Amidst all of the fanfare, finery, and festivity of Christmastime, there could very well be something missing in your life. We are so thankful that the Word of God, the Holy Bible, speaks not only to the things that are but also to the things that are not and calls them into being.
This is the message of the Magnificat. This is the message of Mary. This is the inherent and infallible word of the living God from the Gospel according to Luke, Chapter 1, versus 46-55.
46 And Mary said, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
Missing pieces can be frustrating.
Each Christmas I like to get my wife and son a puzzle. I like the 500-piece puzzles. One Christmas I got several thousand pieces which made up, of all things, the famous painting by Vincent van Gogh, “The Starry Night” (1889). The iconic masterpiece is beautiful to look at, but is tough to put back together as a puzzle! Somehow, trying to put thousands of pieces of tiny incoherent pieces of blue and gold cardboard into the exact places that make up the painting loses its appeal after a month or more. I do not include myself in their company of cryptological constructionists because I do not care for puzzles myself. Although I have a background in cryptology and in intelligence analysis, I am the one who merely gets the puzzle each year because I so enjoy watching the picture developed. I just preferred that they put it together and not I. Well, you can imagine the consternation and the exasperation, my family, when the attempt to construct Vincent van Gogh’s masterpiece came to a halt. The reason? The ultimate indignity that could come to puzzle-people like my wife and son: the missing piece. This scenario can lead to psychotic episodes in some people. Others are morally wounded for life. I am happy to say that both of my family members survived the unforgivable assault on their Christmas puzzle. Did some employee leave out one of the pieces just to drive the would-be consumers batty? Did I bump into the table and knock off one of the pieces, thereby sending the puzzle solving exploits of my wife and son into an abortive nosedive? Oh, my. What can we say about the missing piece?
Missing pieces can be fatal.
Imagine missing a key component of the navigational system of an aircraft! Imagine missing the navigator himself! Such an unlikely and inconceivable nightmare came to life in one of the brilliant comedy sketches of Bob Newhart. Do you remember it? Bob Newhart played the part of an airline captain en route to Honolulu who came out of the cockpit and into the passenger area. Somewhat nervously the airline pilot announced (in only the way Bob Newhart can deliver a line), “Uh, well, Ladies and gentlemen, we trust you are all comfortable and enjoying your flight from L.A. to Honolulu. The Pacific is very blue this time of the year. It, it really is always blue. Well, anyway. I wanted to let you know that we are experiencing just a bit of a delay, but, I assure you, there is nothing to worry about. All is just fine. But, well, uh, I did want to ask you: If there is anyone, anyone at all, who has ever been to Hawaii, could you please come to see me in the cockpit? That would be great. Thank you.”
A missing navigator on a jet liner at six hundred miles per hour over the Pacific is a real problem.
To bring matters just a little closer to the celebration at hand, we can, also, admit that missing pieces can be spiritually faulty.
There’s nothing more beautiful than Christmas lights and decorations in a small town in December; a real-life experience of a Currier and Ives Christmas card, complete with linen-white, snowy, rolling hills, a cold but clear star-studded night, and a winter sleigh-ride with jingle bells ringing and the cozy quilt-covered couple singing. As serene as this scene appears, I would argue that the true serenity and the lasting beauty of Christmas is grounded in a great theological truth. “Theology” doesn’t ever seem to be able to compete with Hallmark or Currier and Ives, but when you think about it a little deeper, it can more than hold its own. I would also posit that the absence of one particular and quite essential, if not overlooked, theological truth of Christmas can render the holiday something less than what God intended. The tensile and the toys, the parades and the pageantry can become like a Burbank back-lot Main Street: pretty on the outside but absolutely hollow and unlivable on the inside. When Christmas becomes a prop, it loses its power.
It is no wonder then that there is a missing piece in Christmas that leads not merely to the frustration of a missing piece of the puzzle, but, in fact, to seasonal sadness and that strange sense of emptiness when all of the Christmas presents are opened and when the Christmas tree is taken down. As your Christmas Eve pastor, I want to prescribe a remedy for such seasonal sadness and such Christmastime blues. Any spiritual tonic that this “Dr. Milton” would dispense would be, of course, located in the Word of God. Indeed, it is found in the words spoken by one of the central figures in the Christmas story, the blessed virgin Mary.
