Well already it has been a great joy to confess the Christian faith together, to hear from the Holy Scriptures—the Old and New Testaments—to hear prayers, and to pray together for the graduates and for the nations. This is the day that the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it.
I would just invite you to look around this room and see this place of gathering and worship filled with those who have come to observe the 230th commencement of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I cannot but be humbled in thinking about what those churches many, many decades ago could have imagined might happen, the graduates who might go forth. Did you hear the list of all the nations of those listed among the graduates and counted among us? Who could have imagined such a thing? It is the glory of God, and it should make God's people very happy in heart.
And then just looking at these graduates, you'll never see a sight like this again. This class will never be gathered together again. This is a singular moment in history. It is the God of all history, the eternal God of the universe, who has brought all of this together at this moment, has brought each one of us into this room, and has brought every one of these graduates to the completion of his or her studies, has brought us to this joy. Now, I said the Lord has brought every single one of us by his sovereign pleasure into this room. Some of us are tiny, some of us are noisy. I regret to say that doesn't always correlate precisely, but it is true nonetheless that there is an observable pattern.
I just want you to know that this is a service for the families of those who are gathered here, and your children are celebrated as they are here with us today. So a part of the joy of this day is hearing those who are here share the experience of this graduation, which they may not remember except by the new gift of being able to watch it on a recording, but they are a part of this story. Every single one of you is a part of this story. All manner of churches and believers are a part of this story, believers who through the centuries have given generously beyond compare and have prayed for a school like this. It's all been realized even in just the moments that we've shared together and in the beginning of this service of commencement, the hopes and prayers and the contributions of so many Christians throughout so many generations, an institution like this doesn't just appear on the horizon. It just doesn't happen because you add water and stir.
There have been countless, countless lives channeled into this institution. There have been innumerable prayers and incalculable generosity because Christ's people want to make certain that the Word of God is preached, and that it is preached rightly, that the Christian faith is taught and that it is taught faithfully, that the gospel is taken to the nations and taken joyfully. These graduates represent so much hope. They give us great joy. They look pretty good dressed up in all this regalia, and the regalia itself indicates not only the formality of the occasion but the fact that this is an academic event. It's not just an experience, a training program through which these graduates have progressed. It's a strenuous series of academic programs. Unless there's another long line we join, when we are here for an event like this, it is a long line of learning that has marked God's people from the covenant that he made with Abraham, all the way down to the faith Christ delivered unto the apostles. This is a faith of learning and of teaching.
The central act of Christian worship is the preaching of the Word of God. One of the central responsibilities of the church is the perpetuation of the faith to be handed down from generation to generation, the faith once for all delivered to the saints. So there's joy in this today. It's exactly what we're witnessing this morning.
And of course, as we do so, it's coming at a particular moment in the church year. Our largest commencement takes place in the spring. There are no Christmas decorations then. There are now, because we cannot gather together as Christians at this time of the year just given the rhythm and the cycle of the church year without thinking about the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ and the church's celebration of that great fact. As we think about the meaning of this event today, I want to direct you to a specific text or scripture, and this is from Luke 1:46-55.
Now, some of you will immediately know this is the Magnificat. This is the testimony of Mary, the mother of Jesus. This is the response of Mary after her cousin Elizabeth has declared that the one within her is actually the Lord. This is Mary bearing testimony after John the Baptist has borne testimony in the womb. When Mary comes into proximity to Elizabeth, the child within Elizabeth, the forerunner, John the Baptist, leaps for joy. In a lot of ways, that was one of the first confessions of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It was, in other ways, in effect, a sermon. It was a declaration, but then we come to this text which is not as well known to evangelical Christians as it should be.
Beginning in verse 46 we read,
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.
By every New Testament indication, this young virgin betrothed to Joseph was in the middle of adolescence. Just given the context, it appears that she must have been in her early teens. She was a girl doing the things that a girl in that part of the world would've done in Judea. Where does she get this? Where does this come from? ‘Magnificat’ is just a name given because of the word magnify. Where does she get this, all this Old Testament? How does she know this? How does she put all of this together? Well, of course your first answer is the right answer. It is because she received the information she was given by divine revelation. It was Gabriel the angel who appeared to her earlier in the same chapter. We understand that Gabriel appeared to Mary in the city of Galilee, named Nazareth. He appeared to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph of the house of David.
"And he came to her and said, “Greetings, oh, 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."
But what comes from Mary in this passage is more than she was given directly, at least to our knowledge by Gabriel. We can only assume that the Holy Spirit led Mary to the utterance of these words, which by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit make their way into the Gospel of Luke and it's often-neglected first chapter.
