Bible readings Psalm 22: 1-5 &25-28 Luke 1:45-55
Monday morning found me crying out God’s words from Psalm 13 … “How long o God, will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” Sunday had been a real mixture, mums’ day I missed my mum and it was four years to the day that my much loved sister in law passed away at 45. I’d been blessed by my family on Sunday evening with a precious time together, but Monday morning I was struggling… not just with the grief Sunday had raised but with other ongoing wrestles that God seemed deaf to… so here I was pouring it all out to God…
Once I’d done that I started to focus on the sermon for today. God had woken me with thoughts around the power of praise but obviously I wasn’t in a praising mood when I started out the day… God wasn’t bothered the next 24 hours would change that!!!
I turned to our readings and sat with Mary’s praise song, for some time. A question came to me “how could Mary praise the Lord in such a deep way when what God was doing in her was going to throw her into one of the most difficult times of her life?”
Then God directed me to 2 books on my shelf. The first one Power in Praise was written by Merlin Carruthers, an Army Chaplain, who fought in WW 2 and later served in Korea, Dominican Republic, Panama and Vietnam. It presents the thesis that it’s in praising God for the very difficulties in our life that God moves in mighty ways… and while I wouldn’t necessarily go with along with praising God for evil that happens… I fully agree that there is a power in praise that brings us very close to God and allows God to work in ways that are beyond our understanding.
David Lose says “Luke understands, as did the Psalmists, that songs and praise are powerful. .. Songs of praise and thanksgiving unite us with the One to whom we lift our voices.... canticles of courage and promise not only name our hopes but also contribute to bringing them into being.”
In our readings Psalm 22:3 (WEB) the psalmist gives an example... He was feeling forsaken crying out “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” and yet he knew God inhabited the praises of His people saying, “But you are holy,
you who inhabit the praises of Israel.” giving courage and promise to carry on.
And in Luke Mary’s song breaks forth with stunning beauty as she praises God in a moment of intimate heartfelt praise.
“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
How my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour!” Luke 1:46-47 NLT
Mary’s song flows from a heart full of praise for a mighty God who’s chosen to work in an extraordinary way through the ordinary everyday life of a lowly village girl. Mary’s song invites us to join with her and throw open our hearts catching anew a glimpse of what God is up to in the world.... .
As one commentator notes “Mary's song, pierces the veil of the ordinary and opens a window by which to perceive afresh the extraordinary and unexpected goodness of God. In doing so, Mary, through her song, promises that the Holy One of Israel may also encounter us amid the ordinary, mundane, and even difficult activities of daily life.”
Mary’s song wasn’t sung in a vacuum. Mary’s song of praise was sung in a world where life under Roman occupation was hard. People went hungry, they were exploited by the proud and haughty who cared nothing for them.
Mary’s song was sung in praise of her God who chose to show up where least expected and move through a humble village girl to bring down the powers of evil that oppress our world… Think about what Gods movement in our world looks like…. Inhabiting the womb of an unmarried teenager, inhabiting a manger and a cross!!
Think about where God has shown up in your life, has it ever been how you expected it?
David Lose again “This is the God of reversals, the one who regularly shows up where we least expect God to be -- manger, cross, vulnerability, suffering -- in order to scatter the proud, exalt the lowly, satisfy the hungry, and send the rich away empty. Mary's God is a God of justice and compassion, the One who hears the cry of the oppressed and despondent of all generations and responds, and so also deserves our attention.”
No wonder Mary’s heart is full of praise…
But there’s more to praise than meets the eye…
What’s needed in the soil for the seed of God’s promise to burst forth in praise?
Faith and trust would be the two most important nutrients. By faith Mary had to accept God’s promise and in trust she would wait on God’s word being fulfilled. God’s word that promised she would bear God’s Son, a saviour for the world. Mary could only praise as she did if she received God’s word and believed God would fulfill all he had spoken.
When we look at the timing for Mary’s song of praise, we find she had just come to visit her cousin Elizabeth who, on seeing her, cried out in a prophetic pronouncement of praise…
“God has blessed you above all women, and your child is blessed…. You are blessed because you believed that the Lord would do what he said.” Luke 1”42&45 NLT
Imagine how it must have been for Mary up to this point... was she overwhelmed with God’s promise to come into the world through her? Did she have moments of doubt?…. Was that really God or my imagination… Were there moments of fear? … What was I thinking saying yes, I’m engaged, who’s going to believe my story? … so, to be greeted by Elizabeth in such a way opened the flood gates of praise… God speaking again to reassure Mary of all He is doing through her!!
Mary wasn’t praising God for some far-flung idea,
Mary wasn’t praising God in some act of manipulation,
Mary wasn’t praising God as a magic formula for success…
Mary was praising God for her situation just as it was in her world at that moment, praising God for God’s faithfulness and mercy to her and through her his faithfulness in fulfilling his promises to her people made to their ancestors long ago.
Praising God didn’t change Mary’s circumstances of being pregnant to someone other than her fiancé… In praising God Mary wasn’t denying her situation … in praising God she was choosing to be more confident in God than she was fearful of her circumstances… praise has a way of neutralizing fear and opening us up to understand that God’s hand is at work for us.