Upon learning that she has been chosen by Almighty God to bear God-in-the-flesh, our Emmanuel, without the union of a husband, she makes haste to tell her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth herself has, by this time, also conceived miraculously, beyond her childbearing years, and, thus, becomes yet another of the other numerous Christmas miracles. You will recall that her husband, Zachariah, a high priest in the temple of the Lord, showed some hesitation to fully embrace the miracle of becoming a father and as a result, the old man was afflicted with a mute tongue until the child, John the Baptist, was born. I have always wondered about how that impacted the marriage of this couple during the days preceding their boy’s birth. I suspect Elizabeth might have enjoyed it just a bit. There is no evidence of that idea, however (other than the common experience of marriage).
Well, back to the story. So, the only voices in the home on that day voices of women. And is there anything more beautiful than the lovely, quiet and calm voice of a woman and, indeed, of a woman praising the Lord? Elizabeth praises the Lord upon greeting her cousin. The babe leaps in his womb of Miss Elizabeth at the presence of the Messiah carried by the Virgin Mary. Elizabeth breaks forth into joyful, elated verse, or we might say “song.” “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Her little cousin Mary responds with her own lyrical praise.
In the Gospel of Luke, Chapter One verses 46-55, we call that “Song of Mary” by the Latin, “The Magnificat.” It is so-called for the opening words are “My soul magnifies the Lord . . .” There is not only lyrical beauty about Mary’s hymn, but, more importantly, theological beauty, Scriptural symmetry, and transformative power in the passage. When I read the Magnificat, I always remember that my Professor of Systematic Theology at Knox Theological Seminary, Dr. Robert L. J Reymond, referred to the Blessed Virgin Mary as, “one of the greatest theologians in the Bible.” And why did my late, dear friend say that? Ah, the answer to that question is the theme of this message.
For in Luke 1:46-55, the Magnificat, the Virgin Mary provides for us the missing piece of the Christmas story today. This missing piece is often absent, not only because of the commercialization of an unbelieving world but, perhaps, more regrettably and sadly, from within the sanctuaries of many churches—and the hearts of too many believers. What Mary brings to us in this passage is the very thing that we need not only Christmas but every day of our lives. For the missing piece of Christmas is often wonder.
So, come with me for just a few moments to consider the missing piece of wonder and how we can return that missing piece to its proper place and begin to see the true picture of Christmas that God has intended.
To put the puzzle together, that is, the complete picture, we need to make sure that we have Mary in it. Some in the Christian Church, mostly those who are a part of the larger Reformed church, or the Protestant church, in an attempt to distance themselves from erroneous ideas about Mary, end up diminishing the real Mary of the Bible. We must always remember that the Bible says that she is to be called “blessed among women.” This is the woman who broke the curse, reversed the judgment from Eden, and is the prototype woman of a new world that is on its way because of Jesus Christ. Woman fell through the lies of Satan. So, let us begin with a very good miracle of the person who is singing the song, pronouncing this lyrical praise—yes, let us say it Biblically—the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Now to our point: to the missing piece of Christmas. I believe that we can recover wonder—that is, wonder as the mystery unveiled, the “hint-half guessed, the gift half understood” as T.S. Eliot described the “Incarnation,” in his classic Advent poem, Four Quartets—when we recover three essential points of praise in Mary’s Magnificat and its impact upon us.
Wonder is this first essential point of praise:
God’s Grace is a Wonder that Astonishes (vv. 46-50).
Mary begins where we must begin: with the mercy and grace of God. She is praising God because of the activity of God not only in her life but in the lives of the larger community throughout the generations (verse 48 the: “for behold, from now on all generations [my emphasis] will call me blessed”). Mary declares that “his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” Mary is praising the Almighty for his glorious grace, the divine first-step towards shamed and Eden-banned Mankind. Her thought in the song extends deep into our ancestral past, and it lengthens to the lattermost generation. The wonder in this passage is how Mary is astonished at the very goodness of God’s grace: of his merciful condescending to sinful mankind.
