Sunday, December 24, 2006

Fourth Sunday of Advent
Micah 5:2-5a
Luke 1:47-55 or Psalm 80:1-7
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]

And this man shall be our peace.

You are cordially invited to a celebration. This is something we often hear at this time of year. Our friends, family and co-workers hold parties to celebrate the season. It is a time to enjoy one another and to remember the hard work and good times of the past year. A great many hours of preparation goes into the parties as the hosts plan, clean bake, cook and decorate for the enjoyment of their guests. We celebrate the birth of Christ with lots of glitz and glitter. Everything is bigger, richer and brighter.

Unfortunately, sometimes we go overboard, spending too much money, preparing too much food. And there is always the danger of those parties getting out of control when people overindulge. We eat too much, drink too much and loosen up, especially our mouths. We say things we should not say and do things we should not do.

It is especially ironic that our Christmas celebrations are festivals of excess when we truly consider what it is that we are celebrating. Oh, in our secular world our parties have little to do with Christmas anymore. We have surrounded ourselves with an image of Christmas that is perpetuated by the greeting card companies and the retailers. We rush about finding the perfect gifts, going into debt as we spend too much filling our houses with more ‘stuff’ that clutters our lives.

Every year I hear at least one person saying that they are simplifying their Christmas, cutting back on the material aspects and seeking after the true meaning. They are disgusted by how commercial it has become, and how far it all is from the true meaning of Christmas. For those who have discovered this truth it is such an important revelation they often think that they are the only ones who have seen it and are doing anything to change.

Yet, this is not new. Our overindulgences might take on a different form than past generations, but we have been honoring the birth of Christ with glitz and glitter for a long time. Many of us grew up with “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” It was produced in 1967, so the problem of commercialism has been around for at least 39 years. Charlie Brown was upset by all the glitz and glitter and the attitudes of his friends. In the end they discovered the true meaning of Christmas. Further back in history were the Victorians. Though they may not have afforded things like MP3 players or big screen televisions, and they did not have a million twinkling lights on the eaves of their homes, they overspent on the hot trends of their own day and filled their homes with pretty decorations. I can just picture Mr. Scrooge grumbling under his breath that Christmas is just too materialistic.

I’m sure we can find examples of excess that go back even further. I remember when we visited Austria we saw the most beautiful nativity crèche displays that were hundreds of years old. These displays would take up large portions of the church with hundreds of figurines and backdrops with real water and candlelit buildings. Our method of excess is different, but every generation manages to find some way of celebrating the birth of Christ in a way that is completely opposite the way God presented that first Christmas.

And yet it is in the very irony of how we manage to mess it all up that we see the truth in why Christmas had to happen. Jesus was born because our natural human inclination is to turn things upside down. God gave us the Garden of Eden and we did not believe His word. God gave us the Law and we made it say what we wanted it to say. God gave us Jesus and we still try to do everything our own way, looking for the glory instead of the grace.

If we were to write the Christmas story, we would probably want to do things a little differently. Jesus would be born to a king, born in a place, given fine robes and every opportunity possible so that he would be guaranteed a long, happy life. The party would be a grand feast with the finest food and the most expensive finery. After all, God is God and He should have the best of everything. And, if He is coming to earth, then He should arrive in style!

Yet, in this week’s scriptures, we see that God turns everything upside down. Our passages are our invitation to a party, but it won’t be a party with glitz and glitter. It will be a party with pain and suffering, darkness and isolation. The place is Bethlehem, a small, quiet town a few miles from Jerusalem. There was nothing special about Bethlehem, except Rachel’s tomb. It was not a bustling city as is often indicated in the imagery of the nativity. Though it was the City of David, it was unimportant.

Mary invites us into the story of her son, the Son of God who is to be born to bring salvation to the world. Mary is a nobody, a humble young girl from Nazareth. Our image of Mary is that she is a very special young woman, perhaps even perfectly righteous. We see her willing obedience in her answer to the angel, “Let it be to me as you say” and we wonder if we could ever be so devoted to God’s word or even if we could believe Him as she did.

Yet, though she humbled herself and submitted to that which she had been told, there may have been a sense of doubt or uncertainty in her mind. She asked the angel how it would be, how she would become pregnant since she had never been with a man. Did she feel anything when the Holy Spirit came over her? Was there a tingle, or an unexplained wind? Was she aware of His presence at that moment? Whatever happened, she said “Yes” to God’s call. However, she did not face the world with this knowledge until she was absolutely certain it was true.