Look at the language Mary uses here: "My soul magnifies the Lord." It's a very interesting statement just in itself, a lot there for us to ponder. We know what a magnifying glass does. "My soul," Mary says, "magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior." Again, we listen to that language and because we are evangelical Christians who know the gospel, and love the gospel, and are familiar with the gospel, the declaration that the God of Israel who had sent Gabriel to her and announced that within her was conceived this baby, the very Son of God, she understands this to be salvation. She prays to God her savior and then look at the sweet language, "For he has looked upon the humble estate of his servant."
There would be few sociologically more humble than a girl of her age in Nazareth. Of all the women who have ever lived, and of all the women who will ever live, it was to only one of them that the angel Gabriel appeared, not to the famous, not to the rich, not to the royal, but to Mary. Her statement is just so sweet. He has looked upon the humble estate of his servant.
It's hard to imagine a more humble estate, so sweetly expressed. "For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed." And then this language, "For he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name." ‘He who is mighty has done great things.’ Indeed, he who is mighty has done great things. There are some parallel passages that ought to have our attention. There are some sweet statements made by others who are parallel to this, at least in part.
You think of the song of Hannah, and you think of that passage from 1 Samuel 2 where we read, "And Hannah," and remember she is the mother by God's gift and grace of Samuel. "And Hannah prayed and said,
“My heart exalts in the Lord. My strength is exalted in the Lord. My mouth derives my enemies because I rejoice in your salvation. There is none holy like the Lord. There is none besides you. There is no rock like our God. Talk no more very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble bind on strength. Those who are full have hired themselves out for bread. Those who are hungry have ceased to hunger. The barren has born seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. The Lord kills and brings to life. He brings down to shield 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 up the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the lord's and on them he has set the world. He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness for not by might shall a man prevail. The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken to pieces. Against them, he will thunder in heaven. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth. He will give strength to his king and exalt the power of his anointed."
And where did Hannah get all that? What an incredible declaration. The Lord has given to her the rescue from her barrenness, and Samuel is to come and, of course, he is one of the most singularly important figures in all of biblical and theological history. You'll notice that Hannah too, however, sees in the birth of Samuel, not just the removal of her barrenness and the promise of a child, but she uses the word ‘salvation.’ This is a part of salvation history. Samuel is a part of salvation history, and because he is, so also is Hannah. Mary, in the Magnificat, declares salvation.
Jesus is salvation history, because Jesus is the Savior, and he is conceived by the Holy Spirit within Mary, and thus Mary knows that Jesus, the child within her means salvation. And maybe you noted that Mary understands that first of all it means salvation for her. “He who is mighty has done great things for me,” but not only for her.
In the 113th Psalm we read this,
"Praise the Lord, praise those servants of the Lord. Praise the name of the Lord. Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time fourth and forevermore, from the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the Lord is to be praised. The Lord is high above all nations and His glory above all the heavens. Who is like the Lord our God who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens on the earth. He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people, he gives the barren woman a home making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the Lord."
Now there are some contrasts here. Mary was not like Hannah nor like the woman who exalts in the Lord in the 113th Psalm because no one described Mary as barren. There was no child expected of Mary at this point. This is a slight disruption but draws attention to an even more obviously supernatural explanation. This child who has been conceived within Mary before she knew Joseph has been conceived within her by the Holy Spirit. “He who is mighty has done great things, and holy is his name.” And then notice she continues in this prose, in this testimony, is mercy. There's mercy. This baby is mercy for those who fear him, from generation to generation.
Speaking of salvation history, and certainly with reference here to the exodus of God's people from Egypt, 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. The promise that is within Mary means that God fills the hungry with good things. The richest are simply sent away empty. He has helped his servant, Israel. This again, salvation history and remembrance of his mercy as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever. This is the fulfillment of the promise given to Abraham. This is Mary. But Mary, where did she get this?
First, she gets it from scripture. Mary must have heard these scriptures read in the synagogue over and over and over again. Certainly, you've had that experience, hearing the scriptures, reading the scriptures over and over and over again, only for an insight to come, a pattern to be revealed, an experience to crystallize when, all of a sudden, everything we have been reading before makes sense, it falls into place in that pattern of promise and fulfillment. For Mary, it first came in an angel. That's a singular experience, an angel who declared the truth, but you'll remember that Mary pondered these things in her heart. I think that's one of the sweetest expressions in the entire New Testament: “She pondered these things in her heart.”
I think if I were giving testimony of such an experience, there would be a bit more anxiety reflected, but Mary pondered such a sweet statement and obviously even between the time that Gabriel appeared to her and then when she visits her cousin, Elizabeth and John leaps in the womb and Elizabeth makes her declaration. Between that time, Mary's been doing some pondering, and in her pondering led by the Holy Spirit, she is connecting the promises of the Old Testament. Even the promise made to Abraham, she connects with the birth of the baby conceived within her by the Holy Spirit.