I heard a television personality say this week, I hope in jest, that it was the breath of the stable animals that kept Jesus warm on that first night. I do not know if that is true or not. I do know that it is not in the Bible. I do not know if the television personality knew that it was not in the Bible. But the beautiful thing is this: the announcer was reaching out to find wonder. I can’t fault him for that (his muddled misconception of what is Biblical truth and what is sentimental mythology notwithstanding). Yet we do not have to invent stories about Christmas to find wonder. The Story—THE STORY—itself is bathed in the unimaginable, unthinkable, glorious wonder of heaven come down to earth.
Now the power of this passage and the potency of this point of praise is that it doesn’t only recover the missing piece of the story, but it does something even greater. The Magnificat, rightly received, recovers the missing piece of your own humanity. The truths in the Song of Mary restores the lost part of your soul. There can be no hollow feeling in the spirit of a believer who has received the wonder of heaven into her own soul. God’s grace astonishes. His mercy astounds. The Lord’s love transcends any thought of love that we have ever known or could ever know. What does it do? It literally causes us to be spiritually born again.
Have you opened your heart to receive God’s grace? His grace is wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. His grace walked the earth, healed the sick, stilled the stormy seas, raised the dead, and breathed the breath of heavenly power into a band of beleaguered disciples who ended up turning the world upside down. His grace suffered on the cross. Grace was diffused as the body of God died. His grace rose again. And his grace extends now from the right hand of God the Father Almighty to all who call upon the name of grace personified: Jesus. Jesus. Jesus.
Another point of praise in Mary’s Magnificat that births wonder could be stated this way:
Providential Paradox is a Wonder that Comforts (vv. 51-53).
Perhaps, I should say that again. “Providential paradox is a wonder that brings comfort to our souls.” When I mean by “providential paradox?” I mean to explain the passages, verses 51 through 53, in which the mother of our Lord Jesus praises God in humble adoration for the way — that is, the manner — in which God shows his grace. Mary doesn’t just sing about the idea of paradox. No. She ascribes “providential paradox” to the working out of prophecy in time. God has intentionally arranged, orchestrated, overcome, amended, guided, and used all things to bring about good for those who love him (Romans 8:28). Specifically, God used the weak things of the world to confound the strong, the foolish things of the world to confound the so-called wise, and he glorified (and glorifies) himself by becoming our strength in our very weakness. This point of praise from the mother of Jesus is reflective of the Pauline theology in Second Corinthians chapter 12, where we read:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
What is so very interesting—nay, what is so very grand—is that the paradox that Mary sings about—the scattering of the proud in the faults of their hearts, the bringing down of the mighty from their thrones, the exultation of the humble, filling the hungry with good things, sending the rich away empty, is a recurrent theme that is repeated throughout the Old Testament and finds its ultimate fulfillment in the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. For instance, Hannah, who was barren, and who was taunted and teased, derided and despised by a rival wife of her husband Elkanah, prefigured the Song of Mary with her own redemption refrain:
“The bones of the mighty are broken but the feeble bind own strength (verse four). “Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger” (verse five). “The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor” (Versus six through eight).
So, dearly beloved ones in Christ, and all of you who seek justice in this oftentimes cruel world: come and bathe in the cleansing providential-paradoxical springs of God’s mercy. From Christ’s birth until Christ’s death the paradoxes of Christ gave glory to God and stripped man of any hint of his own salvation. Thus, we read in Paul: “that no man may boast before God” (1 Corinthians 1:29). God has accomplished his salvation through these upside-down ways so that those who boast must post in the Lord (1 Corinthians 1:31). The decisive display of the providential paradox is God himself saving mankind through his passion and his crucifixion; through his being crucified on a cross of wood fashioned from the tree that he created; crucified by human beings that he made in his own image; cursed by them and blessed by him, forgiven by him.
Is this what you have been missing from Christmas? Well, I can certainly understand how you might feel hollow inside of yourself after the presents are all opened and when the Christmas tree and all of the ornaments are put away for the year. I can understand your sadness when Bing Crosby’s baritone-voiced White Christmas ceases to waft across the shopping centers. I can understand the feeling of loneliness and emptiness when you see the television commercials place great red bows on $100,000 automobiles in the snow, and you have to drive home from Christmas Eve service in your Honda. Wonder cannot be found in Bing, as great as a singer as he was. And you could never find wonder in a car, red bow, snow, or not.