The angel gave her a sign – her cousin Elizabeth was with child. Since Elizabeth was quite old, it would certainly have been out of the ordinary for her to become pregnant. Mary had to see. She had to know. She had to witness this sign for herself to know that everything was real. She left Nazareth to travel to Zechariah and Elizabeth’s home. When Mary arrived and greeted her cousin, baby John leapt in her womb. That was the moment when Mary fully believed. That was the moment when Mary cried out in praise and thanksgiving for the gift she had been given.

What a gift. Her pregnancy would mean persecution. The people of her village would never believe her – who has ever heard of a virgin becoming pregnant? Her betrothed would never believe her, he would assume she’d broken her promises. When she left Nazareth, everything was fine. When she returned, the world was upside down. Everything was wrong. Everything was ruined. There were no parties, no celebrations. It would have been good and right according to the ways of their world for her to be stoned. This doesn’t seem to be a very practical or noble way of bringing about salvation.

Yet Mary accepted the call and when she was certain everything was true she sang a song of joy and thanksgiving. In this song of praise Mary reveals herself as a humble recipient of God’s grace. She says, “…for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” God does not choose the rich and the mighty, but the poor and the lowly. He chooses the humble, the unimportant and even the unworthy. For it is the unworthy who look to one who is greater, they are the ones who humble themselves before God. It is the humble who listen to God’s word and believe. We see in Mary not only an obedient servant, but also one who sought to know with her head what she knew was true in her heart.

We are invited to the great event, the birth of Mary’s son. This is not an event that most of us would really want to experience. Labor and delivery is hard work, the mother is not at her best. Though the outcome is a really beautiful thing – a baby – the birth is bloody and violent and harsh. It is not a time of a woman’s life to which the world should be invited. Yet the prophet Micah tells us that the party will begin at the birth of the child. This birth will come in a lowly place – Bethlehem – and at a dark time. Jesus doesn’t come when the nation of Israel is at its best, but when they are at their darkest moment.

We often describe Christmas as the moment when the Light came into the world. This is why we fill our homes with the light of candles and twinkle lights. Yet, it is not in the light that the true glory is found. The writer of Hebrews reminds us why Christ came. He came to be the perfect sacrifice. The reason and purpose of the birth of Christ is not found at the manger, but at the cross. We celebrate the birth, but even at the birth we are reminded that Jesus came to die. He came to die for you and for me and He came because we overindulge and turn the birth of Christ into a materialistic and commercialized event. He came because we turn everything upside down, turning from God and going our own way.

Perhaps it is time for us to consider the way we spend the Christmas season and to set aside the old ways. But we are reminded that our inability to do what is right is why Jesus came in the first place. The writer of Hebrews shows us that Jesus came because the old way no longer worked. It was impossible for us to become righteous by obeying the Law, so Jesus did what was necessary to make all things new. The old offerings did nothing to bring forgiveness, but Christ was born and willingly faced the cross, doing God’s will for our sake. The Christmas story is sweet and wonderful until we realize that Jesus was born to die. It is easier to keep the manger and the cross separate. We would much rather make this a happy celebration, one with twinkling lights and rich food. Yet, it was for the cross that Jesus was born and for our sake He came to die. In His act of obedience, Jesus abolished that which came before and made everything better. We might wonder why anyone would bother to do such a gracious thing, but for Jesus it was a total submission to God’s will and purpose for His life.

We are called to do the same, to live as Christ lived. We are called to willingly obey the will and purpose that God has ordained for our life. We are called to live like Mary – not on a pedestal, but rather as a humble child of God hearing and believing His word. We seek the glory in the light and in the good things, but the glory is found in the shadow of the cross. We aren’t called to die on a cross but we are called to follow in His footsteps. It is not in the glitz and glitter that we will find peace, but in the reality of God’s story. It begins not in a place or in the hustle and bustle of the city, it begins in the midst of the poor and lowly, in the little town of Bethlehem and the humble heart of a young girl

And though we will get caught up in the glitz and the glitter of the Christmas season, we are reminded that there is a shadow over our celebration – the cross, but it is in that shadow we will find peace. In the words of Linus, “That’s what it is all about, Charlie Brown.”

A WORD FOR TODAY
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