Just this week we celebrated the birthday of someone that has touched all our lives – though most of us have never heard of him. On December 11th, 1792, Joseph Mohr was born in Salsburg, Austria.
His childhood was one that was filled with strife and shame. He was his mother’s third illegitimate child. His father was soldier who deserted from the army and fled when he learned that his mother was pregnant with him. His mother, Ann, had to face the consequences alone.
One of the consequences she had to face was a fine. She had a little income from her boarding house and knitting, but it would take a year’s wages to pay her fine. In a bid to help his reputation, the town’s executioner, who was hated by everyone, said he would pay the fine for her… if he could be the child’s godfather. Unfortunately this only meant more humiliation for the boy. He would be ostracized wherever he went and no school would accept him. No employer would hire him. No one would teach him a trade.
One thing Joseph could do was sing. One day a Benedictine monk and choirmaster overheard him singing as he played games on the steps of the monastery. The monk obtained his mother’s permission to train the lad as a singer, and Mohr blossomed under his care. By twelve years old he was well on his way to mastering the organ, guitar and violin. Despite his social disadvantage, he held his own among the elite students, always placing near the top of the class.
He continued his training and eventually decided to become a priest. However, because his father had deserted him, he needed a special dispensation from the pope before he could be ordained. The pope agreed and Joseph entered the priesthood at twenty-three.
One Christmas Eve, in 1818, in the newly constructed Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, nestled in Austrian Alps, Father Joseph Mohr sat preparing for the midnight service. He was distraught because the church organ was broken, ruining prospects for that evening’s carefully planned music.
Father Joseph prayed and sat down in front of his desk. Out of nowhere a new song came into his mind, one that could be sung without the organ. He hastily wrote out the words that flooded into his mind and rushed over to his organist, Franz Gruber, and explained that though Franz wouldn’t be playing, he needed him to compose a simple tune for this new song.
That night, playing his guitar and accompanied by one other person, Joseph sang for the first time: “Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm, all is bright. Round yon virgin, mother and child. Holy infant, tender and mild. Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.”
Shortly after, Joseph was telling the story of the near-disaster of Christmas Eve to the organ repair main, who took a copy of the text and tune and spread it through all through Austria. The charming little song seemed perfect for the snow-clad region, and perfect for the Christian heart. Soon folks singers throughout the area had taken up the tune, even using it to drum up business to sell gloves at local fairs and festivals.
Soon, even the king and queen were singing the song after it was sung during a royal performance, assuring the carol’s fame.
Silent Night has been translated into well over a hundred languages and is one of the most beloved songs of the holiday season.
Here’s why I tell you this story today: Silent Night, Holy Night… one of the most beautiful, meaningful and peaceful songs we sing each year… came from very unpeaceful circumstance. Were it not for a broken home and a broken organ, we wouldn’t have Silent Night. It was because God knows how to bring beauty out of chaos, joy out of shame, peace out of frustration, hope from hopelessness, that we are able to sing that song each year.
That’s what God does. Turn with me to Luke 1:26 and let’s read the story of the birth announcement of Jesus Christ. As we read, I want you to look for how much disquiet there is. I want you to see how God took a life at peace – Mary’s Life – and turned it upside down on purpose.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” (Luke 1:26-45)
Here’s where I want to park today. This is Mary’s Song, historically called The Magnificat. Let’s read it together:
“And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and 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.”
And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.” (Luke 1:46-56)
All at once, Mary’s life is turned upside down. An angel comes out of nowhere, which is terrifying enough, but his message is even more troubling – she’s going to have a baby. All her plans are put on hold. Her child will be the Messiah – which is amazing – but it’s also going to seriously change everything in her life. Mary, out of her love and trust for God, believes what will happen and responds with “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” From that moment, her life will never be the same.
