jesus Christ.
It’s not about us.
But—it is about us. The very reason Paul has (apparently) pulled this ancient hymn into this particular epistle to a particular church in Macedonia is that he wants to moralize on the theology it contains. He wants us to do what Jesus did—to humble ourselves, to serve others. He wants us to break the passage down and live it out—not just by worshiping the Great Lord Jesus, but by imitating him. We are to “let this mind be in [us]” (Php 2.5).
We’ll take a few posts to explore what that means.
* For some reason, I can remember the liberal sermons I’ve heard better than the conservative ones. I guess the horror makes the experience more memorable over the long term.