That hinge verse, "For he who is mighty has done great things for me," leads me to consider what all this means for a service of commencement for all these ministers of the Lord Jesus Christ gathered before us. There's a before and after to everything, and the word ‘commencement’ certainly implies that kind of anticipation. There was a before and the before is a lot of study, but even before that was a call of God, a call of God that was answered by these graduates says a call to prepare rightly to divide the word of truth. And so they've given themselves to very substantial programs of study. They've now completed those programs of study and are ready to receive diplomas.
Now, we could just send them by mail, but we won't, because there's something happening here that we are witnessing. This is not just a way of delivering diplomas. We have other means for that. This is a way of thanking God as we gather together for this occasion to say something important is happening here. We don't want to miss this, something other believers never get to see today we get to see. We are witnesses of something. And at least a part of what we need to recognize is that in the before and in the present and in the after, in the future, there's a story that brought every one of these graduates here, it's a story of how they came to know the Lord Jesus Christ as savior. It's a story of how they were confronted with a call under ministry. It's a story of how they came to this school and how they continued through. It's a present moment, a present moment of completion and celebration, we all feel that, but quite frankly that would be rather useless if the entire purpose of all of this we're not focused towards the future years.
If the Lord tarries, there will be decades of service by these graduates to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ and on the mission fields of the world. I want you to do a little math with me, because last night pondering this, the math was pretty powerful to me. It was occasioned by a statement by the United States Census Bureau, always a catalyst for good preaching. In this case, it just mentioned that given patterns of longevity, the average baby born now will almost assuredly live into the 22nd century. You're hearing some of those 22nd century citizens right now. Well just think about that for a moment, but that's pretty easy to figure out. In fact, you don't need the Census Bureau for that. It was just a shocking announcement. And by the way, the announcement came as a form of warning to the United States government that it might need to think through the ramifications of that for social security. Eventually, it all comes down to counting the money.
But nonetheless, just think about this: these graduates graduating right now, if the Lord grants them a normal tenure of ministry, that will bring many of them right up to the brink of the 22nd century. It's a pretty amazing thing, at least it is to me. We're celebrating all of that today. We are celebrating these graduates, but we are worshiping the one, true, and living God. “It is he who has done this.” I love that language from Mary. “He who is mighty has done great things for me.”
There are people yet unborn who will come to know the Lord Jesus Christ by the preaching and testimony and influence of these graduates. There are churches who will be fed by the men who are graduating from this institution to preach the word. There are generations yet untaught who will be taught the word of God. “He who is mighty has done great things for me.”
The faculty of this institution has given individually each of their lives to this very educational calling and not on behalf of merely their disciplines, although those are all important, but rather the great mission of this institution. I think every single one of them is pondering this occasion with the same level of gratitude, “He who is mighty has done great things for me.”
I'll say first among them for me, I get to see this with you, I get to witness this. I think every single one of you who is a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ must recognize that—of course, over-against the infinite gift of Christ in the incarnation and in the atonement he accomplished for us, write down to the moments of Christian experience distilled like now—every one of us in this room can say, “He who is mighty has done great things for me,” for us, for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, for God's people, wherever and whenever they are found. And he who is mighty will do great things. That's our confidence.
Mary was not declaring a fact past and done, but a promise made, and fulfilled, and continually fulfilled until the Lord Jesus Christ—the crucified, resurrected, an ascended Lord Jesus Christ—returns to claim his church. That'll be the ultimate fulfillment of what it means that he who is mighty has done great things.
But between then and now, we send you out graduates in order to do great things in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Even through simple acts of faithfulness and obedience, most centrally the preaching and teaching of the word of God and the taking of the gospel to the nations, you are the realization of the hopes and prayers of so many Christians through so many generations, those hopes go with you. He who is mighty has done great things for us.
I am so thankful we have arrived at this moment. I'm thankful that Mary, the servant of the Lord, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, gives us words to frame the meaning of this hour and it was in the context of celebration, and it is absolutely right that we celebrate in this ceremony as well.
I ask that you join me in prayer that the Lord will show his glory in all that takes place in this ceremony and in what we are about to observe when the graduates receive their diplomas, a beautiful demonstration of the commencement of something new to the glory of God.
Let us pray.
Father, we are so thankful that you have given us so much in your word, unexpected words from Mary that magnify your name. Father, you who are mighty, you have done great things for us. You have done great things for us, for every believer who came before us, and for all those who will be ministered to and reached by the influence of these graduates until you come to claim your church. Father, thank you for letting us be witnesses of this, much less participants in this.
To you and you alone be all glory.
We pray in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.