Sunday, December 21, 2008

Fourth Sunday of Advent
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:47-55 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

And Mary said, Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.

“The Polar Express” is a story about a boy who has reached the age of questioning about Santa Claus. As he is falling asleep on Christmas Eve, a magical train arrives to take him on a special journey. The train is filled with other children about the same age. The train takes them all to the North Pole where they get to meet Santa Claus and see the reality of the one they doubt exists. They go home to discover special gifts under their trees and they believe, at least for a little while longer.

There is a scene in the movie when the boy is trying to see Santa Claus, but the elves are all too excited and are blocking his view. He walks over to the sleigh where the reindeer are waiting to take Santa on his worldwide journey, and one of the jingle bells falls onto the ground. The boy picks up the jingle bell but can’t hear it. According to the story, that’s the sign of the loss of innocence we see in these children who no longer believe—they can’t hear the jingle bells on Santa’s sleigh. The boy holds the bell to his ear, closes his eyes tightly and whispers, “I believe, I believe.” He cautiously shakes the bell and hopes. At first it is very quiet, but then the jingle-lingle of the bell is clear. It is real. He still believes. When Santa chooses the boy as the special recipient of a gift, the boy wants only that bell. He doesn’t want some big toy or trendy gift. He wants a simple reminder of the gift he’d been given, the gift of belief.

December 21st is observed by some as the feast day of St. Thomas the Apostle. He is an interesting character to consider in these final days of Advent. Thomas is the very image of doubt. He searched for truth, demanded proof and refused to believe unless he had tangible evidence. He wanted clear answers to questions that still remain a mystery to us today. In John 14, Thomas wanted to understand how they could follow Jesus to a place they did not know. We wonder the same thing today. After the resurrection, Thomas insisted that he had to touch the wounds on Jesus’ hands to believe. Thomas is like the boy who has begun to question the existence of Santa Claus.

The more deeply we study the story of the nativity and incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, the more unbelievable it becomes. The more mature we become, the harder it is to continue to believe in things like the virgin birth and the star that guided the wise men. These things are as ridiculous as Santa Claus and flying reindeer. The more modern research reveals about the world, the more difficult it is to accept the mystery of God’s plan for faith. But in the end that’s all He asks of us: to believe. We are called to be like children, to hear the jingle of the bells and know without a doubt that everything God has spoken is real.

Christmas is very close. It might be visible in the faces of people who are still rushing to get everything done. There is still presents to buy and wrap, decorations to put up, cookies to bake and parties to attend. It can be extremely overwhelming in the final hours of our preparation, so much so that by the time Christ comes, we are too exhausted to notice. I wonder if it will be the same when Christ comes again. Will we be too busy or too tired from rushing around ‘doing stuff’ that we miss Him?

Yet, it is natural for us, in our faith, to feel like we need to do things for God. David was king. By God’s hand, the obstacles to establishing a strong and independent kingdom were overcome under David’s rule. With a city in which to live, a palace for the king and roots being planted by the people, Israel was finally settling down into a golden age of peace and security. David was greatly blessed, and since he was a man who sought after God’s heart, it is natural for him to want to give God an offering of thanksgiving and praise. For David, whose life had been characterized by upheaval, the security of a place to live is the most logical gift. David finally had a home thanks to God, so he thought God deserved a home, too. We do the same thing in our own way, working because we think we have to give back to God all that He has given to us.

David’s heart was in the right place, but he was thinking like a man. Building a house would put responsibility on God’s shoulders, making David superior. The lesser being can not place responsibility on the greater being. God sent Nathan to show him how His kingdom works. It is not for David to provide a home for God. God does not need a home. He commanded the tent which traveled with the people, and when the time was right He would command the building of a permanent structure. But the timing had to be according to God’s plan. And the design would be according to His purpose. David could not choose to build God a house. Instead, God had a house to build for David. David just needed to believe, and God would provide him the opportunities to share his blessing with others.

When we think of David, we think about his power and authority. He was the ruler of Israel during a golden age when they were a strong, independent nation. By God’s hand, under David’s care they established their place in the world, laying down roots in the Promised Land. David is among the greatest of biblical characters, placed on a pedestal by numerous faith traditions. Yet, David was an ordinary shepherd when God called him to serve. He was the youngest of his house; there was nothing exceptional about him. But God does not see His people with a human point of view. He knows hearts and He gifts according to His purpose.