This baby, even at the moment of conception, was causing a stir. Her reputation around town is shot because now she is with child but without a husband. Her fiancé, Joseph, is so troubled by the news that he is about to dump her until God miraculously intervenes. Mary must have been so happy to hear that there was another woman, and she was a relative, that also had her life turned topsy-turvy by God. She packs quickly and leaves town – albeit under a cloud of neighbourly suspicion – to be with Elizabeth, lend support and be supported.
Neither Mary nor Elizabeth were people who were angry about their circumstance. They must have had health concerns, social concerns, relational concerns, and a hundred other questions about how this would all work out, but we get no indication of any sadness, frustration or anger with God at their circumstances. No, what we see are two women that love God and trust His will.
Mary was a woman who put her faith into action. She responded to Gabriel with simple obedience: “let it be to me according to your word”, and then “hurried off” to go to the woman that Gabriel mentioned. Quick to trust, quick to obey.
Now, I’m not going to concentrate on all the troubled things that Mary must have gone through – rejection, fear, gossip, etc. – because, instead, I want to talk about the young woman who loved God and was excited for her Saviour.
The Magnificat is a worship song all about God helping and raising up the meek, humble, hungry and in need. It’s a song about God blessing His people in weird and wonderful ways, beyond what they would have ever considered or prayed for. She sings about how, even though she is young, poor, obscure, and meek, God has chosen her to be the bearer of something precious. And as she sings, her message expands to remind everyone who would read or sing this song that that is how God most often works!
“Looked on my Humble State”
She says “My soul magnifies the Lord”… that’s where we get the word Magnificat… because God had given to her something that she never felt she deserved nor expected. God looked at her “humble state” and didn’t think less of her as others would have, but instead blessed her.
She “rejoices” in what God has chosen to do to her, even though she knew it would be frought with difficulty. She knew that God’s plan, though confusing and difficult at the time, would end up being better than anything she ever could have asked for.
God doesn’t see people the way we do. When we have a job to do, a position to fill, are looking for help, a partner, a friend, a spouse, or anyone else – we look for the best. Why settle for second best? When we buy something we read consumer reports to see which is the best product. We cheer for our team and want them to win, so they can win the cup, so they can be the best. We train our children and want them to be stronger, faster, smarter, kinder, wealthier, more generous, more everything, than we are.
Many of us hold ourselves to the same kinds of standards. We want to be the best at something – or everything – and we feel inferior if we’re not. We have this strange, internal drive, to have the best, be the best, and be surrounded by the best.
God doesn’t do that – at all. He wasn’t looking for the best, most comfortable, richest, family to send Jesus to. He wasn’t looking for a place with the best health care, least risk, and highest probability for advancement. He wasn’t trying to find a dad with a doctorate and a mom with a master’s degree. God’s number one requirement was that the father and mother be faithful. He didn’t want the best by our standards. He wanted a trusting, willing, obedient, humble people that He knew would allow Him to work through them. Not self-minded, strong, prideful people who think they knew better.
God had decided to do something special, something unique, something beyond anyone’s capacity to plan or understand – and He wanted someone who would be willing to carry it out. He asked young Mary to be integral to the plan, knowing it would cause her great upheaval, but wanting to bless her and the whole world through her work. She agreed, and the Holy Spirit conceived Jesus within her.
I find her attitude is truly amazing. In our days, unplanned pregnancies are more often seen as inconveniences, rather than opportunities for blessing. Many times, surprise babies, aren’t seen as good news, but instead something to be dealt with, figured out, and even discarded. God blesses a woman with the opportunity to bring forth a new life, a new person, a new being, brimming with potential for great things – and too many women don’t see the potential, they only see the problem, and they murder the child. It’s awful. Babies are always good news.
At no point did it ever occur to Mary that the trouble she would face because of this unplanned pregnancy wouldn’t be worth it. Instead, we get a song of praise for God’s willingness to bless someone like her with such a great responsibility.
