December 22-23, 2012
4th Weekend in Advent
Pastor Tim Smith
46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me– holy is his name. 50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.” (NIV)
Children’s devotion: To give glory to God is sometimes called “magnifying” the Lord. Magnifying makes this bigger so we can see them better. When we talk about Jesus, it’s like making him bigger and easier to see. That’s one way we give glory to him—by telling people about him, so that they see him more clearly.
THROUGH CHRIST WE HAVE FORGIVENESS AND PEACE
How did you get here today/tonight? Not all of us drove here. There was a time when you would have seen horses tied up, wagons and even sleighs outside St. Paul’s—most folks in town would have walked here. But I don’t mean what method of transportation did you use. How did we get to celebrating the incarnation of Jesus Christ—Christmas—on the 25th of December—this coming Tuesday?
The Bible doesn’t give us this date, and the traditions and letters of the earliest Christian church don’t mention it. In fact, for many centuries, the celebration of Christmas as a holiday was a minor festival in the Christian church—Palm Sunday, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost were the big holidays.
There is a fairy tale floating around that Christians tried to piggy-back Christmas onto the date of the Saturnalia or the Birthday of the Sun or another Roman festival, but those ideas don’t add up too well. No, I suspect that the date was arrived at in some process like this: Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, served in the priestly division of Abijah. In Chronicles we learn that his group served in the temple eighth in rotation—and here we turn to an eyewitness outside of the Bible. The Jewish historian Josephus says that in his time—he was born at about the time that Paul was converted on the Road to Damascus—the priests served two weeks on and then eleven months off in the temple. That means that Zechariah would have been in the temple receiving his vision from the angel in July. After that, he and his wife conceived a son—either in August or September. If we say, conservatively, that it was September, that means that when Elizabeth was in her sixth month, she was visited by Mary, and that would be (count on fingers) March. It was at that time that Mary was told that she would conceive by the Holy Spirit, and nine months later—(count on fingers again) that puts us in December for the birth of Jesus. In my opinion, December is a good and godly guess for the month in which our Savior was born. Perhaps the 25th as the day came from the tradition of celebrating Hanukkah on the 25th Kislev—which is usually about two weeks or so before Christmas.
However we got to this date, let’s think about how Mary, the mother of our Lord, got here.
“We’re going to have a baby!” Usually that’s fantastic news. I remember every single time my wife told me—the first one was on Valentine’s Day 1996. We were newlyweds, and I was a Seminary student, and Kath planned a surprise to tell me the news. But Mary? She and Joseph weren’t married. They didn’t have a physical relationship yet—so this wonderful news for Mary was heartbreaking for Joseph. What a test for his faith this was going to be.
Under the Law of Moses, Joseph could have had Mary stoned to death for committing adultery even though they weren’t married yet. In our time—not just our culture, but in most of the world, babies born outside of marriage are more and more common, and this isn’t progress. It robs children of something. Joseph, however, was a compassionate man. He loved her, and for no other reason than that, he spared her life, and considered letter her go through a quiet divorce. Joseph thought: If she loves another man—she is, after all, having a baby that isn’t mine—then I will let her go. But God sent one of his angels as a messenger to tell him that Mary hadn’t been unfaithful, and that the baby she was carrying would be the Savior.
Think of what it must have felt like for Mary. The most impossible truth in the world was hers, and God himself had stepped in to explain it to her fiancé. She went with joy to visit her cousin Elizabeth, and found that Elizabeth was also pregnant—six months along. It was there, in the hills of western Judea where David had fought Goliath and Isaac had tended Abraham’s flocks, that Mary lifted up her voice in song. Mary’s journey to this moment of expecting the Christ child’s birth was an emotional journey that included fear, longing, and uncertainty. All of that was taken care of through simple truth spoken by the Lord’s messenger, a truth expressed and believed. Simple, but a great thing. One of many great things God did for her. And everything was right.
Mary realized that generations of Christians would call her blessed. Not because of who she was, but because of the way God blessed her. We’re thankful that God gave Jesus a good home and that she was central to that home.
Mary said: Holy is his name. Everything about God is holy; but I can’t help but notice that by mentioning God’s holy name in this way, Mary is keeping the first table of the law—the first three of the Ten Commandments, the ones that apply to our relationship with our God. She has no other god. She uses his holy name correctly to praise him, and she takes time to worship him.
And yet, Mary knows that she hasn’t done everything perfectly. She herself still needs a Savior from her sin, and she tells us that she is rejoicing because she knows that God is her Savior. What she needed, God supplied. That’s as true for Mary as it is for me and you.
We need this Savior. Mary describes him by the things he does from the standpoint of the humble, the poor, the hungry, the servant. This is truly Israel—not that we should be meek and helpless and desire to have nothing, but that when we were meek and helpless and had nothing and no hope, God helped us.
Not that we should want to be poor, but that God became poor to give us true riches.
Not that we should try to become hungry, but that God filled us with the greatest food.
That knowing him, we should give up pride that gnaws at the insides, and let him gather us into his arms. That if any of us should rule or be in any position of authority, we must be ruled by him and guided by him, so that it is always God’s will that is done.
That knowing him, we who are blessed as a nation with wealth and for individually who have wealth of whatever kind should use that gift to his glory.
It was a bad day for the devil when God blessed Mary with this baby boy. And it’s just like the devil to use all of his guile and all of his spite to try and turn things upside down so that we’ll lose sight of the manger. So he takes questions about the date of Christmas, and he takes other religions and non-religions and their demands for equal time and for tolerance to cloud over the bright dawn of our Redemption drawing near. Don’t lose sight of God in the manger. It’s just like the old Liar to take simple acts of faith and Christian love and turn them into problems.
Christians give gifts at Christmastime because we celebrate the Gift God gave in Jesus—but that can make companies and stores greedy for business, and it can make a nation seem as if it doesn’t see the Bright Star of Bethlehem. But it’s not necessarily so. Don’t lose sight of God in the manger.
Christians love to be with their families at Christmastime because we love to show our love for each other as we’re reminded of God’s love for us—because he drew us into his own family by becoming one of us. But how often do travel plans become a pain, or a problem, or a source of stress and anxiety? Travel to see loved one can glorify God. Giving each other gifts—whether practical or joyful or playful or nostalgic or even silly—can glorify God. Don’t lose sight of God in the manger.
Remembering a Christian pastor who lived in Asia Minor sixteen hundred ago named Nicolas, St. Nicholas, and the way he gave gifts so selflessly to people around him—can lead to legends today that are, well, embellished. But the remembering can still give glory to God without losing sight of God in the manger.
Mary glorified God with her words, that laid open what was in her heart. Through her Son, the Son of God, we have forgiveness and peace. The forgiveness that leads to eternal life, and the peace of God that may transcend or go beyond our understanding, but it also guards our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.