Advent has always been a time of reflection as we wait the coming of the Christ. It was used as a time of penitence during the ancient days of the church, ending with baptism at Christmas. It is natural to wonder about our purpose as we think about how we have failed. What is God calling us to do? What does He want us to accomplish as we wait? We never expect it to be extraordinary, because we are ordinary people. Yet, those whom we have lifted onto the pedestals of faith were not exceptional. They were just like us, but God called them to something greater and gave them the gifts needed to accomplish it. It is God’s work, not ours, that makes the miracles in this world. It takes faith to walk in this reality. We have to believe to go forth and allow God to do miraculous things in, with and through our lives.

Mary was an ordinary woman, not even a woman. She was little more than a child when the angel spoke to her. She was given the most extraordinary purpose: to bring the Savior into the world. This was indeed a blessing. As a matter of fact, Elizabeth said the same. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!”

The word “bless” is interesting, especially in our day and age. We think of people who are financially well off as ‘blessed’, but that is not always true. I’m not even sure we can count on happiness being equated with blessedness, although it is much closer. Blessedness is much holier than we make it out to be in our common language. As I was doing research this week, I discovered that the Middle English word from which it comes actually means “to consecrate with blood.” Our blessing comes through blood, not only the blood Jesus Christ shed on the cross, but also the blood shed at His birth, because without the birth there could be no cross.

Someone once told me that “to bless” means “to speak well of.” God blesses us. God speaks well of us. This is as ridiculous as a jolly old elf in a sleigh with flying reindeer. God is… God. What good have we done for Him to speak well of us? What have we done to receive or deserve God’s divine favor? Nothing. That’s the point.

Now, if we think of blessing in terms of worldly goods or happiness, then there is no need for the shedding of blood or some divine action. But blessing promised to Mary and to us is long lasting and comes at a great cost. The lasting blessing is God’s eternal gift of life through His Son, the Son He brought through Mary. This is God’s favor upon us, and it is the reason Christ was born.

We think this is impossible! But God is able. When we think about the Christmas story, so much of it provides fodder for our doubt. The story of Mary, a pregnant virgin, is beyond our understanding. It is so unbelievable that many have taken great pains to explain away Mary’s virginity by taking note of language differences and probabilities from the time and place in which she lives. Even Mary thought it impossible. She asked, “How can this be since I have not been with a man?” Yet, God is able to do this thing.

The story of John is no less miraculous. John’s parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, were very old. Zechariah received the promise that John would be born while in the temple and he was struck dumb by the angel who’d been sent to give the message. At John’s birth, when Zechariah obediently gave him the name John, despite the questions from family and friends, Zechariah’s voice returned. It might not seem so miraculous with today’s modern medicine, but for a barren woman of advanced age in Elizabeth’s day to have a child was impossible. Zechariah's healing was impossible. Yet, God is able to do these things, too.

The Jews were expecting a Messiah. They were waiting for the good news that God’s promises were fulfilled in a mighty king who would lead them into another golden age like that of David. The Messiah would continue that house that God promised to David so long ago. They knew the promises and expected them for Israel only.

Paul, however, saw that there was a mystery in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He saw that God was working miracles in people who were not of Israel. He saw Gentiles being moved by the Holy Spirit into faith, active faith. It wasn’t just a confession of the mouth, but it was a movement of spirit and flesh that was changing the world. One person’s testimony led to a community gathering together to praise God. That praise was testimony for others who joined along in the song. The scriptures tell us that hundreds, even thousands, came to believe just on the word of one or two witnesses. This seems impossible to us, especially when we think about the differences in culture between the apostles and the gentiles. Yet, God is able to do this thing.

Why is God worthy of praise? Because He is able to bring the obedience of faith through the words offered by those He has called to believe. He is able to give strength to His people to face extraordinary odds, to do the impossible, to tell stories that are ridiculous and yet true. The purpose of the Gospel is not only the salvation of those lost in the darkness, but to bring the obedience of faith to those who hear the message. God is able to make His hand move in the lives of those who were never expected to hear or understand the Gospel message. God gives us the strength to continue taking that message into the world. This is the obedience of faith, living an active life of praising God by sharing His Gospel, and His heart, with those we least expect will hear. We believe and God moves through us into the world. This is a most extraordinary thing, beyond belief. Thanks be to God for the faith to hear the jingle bells ring.

We might argue about the value of the stories of Santa Claus and the affect that he has on the lives of our children, but in the story we see a parallel with faith. Children believe without proof. Children have the most passionate and precious faith, both in Santa and in Jesus. They are our model for living faith because they do not doubt, they simply believe. Mary was little more than a child when she was faced with the most impossible truths, but she believed. May we all believe in the Christmas story with such faith and praise God for His blessing.

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