Merlin Carruthers suggests in his book “ Any form of sincere prayer opens the door for God’s power to move in our lives. But the prayer of praise [sung or spoken] releases more of God’s power than any other form of petition.”
He tells the story of a Christian businessman who was suddenly laid off from his executive job. For over a year he tried to find work, all the time praying, bills mounted, stress rose, family friction was creeping up…. Long story short after speaking with Merlin he decided to take God at his word and trust him when he says in Romans 8:28 “ And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them…”
The man had a realization that God hadn’t abandoned him through this time and was challenged to believe that God could be working through his unemployment to bring about good. Instead of continuing to grumble about his situation he started praising God and thanking God trusting that God knew what was best for him and his family…. He said a strange thing happened, the more he thanked God the more his resentment, anxiety and concern for his situation decreased and he started to feel genuine joy, even more amazingly three days later his phone rang with a job offer and within a week he had started in a new job.
Praising God might not immediately change our circumstances, but it will change us.
Dr. Caroline Leaf, a Christian who has worked in cognitive neuroscience since 1985 says in her book “Switch on your Brain” “that current research shows that our thoughts change our brains daily” (neuroplasticity)…
Our brains are wired for love not fear there fore all circuits in our brain, chemical, electrical, biological and quantum are geared for healthy nontoxic thinking. So, when we let fear dominate or choose to think toxic thoughts it literally changes our brain creating havoc and chaos which impacts our lives in a negative way.
But the bit that was fascinating was how her research backed up what the army chaplain had discovered … She says “You cannot sit back and wait to be happy and healthy and have a great thought life. You have to make the choice to make this happen. You have to choose to get rid of the toxic and get back in alignment with God. You can be overwhelmed by every small setback in life or you can be energized by the opportunities they bring...”
This is the incredible power God has given us in the gift of free will… we can choose to create a healthy “brain universe” or a negative “brain universe” depending on what thoughts we decide to focus on in our thinking.
Romans 12:2 (NLT) backs this up, maybe God knows something about all this!! “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.”
Praising God isn’t about God having a big ego! No... it’s for our good. The power of praise, even in the hardest of places, has the very real ability to change our brains and therefore our lives for the better.
So, it’s with good reason Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5: 18 (Amp) “In every situation [no matter what the circumstances] be thankful and continually give thanks to God; for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”
To clarify here though… Giving thanks in every circumstance, isn’t saying it’s God’s will for us to be in that circumstance… we live in a world where evil happens, it isn’t saying we must always be positive, we need to lament, grieve and be honest. The Psalmist was a master at knowing how to lament and praise… Read with me the end of Ps. 22
I will praise you in the great assembly.
I will fulfill my vows in the presence of those who worship you.
The poor will eat and be satisfied.
All who seek the Lord will praise him.
Their hearts will rejoice with everlasting joy.
Thankfulness and praise are to be foundational to who we are as God’s children but that raises the question what does praise look like?
For some it will be celebrating the very real joys and miracles of life, for others it will be the voiceless language of tears poured out in the hard places of life as Luke highlights in 7: 37-38 “When a certain immoral woman from that city heard he was eating there; she brought a beautiful alabaster jar filled with expensive perfume. Then she knelt behind him at his feet, weeping. Her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them off with her hair. Then she kept kissing his feet and putting perfume on them.”
For Jesus the highest form of honouring praise he gave his Father was when he cried out in the face of death “not my will but your will be done.”
By Monday lunch time it was obvious God was challenging me... would I chose to praise God over the situation that was weighing me down? Would I choose to trust that God was at work for good for all involved in this situation?
I started to praise God for who God is and for who God was in the situation, it wasn’t long and God started to move in me in a startling way, the more I praised the more I felt at peace over the situation, the more I praised the more a started to feel God’s transforming power shifting me from despondency and confusion to a sense of wholeness, joy and understanding of what God was asking of me.
Nothing had changed in the situation but me.... amazingly later that day I had a phone call that astounded me as words were spoken that showed God had been at work in the situation and it was changing for the better.
Like Mary I was led into praise again for God’s steadfast faithfulness and grace.
Like Mary I was overwhelmed by God’s gracious noticing of someone like me, not only am I cared for but I am also called by God to carry God’s word to the world.
Like Mary I was overcome with wonder and awe at God’s ability to break into our everyday ordinary and transform it to extraordinary.
How about you?
Where might God be calling you to sing as Mary sung, to praise as Mary praised?
What might it look like to sing praise instead of grumbling over difficult situations?
What might it look like to sing praise instead of speaking words of apathy or small minded-ness?
What might it look like to sing praise instead of speaking words of fear and hatred?
What might it look like to sing praise instead of tearing others down with constant criticism?
What might it look like to open our mouths in praise instead of remaining silent when we know God would have us speak?
What might it look like to sing praises to God trusting that God will fulfill every promise He has given us?
What might it look like for us to choose to praise God as Mary did crying out “Oh How my soul praises the Lord, How my spirit rejoices in God my saviour?”