Oh, my friend, look not only upon the cradle and the presents but look at the cross and the gift of God to you through his only begotten Son. Look at that One that John the Baptist sensed as he bounced with praise in the womb of Elizabeth. Look to the One of whom that same prophet said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takest away the sins of the world.”
Jesus Christ is our wonder of wonders; our dream of Messiah come true.
Finally, note this point of praise from the Blessed Virgin Mary:
Covenantal Blessing is a Wonder that Assures (vv. 54-55).
Then, in the presence of Elizabeth, the blessed virgin Mary wraps the gift of wonder in a bow of deep scarlet color; a tapestry woven through the centuries; the promise that had tested even the anticipation and faith of Anna the prophetess and Simeon, the priest:
“He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
The offspring of Abraham was to be the entire world, all of the families of the earth. “At the heart of the concept of mercy is the love of God, which is freely manifested in his gracious saving acts on behalf of those to whom he has pledged himself in covenant relationship.”
And here is the place where the Christmas pudding is the sweetest: for Mary with singing not only for herself, not only for Israel, she was singing for you and me. Mary was singing for you who would repent of your sins and receive God’s Son as your God and Savior. The Magnificat is a song of wonder that brings blessed assurance through the promises of God fulfilled. He was faithful to Mary. He was faithful to Israel. He was faithful to the downtrodden. He will be faithful forever. He is faithful to you.
Mary’s song is a sweet song. Mary’s song is also a song of wonder; the wonder of God’s mercy, the wonder of God’s ways, and the wonder of God’s promises.
Aunt Eva and I lived way out in the country when I was boy growing up. We had to catch a ride to go into town to buy anything for Christmas period most of the time because Aunt Eva had never driven a car. So, whenever we would go into the nearest town, either Walker or Denham Springs, depending on our ride, she would buy me a Christmas present. I mean to say that I was always with her, beside her, fully cognizant of what my surprise Christmas present would be. It was that way one year, as a boy of about eight years of age, when Aunt Eva gave in to my wildest dreams, and she purchased a Christmas robot. This robot was displayed at a little place called Gibson’s Discount Center. I remember being so concerned that the Christmas robot that I had seen before would be gone. But, there, on aisle two (or three or four? No, there were only three aisles in the store) there he stood: the outer-space super-fantastical sentinel of warped time. And there was a secret button beneath him. When the truly initiated, like me, moved that tiny hidden lever, red, green, and amber lights began to go off like a great fire truck! A great and ethereal noise shrieked from the atomic diaphragm of this metallic beast. It was the most fantastic thing I’d ever seen! So, I was there when she bought that Christmas gift, just like every other year. I was there whenever we returned home and when she went into the bedroom, laying out the robot box, his time capsule, over a large square of crimson wrapping paper on the white bedspread. I even helped to wrap the Christmas robot. Perhaps, two weeks went by. And then it was Christmas. I ran to unwrap the present, for thus I had seen this done on television programs on our black and white Zenith, and thought it was something kids did to make grown-ups feel good. I also acted as if the contents were unknown to me and that the gift was a pure surprise. I removed the wrapping paper sensibly for Aunt Eva always kept the paper and the bow. “Be careful now. Save the paper.” I opened the box and gave a small gasp of contrived surprise. I removed this galactic machine-man from his other-worldly packaging, set him upright, and reached down to flip the switch. I flipped it to “on,” crept backwards and waited, jaw-dropped in anticipation. I waited. We waited. And waited. Some more. Waited. Aunt Eva spoke first, snookered again by Gibson’s Discount Center: “Well, there’s Gibson’s for you. What’s the matter with that thing? Why doesn’t it go, Mike?” Like an astral-engineer, I investigated the alien outfit and soon learned that it was powered by a missing piece: A “C” battery. In that unincorporated rural area of sweet gum trees and Loblolly pines on the remote St. Helena-Livingston Parish line, there were no stores around, and if there had been, they would not have been open on Christmas Day. The Christmas robot sat under the tree like a lonely, tired old soldier from another planet, dreadfully helpless. I turned my attention to what