Her perspective was one of faith. She knew God is larger, smarter, mightier and holier than she is. She didn’t see God’s request to care for a baby as an inconvenience, but as His special gift to her. She knew that it was going to be a tough road, but she also knew that her obedience would allow the blessing of all people. All she had to do would be to obey and trust Him.
Mary Knew God Uses Humble People
So, where did this trust come from? She knew God. The next section of the Magnificat, from verses 50-55, shows that Mary wasn’t just a simple farm-girl with no knowledge of God, but was someone who knew who God well and was well acquainted with his resume.
When God asked her to do something, she knew Who was speaking and what He had done in the past. She trusted Him, but it wasn’t a blind faith – it was based on the evidence of all that God had done with her people.
She knew that when people “fear him”, meaning hold Him in reverence and humbly obey His word, that God does mighty things through them. She knew that God is merciful to those who trust Him and wrathful against those who make their own way. She knew her history. She knew that there had been generations that had completely fallen away from God and suffered, and those that turned to Him and prospered. As a student of her own history, she knew what side she wanted to be on, and knew that God would follow through.
Sure, it was an actual Angel had shown up to tell her what was going on – but remember that Zechariah, the old man who had walked with God a long time, and who was a priest, standing in the Holy of Holies, failed the faith test and was struck mute. Mary was a girl who knew God. Look at verse 50-52,
“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…”
Mary is looking backwards and forwards at the same time. Her child was the same One who had flooded the world, stopped the son, and conquered armies. He’s the God who raises weak but faithful people up out of obscurity so He can demonstrate his power through them.
- He was the God who brought Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the world, to his knees.
- He’s the God that made Pharaoh obey by raising up the slave-child was doomed to die the moment he was born.
- He raised up Esther, a Jewish handmaiden and child of the exile, to become the Queen who would save her people from the evil Haaman.
- He raised up David, the youngest of his brothers, hated by King Saul, to be the greatest king of Israel.
- He raised up young, timid Gideon, the man who we first read of cowering in a pit, afraid of his enemies, to lead a small army to conquer the massive Midianite army.
Over and over we read how God uses meek but faithful people to accomplish amazing things for His Glory. It’s his preferred method, because then He gets the glory and praise. And Mary knew, instinctively, because she had a right view of her place in the world, that she was now one in the long line of people that God has “exalted out of a humble estate” and used to “full the hungry with good things” and “help” His people.
And therefore she knew, because the Angel Gabriel had told her, that God was about to do it again. He would use her son, who would be the Son of God, to save the world. And she got to be a part of it.
Let’s get to the application today. There are two questions that I’d like you to consider.
First, how do you see accidental, unforeseen, inconvenient things like unplanned pregnancies, needful people, distractions and interruptions? Do you see them negatively because they don’t fit into your plan, or do you see them through the lens of being potential, God-ordained moments full of opportunity to obey God and bless others?
Joseph Mohr was seen as an inconvenience by his father, and the rest of society. He was kept outside because of the circumstances of his birth. God saw something different and sent one of His servants to train him for ministry. Then Joseph used the inconvenience of the broken organ as an opportunity to write Silent Night.
Mary and Joseph were terribly inconvenienced by God’s plan for them – but out of it came the greatest blessing in the world.
Is there something that God is looking to bless you with – that has come in the form of an accident or an inconvenience? Will you embrace it and allow God to bless you with strange miracles and large responsibilities? Will you trust that He knows you better than you know yourself, knows the future better than you do, and has the strength and resources to see you through – if you’d be willing to trust Him?
And second, how well do you know God, His word, and His deeds? I would argue that your knowledge of God is about equal to your trust in Him.
If you want to know how God works and what God wants to do in your life, then I encourage you to read what God has done, read what Jesus did, and what His Spirit has done through His church for centuries. Read what kind of people He uses, and what He has done through them. Then, when you understand who He is, what He’s done, and the kind of heart He prefers to use, will you trust Him when He asks you to do something with Him.