was for breakfast. “It’s okay, Aunt Eva. We will get a ride into town again soon. Then, we can get that robot some batteries. It doesn’t matter to me. I like to just look at him.” Indeed, I did. The truth is, however, that I had been used to disappointment. “It was no big deal,” I comforted myself. But disappointment can be deeper than we know. Around about one o’ clock in the afternoon, I heard a car coming down the old gravel road. Aunt Eva opened the screen door, and I ran out onto the front porch. “Oh Boy! It’s Uncle John and Aunt Georgia! Aunt Eva, it’s Uncle John and Aunt Georgia!” My Uncle John and Aunt Georgia, my late father’s sister and Aunt Eva’s baby sister, came out to our old antebellum house about twice per month, on Sundays, to check on Aunt Eva and me. So, this Christmas day visit was unexpected. They had never come out on Christmas Day before nor did anyone else we knew. And guess what Uncle John had in his pants pocket? Yep. A big, fat, beautiful “C” battery. I was beside myself with wonder over the apparent coincidence that Uncle John would have a “C” battery. I still have no idea how he knew about my great need. I sat on the floor, right under the tree that we had cut down a few days earlier. The smell of that cypress sapling mixed with the oil in the robot and it just smelled like heaven. I carefully lifted the robot from his “guard duty,” expertly put the battery in the Christmas robot with the attentiveness of an Army bomb detonator. No sooner than I had closed the “hatch,” this creature from another world, that is, from Gibson’s Discount Center, began to sound-off with his screaming siren, flashing the trifecta of lights from his immovable block-head and his colossal metallic chest, and give out a dreadful clamor that the grown-ups hated and, thus, I adored. He then began to move. We all marveled. The Christmas robot scooted his way across the braided rug in the living room, as if on a mission to cross the Martian landscape (or like one of those new robot vacuum cleaners scooting across carpet).
The missing piece brought, literally, unforgettable joy. The missing piece brought needed power. I guess one could even say that the missing piece brought Christmas.
The missing piece in many of our Christmases is the wonder of God becoming Man so that we may be saved from the bondage of sin. That missing piece brings life and light to all who will receive the gift of wonder, the gift of Jesus the Christ.
The storehouse of His love never closes. And don’t worry. You are not too far away. He transcends remoteness. He will come to you wherever you are and right where you are. He will come, and His advent will bring the missing piece, the wonder of Christmas that fills up the missing places in our lives. In Christ Jesus, the puzzle is accomplished; the picture is perfected. In the coming of Jesus Christ to the heart of the little child of six or one hundred and six, the missing piece is restored. And it is now Christmas forevermore.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 “A magnificent canticle, in which the strain of Hannah’s ancient song, in like circumstances, is caught up, and just slightly modified and sublimed. Is it unnatural to suppose that the spirit of the blessed Virgin had been drawn beforehand into mysterious sympathy with the ideas and the tone of this hymn, so that when the life and fire of inspiration penetrated her whole soul it spontaneously swept the chorus of this song, enriching the Hymnal of the Church with that spirit-stirring canticle which has resounded ever since from its temple walls?” See Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, vol. 2 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 97.
 T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1943), The Dry Salvages, V, line 32.
 Psalms 113 and 126 are also to be recalled in the song of Mary.
 Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Mercy,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1440.
Dr. Michael A. Milton (PhD, University of Wales) is the Distinguished Professor of Missions and Evangelism at Erskine Theological Seminary where he also serves as the Director of Chaplain Ministries. The retired fourth presidency and chancellor of the RTS System, Dr. Milton founded and shepherded 3 churches (KS, GA, and NC), and was the senior minister of the historic First Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga. Mike Milton is a US Army Chaplain (Colonel) retired, and remains President of the D. James Kennedy Institute of Reformed Leadership. Dr. Milton’s life verse is from Philippians 1:6: “Being confident of this, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it unto the day of Jesus Christ.” Or, as Mike puts it in the title of his autobiography, “What God Starts God Completes.”